“Verily, I am a lie and the father of a lie!”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book Two, Chapters 1-2
by Dennis Abrams

“They Arrive at the Monastery” “The day was beautiful, warm and clear. It was the end of August.” They arrive at the monastery in two carriages: one “jaunty barouche drawn by a pair of expensive horses,” carrying Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov, and a distant relative, a young man named Pyotr Fomich Kalganov, undecided about his future, taciturn and distracted. In the other, “an ancient, rattling, but roomy hired carriage, with a pair of old pinkish gray horses,” Fyodor Pavlovich and his son Ivan — Dmitri is late. With the exception of Fyodor, none other seemed to have ever been in a monastery before; Muisov “probably had not even been to church for some thirty years.” The last worshipers are leaving the church. Kalganov, a ten-kopeck piece “To be shared equally” and the beggar. Why were no official persons there to meet them? The Tula landowner, Maximov, directs them to the elder Zosima’s residence in the hermitage. They are overtaken by a “little monk in a cowl, very pale and haggard,” who informs that the Father Superior would like them to dine with him after their visit to the Hermitage. Arriving at the hermitage. Fyodor: “Here in the hermitage, there are altogether twenty-five saints saving their souls, looking at each other and eating cabbage.” Fyodor jokes about women being allowed to visit the elder, outside the wall. Fyodor, “So, after all, a little hole has been made from the hermitage to the ladies. Not that I’m implying anything, holy father…” Muisov warns Fyodor, “for the last time I give you my conditions, do you hear? Behave yourself, or I will pay you back for it…” “The Old Buffoon” “They came into the room almost at the same moment as the elder, who emerged from his bedroom just as their appeared.” Two hieromonks, the Father Librarian and Father Paissy, a young fellow, Zosima accompanied by a novice and Alyosha. Bows, blessings and greetings. The room, the leather-covered mahogany settee, “the objects and furniture were crude and poor,” two potted plants, icons, “including a huge one of the Mother of God,” figurines of cherubs, imported engravings, and “several sheets of the commonest Russian lithographs of saints, martyrs, hierarchs, and so on, such as are sold for a few kopecks at any fair.” Muisov’s instant dislike for Zosima, “To all appearances a malicious and pettily arrogant little soul.” Fyodor apologizes for Dmitri’s tardiness, “I myself am always very punctual, to the minute, remembering that punctuality is the courtesy of kings.” Fyodor’s buffoonery: Calling himself a “buffoon,” telling Zosima “And if I sometimes tell lies inappropriately, I do it even on purpose, on purpose to be pleasant and make people laugh.” Mr. Ispravnik. Miusov’s disgust. “In these seconds when I see that my joke isn’t going over, my cheeks, reverend father, begin to stick to my lower gums, it feels almost like a cramp…I won’t deny that there’s maybe an unclean spirit living in me…not a very high caliber one, by the way, otherwise he would have chosen grander quarters…” Diderot and Metropolitan Platon. Miusov loses patience. Nobody had ever acted in the cell like Fyodor, “For perhaps forty or fifty years, from the time of the former elders, visitors had been coming to this cell, but always with the deepest reverence, not otherwise.” What would the elder say? “Alyosha was on the verge of tears and stood downcast.” Ivan’s silence. Miusov apologizes for Fyodor. Zosima tells Miusov not to worry, “I ask you particularly to be my guest,” and tells Fyodor, “Be at ease…and feel completely at home. And above all do not be so ashamed of yourself, for that is the cause of everything.” Fyodor warns Zosima, “You know, blessed father, you shouldn’t challenge me to be in my natural state…you shouldn’t risk it…I myself will not go so far as to be in my natural state.” Fyodor talks about wombs and paps, and about playing the buffoon, “I’m a buffoon out of shame, great elder, out of shame. I act up just because I’m insecure…Teacher!…what should I do to inherit eternal life?” “It was hard even now to tell whether he was joking or indeed greatly moved.” Zosima tells Fyodor to stop drinking and lying, to stop fornicating, to stop his “adoration of money,” to close at least two or three of his taverns, and “Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him…” Fyodor discusses his pleasure in getting offended, the aesthetics of it, and his constant lying, “Verily, I am a lie and the father of a lie!” Was there a saint who, when they finally got his head cut off, got up, took his head and “kissed it belovingly?” Zosima excuses himself for a few minutes, advising Fyodor once again, “do not lie.” Alyosha’s happiness that Zosima wasn’t offended by his father. Was Fyodor testing Zosima?

One question: Is it significant, do you think, that Ivan did not speak a word during that entire scene?

And to backtrack and sum a bit, from Joseph Frank:

“Book 1 opens with a series of short background chapters devoted to the history of the Karamazov family in which Dostoevsky touches on all the main characters and thematic motifs that he will develop so luxuriantly later. Dostoevsky’s characters, always portrayed in a relatively brief time span, obviously cannot undergo a long process of maturation. Instead, they appear to grow in size and stature because, even if a change occurs, it is accomplished through developing latent aspects of the personality already present from the start. This is probably why, as the characters visibly amplify before our eyes, the reader receives so strong an impression of their monumentality.

No such change takes place in the elder Karamazov, who incarnates personal and social viciousness on a grand scale. He totally neglects his three children by his two wives, who grew up as members of the kind of ‘accidental family’ that Dostoevsky increasingly felt to be typical of educated Russian society…Feodor Pavlovich, however, is not simply a monster of wickedness existing solely on the level of his insatiable appetites; he is clever and cynical, educated enough to sprinkle his talk with French phrases, to be familiar with Schiller’s The Robbers, and he is shown to have strange velleities [wishes or inclinations] that suggest some concealed modicum of inner life. On receiving the news of the death of his domineering first wife — the mother of Dimitry — he both shouts with joy and weeps. Years later, though continuing to abuse the monks, he donates a thousand rubles to the monastery to pay for requiems for her soul. This leitmotif of the ‘broad’ Russian nature, swinging between competing moral-psychological extremes, characterizes both Feodor Pavlovich and his eldest son Dimitry, and its symbolic significance will be highlighted toward the end of the book.

The narrator sketches Dimitry’s recklessly dissipated army career, and his expectations that he would inherit money from his mother on coming of age, before moving on to the second brother, Ivan, who possesses the familiar traits of Dostoevsky’s young intellectuals. He is a reserved and morose nature thrown back on itself and brooding over the injustices of the world. The ideas that absorb him now express the core of the Populist problematic. Is it possible to transform the world into a realization of the Christian ideal without a belief in Christ? Ivan’s inner conflict is suggested by the ambiguity surrounding his article on the ecclesiastical courts, which had been applauded both by the Church party and the secularists. The issue was whether such courts should be subordinate to the state (and hence secular) authorities, or whether state courts should ultimately be absorbed by ecclesiastical ones, whose decisions would be made according to the law of Christ. Ivan had presented both extreme positions with equal force, and each party thought it could claim him as an advocate. In reality, his apparent refusal to choose already presents the inner conflict that will ultimately lead to…”

More tomorrow…

Thursday’s Reading:

Book Two, Chapter Two


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