The Brothers Karamazov: “it is on him that the structure is being built”

One of the things I’ve been exploring for as I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s concern with privacy, which first came to my attention when I was reading Gogol. There are certainly instances of it here, for example when Alyosha offers money to Captain Snegiryov, who “suddenly became ashamed that he had shown me his whole soul like that.” But what I find more of is quite the opposite.

I still have not unpacked entirely the Grand Inquisitor, but one of the issues that comes up there as well as in the “Life of the Elder Zosima” has to do with freedom (or, I should say, “freedom”), individuality, unity, brotherhood, and all that jazz. While this has never before struck me as a major Christian concern, it was definitely something important in Tolstoy’s Confession as well as here. Perhaps it is a concern of the “real Russians” Alyosha speaks of, along with the existence of God and immortality.

Ivan, who rejects the world God created, still has the “childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man’s Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed….” But again, he does not accept this conviction, despite the fact that he has it.

Everyone else has it too, but they accept it. The “positive” messages from Alyosha and the elder Zosima are ones of unity and against individualism and freedom. Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor asserts that “They will finally understand that freedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share among themselves.” Economically unsound, let’s just say. He also asserts that “all that man seeks on earth” is “someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill—for the need for universal union is the third and last torment of men.”

The elder Zosima’s mysterious visitor likewise says:

Until one has indeed become the brother of all, there will be no brotherhood. No science or self-interest will ever enable people to share their property and their rights among themselves without offense. Each will always think his share too small, and they will keep murmuring, they will envy and destroy one another. You ask when it will come true. It will come true, but first the period of human isolation must conclude. …For everyone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within himself, and yet what comes of all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation. For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from the others, hides himself, and hides what he has, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself.

Well, here is the privacy, but it’s a flaw. We have to overcome the privacy for brotherhood. Also, this is practically straight out of Tolstoy’s Confession, with its obsession with brotherhood and idea that isolation is suicide.

The elder Zosima himself says, “The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide!” I would say “freedom is slavery,” but do I really have to?

So since this is, as they say, a novel of ideas, I’ll just get down to it: the ideas are entirely uncongenial to me, if not incomprehensible. And I don’t think any of it really holds up if you aren’t already a Christian.* This brotherhood everyone is on about—no one bothers to explain why it is good or desirable; why isn’t this “universal” need for unity instead a weakness? Further, it is only possible through God and Jesus. The Grand Inquisitor and Zosima recognize that man is fallen and that as such is in a period of isolation, unable to share and love each other actively. It takes Christ to make all this come to pass.

But from outside that perspective, the isolation taken as temporary and undesirable seems more like a simple fact of human nature and the physical constraints of the world. While many would still decry that isolation, find it depressing or what have you, and hope that one day man could achieve brotherhood in some other fashion, there’s no reason it should necessarily be so. It’s not that “all men in our age are separated into units,” but that men are separated into units, period.

It’s also not clear, to an outsider, why all this sharing is so important. Obviously people don’t like it, it makes them unhappy, and they especially don’t want to share their private feelings—Dostoevsky included. Sharing his sin is redemptive for the mysterious visitor, but he is a believer and living under extremes of irrational human self-torture. He must believe that he can be forgiven by people other than whom he has wronged. Perhaps without that belief we are simply doomed to a certain degree of human self-torture, but again, that just seems like a fact of human nature and the nature of the world.

I don’t like when a major part of my reaction to a novel is “I disagree with your ideas, which are unsupported.” But I’m clearly having trouble breaking into Dostoevsky any other way.

*Neither does half of what Ivan says; I can’t believe anyone thinks the man is an atheist as he does not seem to have really considered Christianity as anything other than true.

6 comments to The Brothers Karamazov: “it is on him that the structure is being built”

  • Or how about this beauty (pp. 303-4): “Everywhere now the human mind has begun laughably not to understand that a man’s true security lies not in his own solitary effort, but in the general wholeness of humanity.”

    Now there is a horrifying turn of phrase. It fits well with the ravings about the kulaks a few pages later. Zosima was a prophet, there – only forty years later, that kulak “problem” gets taken care of.

    I should read something about how Dostoevsy’s religious ideas are particularly related to Russian Orthodoxy. Some of the Christian aspects of Karamazov seem more specific than that. But I don’t know enough – just a suspicion right now, supported by your finding the same things in Tolstoy.

  • What bothers me about Ivan is that he wants to rationalize God. As if that were possible; as if God was explainable. It’s precisely his refusal to accept God’s omnipotence that I find to have an athiestic quality.

    Every time I try to put God into a box that fits my understanding I’m reminded of Isaiah 55 verse 8: “”For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.

    I don’t mean that in any way as a lecture to you, just as an explanation for how I see Ivan.

  • nicole

    I have the same suspicion, on the same grounds. And felt the same about that bit of prophecy—it was a bit chilling.

  • nicole

    Bellezza, I agree completely with that assessment of Ivan’s problem. It’s just that that makes me put him in the category of “troubled believer.”

  • Oh, Dostoevsky. I do admire you for wading into his murky world. :) I’ve read bits and pieces, but his work is rather *intense*. And he was a strange person. Maybe not the rat slithering along in hate, as Lawrence would have him, but I’ve never warmed to him.

  • I wrote a rather lengthy comment and then I deleted it somehow. Maybe a hint I was being too long winded! This time I’ll just say I appreciated your comments–they articulated a few things that were floating around in my head.