“The truth, unfortunately, is almost always banal.”

The Brothers Karamazov
The Wrap-Up Continues

From Victor Terras:

“As the hero of Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk (1846) walks through the streets of St. Petersburg on a cold and rainy day in September, he meets a half-naked, shivering, coughing beggar of about ten, whose mother has sent him out into the streets with a note imploring the charity of passers-by. The little beggar seems to be having little success, as most people brush him aside with harsh and cruel words. Devushkin concludes his little vignette with this observation: “Look there, he is coughing already; before long disease, like a slimy reptile, will creep into his chest, and then, before you know it, death is going to take him, somewhere in a foul-smelling hole, with no care, no help — and there it is, his whole life! That’s what life is like sometimes.’

We see here Dostoevsky’s first hero in open rebellion against God. When Dostoevsky’s last rebel, Ivan Karamazov, makes his stand, his principal charge against God’s world is still that in it innocent children are allowed to suffer senselessly. In Poor FolkDostoevsky’s own position is equivocal, to say the least, and the conclusion of the novel finds Devushkin once again in deep despair, facing a world that he cannot understand. In The Brothers Karamazov, there can be no doubt as to whose side Dostoevsky is on, God’s or the Devil’s. Ivan Karamazov’s negative argument ‘from design’ is met by a formidable array of counterarguments. There is the bold counterthrust in little Ilyusha’s meaningful and inspiring death. There is the more indirect message of the general atmosphere of the novel and of its edifying episodes, such as ‘Cana of Galilee.’ They do not cancel the fact of senseless suffering but provide a strong counterbalance.

Perhaps strongest of all are the arguments ad hominem by which the rebel himself is discredited, morally as well as intellectually. In “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,’ Ivan, who has earlier ‘returned his ticket’ to God’s world, proposes an alternative to it: a group of wise and noble men, having discovered the secret of God’s nonexistence, will secure the bliss of the ignorant and believing masses by concealing the secret from them, by taking care of their earthly needs, by giving them a show of power and authority on earth as well as a false promise of eternal life in Heaven. Christ, as he appears in the ‘Legend,’ is a noble idealist who has sadly overestimated the spiritual capacity of most men. He has offered them beatitude through freedom, which most men do not even want, or which they grossly abuse.

The Grand Inquisitor, Ivan’s creation, is a projection of his own innermost thoughts, and so in a sense his ‘double.’ But the Grand Inquisitor is only one aspect of his mind, his superego, one might say. After the Grand Inquisitor episode, Ivan is subjected to a devastating and unrelenting assault from many sides, until both he and his philosophy have been totally destroyed. Much of this destructive work is done through the introduction of two further ‘doubles,’ Smerdyakov and Kolia Krasotkin. But the coup de grace is certainly administered by the last of Ivan’s doubles, the Devil in the chapter entitled “the Devil: Ivan Fedorovich’s Nightmare.’ Here the Grand Inquisitor is exposed as a mere front, and his creator, therefore, as a fraud. It would seem to me that this chapter not only is more than a set of variations on ‘The Legend”…but it is actually its direct refutation. The Devil, too, is a product of Ivan’s mind, but he has deeper roots, is more organically a part of him, than the abstract and fictional Grand Inquisitor. It is the Devil who shows what the Russian atheist is really like.

What is the Devil like? Externally, he is a middle-aged gentleman with a full head of dark, graying hair and a Vandyke beard. His dress is decent, though slightly out of style and a little shabby. He has seen better days and may be a bit of a genteel hanger-on, living with wealthy relatives. His manners and behavior are most pleasant, exuding bonhomie, common sense, and good humor even in adversity, with a sympathetic appreciation of the ‘human’ and all-too-human aspect of things, and a touch of sentimentality and sensitivity to the arts. He has his human frailties: he is a great hypochondriac, is a little superstitious and gossipy. He tells bad jokes, and his witticisms are rather banal. But all in all he is, it seems, not such a bad sort.

His philosophy is rather what one would expect of a man of this description. He does not believe in God, but not because he is against religion. On the contrary, he would dearly like to become a believer — in fact, he would ‘give up all that translunar life, all those ranks and honors, just to be incarnated in the soul of a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound merchant’s wife, attending Church and dedicating candles to the Lord.’ Many a time he was within an inch of joining in the angels’ ‘Hosanna!’ But an innate skepticism and a sense of duty — who would be left to represent the necessary negative principle without which all life would inevitably come to a standstill? — has so far always prevented him from going through with it. But he certainly won’t exclude the possibility that some day he will! He, for his part, is perfectly willing, as soon as he has been told ‘the secret.’ But in the meantime, he voices the Cartesian doubt, veers into Fichtean idealism, and all along complains about the absurdity of existence. ‘What about me? I suffer, and still I don’t’ live. I am x in an indefinite equation. I am some sort of phantom of life, which has lost all ends and all beginnings, and I have actually myself forgotten, finally, what to call myself.’

Unmistakably, we are facing here a modern agnostic, trying rather sadly to make the most of an absurd world, where eternal, blind, senseless, and inexorable Nature is the only reality. To be sure, the Devil has heard of the possible existence of an antiworld, that of God and His angels (the human world being a neutral zone, as it were, into which both parties make incursions), but this belongs to the realm of legend. ‘No, so long as the secret remains a secret, there will exist for me two truths: one belonging to that world, theirs, of which so far I know nothing at all, and another, which is mine. And let me say this, as things stand now, who knows which truth is better.’

And here, towards the conclusion of the interview, the Devil echoes the Grand Inquisitor’s dream of a new golden age, without God. But unlike the Grand Inquisitor, he drops a hint that there may be a minor hitch: the golden age may be slow in coming. And so an important man may well anticipate it by adopting the principle of a godless world, ‘Everything is allowed,’ for his own private use.

Having made this inventory, one cannot escape the impression that the figure of the Devil fits the image of a man who, in one way or another, accompanied Dostoevsky through virtually all his adult life, Ivan Turgenev. It is safe to say that no other living man occupied as important a place in Dostoevsky’s mind as did Turgenev.

Turgenev’s superficial bonhomie and affability, his genteel emphasis on good manners, his frequent plaintive tone of hurt dignity, his hypochondria and history of rheumatic complaints, his sentimentality and aestheticism, his cosmopolitanism and weakness for Germany, his penchant for the supernatural, his occasional flippancy and indulgence in frivolous pastimes — all of these things we find in Ivan’s ‘double.’ I see the only apparent difference in the Devil’s exterior (he has dark hair; Turgenev, prematurely gray, was light-haired), and in the circumstances that he is described as a poor prizhival’shchik, a genteel sponger, whereas Turgenev was quite wealthy. But in a metaphorical sense, he was, in Dostoevsky’s view, an aging hanger-on in Russian literature. If one chose to be nasty, one could have said that Turgenev was even literally a ‘hanger-on’ of the Viardot family. However, all of the aforementioned are trivial, incidental traits. there are some serious ones, too.

The Devil’s ‘truth’ is depressingly trivial, unexciting, as he himself regretfully admits: ‘The truth, unfortunately, is almost always banal,’ he says. Compare with this Turgenev’s words from his famous lyric prose poem ‘Enough’ (1865). ‘Alas! it is not ghosts, or the fantastic, or chthonic powers, that are terrible…what is terrible is that there is nothing terrible, that the very essence of life is petty and uninteresting, and shallow in a beggarly way.’

Turgenev’s resigned surrender to all-powerful Nature, which he often hypostatized, appears in the Devil’s Weltanschauung also. Specifically, one of Turgenev’s favorite ideas, that of eternal paligenesis, also voiced in ‘Enough,’ appears in the Devil’s notion that our very planet was born, evolved, and died billions of times, in internally repeating cycles.

The parallel is most instructive, also, with regard to the Devil’s professed agnosticism. The point is that the Devil is not a rebel who proudly returns his ticket to God. On the contrary, he wishes he could believe, but cannot. In fact, he envies any man who has not altogether lost his faith — and seeks to corrupt him. Fifteen years before he wrote The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky criticized Turgenev’s story “Phantoms,’ which had just appeared in Dostoevsky’s journal, Epoch. ”Phantoms’ — in my opnion, there is a great deal of trash in that piece: something pettily nasty, sickly, senile, unbelieving from weakness, in a word, the whole Turgenev and his convictions. (However, the poetry in it redeems a great deal.)’

We know that Turgenev considered his lack of faith a personal tragedybut nevertheless persisted in his agnosticism. Turgenev’s pessimsitic agnosticism founds its most famous expression in ‘Enough,’ which Dostoevsky parodied, along with ‘Phantoms’ and several other pieces,’ in Demons. ‘Enough’ presents the image of a man who, while more richly endowed by life than most, nevertheless despairs of life on account of its apparent transitoriness and senselessness. Ivan Karamazov is in the same condition. To this position, the following words of Father Zosima apply:

‘Much of what is on Earth is concealed from us, but as a substitute we are given a secret mystical sensation of a living connection with another world, a lofty, higher world, and indeed, the roots of our thoughts and emotions are not here, but in other worlds. This is why philosophers say that we cannot grasp the essence of things here on Earth. God has taken the seeds of other worlds and sown them here on Earth and is growing His garden here. And all that could come up has come up, yet all that grows here lives and stays alive only through its feeling of being in touch with another, mysterious world. When this feeling weakens or is destroyed in you, that which has been growing in your soul also dies. Then you will become indifferent to life and you may actually begin to hate it.’

There remains the question whether Dostoevsky was consciously aware of the coincidences between Ivan’s double and Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev. It seems significant that Turgenev’s ‘Enough’ is explicitly mentioned in The Brothers Karamazov. ‘Enough,’ as said Turgenev,’ Mrs. Khokhlakova exclaims at one point. It seems significant, also, that the same Mrs. Khokhlakova, in a passage in which she states at some length precisely Ivan Karamazov’s and his Devil’s argument, again quotes Turgenev: ‘Well, then, I think, what if I’ve been a believer all my life, and then I die, and suddenly there is nothing there at all, except that ‘the burdock will grow upon my grave,’ as one writer put it.’

The passage in question is found in chapter 21 of Fathers and Sons, where Bazarov says, ‘All right, he will be living in a white cottage, and I’ll be pushing up burdocks; well, and then what?’ Mrs. Khokhlakova’s quotation is fully appropriate in its context. Uncle Erosha says something similar in The Cossacks, but in a somewhat different context, and the verbatim correspondence with Fathers and Sons is closer.

Dostoevsky had introduced Turgenev in his fiction before: in Demons of course, and perhaps also in “A Little Hero’ (1857), as Karamazov Mochulsky has suggested. In both instances, the image is a highly negative one. Ivan Karamazov is as close to being a projection of Dostoevsky himself as any of his characters are. We know that Turgenev was on his mind a great deal, for many years. It makes some sense that Dostoevsky would project his own loathing for Turgenev and everything he stood for upon his hero’s lowest alter ego. It may be significant that the Devil at one point mockingly echoes Dostoevsky’s very personal story of the ‘crucible of doubt’ through which his ‘Hosanna’ had passed. Surely Turgenev’s version of agnosticism was not entirely alien to Dostoevsky.”

More to come on Sunday/Monday — I’m going to take a couple more days off. In the meantime, in the comments section, please drop me a line, telling me what you thought of Project D, what you ended up thinking about Dostoevsky and his works, which was your favorite and least favorite, etc, and are you as excited about starting on Shakespeare as I am? Next week I’ll be trying to sum up the whole experience.

Enjoy your weekend.

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2 Responses to “The truth, unfortunately, is almost always banal.”

  1. Catherine says:

    I’m not much of a “commenter” but I greatly appreciate being part of Project D, and having the opportunity to read the four novels by Dostoyevsky with Dennis’ guidance, assistance and daily posts. My favorite was Crime and Punishment with the Brothers Karamazov being a close second.

    I’m excited and a bit nervous about Shakespeare, never having been a fan of the Bard, and always wondering why I was not. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Shakespeare through the story versions, e.g. Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare, but have never been able to get into the plays. I’m hoping to get past that obstacle and learn to enjoy Shakespeare in the pure form.

    • You’ve been a terrific commenter, Catherine, as well as a terrific asset to the group. Don’t be nervous about Shakespeare — once you’ve read a few of the plays and learn how to read him and get accustomed to the style, you’ll find, I think, that nobody else comes close.

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