The Brothers Karamazov
Book Six, Chapter Two, Section (c)
by Dennis Abrams
“Recollections of the Adolescence and Youth of the Elder Zosima While Still in the World. The Duel.” Zosima was in the Cadets Corps in Petersburg for almost eight years, stifling “many of [his] childhood impressions.” His polished and courteous manners, “I transformed into an almost wild, cruel, and absurd creature…We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery, and bravado.” Zosima is well received in society, and “formed an attachment to a young and wonderful girl, intelligent and worthy, of noble and shining character.” Zosima “fancied that the girl favored me in her heart,” but leaves the district for two months and when he returns, finds that she “had already married a local landowner, a wealthy man, older than I but still young…I was so struck by this unexpected event that my mind became even more clouded.” Zosima manages to insult his rival, who accepts his challenge for a duel. The evening before the duel, Zosima arrived home, and “ferocious and angry, I got angry with my orderly Afanasy and struck him twice in the face with all my might, so that his face was all bloody.” Zosima wakes up the next morning: “Why is it, I thought, that I feel something, as it were, mean and shameful in my soul? And suddenly I understood at once what it was: it was because I had beaten Afanasy the night before!” Zosima remembers his brother’s last words to his servants, “My good ones, my dears, why are you serving me, why do you love me, and am I worthy of being served?” How did Zosima deserve that another man, made in the image and likeness of God, should serve him? Was Zosima “perhaps the most guilty of all, and the worst of all men in the world as well?” Zosima realizes the truth: “I was setting out to kill a kind, intelligent, noble man, who was not at fault before me in any way, thereby depriving his wife of happiness forever.” Zosima begs Afansay’s forgiveness, throwing himself at his feet with his forehead to the ground. To the duel. Zosima allows his rival to shoot first; the shot grazes his cheek and nicks his ear. Zosima responds by throwing his pistol into the trees “My dear sir, forgive a foolish young man, for it is my own fault that I have offended you and have now made you shoot at me. I am ten times worse than you, if not more.” His adversary asks why, if he didn’t want to fight, did he trouble him? “Yesterday I was still a fool, but today I’ve grown wiser.” Has Zosima shamed the regiment? Zosima praises the beauty around them, “…look at the divine gifts around us: the clear sky, the fresh air, the tender grass…nature is beautiful and sinless, and we, we alone, are godless and foolish, and do not understand that life is paradise, for we need only wish to understand, and it will come at once in all its beauty and we shall embrace each other and weep…” Zosima announces he’s resigning his commission and as soon as he’s discharged will be entering a monastery. The pleased and loving reaction of his regiment, his dueling adversary, and his wife.
More from Robin Feuer Miller, whose analysis of this section seems to me to be remarkably spot-on:
“Zosima’s narrative, taken as a whole, exemplifies mystery, and authority in their redeeming rather than their enslaving aspects. Zosima witnesses the mysterious and miraculous spiritual conversion of Markel. Later, as young officer, he strikes his servant Afanasy just before he is to fight a duel. Suddenly he weeps; he remembers the words of his dying brother, and a conversion descends on him. His authority over his servant changes simultaneously into a relationship of mutuality. ‘I dropped at his feet and bowed my head to the ground. ‘Forgive me,’ I said.’ A moment earlier he had remembered, from so many years before, Markel’s words, ‘Am I worth it?’ and had silently applied them to himself. Suddenly his servant, who, of course, has no knowledge of Markel or his words, cries out, ‘Am I worth it?’ and begins to sob. In this mysterious passing on of the emblematic phrase ‘Am I worth it?’ through the agency of both memory (the past) and utterance (the present), we see a literalization of the central metaphor, the seed, and a specific example of how grace (words as seeds) travels through the novel.
Markel’s words and the words of the Book of Job plant a seed of grace in the heart of the child Zosima. The seed dies in him; he leads a life of dissipation. It then brings forth fruit; he experiences a conversion. Meanwhile, he begins, through his words to his servant, to precipitate a conversion within him and later within the mysterious visitor as well.
Alyosha too had received a childhood experience of grace, through the love of his mother. He also listens to these words of Zosima, but to some extent the seed will die in him, too. Yet Alyosha’s act of transcribing and rendering Zosima’s words shows that he has made them his own, in order to pass them on to those who will read them, including, of course, the readers of the novel. Thus Dostoevsky sought to bring his epigraph to bear on the real world outside the boundaries of his novel and make his readers participate in the process.
The autobiographical segment of Zosima’s narrative has three major parts: the story of his childhood and Markel, and two successive events from his young manhood — the episode with Afanasy and the duel, and his meeting with the mysterious visitor. In his recent book The Genesis of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, Belknap demonstrates that Zosima first witnesses grace (with Markel), then receives it himself, and then helps engender or enable it in the mysterious visitor. In the course of the novel Alyosha, Mitya, and Ivan participate in an identical process; moreover, many critics have remarked that these very episodes from Zosima’s life resonate in highly specific ways with the lives of the Karamazov brothers.
The young Markel, Zosima tells us repeatedly, resembled Alyosha. Zosima even quotes the epigraph as he meditates upon Alyosha’s face, and its potential for healing Dmitri’s suffering: ‘I thought your brotherly face would help him. But everything and all our fates are from the Lord. ‘Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’ Remember that Alexey. You, Alexey, I’ve many times silently blessed you for your face.’ Zosima goes on to explain that Alyosha’s likeness to Markel has been a ‘reminder’ and an ‘inspiration’ to him.
The young Zosima, before his conversion, resembles no one so much as Dmitri. Both men beat a beloved servant and regret it; both are young officers and romantic swashbucklers reminiscent of Pushkin’s or Lermontov’s heroes. Both struggle with the dictates of two codes of honor that are at variance with each other — a romantic code and an ethical or spiritual one. Both are strikingly good narrators well able to describe psychological details and the ramifications of roads both taken and untaken.
We have already admired Mitya’s narrative dexterity in his confession to Alyosha. Now, as Zosima tells his story to Alyosha, one that chronologically precedes our ongoing plot by decades, he reminds us of Mitya in his predilection for dissecting the layers of motivation that guide his behavior. ‘I ought to have owned my fault as soon as I got here…before leading him into a great and mortal sin; but we have made our life so grotesque, that to act in that way would have been almost impossible, for only after I faced his shot…could my words have any significance for him.’ Zosima’s act chronologically prefigures Mitya’s, yet Mitya’s words in the novel temporally prefigure Zosima’s. Alyosha, as the interlocutor of both, stands at the center of this uncanny circle.”
And finally, I started reading D.H. Lawrence’s essay on “The Grand Inquisitor” and am finding it well worthwhile. Here’s the first few paragraphs:
“It is a strange experience, to examine one’s reaction to a book over a period of years. I remember when I first read The Brothers Karamazov, in 1913, how fascinated yet unconvinced it left me. And I remember Middleton Murry saying to me, ‘Of course the whole clue to Dostoevsky is in this Grand Inquisitor story.’ And I remember saying: ‘Why? it seems to me just rubbish.’
And it was true. The story seemed to me just a piece of showing off: a display of cynical-satanical pose which was simply irritating. The cynical-satanical pose always irritated me, and I could see nothing else in that black-a-vised Grand Inquisitor talking at Jesus at such length. I just felt it was all pose; he didn’t really mean what he said; he was just showing off in blasphemy.
Since then I have read The Brothers Karamazov twice, and each time found it more depressing because, alas, more drearily true to life. Now I read The Grand Inquisitor once more, and my heart sinks right through my shoes. I still see a trifle cynical-satanical showing off. But under that I hear the final and unanswerable criticism of Christ. And it is a deadly, devastating summing up, unanswerable because borne out by the long experience of humanity. It is reality versus illusion, and the illusion was Jesus’, while time itself retorts with the reality.
If there is any question: Who is the Grand Inquisitor? — then surely we must say it is Ivan himself. And Ivan is the thinking mind of the human being in rebellion, thinking the whole thing out of the bitter end. As such he is, of course, identical with the Russian revolutionary of the thinking type. He is also, of course, Dostoevsky himself, in his thoughtful, as apart from his passional and inspirational self. Dostoevsky half hated Ivan. Yet, after all, Ivan is the greatest of the three brothers, pivotal. The passionate Dmitri and the inspired Alyosha are, at least, only offsets to Ivan.
And we cannot doubt that the Inquisitor speaks Dostoevsky’s own final opinion about Jesus. The opinion is, baldly, this: Jesus, you are inadequate. Men must correct you. And Jesus in the end gives the kiss of acquiescence to the Inquisitor, as Alyosha does to Ivan. The two inspired ones recognize the inadequacy of their inspiration: the thoughtful one has to accept the responsibility of a complete adjustment.
We may agree with Dostoevsky or not, but we have to admit that his criticism of Jesus is the final criticism, based on the experience of two thousand years (he says fifteen hundred) and on a profound insight into the nature of mankind. Man can but be true to his own nature. No inspiration whatsoever will ever get him permanently beyond his limits.
And what are the limits? It is Dostoevsky’s first profound question. What are the limits to the nature, not of Man in the abstract, but of men, mere men, everyday men?
The limits are, says the Grand Inquisitor, three. Mankind in the bulk can never be ‘free,’ because man on the whole makes three grand demands on life, and cannot endure unless these demands are satisfied.
1. He demands bread, and not merely as foodstuff, but as a miracle, given from the hand of God.
2. He demands mystery, the sense of the miraculous in life.
3. He demands somebody to bow down to, and somebody before whom all men shall bow down.
These three demands, for miracle, mystery, and authority, prevent men from being ‘free.’ They are man’s ‘weakness.’ Only a few men, the elect, are capable of abstaining from the absolute demand for bread, for miracle, mystery, and authority. These are the strong, and they must be as gods, to be able to be Christians fulfilling all the Christ-demand. The rest, the millions and millions of men throughout time, they are as babes or children or geese, they are too weak, ‘impotent, vicious, worthless and rebellious’ even to be able to share out the earthly bread, if it is left to them.
This, then, is the Grand Inquisitor’s summing up of the nature of mankind. The inadequacy of Jesus lies in the fact that Christianity is too difficult for men, the vast mass of men. It could only be realized by the few ‘saints’ or heroes. For the rest, man is like a horse harnessed to a load he cannot possibly pull. ‘Hadst Thou respected him less, Thou wouldst have demanded less of him, and that would be nearer to love, for his burden would be lighter.’
Christianity then, is the ideal, but it is impossible. It is impossible because it makes demands greater than the nature of man can bear. And therefore, to get a livable, working scheme, some of the elect, such as the Grand Inquisitor, have turned round to ‘him,’ that other great Spirit, Satan, and have established Church and State on ‘him.’ for the Grand Inquisitor finds that to be able to live at all, mankind must be loved more tolerantly and more contemptuously than Jesus loved it, for all that, more truly, since it is loved for itself, for what it is, and not for what it ought to be. Jesus loved mankind for what it ought to be, free and limitless. The Grand Inquisitor loves it for what it is, with all its limitations. The Grand Inquisitor loves it for what it is, with all its limitations. And he contends his is the kinder love. And yet he says it is Satan. And Satan, he says at the beginning, means annihilation, and not-being.
As always in Dostoevsky, the amazing perspicacity is mixed with ugly perversity. Nothing is pure. His wild love for Jesus is mixed with perverse and poisonous hate of Jesus; his moral hostility to the devil is mixed with secret worship of the devil. Dostoevsky is always perverse, always impure, always an evil thinker and a marvelous seer.”
More to come…
The Weekend’s Reading:
Book Six, Chapter Two, Section (d); Chapter Three
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.