Archive for December, 2010

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.

A Karamazov Diary: 6 – Puzzles and challenges

Friends ask me if I am enjoying The Brothers Karamazov. Normally, it would seem a reasonable question to ask, but somehow, with this particular novel, it seems almost irrelevant. It’s a novel that I often find very strange: it puzzles me, and it frequently infuriates me. But at the same time, it also intrigues me, and fascinates me, and, indeed, haunts my imagination. So how can I sum up what I feel about this strange book? How can I possibly answer that simple and really quite reasonable question “Are you enjoying it?”

There are a great many elements that continue to puzzle me deeply. One is the behaviour of Grushenka, who, at no point, behaves in any way that seems to me in any way explicable. This may well be another aspect of Dostoyevsky’s contention that human behaviour is not susceptible to rational analysis because it is in no way rational. That may well be so, but when every single act of a character makes you wonder what on earth is the matter with her, then the action of the novel becomes hard to follow. Up to a point, I can see why Dmitri, Ivan, Smerdyakov – even Katerina Ivanovna – behave as they do, but everything Grushenka does is so very outré that I don’t even know how to start thinking about it.

The other character that puzzles me is Father Zosima. Up to a point, he is a sort of Tolstoyan saint – except, of course, Tolstoy would have made him a peasant rather than a monk. He is a wise, decent old man, whose goodness and compassion for his fellow human beings are simple, self-sacrificing, and unaffected. But what exactly does he mean when he speaks of everyone being guilty for everyone? The concept of shared guilt is a strange one. Surely someone who is saintly – someone such as, indeed, Zosima himself – does not bear the burden of guilt of someone who commits atrocities? And if he does, why? I cannot sympathise with this concept of shared guilt: I find this concept far too alien to my sensibilities. And yet, this concept seems to be at the heart of the novel: by the end, as I remember, a man who is innocent of a murder happily takes on the guilt of the murder, and agrees to be punished for it. And at this stage, my imaginative sympathy for the religious viewpoint – or, at least, for Dostoyevsky’s religious viewpoint – comes to an abrupt halt: try as I might, I can’t take in this concept. It’s not so much that I can’t accept this: I don’t understand how it is possible for anyone to accept this.

And what is the significance of Zosima’s body putrefying prematurely after his death? The other monks in the monastery – who are not depicted as in any way admirable – see this as evidence of Zosima’s unworthiness. Alyosha, however, continues to believe in Zosima’s saintliness; and yet, he is deeply disturbed by it all. He is so disturbed indeed that he is tempted away from his faith: he even allows Ratikin to take him to the house of the depraved Grushenka. But it is in Grushenka’s house that something happens – something that, once again, I don’t quite understand. Grushenka, who had been intent on seducing the chaste Alyosha, suddenly decides not to do so when she hears of Zosima’s death. And she tells a folk-story about an onion: it is a story about a mean old woman whose one good deed in all her life was that she once gave an onion to a beggar; and now, when her soul is in Hell, her good angel holds out an onion for her, so the old woman could grasp it and be pulled out. However, mean and selfish as ever, as she tries to grasp the onion, she kicks away the other souls in torment who are trying to grasp it also; and so the onion breaks, and she finds herself still in Hell, her last hope of redemption gone. What is the significance of this story here? Why does Grushenka suddenly pull back from her intention of seducing Alyosha? And, most importantly, why does this restore Alyosha’s faith? Maybe it would help if I had more of a religious outlook, but, although I can sense a great significance in all this, I find it very elusive: I cannot grasp it any more than the old woman in Hell could grasp the onion.

The chapter that follows, though, is one of the most wonderful in the whole novel. Alyosha, exhausted and half asleep, hears the story being read from the gospels of Christ’s first miracle – of how Christ had turned water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. That first miracle was one thatendorsed human pleasure, human joy; and hearing this, Alyosha experiences an ecstatic moment of mystic revelation. Once again, I don’t claim to understand any of this, but Dostoyevsky does convey movingly a visionary sense of epiphany, a momentary revelation of the transcendent.

To use that over-worked expression, this is a challenging book, and while I don’t feel I am always up to the challenge, I am enjoying being challenged by it. There’s much I don’t understand; and I continue to have a great many reservations about many aspects of it: but even so, this is one of those handful of masterpieces where it is the reader who is measured against the achievement, and not the other way round.

A Karamazov Diary: 5 – Irrationality

The 19th century novel is usually described as “realistic”. It seems to me a strange description given that at least four major novelists of the 19th century – Gogol, Dickens, Melville and Dostoyevsky – seemed to have no interest at all in surface realism. But Dostoyevsky seems, if anything, and anti-realist writer. Far from exploring why his characters think and behave as they do, he insisted on the impossibility of such an exploration. This impossibility is not – as it is in Tolstoy – because the reasons dictating human behaviour become too complex beyond a point for the human mind to grasp; rather, it is because there is no reason to human behaviour: for Dostoyevsky, human behaviour was essentially irrational in nature, and, indeed, often perversely, knowingly irrational. It is for this very reason that Dostoyevsky found so repulsive attempts to regulate human thinking: to regulate the disorder of the human mind into some sort of regular pattern was to do violence to humanity. (These ideas are stated very powerfully in the short novel Notes From Underground, which may be seen as a sort of prelude to the big novels that followed.) And yes, while it is true that the human mind free of any regulation could be a source of terrible violence and atrocity, Dostoyevsky, while not advocating anarchism, was insistent that any attempt to regulate mankind’s thinking – quite apart from being sinful in a religious sense – is no less a source of violence and of atrocity. Dostoyevskians often point to the horrors of Soviet Communism as confirmation of Dostoyevsky’s prescience in this matter.

Without debating the ifs and buts of all this, it clearly presents the novelist with great technical problem: any work of art must have some sort of order, some sort of internal logic: so how can one present characters whose behaviour is so at odds with anything resembling reason, and not end up merely with chaos? I don’t know that Dostoyevsky entirely solves this problem: much of what he writes does seem to me somewhat chaotic in nature. But given his perspective – and given also, perhaps, his almost permanently embarrassed financial state that forced him to write quickly – this sense of chaos is perhaps inevitable. I rarely get a sense of long-term planning in his novels: they seem to me, rather, a series of improvisations. Many of the improvisations are, admittedly, brilliant: but some, it seems to me, aren’t.

But this leaves the purely technical problem of presenting within a patterned whole a set of characters whose thought and behaviour lack pattern. To address this, Dostoyevsky creates, often very convincingly, a fictional world in which virtually everyone is in a state of hysteria – or, at least, teetering on the edge. At times, this can appear risible: but perhaps the comedy is not entirely unintentional. At other times, it can appear overwhelmingly dramatic and exciting. It creates an environment that is unlike any other I have encountered in fiction – an environment that is quite unmistakable. It is like seeing the world in flashes of lightning.

A Karamazov Diary: 4 – Religion

So saturated is this novel with religious belief, I find it hard to see how anyone who refuses to view religion with anything other than disdain could possibly appreciate it. At the very least, an imaginative sympathy with the religious mindset is required: otherwise, the novel would merely emerge as gibberish. 

To attempt to summarise the religious content of The Brothers Karamazov is presumptuous, as any summary, even the most incisive, is bound to be a crude simplification, and hence, a distortion, of the very complex issues broached in the novel. But one issue this novel does not address is the one many would think is the most basic issue of all: does God exist? It is not that Dostoyevsky does not have an interest in this matter: it’s more that this is not what the novel is about. Ivan Karamazov, in the chapters entitled (in David McDuff’s translation) “The Brothers Become Acquainted” and “Mutiny”, presents the most powerful argument I have come across against the idea of religion. But before he presents his argument, he states quite clearly that he is not interested in whether God created man, or whether man created God. His argument concerns not the existence of God as such, but the nature of the world that God, should He exist, has created: and this world Ivan cannot accept. He acknowledges that he is a “worm” incapable of understanding God’s greater purpose; that it may well be that there will ultimately be an eternal harmony in which all is resolved, an infinity where parallel lines do indeed meet. But if life is the price to be paid for this eternal harmony, then, whatever it is we are paying for, the price is too high. And he, Ivan, most respectfully “returns the ticket”. 

Such a summary – indeed, any summary – of Ivan’s argument sounds glib. The chapters in which this argument is presented really require to be read. Indeed, if there is any writing that may be described as “required reading”, it is this: in an earlier post, I described it as a sort of “hammering inside the head”. That is how I felt when I first read it aged fifteen, and that is how I feel reading it now, aged fifty. It is impossible to convey in any summary the overpowering intensity of passion with which this argument is presented. 

And it is strange that Dostoyevsky could present this argument with such passion, because his own position – stated in a letter to a friend, and later attributed to the character Shatov in the novel The Devils – is that even if it were to be scientifically proved beyond all doubt that God doesn’t exist, he would rather be wrong with Christ than right without. Where Ivan rejects God even if God exists, Dostoyevsky accepts God even if He doesn’t. In both Dostoyevsky’s view and in Ivan’s, the actual fact of existence is an irrelevance. 

And yet, given that Dostoyevsky and Ivan are diametrically opposed to each other, it is remarkable how very convincingly Dostoyevsky presents Ivan’s argument. If, from this, we may conclude that there was at least a part of Dostoyevsky – even a large part of Dostoyevsky – that was in sympathy with Ivan, it is also true, I think, that there is a part of Ivan – once again, a possibly large part – that is in sympathy with his creator. For Ivan is no mere pocket atheist: he is aware, only too aware, of the endless complexity of it all: there is no single point where he – nor, one suspects, Dostoyevsky himself – could settle upon, and say with certainty “Here I stand”: each argument has simultaneously its counter-arguments, and the contradictions this involves co-exist; and yet, these contradictions cannot ever be resolved.  As a consequence, the fictional world of The Brothers Karamazov is one in which everything is in endlessly in a state of flux. 

And these are not merely abstract ideas: perhaps no other novelist has presented so convincingly a world in which ideas matter – in which the way we live our lives, our very perception of life itself, is predicated upon the intellectual; where, indeed, the intellectual is also the emotional. The philosopher Nietzsche once said that an idea could make him physically ill: the novelist Dostoyevsky depicts how this is possible. For Ivan is certainly ill. This is perhaps not so remarkable in a novel where more or less every character seems hysterical or mentally ill in some way or other, but Ivan, in particular, cannot remain sane with all these contradictions whirling inside his brain. For, immediately after presenting to Alyosha his arguments against religion, Ivan tells of a “poem” he had once written: “The Grand Inquisitor”. 

If summary of Ivan’s case against religion had been difficult, a summary of “The Grand Inquisitor” isn’t even to be attempted. Here, the earth seems to open at our feet. The story itself is simple enough: after an auto-da-fé in 16th century Spain, in which the Grand Inquisitor, a wizened old man with bloodless lips (a figure borrowed from Schiller’s play Don Carlos) had burnt at the stake hundreds of heretics, Christ himself descends to earth. Everyone recognises Him, and flocks to Him: the aged Grand Inquisitor recognises him also, and angrily orders Him to be arrested. He is obeyed. And then, that night, the Grand Inquisitor enters Christ’s cell, and delivers to him a long monologue, explaining why, the next morning, he will order Christ to be burnt at the stake, and why, once again, he will be obeyed. Christ himself remains completely silent as this monologue is delivered. And this monologue opens up areas of enquiry that are well beyond the scope of an ordinary novel. 

As with those deeply enigmatic parables of Kafka, there seems no end to the possible interpretations of this extraordinary “poem” of Ivan’s. But interpretation seems pre-empted, because – again as with Kafka – the parable itself contains its own interpretation. The Grand Inquisitor interprets the chapter from the Gospel according to Matthew in which Satan offers Christ three temptations in the wilderness, and Christ rejects them all. The Grand Inquisitor spends much time on each of these temptations, teasing out the last possible drop of meaning, of significance. Christ, argues the Inquisitor (and I am afraid I have to summarise here!) had offered mankind freedom, and hence, responsibility; but in doing so, he had over-estimated mankind. The Grand Inquisitor, on the other hand, a true lover of mankind, has been correcting Christ’s work. Christ, he argues, should have accepted what the Devil had offered: for the sake of mankind he should have accepted. 

I don’t know that my grossly inadequate grasp of theology or of philosophy qualifies me to comment on any of this. But it does seem to me that this fable, however one interprets it, undercuts immediately the argument that Ivan had previously presented. Unless, of course, one were to be in agreement with the Grand Inquisitor: some readers, I imagine, might. Ivan, I don’t think, is, and, being the intelligent man he is, he realises that his argument against religion, although it remains uncountered, and hence, still valid, cannot exist simultaneously in his mind with his hatred for what the Grand Inquisitor stands for. And yet, in Ivan’s case, the two do co-exist, and ultimately, this drives him mad. 

The novel is exploratory rather than didactic: Dostoyevsky makes no attempt to resolve the dichotomy presented. But the dichotomy is religious in nature, and exists at the very centre of this deeply troubling work. For what the Grand Inquisitor stands for is surely what we would now call totalitarianism: it is an attempt to rob humanity of its freedom and its responsibility, to regulate and to re-engineer not merely human behaviour, but human perception itself. Most, I imagine, would think of this as wrong, but Dostoyevsky went further: he was a deeply religious man, and, like Pasternak after him, thought it nothing less than sinful. And yet, for all that, Ivan’s argument against religion – against God’s creation, even if God exists – remains unanswered. This irresolvable conflict gives this novel a peculiar tension that I don’t think I have encountered anywhere else. 


I realise that in the above, I have been writing about issues that I am not qualified to write about: I have no background whatever in philosophy, theology, metaphysics, or in anything of that nature. This is why I hesitated before attempting to write anything at all on this matter. But these issues are so much at the heart of The Brothers Karamazov, that it would be nonsense to write about this novel and not broach them in some way or other. But never have I felt more diffident about putting up a post. However, inadequate though this post is, I suppose it might as well stand.

Whisky & brandy – a comparison

The roads from my house to my local pub were all iced over: it was like walking on an ice rink. But some things had to be done. Over a convivial few drinks with friends, the conversation turned to the fraught question of the comparative merits of whisky and brandy. Now – don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy a good cognac, and, even more, a good armagnac. But the comparison seemed silly to me. Good malt whisky – that’s “whisky” without the “e”, as “whiskey” with an “e” refers either to Irish whiskey or to American Bourbon rather than Scotch, and, good though they are, Scotch whisky is a different matter entirely  … Now, where was I? Ah yes. As I was saying: good malt whisky has about it a depth and a range that cognac or armagnac, even at their considerable best, cannot hope to match.

Indeed, it struck me that comparing brandy to whisky is a bit like comparing Turgenev to Tolstoy. Now, no-one doubts the qualities of Turgenev: indeed, in certain frames of mind, there’s nothing I’d want more than a chapter or two of Fathers and Sons. But who in their right minds would even think of comparing Turgenev to Tolstoy? Why, the very idea is absurd!