The Brothers Karamazov
Book Five, Chapter Three
by Dennis Abrams
“The Brothers Get Acquainted” “Ivan was not, however, in a private room. It was simply a place at the window separated by screens…” Fish soup and tea for Alyosha, “And cherry preserve? They have it here. do you remember how you loved cherry preserve at Polenov’s when you were little?” Ivan’s desire to get reacquainted with Alyosha. Alyosha’s love for Ivan: “I do love you, Ivan. Our brother Dmitri says of you; Ivan is a grave. I say: Ivan is a riddle.” Ivan is still a young man of twenty-three who still wants to live, to drink from “this cup,” but, “by the age of thirty, I will probably drop the cup, even if I haven’t emptied it, and walk away…” Until he turns thirty, Ivan’s “youth will overcome everything,” but after that… Ivan wants to live, “this thirst for life despite all…” Alyosha’s fish soup arrives. Ivan’s desire to go to Europe: I’ll from straight from here. Of course I know that I will only be going to a graveyard, but to the most, the most precious graveyard, that’s the thing! The precious dead lie there…And I will not weep from despair, but simply because I will be happy in my shed tears.” Alyosha understands Ivan: “to want to live with your insides, your guts — you said it beautifully…I think that everyone should love life before everything else in the world.” Love life more than its meaning? Alyosha: “Certainly love it before logic…This is how I’ve long imagined it. Half your work is done and acquired, Ivan: You love life. Now you need only apply yourself in the second half, and you are saved [which is] resurrecting your dead, who may never have died.” Ivan learns about Alyosha’s meeting with Smerdyakov. How will things end between Dmitri and Fyodor? Is Ivan Dmitri’s keeper? “Cain’s answer to God about his murdered brother, eh?” Ivan and Katerina Ivanovna. His lack of love for her. What to talk about? “…we need first of all to resolve the everlasting questions, that is what concerns us. All of young Russia is talking now only about the eternal questions.” Russian boys discussing matters in “some stinking local tavern.” Did Man invent God? “As for me, I long ago decided to think about whether man created God or God crated man.” Can a three-dimensional Euclidean mind understand God? Will two parallel lines “which according to Euclid cannot possibly meet on earth..perhaps meet somewhere in infinity?” “All such questions are completely unsuitable to a mind created with a concept of only three dimensions.” Ivan agrees that he accepts God, “not only willingly, but moreover I also accept his wisdom and purpose, which are completely unknown to us; I believe in order, in the meaning of life, I believe in eternal harmony, in which we are all supposed to merge…” and yet, “now imagine that in the final outcome I do not accept this world of God’s, I do not admit it all, though I know it exists. It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept.” Ivan’s convictions “that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage…Let the parallel lines even meet before my own eyes: I shall look and say, yes, they meet, and still I will not accept it.” Ivan prepares to tell Alyosha why he can’t accept the world.
I’m not sure if it’s Dostoevsky’s intent (I’m never all together certain what that intent is), but, at least at this stage of Ivan’s “book” I’m finding myself agreeing with him…I very much understand the idea of accepting God but not his world. And I loved the idea of the two Euclidean parallel lines, “Let the parallel lines even meet before my own eyes; I shall look and say, yes, they meet, and still not accept it.”
From Colin Wilson’s The Outsider
“Alyosha and Ivan are alone together for the first time. Immediately, without preamble, Ivan states his credo:
‘…If I lost faith in the order of things, if I were convinced that everything is a disorderly, damnable, devil-ridden chaos, if I were struck by every horror of man’s dissolusion — still I should want to live…’
And here is Ivan’s denunciation of the ‘thought-riddled nature’:
‘I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha. I know it is only a graveyard, but it’s a most precious graveyard. Precious are the dead that lie there; every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, such passionate faith in their work…I shall steep my soul in feeling. I love the leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic — it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach.’
‘I think everyone should love live above everything else in the world,’ Alyosha tells him.
‘Love life regardless of the meaning of it?’
‘Certainly — it must be regardless of logic — ‘it’s only then one can understand its meaning.’
We can see how far Dostoevsky has advanced beyond Lawrence’s horror of ‘lack of pattern and purpose in Nature’. Behind man lies the abyss, nothingness; the Outsider knows this; it is his business to sink claws of iron into life, to grasp it tighter than the indifferent bourgeois, to build, to Will, in spite of the abyss. Ivan has self-solved the Outsider’s major problem. Alyosha recognizes this; he tells him:
‘Half your work is done. It only remains to do the other half now.’
‘What other half?’
‘To raise up your dead, who have perhaps not died after all.’
Alyosha is right, but he does not understand the magnitude of the problem of ‘raising up the dead.’ Ivan goes on to explain this. He also has the makings of a monk, for he tells Alyosha:
‘I accept God and I accept his wisdom, his purpose, which are unknowable to us; I believe in the underlying order and meaning of life; I believe in the eternal harmony…I believe in the Word to which the Universe is striving…I seem to be on the right path, don’t I? Yet — in the final result, I don’t accept God’s world.’
From Robin Feuer Miller:
“Moreover, moments before Ivan begins his narrative he voices his rebellion to Alyosha with the conclusion (later picked up by the French existentailists), ‘And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket!’ Yet this powerful moment has also been parodied and distorted already by Smerdyakov: ‘I would have sanctioned their killing me before I was born that I might not have come into the world at all, ma’am.’ Ivan calls the idea of Europe ‘a most precious graveyard.’ Smerdyakov thinks ‘it would have been a good thing if they [the French led by Napoleon] had conquered us.’ Ivan acknowledges that Russians frequently evince a ‘peculiar’ satisfaction in the inflicting of pain. Smerdyakov concludes ‘I hate all Russia.’ Smerdyakov responds to Alyosha’s paraphrase of Gen. 4-9 (‘And the Lord said unto Cain, where is Abel thy brother? and he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?’) ‘How am I to know…It’s not as if I were his keeper’ Smerdyakov here loudly sounds the theme of the repudiation of responsibility that Ivan will reecho three times during the course of Book V.
Each of Ivan’s ideas bristles with complexity and ambivalence; Smerdyakov’s are simple, flat, concrete. Ivan laughs at Alyosha and tells him, ‘It’s wonderful how you can turn words, as Polonius says in Hamlet…You turn my words against me. Well, I am glad.” Alyosha does indeed ‘turn Ivan’s words’ and in doing so uncovers the seed of grace lurking at their heart. But Smerdyakov, another ‘turner of words,’ functions in precisely the opposite way — truly turning Ivan’s words against him, literalizing and enacting their evil kernel. In each case the word itself, like a seed, is an agent both for evil and for good.
From the moment Alyosha joins Ivan at his table in the Metropolitan Tavern their conversation takes on an aura of heady biblical and metaphysical import, tempered by everyday reality. They talk about food (fish soup, cherry jam) — ‘You don’t live by tea alone, I suppose’ prefaces Ivan’s upcoming tale of the Grand Inquisitor and reflects Alyosha’s own Karamazov thirst for life: ‘I am hungry.’
Moreover, Alyosha paraphrases, even plagiarizes — as he has done before and will do again shortly — the ideas of others: he tells Ivan that he is a riddle, thereby echoing Mitya’s pronouncements about both the human condition in general (‘God sets us nothing but riddles’) and Ivan in particular (‘Ivan is a tomb”) Though Mitya is absent, both Ivan and Alyosha had hoped to find him, and his shadow hovers over the ensuing chapter. Moreover, Ivan’s upcoming confession to Alyosha even shares certain features with Dmitri’s triparite confession to Alyosha.”
And finally, from Joseph Frank:
“Formally, the three chapters devoted to Ivan illustrate again that sudden verbal expansion of a character that enlarges his symbolic status and poetic power. Now the coldly conceptual Ivan is consumed by the same passionate thirst for life as Dimitry. Alyosha tells him affectionately during their conversation in the tavern, ‘You are just a young and fresh nice boy, green in fact!’ ‘It’s a feature of the Karamazovs it’s true,’ Ivan replied, ‘that thirst for life regardless of everything you have it no doubt too, but why is it base?’ Of course it can become so, as in old Feodor or Dimitry’s escapades, but it can be a life-sustaining force as well. As Ivan acknowledges, ‘even if I…lost faith in the order of things, were convinced in fact that everything is a disorderly, damnable and perhaps devil-ridden chaos, if I were struck by every horror of man’s disillusionment — still I would want to live, and having once tasted of the cup, I would not turn away from it till I had drained it.’ This loss of faith ‘in the order of things’ is precisely what torments Ivan, but his primordial love for live is powerful enough to counteract the spiriting conclusions of his reason: ‘I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic.’
Enumerating all the endearments that still link him to life, he lists not only nature (‘I love the sickly little leaves as they open in spring, I love the blue sky’) but also ‘the previous graveyard’ of European civilization, filled with the glories of the past, before which he ‘shall fall to the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them.’ Such thoughts and actions may be totally irrational, but ‘it’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s insides, with one’s guts.’ This capacity for an irrational love, whether of nature or the monuments of culture, is the first step toward an understanding of the meaning of life; for such understanding is possible only when the ego is taken beyond itself. To Ivan’s question whether we should ‘love life more than the meaning of it,’ Alyosha replies, ‘Certainly, love it regardless of logic as you say…and it’s only then one can understand the meaning of it.’ But because Ivan’s ‘logic’ had already concluded that life has no meaning, he predicts that when ‘I am thirty…I shall begin to turn aside from the cup, even if I have not emptied it.’ Such words raise the specter of a suicide out of despair, but the emphasis on Ivan’s youthfulness and his ‘longing for life’ hold out hope of other possibilities.
This friendly encounter is placed in the foreground of Chapter 3, but the shadow of an archetypal murder lurks in the background and has already been suggested. Questioned about Dimitry’s whereabouts, Smerdyakov had answered ‘superciliously’: ‘How am I to know…It’s not as if I were his keeper.’ A few pages later, after learning about Ivan’s imminent departure, Alyosha anxiously asks about the quarrel between Dimitry and their father: ‘How will it end?’ And Ivan irritably snaps back, ‘What have I do to with i t? Am I my brother Dimitry’s keeper?’ Then he suddenly smiles ‘bitterly'” “Cain’s answer to God about his murdered brother — wasn’t it. Perhaps that’s what you’re thinking at this moment?’ Both Ivan and Smerdyakov, who echo each other’s thoughts, are thus linked with the murder motif by this biblical reference, which also intimates their subterranean connection.
As the conversation between the two brothers continues, Ivan vehemently challenges Alyosha’s devotion to Zosima’s world of all-embracing forgiveness and overflowing, selfless love. Ivan is struggling inwardly against his own yearning to accept the very worldview he is attacking with such passion. He half admits to himself, ‘quite like a little gentle child,’ that he does not ‘want to corrupt you [Alyosha], or to turn you from your stronghold, perhaps I want to be healed by you’ but this moment of reassuring tenderness is soon swept away. Ivan introduces his famous distinction between ‘Euclidean’ (earthly) and non-Euclidean’ (supernatural) understanding, insisting that, although he is perfectly willing to accept the existence of this non-Euclidean world (and hence of God), his Euclidean understanding refuses to reconcile itself to all the moral horrors of the world created by such a divinity.
Since Ivan does not believe in God as more than a hypothesis, his opinion on this point reflects the same ambiguity that marked his article on church jurisdiction. ‘As for me,’ he says, ‘I’ve long resolved not to think of whether man created God or God man.’ Such a question is ‘utterly inappropriate for a mind created with an idea of only three dimensions’ (and hence Euclidean). Ivan remains neutral on this issue, though perfectly willing to accept all the sublime consequences that flow from postulating the existence of God. Paraphrasing the Gospel of Saint John, he declares, both with deep feeling and a touch of irony, ‘I believe in the underlying order and the meaning of life; I believe in the eternal harmony in which they say we shall one day be blended. I believe in the Word to Which the entire universe is striving, and Which Itself was ‘with God,’ and Which Itself is God, and so on, and so on, to infinity.’ But to profess these beliefs as more than hypotheses would mean possessing a faith that transcends reason — a faith that Ivan is not only unable but also morally unwilling to muster even if he could manage to do so. What he desires is that such ecstatic expectations should justify themselves before the bar of his Euclidean understanding, of his earthly reason — and this, obviously, they cannot do.”
1. I think I’m Ivan.
2. Are these posts helping with your understanding of these chapters?
3. And just so you know my working process on these posts — I read the day’s chapter(s), post the synopsis and my initial thoughts and reactions, then look for other essays etc., about the day’s reading, things that help me to understand, although different critics obviously have very different opinions, what Dostoevsky was striving for.
Book Five, Chapter Four.