“I don’t know about her matrix, but I’d have let them kill me in the womb, so as not to come into the world at all, miss.”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book Five, Chapter Two
by Dennis Abrams

“Smerdyakov with a Guitar.” “Besides, he had no time.” Alyosha’s need to find Dmitri. Back to the gazebo. “A single male voice suddenly sang a verse in a sweet falsetto, accompanying himself on the guitar…The voice stopped. A lackey tenor, with a lackey trill. Another voice, female this time…” Alyosha determines that the voices belong to Smerdyakov and the “daughter of the house, the one who came from Moscow, wears a dress with a train, and goes to get soup from Marfa Ignatievna.” More serenading from Smerdyakov. Smerdyakov’s shame, “I could have done even better miss, and I’d know a lot more, if it wasn’t for my destiny ever since childhood. I’d have killed a man in a duel for calling me low-born, because I came from Stinking Lizaveta without a father, and they were shoving that in my face in Moscow…” Smerdyakov wishes he’d died in the womb, “so as not to come out into the world at all, miss.” Why was Stinking Lizaveta always referred to as “a wee bit” under five feet tall? The Russian peasant, with his lack of education, “can’t have any feelings at all.” The landlady’s daughter says that Smerdyakov “is just like a foreigner, just like a real noble foreigner.” Smerdyakov says that Ivan is wrong in saying that he’s ‘rebelling, ‘If I had just so much in my pocket, I’d have left long ago,” and goes on to say that “Dmitri Fyodorovich is worse than any lackey, in his behavior, and in his intelligence, and in his poverty, and he’s not fit for anything, but on the contrary, he gets honor from everybody.” Smerdyakov’s resentment of Dmitri. Maria Kondrativena suddenly remarks, “I think duels are so nice.” One last verse. Alyosha makes his presence known, asks if Dmitri will be back soon. Smerdyakov makes clear he’s not responsible for Dmitri, and has, in fact, twice been threatened with death by him. Maria adds, “The other day he said to him, ‘I’ll grind you in a mortar.'” Smerdyakov informs Alyosha that Ivan had sent him to Dmitri’s lodgings to ask him to meet him for dinner at a local tavern — Dmitri was not at home. Alyosha goes off in search of Ivan, who asks him to join him for dinner in his private room.

One question: What exactly does the narrator mean when he describes Smerdyakov’s singing voice as “A lackey tenor, with a lackey trill.?” His reasons to be resentful are becoming more and more clear…

From Robin Feuer Miller, continuing yesterday’s excerpt:

“Numerous real-life sources exist for Ivan, from the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov to the great Russian radical Vissarion Belinsky. But Dostoevsky’s hero, like all the Karamazovs, without exception, is profoundly autobiographical; perhaps those seeds of Ivan’s regeneration, evident in him even at the very moment of his most dramatic renunciation, emanate from the part of him most intimately related to Dostoevsky but transformed by his art. After all, more than 25 years earlier Dostoevsky had written hauntingly to Madame N.D. Fonvizina, the wife of the Decembrist Mikhail Fonvizin, of his own spiritual condition:

‘And not because you are religious, but because I myself have experienced it and felt it, I shall tell you that at such a time one thirsts for faith as ‘the withered grass’ thirsts for water, and one actually finds it, because in misfortune the truth shines through. I can tell you about myself that I am a child of this century, a child of doubt and disbelief, I have always been and shall ever be (that I know), until they close the lid of my coffin. What terrible torment this thirst becomes in my soul, and the stronger it becomes in my soul, the stronger are the arguments against it. And, despite all this, God sends me moments of tranquility, moments during which I love and loved by others; and it was during such a moment that I found within myself a symbol of faith and here is what it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ; and there not only isn’t, but I tell myself with a jealous love, there cannot be. More than that — if someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, indeed, the truth was outside Christ, I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth.’

‘Pro and Contra’ is indisputably Ivan’s book, yet if we look closely, it is Alyosha who, for most of it, is depressed and embarking upon the spiritual crisis that will reach its decisive moment in his own book, Book VII, ‘Alyosha.’ He laments to Lise that his brothers are destroying themselves and others with them, ‘It’s ‘the primitive force of the Karamazovs,’ as Father Paissy said the other day…Does the spirit of God move above that force? Even that I don’t know. I only know that I, too, am a Karamazov…And perhaps I don’t even believe in God.”

We tend to view Alyosha’s spiritual crisis as emanating either from the eloquence and persuasiveness of Ivan’s upcoming description of the unjustified sufferings of children his ‘Rebellion’) or from the despairing bitterness and grief Alyosha experiences when Zosima’s dead body begins to stink. Yet Alyosha’s crisis, these words show us, had already begun before the events that we often attribute to it even occur. Moreover, Alyosha continues in the role that has already been his throughout the novel: he travels the streets and alleys on various missions; he continues, in vain, to hunt for Mitya; he eventually finds Ivan instead.

By three o’clock on the second day of the narrative the sense ‘that a great inevitable catastrophe was about to happen’ has begun to weigh Alyosha down. The narrator-chronicler tells us that Alyosha is ‘very depressed — depressed by suspense and uncertainty’ Thus this sense of impending catastrophe counterbalances the equally powerful expectation of an upcoming miracle. Indeed, a catastrophe possesses, in certain respects, the characteristics of a miracle — in negative form. Each is cataclysmic; each changes one’s sense of what precedes and succeeds it.

Alyosha happens upon Smerdyakov, who, as he had already done in Book III, prefigures in grotesque form the ideas that will shortly sound with complete seriousness. He functions here as a true lackey, possessing a ‘lackey’s tenor and lackey’s song’; by the end of Book V, he stands ready at the gate for Ivan, both as his physical lackey and as the lackey of Ivan’s soul. Alyosha overhears Smerdyakov, who has just been singing a rhymed song, tell the silly former maidservant Marya Kondratyevna, ‘Poetry is rubbish…Consider yourself, who ever talks in rhyme?’ This remark coarsely foreshadows Ivan shyly, even touching calling his poem in prose ‘a ridiculous thing.'”

And from Colin Wilson’s masterpiece, The Outsider

“Ivan’s story is almost static; it lies in his position as an intellectual Outsider, a man who thinks too much to enjoy living. There is something of Raskolnikov’s ruthlessness about Ivan. And his bastard half-brother worships him and apes him; a constant reminder that he is not all intellect, but fifty percent flesh and crass stupidity. Nothing happens to Ivan. Dostoevsky uses him to pose the question: What happens when a man believes that life is unlivable? The answer appears when Ivan is visited by an embodiment of his unbelief, by the Devil.

…we have in The Brothers Karamazov a more conclusive attempt at solution of the Outsider’s problems then any we have yet considered.

…none of the Outsider’s problems is finally solved. Yet the analysis of these problems is on a scale we have not considered before. Here is Ivan, for instance, the thinker, so like Raskolnikov in many ways. Where his detestable and his uncontrolled brother are concerned, he is ruthless. ‘One reptile will devour the other – and serve them both right too.’ He has no sentimentality. Yet he is obsessed by pity, pity for human misery, and with the intellectual question that, since human beings are such a wretched lot, what is there to do except call them beetles and acknowledge yourself one of them? Ivan’s instinct is like Nietzsche’s, towards great health. And, like Nietzsche, he is always aware of the Pro and Contra, Ultimate Yes and Ultimate NO. The chapter called ‘Pro and Contra’, in which Ivan analyses the problems at length, is an Outsider Scripture, a monumental piece of summarizing. Critics are agreed in regarding it as the apex of Dostoevsky’s creative edifice. We must examine this at length…”

And finally, from Dostoevsky: His Life and Work by Konstantin Mochulsky:

“Fyodor Pavlovich’s second son, Ivan, is four years younger than Dmitry. He grew up in a family of strangers as a sullen boy and early manifested brilliant talents. He studies natural sciences at the University, supported himself by giving penny lessons and journal work, wrote an article about the ecclesiastical courts, which attracted universal attention. His arrival at his father’s is surrounded by mystery. Alyosha does not understand how his brother, so proud and isolated, can get on with the unseemly Fyodor Pavlovich. In the scene in the tavern he confesses to Ivan: ‘Brother Dmitry says about you: Ivan is a tomb. I say about you: Ivan is an enigma. Even now you are an enigma to me.” Alyosha feels that Ivan is occupied with something interior and important, is striving for some goal, perhaps, a very difficult one. “He knew perfectly well that his brother was an atheist.” In this enigmatic fashion the author introduces the figure of the ‘learned brother.’ His behavior is incomprehensible and ambiguous: why, being an atheist, does he write about a theocratic organization of society? Why does he suggest to his father that he appeal to Zosima’s mediation and arrange a family council at the monastery? Why does he ‘firmly and seriously’ receive the Elder’s blessing and kiss his hand?

The clear-sighted Zosima at once guesses the young philosopher’s secret. ‘God Frets’ Ivan; his consciousness is torn between faith and disbelief. The Elder says to him: ‘This idea is still not resolved in your heart and frets you…In this lies your great grief, for it urgently demands a solution…But thank the Creator that He gave you a loftier heart, capable of suffering such torture, of ‘thinking exalted thoughts and seeking exalted things, for our dwelling is in the heavens.’

Ivan is not a self-satisfied atheist, but a lofty mind, a ‘loftier heart,’ the martyr of an idea, who experiences lack of faith as a personal tragedy. Zosima concludes with the wish: ‘God grant that your heart may attain the answer while you are still on earth, and may God bless your path.’ The just man blesses the sinner’s ‘incessant striving’ and predicts he will fall and rise up. The author of The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor will not perish like Stavrogin, whose heart was frozen. In the epilogue, Mitya prophesies: “Listen, our brother Ivan will surpass everyone. He ought to live and not us. He will recover.”

Tuesday’s Reading:

Book Five, Chapter Three


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2 Responses to “I don’t know about her matrix, but I’d have let them kill me in the womb, so as not to come into the world at all, miss.”

  1. Minnikin says:

    Matrix is another word for womb, right? A biblical word and yet it ‘sounds’ so current.

    • Not quite womb exactly, but in the sense of something that constitutes the place or point from which something else originates, takes form, or develops: The Greco-Roman world was the matrix for Western civilization.

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