Essay / Misc.

Dostoyevsky Plays With Live Ammo

What’s remarkable about The Brothers Karamazov is the way Dostoyevsky put truly dangerous stuff into the book. He was trying to write a book that would help people, help a civilization. Dostoyevsky seems to have thought of his vocation as somewhat prophetic, and he trained his sensitive artistic eye on the grim shadows gathering around Russia as it careened toward the twentieth century. He wanted to name the demons, call them out, expose them, and then cry out for the only thing that could save Russia and the West. And precisely because he had this therapeutic, didactic, edifying goal for his novel, he didn’t skimp on the truly dangerous ingredients.

The best example is of course Ivan Karamazov. Dostoyevsky lets this devil’s advocate speak his piece, and he lets him speak it dramatically, at length, unforgettably. It takes the acid of an Ivan to eat away the socialism and anarchism that characters like Rakitin keep building up. These are forces (they go by other names, but in his correspondence D. himself calls them by these) which Dostoyevsky could tell were waiting just over Russia’s horizon. Will people be good after getting rid of God? Yes of course, say the Rakitins. No chance, not a single chance, warns Ivan.

The problem, and the truly remarkable thing about this novel which just won’t stay read, is that Ivan’s acid is a universal solvent. Dostoyevsky brings in Ivan to destroy the socialist dream, but Ivan does it with an icy blast of nihilism. Who can put that Genie back in the bottle? Who can respond to Ivan’s arguments about morals and the immortal soul, and who can speak a word after listening to his horrific account of the sufferings of children? Don’t come to Ivan with your suffering God named Jesus; Ivan has already composed a Grand Inquisitor story that will induce vertigo.

Dostoyevsky stacks the deck against the forces of good in this novel, and refuses to make it easy. The central theme of redemption is introduced by a madman in a flashback: Zosima’s older brother, who blasphemes against God until he has a breakdown during Lent, begins in his illness to beg forgiveness from the birds and to say that we all live in paradise if we would only see it. Zosima himself is supposed to live a life or perhaps die a death that will overcome the forces unleashed by Ivan. Alyosha’s final speech by the rock is so short and thin that more than one reader has accidentally finished the novel without noticing it.

I can never quite tell if Ivan has been successfully refuted by the novel’s end, even though I know Dostoyevsky intended for that to be accomplished. The greatness and wildness of the book is that Dostoyevsky did not let himself put in easily defeated enemies for his heroes to triumph over in a flourish of edification. He put the real bad stuff in here, and bid the reader beware.

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