“Let me be cursed, let me base and vile, but let me also kiss the hem of that garment in which my God is clothed…”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book Three, Chapters Three and Four
by Dennis Abrams

“The Confession of an Ardent Heart. In Verse.” “Alyosha, having heard the order his father shouted to him from the carriage as he was leaving the monastery, remained for a while in great perplexity.” Alyosha’s understanding that the order was given “in passion.” Alyosha’s fear of Katerina Ivanovna, “He had been afraid of her ever since he saw her for the first time…a chill ran down his spine the closer he came to her house.” Taking shortcuts to get there, in a neighbor’s garden, he runs into his brother Dmitri Fyodorovich, who is eagerly awaiting him. The ancient gazebo, the half-finished bottle of cognac. Dmitri’s love for Alyosha and a ‘low woman.’ “Have you ever felt, have you ever dreamed that you were falling off a mountain into a deep pit? Well, I’m falling now and it’s not a dream.” Dmitri had wanted to send Alyosha to see first their father and then on to Katerina Ivanovna. Alyosha as an “angel on earth.” “Alyosha, it’s a pity you never hit on ecstasy!” Dmitri begins his confession, quoting from Nekresov, Goethe, and Schiller’s “Ode To Joy.” “Let me be cursed, let me be base and vile, but let me also kiss the hem of that garment in which my God is clothed.” Dmitri compares himself to an insect, and talks of a storm of sensuality.” “The Confession of an Ardent Heart: In Anecdotes” Dmitri continues his confession. His wild life. No need to pay for women, “For me, money is an accessory, a fever of the soul, an ambience.” Dmitri’s love of the back lanes. “I loved depravity. I also loved the shame of depravity. I loved cruelty: am I not a bedbug, an evil insect? In short — a Karamazov!” But he claims that he never gave any of the women away publicly and never defamed them. Alyosha insists he’s the same as Dmitri. “The steps are all the same. I’m on the lowest, and you are above, somewhere on the thirteenth. That’s how I see it, but it’s all one and the same, all exactly the same sort of thing. Whoever steps on the step will surely step on the highest.” Dmitri: “So one had better not step at all.” Dmitri continues his confession: In a kind of military exile in a small town, his colonel took a dislike to him. Dmitri became friends with his older daughter, Agafya,” a dressmaker. The colonel lived in style, and his second daughter Katerina Ivanovna, born of his second wife from a noble family returned home, and the “whole little town seemed to revive.” Dmitri’s desire to avenge himself on the colonel through Katerina. The colonel and the embezzled funds, his failed suicide attempt, Dmitri’s offer to pay the missing money to Katerina if she would “meet” with him. His last minute change of heart and the five thousand roubles — Katerina “like a Russian woman” falls to his feet with her forehead to the ground. Dmitri pulls his sword and kisses it.

I was fascinated by the discussion between Alyosha and Dmitri, quoted above, regarding Alyosha on the first step and Dmitri on the thirteenth…

I wanted to keep today’s synopsis fairly short because I think Joseph Frank’s analysis of these scenes is pretty spot on:

“Books 3 and 4 consist externally of a round of visits that Alyosha makes to various personages. This device allows Dostoevsky to develop more fully such characters as Grushenka, Katerina, and Snegiryov, who have been seen so far only in the distorted and partial images provided by the furious exchanges between Dimitry and his father. With Alyosha as the pivot of these sections, Dostoevsky frames the multiplicity of events, with their abundant displays of human folly, passion, and suffering, within the overarching shadow of the monastery and the impending death of Zosima.

We are first introduced to the history of Smerdyakov, who may, according to rumor, be the illegitimate son of Feodor. His mother was ‘stinking Lizaveta,’ who roamed the town as a ‘holy fool’ and was treated kindly in accordance with Russian religious tradition. She gave birth to Smerdyakov in the garden of the Karamazov dwelling, and her choice of this locale was taken as an indirect suggestion of Feodor’s paternity. The question of how Lizaveta managed, in her condition, to climb over the ‘high, strong fence’ to get into the garden is referred to twice in the crucial scene…[I’ll omit this part of the quote]; and although it is shrugged off by the narrator, the suggestion of an ‘uncanny’ dimension nonetheless imparts a symbolic overtone to this detail.

This question, along with naturalistic details of the Karamazov dwelling, accompanies the presentation of Feodor’s relation with his servant Grigory, who is intensely religious in a fanatic and semi literate peasant fashion: and this attachment offers the first dramatic analogue for the central thematic conflict between reason and faith. Dostoevsky’s aim is to suggest the moral-psychological difficulty of a totally amoral reason to sustain itself, not only on the level of Ivan’s sophisticated ratiocinations, but even on the lowest and most primitive plane of the subconscious psyche. ‘Corrupt and often cruel in his lust, like some noxious insect, [MY NOTE: Dimitri also compares himself to an insect] Feodor Pavlovich was sometimes, in moments of drunkeness, overcome by superstitious terror and a moral convulsion which almost, so to speak, physically shook his soul.’ In such moments, ‘he could not have explained the extraordinary craving for someone faithful and devoted, which sometimes unaccountably came upon him all in a moment.’ The old scoundrel, relying on the solace of Grigory’s slavishly faithful presence, makes an irrational leap of faith in his loyalty and devotion. The relation between the two mimics, in a semiparodistic fashion, the challenge that all the characters are called upon to confront.

These sections are followed by Aloysha’s encounter with Dimitry in three memorable chapters of feverish monologue. Dostoevsky here poetically elevates both sides of Dimitry’s personality — an unbridled nature and dissolute life with a lurking sense of guilt at having given free rein to his sensuality and his rages — to a mythical stature. The snatches of poetry that he quotes from Nekrasov, Goethe, and Schiller interweave with his feverish narrative and constantly expand and amplify its range. The irresistible drive of his passions, as well as the deep disgust at his own degradation, now rise above the purely private and the personal; they become the struggle of humankind from the earliest ages to sublimate and purify its animal lusts and instincts. Dimitry sees himself in the guise of ‘the naked troglodyte’ of Schiller’s ‘The Eleusinian Feast,’ who appears, in the eyes of the Olympian goddess Ceres, as living in a state of hideous savagery:

From the fields and from the vineyards
Came no fruit to deck the feasts,
Only flesh of blood-stained victims
Smoldered in the altar-fires,
And wher’er the greiving goddess
Turns her melancholy gaze,
Sunk in vilest degradation
Man his loathsomeness displays.

The forces at work in him are those of natural man, who can all too easily become a slave to his instincts and his passions. But Dimitry has an obvious sense of nature as God’s handiwork, which cannot be totally evil, and he feels in his own uncomfortable exuberance some of the overflowing joy that Schiller called ‘the soul of all creation.’ Even though Dimitry is incapable of curbing his elemental sensuality, unlike his shameless father, who glories in his depravity, Dimitry longs for some alteration within his own nature that will enable him to attain self-respect. His longing and his dilemma are summed up by Schiller again:

Would he purge his soul from vileness
And attain to light and worth,
He must turn and cling forever
To his ancient mother Earth.

‘But the difficulty is,’ Dimitry exclaims piteously, ‘how am I to cling forever to Mother Earth…I don’t cleave to her bosom…I go on and I don’t know whether I’m going to shame or to light and joy.’ Varying the imagery as the passage continues, and turning from Schiller’s Hellenism to Christianity and the Bible, Dimitry rises to heights of inspired eloquence in the famous passage on humankind’s disquieting capacity to harbor both the ideal of the Madonna and the ideal of Sodom in its breast. ‘Beauty is a terrible thing…Here all the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side…The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.’

It is against this vast cultural-historical background, and the eternal struggle of humankind with the contradictions of its own nature, that the story of Dimitry’s involvement with Katerina unfolds. Only when he is seen as this sort of Antaeus, irrevocably bound to the earth, can the calamity of their engagement be rightly understood. Dimitry had set out to seduce Katerina solely out of wounded vanity at her contemptuous indifference. The very means he chose to bend her to his will, offering to save her father from disgrace as the price of her surrender, was a profound insult; his refusal to take advantage of her when she complied was an even deadlier blow to her pride and gave him the psychological advantage in their relations. Katerina’s only weapon in this struggle of wills was a magnanimity that, in constantly reminding Dimitry of his moral inferiority, would allow her to maintain the upper hand. Life has thus become intolerable for Dimitry under the burden of Katerina’s ‘gratitude,’ which at the same time deprives him of any cause for grievance.”

Thursday’s Reading:

Book Three, Chapter Five


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