Posts Tagged ‘The Brothers Karamazov’

The Brothers Karamazov

My inclination of late has been to revisit the great novels I read in youth rather than to read noteworthy contemporary books. This is my third venture into The Brothers Karamazov. Because it is such a long and comprehensive exploration of both the depths of depravity and the heights of virtue, each reading brings new insights and appreciation of Dostoyevsky’s achievement.

To a certain degree I retreated to literature this time as a respite from my obsession with Trump-watching. Day after day, being upset and depressed by his absurdities, ignorance, and lies was so tiresome that I sought relief in the magnificent product of an extraordinary mind. Getting lost in a great book is the ultimate stress-reliever.

But that respite did not last long, for from the first pages Fyodor Karamazov reminded me of The Donald. Fyodor has three sons by two different mothers and a presumed illegitimate son Smerdyakov. In the neighborhood, Fyodor is known as a clown and a buffoon of crude tastes and lecherous propensities. He’s acquired his wealth by dubious land dealings. He is a disgrace and an embarrassment to his sons who after their mothers’ deaths are neglected in childhood while Fyodor pursues his business affairs and licentious lifestyle. Friends and relatives take over the care of the dirty and ill-clad little boys. Dmitri, the son by his first wife, follows a military career. Ivan, an intellectual and writer, and Alyosha, a seminarian, are his two sons by his second wife. At the beginning of the novel the father, the three sons, and various onlookers assemble in the monastery to receive the advice of the old priest Zossima, who counsels the reprobate Fyodor Karamazov in this passage:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and who listens to his own lies gets to a point where he can’t distinguish any truth in himself or in those around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. Having no respect for anyone, he ceases to love, and to occupy and distract himself without love he becomes a prey to his passions and gives himself up to coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, and all this from continual lying to people and to himself. A man who lies to himself can be more easily offended that anyone else.

Luckily, as the novel progresses, my mind is diverted from the similarities between Karamazov and The Donald to philosophical and moral considerations beyond the current American political scene, for Dostoyevsky’s work encompasses both the Russian soul and the universal human condition.

The supremacy of love and of forgiveness in the regeneration of debased mankind is reinforced continually, personified in the character of Alyosha, the youngest son, who unconditionally accepts everyone as his brother. Karamazov is not the only one who has problems with honesty, but also Grushenka and Katerina, the two female characters contributing to the plot’s nexus of jealousy, revenge, and passion. To one degree or another all the characters are tortured souls. The novel is deeply religious and psychological, delving into the recesses of human nature to examine what would cause a man to commit vile acts and what motivates a person to murder. Why would a child hate his father so much as to kill him? Ivan comes to believe he is complicit in parricide, because he planted the seed in the mind of the actual murderer while his brother Dmitri stands accused of the crime and is unjustly convicted.

The theme of father-son relationships is expanded in the subplot of the boy Ilyusha and his father. In contrast to the Karamazovs, they have a loving relationship. Dostoyevsky takes this theme further in Alyosha’s friendship with the precocious thirteen-year old Kolya, who can overcome his worse instincts under Alyosha’s tutelage. In this dynamic, Alyosha replicates the loving relationship that he had with the Elder Zossima, his spiritual father, in the monastery. The opening of the novel juxtaposes the death of the beloved Zossima with the final scene in the novel in which Ilyusha dies, surrounded by the boys who once bullied him and who now love him. The anguished atheist Ivan also possesses a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of children in his repudiation of a God who permits innocent children to endure unspeakable brutality at the hands of adults.

Ivan is the nihilist, Dimitri is the sensualist, and Alyosha is the Christ-figure searching for verities in religious orthodoxy. During the murder trial, the prosecuting attorney compares the brothers to a troika, each one representing a facet of the Russian soul, pulling a runaway sleigh.  He engages in a lengthy psychological analysis–impressive in 1880 before the emergence of Freud and Jung. The defense attorney begins by stating psychology is a double-edged sword and uses the same set of facts to disprove the prosecution’s argument in psychological terms. The descriptions of the spectators’ morbid fascination and the courtroom drama are remarkably like the conduct of televised sensational court cases today. All the passions and motifs in the novel intensify once the accused murderer is brought to trial. If the reader has borne with Dostoyevsky’s long passages and meanderings until this point, he will be astounded with the relevancy of these last chapters to contemporary issues of crime and punishment.

In writing any book review, I strive to avoid giving away too much of the plot. In this case, it is pretty much an impossibility to scratch more than the surface of the plot and spiritual dimensions. The novel is far too vast, intricate, and philosophical. One reason the literary canon rates The Brothers Karamazov a classic is because it calls for multiple readings. Dostoyevsky died soon after its publication. Although it reads complete in itself with Alyosha comforting the grieving boys after Ilyusha’s burial in the final scene, Dostoyevsky purportedly considered extending the story to account for what becomes of Alyosha, the youngest of the three brothers. There are other characters not fully accounted for. What ultimately happens to Grushenka and Katerina? Does Ivan’s madness end in his commitment to a mental institution? How does the convicted murderer fare in a Siberian prison? Does the escape plan hinted at actually occur? Not all threads come together, yet the conclusion is not so open-ended either that I am left unsatisfied. Rather I find it delightful to speculate about the fate of the other characters.

So what did I gain from reading this book in the Age of Trump? Alyosha concludes after hearing Ivan’s poem about the Grand Inquisitor that anything is permitted if God does not exist. Ivan affirms that conclusion, saying “I shall never repudiate the formula of ‘everything is permitted,’ but you will repudiate me for it, won’t you?” Alyosha is silent and responds only by getting up and kissing his brother. Vileness, personal attacks, and repulsive behavior–as strange as they may seem–are cries to be loved and appreciated. Dostoyevsky’s answer like that of all great spiritual leaders is to forgive and to give your brother the love he seeks.

This is easier said than done. It takes a saint to treat a scoundrel in this way. But to return attack with attack, truly, does perpetuate the cycle of hate. However, I don’t believe it is virtuous to remain silent in the face of injustice. It is incumbent to speak up against the authoritarians who like the Grand Inquisitor offer us “miracles, mystery, and authority” in the belief that freedom is too much for the ordinary man to bear. I am no saint, so perhaps the next best course of action is to gently admonish, bless the scoundrel for he knows not what he does, and then fall silent.