The Brothers Karamazov
The Wrap-Up Continues
with Dennis Abrams
A continuation of yesterday’s essay by Harold Bloom:
“The genius of Dostoevsky faltered when it came to representing religion, which is the flaw of The Brothers Karamazov, since Dostoevsky’s Russian Christianity was purely a disease of the intellect, a nationalistic virus, devoid of spiritual insight. Are we to be moved by Zosima’s assertion, “Whoever does not believe in God is not going to believe in God’s people?’ That sounds uncomfortably like Southern Baptist conviction that Christ favors the Republican Party. It ought to be a scandal that an agnostic or atheist cannot be elected dogcatcher in the United States, but it is a weary fact we must accept. Dostoevsky’s obscurantist religiosity is plain tiresome, though critics mostly will not say so. At the close of The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha joyously kisses the Russian earth, and Dostoevsky is immensely moved by this heroic act. The novels ends with the young prophet preaching to a group of boys, in memory of one of their group who has died.
“I am speaking about the worst case, if we become bad,’ Alyosha went on, “But why should we become bad, gentlemen, isn’t that true? Let us first of all and before all be kind, then honest, and then — let us never forget one another. I say it again. I give you my word, gentlemen, that for my part I will never forget any one of you; each face that is looking at me now; at this moment, I will remember; be it even after thirty years. Kolya said to Karashov just now that we supposedly ‘do not care to know of his existence’ But how can I forget that Karashov exists and that he is no longer blushing now, as when he discovered Troy, but is looking at me with his nice, kind, happy eyes? Gentlemen, my dear gentlemen, let us all be as generous and as brave as Ilyushechka, as intelligent, brave, and generous as Kolya (who will be much more intelligent when he grows up a little), and let us be as bashful, but smart and nice, as Kartashov. But why am I talking about these two? You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united u s in these good, kind lives, who, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages of ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”
“Yes, yes, eternal, eternal,” all the boys cried in their ringing voices, with deep feelings in their faces.
“Let us remember his face, and his clothes, and his poor boots, and his little coffin, and his unfortunate, sinful father, and how he bravely rose up against the whole class for him!”
“We will, we will remember!” the boys cried again, “he was brave, he was kind!”
“Ah, how I loved him!” exclaimed Kolya.
“Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and rightful!”
“Yes, yes,” the boys repeated ecstatically.
“Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, which seemed to be Kartashov’s exclaimed irrepressibly.
‘We love you, we love you,’ everyone joined in. Many had tears shining in their eyes.
“Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya proclaimed ecstatically.
“And memory eternal for the dead boy!” Alyosha added again, with feeling.
“Memory eternal!” The boys again cried”
[AND SO ON AND SO ON…Back to Bloom]
Someone not fond of this passage unkindly suggested that it had the aura of a Boy Scout rally, an event of which I know nothing. Whatever it resembles, it divides readers. to me, it is of a badness not to be believed, and reminds me that Tolstoy grudgingly approved of Dostoevsky only to the extent that this rival prophet could be termed the Russian Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Yet all that I try to indicate is that Dostoevsky was neither a religious genius nor a genius of religion. In spiritual matters, he merely was a bigoted know-nothing, whose authentic anti-Semitism was the only evidence of his election as a Russian prophet. The Brothers Karamazov is not The Diary of a Writer, and the genius of Dostoevsky is strongest where it brings Old Karamazov and Mitya into confrontation.
“Dmitri Pavlovich!” Fyodor Pavlovich suddenly screamed in a voice not his own, “if only you weren’t my son, I would challenge you to a duel this very moment…with pistols at three paces…across a handkerchief! across a handkerchief!” he ended, stamping with both feet.
Old liars who have been play-acting all their lives have moments when they get so carried away by their posturing that they indeed tremble and weep from excitement, even though at that same moment (or just a second later) they might whisper to themselves: ‘You’re lying, you shameless old man, you’re acting even now, despite all your ‘holy’ wrath and ‘holy’ moment of wrath.’
Dmitri Fyodorovich frowned horribly and looked at his father with inexpressible contempt.
“I thought…I thought.” he said somehow softly and restrainedly, “that I would come to my birthplace with the angel of my soul, my fiancee, to cherish him in his old age, and all I find is a depraved sensualist and despicable comedian!”
“To a duel!” the old fool screamed again, breathless and spraying saliva with every word. “And you, Pyotor Alexandrovich Miusov, let it be known to you, sir, that in all the generations of your family there is not and maybe never has been a woman loftier or more honorable — more honorable, do you hear? — than this creature, as you have just dared to call her! And you, Dmitri Fyodorovich, traded your fiancee for this very ‘creature,’ as you yourself have judged that your fiancee isn’t worthy to lick her boots — that’s the kind of creature she is!”
“Shame!” suddenly escaped from Father Iosif.
“A shame and a disgrace!” Kalganov, who had been silent all the while, suddenly cried in his adolescent voice, trembling with excitement and blushing all over.
“Why is such a man alive!” Dmitri Fyodorovich growled in a muffled voice, now nearly beside himself with fury, somehow raising his shoulders peculiarly so that he looked almost hunchbacked. “No, tell me, can he be allowed to go on dishonoring the earth with himself?” He looked around at everyone, pointing his finger at the old man. His speech was slow and deliberate.
“Do you hear, you monks, do you hear the parricide!” Fyodor Pavlovich flung at Father Iosif. “There is the answer to your ‘shame’! What shame? This ‘creature,’ this ‘woman of bad behavior’ is perhaps holier than all of you, gentlemen and soul-saving hieromonks! Maybe she fell in her youth, being influenced by her environment, but also has ‘loved much,’ and even Christ forgave her who loved much…’
“Christ did not forgive that kind of love…” escaped impatiently from the meek Father Iosif.
“No, that kind, monks, exactly that kind, that kind. You are saving your souls here on cabbage and you think you’re righteous! You eat gudgeons, one gudgeon a day, and you think you can buy God with gudgeons!”
“Impossible! Impossible!” came from all sides of the cell.
But the whole scene, which had turned so ugly, was stopped in a most unexpected manner. The elder suddenly rose from his place. Alyosha, who had almost completely lost his head from fear for him and for all of them, had just time enough to support his arm. The elder stepped towards Dmitri Fyodorovich and, having come close to him, knelt before him. Alyosha thought for a moment that he had fallen from weakness, but it was something else. Kneeling in front of Dmitri Fyodorovich, the elder bowed down at his feet with a full, distinct, conscious bow, and even touched the floor with his forehead. Alyosha was so amazed that he failed to support him as he got to his feet. A weak smile barely glimmered on his lips.
“Forgive me! Forgive me all of you!” he said, bowing on all sides to his guests.
Dmitri Fyodorovich stood dumbstruck for a few moments. Bowing at his feet — what was that? Then suddenly he cried out: “Oh, God!” and, covering his face with his hands, rushed from the room. All the other guests flocked after him, forgetting in their confusion even to say good-bye or bow to their host. Only the hieromonks again came to receive his blessing.
“What’s that — bowing at his feet? Is it some sort of emblem?” Fyodor Pavlovich, who for some reason had grown quiet, tried to start a conversation, not daring, by the way, to address anyone in particular. At that moment they were just passing beyond the walls of the hermitage.”
This wonderful passage is an epitome of The Brothers Karamazov, and more than redeems it from all of Dostoevsky’s spurious spirituality. We are free to interpret as we will the elder’s terrifying obeisance to Mitya, but dramatically it prophesies the martyrdom he must undergo when he is unjustly convicted of his father’s murder. Everything in the passage has a marvelous aesthetic appropriateness, including Old Karamazov’s denunciation of the monks for their diet of cabbage and gudgeons — small, tasteless fish good only for bait — which he regards as another mark of their hypocrisy. A gourmet as to food, Old Karamazov will devour any woman whatsoever: “There are no ugly women!” The peculiar intensity of the father’s buffoonery, with its outrageous challenge to a duel, inevitably provokes the passionate Mitya to the sinful thread of patricide. Father and son, fascinating monster and poignant poet, share in the one nature, villain and hero alike. This is the genius of Dostoevsky at full play, almost Shakespearean in its splendor.”