Seeking some heavenly nourishment, Goethe’s Faust turns to the holy Greek original of the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word,” the scholar reads, but he cannot understand this mystery. “In the beginning was the Meaning,” he entertains, but he finds little creative potency in the mere content of a thought. “In the beginning was the Power,” while briefly attractive, won’t do either. Finally der Geist—Spirit, human or divine—inspires him to write, “In the beginning was the Deed.”

Dostoevsky incorporates all of these Faustian variations in his own raw and vital formulation: In the beginning was Fyodor Karamazov. God’s Gift (theo + doron), Fyodor is a man of primordial energies and seemingly insatiable appetites. Although he is impoverished when he comes of age as a nobleman, he is a scrappy climber of considerable intelligence. His shrewd investments in taverns fuel a riotous life of aristocratic decadence. A hubristic farceur who speaks French and relishes Voltairean mockery, Fyodor spends his days gratifying his sensual impulses and performing outrageous stunts. But he is sometimes deeply shaken by existential loneliness, and he is capable of uttering the name of the Lord in sincere blessing, as he does in his very last words to Ivan: “God be with you! God be with you! . . . Christ be with you!” Broad, muddled, ironic, and generally intoxicated, he is Hamlet’s debauched Russian cousin, a man of gushing sap but “too too solid [or sullied] flesh.” And, Dostoevsky implies, we are all his abandoned children.

The Karamazov myth is biblical as well as pagan.

Dostoevsky knew his Goethe and Shakespeare, and much else. The Brothers Karamazov, Richard Pevear writes in the introduction to his and Larissa Volokhonsky’s 1990 North Point Press translation (on which I rely in this essay), “seems to have swallowed a small library.” The primal father of the Blacksmears (from the Turkish and Tartar kara and the Russian maz), Fyodor is an earthly Saturn who smothers his wives and eats his sons in ways that strain the limits of metaphor. But the Karamazov myth is biblical as well as pagan. Fyodor’s depravity is palpably enfleshed in his “repulsively sensual” physiognomy: plump lips; the thin, hooked nose of a Roman patrician; and an Adam’s apple that hangs “fleshy and oblong like a purse,” as though the fruit of the tree of knowledge had gotten stuck in his throat.

This old Adam lords over others on matters of good and evil. He considers himself a creditor to his wives and sons and collects his debts—with usurious interest—in moral currency as well as hard cash. Having rescued his second wife Sofia from poverty and the tyranny of an old widow, Fyodor regards her as, “so to speak, ‘guilty’ before him” and proceeds to gather women in his house for orgies. Yet he is manifestly troubled by his own depravity.

When Alyosha asks his father’s permission to enter the local monastery as a novice, Fyodor remarks that there is probably no ceiling in Hell, much less hooks from which to hang immaterial souls. “Who will drag me down with hooks,” he worries, “because if they don’t drag me down, what then, and where is there any justice in the world?” Later, when he opens his soul (as people do) to Alyosha’s spiritual mentor, the Elder Zosima, demons pour forth. He behaves outrageously (“‘Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou hast sucked’—the paps especially!” he tells Zosima) but admits that “there’s maybe an unclean spirit living in me.” And in the “last act” of his memorable performance at the monastery, he rouses himself to a pitch of fatherly indignation concerning the imperilment of Alyosha’s soul by Zosima’s rumored abuse of the sacrament of confession. “With us, once a thing falls, it can lie there forever,” he observes with stunning honesty; “I won’t have it, sirs! I want to rise!”

That longing to rise is discernible even when Fyodor sinks to his lowest and foulest deed, the rape of Lizaveta. Mute, seemingly idiotic, savagely beaten by her alcoholic father, and now orphaned, the twenty-year-old Lizaveta is mythically primitive and wholesome—a distinctly Russian, Christian–pagan fusion of earthly and heavenly women. Arrestingly carnal and creaturely, she wears a hempen shift, has matted “sheep’s wool” hair flecked with twigs and dirt, begs “all over town,” and goes barefoot in all seasons and sleeps on the ground (like mortal Poverty and her daimonic son Eros in Plato’s Symposium). Yet she has a place in the hearts of the townspeople as a “holy fool of God,” so much so that even schoolboys do not tease or insult her. She immediately gives away the alms that come her way (rolls and buns to children and women, kopecks to churches and prisons) and subsists only on black bread and water.

For the Karamazov nature is such as to hold the “ideal of the Madonna,” in Dmitri’s words, together with the “ideal of Sodom.”

Lizaveta’s nature seems both to attract and repel Fyodor, as does her lusty but stinking body. Admitting to Zosima that in his youth he made his living “by sponging,” Fyodor remarks that he is “a natural-born buffoon . . . just like a holy fool.” Like a man falling backwards off a mountain, he has a view of spiritual heights, however blurred, even as he plunges to the basest depths. Fyodor claims that “even in the whole of my life there has never been an ugly woman, that’s my rule!” One senses in his rape of Lizaveta a confused attraction to beauty and goodness that would be recognizable as inchoate Platonic eros if it could be disentangled from his cruel thumotic impulses. Little wonder that this monstrous act of violence, which issues in the birth of Smerdyakov in a bathhouse, perversely recalls the conception of Jesus and his delivery in a manger. For the Karamazov nature is such as to hold the “ideal of the Madonna,” in Dmitri’s words, together with the “ideal of Sodom.”

Robert Louis Jackson observes that the ideal of Sodom is reflected in the impulse to disfigure what is beautiful and good, as when Fyodor spits on Sofia’s icon of the Madonna. The pleasure man finds in the ideal of Sodom, Jackson writes, “coexists in lacerating contact with his higher ideal” and is necessarily connected with an impression of that ideal. The rape of Lizaveta is from this perspective a twisted acknowledgment of her inner beauty, the divine image that shines within her. But Fyodor is merely wicked, not irredeemably evil. “Here [in the Karamazov nature] the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart,” Dmitri tells Alyosha; “man is broad, even too broad.” In the murky depths of Fyodor’s soul, a longing for decorous order and harmony flashes like a silvery fish. The profoundly muddled paterfamilias wants both to destroy the divine image and to be saved by it. Is that not all too human?

The epigraph of The Brothers Karamazov is drawn from the Gospel of John: “Verily, Verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Dostoevsky’s entire book is a commentary on this biblical verse, which contrasts the sterility of isolation with the fecundity of communion and links the suffering of the Cross with the joy of resurrection. Heraclitus taught that the way up and the way down are one and the same—a thought that dawns on Oedipus when, at the center of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, he recalls killing an old man at the crossroads. In reversing that tragic formula, Christianity transforms it into a message of redemption. All the main characters of the novel are bound together in a spiritual drama of falling as a necessary prelude for rising—but not, in all cases, a sufficient one.

“There were some among our gentry who said she [Lizaveta] did it all out of pride,” the narrator relates. Led by Zosima’s adversary Ferapont, some level the same charge against the elder, who exemplifies the saving power of joyful and active love and who dies in the days before Easter “kissing the earth and praying (as he himself taught).” The elder’s connection to the earth and to Lizaveta becomes explicit when his corpse scandalously begins to stink just hours after his death—a sign of God’s condemnation, according to the malicious and the lightheaded alike. (Kindly Madame Khokhlakov absurdly remarks that she would not have expected “such conduct” from him.) Ferapont—whose envy and indignation at the widespread love the elder elicited in life pours forth when his stench becomes impossible to ignore—is lifted up in society’s opinion as Zosima is taken down: “ ‘It is he [Ferapont] who is holy! It is he who is righteous!’ voices exclaimed.” Like Lizaveta, Ferapont is a keeper of silence who does not bathe, takes only bread and water, and is regarded as a holy fool. But his holiness is fundamentally adversarial—he claims that the monastery is swarming with devils—and literally diabolical, in that it feeds on slander. And while he dwells in almost total isolation and strains under the weight of his chain-mail asceticism, Lizaveta lives in joyful communion with all the people of Skotoprigonyevsk, rich and poor, young and old alike. It is she who deserves the humble and hallowed name of Ferapont, from the Greek therapōn: servant, healer, caregiver.

Having denounced Zosima for the “desire to be worshipped like an idol,” Ferapont “went to his cell without looking back, still uttering exclamations, but now quite incoherently.” This is our last image of the man, who exits the novel in a sobbing frenzy of self-exaltation and spite. His madness is self-consuming, as empty and sterile as a hot desert wind.

Such convulsions are common in The Brothers Karamazov. Ferapont’s apoplexy recalls the alarming transformation of Captain Snegiryov when, having joyfully bared his soul to Alyosha upon receiving Katerina Ivanovna’s gift of two hundred rubles (“Lord, but this is a dream!”), he is suddenly overcome by a fit of “inexplicable pride” that contorts his face, twists his lips, and renders him speechless. In a similar delirium of pride, a shrieking and sobbing Katerina destroys Dmitri in court. Other spiritual and psychological disorders cannot easily be traced to amour propre. Lise Khokhlakov, who crushes her finger in a door in an act of self-mortification, replicates her mother’s comic hysteria in a demonic register. Then there are the exhausted and abused women called “shriekers.” These include Fyodor’s second wife, Sofia, terrorized by the old widow and then by her husband, and the peasant who, brought before Zosima, “began somehow absurdly screeching, hiccuping, and shaking all over.” Finally, there is Smerdyakov’s epilepsy—which, like the fate of a tragic protagonist, is somehow partly within his control. Might it, too, be the physical manifestation of profound moral suffering?

We are well-prepared for the Oedipal return of the unwanted son and the revenge of the outcast brother.

Lizaveta’s child is marked by the strange circumstances of his birth almost as much as by his bastardy and low parentage, which are stamped onto his soul when Fyodor takes to calling him Smerdyakov, that is, Son of the Stinking One. Why did Lizaveta, already in labor, scale the high fence of Fyodor’s garden? What does it mean that the injured and dying woman delivered her baby in his bathhouse? Or that she did so on the very day Fyodor’s devout servant Grigory buried his own infant son, born with six fingers, whom he calls a “dragon” and a “monster”—and that Grigory and his wife raised the changeling? Dragons and monsters (from the Latin monstrum, a divine portent) are the stuff of Beowulf, in which Grendel of the exiled clan of Cain prowls the bog outside the barred and bolted mead hall. Grigory later refers to Smerdyakov, too, as a monster. “You are not a human being,” he tells him after catching him burying a cat he killed in a mock religious ceremony; “you were begotten of bathhouse slime”—words the boy “never could forgive him.” We are well-prepared for the Oedipal return of the unwanted son and the revenge of the outcast brother.

Rich with mythical and biblical associations, Fyodor’s garden is a primal scene of longing and labor, damnation and potential salvation. There, in the dark of night, Dmitri fells Grigory with a blow from a brass pestle, and Fyodor, fearful but trembling with erotic expectation, looks in vain for the temptress Grushenka. Most suggestive is the apple tree, hollow with age and decay, in which Smerdyakov hides the money he steals from his father immediately after murdering him. His crimes combine the sins of the father with those of the son, the metaphorical parricide of violating God’s prohibition concerning the Tree of Knowledge with the murder of Abel.

While the expulsion from Eden deprives Adam and Eve of God’s intimate presence, it is Cain who most acutely feels the pain of divine rejection and exile. Unbearably embittered by the regard that God bestows exclusively on his brother, he commits a murder that turns him into a homeless wanderer on sterile soil. So it is, more or less, with Smerdyakov, whose birth both entitles him to and disqualifies him from full inclusion in the family Karamazov. Despised by his brothers and habitually derided by his father, he cannot understand that Fyodor, with whom he lives longer and more closely than any of his siblings do, has nevertheless come to care for him and “for some reason even loved him.” Perversely, he is attracted to Ivan not least because he shares his disgust at being associated with the Karamazovs. This is like Groucho Marx’s joke about never joining any club that would have him for a member. The garden whose gate Smerdyakov forces by stealth and violence, knowing not how to enter by love, must for that reason alone remain nothing more than a blood-polluted patch marked by a rotting apple tree. Little wonder that his patricide ends in suicide.

In fact, all of Fyodor’s children are patricidal and suicidal. These tendencies, Dostoevsky implies, are conjoined: like plants, we wither and die when we sever the roots of our being. Dmitri beats his biological father, nearly kills his adoptive one, and plans to shoot himself at dawn after his spree in Mokroye. Alyosha, who despairs of “higher justice” when slander engulfs Zosima after his death, murmurs against his Heavenly Father and, in the Lenten lead-up to Easter, prepares to commit spiritual suicide with the aid of vodka, sausage, and Grushenka. As for Ivan, his as yet untested assertion that “everything is permitted”—the poisoned fruit of Enlightenment atheism and revolutionary radicalism—deeply impresses Smerdyakov and, to Alyosha’s dismay, licenses Ivan’s intention by the age of thirty to “drop the cup [of life], even if I haven’t emptied it, and walk away.” With similar intellectual detachment—one could say that Ivan ironically inhabits sincere positions while the role-playing Fyodor sincerely inhabits ironic ones—he maintains that he will always protect his father according to conventions of filial duty but claims total freedom to wish for his death. Yet Smerdyakov’s accusation that “the chief murderer is you alone” moves him to confess to the deed in court, a confession whose sincerity is ironically attributed to his obvious insanity.

Of the Karamazov brothers, only Dmitri and Alyosha are by novel’s end saved from self-destruction. Their salvation involves a purification through suffering of raw romantic sensuality or spiritual ardor—of eros—and comes with unexpected grace from the quarter where Fyodor instinctively sought it: from Grushenka. Neither man is free of self-love—that is a given for all human beings—but both are capable of actively loving and receiving love from another, and this reciprocated love wrings meaning out of otherwise meaningless suffering.

Ivan and Smerdyakov, however, abide in the solitude of a suffering that bears no fruit. Both at some point echo Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Alyosha urges Ivan to “love life more than its meaning,” to “love it before logic,” but the barren rock of logic seems to him to offer surer footing than love’s uneven ground. Adults, Ivan says, “are disgusting and do not deserve love”—note that love is for him conditional on reason’s judgment—but “one can love children even up close” because they “are not yet guilty of anything.” Yet while he is tormented by children’s suffering, he does nothing that might help a single one of them. Characteristically, he shoves others away—some furiously, like Maximov at the monastery and the drunken peasant he encounters on the way to see Smerdyakov; others, including Alyosha, whom he wrongly accuses of having no place for him in his heart, in a surge of self-pity.

Ivan’s situation is critical, but Smerdyakov’s is hopeless. Crushed by massive insult to his being, he is utterly incapable of love, yet he longs for a fraternal embrace that never arrives. His deepest wish is to prove to Ivan that he is his equal and brother in critical intelligence and boldness. Rejected by this “former brave man,” he ends his life in a way that is notable more for its pusillanimity and vengefulness than for intrepidity of thought and action.

The tragedy of the “monster” Smerdyakov is a kind of negative Eucharist.

In Roman and Old Catholic churches, the consecrated Eucharistic host is sometimes displayed in a vessel called a monstrance. The tragedy of the “monster” Smerdyakov is a kind of negative Eucharist, a literary demonstration or admonition that points, by way of warning, to the human necessity of community or of the communion achieved through love—the spiritual bread without which man cannot live.

In The Brothers Karamazov it is Zosima who embodies the promise of salvation through love. A capacious soul who contains all of the fundamental human potentialities realized in Fyodor’s sons, he is a “Brother” as well as a “Father,” and not just among monks. Alyosha’s spiritual father, Zosima is a double or antipodal twin of his biological one. As broad, vital, and intelligent as Fyodor, he is by nature no less susceptible to Karamazovian derangements of heart and mind, including cruel and violent expressions of pride. Rescued from these afflictions in early manhood by the joyful suffering of active love, he comes to exemplify spiritual health and integrity.

The novel’s central spiritual drama plays out in the charged middle ground between Fyodor and Zosima, the old Adam and the new. On the day both men die—a day whose events the narrator begins to relate at the center and dramatic hinge of the book—Alyosha and Dmitri descend to the depths of despair only to rise with new strength and purpose.

Zosima had instructed Alyosha to leave the monastery after his death and “sojourn in the world like a monk.” Alyosha is twenty and will soon lose the elder’s guidance; yet on the verge of this rite of passage into adulthood he remains spiritually immature. The narrator shrewdly observes that Alyosha “revered” and “adored” Zosima, in whom the whole of his love was “concentrated, perhaps even incorrectly.” For this reason, he immediately expected miracles “from the remains of his former adored teacher,” but the slander of Zosima awakens him from his childish dreams. Father Paissy rebukes the gloating Ferapont by noting that the elder’s stink may be “such a ‘sign’ as neither I, nor you, nor any man is capable of understanding.” Together with Grushenka’s equally unexpected consideration for Alyosha’s grief, it is in any case just what Alyosha most needs at this pregnant moment, in which eternity and time
seem to touch.

The probability or necessity of physical and moral corruption in the monastery and Grushenka’s rescue of Alyosha from the same are easily grasped by reason (Grushenka was, after all, the daughter of a clergyman). That goes also for Dmitri’s depression and mania on the same fateful night, which culminates in a drunken revelry at which his love is “crowned” and “heaven was open to [him] again”—a Bacchic version of the wedding of Cana of which Alyosha dreams just as his brother is rushing off to Mokroye. Yet one is unable to dismiss the impression that these events, and Dmitri’s arrest and subsequent spiritual trials, are also miracles of love.

If realism means the ability to contend with reality, Ivan is even less realistic than his brothers.

Dostoevsky claimed to be “a realist in the higher sense; that is, I depict all the depths of the human soul.” He therefore acknowledged divine mystery and miracle, without which one can depict neither the soul’s depths nor its heights. His realism, the realism of active love, is furthermore more substantial and practically capable, more realistic, than any Karamazovian politics, poetry, or philosophy. Compared with Zosima’s example of brotherhood—his love of the neighbor, expressed as non-judgmental openness and moral availability—the political ideal of fraternité embraced by Smerdyakov (who dates events according to the French revolutionary calendar) and the romantic one of Brüderschaft that inspires the Schiller-quoting Dmitri reveal themselves to be empty delusions. And if realism means the ability to contend with reality, Ivan is even less realistic than his brothers. For he willfully rejects the entire existing world because it does not measure up to his “Euclidean” moral reason. In this he directly opposes Zosima’s example.

The question of moral measure stands at the heart of The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky indicates the priority of this question in a curious locution that appears repeatedly in the novel: “X is guilty before Y.” Fyodor’s topsy-turvy judgment that his second wife is “guilty before” him licenses his debauchery. Less perversely, Alyosha regards Dmitri as “guilty before” Katerina. Grushenka considers her “former and indisputable one” (the Polish pan) to be “guilty before” her, while the kindhearted police commissioner Makarov, who repents of indignantly accusing Gru­shenka “most of all” in Fyodor’s murder, passes the same judgment on himself.

In each of these instances, guilt is understood to exist in relation to a particular person in a particular respect. It is well-defined and calculable within the framework of a specific moral economy. Ivan, however, identifies a guilt—a moral debt—that is beyond all measure: the debt incurred by the torture and suffering of innocent children. For Ivan, this humanly pervasive, incalculable, and therefore unpayable debt explodes the fundamental moral and theological economy—the theodicy—of Christianity itself. Like Johannes de Silentio, who proclaims in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling that “God’s love, both in a direct and inverse sense, is incommensurable with the whole of actuality,” Ivan accepts God but not the world of God’s creation. With Silentio, he presumes to stand outside the whole of actuality and to judge it. And his solution, as he tells Alyosha, is to “return my ticket”—as though life were a show and he a spectator.

Although Zosima stands inside of, and actively participates in, the whole, his thinking is even more explosive of ordinary moral reckoning than Ivan’s. Zosima teaches that “each of us is guilty in everything before everyone”—that each is responsible for all. His formulation involves a radical expansion of the idea that X is guilty before Y, one that seemingly involves an infinite regress: I am guilty before and for everyone in everything, including everyone’s guilt before and for me, including my guilt . . . ad infinitum. But if this claim does not pass the test of rational analysis, that is no measure of its practical moral adequacy. Ivan’s assertion of Euclidean reason is in any case incoherent even on its own terms. He is unable to understand that “two parallel lines, which according to Euclid cannot possibly meet on earth, may perhaps meet somewhere in infinity.” In fact, longitudinal lines are parallel at the equator but do meet on earth, at the poles.

Zosima’s sole and overriding purpose in life is to advance active love—the only power available to man that can make the parallel throughlines of otherwise isolated human existence meet, not at infinity but here on earth. The positive and negative demonstrations of his teaching by the characters of The Brothers Karamazov are not theoretical but dramatic. Wittgenstein wrote that “if a man could write a book on Ethics that was really a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all of the other books in the world.” Dostoevsky accomplishes this explosion by the highest literary means. This may be the crowning achievement of his greatest novel.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 5, on page 19
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