The Brothers Karamazov

I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would, considering how much I complained about it while I was reading it. It was nothing personal–it just took a REALLY long time to finish, compared to the other two Epic Russian novels I read this year (War and Peace and Anna Karenina, respectively). This book is filled with lots of very important themes and questions: the existence of God, (Voltaire’s quotation “If God did not exist we would have to invent him” is repeated throughout), the nature of evil, son and father relationships (I can see why Kafka was a Karamazov fan, especially in context of “The Judgement”) and the search for the Russian Soul. Apart from all those Really Deep Thoughts it’s also a rip-roaringly good murder mystery courtroom drama. I feel like it says a lot about Doostoevsky’s handling of suspense and tension that right before the verdict was about to be announced, I still had no idea what it was going to be. I LOVED the relatively open ending of this book–a good vs. great ending is what really makes or breaks a classic, IMHO.

The tension between rationality vs. faith throughout this book is an interesting one. On one hand you have characters like Zosima, this super holy elder monk, who’s lived his life in a monastery comforting desperate pilgrim peasants. And then you have other characters such as Ivan, the coldly intellectual middle Karamazov brother, who composes this epic poem called The Grand Inquisitor. The poem is about Jesus’ return during the Second Coming, and how he gets locked up in a dungeon by the title character, who tells him that the world is better off without him. Heavy, heavy stuff. And then there’s Alyosha, the story’s hero (named after Dostoyevsky’s dead three-year-old epileptic son–there’s tellingly a lot about dead children and epilepsy and grief throughout this novel!). Alyosha joins Zosima’s monastery but is sent out into the world “to live and experience life” by the head monk himself. Alyosha’s situation makes me think of the whole Into the Wild question: is it better to isolate yourself from humanity and become One with Nature and the Soul and so on, or is better to throw yourself wholeheartedly into the messiness and the chaos and participate in it, despite the pain and agony? It’s Alyosha who has the novel’s final speech, telling a group of children at a funeral of one of their friends who died of tuberculosis, “How good life is when you do something good and rightful!” (776)

Another big question in this book is a great one: WHY DO WE SUFFER? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why does life consist of PAIN and HURT and ANXIETY and OMG I just want to numb everything with vodka and pills. Ivan is particularly good at voicing this question, especially when telling an anecdote that according to my trusty history of Russian culture Natasha’s Dance is based on a true story that Dostoyevsky himself heard. The anecdote concerns a peasant child that threw a rock at a general’s hunting dog; the general’s response was to have the child stripped of clothes and torn to shreds by the rest of the pack. Totally reasonable, no? Ivan uses this anecdote as the main source of evidence for his argument of why he cannot believe in a God that would let such an act of totally cruel, senseless suffering take place, most especially since it involved an innocent child:

I say before hand that the entire truth is not worth such a price. I do not want a mother to embrace the torturer who had her child torn to pieces by his dogs… Is there in the whole world a being who could or would have the right to forgive? I don’t want harmony. I don’t want harmony, out of a love for mankind, I don’t want it.

(I feel like Dostoevsky’s pain regarding his own dead son is reflected in this “But WHY?” sentiment.) Apparently in a letter to a fried Dostoyevsky said that Ivan’s argument was “irrefutable.” This makes a lot of sense to me: I felt like throughout the whole book, Dostoyevsky was coming off as an author who really, really, REALY wanted to have faith and to BELIEVE in all the glories of religion and Christ and so on, but at the same time there were just all these inexplicable horrors that kept getting in the way. I guess that is the human dilemma.

My sister and I were talking about something similar back when she was still here, shortly after I finished reading the harrowing father of a meth addict memoir, Beautiful Boy. The main question I was left with after reading that book was why on earth do people do such things to themselves? Steal, shoot-up, drink, kill, rape, cut, etc. The only answer we could come up with was appropriately Russian: to kill the abyss, to numb the pain, to squash the anxiety, to make life bearable. So we turn to our bottles, our pills, our nail-biting. But then that STILL leaves the question of WHY is life like that? WHY is life such an experience for so many people, an experience that has to be endured rather than lived? Why couldn’t we all be born with peaceful grey blobby brains that could find bliss and pleasure easily? Why is peace and calm something we have to fight or strive for, via meditation and yoga and deep cleansing breaths? Why for the love of God can’t it just come naturally?

I guess these are questions that don’t have any answers. The Grand Inquisitor in Ivan’s poem tells Jesus this is why he’s locking him up: because instead of truly “saving” mankind, he left us with the freedom to torment ourselves and live in suffering. So on one hand you have freedom, and with that comes the freedom to suffer. So even though we suffer and make each other suffer horribly, it is still worth being free thinkers…?

Natasha’s Dance calls The Brothers K “an open discourse between reason and belief in which the tension between the two is never quite resolved.” (332) This seems to be a good a way to encapsulate the novel as any. I was very moved by Alyosha’s final speech, which seems to be testifying more on the fundamental nature of human goodness, rather than espousing the Way of the Church or whatever:

Even though we may be involved with the most important affairs, achieve distinction or fall into some great misfortune—all the same, let us never forget how good we once felt here, all together, united by such good and kind feelings as made us, too, for the time that we loved the poor boy, perhaps better than we really are… You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home. You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, perhaps that alone may serve some day for our salvation. (774)

This passage makes me think of another conversation I recently had with my sister: what is the POINT of life? What is the PURPOSE of existence? Is it to travel and accumulate experiences and memories like you’re collecting rocks or stamps? Is the purpose knowledge, to become an expert in one specific topic or highly knowledgeable in many areas? Is the purpose relationships, to form a loving relationship with someone and really get to know them well? Is the purpose art, to make creative works? Is the purpose work, to ascend to a certain level? IDK. Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life said that in order to get a good answer you need a good question, and perhaps “what is the point of life” is just not a very good question. He also compared finding the meaning of life to playing in a jazz band, of letting different elements that make up a satisfactory life (art, relationships, work, love) ebb and flow.

The one thing that my sister and I ultimately agreed on, though, was self-care. I feel like that was the main lesson I learned from this year, and it was a BIG one. YOU have got give you what you need—you can’t find it from anywhere else. YOU have to be your biggest source of love and strength and support. And once you have that, everything else—love, relationships, work, art—will fall into place from there. This is why in the spirit of self-care, after posting this blog entry I’m going to be heading to the Dollar Tree, where I’ll be buying many brightly-colored sheets of stickers, markers and colorful paper. I am going to write positive affirmations for myself, and tape them EVERYWHERE: in my room, my car, the bathroom, the piano, the computer. 2011 is going to be a good year, because I am gonna make it good! Or as this song says: I’ll find strength in pain! And I will change my ways!

Other interesting themes in the Brothers K:

  • the theme of the ‘Word’ and storytelling= lots of references to Jesus as the ‘Word’. The use of storytelling, composition and creativity throughout the novel: letters, poems, speeches, etc. Alyosha as a “listener” or receiver of other people’s stories, which makes his final speech at the end all the more meaningful.
  • the concept of Schiller’s “the great and the beautiful”, referred to in many places in the novel when characters talk about beauty and goodness. I think what this basically means is that beauty isn’t just an aesthetic characteristic, but a moral one: segun Sciller, the Good is the Beautiful. Apparently this concept comes from a novel by Schiller called The Robbers, also about three brothers and their conflicting moralities. Woow this feels like a topic for an essay from Hum 220 (my sophomore-year in college Humanities class).
  •  I also just wanted to say that the whole part with the devil when he appears and gives his spiel is maybe one of the best passages I’ve read, ever. So captivating and utterly unexpected! It really lifts the novel to a whole ‘nother level…

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