The Brothers Karamazov
Book Five, Chapter Four
by Dennis Abrams
“Rebellion” “‘I must make an admission,’ Ivan began. ‘I never could understand how it’s possible to love one’s neighbors. In my opinion, it is precisely one’s neighbors that one cannot possibly love.'” ‘John the Merciful.’ “If we’re go come to love a man, the man himself should stay hidden, because as soon as he shows his face — love vanishes.” “Christs love for people is in its kind a miracle impossible on earth.” The unwillingness to acknowledge suffering. The possibility of abstract love, “but hardly ever up close.” “I meant to talk about the suffering of mankind in general, but better let us dwell only on the suffering of children..I will not speak of grown-ups because, apart from the fact that they are disgusting and do not deserve love, they also have retribution: they ate the apple, and knew good and evil, and became ‘as gods.'” Even cruel people, “passionate, carnivorous, Karamazovnian” sometimes love children. Atrocities and crimes against children: Turks and Circassians, ‘they burn, kill, rape women and children, they nail prisoners by the ears to fences and leave them like that until morning…Indeed, people speak sometimes about the ‘animal’ cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to animals, no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.” Turks tearing children out of their mother’s wombs with a dagger, tossing nursing infants up in the air “and catching them on their bayonets before their mother’s eyes.” “I think that if the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.” Russians, the birch, and the lash. The illegitimate child Richard, given to Swiss mountain peasants and horribly mistreated and starved, who ended up killing a man and, condemned to die, repented and turned to the Christian faith, “And so, covered with the kisses of his brothers, brother Richard is dragged up onto the scaffold, laid down on the guillotine, and his head is whacked off in brotherly fashion, forasmuch as grace has descended up on him too.” A Russian peasant flogging his horse. An intelligent and educated Russian gentleman and his wife flog their own seven year old daughter, “The papa is glad that the birch is covered with little twigs, ‘it will smart more,’ he says.” No crime in court. Love of torturing children, “It is precisely the defenselessness of these creatures that temps the torturers, the angelic trustfulness of the child, who has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to — that is what enflames the vile blood of the torturer.” The five year old forced to spend the night in the outhouse after soiling herself. Can you understand it? “Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.” One last story: The dog-loving general, the eight year old serf who threw a rock while he was playing “and hurt the paw of the general’s favorite hound: the boy was taken from his mother and locked up, the next morning he is brought out in front of all the other house-serfs and his mother, stripped naked, and then “Sic em,’ screams the general and looses the whole pack of wolfhounds on him. He hunted him down before his mother’s eyes, and the dogs tore the child to pieces…” Should the general be shot for “our moral satisfaction?” Alyosha agrees “with a sort of pale, twisted smile.” Is Ivan testing Alyosha? “If everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what children have got to do with it?…and therefore I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to ‘dear God’ in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! Not worth it, because her tears remained unredeemed…I do not, finally, want the mother to embrace the tormentor who let his dogs tear her son to pieces!” “I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony, we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket…It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.” “That is rebellion,” Alyosha said softly.” Alyosha agrees that it is not worth “building the edifice of human destiny of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale,” if one innocent child must be tortured to do so. But what about the sinless one? Ivan prepares to read Alyosha his prose poem, “The Grand Inquisitor.”
The fever-pitch of Ivan’s near monologue was, I thought, astonishing and mesmerizing. (Is he drunk?) I was particularly struck by the similarity between Ivan’s statement that he’d remain with his suffering and indignation “even if I’m wrong” with Dostoevsky’s own “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.”
And, I have to say, his ‘rebellion’ makes perfect sense to me.
“Ivan initiates his rebellion, which will shortly erupt into a devastating litany of the sufferings of children, with a passionate acknowledgment of his youthful ‘greenness’ and his ‘perhaps umseemly thirst for life.’ Mitya had also told Alyosha that within the very depths of his degradation he could not resist singing a ‘hymn of praise’; he too had felt that joy ‘without which the world cannot stand.’ Each brother realizes that this Karamazovnian thirst for life is not completely base. Ivan, echoing the words of one of Dostoevsky’s famous dreamers, ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” explains that this thirst for life is not base because it is what creates the desire to live when logic might suggest otherwise. ‘Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring.’
In fact, Ivan and Alyosha virtually paraphrase Dostoevsky’s ‘ridiculous man’ in their conversation. Their words are emblematic of a belief cherished by Dostoevsky, a belief that he sought in each of his novels to portray, however indirectly. “I am awfully glad that you have such a longing for life,’ cried Alyosha. ‘I think everyone should love life above everything in the world’ ‘Love life more than the meaning of it?’ ‘Certainly, love it, regardless of logic, as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it.’ Like Dmitri, Ivan totters on the brink between salvation and disaster.
All three brothers share an acute sense of this impending metaphysical crisis. Curiously, both Dmitri and Ivan assure Alyosha, who is simultaneously seeking to reassure each of them, that all is not lost. Mitya says, ‘Alyosha, I believe in miracles,’ and Ivan exclaims, ‘You are trying to save me, but perhaps I am not lost.’ Nevertheless, each brother feels the insectlike Karamazov presence within himself, the dark side of that thirst for life. ‘I am a bug,’ asserts Mitya; ‘I am a bug,’ asserts Ivan.
Ivan’s subsequent compelling denunciation of the order of God’s world cries out to be read in tandem with his instinctive love for life, for the sticky leaves, for his own greenness. Ironically, it is Dmitri who, more or less rationally, describes the battlefield in the heart of man. It is Ivan who wanders lost upon it. Another of Dostoevsky’s stories, ‘A Gentle Creature,’ closes with a cry of pain that rings with the same emotional density as Ivan’s outpouring. ‘Is there a living man on the plain?’ cries the Russian legendary hero. ‘I, too, echo the same cry, but no one answers.’
Mitya, echoing Dostoevsky’s own beliefs about pochovennichestvo, exclaims, ‘But the difficulty is how am I to cling forever to Mother Earth. I don’t kiss her; I don’t cleave her bosom…I am in tears.’ Like Mitya, Ivan imagines that he, upon visiting that ‘precious graveyard’ of Europe, would likewise cling to the earth. ‘I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them.’ Neither act occurs; both are passionately desired.
…Only after Ivan’s affirmation of his belief in God, his declaration of his love for live, and his vital admission that he might in fact not ‘be lost’ does his rebellion come. How, then, are we to understand it? Is his rebellion made more forceful, poignant, and meaningful by the powerful statements of affirmation preceding it, or is it undercut by them? Dmitri had envisioned mankind as a riddle; Alyosha thinks of Ivan as a riddle; and we, the readers, come face to face with both a general and a specific riddle as we try to understand these chapters.
Early on in the novel, Fyodor had mused about the likelihood of the existence of hooks on the ceiling of hell. Now at least we come up against an instance of reason being counterposed against god’s world that has nothing of the comic or parodic about it. Ivan speaks of those philosophers ‘who dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity.’ He then proceeds to set up a metaphysical equation to illustrate the upcoming terms of his rebellion:
non-Euclidean geometry God’s justice
______________________ = _____________
Euclidean geometry earthly justice
Terras points out that this equation ‘works against Ivan because there is such a thing as non-Euclidean geometry.’ But it is crucial that we acknowledge that Ivan himself is the one who suggests this to us, for he both introduces and grants the existence of non-Euclidean geometry as well as of God’s justice. He thus creates the equation only to show that it cannot encompass his whole reality. Through the agency of free will Ivan rejects the terms at the top of the equation:
‘I have an Euclidean earthly mind, and how could I solve problems that are not of this world?…I believe like a child that all suffering will be healed and made up for…[and] at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts…but though all that may come to pass, I don’t accept it, I won’t accept it. Even if parallel lines do meet and I see it myself, I shall see it and say that they’ve met, but still I won’t accept it.’
Ivan’s language of negation sounds strikingly like Dostoevsky’s language of affirmation so many years earlier when, as a convict, h e wrote to Madame Fonvizina. Dostoevsky had then affirmed that his love for Jesus was even greater than his love for truth. Ivan divides his universe into two camps as well: like Dostoevsky he maintains that something is more valuable to him than truth; but it is not Jesus, it is his own right not to accept that truth.
It is difficult not to be swayed by Ivan’s mighty refusal. Yet Dostoevsky’s strategy, both as a political polemicist and as a novelist, typically was to seem to concede everything to his opponent, then, rapidly to reappropriate precisely what had been relinquished. Dostoevsky had already admitted, however, in his letter to Lyubimov, the irrefutability of Ivan’s arguments. Will he then refute them? Ivan, like Mitya, tells Alyosha that he has led up to his confession by talking ‘stupidly,’ yet Dostoevsky then closes the chapter by having Ivan, smiling like a gentle child, exclaim, ‘Perhaps I want to be healed by you.’
Virtually as soon as the reader has made the association between Ivan and a little child desiring to be healed, Ivan launches in on his description of the terrible suffering of children on which he bases his renunciation of God’s world. Adults, he explains, may have eaten of the apple and may seek retribution, but children, though they are innocent and powerless, still suffer. ‘If they, too, suffer horribly on earth, they must suffer for their fathers…but that reasoning is of the other world and is incomprehensible for the heart of men here on earth.’ Moreover, we have just seen a child, Ilyusha, suffer terrible for the sins of his father. It is against this painful and immediate backdrop that the reader experiences Ivan’s heartrending enumeration of the sufferings of children.
It is also important to look closely at the unit of agony Ivan describes. Although it is customary and correct to emphasize Ivan’s horror at the sufferings of children, in all his examples parents are involved as well — as emblems of infinite love, as tormenters, or perhaps as both. Certainly Ilyusha’s father has, against his will, played both roles, as have such characters as Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment. If this novel is, as it purports to be, about seeds, about love, and about the great ocean of being that Zosima will shortly describe, all of these elements can take as their fundamental unit the parent-child relationship. Certainly it is this relationship — as opposed to a single figure — that governs the basic lines of the plot. The primary unit of interest for Dostoevsky always involves characters in relationship to others — victim and victimizer, sufferer and healer, confesser and confessor — or in dialogue with themselves.
In addition to this novelistic backdrop, there is Ivan’s (and Dostoevsky’s) collection of newspaper articles that provides the examples he enumerates. There is a biblical backdrop as well: the Book of Job. Job, too, lost his children as part of his testing as a faithful participant in God’s larger truth or design. But Ivan rejects such participation. ‘And if the suffering of children goes to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself…but the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive…I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong.’ Ivan, like Dostoevsky, puts the passion of his being into a vessel that is somehow beyond truth. For the Dostoevsky who wrote to Madame Fonvizina, this valuing of something that is beyond Truth eventually led him to a miraculous affirmation of live, whereas, temporarily at any rate, Dostoevsky gives Ivan this same phraseology to enable him to negate live.
We see yet another example here of the precious grain of his own experience that he was willing to give up to the transforming power of art. Ivan at least utters his famous words, ‘And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket.’ We may have thought Smerdyakov a scoundrel when he expressed the same idea, but coming from Ivan these words do not fail to move. Ivan then goes on to state the proposition that had haunted Dostoevsky ever since he first read Balzac’s Pere Goirot as a young man, and that informed the genesis of Crime and Punishment. Ivan puts the vital proposition before Alyosha: ‘Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — the little child beating its breast with its first, for instance — and so found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me and tell the truth.’ We have become accustomed, lulled as readers throughout the novel, to Dostoevsky’s method, and his narrator-chronicler’s, of presenting parodies or comic statements of important ideas before their serious presentation. Yet here a new mode comes subtly into play. Ivan, before he even begins his poem of the Grand Inquisitor, has put forth its central question, the fundamental riddle about human experience with which this novel is asking its readers to grapple.
Let me digress for a moment to that key passage in Pere Goirot. Keep in mind, however, that Ivan is consciously ‘confessing’ to Alyosha and that Dostoevsky himself had an extremely ambivalent view of the possibility that an authentic confession could take place between one speaker and one listener, particularly when any prepared text was involved. Indeed, much of his fiction can be read as a veiled polemic with that archtetypal master of the confessional genre, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of Confessions. Thus, when we turn to Pere Goirot and the original statement of that proposition that had for so long haunted Dostoevsky, it is no surprise to find Rousseau lurking behind it all. Rastignac and Bianchon are conversing in the Luxembourg Gardens.
‘You may laugh, but you don’t know what you’re laughing at. Have you read Rousseau?’
‘Do you remember the passage where he asks the reader what he would do if he could make a fortune by killing an old mandarin in China by simply exerting his will, without stirring from Paris?’
‘Bah! I am at my thirty-third mandarin.’
‘Don’t play the fool. Look here, if it were proved to you that the thing was possible and you only needed to nod your head, would you do it?’
‘Is your mandarin well-stricken in years? But, bless you, young or old, paralytic or healthy, upon my word — the devil take it! Well, no.’
Throughout this dialogue Rastiangac’s role prefigures Ivan’s, and Balzac’s Bianchon resembles Alyosha.
This Balzacian conversation, with hits roots in Rousseau, has profound resonances in The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan takes the economic-moral proposition set forth by Rousseau and Balzac and transforms it into a metaphysical-moral one. It no longer concerns just one man’s prosperity but has become a symbol for the entire human edifice.
It is typical of Dostoevsky as a borrower and adapter to use several sources at once, including, most often, himself — either his experience or his own past work. Here we find a biblical source (the Book of Job), two literary ones (Rousseau’s Confessions and Balzac’s Pere Goirot), traces of Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, and finally, a response to the recent death, for which he felt responsible, of his own child. But only here at the end of his career does Dostoevsky succinctly and absolutely, through the words of Ivan — ‘would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?’ — ask the question that had haunted him for his whole adult life.
By the time Ivan prepares to recite his poem in prose — composed a year earlier but never written down — the reader may wonder what more could possibly come? How can this pitch and fervor be sustained? How can the substance of the poem compete with the prelude to it? It is no wonder that critic after critic has found in these chapters some of the most powerful prose ever written.
What does the chapter title, ‘Rebellion,’ signify? Who in fact has rebelled, Ivan or Alyosha? Ivan describes to the angelic Alyosha the conflicting processes of affirmation and renunciation he has already struggled with, but in the very act of telling he precipitates a similar reaction in Alyosha. Before meeting Ivan at the tavern, Alyosha had merely been depressed; now he finds that he accepts, at least in part, the ramifications of Ivan’s metaphysical equation. Ivan describes the sadistic general whose dogs devour the child before his mother’s eyes: ‘Well, what did he deserve? To be shot? To be short for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyoshka!’ ‘To be shot,’ murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile.
A few minutes later Alyosha recovers himself and reaffirms the idea of Christ as that being who can forgive everything, ‘because He gave His innocent blood for all…You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice.’ But Alyosha’s recovery of his faith cannot undo its momentary loss. It is Alyosha’s words about Jesus that remind him of his poem in prose. ‘You will be my first reader — that is, listener. Why should an author forego even one listener?’ By the close of the chapter it becomes oddly difficult to say who is healing whom, who is in crisis, who is rebelling.”
I’ve got to admit, I hadn’t thought about it in that way (the question of who is in rebellion) before reading that…interesting.
The Weekend’s Reading:
I know it’s not quite weekend, but I want to give everybody enough time to read and digest the next chapter (as well as to post/comment/question about it), so…our next reading will be:
Book Five, Chapter Five
I’ll be posting more critical essays etc. throughout the weekend, bringing, I hope, different and interesting perspectives on “The Grand Inquisitor.”
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.