Final Thoughts

by Dennis Abrams

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have been following Project D this year, who have been reading Dostoevsky along with me, and who made this whole thing possible. Doing this, I gained a much great appreciation for Dostoevsky, discovering the structure within the books, his humor, his irony, his ambiguities, and how much more complicated his books are than they appear on the surface. It’s been a wonderful experience.

I saw new things in Crime and Punishment and gained a greater appreciation for the “outsider” elements in Svidrigailov. While The Idiot remains probably my least favorite of the four, I gained insight into what Dostoevsky was trying to do, and found myself, again, drawn to the “outsiders” — Rogozhin, Nastasia Filippovna, and Ippolit. I grew to love Demons even more than I had in my previous reading — its timeliness, the way Dostoevsky plays the characters off each other, the characters themselves — Stavrogin, Kirillov, Yulia, Fedka, the Lebyadkins — the vision of destruction…And finally, The Brothers Karamazov — doing such a close reading of the book, I really learned how to read the book, finding the connections, seeing it for the epic that it truly is. And again, for all that, thank you.

And finally — I’m happy to announce that our next project — The Play’s The Thing — a journey through the plays of William Shakespeare will launch on October 13th with a week of introductory pieces, with readings to begin the following week.

I hope you’ll join me.


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“Father and son, fascinating monster and poignant poet, share in the one nature, villain and hero alike. This is the genius of Dostoevsky at full play, almost Shakespearean in its splendor.”

The Brothers Karamazov
The Wrap-Up Continues
with Dennis Abrams

A continuation of yesterday’s essay by Harold Bloom:

“The genius of Dostoevsky faltered when it came to representing religion, which is the flaw of The Brothers Karamazov, since Dostoevsky’s Russian Christianity was purely a disease of the intellect, a nationalistic virus, devoid of spiritual insight. Are we to be moved by Zosima’s assertion, “Whoever does not believe in God is not going to believe in God’s people?’ That sounds uncomfortably like Southern Baptist conviction that Christ favors the Republican Party. It ought to be a scandal that an agnostic or atheist cannot be elected dogcatcher in the United States, but it is a weary fact we must accept. Dostoevsky’s obscurantist religiosity is plain tiresome, though critics mostly will not say so. At the close of The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha joyously kisses the Russian earth, and Dostoevsky is immensely moved by this heroic act. The novels ends with the young prophet preaching to a group of boys, in memory of one of their group who has died.

“I am speaking about the worst case, if we become bad,’ Alyosha went on, “But why should we become bad, gentlemen, isn’t that true? Let us first of all and before all be kind, then honest, and then — let us never forget one another. I say it again. I give you my word, gentlemen, that for my part I will never forget any one of you; each face that is looking at me now; at this moment, I will remember; be it even after thirty years. Kolya said to Karashov just now that we supposedly ‘do not care to know of his existence’ But how can I forget that Karashov exists and that he is no longer blushing now, as when he discovered Troy, but is looking at me with his nice, kind, happy eyes? Gentlemen, my dear gentlemen, let us all be as generous and as brave as Ilyushechka, as intelligent, brave, and generous as Kolya (who will be much more intelligent when he grows up a little), and let us be as bashful, but smart and nice, as Kartashov. But why am I talking about these two? You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united u s in these good, kind lives, who, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages of ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”

“Yes, yes, eternal, eternal,” all the boys cried in their ringing voices, with deep feelings in their faces.

“Let us remember his face, and his clothes, and his poor boots, and his little coffin, and his unfortunate, sinful father, and how he bravely rose up against the whole class for him!”

“We will, we will remember!” the boys cried again, “he was brave, he was kind!”

“Ah, how I loved him!” exclaimed Kolya.

“Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and rightful!”

“Yes, yes,” the boys repeated ecstatically.

“Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, which seemed to be Kartashov’s exclaimed irrepressibly.

‘We love you, we love you,’ everyone joined in. Many had tears shining in their eyes.

“Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya proclaimed ecstatically.

“And memory eternal for the dead boy!” Alyosha added again, with feeling.

“Memory eternal!” The boys again cried”

[AND SO ON AND SO ON…Back to Bloom]

Someone not fond of this passage unkindly suggested that it had the aura of a Boy Scout rally, an event of which I know nothing. Whatever it resembles, it divides readers. to me, it is of a badness not to be believed, and reminds me that Tolstoy grudgingly approved of Dostoevsky only to the extent that this rival prophet could be termed the Russian Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Yet all that I try to indicate is that Dostoevsky was neither a religious genius nor a genius of religion. In spiritual matters, he merely was a bigoted know-nothing, whose authentic anti-Semitism was the only evidence of his election as a Russian prophet. The Brothers Karamazov is not The Diary of a Writer, and the genius of Dostoevsky is strongest where it brings Old Karamazov and Mitya into confrontation.

“Dmitri Pavlovich!” Fyodor Pavlovich suddenly screamed in a voice not his own, “if only you weren’t my son, I would challenge you to a duel this very moment…with pistols at three paces…across a handkerchief! across a handkerchief!” he ended, stamping with both feet.

Old liars who have been play-acting all their lives have moments when they get so carried away by their posturing that they indeed tremble and weep from excitement, even though at that same moment (or just a second later) they might whisper to themselves: ‘You’re lying, you shameless old man, you’re acting even now, despite all your ‘holy’ wrath and ‘holy’ moment of wrath.’

Dmitri Fyodorovich frowned horribly and looked at his father with inexpressible contempt.

“I thought…I thought.” he said somehow softly and restrainedly, “that I would come to my birthplace with the angel of my soul, my fiancee, to cherish him in his old age, and all I find is a depraved sensualist and despicable comedian!”

“To a duel!” the old fool screamed again, breathless and spraying saliva with every word. “And you, Pyotor Alexandrovich Miusov, let it be known to you, sir, that in all the generations of your family there is not and maybe never has been a woman loftier or more honorable — more honorable, do you hear? — than this creature, as you have just dared to call her! And you, Dmitri Fyodorovich, traded your fiancee for this very ‘creature,’ as you yourself have judged that your fiancee isn’t worthy to lick her boots — that’s the kind of creature she is!”

“Shame!” suddenly escaped from Father Iosif.

“A shame and a disgrace!” Kalganov, who had been silent all the while, suddenly cried in his adolescent voice, trembling with excitement and blushing all over.

“Why is such a man alive!” Dmitri Fyodorovich growled in a muffled voice, now nearly beside himself with fury, somehow raising his shoulders peculiarly so that he looked almost hunchbacked. “No, tell me, can he be allowed to go on dishonoring the earth with himself?” He looked around at everyone, pointing his finger at the old man. His speech was slow and deliberate.

“Do you hear, you monks, do you hear the parricide!” Fyodor Pavlovich flung at Father Iosif. “There is the answer to your ‘shame’! What shame? This ‘creature,’ this ‘woman of bad behavior’ is perhaps holier than all of you, gentlemen and soul-saving hieromonks! Maybe she fell in her youth, being influenced by her environment, but also has ‘loved much,’ and even Christ forgave her who loved much…’

“Christ did not forgive that kind of love…” escaped impatiently from the meek Father Iosif.

“No, that kind, monks, exactly that kind, that kind. You are saving your souls here on cabbage and you think you’re righteous! You eat gudgeons, one gudgeon a day, and you think you can buy God with gudgeons!”

“Impossible! Impossible!” came from all sides of the cell.

But the whole scene, which had turned so ugly, was stopped in a most unexpected manner. The elder suddenly rose from his place. Alyosha, who had almost completely lost his head from fear for him and for all of them, had just time enough to support his arm. The elder stepped towards Dmitri Fyodorovich and, having come close to him, knelt before him. Alyosha thought for a moment that he had fallen from weakness, but it was something else. Kneeling in front of Dmitri Fyodorovich, the elder bowed down at his feet with a full, distinct, conscious bow, and even touched the floor with his forehead. Alyosha was so amazed that he failed to support him as he got to his feet. A weak smile barely glimmered on his lips.

“Forgive me! Forgive me all of you!” he said, bowing on all sides to his guests.

Dmitri Fyodorovich stood dumbstruck for a few moments. Bowing at his feet — what was that? Then suddenly he cried out: “Oh, God!” and, covering his face with his hands, rushed from the room. All the other guests flocked after him, forgetting in their confusion even to say good-bye or bow to their host. Only the hieromonks again came to receive his blessing.

“What’s that — bowing at his feet? Is it some sort of emblem?” Fyodor Pavlovich, who for some reason had grown quiet, tried to start a conversation, not daring, by the way, to address anyone in particular. At that moment they were just passing beyond the walls of the hermitage.”

This wonderful passage is an epitome of The Brothers Karamazov, and more than redeems it from all of Dostoevsky’s spurious spirituality. We are free to interpret as we will the elder’s terrifying obeisance to Mitya, but dramatically it prophesies the martyrdom he must undergo when he is unjustly convicted of his father’s murder. Everything in the passage has a marvelous aesthetic appropriateness, including Old Karamazov’s denunciation of the monks for their diet of cabbage and gudgeons — small, tasteless fish good only for bait — which he regards as another mark of their hypocrisy. A gourmet as to food, Old Karamazov will devour any woman whatsoever: “There are no ugly women!” The peculiar intensity of the father’s buffoonery, with its outrageous challenge to a duel, inevitably provokes the passionate Mitya to the sinful thread of patricide. Father and son, fascinating monster and poignant poet, share in the one nature, villain and hero alike. This is the genius of Dostoevsky at full play, almost Shakespearean in its splendor.”

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“There are almost no normative personalities among Dostoevsky’s characters: they are what they will to be, and their wills are inconstant”

The Brothers Karamazov
The Wrap Continues
with Dennis Abrams

From Harold Bloom (probably my favorite literary critic) — Genius

“Sigmund Freud, rather polemically, placed The Brothers Karamazov first among all novels ever written, approaching Shakespeare in aesthetic eminence. The judgment was excessive, but the book certainly is the strongest that Dostoevsky composed, and it is where his genius should be sought. It is his final work and his intended revelation, published a year before his death at fifty-nine. His only son, Alyosha, had died at the age of three in 1878, which is prelude to The Brothers Karamazov, whose hero is Alyosha, the youngest brother. Had Dostoevsky lived, there would have been a second volume in the novel, centering almost wholly upon the fully mature Alyosha.

But we have only The Brothers Karamazov in one substantial novel of seven hundred and seventy-six pages…Most readers regard the novel’s protagonist as being either Dmitri, poetic sufferer, or Ivan, prideful intellectual, or both together, rather than the realistic and loving Alyosha. The book’s glory is that we are fascinated by all three brothers (despite Dostoevsky’s palpable dislike for Ivan) as we also are enchanted by their dreadful father, the vitalistic monster Fyodor Pavlovich, and interestingly are repelled by their bastard brother, the cook Smerdyakov. These five Karamazovs are the genius of the novel; the principle women, Grushenka and Katerina Ivanovna, seem to me to divide male fantasy between them, and they fail to persuade as personalities. Tolstoy could create women; Dostoevsky could not, though he studied Shakespeare, hoping to learn the secret.

To invoke the genre of the novel does not help much in reading The Brothers Karamazov. We might call it Scripture, though that would be too broad a designation, since Dostoevsky seems to combine the Book of Job with the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, with much of the rest of the Bible implied. Critics, following Mikhail Bakhtin, speak of the novel as a polyphony, but why that applies more to it than to Dickens or Proust is unclear to me. There is a peculiar narrator, who seems to represent the public in general, though Dostoevsky sometimes breaks in. The Brothers Karamazov could be called gloriously unsteady, which is appropriate for the Old Karamazov and his volatile sons, who in different but parallel ways share in his outrageous nature.

Freud overpraised the novel because it confirmed his theory in Totem and Taboo, where the Primal Father appropriates all the women for himself, and finally is slain by his sons. Hatred of the father, according to Freud, is the source of our unconscious guilt. But, except for Alyosha, all the Karamazov sons explicitly hate their ferocious father, and Alyosha is saved from that hatred only by having found a replacement in the monk, Father Zosima.

It is Mitya’s novel, but Dostoevsky gave his own first name to Old Karamazov (who is actually fifty-five), and the sensual exuberance of this worst of fathers makes us feel his absence after he is murdered by Smerdyakov. Dostoevsky, in his Notebooks, declared that ‘we are all, to the last man, Fyodor Pavloviches,’ since we are all sensualists and nihilists, however we attempt to be otherwise. Dostoevsky, who compelled himself to religious belief, was anything but a mystic, and was the ancestor of Kafka’s passionate motto: ‘No more psychology!’ There are almost no normative personalities among Dostoevsky’s characters: they are what they will to be, and their wills are inconstant. And so is Dostoevsky’s. His unfairness to Ivan is exasperating, but Dostoevsky intends to exasperate us. He certainly would have declined to care about the reactions of Jewish critics, since he himself was a vicious anti-Semite, comparable to Ezra Pound. It is important to remember that Dostoevsky was an obscurantist, and a supporter of Czarist tyranny and Russian Orthodox theocracy. He was a vehement parodist of Westernization, and firmly believed that Russians were the Chosen People and that Christ was the Russian Christ. Admirers of Dostoevsky should read his Diary of a Writer, a fascinating and obnoxious book. It is one thing to be passionate and provocative, and quite another to preach hatred of non-Russians in anticipation of the End of the World.

Dostoevsky’s genius was for dramatizing character and personality, and he seems to me to have a deeper relationship with Shakespeare than criticism so far has revealed. His nihilists are Shakespearean: Svidrigailov, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov. And there is something of a Falstaffian parody in Fyodor Karamazov, though I find it distressing. Western literary tradition was not for Dostoevsky the nightmare it constituted for Tolstoy, but I am uncertain that Dostoevsky could see the differences between Shakespeare and the novels of Victor Hugo, whose vision of the wretched of the earth was not far from Dostoevsky’s own.”

More to come tomorrow…

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“A silly poem by a silly student who never wrote two lines of poetry in his life.”

Project D
The Wrap Up Continues
with Dennis Abrams

A continuation of Victor Terras’ “Subtext, Intertext, and Ambiguity in The Brothers Karamazov

“Chapters iv and v of Book Five of The Brothers Karamazov have received a disproportionate amount of critical attention. To those opposed to Dostoevsky’s idea, they have been the most worthwhile aspect of the novel; in those who are willing to accept The Brothers Karamazov as a Christian novel, they have been a serious stumbling block. M.A. Antonovich said that ‘the poem, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ provides the only poetic pages in the whole novel,’ a statement worthy of Rakitin. On the other side, one senses wariness and outright disapproval in K.P. Pobedonostsev’s reaction to ‘Pro and Contra.’ Western readers have tended to react similarly.

The foregrounding of these chapters has meant that ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ has been read not as an integral part of the novel, but as an independent text. In fact, the position of the Legend in the structural configuration of the novel is complex. It has a contrapuntal relationship with a number of specific scenes in the novel, and specific phrases and images of the Legend are echoes in phrases and images throughout the novel. In many instances a phrase in the Legend will sound familiar, and there are cases of mirroring in the opposite direction as well. For example, when Ivan suggests that the Grand Inquisitor ‘has joined…the clever people,’ one immediately thinks of Fiodor Pavlovich’s words when he declares himself a member of that group of ‘clever people sitting snug and enjoying their brandy.’ [MY NOTE: Well, maybe Mr. Terras thinks of that immediately — it got past me completely.] In both instances, ‘clever people’ means ‘people who have discovered that there is no God’ and are using this knowledge to their advantage. In the other direction, the phrase, of course, belongs to Smerdyakov: it appears in the heading of chapter vii of Book Five.

First and foremost, the Legend is a function of the character of Ivan Karamazov. As such it is an expression of Ivan’s particular version of atheism, distinct from the atheism of Fiodor Pavlovich, Miusov, Rakitin, and Smerdyakov. The Legend’s most important contrapuntal relationships are with chapters and passages belong to Ivan: his synopsis of his article on Church and state in Book Two, the chapter preceding ‘The Grand Inquisitor,’ and Ivan’s interview with the Devil.

It was Dostoevsky’s professed intent to present Ivan’s ideas merely in order to refute and to discredit them. In the process, he destroys Ivan Karamazov as a man and intellect by introducing a cleverly disguised subtext of derogatory detail. [MY NOTE: This is where I’m not exactly in agreement or at least question Terras: Are Ivan’s ideas refuted? Is Ivan ‘destroyed’ by Dostoevsky or by the torment of being, in Colin Wilson’s term, an ‘outsider?’] Ivan gets a proper buildup for his role: his precocious maturity, his intellectual brilliance, his early self-reliance and independence [MY NOTE: Not unlike Kolya!] are established even before we hear his voice. From the outset, all the positive things we hear about Ivan are undercut by a strategy that will become clear, even to the attentive reader, only much later. His intellectual ability is presented as unquestioned, but with a hint that it may be overestimated; his proud independence as praiseworthy, yet less admirable than Aliosha’s humble way of accepting as well as giving kindness; his early foams as undoubted, but limited to narrow intellectual circles.

When we first hear Ivan’s voice, it fully lives up to earlier advertisements: his synopsis of his controversial article makes a good impression. It takes an observer of Zosima’s intuition to sense the dissonance under the smooth surface of Ivan’s balanced presentation. At the conclusion of Book Two, the annoying but harmless Makismov boards the Karamazov carriage at Fiodor Pavlovich’s invitation. Ivan angrily pushes him off: a seemingly trivial incident that the reader is apt to forget. But it starts a pattern.

Over a glass of brandy, Ivan’s few words and actions seem well controlled — until the ugly outburst: ‘One viper will devour the other, and good riddance!’ Ivan smooths over the disturbance by suggesting that this was only a wish, and ‘as for my wishes, I reserve myself full latitude.’ Ironically, it is form this point on that Ivan begins to lose precisely what he defends so energetically: his ‘latitude’ as a free individual. From here on, there will be more and more hints that Ivan’s behavior is compulsive and that he is losing control of himself. In chapter v of Book Four, the scene with Katerina Ivanovna, he puts up a bold front, but we know that he will not be able to tear himself away from her.

Book Five shows Ivan at the summit of his role. His rebellion against God’s world is fervently eloquent. His rejection of a God who allows innocent children to suffer has the ring of inspired invective. Ivan speaks like a prosecutor who is convinced of the guilt of the accused. He cheats a bit when he generously declares that he will limit his argument to the suffering of children: ‘This will reduce the range of my argumentation about tenfold, but let it be about children only. It is so much less to my advantage, of course.’ One feels that the speaker’s loathing of the child abusers is stronger than his compassion for their victims, but this hardly reduces the power of his argument. The truth is, of course, that Ivan advances only his strongest evidence, leaving the more dubious aside. One has to read between the lines to realize hos Dostoevsky undermines Ivan’s position, as in this example:

‘And so they dragged Richard, all covered with his brothers’ kisses, up on the scaffold, put him on the guillotine, and in good brotherly fashion zapped off his head after all, on account of God’s grace having descended upon him, too.’

Dostoevsky does not have to say that Ivan, obsessed by his hatred of God’s world and moved by his contempt for the pious citizens of Beneva, is blind to the obvious fact that God’s grace had indeed descended upon the hapless Richard, who died in a state of grace.

At the end of the ‘Revolt’ chapter, Aliosha advances the antithesis to Ivan’s charges: the image and example of Christ. Ivan had anticipated this response, and he has prepared his counterargument: ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’ While the refutation of ‘Revolt’ is left largely to later portions of the novel, the refutation of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is largely implicit in the very ideas, structure, and style of the Legend as Ivan tells it. ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is an intricate web in which the unwary are caught all too easily — and Ivan is himself the first victim of Dostoevsky’s stratagems. Dostoevsky once said:

‘In an artistic presentation, idea and intent manifest themselves firmly, clearly, and comprehensibly. And whatever is clear and comprehensible is of course despised by the crowd. It is quite a different thing with something that is involved and makes no sense. Why, ‘we don’t understand this, and hence it must be profound.’

‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is composed according to this recipe: intricate, abstruse, and difficult to make sense of. However, Dostoevsky has taken care that a sensitive and attentive reader can see through Ivan’s fabrication. He allows Ivan to build what appears to be an impressive argument that is, nevertheless, undermined and eventually destroyed by a counterpoint of false notes, dissonances, insinuations, and inadvertent revelations.

Ivan calls his piece a poem, but it is poetic only in those few passages that deal directly with Christ; the rest is rhetoric, in much the same style as the preceding chapter. Ivan juxtaposes his poem to the medieval Legend of the Virgin’s Descent to Hell, of which he tells Aliosha with somewhat supercilious admiration. In the Virgin’s forgiveness of the murders and tormentors of her son is given a first response to Ivan’s ‘Revolt.’ At the same time, the recollection of the genuine legend helps the reader to expose Ivan’s pseudolegend for what it is. ‘A silly poem by a silly student who never wrote two lines of poetry in his life.’

The melodramatic appearance of the Grand Inquisitor, ‘tall and erect, with an emaciated face and sunken eyes, in which there gleams, however, a brilliance like a fiery spark,’ shows up the unreal quality of this figure — one need only compare it with Father Zosima’s modest and unassuming presence. Later, in Ivan’s nightmare, the Devil will make fun of Ivan’s penchant for romantic glamor. Anyway, the relationship between Ivan and his creation, the Grand Inquisitor, soon turns into one of romantic irony, as Ivan will alternately identify with the Grand Inquisitor and then detach himself from him and present him as a vehicle of his own ideas. He thus deprives his creation of its authoritative voice and its integrity, making it sound self-conscious, overly emphatic, defensive, and even shrill. The Grand Inquisitor’s arguments, recognizably Ivan’s own, are advance intermittently and intertwiningly on several different levels.

On an anthropological level, the notion is advanced that there are tow kinds of men: the superior few and the inferior many. The ideal condition for humanity is that the inferior be ruled by the superior. On a metaphysical level, it is established that there is no God. Therefore man is free. However, only the superior few know this. Inferior men have a need to believe in a higher power and are anxious to relinquish their freedom at the earliest occasion. The superior will oblige and rule them.

On a hermeneutic level, Christ’s temptation by the Devil is reinterpreted as a fatal mistake on the part of Christ, who misjudged human nature when He extended the privileges of superior men to all humans. Meanwhile, on a historical level, the Church has long since decided that Christ was wrong and the Devil right — and has acted accordingly. Finally, on an apocalyptic level, a terrible age of persecution of the Church by the frankly godless is predicted. But humanity’s attempt to erect this second tower of Babel will fail, and mankind will return to the Church, which will then establish its own utopia on earth, based on miracle, mystery, and authority. The elect will know that these foundations of their rule are fraudulent, but they will bear the burden of this knowledge to make the masses of inferior humans happy.

Although these ideas are presented with great fervor, inserted into each and every one of them are details that will undermine and then explode them. Ivan’s anthropology is vitiated by the fact that it is self-serving, for he counts himself among the ‘clever people.’ The Grand Inquisitor has done nothing for suffering humanity. How is one to believe in a love for mankind whose only expression that we have been told of is the burning of numerous heretics?

On a metaphysical level, Ivan is quite unaware of the words he himself said only minutes earlier: in the Virgin’s descent to Hell, mention is made of certain sinners ‘whom God forgets.’ Ivan calls him ‘an expression of depth and force.’ Could he be one of those sinners? Ivan credits himself, through the Grand Inquisitor, with a love of freedom, yet announces similar feelings in others as a ‘mutiny’ of ‘schoolboys’ — while Aliosha’s word ‘mutiny,’ applied to Ivan, still rings in his ears, and while Ivan refers to himself as ‘only a student.’ The Grand Inquisitor will not allow Christ to add an iota to what is said in Scriptures, ‘lest He deprive men of their freedom,’ yet he is himself engaged in a conspiracy to do just that. Moreover, the Grand Inquisitor lets u s know, inadvertently, that without God there is no real miracle, no real mystery, and no real authority, only a false promise and a false pretense of such. For if Christ had only made a move toward the edge of the tower, He would have naturally fallen to His death. So the Grand Inquisitor denies miracle, mystery, and authority; substituting for them magic, deception, and tyranny. The whole secret of the Grand Inquisitor, says Aliosha, is that he does not believe in God. In Ivan’s interview with the Devil, we shall learn that such unbelief comes from weakness, not from strength.

The very words that introduce the Devil ought to be enough to put the reader on guard: ‘The awesome and wise spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-being.’ Who wants any part of self-destruction and non-being? When the Grand Inquisitor advertises the Devil’s temptation of Christ as something that ‘all the wisdom of the world could not equal in power and profundity,’ it becomes clear to any reader who is not blind to the drift of Dostoevsky’s argument that it leads ad absurda. Obviously there is nothing profound about the Devil’s suggestions, for all three have occurred to everybody in one form or another. the wise man knows that the Devil, or any disciple of his, has not the power to fulfill his promises and that his disciples will likewise have to depend on fraud.

Ivan’s claim that the Church has been for centuries in the hands of men like his Grand Inquisitor is based on mere speculation, as Ivan admits. Aliosha indignantly rejects the assertion, even for the Catholic Church as a whole. Still, this might be one of Ivan’s stronger points. Dostoevsky makes sure it remains a marginal one. Ivan’s apocalyptic vision has him use the Book of Revelation to the extent that it suits his purposes. He predicts the collapse of the godless materialist utopia of ‘the Beast’ following Revelation 17:5, but ignores the exposure and disgrace of the Great Harlot. Ivan perverts the Book of Revelation, much as he perverts every other source he uses in ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ (the Gospel, the Legend of the Virgin’s Descent into Hell, Tiutchev, Pushkin).

All these details in the subtext of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ are not easily detected, but an attentive reader will catch enough along the way. Even a less careful reader will be impressed by a basic emotive undercurrent that is present in ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ from beginning to end: the weak, lowly, wretched masses of humanity and the wise and mighty few. A steady stream of abuse is heaped upon the former, a steady flow of self-congratulatory adulati8on descends on the later. The former are ultimately reduced to so much ‘cattle’ and ‘geese,’ while the latter become ‘gods,’ implying, ‘And whosoever shall exalt himself, shall be abased, and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.’ (Matt. 23:12).

The physical details of the Grand Inquisitor’s utopia are made to be very much like those of any socialist materialist utopia. The difference is that the socialist utopia is based on faith in a national effort of an enlightened mankind (Rakitin’s statement); while the Grand Inquisitor’s utopia is produced by an elite for the benefit of the ignorant masses and involves a sham religion.

‘Receiving bread from us, they will of course are clearly that we take the bread made by their hands from then, to give it to them, without any miracle. they will see that we do not change any stones to bread, but in truth they will be more thankful for taking it from our hands than for the bread itself!’

The suggestion that the Grand Inquisitor’s utopia could survive after the socialist utopia has failed seems unconvincing. In competition with Rakitin’s theory, Ivan’s suffers the same fat as does his personal career: by discrediting Rakitin, he discredits himself.

When Ivan finally declares that even Christ ‘turned back and joined…the clever people,’ he forgets that only the day before Fiodor Pavlovich had declared himself to be precisely one of those ‘clever people’ who have discovered that there is no God and take advantage of this circumstance. Soon Ivan will be welcomed to the circle of ‘clever people’ by none other than the lackey Smerdyakov. In the chapters following ‘The Grand Inquisitor,’ Ivan keeps saying and doing things he did not mean to do or say. The reader suspects that he acts under a subconscious compulsion and that this compulsion is somehow linked with the person of Smerdyakov.”

And a question: As far as I can determine, Dostoevsky, after his early flirtation with rebellion, came to believe strongly in the need for the absolute power of the Orthodox Church and the Tsar. If I’m right on this, isn’t he then really on the side of the Grand Inquisitor in that the superior few need to rule over the masses?

More to come…

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“The truth, unfortunately, is almost always banal.”

The Brothers Karamazov
The Wrap-Up Continues

From Victor Terras:

“As the hero of Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk (1846) walks through the streets of St. Petersburg on a cold and rainy day in September, he meets a half-naked, shivering, coughing beggar of about ten, whose mother has sent him out into the streets with a note imploring the charity of passers-by. The little beggar seems to be having little success, as most people brush him aside with harsh and cruel words. Devushkin concludes his little vignette with this observation: “Look there, he is coughing already; before long disease, like a slimy reptile, will creep into his chest, and then, before you know it, death is going to take him, somewhere in a foul-smelling hole, with no care, no help — and there it is, his whole life! That’s what life is like sometimes.’

We see here Dostoevsky’s first hero in open rebellion against God. When Dostoevsky’s last rebel, Ivan Karamazov, makes his stand, his principal charge against God’s world is still that in it innocent children are allowed to suffer senselessly. In Poor FolkDostoevsky’s own position is equivocal, to say the least, and the conclusion of the novel finds Devushkin once again in deep despair, facing a world that he cannot understand. In The Brothers Karamazov, there can be no doubt as to whose side Dostoevsky is on, God’s or the Devil’s. Ivan Karamazov’s negative argument ‘from design’ is met by a formidable array of counterarguments. There is the bold counterthrust in little Ilyusha’s meaningful and inspiring death. There is the more indirect message of the general atmosphere of the novel and of its edifying episodes, such as ‘Cana of Galilee.’ They do not cancel the fact of senseless suffering but provide a strong counterbalance.

Perhaps strongest of all are the arguments ad hominem by which the rebel himself is discredited, morally as well as intellectually. In “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,’ Ivan, who has earlier ‘returned his ticket’ to God’s world, proposes an alternative to it: a group of wise and noble men, having discovered the secret of God’s nonexistence, will secure the bliss of the ignorant and believing masses by concealing the secret from them, by taking care of their earthly needs, by giving them a show of power and authority on earth as well as a false promise of eternal life in Heaven. Christ, as he appears in the ‘Legend,’ is a noble idealist who has sadly overestimated the spiritual capacity of most men. He has offered them beatitude through freedom, which most men do not even want, or which they grossly abuse.

The Grand Inquisitor, Ivan’s creation, is a projection of his own innermost thoughts, and so in a sense his ‘double.’ But the Grand Inquisitor is only one aspect of his mind, his superego, one might say. After the Grand Inquisitor episode, Ivan is subjected to a devastating and unrelenting assault from many sides, until both he and his philosophy have been totally destroyed. Much of this destructive work is done through the introduction of two further ‘doubles,’ Smerdyakov and Kolia Krasotkin. But the coup de grace is certainly administered by the last of Ivan’s doubles, the Devil in the chapter entitled “the Devil: Ivan Fedorovich’s Nightmare.’ Here the Grand Inquisitor is exposed as a mere front, and his creator, therefore, as a fraud. It would seem to me that this chapter not only is more than a set of variations on ‘The Legend”…but it is actually its direct refutation. The Devil, too, is a product of Ivan’s mind, but he has deeper roots, is more organically a part of him, than the abstract and fictional Grand Inquisitor. It is the Devil who shows what the Russian atheist is really like.

What is the Devil like? Externally, he is a middle-aged gentleman with a full head of dark, graying hair and a Vandyke beard. His dress is decent, though slightly out of style and a little shabby. He has seen better days and may be a bit of a genteel hanger-on, living with wealthy relatives. His manners and behavior are most pleasant, exuding bonhomie, common sense, and good humor even in adversity, with a sympathetic appreciation of the ‘human’ and all-too-human aspect of things, and a touch of sentimentality and sensitivity to the arts. He has his human frailties: he is a great hypochondriac, is a little superstitious and gossipy. He tells bad jokes, and his witticisms are rather banal. But all in all he is, it seems, not such a bad sort.

His philosophy is rather what one would expect of a man of this description. He does not believe in God, but not because he is against religion. On the contrary, he would dearly like to become a believer — in fact, he would ‘give up all that translunar life, all those ranks and honors, just to be incarnated in the soul of a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound merchant’s wife, attending Church and dedicating candles to the Lord.’ Many a time he was within an inch of joining in the angels’ ‘Hosanna!’ But an innate skepticism and a sense of duty — who would be left to represent the necessary negative principle without which all life would inevitably come to a standstill? — has so far always prevented him from going through with it. But he certainly won’t exclude the possibility that some day he will! He, for his part, is perfectly willing, as soon as he has been told ‘the secret.’ But in the meantime, he voices the Cartesian doubt, veers into Fichtean idealism, and all along complains about the absurdity of existence. ‘What about me? I suffer, and still I don’t’ live. I am x in an indefinite equation. I am some sort of phantom of life, which has lost all ends and all beginnings, and I have actually myself forgotten, finally, what to call myself.’

Unmistakably, we are facing here a modern agnostic, trying rather sadly to make the most of an absurd world, where eternal, blind, senseless, and inexorable Nature is the only reality. To be sure, the Devil has heard of the possible existence of an antiworld, that of God and His angels (the human world being a neutral zone, as it were, into which both parties make incursions), but this belongs to the realm of legend. ‘No, so long as the secret remains a secret, there will exist for me two truths: one belonging to that world, theirs, of which so far I know nothing at all, and another, which is mine. And let me say this, as things stand now, who knows which truth is better.’

And here, towards the conclusion of the interview, the Devil echoes the Grand Inquisitor’s dream of a new golden age, without God. But unlike the Grand Inquisitor, he drops a hint that there may be a minor hitch: the golden age may be slow in coming. And so an important man may well anticipate it by adopting the principle of a godless world, ‘Everything is allowed,’ for his own private use.

Having made this inventory, one cannot escape the impression that the figure of the Devil fits the image of a man who, in one way or another, accompanied Dostoevsky through virtually all his adult life, Ivan Turgenev. It is safe to say that no other living man occupied as important a place in Dostoevsky’s mind as did Turgenev.

Turgenev’s superficial bonhomie and affability, his genteel emphasis on good manners, his frequent plaintive tone of hurt dignity, his hypochondria and history of rheumatic complaints, his sentimentality and aestheticism, his cosmopolitanism and weakness for Germany, his penchant for the supernatural, his occasional flippancy and indulgence in frivolous pastimes — all of these things we find in Ivan’s ‘double.’ I see the only apparent difference in the Devil’s exterior (he has dark hair; Turgenev, prematurely gray, was light-haired), and in the circumstances that he is described as a poor prizhival’shchik, a genteel sponger, whereas Turgenev was quite wealthy. But in a metaphorical sense, he was, in Dostoevsky’s view, an aging hanger-on in Russian literature. If one chose to be nasty, one could have said that Turgenev was even literally a ‘hanger-on’ of the Viardot family. However, all of the aforementioned are trivial, incidental traits. there are some serious ones, too.

The Devil’s ‘truth’ is depressingly trivial, unexciting, as he himself regretfully admits: ‘The truth, unfortunately, is almost always banal,’ he says. Compare with this Turgenev’s words from his famous lyric prose poem ‘Enough’ (1865). ‘Alas! it is not ghosts, or the fantastic, or chthonic powers, that are terrible…what is terrible is that there is nothing terrible, that the very essence of life is petty and uninteresting, and shallow in a beggarly way.’

Turgenev’s resigned surrender to all-powerful Nature, which he often hypostatized, appears in the Devil’s Weltanschauung also. Specifically, one of Turgenev’s favorite ideas, that of eternal paligenesis, also voiced in ‘Enough,’ appears in the Devil’s notion that our very planet was born, evolved, and died billions of times, in internally repeating cycles.

The parallel is most instructive, also, with regard to the Devil’s professed agnosticism. The point is that the Devil is not a rebel who proudly returns his ticket to God. On the contrary, he wishes he could believe, but cannot. In fact, he envies any man who has not altogether lost his faith — and seeks to corrupt him. Fifteen years before he wrote The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky criticized Turgenev’s story “Phantoms,’ which had just appeared in Dostoevsky’s journal, Epoch. ”Phantoms’ — in my opnion, there is a great deal of trash in that piece: something pettily nasty, sickly, senile, unbelieving from weakness, in a word, the whole Turgenev and his convictions. (However, the poetry in it redeems a great deal.)’

We know that Turgenev considered his lack of faith a personal tragedybut nevertheless persisted in his agnosticism. Turgenev’s pessimsitic agnosticism founds its most famous expression in ‘Enough,’ which Dostoevsky parodied, along with ‘Phantoms’ and several other pieces,’ in Demons. ‘Enough’ presents the image of a man who, while more richly endowed by life than most, nevertheless despairs of life on account of its apparent transitoriness and senselessness. Ivan Karamazov is in the same condition. To this position, the following words of Father Zosima apply:

‘Much of what is on Earth is concealed from us, but as a substitute we are given a secret mystical sensation of a living connection with another world, a lofty, higher world, and indeed, the roots of our thoughts and emotions are not here, but in other worlds. This is why philosophers say that we cannot grasp the essence of things here on Earth. God has taken the seeds of other worlds and sown them here on Earth and is growing His garden here. And all that could come up has come up, yet all that grows here lives and stays alive only through its feeling of being in touch with another, mysterious world. When this feeling weakens or is destroyed in you, that which has been growing in your soul also dies. Then you will become indifferent to life and you may actually begin to hate it.’

There remains the question whether Dostoevsky was consciously aware of the coincidences between Ivan’s double and Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev. It seems significant that Turgenev’s ‘Enough’ is explicitly mentioned in The Brothers Karamazov. ‘Enough,’ as said Turgenev,’ Mrs. Khokhlakova exclaims at one point. It seems significant, also, that the same Mrs. Khokhlakova, in a passage in which she states at some length precisely Ivan Karamazov’s and his Devil’s argument, again quotes Turgenev: ‘Well, then, I think, what if I’ve been a believer all my life, and then I die, and suddenly there is nothing there at all, except that ‘the burdock will grow upon my grave,’ as one writer put it.’

The passage in question is found in chapter 21 of Fathers and Sons, where Bazarov says, ‘All right, he will be living in a white cottage, and I’ll be pushing up burdocks; well, and then what?’ Mrs. Khokhlakova’s quotation is fully appropriate in its context. Uncle Erosha says something similar in The Cossacks, but in a somewhat different context, and the verbatim correspondence with Fathers and Sons is closer.

Dostoevsky had introduced Turgenev in his fiction before: in Demons of course, and perhaps also in “A Little Hero’ (1857), as Karamazov Mochulsky has suggested. In both instances, the image is a highly negative one. Ivan Karamazov is as close to being a projection of Dostoevsky himself as any of his characters are. We know that Turgenev was on his mind a great deal, for many years. It makes some sense that Dostoevsky would project his own loathing for Turgenev and everything he stood for upon his hero’s lowest alter ego. It may be significant that the Devil at one point mockingly echoes Dostoevsky’s very personal story of the ‘crucible of doubt’ through which his ‘Hosanna’ had passed. Surely Turgenev’s version of agnosticism was not entirely alien to Dostoevsky.”

More to come on Sunday/Monday — I’m going to take a couple more days off. In the meantime, in the comments section, please drop me a line, telling me what you thought of Project D, what you ended up thinking about Dostoevsky and his works, which was your favorite and least favorite, etc, and are you as excited about starting on Shakespeare as I am? Next week I’ll be trying to sum up the whole experience.

Enjoy your weekend.

Posted in Discussion | Tagged | 2 Comments

“The absurd is only too necessary on this earth. The world stands on absurdities.”

The Brothers Karamazov
The Wrap-up continues
by Dennis Abrams

Our good friend Minnikin, had an interesting comment to make regarding my observations yesterday about Dostoevsky’s women:

I didn’t realise that Dostoevsky had a mistress: a lady by the name of Apollinaria Prokofyevna Suslova, commonly known as Polina Suslova.

According to the very-reliable Wikipedia, ‘she is considered to be the prototype of several female characters in Dostoyevsky’s novels, such as Polina in The Gambler, Nastasya Filipovna in The Idiot, Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova in Crime and Punishment, Lizaveta Nikolaevna in The Possessed, and both Katerina and Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov’.

It further goes on to describe the relationship as ‘difficult and painful for…Dostoyevsky’ and furthermore that she was ‘imperious, manipulative, jealous, and constantly demanded that he divorce his “consumptive wife” Maria Isayeva…Dostoyevsky later noted that she was “a sick selfish woman”, whose “selfishness and self-esteem were colossal” and who did not tolerate any imperfection in other people. After Maria’s death in 1865, he proposed to Suslova, but she declined’.

Polina Suslova
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Polina Suslova

Polina Suslova c. 1890
Born 1839
Panino, Nizhny Novgorod guberniya
Died 1918
Other names Apollinaria Prokofyevna Suslova
Education Saint Petersburg State University
Occupation writer
Years active 1861—?
Home town Saint Petersburg
Spouse Vasily Rozanov (1880—)
This name uses Eastern Slavic naming customs; the patronymic is Prokofyevna and the family name is Suslova.

Apollinaria Prokofyevna Suslova (Russian: Аполлинария Прокофьевна Суслова; 1839–1918), commonly known as Polina Suslova, was a Russian short story writer, who is perhaps best known as a mistress of writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky[1], wife of Vasily Rozanov and a sister of Russia’s first female physician Nadezhda Suslova.[2][3] She is considered to be the prototype of several female characters in Dostoyevsky’s novels, such as Polina in The Gambler, Nastasya Filipovna in The Idiot, Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova in Crime and Punishment,[4] Lizaveta Nikolaevna in The Possessed, and both Katerina and Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov.[5][6][7] Suslova has often been portrayed as a femme fatale.[8] Fyodor Dostoyevsky called Suslova one of the most remarkable women of his time.[7]

Her own works include a short story Pokuda, published in Mikhail Dostoyevsky’s Vremya magazine in 1861, Do svadby (1863)[7], and the autobiographical Chuzhaya i svoy, published in 1928.[9]

1 Early life
2 Relationship with Fyodor Dostoyevsky
3 Later life
4 References
5 See also

Early life

Polina Suslova was born in Panino, Nizhny Novgorod guberniya.[10] Polina’s father, Prokofiy Suslov, was a serf of the Sheremetevs, but was able to succeed as a merchant and manufacturer. He decided to give a proper education to his daughters, Polina (a diminutive form of the given name Apollinaria) and Nadezhda. They had a governess, and a dancing teacher.[7]
Suslova in 1867

Polina attended a finishing school, and when the Suslov family moved to Saint Petersburg, Polina entered the Saint Petersburg State University. She enjoyed the political struggle, demonstrations, and student meetings. She was sympathetic to the radical views of the day, especially regarding women.[11][7]

Lyubov Dostoyevskaya in Dostoyevsky as Portrayed by His Daughter described her as a young provincial woman, whose “rich relatives were able to sent her enough money to live comfortably in Saint Petersburg. Every autumn she entered the University as a student, but never actually studied or pass any exams. However, she attended lectures, flirted with the students, … forced them to sign petitions, participated in all political demonstrations, … sang La Marseillaise, scolded the Cossacks and behaved provocatively.”[12]
[edit] Relationship with Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1863

In 1861, Suslova attended classes taught by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, already a renowned writer, whose lectures were very popular among young people. At that time, Dostoyevsky was 40, and she was 21. Lyubov Dostoyevskaya recalled that Suslova “spun around Dostoevsky and tried in every way to please him. Dostoevsky did not notice her. Then she wrote him a love letter”.[12] Another version is that Suslova brought her writing to Dostoyevsky and asked for advice. Her story was bad soDostoyevsky, attracted to a beautiful young girl, had promised to teach her writing.[13] Yet another explanation is that Dostoyevsky had read Suslova’s story, liked it and wanted to meet the author.[14]

The relationships were difficult and painful for both sides but mostly for Dostoyevsky.[8] He was exhausted by work, poor health, and financial distress.[15] Furthermore, Suslova was imperious, manipulative, jealous,[7][16] and constantly demanded that he divorce his “consumptive wife” Maria Isayeva[11]. Dostoyevsky later noted that she was “a sick selfish woman”, whose “selfishness and self-esteem were colossal” and who did not tolerate any imperfection in other people. After Maria’s death in 1865, he proposed to Suslova, but she declined.[17]

Unlike Dostoyevsky’s second wife Anna Snitkina, Polina Suslova rarely read his books, did not respect his work, and regarded him as a simple admirer. Dostoyevsky wrote her once: “My dear, I am not inviting you to a cheap essential happiness.” After their breakup, she burned compromising papers, including their letters. In 1867, Fyodor Dostoyevsky married Anna Snitkina.[18]
[edit] Later life

Vasily Rozanov met Suslova when he was a schoolboy, and she was already over thirty years old. He fell in love at first sight.[7] Rozanov knew her as a former mistress of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which was enough to spark his interest in her, because Dostoyevsky was the writer whom Rozanov admired most.[19] Rozanov made only a short entry in his diary: “Meeting Apollinaria Prokofyevna Suslova. My love for her. Suslova loves me, and I love her very much. She is the most wonderful women I’ve ever met.” They had an affair for three years, married on November 1880.[7][4] She was 40 at that time, and he was 24.

They departed in 1886.[4] Their life together was a torture for Rozanov, according to his personal correspondence[7]. Suslova made public scenes of jealousy and flirted with his friends at the same time. Rozanov’s daughter, Tatyana, stated in her memoirs: “Suslova mocked him, saying that what he was writing were just some stupid books, insulted him, and finally dumped him”. Suslova broke up with Rozanov twice, but he always forgave her and begged to return home. After they parted, Rozanov admitted: “There was something brilliant (in her temperament) that made me, despite all suffering, love her blindly and timidly.”[7]

After Rozanov met his future wife, Varvara, Polina refused to divorce him for 20 years.

Since the early 1900s Polina Suslova lived alone in Sevastopol.[7] She died in 1918 at the age of 78.

Does she perhaps fall into the any of three categories you mentioned at the top of the post?


And finally for today, a couple of weeks ago I started to post excerpts from Freud’s essay “Dostoevsky and Parricide.” I found this essay last night, which, I think, sums the whole thing up pretty nicely:



Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (1821-1881) Existentialist writings are universally renown for their convincing ability to portray characters of a complex psychological nature. It is, therefore, no wonder, then, that in Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) 1929 article ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide,’ the founder of psychoanalysis proclaims, “‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is the most magnificent novel ever written.” Indeed, it is in this final masterpiece by Dostoevsky that the author successfully culminates the entire breadth of his talent by firmly establishing his mature style. Despite Freud’s admiration, however, he often criticizes Dostoevsky and the fact that he threw away “the chance of becoming a great teacher and liberator of humanity and made himself one with their jailors.” Overall though, Freud connects with ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ primarily because of the novel’s unsurpassed psychological insight, its reinforcement of the Oedipus Complex and, in spite of Freud’s skepticism of free will that was essential for Dostoevsky’s Christianity, both thinkers reluctantly liberate the individual from predestination through their introspective conclusions on man’s conflicted nature.

There can be no doubt, however, that the primary reason for Freud’s undying praise of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ lies within the novel’s ability to convincingly illustrate Freud’s principal theory of the Oedipus Complex. Freud notes “It can scarcely be owing to chance that three of the masterpieces of the literature of all time the ‘Oedipus Rex’ of Sophocles, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ should all deal with the same subject, parricide. In all three, moreover, the motive for deed, sexual rivalry for a women, is laid bare.” Indeed, father figures are ubiquitous throughout the entire novel and Fyodor Pavlovich, inappropriately enough, even goes as far to lay out explicit details to his sons of the bedroom escapades he had with their mother, Sophia. Rebellion against paternal authority is also aptly evident throughout the novel. Ivan, alone, is guilty of physically assaulting his biological father, his adopted father, and even Ilyusha’s father. The most obvious allusion to the Oedipus Complex, however, lies within Dmitri’s rivalry with his father, Fyodor, for the beautiful Grushenka, as well as in the following accusations that Dmitri even murdered his own father.

While Fyodor Pavlovich’s bastard son, Smerdyakov, is the one physically responsible for the death of the patriarch, all sons are universally implicated, in some way or another, of the heinous crime. For one, Dmitri had already made explicit plans to kill the unpopular father. It was, also, only through Ivan’s cold logic that Smerdyakov was even able to convince himself to commit the crime in the first place. In fact, Ivan suffers a complete psychological breakdown when he realizes his direct involvement in the final demise of their father. Freud was sure to point out “It is a matter of indifference who actually committed the crime; psychology is only concerned to know who desired it emotionally and who welcomed it when it was done.” As an entity both sidelined and unacknowledged, Smerdyakov represents the unconscious force that only fulfilled the primal desire to murder the father. In front of an entire judicial courtroom, the intellectual Ivan elucidates the basic fact “everyone wants his father dead. Viper devours viper… If there were no parricide, they’d all get angry and go home in a foul temper.” Even the righteous Alyosha is guilty through negligence of his family’s precarious position but also, as a devout Christian, he has to carry the burden of the other’s sins as well.

In ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide,’ Freud went far beyond a mere analysis of his favorite book to analyze Dostoevsky, the man himself, so as to attain a more comprehensive understanding of the creative source behind the beloved masterpiece. Dostoevsky’s fervent conviction that suffering is the necessary pathway to salvation is highly indicative of the writer’s own deep-seated masochism. In ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,’ Freud defines masochism as a perverse state in which “satisfaction is conditional upon suffering physical or mental pain.” As both Dostoevsky and Freud knew, all to well, it is a bewildering paradox that one can obtain both pleasure and pain, simultaneously, from the same cause. The oxymoron questions causality itself and endows the observer with a brief glimpse into the abysmal complexity of the human mind. It is the overall suffering of innocent children, however, which is at the root of Ivan’s inability to reconcile a benevolent God within an apparently indifferent world of pain. Alyosha simply responds to Ivan’s questions of faith by murmuring “I want to suffer, too.” The desire to suffer remains in accordance with Existentialist doctrine that asserts happiness is not, necessarily, a goal worthy of aspiration because, in reality, happiness is only a form of stagnant contentment. The Christian Kierkegaard, one of the forefathers of Existentialism, swore if God gave him the choice between, on the one hand, a life of ease and, on the other hand, a life of continuous struggle, he would promptly choose the enriching difficulties of the latter. Indeed, it is a curious fact that the central object of Kierkegaard’s, Dostoevsky’s, and Alyosha’s fanatical Christianity is the cross, which is, by all means, a torture device to enhance suffering.

Here, too, in Dostoevsky’s devout Christianity we see, yet another, father and son relationship which Freud explicates more thoroughly in his 1913 essay ‘Totem and Taboo.’ Freud insists there is “no doubt that in the Christian myth the original sin was one against God the Father” and even goes as far to state that Christ “himself became God, beside, or, more correctly, in place of, the father. A son-religion displaced the father-religion. As a sign of this substitution the ancient totem meal was revived in the form of communion, in which the company of brothers consumed the flesh and blood of the son – no longer the father.” ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is not only reminiscent of Christ’s life but of also Christ’s own parable of the prodigal son who returned home after rejecting his own overbearing father. Freud explains the incessant rebellion perpetuated between the generations is an essential component of natural progression and, earlier on in his career, he had labeled it “the family romance.” It is easy to see how the seminal ideas of paternal rebellion found in the “family romance” would eventually mature into Freud’s more complicated theory of the Oedipus Complex. Perhaps the pagan Oedipal myth attains it most eloquent Christian analogy within the very opening lines of ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ Later on in the novel, Zosima recites this biblical passage again to Alyosha when he tells him, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Successful propagation seems to thrive on, and even require, the downfall of the ancestral precedent and, accordingly, it is only through the sacrifice of the prophet Christ that his followers are ‘saved’ and can flourish.

Ivan composes his own story of Christ entitled ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ which he narrates to Alyosha in the chapter of the same name. Freud shows particular admiration for this poem, claiming it as “one of the peaks in literature of the world,” which “can hardly be valued too highly.” Basically, in Ivan’s fictitious poem, the second-coming of Christ is not fully welcomed when the messiah returns to earth during the sixteenth-century Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor, the leader of the Church, feels that the faithful do not need Christ because the Church already provides them with everything they need and, therefore, frees them from any burdensome decisions. The Grand Inquisitor concludes “nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom!” The statement echoes Existentialism’s chief promoter, Sartre, and his claim that humanity is “condemned to be free” because we are thrown into a world not of our own making, yet we are responsible for every little thing we do. Freedom is irrevocably bound to accountability.

The story of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ has numerous parallels throughout the novel, especially when Dmitri is imprisoned in the twelfth and final book ‘A Judicial Error.’ It is not completely irrelevant that ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ comes to its climax in a courtroom scene that takes great pains to publicly detail the deepest recesses of the mind. Consequently, Dostoevsky brings his customary descriptive narration of the interior to the forefront of the entire story. In fact, an entire chapter is referred to as ‘Psychology at Full Steam.’ The prosecutor and defense attorney are both talented psychologists and bend psychology to justify each of their opposing arguments. Here, Dostoevsky’s concern with the decision-making process in the individual is clearly laid out for the reader but, at the same time, Dostoevsky also exposes psychology’s unreliability. Freud cannot help but notice “this famous mockery of psychology” and especially the quote that psychology “is a knife that cuts both ways.” In the chapter ‘Confession. In verse,’ the skeptical character of Dmitri clearly recognizes that “man is broad, even too broad” and Dostoevsky, overall, also seems reluctant of the ultimate capabilities of psychology.

Freud should have taken more heed to Dostoevsky’s lead and realized that any attempt to truly comprehend the mind is inherently futile because, in the end, it is always obscured by the unconscious. As a result, Freud’s theories often conflict back and forth between, on the one hand, asserting the existence of the unconscious and, on the other hand, establishing psychoanalysis as a science capable of accounting for every arbitrary thought, in a deterministic fashion. In Freud’s second introductory lecture he strictly states that there are no “occurrences so small that they fail to come within the causal sequence of things” and “Anyone thus breaking away from the determination of natural phenomena, at any single point, has thrown over the whole scientific outlook on the world.” This Enlightenment faith in science, as the ultimate authority, misled Freud not to take full advantage of his remarkable unearthing of the unconscious as the mysterious source of our being, albeit as an inaccessible source. Little did Freud realize that uncertainty, which epitomizes the unconscious, would gone on to define the rest of science in the twentieth-century, as seen in such landmark discoveries as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Chaos Theory, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and all of Quantum Theory. Freud’s predicament was much like that of Einstein, who fathered both of the fundamental, yet conflicting, Theories of Relativity and Quantum Physics. In what, today, many experts consider the tragedy of his career, Einstein, too, was reluctant to accept the uncertainty of Quantum Theory, in favor of the precise elegance presented by his first prodigy, the Theory of Relativity. Often perturbed by philosophy’s continual correlation of the mind with mere conscious thought, Freud set out to defuse these traditional notions. Freud’s subsequent work, which implied that there is an integral part of our self that we don’t know of, imploded Descartes’ pillar “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”) and, therefore, undermined the very basic foundations of Modern philosophy itself. The ensuing crisis of knowledge resulted in our Postmodern condition.

On this matter, the writings of Dostoevsky are quite successful in emphasizing the inexplicable nature of the human condition. Several decades later, the Existentialists would refer to the random and indifferent facts of life as ‘the absurd.’ Indeed, the scholarly Ivan teaches Alyosha, “The absurd is only too necessary on this earth. The world stands on absurdities.” Accordingly, there is no rhyme, nor reason, for the chance events that constantly bombard an individual throughout life. In ‘The Uncanny,’ Freud explains it is exactly this erratic assault on the senses that conjure up the illusion of the self. He goes on to say that one should always be aware of “all the strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all of our suppressed acts of violition, which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will.” Perhaps, by this, Freud seems to think that if people were in complete harmony with the rest of the universe there would be no need to perceive one’s self as unique. The only certainty is uncertainty and, therefore, any probable reliability springs from the stream of consciousness within. Oppressive external assaults on man’s senses always inevitably force him out of the agenda of the universe. However, nothing exists independently and so, therefore, it seems as if any assumption that man exists apart from nature is irrational. This only reinforces Friedrich Schelling’s mantra that man is simply nature which has finally achieved self-realization. Freud notes “the factor of repression enables us, futhermore, to understand Schelling’s definition of the uncanny as something which ought to have remain hidden but has come to light.” The uncanny shatters preconceived notions when a seemingly unique subject is reflected in what it is opposed against. Perhaps, it is this need to establish one’s originality that induces the ominous desire to eradicate one’s forebearer.

In the end, though, the psychological reconstructions that the attorneys present in the climatic scenes of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ seem plausible enough but, in reality, none of them accurately explain ‘the truth.’ Much like the smooth-talking attorneys, Freud is also guilty of a “judicial error” by conforming his so-called ‘scientific’ explanations according to his liking, despite the actual reality of things. Waves are often perceived but, beneath, there is only an abyss. Freud’s model of a mind conflicted upon itself, however, did enable mankind to finally escape the clutches of determinism in a way that oddly mirrors Dostoevsky’s own personal belief that His internal strife would ultimately grant him His salvation and, therefore, necessitated His Free Will.

More tomorrow.

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“Suppose he did murder him — there are fathers and there are fathers!”

The Brothers Karamazov
More on the Epilogue
by Dennis Abrams

For all of Dostoevsky’s strengths as a novelist, I’m still not sure that he’s able to portray a fully convincing female characters, at least among his heroines. Is Katerina Ivanovna believable, or even, to the degree that his male characters are, understandable? I’ll grant that his supporting female characters, like Madame Khokhlakov or even Ilyusha’s mother in Karamazov are memorable, as, let’s say, the pawnbroker in C&P, or Stavrogin’s mother in Demons, but it seems that his heroines; Sofya, Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya Epanchin, Lizaveta Nikolaevna, and Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka and Lise, fall into one of three categories: they’re either punishing themselves, punishing others, or doing both at the same time. Thoughts?

From Joseph Frank:

“The jury retires, and while the courtroom waits for its decision, the narrator sets down snatches of conversation among the public. Everyone, it seems, was convinced of an acquittal despite the weight of the evidence. Many believed he would get off because, as one official said, ‘suppose he did murder him — there are fathers and there are fathers!” These choral voices seem to justify Ippolit Kirillovich’s opening statement that murder is now taken as a matter of course in Russia. Like the public, Fetyukovich was now convinced that he had won the case, but after an hour’s deliberation the jury returned to find Dimitry guilty on all counts and, even worse, made no recommendation for mercy. During the indescribable hubbub in the courtroom, the narrator recalls one exclamation: ‘Well, our peasants have stood firm!’

The culmination of this central plot action thus creates a mixed impression — one both negative and positive. An obvious ‘miscarriage of justice’ (the title of Book 12) has occurred on the highest level, though Dimitry has inwardly accepted the justice of suffering for his parricidal impulses. but, ‘the peasants have stood firm’ against justifying the murder of a father for any reason, thus upholding the ‘mystic’ sanctity of the moral religious law that Dimitry had violated in thought if not in deed.

The epilogue is composed of two episodes, one detailing the relations between Ivan, Katerina, and Dimitry, the other between Alyosha and the group of boys who had clustered around the beside of the ailing Ilyusha. Ivan’s future remains unknown, though he is left in the care of Katerina, and this uncertainty was no doubt intended to sustain interest for the next volume. Dimitry has fallen ill with a ‘nervous fever’ and is waiting to be sent to Siberia; whether he will escape along the way is left in doubt. Dimitry has concluded that he is too weak to bear the burden that, in a moment of rapture, he had believed he could assume: ‘I am not able to resign myself. I wanted to sing a ‘hymn;’ but if a guard speaks to me, I haven’t the strength to bear it.’ Alyosha agrees that ‘you are not ready, and such a cross is not for you,’ that is, the cross of an imitatio Christi, the acceptance of punishment by an innocent as expiation for the sins and injustices of others. Dimitry had wished to make himself ‘another may by suffering,’ and had in fact gone a long way toward becoming that ‘other man’ spiritually. Alyosha assures him that if ‘you only remember the other man always, all your life and wherever you escape to…that will be enough for you.’ The disciple of Zosima is prepared to break the letter of the law by conniving in Dimitry’s possible escape so as to avert an obvious injustice and a human tragedy.

The book ends with the funeral of little Ilyusha. No one but Dickens can rival Dostoevsky’s well-known ‘philanthropic’ manner here, as he depicts the anguish and despair of the desolate Captain Snegiryov and his afflicted family. Twelve of Ilyusha’s schoolmates, gathered around his bier, were soon joined by Alyosha, and this symbolic number provides a Christological aura to the pathos of the scene. Kolya, foremost among the boys as usual, exclaims about Dimitry: ‘So he will perish an innocent victim for the truth — though ruined his is happy!’ Astonished at this reaction, Alyosha objects, ‘but not in such a cause, and with much disgrace and such horror.’ Kolya agrees, but then continues, ‘I would like to die for all humanity, and as for disgrace, I don’t care about that…I respect your brother!’ Dostoevsky had emphasized this desire to ‘die for humanity,’ to sacrifice oneself for ‘the truth,’ as typical of the new generation of the 1870s, and perhaps we catch a glimpse here of what he intended the future to hold for both Kolya and Alyosha.

the boys pass the stone under which Ilyusha had wished to be buried, and here Alyosha, addressing them as ‘my dear, dear, children,’ explains that he will soon part from them. But he asks them to make a pack never to forget Ilyusha or one another, ‘whatever happens to us later in life.’ He urges them to remember ‘how good it was once here when we were all together united by a good and kind feeling.’ Alyosha then proclaims, ‘there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood and home.’ A ‘good and sacred memory’ of this kind is the best protection against the evil that may arrive, and will remain so no matter how badly some among them may go astray.

Alyosha’s words grip the hearts of his young listeners, and when the boys promise to remember, shouting at the same time, ‘Karamazov,we love you,’ Alyosha adds, ‘And may the dear boy’s memory live eternally!’ The mention of eternity impels Kolya to ask whether ‘It is true what’s taught in religion,’ that a bodily resurrection will occur and we ‘shall live and see each other again, all, Ilyushechka too!’ Alyosha answers, ‘half laughing, half ecstatic’: ‘Certainly we shall all arise again, certainly we shall all see each other.’ The tragedy of the Snergiryovs thus vanishes into ‘a sacred memory’ that will guard against evil in the future; and death is overcome by the Christian hope of resurrection — when, as Alyosha promises, ‘we shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened.’ The book ends on this boyish note of innocence and optimism, providing a welcome relief, similar to the epilogues of eighteenth-century plays, to all the tragic tensions that have gone before. And just as those earlier examples pointed to the moral of the story, so Dostoevsky reaffirms, in a naively acceptable and touching form, the basic beliefs and moral-religious convictions he has sought to champion so peerlessly all through his greatest novel.”

More to come…

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