lidocafe (lidocafe) wrote,
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THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, BOOK VI


First, by way of a prologue, about the blog  . . .

I wonder if I have been making the most of this blog and of my reading of the novel.  I think I have been writing rather . . . apologetically, as if I had to sell Dostoevsky.  Sensing that the blog and even the reading have been a burdensome obligation for my colleagues has tainted my view of both and made me feel a little guilty for dragging them into it.  So I will try this time to write what I'm thinking, without undue concern about its reception.  I am more interested in exploring the ideas at the heart of the work than in defending it.  Please do not feel you have to carry on because of me--I know you both have many things to claim your attention!

Now, to begin.

Book VI is short, maybe mercifully so, for much of it is straight philosophy rather than fiction per se, and for me, that is always more difficult reading.

Book V, blogged by
marri , sets forth a resounding critique of the church.  In that book, Ivan, god's critic, asks with all the passion of youth and a of keen conscience how we can reconcile our supposed need for freedom with our inability to make a just world.  Ivan presents us with a world mired in corruption and suggests that religion/the church, far from being an expression of man's spiritual nature, is but a counter to man's weakness and a means to control depravity, for freedom always leads to sin and sin to suffering.  Worse, he argues, religion is the ultimate lie masquerading as the ultimate truth.  Ivan is tortured by the things people can and do do to one another and by the age-old propensity human beings have for torturing and abandoning the most innocent. 

Ivan's questions are the questions every religious thinker must answer eventually, and Book VI, which is a kind of hagiography of Zosima, the elder who mentors Alyosha, is Dostoevsky's response to Ivan's critique.  Of course, Dostoevsky, through Zosima, does not say, no, the church is holy and so are all those in it.  Indeed, Zosima's homilies constitute their own challenge to organized religion, for they represent Christianity not as a set of rules but as a lived love, and it is on these grounds that Ivan's wounded and condemnatory vision meet Zosima's joyful one, for both are visions arising from love.  Ivan could not be so savage did he not love "every sticky leaf" and Ivan's Grand Inquisitor binds mankind to a lie because he loves man so hopelessly.  But Ivan believes that "Christ's love for people is in its kind a miracle impossible on earth."  Interesting that he says "in its kind," for this identifies the extremity of Christ's challenge to human beings, the fact of his revolutionary approach.

When I teach a story called "Bartleby the Scrivener," one of the themes I address is Herman Melville's exploration of what it means, what it really means, to be a Christian, especially in a secular (and capitalist) world.  (This problem is raised early in The Brothers Karamazov  in the debate about whether the church should become the state or the state should become the church.)  Jesus of Nazareth challenges the state, not only directly, but through the difficult and unimaginable (and as yet mostly unrealized) notion that we should love each other as we love ourselves, and forgive both.

This is not a directive to be nice to people, to be kind, to do good works, to follow rules (don't kill, honour the father and mother, etc.).  Rather this is a radical challenge to the separation of self and other, and it is this challenge that young Zinovy (later Zosima) realizes is at the heart of spiritual enlightenment, at the heart of joy, and at the heart of humanity's potential evolution.  It is this entreaty to love not more but altogether differently, different in kind and not just in degree, that is Christ's greatest challenge, one many would say humans have rarely understood, much less accepted.

Like Siddhartha and many others, Zinovy has plenty of selfish carnal behaviour in his early life before his reformation.  Dostoevsky has carefully orchestarted Zinovy's experiences to resonate throughout the novel.  There is a woman, for instance, and a competition for her affections, aligning young Zinovy with the Karamazovs.  And it is his brother who becomes his first spiritual model, a vision of what brothers can and should be to one another.  This is a theme picked up later when Zosima argues for the power of the word and the necessity that priests offer to their flocks the stories of the bible--Zosima's first example is the story of Jacob, who is abandoned and betrayed by his brothers but comes to forgive them.  The story of Job is also central, for it is this story that Zosima recalls as being the first thing he truly heard in church (Dmitri may think he is a kind of Job, when it comes to that).  For Zosima, the story of Job is as important for what it teaches about renewal and hope as what it teaches about suffering.  Job lives a whole other life after his travails, a life of contentment.  Job welcomes the scouring of the self he endures, and Job forgives. 

In Zinovy's own life, a broad notion of brotherhood, suggested by his memory of his own brother's dying exclamations, transforms him--the brotherhood he feels with his servant after abusing that servant.  When it fully hits him that this servant is his "brother in spirit," that he must and can love this other as he loves himself and bridge the chasm between their two individualities, his entire outlook is transformed.  One of the most Russian things about Dostoevsky is his focus on servants and serfs, and, despite his condemnation of those among "the people" who would lift themselves above their brethren ("kulaks and commune-eaters"), he idealizes the Russian people as Tolstoy, for instance, rarely does.  Yet he realizes that the poor will rise up "and get drunk on blood instead of wine" if things continue as they are, and, of course, he's right.  The Decembrist uprising that occurs during Zinovy's youth is a clue to the unhappiness of the people, and uprisings are sweeping across Europe during the novel's telling.  The Decembrist uprising is also an important precursor to the revolution of 1917--perhaps Dostoevsky might be granted some significant foresight here.  Whatever the case, these political expressions of rage are but symbolic patricides, and that is what The Brothers K is about.

As with the other sections, especially those steeped in the traditions and teachings of the Russian Church, the endnotes were invaluable in this book.  One note cites and supports a critic's opinion that the following passage is "probably the master key to the philosophic interpretation, as well as to the structure" of The Brothers Karamazov:

Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, a mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds.  That is why philosphers  say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things.  God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies.  Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it.

This is a vision of profound and eternal interconnectedness (and also of loss), and the sense of that interconnectedness is at the heart of the tragedy we can all feel coming, for we know that Karamazov Pere will be murdered at that this sin will be a blow to all: the killer and all those implicated in the crime, all humanity, in fact, for "each man is guilty before all and for all," according to Zosima and, I think, to Dostoevsky too.

One last thought--the narrator makes a point of telling us that the words of Father Zosima have been arranged and retold by Alyosha.  This doesn't seem to me to be a bid to undermine their authenticity, as it might in a contemporary novel.  Rather, it seems to align Zosima with saintly figures of old, who live in the words they leave behind and in the hearts of those who take it upon themselves to pass those words down through the ages.   What it does do, though, is draw our attention once again to the fact that all this is part of a report, a story being told years later.

If I didn't have to limit my time at the computer, I would go back and shape this better.  But there it is, for what it's worth.


Tags: books, brothers karamazov, dostovesky, interxet, karamazblog, marri, reading
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