• StreetlightX
    4.4k
    This discussion on Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov was created with comments split from Currently Reading
  • csalisbury
    2k

    It's been interesting to compare my experience this time around to my earlier readings. When I first read it as a teenager, I was really only interested in Ivan & Alyosha, and even then only in the Big Ideas that I took those two to be vessels for. Reading it this time, I'm blown away by nearly EVERY character and it's the musicality of the dialogue, not the ideas per se, which is gripping. The ideas are still great, but it seems to me now that they're subservient to a musical whole - they're like intricate intellectual/emotional stances (ways-of-being? conatuses? wills-to-x?) made into themes. (And in many cases the character is his voice, his dialogue) It's kind of like all the characters represent (but that's wrong, not represent, are) ways of responding to a central question or crisis (still not sure exactly what it is) and the violent plot is simply a means of getting them to bounce off one another (tho the melodrama is actually kinda fun too)

    I really wish I could put that better, but do you know what I mean?
  • Janus
    8.7k


    That's an interesting take on it, and I feel I do have something of a grasp on what you are getting at, although I am not very far into the book yet. The "ways of being" of the characters seem to exemplify, for most of the characters at least, ways of falling.

    Perhaps the "central question or crisis" is the need for redemption, the question of how to stop falling, or how to stand up in a fallen world. Father Zossima's counsel to Fyodor Pavlovitch to stop being ashamed of himself and to stop lying to himself seems to get to the heart of the problem. The existential principle seems to be that "hell is other people" on account of whom one feels ashamed and lies to oneself. Existentially the fallen condition is then a specifically social condition. One is fallen with, and in relation to the rest of the world, and cannot stand alone before one's God, and confess it, for fear of censure, that is for fear of appearing to be the gullible fool who misses out on all the goodies life has to offer. This seems to be the 'musical' theme that runs all through society then, and perhaps even with a rising crescendo now, and Pavlovitch's strategy is to overplay the buffoon he feels himself to be in the eyes of others.
  • csalisbury
    2k
    oh man, can't post in full now, but I agree - and fyodor has actually become the most interesting character to me, so I'm glad you mentioned him!
  • 0 thru 9
    828
    Yes, Brothers Karamozov. Some books etch their words and characters onto your brain. So that even when you're not reading it, you're living and breathing and remembering it. The 1958 film version is excellent. Even at about 2 and a half hours, it still has to cut out large sections of the novel. Lee J. Cobb, Yul Brynner, Richard Basehart, Claire Bloom, and a young and earnest William Shatner all give performances wothy of the material, imho. The 2008 12 part tv mini-series Bratya Karamazovy looks most interesting, and i think all the episodes are on YouTube.
  • csalisbury
    2k
    @John So the first time I read BK, Fyodor Pavlovitch was, for me, something like what Zizek describes as "the fantasmatic, obscene figure of the primordial father-jouisseur [father-enjoyer] not encumbered by any prohibition." A kind of obscene, undestroyable chaotic lush who can't be escaped and who overflows into any peaceful setting that would keep him out. And, I mean, he definitely is that, at least in part. But I didn't understand, at all, the way in which he was driven by shame. (and I somehow missed the passage that describes those night-panics where he desperately needs Grigory, because he needs another human, nearby, who won't judge him.)

    I think you're right that the running theme is a mix of the need for redemption and 'hell is other people.' And they dovetail nicely because redemption is redemption in the eyes of someone else. And to be fallen is to be fallen in front of someone else who is standing. Ivan's famous Grand Inquisitor speech is about how Christ sets an impossible standard and thereby condemns nearly all of mankind. Alyosha makes Gruschenka feel guilty, and Father Zossima makes the other monks resentful. Katerina Ivanovna, in a weird twist, wants to be the one who redeems, and gets frustrated by those who won't allow themselves to be redeemed by her.

    What's fascinating & terrifying, for me, about Fyodor Pavlovich is that he seems to have a genuine, deep understanding of the problematic and how others are trying to deal with it - he can see through people, to their true motives - and he settles into seeing it as one big sad joke, without trying to change anything about himself. He contents himself with pulling the rug out from beneath others. I see a lot of myself in Fyodor (and in Smerdyakov, alas) and it's kind of unsettling. I'd say, of the Karamazov family, I'm 1 part Alyosha, 3 parts Ivan, 2 parts Dimitri, 3 parts Fyodor, and 3 parts Smerdyakov. Not an ideal mix.
  • Janus
    8.7k
    Fyodor Pavlovitch can certainly be seen as an archetypal despicable intruder and ruiner. A man who has so little regard for anything but his own whims and desires; who can turn on the charm when necessary but is really a kind of psychopath with no genuine empathy for the feeling of others.

    But, as you suggest, we can also see how vulnerable he really is, and how he protects his own sensitivity by becoming insensitive to others. I am not far enough into the book yet to decide whether I think he is irredeemable. Is anyone truly irredeemable? Perhaps that is also a thematic question for Dostoyevsky.

    I can also see somewhat of myself in the characters, even in Fyodor Pavlovitch, but there are others I have encountered in whom I see far more of that particular character.

    I'd probably see myself as more of Alyosha, Ivan and Dmitri and less of Fyodor and Smerdyakov. But as I say, I am not so far in yet; and I may have to revise that. It is definitely a fascinating read. I think I'm going to have to read all his works that I have not yet read and also go back and reread the others.
  • Agustino
    11.3k
    Ivan's famous Grand Inquisitor speech is about how Christ sets an impossible standard and thereby condemns nearly all of mankindcsalisbury
    Why do you think so? To me the story is obviously about the hypocrisy of the Church, not about how they set an impossible standard. And most mankind is condemned because they deserve to be condemned, like most thieves are condemned because they deserve it. To me, the whole idea of changing moral standards so that more people meet them is nonsensical. Moral standards should be what they are, if you don't meet it, then so be it, admit it and move on. What's the difficulty of saying X is wrong but I still want to do it? At least then there is some dignity there.

    Alyosha makes Gruschenka feel guiltycsalisbury
    And shouldn't she feel guilty for what she has done? It is the guilt which redeems her, and which makes her do anything to pay for her sins. Without the guilt, no redemption would have been possible.

    Katerina Ivanovna, in a weird twist, wants to be the one who redeems, and gets frustrated by those who won't allow themselves to be redeemed by her.csalisbury
    I think she's more like the person who has good intentions but ends up creating more chaos around her, because, as Trump would say, she simply can't get the job done.

    Father Zossima makes the other monks resentfulcsalisbury
    The weak, always hate the great for some reason. I don't understand why they have to resort to such petty jealousies. I always admire greatness wherever I see it.

    Fyodor Pavlovich is that he seems to have a genuine, deep understanding of the problematiccsalisbury
    Why do you say this?

    he can see through people, to their true motivescsalisbury
    Really? >:O Then why does it happen to him? If he's so bright, he should have foreseen it. I'm speaking in a bit of coded language because it seems John hasn't yet finished the book?

    Anyway, I think Fyodor is more like a big idiot who has a lot of power - and he shows precisely that if you are a big idiot with a lot of power you'll end up screwing yourself. Better to fix your character first.

    I'd say, of the Karamazov family, I'm 1 part Alyosha, 3 parts Ivan, 2 parts Dimitri, 3 parts Fyodor, and 3 parts Smerdyakovcsalisbury
    For me, it's 5 parts Zossima, 6 parts Mitya, and 1 part Alyosha.
  • Agustino
    11.3k
    Fyodor Pavlovitch can certainly be seen as an archetypal despicable intruder and ruiner. A man who has so little regard for anything but his own whims and desires; who can turn on the charm when necessary but is really a kind of psychopath with no genuine empathy for the feeling of others.John
    I agree that Fyodor is much like a psychopath, in that he has no degree of self-control or restraint. Forget that he feels no empathy for others - but he's just the kind of idiot who cuts the very branch on which he's sitting. He's not even a proper evil man - he's just self-destructive. He doesn't understand how his well-being depends on managing those around him. He doesn't understand how upsetting other people will end up destroying him. He doesn't understand how his ruthlessness is actually destroying him. He doesn't understand anything.

    And the other lunatic Smerdyakov has a bit more brain than Fyodor. He is proper evil. And there's nothing to talk about with proper evil (especially one feigning weakness) except destroy it. With Smerdyakov there's no compromising, there's no talk of well-being, there's no talk of anything. He only understands the baseball bat, and he dedicates his life to bringing others down and making problems for them. He's like ISIS - you must not play with it, but destroy it. That's beyond redemption.
  • SophistiCat
    909
    I read the novel as an adult, and to be honest, the "big ideas" interested me much less than the literature. And it is great literature, no doubt about it. I don't think much of Dostoyevsky as a philosopher - not because I think that he was wrong about this or that; he just doesn't have the cool-headed, analytic temperament that I look for in a thinker.

    Neither Dostoyevsky's ideas nor his characters are very life-like - nor should they be, as long as he is writing a novel and not a report. With this novel, as well as with most of his other "great" novels, I was most taken by the atmosphere of a phantasmagorical fever-dream. When I read a book of his for an extended period of time (and I am a slow reader), I feel like I am literally running a fever myself. In that immersive, unreal, poetic quality he reminds me of Faulkner (or rather Faulkner reminded me of him, since I read Faulkner later).

    Dostoyevsky wasn't a great stylist, but he was such a forceful, original artist that neither this lack of literary refinement nor his philosophical pretensions prevented him from creating great literature when he was at his best, as he was in this novel.
  • Robert Lockhart
    170
    Haven’t read the Karamasov one but have read ‘The Idiot’.

    Only an author with a genuinely powerful personality himself could possibly have so convinvingly constructed a personality as powerful as that of Mishkyn’s – the eponymous hero of the novel. The author never tells you the unworldly and implicitly Christ-like Mishkyn is a powerful personality but enables you to clearly see this for yourself. The paradoxical character, ‘Ippolit’ – young and in a state of sustained suffering through no fault of his own - is also one of the most genuinely unforgettable constructions in literature. (The scene where he imagines a nausiatingly slimey wriggling insect steadilly approaching his sick bed is celebrated in psychiatry for its insight into how sustained physical suffering can induce psycological ill-health) Yet Ippolit is objectively demonstrated to be nonetheless an innately and unambiguously nasty adolescent who is simply unfortunate enough to have a disease – not at all adding up to the cliché that a young person subjected to terminal suffering must somehow be saintly. But his depiction, which has over time attracted a great deal of philosophical comment, is compellingly plausible.

    Don't know anything about Dostoievsky's 'lack of literary refinement' - though even in translation there are many superbly described scenes in 'The Idiot' and it's also said of perhaps the greatest english novel, 'Wuthering Heights', that due to the technical inexperience of its' youthful author, it's also inept in that department - but anyway, Dostoievsky somehow really does seem to 'tell it like it is'.
  • Ciceronianus the White
    859
    I read a great deal of Dostoyevsky some time ago. Among Russian authors, I prefer Chekov and Turgenev. Dostoyevsky is too overwrought for me. He doesn't possess the unbearable sanctimony of Tolstoy, but I think was altogether too impressed by "the death of God" and its horrifying impact (in his view and that of others) on our sense of right and wrong. That, however, may have been a function of his time and place. I don't think I'd call him a philosophical writer, as his concerns seem to me more religious that philosophical.
  • Robert Lockhart
    170
    - He always objected to being described as a philosopher and would protest the distinction that he was an artist. Like many, I think the way to understand his work is different from the thought processes of philosophy in that though the understanding of his novels consists in grasping an objective intellectual concept of principles that exist in the abstract - exactly like science in that respect - nonetheless the principles concerned here relate to the ostensibly subjective matter of human emmotions. Understanding his novel, 'The Idiot' involves the apparantly paradoxical excercise of conceiving of an 'emmotion' without actually personally feeling it but as a type of intellectual concept.

    As to the question, 'What is Art?' - I'd say in that respect his work is a manifestation of a distinct spieces of intellectual thought inherent to the creation / understanding of great Art. What distinguishes this novel from most others is that, in intellectually describing emmotions as they objectively exist, only the scenes by means of which they are depicted are fictional, the novel itself being an objective description of reality and therefore fictional only in the superficial sense.
  • Janus
    8.7k


    I don't believe I can discuss Fyodor and Smerdyakov, or really any of the characters, adequately until I have read the whole book.
  • csalisbury
    2k


    Why do you think so? To me the story is obviously about the hypocrisy of the Church, not about how they set an impossible standard. And most mankind is condemned because they deserve to be condemned, like most thieves are condemned because they deserve it. To me, the whole idea of changing moral standards so that more people meet them is nonsensical. Moral standards should be what they are, if you don't meet it, then so be it, admit it and move on. What's the difficulty of saying X is wrong but I still want to do it? At least then there is some dignity there.Agustino

    First, comprehension of the parable comes not from holding it up to one's own ethical code in order to determine whether or not the two or consonant. "I believe x, and the Inquisitor says y, and, since x is right, the story must be essentially about The Inquisitor's failings" -- You miss all the subtlety that way. That you're ok with near-impossible standards is fine, but Ivan, the teller of the parable is not. To understand the import of the parable requires one to understand Ivan, which, in turn, requires attending to all of what he's said. It's quite clear that he sees the mass of humanity very similarly to the way the Inquisitor sees them. He sympathizes with those who aren't able to move mountains.

    And shouldn't she feel guilty for what she has done? It is the guilt which redeems her, and which makes her do anything to pay for her sins. Without the guilt, no redemption would have been possible.Agustino

    Maybe she should feel guilty, idk. I imagine the guilt and redemption, the purity and sin, of Gruschenka, a woman, has a special fascination for you, but the point of my post was to hone in on the concept of redemption and fallenness as essentially other-directed and to discuss how that plays out in BK. It wasn't to weigh the sin and virtue of the various characters. That seems like a boring and unfruitful way to read BK. Who, but you, cares that you wouldn't feel resentful of Father Zossima? It's more interesting to try to understand how the resentment of the other monks and villagers works - where it comes from, how it manifests and morphs, how the attitudes of one's peers redirect or strengthen or weaken it etc. To say you don't understand it because you're above such things - well, damn, that's not very Father Zossima-like. I find it bizarre that you see yourself in him, btw. All I can surmise is that you reflexively identify with GREAT and PIOUS characters immediately, when they're discussed in those terms, because you can feel the author's respect for them, and ignore everything else about them. What of Zossima, he who had no place for hellfire, do you see in yourself?
  • csalisbury
    2k
    He doesn't understand how his well-being depends on managing those around him.

    "Managing those around him" is an interesting turn of phrase, to me. Especially when it's used in relation to one's own well-being, and outside the context of relating to subordinates in a well-defined hierarchical setting (work, military, sports etc.) Can you expand on what you mean exactly?
  • csalisbury
    2k
    Feverish for sure. Everything is always urgent, settings shift rapidly, blurring any clear sense of time and space, and there's always a lingering sense of dread or imminent catastrophe.

    While he may not have a refined style, his ability to fashion different voices is amazing. Even though his dialogue isn't quite realistic, he does seem to have a good ear. It's like he absorbs irl talk, with its tics and rhythms, and runs in through a sort of filter. The idiosyncratic rhythms, tics and preoccupations are still there, but the pitch is changed.

    (tho hes certainly no faulkner stylewise - at least as far as i can tell in translation) faulkners on a whole other plane.
  • Zosito
    18
    I'm curious as to how you perceived that chapter in which Alyosha dreams about the marriage at Cana. Well, maybe not how you perceived it, but how did it impact you?

    You see, this chapter, along with that scene from Zerkalo which I asked you about in another thread, hold special emotional/intellectual (that's to say, integral) significance for me, such that I dare not bring them to mind in detail unless I believe myself worthy of it (and I'm mostly not).

    Never mind, I don't expect them to similarly affect others... but still, I'm curious as to how this particular chapter struck you.
  • John King
    1
    Completely agree with everything you said! Nothing really to add to it. It's one of those books you can re read and find different meaning in it (depending on where you are in life.. I've enjoyed re reading it every couple of years since i was in highschool. First I loved Alyosha, now Ivan seems to be the one I'm most drawn to. Definitely a book they should be teaching in schools.
  • ff0
    120
    You guys make me want to reread Brothers. I have a better memory of The Possessed and Crime and Punishment. Suffice it to say that Dostoevsky is a master. His characters are vivid and haunting. In extreme moments, this or that character will come to mind. Forgive me for not adding much. I did want to cheer generally this discussion of Dostoevsky. It's great to see things like this here.
  • Ehsan
    1
    Just finished the book. Absolutely loved it. The characters and the philosophical/religious musings. The plot was excellent with all the pieces of the puzzle fitting in. Though I have to admit, there's one loose end in the book, which I can't make sense of, and it's bothering me! That missing piece is the reason behind Katerina Ivanovna's two visits to Smerdyakov. Was any light shed on the reason behind this? Maybe I missed that. The last reference to this story in the book, as I recall, is the devil tormenting Ivan about having forgotten to ask Smerdyakov about Katerina's visits. Did I miss something here? The reason I'm curious about that reference is that when I read it, I imagined that perhaps Katerina had somehow colluded with Smerdyakov to kill Fyodor, in an attempt to frame Mitya... I'd love to hear someone's insights into that...
  • Daniel Miller
    1
    Could anyone please explain to me why Dimitry has to look for 3,000 roubles when he apparently has them tied to his neck the whole time? Also, why does he have to look for the full amount when he apparently split it in two and only spent 1,500?

    Thanks.
  • John Doe
    242
    Could anyone please explain to me why Dimitry has to look for 3,000 roubles when he apparently has them tied to his neck the whole time? Also, why does he have to look for the full amount when he apparently split it in two and only spent 1,500?Daniel Miller

    I suppose the simple answer is this: Dimitri spends the whole book in a state of anxiety about the relationship between his 'lofty' side (inherited from his mother) and his 'base', sensual side (inherited from his father) and what this means for his character, identity, existence and future. Spending 1,500 rubles impulsively in frivolous sensuality while keeping 1,500 close to his breast and always on his mind is illustrative of this 'split' which drives his character. This then motivates his manic anxiety throughout the events of the novel and causes Dimitri to feel implicitly that if he can get his father to pay the full 3,000 so that Dimitri can "go away for ever" then his father will have enabled the symbolic release by means of which Dimitri could let go of the base Karamazov side and embrace his 'lofty' side.

    Thematically, it's shown to be a fools errand because (a) an attempt to deny one side of your complex motivations leads to ruin (as illustrated by Dimitri's fate); (b) a personality which lacks this tension is bound to turn out either evil or brutish (as illustrated by Ivan's and Fydor's fate); (c) Joy is found in embracing both sides in a well-ordered set of instincts rather than pitting them against each other (as illustrated by Alyosha's fate and Zosima's shortcomings).
  • Agustino
    11.3k
    (a) an attempt to deny one side of your complex motivations leads to ruin (as illustrated by Dimitri's fate);John Doe
    I disagree with your interpretation of Dimitri. I view Dimitri as the "most successful" of the 3 brothers, the one who ultimately rights his wrongs and emerges on top, despite the fact that he ends up sentenced for a crime he did not commit. His and Gruschenka's love when they finally meet again is, arguably, one of the best moments of the book.

    (c) Joy is found in embracing both sides in a well-ordered set of instincts rather than pitting them against each other (as illustrated by Alyosha's fate and Zosima's shortcomings).John Doe
    The problem with Alyosha is that he never put his hand in the fire so to speak. He was always a spectator, whatsoever was happening, was not happening to him. I think Alyosha is just the lofty side, without the animal side. Dimitri, on the other hand, ends up as the merger of the lofty and the animal side - or in other words, in Dimitri, the animal side is divinised, lifted up.
  • John Doe
    242
    I view Dimitri as the "most successful" of the 3 brothersAgustino

    Well, that's one of the sources of the beauty of the novel, it's purposefully set-up so that each of us will identify with different characters in different ways depending upon our own personality, inclinations, motivations, desires, etc. But still, Dostoyevsky never hid his intent that Alyosha was to be the protagonist and spiritual heart of the novel. I doubt he would have explicitly stated that in the preface if it weren't at least intended to signal something important to everyone who reads the novel, even those who (for example) identify more with Dimitri.

    I disagree with your interpretation of Dimitri. I view Dimitri as the "most successful" of the 3 brothers, the one who ultimately rights his wrongs and emerges on top, despite the fact that he ends up sentenced for a crime he did not commit.Agustino

    This reconciliation of his personality and its flaws only comes after his arrest, through the act of expiation, when he embraces his fate with the help of Alyosha. His initial motivations (to do away with the 'base', 'sensual', 'Karamazov' side, as he puts it in his first talk with Alyosha early in the novel) are untenable and lead him to ruin in the form of nearly killing either his father and/or Grigory Vasilievich. Only an existential 'miracle', in the form of brute luck and contingency, saves him, and opens him up to salvation through expiation and forgiveness. Alyosha plays a key role in this.

    The problem with Alyosha is that he never put his hand in the fire so to speak. He was always a spectator, whatsoever was happening, was not happening to him.Agustino

    I hope you won't be offended if I ask how long it's been since you've actually read the book. Perhaps it's been a while? In any case, this goes so completely against everything Dostoyevsky intended for the novel and every academic interpretation I am familiar with that it would be interesting for you to try and reasonably defend this position. I suspect if you take another look at the text with a fresh set of eyes you might be surprised by how passionately involved Alyosha is with the development and fate of all the major characters in the book.
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