“Darkness and ruin! There’s nothing to explain, you’ll learn it all in due time. A stinking back lane and an infernal woman!”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book Three, Chapter Eleven
by Dennis Abrams

“One More Ruined Reputation” “From town to the monastery was not more than half a mile or so.” Alyosha, hurrying home to the monastery, when, “a figure came into view…”Your money or your life!” — it’s Dmitri. Alyosha begins to cry. “Oh, Dmitri! Father’s blood today…” Dmitri explains that he had been hiding under the willow tree, waiting for Alyosha, had considered suicide, “Here is the willow, there is a handkerchief, a shirt, I can make a rope right now, plus suspenders, and — no longer burden the earth, or dishonor it with my vile presence!” but hearing Alyosha coming, “my dear little brother, whom I love more than anyone in the world, and who is the only one I love!” reconsiders and decides to “amuse” Alyosha by giving him a scare. Alyosha tells Dmitri that he’d found Katerina Ivanovna together with Grushenka, and explains “everything that had happened to him from the very moment he entered Katerina Ivanovna’s house.” Dmitri “listened silently, staring point blank at him with horrible fixity, but it was clear to Alyosha that he already understood everything and comprehended the whole fact.” Dmitri’s face goes from grim to menacing, before it “suddenly dissolved in the most irrepressible, genuine laughter. He literally dissolved in laughter…” Dmitri’s glee at the fact that Grushenka didn’t kiss Katerina’s hand, “Infernal woman! She’s the queen of all infernal women the world can imagine!” Dmitri “sees” Katerina clearer than ever, “I can conquer all, all is in my power; I can bewitch Grushenka, too, if i like…Do you think she first kissed Grushenka’s hand with some purpose, out of cunning calculation? No, she really and truly fell in love with Grushenka — that is, not with Grushenka but with her own dream, her own delusion — because it was her dream, her delusion!” Had Dmitri offended Katerina by telling Grushenka the story about the loan, that she ‘went secretly to her gentlemen to sell her beauty”? Dmitri calls himself a scoundrel, says farewell to Alexei, “You take your road and I’ll take mine. And I don’t want to see you anymore until some last moment…,” before warning him in one final confession that “a horrible dishonor is being prepared…nothing, nothing can compare in baseness with the dishonor I am carrying…which is being enacted and carried out, and which it is in my power to stop, I can stop it or carry it out,…And know then, that I will carry it out and will not stop it…Don’t pray for me, I’m not worthy of it, and it’s unnecessary…I don’t need it at all!” Alyosha returns to the ‘safety’ of the monastery, “Here was quiet, here was holiness, and there — confusion, and a darkness in which one immediately got lost and went astray…” Father Zosima’s failing health, his intention to take communion the next morning for the last time, his concern for Alyosha. Alyosha goes to sleep “on the hard, narrow leather divan he always slept on, and had for a long time now, every night, bringing only a pillow. As for the mattress his father had shouted about, he had long ceased sleeping on it…” In his prayers, Alyosha did not ask for explanation, “but only thirsted for joyful tenderness…” Before going to sleep, he reads the letter from Lise, the crippled daughter of Madame Khokhlakov, in which she proclaims her love for Alyosha, “I have loved you ever since childhood, in Moscow, when you were nothing like you are now, and I shall love you all my life. I have chosen you with my heart, to be united to you, and to end our life together in old age. Of course, on the condition that you leave the monastery,” and begs him to come see her the next day. Alyosha’s surprise, his soft and sweet laughter (is laughing a sin?) followed up by more softly happy laughter. The confusion in his soul passes.

1. The title of the chapter “One More Ruined Reputation.” Whose reputation is it referring to?

2. I was struck by the contrast between Dmitri’s earlier “…how am I to cling forever to Mother Earth” with today’s “…I can make a rope right now…and — no longer burden the earth, or dishonor it with my vile presence!”

3. And I had to laugh at Lize’s proclamation of love for Alyosha, vowing to spend her life with him with one stipulation, “Of course, on the condition that you leave the monastery.”

From James Wood’s highly recommended How Fiction Works. One of our faithful readers, Catherine, asked about the need that many of Dostoevsky’s characters have to punish or humiliate themselves. This excerpt suggests a possible reason:

“…Dostoevsky, writing between the 1840s and 1881, and a keen reader of the French, would become an even greater novelist of this kind of pride and abasement. There is a direct link from Rousseau to Diderot to Dostoevsky.

In a famous scene in Notes From Underground, published in 1864, the narrator, an insignificant but proudly rebellious outcast, has an encounter with an impressive-looking cavalry officer in a tavern. The officer, blocked by the narrator, casually picks him up and moves him out of the way. The narrator is humiliated, and can’t sleep for his dreams of revenge. He knows that this same officer walks every day down the Nevsky Prospect. The narrator follows him, ‘admiring’ him from a distance. He determined that he will walk in the opposite direction and that when the two meet, he, the narrator, will not budge an inch. But whenever the encounter arrives, he panics, and moves out of the way just as the officer strides past. At night he wakes, obsessively turning over the question: ‘Why is it invariably I who swerves first? Why precisely me and not him?’ Eventually he holds his ground, the two men brush shoulders, and the narrator is overjoyed. He returns home singing Italian arias, feeling properly avenged. But the satisfaction lasts only a few days.

Dostoevsky was the great analyst — in a sense, almost the inventor — of the psychological category that Nietzsche called ressentiment. Again and again, Dostoevsky shows how pride is really very close to humility, and how hate is very close to a kind of sick love, in just the way that Rameau’s nephew [Diderot] is far more dependent on the existence of his famous uncle than he will actually admit to, or in the way that Julien both loves and hates Madame de Renal and Mathilde. [Stendhal]. In the Navesky Prospect anecdote, the weaker man loathes but ‘admires’ the officer — and in a sense loathes him because he admires him. His impotence has less to do with his actual circumstances than with his imaginary relation to the officer, which is one of impotent dependence. Dostoevsky would call this psychological torment the ‘Underground,’ meaning a kind of poisonous, impotent alienation, a chronic instability of self, and a vaunting pride that at any moment might unexpectedly crash into its inverse — cringing self-abasement.”

(Footnote: “Dostoevsky’s analysis of ressentiment has turned out to have great prophetic relevance for the troubles we currently find ourselves in. Terrorism, clearly enough, is the triumph of resentment (sometimes justified); and Dostoevsky’s Russian revolutionaries and underground men are essentially terroristic. They dream of hard revenge on a society that seems to soft to deserve sparing. And just as the narrator of Notes from Underground ‘admires’ the cavalry officer he hates, so perhaps a certain kind of Islamic fundamentalist both hates and ‘admires’ Western secularism, and hates it because he admires it (hates it, in Dostoevsky’s psychological system, because it once did him a good turn — gave him medicine, say, or the science that could be used to crash planes into buildings.”)

“Nothing in fiction, not even in Diderot and Stendhal, quite prepares one for Dostoevsky’s characters. In The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, the clownish Fyodor Pavlovich is about to enter a dining room at the local monastery. He has already acted terribly in the cell of the saintly monk, Father Zosima. Fyodor decides that he will act scandalously in the dining room also. Why? Because, he thinks to himself, ‘it always seems to me, when I go somewhere, that I am lower than everyone else and that they all take me for a buffoon — so let me indeed play the buffoon, because all of you, to a man, are lower than I am.’ And as he thinks this, he remembers being asked once why he hated a certain neighbor, to which he had replied: ‘He never did anything to me it’s true, but I once played a most shameless nasty trick on him, and the moment I did it, I immediately hated him for it.’

Dostoevskyan character has at least three layers. On the top layer is the announced motive: Raskolnikov, say, proposes several justifications for his murder of the old woman. The second layer involved unconscious motivation, those strange inversions wherein love turns to hate and guilt expresses itself as poisonous, sickly love. thus Raskolnikov’s mad need to confess his crime to the police and to Sonia the prostitute presages Freud’s comment on the action of the superego: ‘In many criminals,’ writes Freud, ‘especially youthful ones, it is possible to detect a very powerful sense of guilt which existed before the crime, and is therefore not its result but its motive.’ Or in the case of Fyodor Karamazov and his desire to punish the neighbor to whom he was once nasty, you could say that guilt is causing him, unconsciously, to be horrible to his neighbor; his behavior recalls the quip — both funny and deadly serious — of the Israeli psychoanalyst who remarked that the Germans would never forgive the Jews for the Holocaust. The third and bottom layer of motive is beyond explanation and can only be understood religiously. These characters act like this because they want to be known; even if they are unaware of it, they want to reveal their baseness; they want to confess. they want to reveal the dark shamefulness of their souls, and so, without knowing quite why, they act ‘scandalously’ and appallingly in front of others, so that people ‘better’ than they can judge them for the wretches they are.”

It is important to note, I think, that Proust felt that all of Dostoevsky’s novels might fittingly have had the same title: Crime and Punishment

Tuesday’s Reading:

Part II, Book Four, Chapters One and Two


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3 Responses to “Darkness and ruin! There’s nothing to explain, you’ll learn it all in due time. A stinking back lane and an infernal woman!”

  1. Minnikin says:

    You asked about the title of the chapter “One More Ruined Reputation” and whose reputation was it referring to?

    Does it not refer to Lise? In her letter (page 159) she writes ‘Now the secret of my reputation, ruined perhaps forever, is in your hands’.

  2. lynnibug says:

    I am amazed at the depth of the characters and how they reveal that which we don’t want to accept in ourselves. It brings to mind a song lyric… “everything that I believe is wrong with you is wrong with me”. I think each of us can see a little bit of ourselves in many of the characters if we are totally honest.

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