The Brothers Karamazov
Book VIII, Chapter One
by Dennis Abrams
“Kuzma Samsonov” “But Dmitri Fyodorovich, to whom Grushenka, flying to her new life, had ‘ordered’ her last farewell sent and whom she bade remember forever the one hour of her love, unaware as he was of what had happened with her, was at that moment also running around in terrible disarray.” Dmitri’s brain fever. Grushenka’s ability to torment Dmitri. Dmitri’s belief that she would ultimately choose between him and his father Fyodor — even after learning about the ‘return’ of the officer, he didn’t take that possibility seriously. Dmitri’s dream of having Grushenka choose him, “Take me, I’m yours forever,” at which point “he would snatch her up and take her to the of the world at once.” Starting a new life. Dmitri’s need for money, his need and desire to start clean, “he wanted to take her away himself, to start the new life with her on his own money, not on hers…’I am scoundrel before woman, and I’ll prove at once to be a scoundrel before the other, and Grushenka, if she finds out, will not want such a scoundrel.” Where could he find money? Dmitri comes up with a plan — he’ll go the merchant Samsonov, Grushenka’s patron. Dmitri’s lack of doubt that Samsonov would be wiling to go along with the plan, willing to help him win Grushenka. Dmitri goes to see Samsonov. Samsonov’s sons; his old age; his reluctance to see Dmitri before finally giving in. Samsonov’s house. Dmitri, rambling and nearly incoherent, presents Samsonov with his plan to sell him his claims against his father for three thousand roubles — claims he promises will bring Samsonov twice that. Samsonov refuses, but after Dmitri says that he’s “done for” suggests he go to the priest Lyagavy (the same priest Fyodor wanted Ivan to visit to discuss a sale) with the same offer. Dmitri’s delight with Samsonov. Was it business-like advice or was Samsonov laughing at him? The narrator-chronicler jumps in: “Alas! only the second of these thoughts was true. Later, much later, when the whole catastrophe had already taken place, old Samsonov himself admitted, laughing, that he had made a fool of the ‘captain.’ This was a spiteful, cold, and sarcastic man, full of morbid antipathies as well.” Was it the ‘rapturous look of the captain?’ Was it Dmitri’s conviction that Samsonov would fall for “something as wild as his ‘plan?'” Was it simple jealousy over Grushenka? “I cannot say what prompted the old man at the time, but when Mitya stood before him, feeling his legs give way, and exclaimed senselessly that he was done for — at that moment the old man looked upon him with boundless spite and decided to make a fool of him.”
1. Brain fever seems to be rife in Dostoevsky-land.
2. I was struck by this line about Dmitri’s decision to somehow find the money and redeem himself, “The final working out of this decision took place in him, so to speak, in the last hours of his life…” The last hours of his life?
3. Why would Dmitri think for a moment that Samsonov would help him financially so he then take Grushenka away?
In Book VII, Mitya’s book, the catastrophe that the narrator-chronicler has prepared for and hinted at for several hundred pages finally occurs. The novel gives itself over to plot. Indeed, Dostoevsky was one of the earliest practitioners of the thriller, a founder of the most durable literary genre of all: the murder mystery, which consists, of course, precisely in the narrator’s balancing of disclosure, deception, silence, and arbitrary omniscience. Our narrator-chronicler indulges these literary techniques to the hilt in Book VIII.
Just as Dimitri drastically misreads Grushenka’s dilemmas — he thinks she is struggling to choose between father and son and fails to perceive that the returning Polish officer has set her crisis in motion — so do we the readers, along with the characters who are to be ‘the witnesses,’ drastically misread and misinterpret Mitya’s actions. Our narrator-chronicler plays an even more devious game than he did in Book VII, veering between intimacy and remoteness, knowledge and ignorance — feigned or otherwise.
At this point the narrative of Book VIII begins to rhyme with Mitya’s confession to Alyosha in Book III. Mitya, as he did in Book III, runs through various scenarios and plans for action…
We at last learn why Alyosha and Ivan have been unable to find Mitya for two days. At ten o’clock on the second morning of the novel’s action [MY NOTE: As readers, I think we tend to forget just how concentrated Dostoevsky’s narratives tend to be.] he had first approached the old merchant Samsonov, Grushenka’s benefactor and former lover. This first scenario, like his initial, though rejected, plan for winning Katerina Ivanovna, embodies a Karamazov idea. In true Karamazov fashion, Mitya tries to persuade Samsonov to deal in IOUs — Mitya’s shaky inheritance claims for the village of Chermashnya against ‘that unnatural monster’ Fyodor — in return for 3,000 roubles. This plan duplicates Fyodor Karamazov’s commercial dealings with Grushenka, who had been buying Karamazov IOUs as well. Samsonov, in a grotesque parody of Fyodor, sends Mitya off to Chermashnya to negotiate about the copse with the peasant Lyagavy (whose real name is Gorstkin.) [MY NOTE: Why didn’t I recognize that as being a parody? Duh!]”
From Joseph Frank:
In the same time interval during which Alyosha was undergoing his spiritual awakening, Dimitry was frantically watching to see whether Grushenka would visit his father, and searching desperately for the means of obtaining the money that might allow him to begin a new life with her. These semi-comic episodes culminate in the fateful moment when ‘God,’ as Mitya himself later said, ‘watched over me then.’ Earlier, Dimitry had declared the ideal of the Madonna and the ideal of Sodom were battling in the heart of man, and his own character is an embodiment of this conflict. [‘But the difficulty is,’ Dimitry exclaims piteously, ‘how am I to cling forever to Mother Earth…I don’t cleave to her bosom…I go on and I don’t know whether I’m going to shame or to light and joy.’ Varying the imagery as the passage continues, and turning from Schiller’s Hellenism to Christianity and the Bible, Dimitry rises to heights of inspired eloquence in the famous passage on humankind’s disquieting capacity to harbor both the ideal of the Madonna and the ideal of Sodom in its breast. ‘Beauty is a terrible thing…Here all the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side…the awful things is that beauty is mysterious and as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.’]…
And finally, the continuation of D.H. Lawrence’s introduction to the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’:
“Is it true that mankind demands, and will always demand, miracle, mystery, and authority? Surely it is true. Today, man gets his sense of the miraculous from science and machinery, radio, airplanes, vast ships, zeppeline, poison gas, artificial silk: these things nourish man’s sense of the miraculous as magic did in the past. But now, man is master of the mystery, there are no occult powers. The same with mystery: Medicine, biological experiment, strange feats of the psychic people, spiritualists, Christian scientists — it is all mystery. And as for authority, Russia destroyed the Tsar to have Lenin and the present mechanical despotism, Italy has the rationalized despotism of Mussolini, and England is longing for a despot.
Dostoevsky’s diagnosis of human nature is simple and unanswerable. We have to submit, and agree that men are like that. Even over the question of sharing the bread, we have to agree that man is too week, or vicious, or something to be able to do it. He has to hand the common bread over to some absolute authority, Tsar or Lenin, to be shared out. And yet the mass of men are incapable of looking on bread as a mere means of sustenance, by which man sustains himself for the purpose of true living, true life being the ‘heavenly bread.’ It seems a strange thing that men, the mass of men, cannot understand that life is the great reality, that true living fills us with vivid life, ‘the heavenly bread,’ and earthly bread merely supports this. No, men cannot understand, never have understood that simple fact. They cannot see the distinction between bread, or property, money, and vivid life. They think that property and money are the same thing as vivid life. Only the few, the potential heroes or the ‘elect,’ can see the simple distinction. The mass cannot see it, and will never see it.
Dostoevsky was perhaps the first to realize this devastating truth, which Christ had not seen. A truth it is, none the less, and once recognized it will change the course of history. All that remains is for the elect to take charge of the bread — the property, the money — and then give it back to the masses as if it were really the gift of life. In this way, mankind might live happily, as the Inquisitor suggests. Otherwise, with the masses making the terrible mad mistake that money is life, and that therefore no one shall control the money, men shall be ‘free’ to get what they can, we are brought to a condition of competitive insanity and ultimate suicide.
So far, well and good, Dostoevsky’s diagnosis stands. But is it then to betray Christ and turn over to Satan if the elect should at least realize that instead of refusing Satan’s three offers, the heroic Christian must now accept them? Jesus refused the three offers out of pride and fear: he wanted to be greater than these, and ‘above’ them. But we now realize no man, not even Jesus, is really ‘above’ miracle, mystery, and authority. The one thing that Jesus is truly above, is the confusion between money and life. Money is not life, says Jesus, therefore you can ignore it and leave it to the devil.
Money is not life, it is true. But ignoring money and leaving it to the devil means handing over the great mass of men to the devil, for the mass of men cannot distinguish between money and life. It is hard to believe: certainly Jesus didn’t believe it; and yet, as Dostoevsky and the Inquisitor point out, it is so.
Well, and what then? Must we therefore go over to the devil? After all, the whole of Christianity is not contained in the rejection of the three temptations. The essence of Christianity is a love of mankind. If a love of mankind entails accepting the bitter limitation of the mass of men, their inability to distinguish between money and life, then accept the limitation and have done with it. Then take over from the devil the money (or bread), the miracle, and the sword of Caesar, and, for the love of mankind, give back to men, the bread, with its wonder, and give them the miracle, the marvellous, and give them, in a hierarchy, someone, some men, in higher and higher degrees, to bow down to. Let them bow down, let them bow down en masse, for the mass, who do not understand the difference between money and life, should always bow down to the elect, who do.
And is that serving the devil? It is certainly not serving the spirit of annihilation and not-being. It is serving the great wholeness of mankind, and in that respect, it is Christianity. Anyhow, it is the service Almighty God, who made men what they are, limited and unlimited.
Where Dostoevsky is perverse is in his making the old, old, wise governor of men a Grand Inquisitor. The recognition of the weakness of man has been a common trait in all great, wise rulers of people, from teh Pharaohs and Darius through the great patient Popes of the early Church right down to the present day. They have known the weakness of men, and felt a certain tenderness. This is the spirit of all great government. But it was not the spirit of the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition in 1500 was a newfangled thing, peculiar to Spain, with her curious death-lust and her bullying, and, strictly, a Spanish-political instrument, not Catholic at all, but rabidly national. The Spanish Inquisition was diabolic. It could not have produced a Grand Inquisitor who put Dostoevsky’s sad question to Jesus. And the man who put those sad questions to Jesus could not possibly have been a Spanish Inquisitor. He could not possibly have burnt a hundred people in an auto-da-fe. He would have been too wise and far-seeing.
So that, in this respect, Dostoevsky showed his epileptic and slightly criminal perversity. The man who feels a certain tenderness for mankind in its weakness or limitation is not therefore diabolic. The man who realizes that Jesus asked too much of the mass of men, in asking them to choose between earthly and heavenly bread, and to judge between good and evil, is not therefore satanic. Think how difficult it is to know the difference between good and evil! Why, sometimes it is evil to be good. And how is the ordinary man to understand that? He can’t. The extraordinary men have to understand it for him. And is that going over to the devil? Or think of the difficulty in choosing between the earthly and heavenly bread. Lenin, surely a pure soul, rose to great power simply to give men — what? The earthly bread. And what was the result? Not only did they lose the heavenly bread, but even the earthly bread disappeared out of wheat-producing Russia. It is most strange. And all the socialists and the generous thinkers of today, what are they striving for? The same: to share out more evenly the earthly bread. Even they, who are practicing Christianity par excellence, cannot properly choose between the heavenly and earthly bread. For the poor, they choose the earthly bread, and once more the heavenly bread is lost: and once more, as soon as it is really chosen, the earthly bread begins to disappear. It is a great mystery. But today, the most passionate believers in Christ believe that all you have to do is to struggle to give earthly bread (good houses, good sanitation, etc.) to the poor, and that is in itself the heavenly bread. But it isn’t. Especially for the poor, it isn’t. It is for them the loss of heavenly bread. And the poor are the vast majority. Poor things, how everybody hates them today! For benevolence is a form of hate.
What then is the heavenly bread? Every generation must answer for itself. But the heavenly bread is life, is living. Whatever makes life vivid and delightful is the heavenly bread. And the earthly bread must come as a by-product of the heavenly bread. The vast mass will never understand this. Yet it is the essential truth of Christianity, and of life itself. The few will understand. Let them take responsibility.”
More to come…
The Weekend’s Reading:
Book VIII, Chapters Two through Four
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.