Star Wars Sale
 
 

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN!

Weekly drawing for $100 credit. Subscribe to PowellsBooks.news for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

More at Powell's


Reviews From


Indiespensable

spacer
Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, May 30th, 2002


 

Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881

by Joseph Frank

The Gambler

A review by James Wood

I. The world of "the slap": everyone knows that this is Dostoevsky's world, his "underground" world of humiliations, affronts, jousts, and slights. When, in The Possessed (1872), the repulsive revolutionary Peter Verkovhensky visits Kirilov to tell him that he has murdered Shatov, and Kirilov says, "You've done this to him because he spat in your face in Geneva!," we know that we are deep in the underground, profoundly enwebbed, and we know that this spider's psychology is something new in literature.

Consider a few scenes. The narrator of Notes from Underground (1864), the underground man, is one day in a tavern, when a powerful soldier, an officer, blocked by the narrator, picks him up and moves him out of the way. The narrator is humiliated to have been treated so lightly, and cannot sleep for fantasies about how he will revenge himself. The officer walks every day down Nevsky Prospect. The narrator follows him, "admiring" him from a distance. He decides that he will walk in the opposite direction and that when the two men meet, he — the narrator — will not give an inch. But day after day when the moment of physical encounter arrives, he weakens, and moves out of the way just as the officer strides past. At night he wakes up obsessed with the question: "Why is it invariably I who swerve first? Why precisely me and not him?" Eventually he does manage to hold his ground, the two men brush shoulders, and the narrator is in ecstasies. He goes home singing Italian arias, feeling properly avenged. The satisfaction, of course, lasts only for a day or two.

In The Eternal Husband, a brilliant novella published in 1870 (just before the opening of this final volume of Joseph Frank's extraordinary biography of the writer), a cuckolded husband named Pavel Pavlovich, whose wife has recently died, travels to Petersburg in order to torment his wife's former lover Velchaninov. He does indeed torment the lover, not least because the lover does not know for sure whether the husband ever knew about the affair. Pavel Pavlovich visits Velchaninov's apartment again and again, teasing and punishing him by withholding the real secret. Does he know of the affair? In typical Dostoevskian fashion, however, revenge curdles into a sour love. It transpires that the cuckolded husband is really in love with his wife's former lover. He cannot leave him alone, and his "torture" of him oscillates wildly between expressions of admiration, cringing humility, and savage resentment. The former lover decides that the husband came to Petersburg in order to kill him. He came to Petersburg because he hated him. But the lover decides that the cuckolded husband loves him too, "out of spite," which is "the strongest kind of love." At the end of the book the two finally part. The former lover holds his hand out, but the husband cringes away from it. The lover, with derision and insane pride, says: "If I, if I offer you this hand here ... then you might well take it!"

And, finally, a scene from The Brothers Karamazov, written in 1878-1880, the last years of Dostoevsky's life. Fyodor Pavlovich, the old head of the Karamazov family, a clown, a buffoon, and a malefactor, is about to enter a dining room at the local monastery. He has already acted scandalously in the cell of the saintly old monk Father Zosima. Fyodor decides that he will act scandalously in the dining room, too. Why? Because, he thinks to himself, "it always seems to me, when I go somewhere, that I am lower than everyone else and that they all take me for a buffoon — so let me indeed play the buffoon, because all of you, to a man, are lower than I am." And as he thinks this, he remembers being asked once why he hated a certain neighbor, to which he had replied: "He never did anything to me, it's true, but I once played a most shameless, nasty trick on him, and the moment I did it, I immediately hated him for it."

There is a dark novelty in all this, for sure. But what does it consist of? It is not merely that such characters are, as Dostoevsky believed the Russian soul to be, very "broad," capable of confusing and unpredictable swervings, full of abysses. Nor is this simply a display of what Stendhal called, in The Memoirs of a Tourist, the modern emotions, "envy, jealousy, and impotent hatred." (Stendhal is a mere gardener in Dostoevsky's underground, a genial above-grounder by comparison.) Nor is it only what is commonly called ressentiment. Rousseau may have come closest when he talks of the new inwardness being the replacement of old categories such as virtue and vice with the modern malaise of amour-de-soi and amour-propre. For pride and the deformations of pride are unwashable habits for all but the holiest of Dostoevsky's characters. The underground man, the cuckolded husband, and Fyodor Karamazov all seem to act in ways that are against their interests, and what marks their newness, their modernity as fictional characters, is that they do so again and again without cease, and that they do so, as it were, theoretically: they act like this because their interest is really the maintenance of their pride. (By theoretical, I mean not that Dostoevsky's interest in psychological oddity is abstract, but that it is philosophical: The Eternal Husband has indeed a whole chapter of psychological exegesis titled "Analysis.")

When we think of typical Dostoevskian action, we surely think of a bewildering mixture of haughtiness and humility co-existing in the same person, each element oddly menacing. The underground man, that anti-bourgeois banshee, alternately ingratiating and screaming with fury; and Peter Verkhovensky, hateful and dominating to his subordinates, but sheepish and adoring with his hero, the child-rapist Stavrogin; and Smerdyakov, the real killer of Fyodor Karamazov, an illegitimate servant who is horrible to his adoptive father but slyly humble before the Karamazov men. And it is not only the menace of pride but also the comedy of pride that reverberates throughout Dostoevsky. Comedy is not always associated with Dostoevsky's name, but nothing is funnier in The Possessed than the proud, weak governor, Andrei von Lembke, who is being manipulated by Peter Verkhovensky. As the local mayhem mounts, the governor loses his control. He shouts at a group of visitors in his drawing room, "That's enough!" and marches out, only to trip on the carpet. He stands still for a moment, looks at the carpet, says aloud, "Have it changed!" and walks out.

Dostoevsky shows us that pride and humility are really one. If you are proud, you almost certainly feel humbler than someone else in the world, because pride is an anxiety, not a consolation. And if you are humble, you almost certainly feel better than someone else in the world, because humility is an achievement, not a freedom. Pride, one might say, is the sin of humble people and humility is the punishment of proud people; and each reversal represents a kind of self-punishment. Thus Fyodor Karamazov enters the dining room ready to abase himself because he disdains everyone else. This sort of logic is hard to find, at least as an explicit psychology, in novelists before Dostoevsky. One has instead to consult the religious weepers and gnashers — Ignatius of Loyola, or Kierkegaard — to encounter anything like it.

But Fyodor enters the dining room, as the underground man walks toward the officer, and as the cuckolded husband comes to Petersburg, for another reason: because he needs other people in order to confirm himself. The underground man admits this; he calls himself "a retort man," a man who comes "not from the bosom of nature but from a retort." This "dialogism" was most influentially noticed by Mikhail Bakhtin, who posited it as the fundamental principle of Dostoevsky's work. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Bakhtin observed:

What the underground man thinks about most of all is what others think or might think about him; he tries to keep one step ahead of every other consciousness, every other thought about him....At all the critical moments of his confession he tries to anticipate the possible definition or evaluation others might make of him ... interrupting his own speech with the imagined rejoinders of others.

Thus the many pairings, or doublings, in which one character revolves around another, and each is murderously dependent on the other: Peter Verkhovensky and Stavrogin, Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov, Ivan Karamazov and Smerdyakov, Velchaninov and Pavel Pavlovich. In Fyodor's case — and perhaps it is always the case with any colossal egotism — other people appear to have become himself. He dislikes his neighbor because of something that he, Fyodor, did to him: "I once played a most shameless, nasty trick on him, and the moment I did it, I immediately hated him for it." Clearly Fyodor longs — however buried the original religious sentiment — to punish himself, because he hates himself. But since other people have merged with him, he punishes himself by punishing other people, and hates himself by hating other people.

And this leads to a Sisyphean repetition of behavior. Self-punishment of this twisted kind means being condemned to re-enact scandal after scandal without cease, because each self-punishment has become indistinguishable from sinning. The sin itself has become the punishment for that sin, and each sin, being another act of outrage, just opens the wound again. Clearly there is no way that Fyodor Karamazov could ever stop behaving badly to his neighbor, since there is no logic by which he could possibly begin to feel warmly toward him. He would have to like himself, and that is not going to happen.

One can go further than Bakhtin, subtle as he is. The really remarkable aspect of Dostoevsky's celebrated psychology is surely that it is deeply sophisticated and wise in theoretical and human terms, but also that it can be finally understood only in religious terms. His characters, even the very godless ones such as Fyodor Karamazov, live under the mottled shadow of religious categories. They are the most complicated modern, secular agglomerations of unconscious motivation and conscious masquerade ever created, and yet there is nothing in Dostoevskian motivation that cannot be also found in the Gospels. They are humbly proud and proudly humble (Mary Magdalene). They sin in order to punish themselves, and know in advance that they will do so (Peter). They doubt in order to be reassured (Thomas). They betray in order to love (Peter, Judas).

Above all, their actions are comprehensible only and finally as efforts to confess, to reveal themselves, to be known. A tiny scene in The Brothers Karamazov comes to mind. Katerina Ivanovna, Dimitri Karamazov's fiancé, has taken Grushenka's hand and is kissing it. Grushenka is Dimitri's mistress. Unexpectedly she extols Grushenka, who appears to bask in the praise. Grushenka takes Katerina's hand, as if to reciprocate — and then she unexpectedly drops it: "And you can keep this as a memory — that you kissed my hand and I did not kiss yours." Katerina calls her a slut, and has her ejected from the house. When one has gone through all the "psychological" explanations, when one has burrowed into all the corridors of dialectic, a stubborn inexplicability remains. Why act like this? What is furthered? Grushenka seems to want to annihilate herself.

The only explanation is religious. Grushenka, like so many Dostoevsky characters, wants to be known, even if she is not aware of it. She wants to reveal herself in all her dirtiness, in all her baseness. She wishes to reveal herself as hateful, proud, bitter, little. She wants to confess, and to be called a slut. The underground man desires, really, not to avenge himself but to reveal himself to the officer. After all, to let people know what you think of them is also to let them know what you think of yourself. This is the crucial point at which secular psychology meets religious mystery. The Brothers Karamazov, which would be the consuming work of Dostoevsky's last years, and wins nearly one hundred fifty pages of commentary from Joseph Frank, is concerned precisely with the feebleness of psychological explanation in the face of the oddity and extremism of religious motivation.

II. The final volume of Joseph Frank's magnificent biography opens in 1871, as Dostoevsky returns to Russia after four years abroad. Frank touches quickly upon the earlier years: Dostoevsky's involvement with radicalism and socialist utopianism in the 1840s, which had led to his arrest in 1849 and his mock-execution (apparently a little joke of the czar's) at the Peter and Paul fortress; his penal servitude in Siberia, from 1850 to 1854; the writing of Notes from Underground, and Crime and Punishment in 1866; and the dictation, in one month, of The Gambler, to a stenographer, Anna Grigorievna, whom he married in 1867. Frank repeats the emphasis that he has made in earlier volumes on the centrality in Dostoevsky's life of his four years in Siberia. He was doubtless never an atheist — Belinsky said years earlier that whenever he mentioned Christ, the expression on Dostoevsky's face changed, "just as if he were going to cry"; but he became a devoted reader of the Gospels in Siberia. A copy of the New Testament lay under his pillow for four years.

In the prison camp Dostoevsky felt that he discovered the essence of the Russian peasant, and this knowledge funded his later religious nationalism and xenophobia. The Russian sinner, he declared years later, knows that he has committed wrong, while the European is untroubled by his sin, and indeed accepts it as justified. "I think that the principal and most basic need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, incessant and unslakable suffering." Yet the Russian attempt at self-restoration will be "always more serious than the former urge to deny and destroy the self." In The Brothers Karamazov, he will have Dimitri, charged with murdering his father and facing twenty years of labor, exclaim in prison to his brother Alyosha: "It's impossible for a convict to be without God....And then from the depths of the earth, we, the men underground, will start singing a tragic hymn to God, in whom there is joy! Hail to God and his joy! I love him."

But if Dostoevsky had changed, so had Russia when the novelist and his much younger wife returned in 1871. The serfs had been liberated ten years before, and Russian radical thought, which in the 1860s had followed Chernyshevsky's idea of "rational egotism," and which had exploded into the violent ruthlessness of Bakunin and Nechaev (the model for Peter Verkhovensky), was becoming gentler and broader. Political thought was still divided between the generally conservative Slavophiles and the more radical Westernizers; between those who felt, like Dostoevsky, that Russia needed to offer its own solutions to its own problems, and those who, like Turgenev, saw Europe as the beacon that would illuminate a backward nation.

In the last decade of his life, however, Dostoevsky discovered that Russian radicalism was not only the secular Westernizing kind. There was a new strain, which, while never exactly Christian, seemed sympathetic to certain Christian values. These were people who, without orthodox faith, were yet willing to suspend themselves in the oil of the religious. Some of the Populists began to see the rural Russian way of life as treasurable, unique. Dostoevsky, who was conservative but never ideologically pinioned in one place, was not automatically anathema to these new Christianized radicals. Both Dostoevsky and some of the Populists began to envision the transformation of society along the principles of Christian love, charity, and selflessness. This was keenly pleasing to Dostoevsky. Once, perhaps, he had believed in the socialist eschatology of a graspable earthly utopia; but his reading of the Gospels had encouraged him to believe that socialism was a kind of blasphemy, an earthbound mimicry of an inimitable divine mission.

Socialism "is also Christianity, but it proposes that it can succeed with reason," Dostoevsky wrote in his notebooks in the early 1870s. Christianity — and here Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard converge — was not reasonable. It was perhaps a kind of lunacy. It existed not on the bread of reason but on the yeast of faith. The true Christian transformation, Dostoevsky believed, would happen at the end of time, and not by human will. The true Christian, said Dostoevsky, would say to his brother: "I must share my possessions with my brother and serve him in every way." But the "communard" only "wants to take revenge on society while claiming to appeal to higher goals."

There is probably no living biographer more adept than Joseph Frank at drawing intellectual family trees and turning them into forests. In page after page and volume after volume — this is his fifth and final one — he has devotedly elongated the affiliations and connections, the fraternities and masonries, of Russian intellectual and literary life, and in so doing has made luminous a world that for many of us was obscure. His enormous biography is misnamed, because it is really a scholarly commentary on the extant texts — letters, journalism, notebooks, and the great fiction. The mode of inquiry is utterly empirical. There is no fantasizing, hypothesizing, or fictionalizing. Joseph Frank does not "interview" his subject somewhere on Nevsky Prospect over blinis. Psychology — ironically enough, given the subject — is cut back to a shrub of mere suggestion.

By marshalling a huge population of ancillary texts, Frank mobilizes his subject, makes him speak and be spoken to; and we have been taught, over the years, how to be Frank's delighted audience. This is obviously one of the great, clarifying intellectual adventures of the age. Out of hundreds of examples of Frank's calming erudition, I will offer one. In The Brothers Karamazov, Grushenka, Dimitri's mistress, tells a peasant fable, which Dostoevsky had himself heard from a peasant. A heartless old woman, who has never done any kindness to anyone, dies, and her guardian angel, anxious to keep her from hell, remembers that she had once pulled an onion from the ground and given it to a beggar. When God is told of this, he tells the angel that he should hold out the onion to her in the pit, and if she holds on to it and is pulled out, she can ascend to heaven. But when the other sinners see her being pulled out, they hold on to her, too — and she kicks them, saying: "It's my onion, not yours." The onion breaks, and she falls back in.

Dostoevsky loved this tale as an expression of the natural brotherhood and communitarianism of the Russian peasant. He wrote to an editor, proudly, that in his novel "it is recorded for the first time." Speaking out of the quiet vaults of his learning, Frank murmuringly corrects his subject: "Here he is mistaken. A Russian folklorist had printed a very similar legend in 1859." And a hovering numeral, the guardian angel of scholarship, flies us to the appropriate reference at the back of the book.

Yet for all this dense commentary, a vivid portrait of the writer emerges. Those unfamiliar with Frank's earlier volumes may be surprised to find how devoted a husband and father Dostoevsky was. After his death, his wife modestly blacked out the erotic yearnings that he expressed in his letters to her. From the status accorded the suffering child in his work, one might well infer that he was a loving father. But Dickens (whom Dostoevsky deeply admired) used children in rather similar ways in his novels, and still managed to abandon his wife and children. Frank writes movingly of the pain felt by both parents when their three-year-old son Aleksey (Alyosha) died from a prolonged epileptic fit in 1878. The couple could not return to the apartment in which he had died. Dostoevsky, wrote Anna in her reminiscences, "was crushed by this death. He had loved Aleksey somehow in a special way, with an almost morbid love." In The Brothers Karamazov, of course, the avowed hero is the saintly Alyosha (the diminutive of Aleksey), and Ivan's great image of senseless suffering is the child in pain.

Dostoevsky, perhaps, already looked crushed. A few years before, in 1873, when he was made editor of The Citizen, a weekly journal, a twenty-three-year-old member of the journalistic staff named Varvara V. Timofeyeva had described Dostoevsky: "Very pale — with a sallow, unhealthy paleness — who seemed tired and perhaps ill ... with a gloomy, exhausted face, covered like a net, with some sort of unusually expressive shadings caused by a tightly restrained movement of the muscles." He told Timofeyeva that "the anti-Christ has been born ... and is coming." And he spoke of the Gospels: "So much suffering, but then — so much grandeur....It's impossible to compare it with any well-being in the world!"

Frank's deeply absorbing account of this last decade is really a story of unworldliness, for all that these are the years when Dostoevsky became a social "prophet." As Frank makes clear, until the publication of The Brothers Karamazov, whose monthly installments "held all of literate Russia spellbound," Dostoevsky was most famous for his Diary of a Writer, a monthly publication of sixteen pages, in which he gathered together stories, polemics, replies to his critics, and journalistic commentary on Russian news items such as the latest sensational court case. In the diary, he developed his growing Russian nationalism, in which he saw Russia messianically rescuing the rest of the world by bringing about the union of all Slavs, a mere prelude to a worldwide reconciliation of all humans under Christ, a Christ kept alive only by the true church, the Orthodox Church. There was wild anti-Europeanism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism in this journalism.

Still, the practical political remedy was becoming more and more ethereal — more religious. Even as Dostoevsky immersed himself in the debates of his country, his politics were thinning into Christological mist. He would tell querulous correspondents, again and again, to turn to Christ, to pray, to love one another, to ask for forgiveness. He pondered more and more deeply the life and the teaching of Saint Tikhon Zadonsky, a mid-eighteenthcentury Russian monk, who influenced his portrait of Father Zosima in his last novel. Tikhon taught, in Frank's words, "that humankind should be grateful for the existence of temptation, misfortune and suffering because only through these could humans come to an acknowledgement of all the evil in their souls." (Frank speculates plausibly enough that Dostoevsky may well have taken these words to be a response to the problem of Job, with whom Dostoevsky had been obsessed from an early age.)

Inwardly, Dostoevsky was preparing himself for the religious transfiguration for which he argues so movingly in his last great novel. For his fifty-eighth birthday, in 1879, Anna gave him a large photographic reproduction of Raphael's Sistine Madonna. "How many times [have] I found him in his study in front of that great picture," she later wrote, "in such deep contemplation that he did not hear me come in."

III. The Brothers Karamazov, for all its "dialogism," represents a vast Christian exhortation. In The Possessed, one of the revolutionary socialists, Shigalev, announces his plan of social transformation. To our ears, it is a nightmare out of Orwell. One-tenth of humanity will have unlimited freedom and unrestricted powers over the remaining nine-tenths. These unfortunates must give up their individuality and be turned into a herd of identicals. Peter Verkhovensky, of course, exclaims that Shigalev has "invented equality," an equality in which "everyone belongs to all the others, and all belong to everyone. All are slaves and equals in slavery." To this horrid vision, The Brothers Karamazov again and again poses a true Christian equality, in almost identical language (this similarity is oddly missed by the usually all-seeing Frank): Father Zosima tells his fellow monks that they are "guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins." Later in the novel, when Dimitri Karamazov is falsely accused of killing his father, he offers himself as a scapegoat. He accepts punishment, he says, because he wanted to kill his father and might well have killed him, and is therefore willing to be "guilty before all." The forced enslavement and the forced equality of Shigalev's proto-communism has been replaced by the willing enslavement and the ecstatic equality of Christian penitence.

The Brothers Karamazov tells the story of the unstable and passionate Karamazov family, gentry in a miserable provincial town dominated by a monastery. The hated patriarch Fyodor is murdered, and suspicion falls on Dimitri, who had visited the house at the time, and who had emerged covered in blood and apparently three thousand rubles richer. In fact, Fyodor was killed, as we discover late in the book, by his atheistic skulking servant Smerdyakov, who is a kind of devil-figure. But each of the three brothers, Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, had at one time imagined the murder of his father. Dimitri had attacked Fyodor and had several times threatened to kill him; Ivan, an atheist who believes that in a world without God and immortality "everything is permitted," appears to countenance killing Fyodor when he meets the murderous Smerdyakov and informs him that he will be away from the house for a certain period. Certainly Smerdyakov takes Ivan's comment to be an official approval. Even the saintly Alyosha, who had been a monk in training at the monastery, admits that he has imagined murder.

The novel, like Macbeth, explores the sense that to have imagined a crime is to have already done it. Macbeth, recall, is changed — his mind is "full of scorpions" — at the moment that he hears the witches' prophecy. Nothing can be the same again. Both works of art live under the shadow of Jesus's unfair and even repulsive admonition that to have looked on a woman with an adulterous heart is to have committed the act. It could be said that all of Dostoevsky's characters, in their febrile determination to turn ideas into action, behave like people who have heard Jesus's warning, who deeply believe it, and yet are deeply evading it. The novel seems to come to the conclusion that indeed, as Father Zosima puts it, all are guilty before all. Dimitri, who is fallen, noble, Christ-obsessed, and who has the zeal of the converted sinner, accepts this guilt, and though he professes his actual innocence of the crime, goes willingly to be punished for it.

Yet are not some more guilty than others? Dostoevsky firmly believed that without faith in God and belief in immortality, nothing restrained man's worldly behavior. Without God, everything is permitted. This is an obviously flawed conclusion: a mere glance at world history shows that with God everything already was permitted. (The Crusades, the Inquisition, burnings at the stake, wars, Christian anti-Semitism, and so on.) Gibbon famously thought that the conclusion might go the other way — that a world without religions might well have been a sweeter place. But Dostoevsky had already written a novel, Crime and Punishment, which demonstrated what might go wrong in a man without the Gospel; and here he is at it again in The Brothers Karamazov. For although Dimitri and Alyosha have imagined Fyodor's death, and are in some respects "guilty," it is the atheist Smerdyakov, influenced by the atheist Ivan's teaching that "without God everything is permitted," who actually killed the old man. And Smerdyakov is really Ivan's twisted double. Ivan, who has his own nobility, would never have killed his father, but in a sense his idea did the deed, via Smerdyakov. An idea is the killer. Atheism did it.

The Brothers Karamazov is a book in love with, and afraid of, ideas. In the end, I think, it proposes the peace of a realm beyond ideas: paradise. This is best seen in the novel's most famous chapter, Ivan's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor." Just before he tells this story to the believer Alyosha, Ivan attacks God for allowing to exist a world in which children suffer. Ivan is one of those atheists who stands on the rung just below faith; he is an almost-believer, and Dostoevsky clearly admires him. In such a man, unbelief is very close to belief, just as in many of Dostoevsky's other characters love is close to hate, punishment to sin, buffoonery to confession. Religion, Ivan says, tells us that in a future paradise the lamb will lie down with the lion, that we shall live in harmony. But "if everyone must suffer in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children to do with it....Why do they get thrown on the pile, to manure someone's future harmony with themselves?" He continues: "I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child. They have put too high a price on harmony; we can't afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket."

He gets Alyosha, the true Christian, to agree with him. If one could build "the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny child ... and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears — would you agree to be the architect of such conditions?" Alyosha says that he would not. But, replies Alyosha, there is Christ, who can "forgive everything, forgive all and for all." To which Ivan responds with his now famous legend. It, and the preceding chapter, are deservedly revered. The writing races on a thousand legs and finally takes flight. It has the ferocity, the august vitality, the royal perspective, of scriptural writing. It is, truly, visited prose. In the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, Christ is upbraided for allowing humans too much freedom. Humans do not want freedom, says the Inquisitor to Christ, humans are afraid of freedom. They want, really, to bow down to an idol, to subject themselves. They have no desire to live in the freedom to choose between good and evil, between doubt and knowledge.

In these two chapters, Dostoevsky mounts perhaps the most powerful attack ever made on theodicy (the formal philosophical term for the effort to justify God's goodness in a world of evil and suffering). In particular, Dostoevsky challenges the two chief elements of theodicy: that we suffer mysteriously on earth but will be rewarded in heaven; and that evil exists because freedom exists — we must be free to do good and evil, to believe in God or not to believe in Him. Any other existence would be robotic, unimaginable. In this scheme, Hitler must be "allowed" to have existed. To the first defense, Ivan says that future harmony is not worth present tears. And to the second — to my mind even more devastating — Ivan says, in effect, "why is God so sure that man even wants to be free? What is so good about freedom?" After all — Ivan does not say this, but it is implicit in his speech — we will probably not be very free when we get to heaven, and heaven sounds like a nice place. So why are we all so ragingly and horribly free on earth? If there are no Hitlers in heaven, why should it have ever been necessary for there to be Hitlers on earth?

Dostoevsky did not invent these objections, of course. They are as old as rebellion. Moreover, he knew that theodicy has always been incapable of an adequate response to these hostilities. He merely gave them the most powerful form in the history of anti-religious writing. And this is why many readers think that the novel never manages to escape these pages, that the Christian Dostoevsky, in allowing such power to anti-Christian arguments, really produced not a Christian novel but an unconsciously atheistic one. The philosopher Lev Shestov thought that Dostoevsky, for all his orthodoxy, was so corroded by doubt that when he came to imagine the doubter Ivan, he could not help giving him a vitality and appeal far beyond the saintly and bland Alyosha. Those of Shestov's mind think that even if the novel demonstrates that atheism is finally a murderous idea because it kills Fyodor, religion is so damaged by Ivan's onslaught that it cannot mount a proper reply.

Yet Dostoevsky very much wanted to reply to Ivan's attack. He worried that Father Zosima and Alyosha would not be what he called, in a letter to an editor, a "sufficient reply" to "the negative side" (the atheistic side) of his book. Well, can there be a reply to Ivan's arguments? Alyosha says what any Christian must say: that Christ forgives all of us, that he suffered for us so that we may not suffer, that we do not know why the world has been constructed the way it is. Depending on our beliefs, we will find this adequate or inadequate.

But Dostoevsky's novel enshrines, in its very form, a further argument. It is that Ivan's ideas cannot be refuted by other ideas. In debate, in "dialogism," there is no way of defeating or even of matching Ivan, and Alyosha does not really try. At the end of Ivan's legend, he simply kisses his brother. The only way in which we can refute Ivan's ideas, the book seems to say, is by maintaining that Christ is not an idea. Socialism is an idea, because it is "reasonable"; atheism, too. But Christianity, so profoundly unreasonable — what Kierkegaard called "lunacy" — is not an idea. The painful part is that the only realm in which Christ is not an idea, in which he is pure knowledge, is in heaven. On earth, we are all fallen, and we fall before ideas, we have only ideas, and Christ can always be kicked around the ideational playground.

But Christ is not an idea. This is surely the only way to explain the intellectually incoherent behavior of Dimitri, who, though innocent, is willing to be guilty for all and before all; or of Father Zosima's equally extreme advice that we should ask forgiveness "even from the birds"; or of Alyosha's final words, which close the book, that resurrection does indeed exist: "Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see, and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been!" Such notions have really fallen off the cliff of ideas and into the realm of illogical, beautiful, desperate exhortation. Belief has smothered knowledge. And this exchange — of the unreason of Christianity for the reason of atheism — means finally that there can be no "dialogism" in this novel, either of the kind that Bakhtin proposed, or the kind that Dostoevsky so ardently desired. There is neither a circulation of ideas nor an "answering" of atheism. For the answer — the unreason of Christian love — no longer belongs to the realm of worldly ideas, and thus no longer belongs to the novel itself. It truly exists in Paradise, and in that other, finally un-novelistic book, the New Testament.


Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

spacer
spacer
  • back to top
Follow us on...




Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.