Between Chaos and Order: a symbolic perspective on Dr. Zhivago

Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak’s great novel and the thereon based movie, is much more than just a love story. Although being an undoubtetly principal aspect of the plot, the love story has more to it than meets the eye. Set in the turmoils of Russia’s 1910’s, it shows us the uprise of Bolshevikism during WWI and its pursuit to create a perfect political state, to purge society from its perceived moral flaws and injustice. Deeply embedded in this setting, the love story of Yuri Zhivago and Larissa Antipowa confronts us not only with justice and injustice, but also with the realities of Chaos and Order.

Yuri Zhivago, despite being a good man, begins a love affair with Lara Antipova, when he meets her again in Yuriatin. He is faced with the situation of being married, and the experience that the true love of his life is not the woman he’s married to. After having served together in WWI, as a doctor and a nurse, they had dismissed their affection towards each other as something that wasn’t meant to be, due to their respective realities they both had to be accountable for: he was married to Tonya Gromeko, whom he grew up with, and Lara was married to Pasha Antipov, who during the war spread fear and destruction across the country under the name of Strelnikov

This fatal resign to the status quo of their respective relationships is questioned the day they meet again in the library of Yuriatin. They can barely believe what they see is true. They spend the day together, talking for hours, until they arrive at her house. Sheltered from the looks of society, they finally cannot resist the overwhelming destiny that brought the two lovers back together.

But after a while, something happens. Guilt makes itself noticed. As he watches his pregnant wife hopeful and happy, despite the big lie he has brought unto their life, he decides to put his relationship with Lara to an end.

What happens now? The lie has been established. On his way from Lara’s house, returning to his wife, he feels weak and doubtful, and his horse comes to a halt. And it is always when we are the weakest that the Dragon of Chaos grips us with his claws and pulls us down with it into the abyss. In his case, the Dragon of Chaos comes to Yuri in the shape of a group of partisans, who kidnap him to make him one of their own.

And so he sinks into hell. Two bitter years of war, death and terror, from which he will never fully recover. Because the price he pays for leaving it is his irreversibly ruined health.

His time with the partisans is like Jonah’s 3 days in the belly of the whale. He trades the expedient for the meaningful. His descent into Chaos is the direct consequence of his lie. But then, like Jonah, the whale spits him out where God had sent him to do His bidding in the first place.

But which one was the lie? The betrayal of his marriage or the betrayal of his own heart? Both, each in their own way. But which one was the more real lie? As we know, Yuri will have to find out. Maybe we can answer this question by asking from the opposite direction: what was the truth? Was it the institution of marriage or was it the voice of his heart? But first, the lie demands its toll.

In a story where a poet and his poems stand at odds against a system in which “the private life is dead”, the answer is obvious. What we have here is revealed in Strelnikov’s follow-up to his just quoted sentence: “History killed it.” The thought that every human being is supposed to find his purpose and destiny in his social function within a teleologically developing society is the tyrannical manifestation of Hegelian philosophy. And the destroyer of this thought in Dr. Zhivago carries the same torch, the same thought of light as the actual historical destroyer of Hegelian Philosophy: the protestant pastor Sören Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard insisted on the fact that being human does not exhaust itself in being an object in a socio-historical functionality, like keys on a piano, but must be seen in their individual existence, with their intrinsic world experience and with his conceptualizations of values and truth. The Danish philosopher insisted vehemently on this point, stressing that the last words of his first book, Either Or, are of immeasurable value: “Only the truth that uplifts you is truth for you.”

While this thought might seem trivial for the majority of educated people in modern society, it wasn’t as trivial back then, when the Danish pastor first expressed it. And, what’s even worse, there is still to this day a belief in the exact antithesis of this. For example, in the Catholic Church there is an archconservative branch, best personified by Grand Inquisitor Joseph Ratzinger, which believes that Truth and communion with God are only accessible through the sacraments – which, of course, the Catholic Church claim only they can provide. Way to establish a relationship of religious co-dependency.

But Truth, Love and God have nothing to do with co-dependency – quite the opposite: they’re about freedom. The Sabbath Rest is a holy law. But if one of your sheep falls into a pit on a Sabbath, then your true duty is not to slavishly follow the rule, but to break the rule, to help your loved ones in need. And that’s why God sends Yury Zhivago into the desert, makes the whale swallow him, so he can answer this question for himself. That’s why we all have to go through suffering and make our own experiences. There is no one-size-fits-all truth. But there are blueprints for the human search for Truth, and they’ve been passed over to the generations through the Holy Scriptures and the works of art of mankind.

Nothing is equal. Everything differentiates through repetition.

And Yuri doesn’t know the right answer yet, until God shows him. On his way through the blizzard, he’s hallucinating and believes to see his own family, Tonya and Sasha. He starts calling them and follows them, in fear of losing them, until he reaches the family and must realize that they are not his family. They are another man’s family, whom he scared. He realizes that he’s been acting out of, and inducing, fear.

And so, God shows Yuri the Truth. Just like the whale spits Jonah out in Niniveh, Yuri arrives in Yuriatin, where he is reunited with Lara, who had been waiting for him since he left. She did not believe him, when he said he would never come back.

This is how, after returning from Chaos, after having been spat out from the belly of the whale, he is taught what was true and what was the lie. What God hat planted into his heart was his love for Lara. He, God, wanted Yuri, His poetic voice in the world, experience this intense and perfect time in isolation with Lara, so he could write his immortal poems. As his stepfather Alexandr Gromeko says: “Perfect marriages are made in Heaven – or some such place.”

At the same time, Yuri here sacrifices the expedient for the meaningful. They live as recluses in a deserted house whose interiors are covert in thick dust, making the place look like fairy-land. That is because the Bolsheviks shut it up, for wanting noone to enjoy the beauty of a rich and well-furnished mansion. The two (three, with her daughter Katja) refugees live isolated from the outer world. The howling of the wolves makes Lara go mad of fear. But they are close to each other, close as two lovers can be, and it is this circumstance where Yuri, alone with his Lara (Lyre), writes his immortal poems – at the very same desk where he first learned to write when he was still a kid.

Here, in isolation, surrounded by howling wolves, with the impending threat of being discovered by the Bolsheviks, is where they create their own “zone” between order and chaos. It is built on the Truth of their own love, which stands in opposition to the surrounding chaos. It is here, in the perfect spot between Chaos and Order, that Yuri writes his immortal “Lara”-poems.

Like a star standing out in the darkness, the humble truth of their “God-willed” love stands out against the pretentious lies of the one-size-fits-all-morality. Their love gives them the strength to withstand the terrors of the threatening Bolsheviks. And even more. Surrounded by fear and love he becomes like a child again. That’s what his childhood desk means. And in this context, becoming a child again means writing from his deepest soul, with naivety, from a state of flow where he is in harmony with his world and with himself, one foot in Hell, one foot in Heaven.

In hindsight, knowing how the story ends, we know that Yuri sacrificed the expedient to save the meaningful. Like Komarowsky said, they are no better than him; for in the moral world, they are sinners. But then again, the story shows us: what is true morality? Certainly not a system of external rules of society.

Again, in the words of Sören Kierkegaard: “Only the truth that uplifts you is truth for you.”

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