The Brothers Karamazov


There are some books that, when you finish, you think, “How did I go through life so long without reading this book?”

These are the books that strike you, often in a way you cannot immediately articulate, but remain with you for years. I found The Brothers Karamazov to be such a book. After I finished this book I could barely speak a coherent sentence—I had so many things to say but could hardly get a grasp on any one of them. The thoughts that this book inspires—(inspires is too gentle a word. This book provokes, cajoles, wrestles, grabs you by the collar and reaches down your throat into your heart and tears the thoughts and feelings out of you all bleeding and raw)— the thoughts that this book evokes are big like a Texas sky, vast, fearsome like the Rockies, thundering like Niagra.

Ivan was the most interesting character to me because he is a Nietzschean and a postmodernist—which is to say, he is today’s man-in-the-street. He is the most contemporary character. “If God is dead, everything is permitted,” is precisely what Nietzsche believed. Ivan’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor is a postmodernist deconstruction of ideology, truth-claims, and hierarchies of power. The Devil’s speech to Ivan, preaching his own philosophy back at him, argues for the new man, the ubermensch, who lives by the new morality beyond good and evil and casts aside the slave morality of Christianity. And just like Nietzsche, Ivan loses his mind. Partway through the book, when we first begin to doubt that Dmitri killed his father, I immediately suspected Ivan, even secretly rooted for him to be the murderer because that would fit so nicely with the philosophy Dostoevsky is portraying. But the novelist won’t settle for something so obvious. He arranges things, through Smerdyakov, so that no one, not even us or Ivan, can be sure how culpable Ivan really was in the murder. The resulting ambiguity and guilt tortures and crushes Ivan’s mind and drives him insane. He does “confess,” but in such a way that no one takes him seriously. Ivan is the first and among the best artistic renderings of Nietzsche’s philosophy. What is remarkable is that Dostoevsky wrote the novel before Nietzsche’s productive decade. The novelist anticipated the philosopher’s most insightful work. He developed Nietzscheanism before Nietzsche, and simultaneously shows all its flaws and failures in the same novel through the characters of Alyosha and Zosima.

Dmitri provides the action of the novel, but his storyline will be the most tiresome and boring upon a second or third read of the novel. He and Katya and Gruschenka embody Romanticism. For a while they kept me entertained. Does he love Katya, or Gruschenka? Does Gruschenka love him, or Fydor? Does Kaya love or hate Dmitri, or both? Who will end up with whom? After a while, they became ridiculous. Katya simply declares her love for whomever she is around. Gruschenka does nearly the opposite. Dmitri is a creature of instinct, an animalistic passion drive by lust, greed, and gluttony. By the end of the novel, I no longer really cared who loved whom or how they ended up, because it is certain that they will simply continue their never-ending round of sturm und drang, of stormy passion, ecstatic love, terrible wounds and hurts, astonishing reconciliation—shake, mix, and repeat. Their story fundamentally doesn’t matter; I think Dostoevsky doesn’t resolve it because it cannot be resolved. There is nothing eternal in their circular wanderings. They are solipsistic, tied up in their own feelings about their feelings. As they spin through life, they hurt, main, ruin, and even kill others (the fruits of Romanticism); but all they care about is “Do I really love her, or not?” I love it that Dostoevsky simply gives up on them in the midst of their plans for a daring escape; it’s like he is treating them collectively with the contempt they’ve earned. Who really cares about how they turn out anyway?

I loved the speech by the defense lawyer at the end where he shows how “psychology is a stick with two ends.” He reinterprets all the facts simply assuming a different psychology and shows how all the facts could be understood to mean something entirely different from what the prosecution said they meant if you just impute a different psychological motivation to Dmitri. Dostoevsky is partly mocking the attempt to craft a science of the human mind; perhaps he is also mocking his own work, which is deeply dependent on psychological insights for its enduring merit. Dostoevsky also suggests that we simply cannot know psychological “truths” with scientific certainty because psychology is not an objective science, but rather it is applied wisdom about how humans life and make decisions.

Alyosha’s journey was the most compelling for me, because he is a premodernist and a Christian trying to keep his faith and battle his way in the world. He was less compelling early in the book because Dostoevsky gives us so little insight into his inner person. Alyosha is simply the eyes through which we see much of the first part of the novel. He has one part early on, at the end of a day, when he says a prayer and feels peace from God quiet his soul, which I appreciated. And then there is the astonishing conversion scene exactly halfway through the book, after Zosima dies and Alyosha embraces the earth and weeps, feels God’s presence, and “rises a fighter.” Here I almost wept; here was a Christian take on the truths of existentialism; here is a passage that preaches hope. It is through Alyosha’s journey that Dostoevsky shows us the path that he thinks will save us from Ivan’s nihilism and Dmitri’s romanticism. The tenets of Alyosha’s faith are those preached in Zosima’s biography, and I think embodied by Paul’s poem in Philippians 2 about how Christ “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…he humbled himself.” Alyosha embodies his belief by leaving the monastery, befriending the schoolboys, and becoming a secular “Elder” to them, especially to Kolya. Zosima has specifically ordered Alyosha to leave the monastery and live in the world. But Alyosha never stops practicing his religious vocation; he simply does it with people outside the monastery. Kolya claims to be a socialist and a liberal; yet he comes to love and obey Alyosha.

Dostoevsky, who was a liberal in his youth before his prison conversion, is suggesting that liberalism works only when it recognizes the rightful authority of God and the Church; unhinged, liberalism becomes atheism and nihilism. He may also be suggesting that the Church has its real impact with sinners when it gets out amongst them, meets them where they are and embodies love in the circumstances of their daily lives. Alyosha tames and sanctifies the schoolboys; they do not stop being schoolboys, but they are transformed through Alyosha’s mentoring into something new and different – to become the very men Dostoevsky hoped would grow up and save Russia. Alas.

Dostoevsky also showed how people reject brotherhood. Dmitri rejects Katya’s offering of sisterly love. The Captain (Ilyuschenka’s father) rejects Alyosha’s offer of brotherhood when he initially rejects the money.  Ivan rejects brotherhood with anyone. But Alyosha makes himself the brother of all. He is the Brother Karamazov (monks call each other “brother”)—and so the Brothers Karamazov are all who love like Alyosha loves.

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