A Karamazov Diary: 7 – Dmitri

About half way through the novel, after that extraordinary chapter in which Alyosha seems to experience a moment of transcendence, we are brought very much back to earth with Dimitri. And over the next two hundred or so pages, Dostoyevsky gives us what amounts to almost a steady crescendo, the atmosphere intensifying by the page till it seems to reach breaking point. I don’t think I have come across anything quite so breathtakingly exciting in any novel, except perhaps for certain sequences in that other deeply problematic masterpiece – Moby-Dick.

Dmitri is, to put it mildly, an odd character, but in a novel where everyone is odd, that is perhaps not saying much. He is at once a sensualist (or a voluptuary, as David McDuff translates it) – a man who lives unthinkingly for the pleasures of the moment, a man who acts first and thinks afterwards. That is, when he can be bothered to think at all. At times he is no better than a thug. And yet, at the same time, he is a man of honour, and very conscious of his sense of honour. In these chapters in which he takes centre-stage, we see him becoming increasingly maddened and delirious: a nervous tension builds up in him, acts on his volatile personality, and almost drives him mad. Yet, despite all this, Dostoyevsky manages scenes of pure comedy: forinstance, there is that chapter entitled “Gold Mines” in which Dmitri, convinced that Mrs Khokhlakova will lend him the money he so desperately needs, puts up with her endless vacuous chatter until he finally realises that she has no intention of lending him a copeck. Or that scene in which Dmitri is fooled into travelling out of town to ask for a loan from a peasant merchant who turns out be in a drunken stupor.  Yet these comic scenes, far from dissipating the tension, serve to increase it: Dmitri gets into such a frenzy, that we are in no doubt that he is capable of committing murder.

And here, Dostoyevsky lays out twists and turns of the plot that even Agatha Christie may have been proud of. But despite the whodunit element, it doesn’t ultimately matter: the question of who done it seems to pale into insignificance: what is overwhelming is the depiction of a mind apparently becoming unhinged.

Dmitri is apprehended by the authorities at the height of a wild party, and then begin the scenes of interrogation. These really are some of the most thrilling scenes in all literature. Dmitri’s own story  is unbelievable: indeed, his account of his actions and of his motives is so bizarre, we have to pinch ourselves as we’re reading it.. But the man we see in such a state of delirium, we realise, is capable of anything – of any action, of any thought, no matter how bizarre. The gravity of these scenes is in no doubt: three of these chapters are actually headed “Passage of a Soul Through Torments”. And as one becomes caught up in them that is the impression one gets: this is nothing less than a journey through Hell.

And then , at the end of this astounding sequence, Dostoyevsky gives us another of those visionary moments – one of those moments that are so extraordinarily affecting, and yet which seem to be beyond analysis. Dmitri, in his tortured state, falls asleep, and he dreams of a landscape that is bare and cold and unforgiving, of peasant huts burnt to the ground. And amongst this desolation stand a group of peasants. One of them is a mother holding an infant. The child is frozen and starved, and is crying, and there is nothing the helpless mother can do. Dmitri is confused. What’s happening? Why is the child crying? His coachman, also a peasant, patiently explains that the child  – the “”bairn” – is crying because of hunger, because of cold. Dmitri doesn’t understand. Why is the child hungry? Why is the child cold?

When Dmitri wakes up, he finds that some kind soul had put a pillow under his head: he doesn’t know who it is. But, apparently no longer delirious, he tells his interrogators quietly that he had had “a good dream”.

This entire passage is tremendously moving, yet I’m damned if I know why. Why does Dmitri think this a good dream when, like the stories Ivan had told Alyosha, it tells of the most unbearable suffering of children – of those who least deserve to suffer? What significance does this dream have to Dmitri? Here, I’m afraid, the novel loses me once again. It clearly does have great significance fror Dmitri but I don’t know why. Later, in prison, Dmitri refers to this dream both to Grushenka and to Alyosha; and, in relation to this dream, he speaks of all of humanity being responsible for all of the rest of humanity – of everyone being guilty for everything, as Zosima had said. Once again, this loses me. I don’t understand either why Dmitri should find this idea so profound and so beautiful. The idea of universal guilt was, after all, a nightmare to Kafka: what does Dmitri find in this idea that allows him to face with fortitude even hard labour in the mines of Siberia?

This novel is frustrating as there is far too much in it of the most vital importance that seems to be going over my head. I can sense that it is the work of a visionary: but the vision itself keeps eluding me.

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18 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erika W. on December 12, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Alright, I give in: I am going to re-read the novel, last looked into when I was around 16 years old (I am now 69)
    Back then my elder sister announced unguardedly that she was interested in Dostoevsky and for the next few years our stepfather gave her volumes of a complete edition for birthdays and at Christmas time. She thought it was an act of sadism but I think that now he would be labeled something like “obsessive-compulsive”. He had peculiar ways. The only one I read with real interest was “The House of the Dead”–enough interest to tale myself and husband to a recent performance of Janacek’s opera of the same in New York.
    I did read them all of course because at that age a book would have had to be glued shut to avoid my jumping onto it…My goodness, the stuff I read–good, bad and truly awful.

    Reply

    • Hello Erika, “The Brothers Karamazov”, for all its strangeness, is certainly worth reading, but it is so indiosyncratic a work, it is not something I’d recommend very widely. But of course, as you’re already read Dostoyevsky, you’ll know the kind of thing to expect!

      Janacek’s opera really is an astounding work, isn’t it? I know it only from recordings. The novel on which it is based (and which is, of course, thinly disguised autobiography) I found gripping, and is, incidentally, the only work by Dostoyevsky that Tolstoy liked.

      Even though I am getting much from my latest reading of “The Brthers Karamazov” (and missing at least as much, I’m sure) I doubt Dostoyvesky will ever be near the centre of my personal reading canon: it is fascinating trying to see thw world from his perspective, but ultimately, that perspective remains too much at variance from my own for me to feel confortable with it. (And yes, I do appreciate that literature is not about providing comfort, but there *are* degrees!) Amongst novelists, it’s Dickens and Tolstoy whose works mean most to me.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Erika W. on December 13, 2010 at 10:48 am

    I found this site via Dovegreyscribblings which I read daily. As you will know she is doing a group reading of “War and Peace” with us, so after taking a break I will dive into “The Brothers K” I should be well attuned to it. I read only a very few blogs–never allow myself more than 5 at a time, but you are now firmly on the list. Thank you for replying to my entry.

    Reply

    • Thank you for that, Erika: it’s great you’ve found your way here. I really don’t know how this blog is going to develop: ideally, I’d like to see this becoming a sort of virtual literary cafe – a place where like-minded people can come and discuss literature seriously, without being pompous, but without trivialising it either. I’ll certainly keep on writing because I rather enjoy it – and we’ll see how it develops from there. I think we need a few more people like yourself!

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by Erika W. on December 14, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    A little bit about myself. I’m a retired museum curator (history and conservation) with side trips into rare books librarianship in my working career. My husband is a university librarian. Your hopes for this blog are admirable and I am sure it will turn out well, slowly and solidly.

    My best wishes, Erika W.

    Reply

    • Pleased to meet you Erika – in a manner of speaking! I am, myself, a 50-year-old operational research analyst, specialising in demand forecasting models and in revenue management; who lives near London with his wife and two teenage children (both still at school); and who is grateful to the internet to allow him to sound off about the things he values!

      Reply

  4. Hi-

    As you know from my other comments, I read Bros. K long ago, and have not been able to repeat the feat. (On the other hand, I re-read Moby Dick periodically!) Regarding this dream that puzzles you I would offer this interpretation, although I have no textual context for it since the book is gone from my memory:

    It seems that Dmitri has had a little satori as the Zen people call it. He recognizes that his dream has revealed a great truth to him, i.e., that human life is suffering, for all, and that we are all innocent victims of suffering in a way. He feels compassion for the freezing child, and recognizes that this feeling is the only ‘solution’ to the inescapable fact of suffering. He sees humanity in that baby.

    Reply

    • Yes, I agree – Dmitri certainly has a moment of spiritual awakening, a “satori” – and, perhaps for the first time in his life, he learns compassion for his fellow humans. What I find particularly interesting is how this moment of revelation comes about, and the effect it has on him.

      In ancient literatures, dreams were almost invariably messages from the gods. In Homer, Zeus and various other gods regularly communicate with mortals through dreams; in the Greek tragedies, Jocasta’s dream before the birth of Oedipus, say, or Clytemnestra’s dream in The Choephori, are foretellings of the future, and may be assumed to come from the gods. (And similarly with the various dreams in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.) But in modern literature, dreams tend not to be messages from powers external to oneself, but, rather, reflections of one’s own interior. As early as Clarence’s dream in Shakespeare’s Richard III – if not even earlier – dreams depict the state of mind of the character. This is true even in earlier Dostoyevsky – e.g. the dreams Raskolnikov has in Crime and Punishment. But Dmitri’s dream seems to be a message from some source external to himself: I can find nothing in the presentation of Dmitri’s character up to that point that can justify interpreting this dream as a reflection of his internal state.

      This intervention of the divine is not insisted upon in the novel, but is, for all that, strongly implied. Dmitri’s dream seems to me to be closer in terms of its significance to the dreams of Agamemnon or of Clytemnestra than to the dreams of, say, Anna Karenina, or even of Raskolnikov: it is not so much a reflection of his state of mind as a message from the Divine.

      Even this, perhaps, I can accept. But what I find particularly difficult is Dmitri’s reaction to this. If the dream teaches Dmitri compassion for human suffering, then, certainly, that in itself makes him nobler. But this newly-found compassion is inextricably bound with a new awareness that all human beings are equally responsible for all suffering. Speaking for myself, if I were to believe such a thing, I think the thought would drive me mad. There are, after all, unspeakable atrocities happening every day, and were I to consider myself responsible, I don’t really see how it would be possible for me to go on living with myself. I find the concept as nightmarish as Kafka obviously does in The Trial. And yet, Dmitri accepts this principle with something approaching equanimity – even, perhaps, with joy. I find this psychology very hard to understand.
      But for all that, Dmitri’s dream, his moment of spiritual awakening, his epiphany, is wonderfully moving. I don’t think I know of another book where I find it so very difficult to account for the powerful effect it undeniably has on me.

      Buy the way – I’m fascinated to hear you read Moby-Dick regularly. I last read it some 20 or so years ago, and am planning to submerge myself in it again.

      Reply

  5. Regarding Moby Dick, “regularly” would be an overstatement. I think I’ve read it three times, and it’s a favorite. I quote it a lot though! So, I have to read parts of it periodically to mine for new snippets and refresh my memory. [Search my blog for ‘Moby’ or ‘Ahab’).

    I don’t quite get your point of view about Dmitri, but then, I have only a fuzzy memory of Bros. K. Still, I don’t quite get your view about the source of his dream either.

    Message from The Divine or Voice of His Mental State – what’s the problem? A divine source is easy to understand. The divine can do anything – but why is the other so puzzling? One might venture to say that one’s inner state is not known to oneself fully. That parts of it are in conflict with others. I think this is why Dostoyevsky is so beloved by Freudians and other psychoanalytically inclined critics. (I’m not endorsing this view, though.)

    Another view, closer to mine, might be that humans all have some very basic emotional needs and components that arise from our nature as humans. Ethics is largely founded on these, and their associates. Without the inborn sense of empathy, some shred of it, there can be no ethics. There’s no reasoning with a committed Nazi who exults murder and barbarism: you can’t talk him into being more ‘ethical’. This part of Dmitri is made apparent to him by his dream. Why at that time? You’re reading the book, you tell me. He grasps the meaning of the dream and is transformed.

    I don’t understand your equating this view with Kafka’s Trial. That’s not my take on Kafka at all. The Trial is really very funny in a deep and very dark way. Maybe I’m forgetting some aspect of it, but how does human responsibility for suffering enter into it? Human explanations, paltry ones, for suffering, yes. But dealing with responsibility for it??

    There are, after all, unspeakable atrocities happening every day, and were I to consider myself responsible, I don’t really see how it would be possible for me to go on living with myself.

    This remark hits on a very deep notion, but I don’t know how to explain my thoughts without seeming absurdly pompous – I’m not a zen monk or a guru of any sort. I’ll only say, live we must, and the fact is that the truth hurts.

    Reply

    • One might venture to say that one’s inner state is not known to oneself fully. That parts of it are in conflict with others.

      Indeed, and if we are to interpret Dmitri’s dream purely in terms of psychology rather than in terms of divine intervention, we would certainly conclude that the dream emerges from some aspect of Dmitri’s inner state of which he is not himself aware. The problem I have is that Dostoyevsky has not made the reader aware of this either: there is no indication to the reader of that aspect of Dmitri’s mind from which this dream emerges. So, seen in strictly psychological terms, it gives the appearance of being somewhat arbitrary. I am sure this is a deliberate ploy on Dostoyevsky’s terms: if the realistic, psychological explanation seems arbitrary, then the reader is encouraged to consider seriously the alternative.

      Why at that time? You’re reading the book, you tell me. He grasps the meaning of the dream and is transformed.

      I wish I could tell you! 🙂 It’s the very fact that I can’t – even though I am reading the book – that bothers me! I suppose I approach literature from too Tolstoyan a viewpoint, in that I try to understand the reasons behind everything. And when the reasons aren’t apparent, or are kept deliberately hidden from the reader, I flounder.

      On the question of The Trial, I get the impression reading the book that, as the narrative progresses, Josef K begins to accept that he is, indeed, guilty. Even if I am wrong in this, everyone else assumes his guilt: his guilt seems to be a given – he is guilty by the very fact of his existence. (As you say, it’s hard to find words to express these things without appearing absurdly pompous.) And while it is true that The Trial is a comedy, it is also a nightmare: Kafka presents as nightmarish this concept of being guilty, even if one has not personally done anything to be guilty for. How one can accept such guilt willingly – as Dmitri appears to do – is beyond me. But I suppose one shouldn’t expect to get everything in a work such as this. And it is, I accept, absurd to seek rational explanations for human behaviour in a novel that insists on its essential irrationality.

      I’ll certainly do a search on Moby-Dick in your blog. There’s another book one may spend an entire lifetime with!

      Reply

  6. How one can accept such guilt willingly – as Dmitri appears to do..?

    Guilt and responsiblity are such legalistic terms, I’m not sure they don’t just confuse things, but they touch on things we sense. I would refer to this willingness as a Tragic Sense of Life. It’s totally opposed to the superficially ‘rational’ view of life that Dostoyevsky skewers in Notes from Underground, and which he aptly summarizes with his theme of The Crystal Palace.

    I’ll give a simple example to try and explain. In college, I took an Intro to Ethics class. We studied Mill, Bentham, Aristotle, Kant, Nietzche, etc. On an exam, we had to answer a question: A house is burning – your mother, wife, and son are in it, but you can only save one person. Discuss how each philosopher would ‘resolve’ this dilemma.

    Bentham’s approach is clear – hedonic calculus. The others are more complex. My view: There is no good answer. All options are bad, yet we anyone would choose one, perhaps simply on impusle or chance, i.e., whom he or she saw first. No matter what happend, the rescuer would probably be wracked with remorse and guilt over the ones he or she did not save. That’s the way the real world is.

    Reply

  7. Oh…forgot. Also, although we are not ‘responsible’ for the atrocities committed daily, we may see ourselves, or something of ourselves, in those who commit them. Only humans commit crimes.

    Reply

    • Yes, what Dmitri develops may certainly be described as a “Tragic Sense of Life”. It is very unexpected for someone such as Dmitri to develop this, but the very fact that it moves does indicate that it isn’t merely an arbitrary development. There is just so much in this novel that I find affects me powerfully, even though I cannot analyse why.

      I am not well-read in philosophy – and that may be one of the reasons I am finding so much in this novel obscure. But the novel is filled with flashes of illumination, and sometimes, they leave me breathless. There’s so much buzzing around my head as I read – I just need to find a bit of time to try to write it up in a reasonably coherent form. I’m certainly glad I decided to re-read this: for all my perplexity, I am getting far more out of this than I’d expected.

      Reply

  8. Hello, Himadri! I’m following your Karamazov diary with interest. I read the novel in 1976, having read ‘The Idiot’ and ‘The Devils’ earlier later (maybe it was 1982) progressing to ‘Crime and Punishment, which I found the most accessible of his novels. And then I stopped reading Doestoevsky altogether, I’m afraid. There’s certainly a lot of perplexity in Dostoevsky, and you seem to be pinpointing the issues well here.

    Reply

  9. Oh, sorry–muddled syntax there! There should be an ‘and’ between ‘earlier’ and ‘later’.

    Reply

    • Someone once said to me that a real Flaubert fan would never nominate “Madame Bovary” as their favourite Flaubert novel, and a real Handel fan would never nominate “Messiah” as their favourite Handel work. That’s not because these works are inferior in any way – but because they feel that these works unfairly obscure others that are at least as good. So the Flaubertian will talk about “L’Education Sentimentale” or “Bouvard et Pecuchet”, while the Handel fan will tell you about the glories of “Ariodante” or “Belshazzar”. Similarly, a Dostoyevsky fan is unlikely to choose “Crime and Punishment”: the other novels you mention are at least of a comparable standard, and are unfairly overshadowed.

      Dostoyevsky was a flawed writer, but what he created was so very unique, and so powerfully affecting, that he demands to be read. I re-read “The Idiot” a few years ago, and “Crime and Punishment” only last year – so I’ll probably have another go at “The Devils”, which I haven’t read since my teenage years. But there are a great many works out there I want to re-read because I don’t think I got enough out of them the first time round: “Moby-Dick” is another one that’s very firmly on my to-be-reread list.

      We never really get completely to the bottom of any major work of art, and I am not expecting ever fully to understand something like “The Brothers Karamazov”. But it is a work that really does demand to be experienced, and, whatever problems I may have with it, I’d most certainly recommend it to anyone prepared to be frustrated and perplexed: the frustrations and the perplexities are all part of the package! 🙂

      Reply

  10. Someone once said to me that a real Flaubert fan would never nominate “Madame Bovary” as their favourite Flaubert novel…

    Well, I am definitely a Flaubert fan – must have read Bovary four or five times, and the others two or three… – and I would definitely nominate it as my favorite. Hard to pick a ‘favorite’, especially as many of his works are so different from one another. I definitely feel it is superior to L’education, though I know that it is not ‘fashionable’ to say so…

    Another plug for my blog:

    http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit.php?post_type=post&tag=flaubert

    Reply

  11. P.S.

    You have definitely inspired me to make another effort to re-read some Dostoyevsky novels!

    Reply

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