“And even if you had been in a faraway land, but still alive, the thought you were alive and knew everything, and were judging me, would in any case have been unbearable.”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book, Chapter Two, section (d); Chapter Three
by Dennis Abrams

The Mysterious Visitor — His confession, his salvation and death. Father Zosima speaks about the Russian Monk and his significance; Masters and Servants and Becoming Brothers in Spirit; Prayer and Love; Judging One’s Fellow Man; and Hell and Hell Fire.

I figured I’d keep the synopsis brief today, since there really wasn’t much of a “plot” and because I think Joseph Frank analyses Zosima’s confession very well.

I do want to mention, though, that I thought the whole “Mysterious Stranger” section was very well done, and I found particularly fascinating the stranger’s confession that on his last visit to Zosima, his plan had been to kill him because “the thought you were alive and knew everything, and were judging me, would in any case have been unbearable.” Zosima as God?

Book 6, ‘The Russian Monk,’ is an account of Zosima’s life and teachings cast in the form of a zhitie, the hagiographical biography of the life of a saint ad composed by his disciple, Alyosha. It is perhaps the most artistically daring section of the work — in the sense that it is almost unprecedented to include in a novel, except perhaps for the purposes of parody, an extended example of a text imitative of a purely religious genre. While The Brothers Karamazov is filled with violent movement, strong passions, and intense psychological dramatics, the zhite lacks (quite unintentionally) the powerful vehemence to which it is meant to respond, and most modern readers have considered it ineffectual in countering the brunt of Ivan’s unbridled assault. However that may be, there is no doubt that Zosima conveys the essence of Dostoevsky’s own moral-social views, and the account of Zosima’s life also plays an important part in the structure of the novel.

Through Zosima Dostoevsky was trying to present an alternative attitude toward life and the problem of human suffering — an attitude of serene acceptance of human destiny deriving from a conviction in the all-forgiving mercy of a loving God. Figures embodying states of virtuous beatitude have always been more difficult to make interesting and convincing than those struggling to confront the problems of human existence. Nonetheless, Dostoevsky took the risk of couching the response to Ivan in the genre of a saint’s life, written in a highly poetic style full of Church Slavonic expressions and the pious language of Saint Tikhon Zadonsky’s eighteenth-century clerical sentimentalism. Since no attempt is made to ground such a narrative in realistic particularities or verisimilar psychological analyses, events occur according to the laws of the moral lesson to be illustrated, not by the causality of mundane existence. There is a timeless quality about such narratives precisely because they are related to the real world only in an ancillary fashion, and the moral they exemplify remains valuable for any time and any place.

Book 6 has not fared very well in critical opinion because it is viewed primarily as a direct answer to the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Commentators have not paid sufficient attention to Dostoevsky’s remark that ‘the whole novel is an answer’ to Ivan and his Legend. Such a definitive assertion makes us aware that Dostoevsky was not depending only on these stories and utterances to accomplish his artistic task. This will be achieved through the interweaving of Zosima’s experiences with the remainder of the plot-action, which reveals the salutary effect of his own life, and of the values he practiced, on the life of others. It will illustrate as well that the image delineated by the Grand Inquisitor of a weak, debased humanity, incapable of fulfilling Christ’s law of love, is delusory and pernicious.”

[MY NOTE: Or, it is possible that Zosima’s confession isn’t as effective an argument as Ivan’s, because, in the same way as the epilogue of “Crime and Punishment” Dostoevsky didn’t quite believe it? There’s a part of me that finds it impossible to believe that an artist as great as Dostoevsky would not be able to build a more artistically convincing argument in support of Zosima if that’s what he really wanted to do. My gut tell me that the form that he chose, the ‘hagiographical biography of a saint’ appeared dated and unbelievable even at the time he wrote it.]

The stories of Book 6 are narrated, as in a zhitie, in a style intended to awaken pious and reverential responses, and to communicate a sense of serenity opposed to the agitations and passions depicted elsewhere. It begins with the life of Zosima’s older brother, Markel, who had converted to atheism as a youth but then, after being suddenly taken ill, his spirit is transformed by the immanence of death. Attempting to comfort his grieving mother, he tells her that ‘we are all in paradise, but we won’t see it; if we would,w e should have haven on earth the next day.’ Feeling unworthy of the love lavished on him, he desires to change places with the servants. He tells his mother that ‘every one of us has sinned against all men, and I more than any.’ Like Saint Francis, h e asks pardon from the birds and from nature because ‘there was such a glory of God all about me, birds, trees, meadows, skin, only I lived in shame and dishonored it all and did not notice the beauty and glory.’ Not understanding this act of self-surrender to ‘the glory of God,’ the family doctor, a man of science, declares that Markel’s ‘disease is affecting his brain.’ But the afflicted young man is only rejoicing in the ecstatic apprehension of live as an ultimate good that even Ivan had experienced, and he embodies this crucial epiphanic sentiment — that Dostoevsky himself had once voiced in the shadow of death.

Zosima confides details of his own early years that fill out the picture of his spiritual formation, and here again Dostoevsky draws on particularities from his own life, recalling the deep impression made on him by the book of Job during a pre-Easter mass. The ancient biblical cry of anguish against a presumably merciful God, who submits His faithful servitor to the worst torments in order to test his loyalty, bears the closest connection with Dostoevsky’s thematics, and Zosima is still deeply moved by it: ‘I’ve never been able to read that sacred book without tears.’ Some have been incited by it to mock and blame God because of the terrible fate so unjustly meted out to the righteous Job; but the greatness of the work ‘lies just in the fact that is a mystery — that the passing earthly scene and the eternal verity are brought together in it.’ Zosima says nothing about Job’s anguished outcries and accusations. The ‘mystery’ of the tale for him is that, despite his ‘earthly’ sufferings, Job still proclaims his faith in God and in the goodness of God’s creation.

If Zosima’s first narrative is associatively linked to Alyosha, then the second, dealing with his own life as a young man, is related to Dimitry. Sent by his mother to a school for military cadets in Petersburg, Zinovy (his secular name) had, by the time he graduated, been ‘transformed into a cruel, absurd, almost savage creature.’ The calamitous events that follow, precipitated by a blow to his vanity and pride, lead to a crisis which, implicitly, the lessons of Markel begin to work in his soul. He participated in a duel but refuses to fire, apologizes to his servant for having beaten him, and resigns his Army commission, announcing that he was entering a monastery. Here is a foreshadowing of Dimitry’s future self-discovery and moral transformation.

The third story, ‘The Mysterious Visitor,’ is clearly connected with Ivan. A respected citizen, well known for his charitable activities, visits Zinovy, who has become known for acting in accordance with hismoral conscience rather than submitting to the non-Christian code of his position and rank. the older man’s interest was inspired by a ‘secret motive’ — he himself is a murder! As a young man, out of jealousy, he killed a girl who refused his suit, and he had successfully made it appear as a robbery. He had hoped that family life would help him escape brooding over his past; but the presence of his wife and children only made the memory of his crime more oppressively painful, and he became haunted by the idea of ending his torments with a full confession.

Like Ivan, the visitor was concerned with the general moral situation of society and human life. He reiterates one of the favorite ideas expressed in the Diary, that the modern world is living through a period of ‘isolation’ in which the solidarity of humans with each other has been replaced by separation and division. Change can only come through ‘a spiritual, psychological process…Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to everyone, brotherhood will not come to pass. No sort of scientific teaching, no kind of common interest, will ever teach us to share property and privileges with equal consideration for all.’ Eventually, ‘this terrible individualism must indubitably have an end…And then the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens.’ the sign presumably announcing the Second Coming of Christ.

Despite all the torments that the visitor knows will ensue, he follows Zinovy’s advice to confess. Nobody believes the confession of this model citizen, who has led such an exemplary life (any more than Ivan will be believed in the courtroom scene later). And when the mysterious visitor, producing evidence of his crime, is declared insane, the parallel with Ivan could not be clearer. A few days later the penitent murder is taken ill and dies; before his death he admits to Zosima that, on his last visit, he had come back to kill him. But ‘the Lord vanquished the devil in my heart’ and stayed his hand…All these stories are a mise en abymethat is, a relatively subordinate narrative element either reproducing in nuce the main theme of the work, or presenting it as here in a form somewhat altered but still recognizable. Zosima’s zhitie is not his alone but that of the three Karamazov brothers as well. Each story indicates that path that all (including Ivan) will take in the remainder of the book to refute his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.

Zosima’s narratives are followed by a chapter of his ‘conversations and exhortations,’ in which Dostoevsky, without concern for their didacticism, develops some of his own most cherished ideas. Monasticism and the Russian monks are defended against their numerous critics. Zosima replies in terms of Dostoevsky’s religions messianism, which views the Russian monks as those who ‘keep the image of Christ pure and undefiled.’ By contrast, those worldly people who criticize the monks ‘have science, but in science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the highest part of man’s being is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even hatred.’ The modern world has proclaimed ‘the reign of freedom’ and ‘the multiplication of desires,’ but such an unregulated existence can only lead among the rich to ‘isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, [to] envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants.’

Zosima plays variations on this contrast between the life of the worldly, who sacrifice everything to their ever-increasing desires, and the regime of the monks, which consists of ‘obedience, fasting, and prayer.’ For Dostoevsky, ‘freedom’ means mastery and suppression of one’s desires, not liberation from all constraints on their satisfaction; such a life of self-control was for him the only ‘way to real, true freedom.’ But the humble, believing Russian people were not immune to the new forces of disintegration undermining society, and Zosima utters a horrified castigation of ‘the fire of corruption’ spreading through the peasantry itself, here touching on the actual problems of Russian society, including drunkenness and child labor. But what will ultimately save the Russians, Zosima affirms, is the consciousness of their iniquity — one of the extremely dubious linchpins of Dostoevsky’s ideology since the early 1860s.

Zosima launches into an encomium of the Russian peasantry, and he dreams of a halcyon social future, one that ‘will come to pass when even the most corrupt of our rich will end by being ashamed of his riches before the poor, and the poor, seeing his humility, will understand and give way before him, and will respond joyfully and kindly to his honorable shame.’ [MY NOTE: Yeah, right.] Here, unquestionably, is Dostoevsky’s own dream-world of the Russian future, expressed with all the naivety suitable for Zosima. Of course, all these ingenuous expectations will be met with mockery, but Zosima thinks that those who rely on reason alone to reach the same goal of unity and solidarity (the Socialists) ‘have more fantastic demons than we. They aim at justice, but, denying Christ, they will end flooding the earth with blood.’ Indeed, ‘were it not for Christ’s covenant, they would slaughter one another down to the last two men on earth,’ and even those two would kill each other ‘in their pride.’

[MY NOTE: Is it possible for Dostoevsky, the man who understands people like Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, and Ippolit so well, really be so naive as to believe that?]

In his most overtly theological preachment, he tells them to pray every day for all those whose souls were appearing before God at that moment. Such prayer is only one expression of the universality of love that is the leitmotif of Zosima’s admonitions. ‘For all is like an ocean, all is flowing and bending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.’ He also insists that it is necessary ‘to love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of the Divine love and is the highest love on earth.’ Love ‘all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it…every ray of God’s light, love the animals, love the plants, love everything.’

Because sin is omnipresent, a good deal of effort is required to achieve the state of mind that he recommends. As a remedy, ‘there is only one means of salvation’: ‘Take yourself and make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, and you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and for all things.’ To take on oneself the burden of universal guilt thus becomes the only antidote to despair at the existence of evil. Only by taking responsibility for all sin could they avoid ‘sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God’ (as Ivan had done). Even a judge appointed by law should ‘act in the same spirit if possible, for [the criminal] will go away and condemn himself more bitterly than you have done.’ Such would be the ideal situation, already mentioned by Zosima is discussing Ivan’s article, when the state would be transformed into a church and the punishment of a criminal would be exclusively the work of his own moral conscience. If the criminal should go away unredeemed, however, ‘mocking at you,’ his self-chastisement will eventually occur. Nothing that happens can thus infirm such a faith.

Faith does not require confirmation by miracles, nor should failure in combating evil lead to discouragement. Zosima urges his listeners to subdue any ‘desire for vengeance on the evildoers’ by seeking suffering and blaming only themselves. ‘If you had been a light, you would have lighted the path for others too…And even though your light was shining, yet you see men were not saved by it, hold firm and doubt not the power of the heavenly light…Men are always saved after the death of the deliverer.’ This later redemption is what occured in the case of Christ, and we will see it repeated after Zosima’s death as well.

Dostoevsky well knew that these injunctions are difficult for human reason to understand [MY NOTE: Difficult to understand or difficult to accept?]; and as a last resort Zosima falls back on the mystery of human life itself. Much is concealed in the earthly life of humankind, and ‘many of the strongest feelings and movements of our nature we cannot comprehend…On earth, indeed, we are as it were astray, as if it were not the precious image of Christ before us, we should be undone and altogether lost, as was that human race before the flood.’ Dostoevsky then sets down Zosima’s often-quoted words between earthly life and other worlds: ‘God took seeds from different worlds and sowed them on the earth…but what grows…is alive only through the feeling of its contact with other mysterious worlds.’ Once ‘such contact is lost, then you will be indifferent to life and even grow to hate it.’ Zosima returns to the Franciscan note of cosmic mysticism in affirming the beauty and goodness of all God’s creation: ‘Love to throw yourself on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything…Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears.’

After such an ecstatic summation, Zosima shifts back to the problem of the human condition. Hell contains no scenario of hooks and grappling irons, a la Feodor. Rather, according to Zosima, hell is this eternal torment, ‘the suffering of no longer being able to love.’ So far as ‘hellfire in the material sense’ is concerned, he declares that ‘I don’t go into that mystery and I shun it.’ Hell is purely a spiritual torment, not to be depicted, pace Dante and Milton, in physical imagery at all. Dostoevsky thus remains faithful to his poetics of subjectivity by transforming even hell into an attribute of the human psyche. Milton had preceded him when Satan declares in Paradise Lost, ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven,’ but this is not accompanied in Milton by a rejection of the traditional imagery.

So ends Alyosha’s rendition of Zosima’s zhitie, and the thread of the story is then taken up again by the narrator. We return to the cell where Zosima was speaking to his intimates, ‘so cheerful and talkative’ that he seemed to have undergone a temporary recovery, but he does on this very day, his peacefully solemn demise fully in accord with the sanctity of his life since becoming a priest, and with the teachings that Alyosha had recorded.’

Monday’s Reading:

Part III, Book Seven, Chapters One and Two


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