“There would be no civilization at all if God had not been invented.”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book Three, Chapters 6-10
by Dennis Abrams

“Smerdyakov” Fyodor and Ivan are still at table, Grigory and Smerdyakov standing near, when Alyosha arrives. Cognac, liqueur, or coffee? Smerdyakov as Balaam’s ass, “terribly unsociable and taciturn…he had an arrogant nature and seemed to despise everyone.” Lack of gratitude. Smerdyakov at twelve: “The Lord God created light on the first day, and the sun, moon, ,and stars on the fourth day. Where did the light shine from on the first day?” Fyodor’s changing views of Smerdyakov. Learning to be a chef. His lack of interest in men or women, turning pale at the thought of marriage. The Contemplator, Smerdyakov lost in thought, “greedily storing up his impressions, almost without knowing why himself.” “Disputation” “But Balaam’s ass suddenly spoke.” An odd topic: the case of the Russian soldier stationed near the border, captured by “Asians” who under threat of death refuses to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam, “was flayed alive, and died glorifying and praising Christ.” Smerdyakov insists that there would have been no sin if the soldier had renounced Christ’s name and his own baptism in order to save his own life. Why? “Because as soon as I say to my tormentors: “No, I am not a Christian and I curse my true god,’ then at once, by the highest divine judgement, I immediately and specifically become anathema, I’m cursed and completely excommunicated from the Holy Church like a heathener, as it were, so that even at that very moment, sir, not as soon as I say it, but as soon as I just think of saying it…I’m excommunicated…And since I’m no longer a Christian, it follows that I’m not lying to my tormentors when they ask am I a Christian or not, since God himself has already deprived me of my Christianity, for the sole reason of my intention and before I even had time to say a word to my tormentors. And if I’m already demoted, then in what way, with what sort of justice, can they call me to account in the other world, as if I were a Christian, about my renunciation of Christ, when for the intention alone, even before the renunciation, I was deprived of my baptism? If I’m not a Christian, then I can’t renunciate Christ, because I’ll have nothing to renounce.” Can an unclean Tartar be punished for not being born a Christian? Grigory is dumbfounded. Smerdyakov challenges Grigory: “in the Scriptures it is said that if you have faith even as little as the smallest seed and then say unto this mountain that it should go down into the sea, it would go, without the slightest delay…sir, trying telling this mountain to go down, not in to the sea…but even just into our stinking stream…and you’ll see for yourself right then that nothing will go down, sir, but everything will remain in its former order and security…And that means that you, goo, Grigory Vasilievich, do not believe in a proper manner…” Fyodor’s delight and promise of a gold piece, “we here are unbelievers only out of carelessness, because we don’t have time: first we’re too beset with business, and second, God gave us too little time, he only allotted twenty-four hours a day, so that there isn’t even time enough to sleep, let alone repent.” What if Smerdyakov ordered the mountain to crush his tormentors and it didn’t? “Over the Cognac” Fyodor orders Grigory and Smerdyakov to leave. Ivan notes that Smerdyakov “has taken to respecting me; he’s a lackey and a boor. Prime cannon fodder, however, when the time comes.” Fyodor notes the Russian peasant should be whipped: “the strength of the Russian land is in its britches.” Fyodor drinks more and more, begins to torment Alyosha. Ivan insists that there is no God and no immortality; Alyosha disagrees. Alyosha insists that Fyodor’s heart is better than his head. Ivan insists he loves Alyosha. Fyodor tells stories about Zosima, and tells Ivan he need to go to Chermashnya. Fyodor insists that there are no ugly women, “the fact alone that she’s a woman, that alone is half the whole thing…” Fyodor tells a story about Alyosha’s mother, sending him into a fit like his mother had done; Ivan reminds Fyodor (who had forgotten) that he had the same mother as Alyosha. Dmitri flies into the room; Fyodor hinds behind the skirt of Ivan’s coat, “He’ll kill me. he’ll kill me!” “The Sensualists” Dmitri, believing Grushenka has come to Fyodor, attacks him, “Dmitri raised both hands and suddenly seized the old man by the two surviving wisps of hair on his temples, pulled, and smashed him against the floor. He even had time to kick the fallen man in the face two or three times with his heel. “Serves him right!” Dmitri cried, gasping. ‘And if I haven’t killed him this time, I’ll come back and kill him. You can’t save him!” Dmitri leaves, Fyodor is put to bed, Ivan says that it would have been easy for Dmitri to kill their father, Alyosha replied “God forbid,” to which Ivan says, “Why ‘forbid?’ Viper will eat viper, and it would serve them both right,” while adding that he will not allow a murder to be committed. Fyodor’s joy at the thought that Grushenka will not marry Dmitri. “…go to Grushenka yourself, or get to see her somehow; find out from her soon, as soon as possible, figure out with your own eyes who she wants to be with, me or him.” Fyodor tells Alyosha that he’ll tell him “a little something” the next day. Ivan wants to meet with Alyosha the next morning. Their handshake. “The Two Together” Alyosha, leaving his father’s home, is close to despair, “which had never happened to him before.” The question that towered over everything like a mountain (and we learned earlier that mountains can’t be moved by faith); “how would it end between his father and his brother Dmitri?” Alyosha goes to see Katerina Ivanovna. Her beauty. “Thank God it’s you at least! All day I’ve been asking God for no one but you! Sit down.” Would Dmitri remain happy with Katerina? Katerina’s “courageous, noble energy, and a certain clear, strong faith in herself.” “He says that he…bows to you, and that he will never come again and…that he bows to you.” How did he use the word “bow?” Was it only in passing, or was it a “sign of bravado?” Katerina knows all. “I want to save him forever.” Her certainty that Dmitri won’t marry Grushenka, “That girl — she’s an angel, do you know that? Do you know it?” Grushenka appears from behind the portiere, “…what stood before [Alyosha was] what seemed at first glance, to be a most ordinary and simple being — a kind, nice woman, with that Russian beauty loved so passionately by so many.” Rather tall, plump, “with a soft, even, as it were, inaudible way of moving her body, and delicate as well…like her voice.” Her plump neck, white complexion, “most wonderful, most abundant dark brown hair, dark sable eyebrows, and lovely gray eyes with long lashes [that] could not fail to make even the most indifferent and absent-minded man somewhere in the crowd, on market day, in the crush, stop suddenly before this face and remember it afterwards for a long time.” It’s childlike openhearted expression. Joyful. It is certain that she will not age well. Katerina’s love for Grushenka, her belief that Grushenka had promised to turn Dmitri down. Grushenka turns on Katerina, “Ah, no, I never gave you my word. It’s you who were saying all that, but I didn’t give my word.” Did Katerina misunderstand her? “Maybe I just promised you something, but now I’m thinking: what if I like him again all of a sudden…That’s how fickle I am…” Grushenka urges Katerina not to love such a fool as she is, and refuses to kiss her hand, “you can keep this as a memory — that you kissed my hand, and I did not kiss yours.” Grushenka tells Katerina she’ll tell Dmitri that she didn’t kiss her hand and they’ll both laugh over it. Katerina turns on Grushenka, calls her “insolent,” a “bought woman” and “a slut.” Grushenka leaves, Katerina falls into the arms of her aunts. Katerina turns on Alyosha, “Why did you hold me back, Alexei Fyodorovich! I’d have beaten her, beaten her!…She should be flogged on a scaffold, by an executioner, with everyone watching!” Katerina calls Dmitri a “scoundrel,” urges Alyosha to go away but to promise to come back tomorrow. Alyosha is given a letter from Madame Khokhlakov.

Wow. There was certainly a lot in those thirty or so pages.

1. I thought Smerdyakov’s religious arguments to be rather…hilarious in their effectiveness. Well…can you move a mountain or can’t you? And I have to say, I really enjoyed Smerdyakov’s arguments.

2. Which was followed up by Fyodor’s growing drunkenness and insults to both Alyosha and Ivan — how could he forget who Ivan’s mother was? And once again, we see the similarity between Alyosha and his mother, the religious “shrieker.”

3. Followed by Dmitri’s dramatic entrance, attack on his father (why did he think Grushenka was there?) further hints of parricide…

4. And then Katerina, our introduction to Grushenka, her turning on poor Katerina, Katerina’s violent outburst (linking her to Dmitri perhaps?)…

5. With of course, Alyosha being the link between them all.

6. And finally, I can never read the name “Grushenka” without thinking about how desperately Marilyn Monroe wanted to play the part in the 1958 film version of Karamazov. (Which featured Lee J. Cobb as Fyodor, Yul Brynner as Dmitri, Richard Basehart as Ivan, Maria Schell as Katerina, and, God help us, William Shatner as Alyosha.)

My appreciation for Smerdyakov doesn’t seem to be universal, however, as seen in this excerpt from Joseph Frank’s biography, Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time

“Attention shifts to Smerdyakov in the next four chapters, this haunting and enigmatic character who inspires pity and repulsion at the same time. Smerdyakov had been sadistic and blasphemously scornful of religion in childhood, someone completely devoid of any natural feeling of gratitude or obligation. These personal traits are ideologically transposed in the discussion that he carries on with Feodor, Ivan, and Grigory. Here he is revealed to be another of the ‘rationalists’ who people the book; and like Feodor’s obscene jests and scoffing sacrileges, Smerdyakov’s ‘rationalism’ is another caricature, in the form of crafty sophistry; of Ivan’s tortured moral rationcinations. Debating the heroism of Foma Danilov, the Russian soldier who had been tortured and put to death by Muslim enemies for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, Smerdyakov argues that the heroic martyr had really been a fool. The mere thought of renouncing Christianity to save his life would have immediately separated him from God and Christ, and he would thus not have committed any sin as a Christian. Weakness of faith is any case the most ordinary and venial of sin, because nobody any longer can command nature to perform such miracles as moving mountains — except perhaps, as he concedes, much to the delight of Feodor, one or two hermits in the desert. The importance of this point is stressed when Feodor asks Alyosha, ‘That’s the Russian faith all over, isn’t it’ and Alyosha agrees, ‘that’s purely Russian.’ Smerdyakov’s casuistry cannot entirely destroy his belief in the sanctity of those two hermits.

Smerdyakov serves as Ivan’s alter ego in the same fashion as Svidrigailov had done for Raskolnikov; he carries Ivan’s theories to their logical and repugnant extreme, and exhibits their distorted and dangerous refraction in a more uncouth and less high-minded nature. But Smerdyakov is also meant to convey more than mere thematic extrapolation. He is a well-marked social type — the peasant who has been uprooted from his community and his group values, who has acquired a smattering of urban culture and manners, and who feels immeasurably superior to his benighted fellow peasants and resentful at his inferior social status. It is among such peasants, Dostoevsky is suggesting, that the destruction of the Christian faith by ‘rationalism’ of the Ivans is most likely to be greeted with admiration and to have the most explosive consequences.

Indeed, he evokes such possibilities in Aesopian imagery when his fictional narrator compares Smerdyakov with a type of peasant ‘contemplative’ depicted in a painting by I.N. Kramskoy. ‘There is a forest in winter, and on a roadway through the forest, in absolute solitude, stands a wandering peasant in a torn caftan and bark shoes.’ He is not thinking but brooding inwardly, ‘contemplating.’ If asked about what was passing through his mind, he would not be able to replay; but ‘probably he had hidden within himself the impression which had dominated him during the period of contemplation.’ And then he ‘may suddenly…abandon everything and go off to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage for his soul’s salvation, or perhaps he will suddenly set fire to his native village, and perhaps do both’ (another instance of the ‘broad’ Russian nature).

Every contemporary reader would know that such a ‘contemplative’ contained a threat of revolution, or at least of a jacquerie, and this suggestion is reinforced a few pages lager in the conversation about Smerdyakov between Feodor and Ivan. Nothing that the lackey is enthralled by Ivan, his father asks, ‘What have you done to fascinate him?’ Ivan answers, ‘Nothing whatsoever,’ but then adds, ‘He’s a lackey and a mean soul. A prime candidate, however, when the time comes.’ From the context, it is understood that this means ‘a prime candidate’ for some sort of uprising, though Ivan also adds, ‘There will be others and better ones…His kind comes first, and better ones after.’ But it is also possible, he continues, that ‘the rocket will go off and fizzle out, perhaps. The peasants are not very fond of listening to these soup makers, so far.’ (Smerdyakov had been sent to Petersburg to learn cooking, and his specialty was soup.) Elsewhere, Ivan directly calls Smerdyakov ‘raw material for revolution,’ thereby providing a distinct social-political subtext to their relation.

Just as Smerdyakov, in ridiculing Danilov, is shown as advocating a betrayal of moral principle, so we see Ivan in the next scene also justifying such a betrayal, though with much less complacency. The discussion with Smerdyakov ends when Dimitry, frantically in search of Grushenka, suddenly invades the room in which the three — Feodor, Ivan, and Grigory — have been talki9ng. Flinging his father to the floor, Dimitry ‘kick[s] him two or three times with his heel in the face.’ Ivan wrestles Dimitry away, helped by Alyosha, and later remarks that ‘if I hadn’t pulled him away, perhaps he’d have murdered him.’ Alyosha exclaims: ‘God forbid’ To which Ivan replies, ‘with a malignant grimace, ‘One viper will devour the other. And serves both of them right, too.’ Ivan declares that, although he would always act to defend the father he hates, ‘in my wishes I reserve myself full latitude in this case.’ He instinctively behaved according to the accepted moral code, but nothing in his thoughts (‘wishes’) would cause him to oppose such a murder; his moral sensibility and his external behavior are thus totally at odds. This scission in his personality will deepen and intensify as the book proceeds, and his statement about ‘the vipers’ will come back to haunt him.

The scene between Katerina and Grushenka in the next chapter echoes Katerina’s relations with Dimitry. Just as with him, she tries to gain control over Grushenka with her condescending ‘magnanimity.’ But she is herself humiliated in the presence of Alyosha by Grushenka’s refusal to be dominated. Grushenka’s turning of the tables nakedly reveals the egoistic roots of Katerina’s ‘kindness’ and ‘generosity’; these are merely the means she uses to attain moral-psychological mastery over others.”

Monday’s Reading:

Book Three, Chapter Eleven

Enjoy. And enjoy your Fourth of July!

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2 Responses to “There would be no civilization at all if God had not been invented.”

  1. Catherine says:

    Checking in to report I’ve caught up with the reading and your posts. I’m enjoying the drama and the humor in the philosophical and moral questions. But wonder why some of the characters, e.g. Dmitri and Katerina, feel the need to punish themselves, for what purpose other than literary license? I have been working on a list of characters — mostly via cut and paste, so not good enough to share, but helps me keep track. Grigory certainly seems to be connected to a lot of the major characters. How can he be so religious and yet such a devoted servant to Fyodor?

    Happy Fourth of July to you too!

    • Catherine:

      Glad you’re keeping up, and glad you’re enjoying the book so far…

      1. A couple of things to consider in regards to your first question about the need of some characters (Dmitri and Katerina) to punish themselves…First off, one thing I think we’ve seen Dostoevsky do time and again is to show us how his characters are behaving/acting before starting to reveal the reasons why. Two, one of the things I think that makes Dostoevsky so oddly modern is that he doesn’t feel the need to spell out people’s motivations — and let’s face it — most of us manage to punish ourselves in one way or another anyway. And three — they’re Russian. (That was a joke. Kind of.) I was actually planning to talk a little about the psychology of Dostoevsky’s characters in my post this evening, which may, hopefully, offer you further insight.

      2. Grigory and his loyalty. As we learned in the first chapter of this book, “In the Servant’s Quarters” after Grigory and his wife were emancipated as serfs, Marfa urged her husband to leave Fyodor, go to Moscow and open “some sort of little shop there,” but he refused because staying with Fyodor was “now their duty.” Their moral duty? Their religious duty? We also know that “Grigory knew that he had an unquestionable influence over his master. He felt it and he was right.” Did he feel responsible for keeping Fyodor from falling over the edge completely? For being there on those nights when he couldn’t sleep?

      Hope this helps.


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