BLOG #40, SERIES #8
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #70
FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY’S THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV
October 4, 2017
“The greatest novel ever written”
This complex book is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. Indeed, it is one of the ten in W. Somerset Maugham Selects The World’s Ten Greatest Novels (New York: John C. Winston, 1948/1959).
It is not a book for children, adolescents, or teens. Indeed, it is one of the deepest and most disorienting novels ever written. The “Pro and Contra” section, which includes “The Grand Inquisitor” section is generally considered to be a masterpiece of its kind, unequaled in the history of world literature. I have personally found it to be inexhaustible: no matter how many times I have read and re-read it, always I discover new unsettling insights. No other novelist, not even Victor Hugo, even comes close to Dostoyevsky in this respect.
Dostoyevsky was not a likable man. In fact, he did despicable things and alienated most everyone he met. But he was born into a family ruled by such a malevolent father that he was slain by his own serfs. The son was condemned to the horrors of a Siberian prison camp for four long years due to a minor political involvement. All this makes for fascinating reading but it does little to explain how the author could have risen above such an out-of-control, lecherous, unfaithful, gambling-obsessed life to write one of the world’s most thought-provoking books.
For this blog, I looked at source after source seeking a scholarly answer to this question. I finally found it in Manuel Komroff’s great introduction to the Signet (New American Library) unabridged edition of BK (1958). Following are some illuminating passages.
In The Brothers Karamazov, the last and greatest of Dostoyevsky’s novels, the theme and philosophy are clearly stated in one of the early chapters: “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the Devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” This duel is more than a simple encounter. It is a duel unto death. God and the Devil fight for the soul of man. And Dostoyevsky asks: “Who is laughing at mankind?” And he answers by showing that the laughter comes from within man himself: “In every man a demon lies hidden.”
The theme and philosophy of The Brothers Karamazov occupied Dostoyevsky’s mind for many years. In a letter to a friend he writes: “The chief problem dealt with throughout this particular work is the very one which has, my whole life long, tormented my conscious and subconscious being: The question of the existence of God.” What if God does not exist? Then for Dostoyevsky the world is nothing but a “vaudeville of devils” and “all things are lawful” even crime.
To illustrate this theme and philosophy, Dostoyevsky introduces us to the Karamazov family. We meet a lecherous and corrupt father and four sons. The eldest son Dmitri symbolizes the flesh, the second son Ivan represents the intellect, the youngest son Alyosha, the spiritual side of man and the illegitimate son Smerdyakov represents the “insulted and injured, the disinherited.” These characters are caught in a web of moral philosophy, the strands of which are so strong that none can escape. God and the Devil battle for possession of their souls. The fight is furious. It rages from the first page to the last page. The characters are all involved in a murder, and as they stamp across the stage they reveal their emotions, conscious and subconscious, with terrifying clarity.
Dostoyevsky’s revelations in the field of psychology are enormous. They anticipated many of the principles later established by trained psychologists.
Born half a century before Freud, Dostoyevsky records in the pages of his novels astonishing observations in the field of human emotions. He writes in detail about exhibitionism, the Oedipus complex and perversions involving adolescents. He noted that dreams stem from the subconscious and contain erotic symbolism, that they are “induced not by reason but by desire.” He observed that laughter reveals a hidden and secret side of personality, that it is an unconscious unmasking. He described the “accidental family” in which each member is separated from the others and lives an independent and isolated life. The Brothers Karamazov illustrates such a family. He discovered that there is a tendency to despotism, a “will to powers,” inherent in man. He found that love contains among its elements the desire to exercise power over the beloved, and that if this desire is not gratified then the loved one can be hated and loved at the same time. This principle is aslso clearly displayed in the pages of The Brothers Karamazov.
In Dostoyevsky’s observations of the love for self-torture and punishment as a guilt-cleansing device, he anticipated our modern theory of “death-instinct” and Freud’s “beyond the pleasure principle.”
Dostoyevsky contributed all this to our modern world of psychology—all this and more. He even recorded in detail the workings of the “split personality.” He described it in its fairly mild as well as its extreme pathological manifestations. There is hardly an important character in all his works who is not a divided personality. He has one of his characters in The Possessed say: “I am capable of desiring to do something good and of feeling pleasure from it: at the same time I desire evil and feel pleasure from that too.” But no better examples of “split personalities” can be found than in The Brothers Karamazov. There are for instance Dmitri, Katerina with her love-hate, the young girl Lise, and Ivan whose two selves come to clash in that famous chapter in which he encounters the Devil.
Dostoyevsky was not only a psychologist but also a visionary and prophet. He wrote about extra-sensory perceptions (mental telepathy as well as clairvoyance) and his observations contributed to our present day theories of psychical research. His observations regarding gambling, for which he had an abnormal passion, are only recently being confirmed and may in time be incorporated in our modern theories of chance. He believed, for instance, that personal distractions destroyed the power to win and for that reason he never brought his wife with him to the roulette wheel. He believed in a will to win. “I still retain the conviction,” he once wrote, “that in games of chance, if one has perfect control of one’s will . . . one cannot fail to overcome the brutality of chance.” This theory he illustrates in his short novel The Gambler. . . .
Due to the pressure of his existence, Dostoyevsky’s books suffer from serious technical defects. But in the face of his great genius these defects are trifling. Dostoyevsky towers above all other novelists, for no other novelist has ever presented so many vital ideas—ideas that have revolutionized our thinking and our lives. As a novelist he has brought to life a whole gallery of people; people of bone, flesh and blood all caught in a web of circumstance. He has the power to engulf his characters in dramatic situations and drive them headlong with passionate desperation. And while his characters are caught in the agony of life, he plumbs deep and lays bare their secret hearts. We understand these hearts for they are not unlike our own. The Dostoyevsky heart is universal. And the people that he gave life to a century ago are living today and will live on for centuries to come. Their blood is warm, red and their hearts beat on.
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One fascinating side-trip for each of you to take as you read this great book is to study the fathers and sons in a pre-Freud way. When Dostoyevsky wrote the book during the late 1870s, the only way he could accurately portray all the warring forces striving for dominance inside an individual was to divide them into separate characters:
Ivan: the atheistic, intellectual son—would dare to challenge even God Himself
Alexey (Alyosha) the youngest Christ-like son, a pupil of a famous Orthodox Church elder, Zossima
Smerdyakov the illegitimate dissolute sensualist son
The Grand Inquisitor represents organized Christianity, all too often assuming god-like prerogatives that are not theirs to give.
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Now, for one of the greatest reads of your lifetime, seek out an unabridged edition; make it your own by underlining and scribbling your way through it. Journal too.
And every once in a while later in your life, return for another immersion into The Brothers Karamazov.
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