The Brothers Karamazov
Book Six, Chapter Two, Sections (a) and (b)
by Dennis Abrams
“From the Life of the Hieromonk and Elder Zosima, Departed in God, Composed from his Own Words by Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov.” Zosima was born of a noble father “but not of the high nobility” who died when he was just two, leaving him and his older brother, Merkel, eight years older. Merkel’s friendship with a “certain solitary man of our town, a political exile it seems, exiled in our town from Moscow for free thinking.” Merkel’s lack of belief, “It’s all nonsense, there isn’t any God,” which changes when he comes down with consumption at the age of seventeen and experiences a spiritual rebirth, allowing for the first time the family’s nanny to light candles in front of the ikons, and telling his mother, “…life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we do not want to know it, and if we did want to know it, tomorrow there would be paradise the world over.” Merkel’s desire to serve the servants, “am I worthy of being served?” and his strange unexplained awareness that “each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all.” Merkel explains that he has even sinned before the birds, explaining to his mother that “I am weeping from gladness, not from grief. I want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not even know how to love them. Let me be sinful before everyone, but so that everyone will forgive me, and that is paradise. Am I not in paradise now?” Merkel’s death, Zosima’s grief, “It all shook me then, but not deeply, though I cried very much when he was buried. I was young, a child, but it all remained indelibly in my heart, the feeling was hidden there. It all had to rise up and respond in due time. And so it did.” Should Zosima be sent to Petersburg to join the Cadets Corps, so that he could enter the Imperial Guard? Zosima is sent to Petersburg, and never see his mother again — she dies three years later. Zosima’s spiritual awakening in church, listening to the Book of Job. How could Job go on? Zosima’s favorite stories in the bible. The power of its stories. “The people will perish without the word of God, for their souls thirst for his word and for every beautiful perception.”
“We have already seen how Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor claimed that the Catholic Church had accepted from the devil the very temptations — whose statement was the ‘great miracle’ — that Jesus had rejected and had drawn its power over people from miracle, mystery, and authority. Ivan had composed his poem a year earlier and had recited it for the first time to Alyosha.
The form that Zosima’s first exhortations take is equally unusual. Alyosha, like Ivan, relies on his memory; he writes down Zosima’s last conversations and exhortations ‘some time after his elder’s death.’ The narrator takes pains to show us that this narrative constitutes an intimate superimposition of Alyosha’s editorial decisions on Zosima’s actual words. ‘But whether this was the only conversation that took place then, or whether he added to it his notes of parts of former conversations with his teacher, I cannot determine.’ The narrator-chronicler concludes Book VI with even more disclaimers about Alyosha’s principles of composition and his editorial philosophy: ‘I repeat, it is incomplete and fragmentary.’ In fact, Dostoevsky is saying to us behind his narrator’s back, ‘I repeat, it is complete, and there is a whole there for the reader to discern.’ Moreover, Alyosha hands these conversations down to us a monologue, in a genre that Dostoevsky’s readers would know well, a ‘saint’s life'” Notes of the Life in God of the Deceased Priest and Monk, the Elder Zosima, Taken from his Own Words by Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov.
Thus the document the reader encounters is itself a product of indirection, of multiple layers of mediation. Zosima’s words are refracted through the prism of Alyosha, who reports them for his own reasons. The narrator-chronicler frames them with his own observations, and, of course, the author Dostoevsky orchestrates all these voices at once. [Ed. Note: How post-modern!] Thus this single document, which contributes to what Bakhtin would call the polyphony of voices in the novel, is itself composed of polyphonic units. The smallest phrase from Zosima’s Life is a polyphonic one, containing at all times traces of Zosima, Alyosha, the narrator-chronicler, and the author. Book VI, despite its seeming simplicity of design and serenity of event, is the most complex narrative in the novel.
Moreover, the complexity of form, which is, so to speak, encased in an envelope of uniformity (Zosima’s life), becomes a kind of metaphor-through-text of the novel’s epigraph from John 12:24 about the seed. Indeed, it is here that the epigraph takes its first strong root in the novel and becomes indelibly linked to the theme of memory. Yet this theme of memory takes us back full circle to the question of the narrative texture of Book VI, whose message from Zosima, composed literally out of his memories of his life, is mediated through the later memories — recollections in tranquility — of Alyosha.
The framework of Ivan’s rebellion is his horror at the unjustified suffering of children and his refusal to participate in a non-Euclidean geometry of forgiveness. Zosima takes a similar starting point. He tells us that, as a child of eight, he ‘consciously received the seed of God’s word in my heart,’ through reading in church the Book of Job. (We also learn that he had read it again ‘yesterday’ with tears, that is, he read it on the day that the peasant woman whose child had died came to him.) Zosima’s rendering of the story of Job has brought upon Dostoevsky the charge of subscribing, at least in part — or when it suits his purposes as an artist — to the Manichean heresy, for here in the words Zosima uses to paraphrase the Book of Job the devil seems to be successful in tempting God to action, much in the same way that he later fails in the desert to tempt Jesus. Zosima’s account, mediated through Alyosha’s pen, continues in a vein that implies God and the devil are engaged in an open-ended contest: ‘And God boasted to the devil, pointing to his great and holy servant. And the devil laughed at God’s words. ‘Give them over to me and Thou wilt see that Thy servant will murmur against Thee and curse Thy name.’ And God gave up the just man He loved so, to the devil. And the devil smote his children.’
It is in this terrible story (the words almost sound like Ivan’s) of the unjust suffering of Job’s children that Zosima discovers the true mystery of Christian faith. He finds himself able to accept precisely that mystery, that non-Euclidean geometry, which Ivan so passionately rejects. ‘Many years pass by, and he has other children and loves them. But how could he love those new ones when those first children were no more, when he has lost them? Remembering them, how could he be fully happy with those new ones, however dear the new ones might be? But he could, he could. It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet tender joy.’ Zosima does not counter Ivan’s argument through reason or logic, but through the heart, through the emotional repetition, ‘he could, he could.’ He gives himself up to an acceptance of what he experiences as a true mystery. Mystery remains a mystery; faith is an unfathomable giving up of oneself, an acceptance of mystery.
Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor claims to take authority upon himself, to assume responsibility before God for men to exchange for their freedom. Throughout Book VI, Zosima takes pains to disperse authority among all men, authority takes the form of the personal and equal responsibility of each person for everyone else — for being one’s brother’s keeper. It is a dying child, his brother Merkel, who first impresses this idea upon the 10-year-old Zosima. ‘Everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything.’ Zosima repeats this ideas as a kind of incantation. For him, true authority transfigures and disperses itself into responsibility, a radically egalitarian responsibility of each for all and all for each. The Grand Inquisitor’s model of authority is vertical, Zosima’s horizontal.
Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor argues that man should barter away his freedom in exchange for security, a security brought about by the Church’s hocus-pocus manipulation of miracle, mystery, and authority. Zosima’s narrative does not counter this proposition. Instead, it fundamentally revises the structure of the basic argument; it changes the terms of the equation. Zosima does not see man’s freedom as a commodity to be traded away in exchange for security. Rather, it is only when man is free that he can experience and express his relationship with God.”
In my opinion, what is needed is a synthesis of the two: With Ivan, I cannot accept a world in which God allows the death of the innocent (or in the case of Job, allows them to die to prove a point with Satan), but I cannot accept his need for authority for the masses; yet at the same time while I cannot accept Zosima’s faith or acceptance of non-Euclidean ‘mystery” I do embrace his “Everyone is really responsible to all men and for everything.”
Book Six, Chapter Two, Section (c)