The Brothers Karamazov
Book XII, Chapters 6-8
by Dennis Abrams
“The Prosecutor’s Speech. Characterizations.” “Ippolit Kirillovich began his statement for the prosecution all nervously atremble, with a cold, sickly sweat on his forehead and temples, feeling alternately chilled and feverish all over…He considered this speech his chef d’oeuvre.” Nine months later, Ippolit died of consumption. “Even our ladies, ultimately hostile to Ippolit Kirillovich, nonetheless admitted the greatness of the impression he made.” His voice grew stronger as the speech went on, “But as soon as he finished it, he nearly fainted.” His speech: The resounding of the case throughout Russia. “And here is the real horror, that such dark affairs have almost ceased to horrify us!” Why the people’s indifference? Cynicism? Shattered moral principles? Other horrific cases are recounted. A monster, but not an isolated monster. Suicides. “Look, finally, at our depravity, at our sensualists. Fyodor Pavlovich, the unfortunate victim in the current trial, is almost an innocent babe next to some of them. And we all knew him, ‘he lived among us.’…” Will the psychology of Russian crime be worthy of study? “For now, we are either horrified or pretend that we are horrified, while on the contrary, relishing the spectacle, like lovers of strong, eccentric sensations that stir our cynical and lazy idleness…” Gogol’s troika. Applause for Ippolit. The sad notoriety of the Karamazov family. “Perhaps I am greatly exaggerating, but it seems to me that certain basic, general elements of our modern-day educated society shine through, as it were, in the picture of this nice little family…” Ippolit dissects the Karamazovs. Fyodor, “In the end he see nothing in his life apart from sensual pleasure, and thus he teaches his children.” Ivan’s immorality and cynicism; his bad influence on Smerdyakov, “in the preliminary investigation he told me, with hysterical tears, how this young Karamazov, Ivan Fyodorovich, had horrified him with his spiritual unrestraint, ‘Everything, according to him, is permitted, whatever there is in the world, and from now on nothing should be forbidden — that’s what he kept teaching me about.’ It seems that this thesis, which he was taught, ultimately caused the idiot to lose his mind…” Smerdyakov’s remark that Ivan most closely resembled his father. Alyosha, ‘pious and humble,’ who clung to the monastery and all but became a monk, “In him, it seems to me, unconsciously, as it were, and so early on, there betrayed itself that timid despair that leads so many in our poor society, fearing its cynicism and depravity, and mistakenly ascribing all evil to European enlightenment, to throw themselves, as they put it, to the ‘native soil,’ so to speak, into the motherly embrace of the native earth, like children frightened by ghosts, who…wish only to fall peacefully asleep and…simply not to see the horrors that frighten them.” Hope that Alyosha’s ‘youthful brightheartedness and yearnings for popular foundations ” will not turn into dark mysticism. Dimitri: “he seems to represent ingenuous Russia…we are an amazing mixture of good and evil…” Lovers of the enlightenment while at the same time raging in taverns. Possessed of the noblest ideals, “but only on condition that they be attained by themselves, that they fall on our plate from the sky…so that we need pay nothing for them.” We like to get things but hate to pay for them. Do not obstruct our character. Dmitri’s need for money. His selflessness, his depravity. Was he at the same time sincerely noble and sincerely base? “…we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature — and this is what I’m driving at — capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above u s, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation.” Why didn’t Dmitri return the remaining half of the money to Katerina? Ippolit speculates that it would have been impossible — IF he had held it, he would have started to rationalize taking out a hundred at a time until there was nothing left, “This is how the real Dmitri Karamazov would have acted.” “A Historical Survey” “The medical experts strove to prove to prove to us that the defendant is out of his mind and a maniac. I insist he is precisely in his right mind, and so much the worse for him: had it not been his mind, he might have turned out to be much more intelligent.” Ippolit tells his interpretation of Dmitri’s story, tracing the how the thought of killing Fyodor grew, explaining away any questions others might have. “A Treatise on Smerdyakov” Ippolit shows that the three people who accuse Smerdyakov of the murder, Ivan, Alyosha, and Grushenka, have no proof of their contention. Ippolit portrays Smerdyakov as feeble-minded and cowardly. In his testimony, Smerdyakov told Ippolit that he had told Dmitri about Fyodor about the money, the code, etc., because he was afraid of him. Smerdyakov’s supposed honesty, his remorse at betraying Fyodor. Ippolit says that Smerdyakov begged Ivan to remain at home rather than go to Moscow. Smerdyakov’s bout of “falling sickness” was because of his fears over Fyodor’s murder. Why would Smerdyakov plan the murder and draw attention to himself by having a fit? How would Smerdyakov killed Fyodor — by himself or with Dmitri? What would be his motive? Why would he reveal a motive to Dmitri? How could Smerdyakov have known that Dmitri would come and go, after which he could sneak in and kill Fyodor and steal the money? Why would he have left the envelope? Why didn’t Ivan tell the police about Smerdyakov’s confession earlier?
Interesting. I appreciated Ippolit’s attempt to personify all of Russia in the Karamazovs (was that Dostoevsky’s motive?) and was equally amused by the way he completely misread Smerdyakov while insisting that what actually did take place couldn’t possibly have taken place for x, y, and z reasons.
And of course this famous passage: “Precisely because we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature — and this is what I’m driving at — capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation. Recall the brilliant thought expressed earlier by a young observer who has profoundly and closely contemplated the whole Karamazov family. Mr. Rakitin: ‘A sense of the lowness of degradation is as necessary for these unbridled, unrestrained natures as the sense of the loftiest nobility’ — and it is true: they precisely need this unnatural mixture, constantly and ceaselessly. Two abysses, two abysses, gentlemen, in one and the same moment 0– without that we are wretched and dissatisfied, our existence is incomplete.”
And I thought it was interesting that Ippolit denigrated Alyosha’s need to throw himself to the native soil, since for all the ‘good’ characters in the novel, Alyosha, Zosima, etc., touching the earth is vital.
“In Books X and XI Dostoevsky had sounded in a variety of keys the interrelated questions of the determination of one’s own guilt and one’s own responsibility. Here in Book XII, however, the action focuses on the question of how one can judge the guilt of another. The prosecutor’s speech, his ‘swan song,’ offers an astute summation of each of the members of the Karamazov family and an analysis of them in terms of contemporary Russian problems. Fyodor was a ‘typical father of today’; Ivan’s ‘Europeanism’ is described as is Alyosha’s ‘return to [the] native soil’; Mitya himself ‘seems to represent Russia directly.’
Indeed, the prosecutor’s speech ironically forecasts what has been the shape of much subsequent commentary on the novel, even though all the specific conclusions he draws are wrong. His ideas represent a peculiar, yet powerful blend of fact and fancy; he draws precisely the wrong conclusion from shrewd, correct initial premises and deductions about Mitya’s character. Particularly sharp is his agreement with Dr. Varvinsky that Mitya has been in his right mind all along. He makes the indisputable point that none of those who believe Smerdyakov to be guilty — Mitya, Ivan, Alyosha, and Grushenka — have been able to provide a single fact to support the idea.
Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney shrewdly use the tools of psychology to scrutinize the facts, and each brilliantly misinterprets them. Ippolit Kirillovich, for example, understands that Dmitri ‘can contemplate two extremes and both at once,’ but he then consistently identifies the wrong extreme as the one chosen. He fails, in his psychological reasoning, to suppose that Smerdyakov might have lied to Mitya about where the envelope was hidden, and he thus falls neatly into Smerdyakov’s psychological trap; he maintains that the presence of the town envelope on the floor proves that it could not have been taken by Smerdyakov, who, knowing what the envelope contained, would have had no reason to rip it open at the scene of the crime.”
“The final section of the novel contains the extensive speeches of both the prosecuting attorney and the defense, and Dostoevsky uses them not only to provide the proper climax to the plot-action involving Dimitry and Ivan but also as a means of internal commentary on the novel itself. The two lawyers argue about a case of murder, but their ovations also illuminate the larger moral-spiritual (and hence implicitly social and political) problems that the novel has presented with such majestic amplitude.
According to the prosecuting attorney Ippolit Kirillovich, Russians are no longer horrified by the crime of murder [MY NOTE: Neither are Americans for that matter], and his indictment would certainly have been read, in the context of the time, as a condemnation of those who, if not in sympathy with terrorism, then at least remained neutrally indifferent to its ravages. He argues that the Karamazov family presents a picture of contemporary educated Russia, and Feodor Pavlovich certainly represents — in the extreme, symbolically expressive form that only Dostoevsky knew how to create — the older generation of Russians among whom stable moral-social standards had entirely disappeared. Moreover, Ivan’s loss of faith and his theory, as Ippolit Kirillovich put it, that ‘everything in the world is lawful,’ that ‘nothing must be forbidden in future,’ has driven Smerdyakov ‘out of his mind’, and Dostoevsky here raises the possibility that the intelligentsia’s atheism will undermine the still devout Russian people. [MY NOTE: But since that’s not the case, that Smerdyakov was not driven mad by Ivan, but by his own guilt…]
Dimitry is seen as a symbol of Russia itself. He, argues the prosecutor, ‘represents Russia directly…Yes, here she is, our Mother Russia, the very scent and smell of her. Oh, we are spontaneous, we are a marvelous mingling of good and bad, we are lovers of culture and Schiller, yet we brawl in taverns and pluck the beards of our boon companions.’ Both are part of the Karamazov character, which is ‘capable of containing the most incongruous contradictions and simultaneously contemplating both abysses,…the highest ideals, and…the lowest and foulest degradations.’ These words echo Dmitry’s about the ceaseless conflict between the ideal of Sodom and that of the Madonna., but the entire book has shown his struggle to wrench himself free from the temptations of Sodom and commit himself to the Mother of God.”
Book XII, Chapter Nine
Enjoy. And everyone in Hurricane Irene’s path — stay safe.