The Brothers Karamazov - 6: The Russian Monk

Previously: Book I, Book II, Book III, Books IV & V

Today I spent some time cleaning out my closet, one of my favorite things to do on academic break.  Afterwards, I settled down to read another part of BK.  In all honesty, the chapter "From the Life of the Elder Zosima" did not look too promising.  Typically my expectations are low for stories in a story, and I was anxious to get back to Alyosha's story.  This was going to be a struggle to get through, I thought.

As Thorin might say . . . I have never been so wrong.

About halfway through, this "story in a story" actually moved me to tears.  And it struck me how timely it was, reading this part during this time of my life.  I always thought I should have read BK long ago, but it turns out this was the best timing.  "The Russian Monk" is a story about love, Godly love, and what a powerful force it is, and how profound, deep, painful, and beautiful it must be, to love your neighbor, and your enemies.
One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially seeing men's sin, asking oneself: "Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?"  Always resolve to take it by humble love . . . A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it. 
I think I should mention another theme in "The Russian Monk," which is Zosima's directive to "take on" others' guilt, or at least to feel as if it is yours.  This kind of confused me.  Does he mean for his listeners to interpret it literally?  (That is not, to my knowledge, a biblical idea.) As a description of humility and sin being universal, it would make a striking point.  I think that was the intent, but I'd have to re-read it several times to come to a more definite evaluation of what he saying.  As a way of disclaimer, there were one or two other points like this that call for reading this part with a grain of salt, in terms of Christian beliefs.

That said, it is still worth reading, and there is much that is relevant.  I was not looking for Christian doctrinal instruction in a secular novel.  I did find many Christian truths poignantly illustrated in the character of Zosima.  He is certainly one of best representations of a cleric in any literature I've read.  There were so many beautiful quotes, like the one above.  I will just add one more (also about love):
. . . love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time.
This has been my favorite part of the book so far.

The Brothers Karamazov - 4 & 5: Strains; Pro and Contra

Previously: Book I, Book II, Book III

The carriage started and raced off.  All was vague in the traveler's soul, but he greedily looked around him at the fields, the hills, the trees, a flock of geese flying high above him in the clear sky.  Suddenly he felt so well.

What I got out of these two parts was not so much plot development but character development.  Through the eyes of Alyosha, we finally get to meet the enigmatic Karamazov brother, Ivan.  This in turn shows us their family's dysfunctional situation through his perspective, which by instinct is less disinterested than he might wish it to be.

It's odd, but by far Ivan is my favorite character.  He is somewhat coldhearted, frequently profane, and not without some of the violent emotional tendencies of the oldest brother, Dmitri.  Still it is his anti-heroic traits and heroic potential that make him the most interesting character.  His bitterness is paradoxically deep-rooted and superficial.  He can't conceal either his loneliness or his confusion.  He expresses self-destructive thoughts, only to confess:
I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic...some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one's heart, out of old habit.
And later, as if in response to everything that has happened with his father:
I don't understand anything...and I no longer want to understand anything.  I want to stick to the fact.  I made up my mind long ago not to understand.
The existentialist themes make me think of Notes from Underground, as well as Kafka, in places.

Ivan's outlook is, to some degree, summarized in the chapters "Rebellion" and "The Grand Inquisitor."  "The Grand Inquisitor" is a remarkable chapter (containing a paragraph eight pages long), a rather bizarre story told by Ivan about a persecutor from the Spanish Inquisition who meets Jesus and rejects Him.  It is spoken in first-person by the Inquisitor.  While I have not read Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, this chapter seems to have been written in the same style - that is, making a point from the opposite side.

Of course, maybe it depends on your perspective.  Maybe it can be read from an anti-Christian viewpoint, and quite probably a lot of people take it that way.  What made me question that interpretation were lines like the following (spoken by the Inquisitor):
You did not come down from the cross when they shouted to you, mocking and reviling you: "Come down from the cross and we will believe that it is you."  You did not come down because, again, you did not want to enslave man by a miracle and thirsted for faith that is free, not miraculous.
This hearkens back to something the narrator asserts way back in chapter 5: "In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith."  He claims a realist must wish to believe in miracles, and if the realist does not, then "if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact."  I don't know about stating things in such generalized terms, but certainly this reminds me of the Pharisees' refusal to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, even after witnessing numerous miracles.

But back to the Inquisitor's words, "faith that is free." This notion of free will is a recurrent theme in DostoyevskyNot only free will, but the contrast of choosing to be enslaved to something, in a psychological or moral sense.  The Karamazovs' cruelty and dissipation is something they (except Alyosha) view as a family trait, even as an excuse.   Ivan, at least, even in his cynicism, has given it some thought and questioning, if on a more global scale.

The concept of "national identity" is somewhat controversial.  Throughout The Brothers Karamazov, the characters have been making certain statements, usually derogatory, about the Russian identity.  I find it quite fascinating, the way you can interpret subject matter in this book as referring to specific characters, Russia, or the world at large.  It is one thing to read it from a detached, Western perspective and find some thread of connection throughout Russian historical events, up to the present day.  At the same time, it is extremely important to read it autobiographically.  The subject matter hits much closer to home than we might be comfortable to admit.

I did not mean for this post to be so long!  For sure, this was the most thought-provoking section so far.  This is why I can't enjoy reading Dostoyevsky.  He inevitably reminds me of people I have met and real topics discussed, and then I start to feel claustrophobic.  Appropriately enough, philosophy is less enjoyable when it is least abstract. 

The Brothers Karamazov - 3: Sensualists

*Page cuts will be added, should any posts in this series involve major spoilers.
Previously: Book I, Book II

In the previous installment, we saw the Karamazov family and friends bickering at Alyosha's home, the monastery.  Now we see the Karamazov family feuding in its natural habitat, and as what the father Fyodor and the son Dmitri call themselves, half-proudly: "sensualists."

Book III really gets inside these two Karamazovs' heads, where depravity reigns over whatever better side they may (or may not) have.  Dmitri is engaged to Katerina Ivanovna, but he is also part of a lust-triangle involving his father and a young woman named Grushenka.  We are also introduced to Smerdyakov, a young man who, according to rumor, is Fyodor's fourth son.  Alyosha, as usual, is caught in the middle and ends up being the one to suffer most.  He is grateful to return to the monastery as soon as he can.
Why had the elder sent him "into the world"?  Here was quiet, here was holiness, and there—confusion, and a darkness in which one immediately got lost and went astray . . .
I'll admit to being somewhat sensitive, and it was difficult to get through these pages.  At times it seemed almost unreal, the sick behavior of Fyodor Karamazov, and while the way women were treated is not news to me, it's still not easy to read.  I keep wondering if Dostoyevsky based these characters on real people, and at the same time, I'm not sure I want to know.

I get frustrated with Alyosha, because he still cares about his family.  Pretty much most of us would find it easiest to relate to Ivan, the brother who is detached and critical of everyone.  Alyosha, on the other hand, has a forgiving heart, and nobody deserves it...which is kind of the point of Alyosha.  I still wish he wouldn't put up with so much.

Katerina is a fascinating character.  Not particularly likeable.  But she wants so much to be treated as more than an object, and even though there is something pathetic about her actions, you feel for her, because there's nothing else she can do.  (Save, perhaps, stay away from the older Karamazovs, which would be the best option.)  Definitely interested to see how her story goes.

“It's no use going back to yesterday...”

Just dropping by for a quick update! 

It's getting to be a difficult time of year, in an equally challenging year.  I hope to graduate in August, which means from now until then school remains fairly time-consuming. "Real life" issues have also been causing me a bit of stress.

However, because of all this stuff building up, I think I will be reading more often, and blogging, too.  In fact, I feel a little desperate for some good reads to get me through the next several weeks.  (Also, summer == books.)

Have you heard of Tolkien's Beowulf, which was just published last week?!  I am excited to get my hands on a copy.  Maybe it will spark my enthusiasm for the story (admittedly lukewarm).

Right now, I have The Brothers Karamazov looming overhead, but I've actually been reading A Study in Scarlet for my Sherlock Holmes challenge.  Of course, it should be a one-day read, but I am so slow a reader these days.

One more thing - I really enjoy following you all on the blogs and Goodreads!  It's fun to see what you're reading, and it gives me some motivation to get back into it.