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

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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.

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