Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Brothers Karamazov as a Novel of the 1860's

Charles A. Moser, The George Washington University

.....The fact is, though, that the novel also contains a considerable number of pre-time-of-action anachronisms, at least enough to justify our treating The Brothers Karamazov as more of a novel of the 1860's than it might appear at first glance.

For example Dmitry's mother, Adelaida Miusova, who could not have given birth to him later than 1840, is pictured very much as an emancipated woman of the 1860's avant la lettre: she wished, we learn, "to display her feminine independence, to oppose social conventions as well as the despotism of her relations and family" (XIV:8) in deciding to marry Fedor Karamazov.

Then, when she realized what a scoundrel Fedor was, she abandoned both him and her three-year-old son to run away with a "seminarian and teacher who was perishing of poverty" (XIV:9), very much in the tradition of the 1860's. Adelaide's cousin Petr is depicted only a little less anachronistically as a man who has adopted an intellectually fashionable anticlericalism which has moved him to engage in litigation with a monastery located near his estate (XIV: 10-11).

Smerdyakov's biography provides us with very clear anachronistic details. At the age of 12, we read, that is, in 1854, he placed his mentor Grigory in what he considered an untenable position during his Bible lessons, when he asked: "God created the light [svet] on the first day, but the sun, the moon and the stars on the fourth day. So then where did the light come from on the first day?" Grigory is so incensed by this that he strikes him on the cheek, and soon thereafter his epileptic seizures commence (XIV:114).

This entire scene is a cliche of the antinihilist literature of the 1860's, and in general Smerdyakov is a standard nihilist of the 1860's even though his intellectual formation had to occur in the 1850's, at least if one is to hold Dostoevsky to a chronological standard. But that is precisely the point. The Brothers Karamazov is a novel formally set in the 1860's which dislocates the general atmosphere of the 1870's onto the 1860's and the atmosphere of the 1860's onto the 1850's and the 1840's. Chronology is so telescoped and intermixed in the novel that we simply cannot hold the author to any significant chronological accountability.

It is my contention that The Brothers Karamazov may usefully be regarded, among other things, as a novel of the 1860's, and more specifically as a belated antinihilist novel of a peculiar sort, a summing up of Dostoevsky's response to the literary current which began with Turgenev's Fathers and Sons in 1862 and which had been effectively stoppered by The Possessed in 1871-72.

When he sat down to write The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky believed that the intellectual momentum had clearly swung away from the radicalism of the 1860's, that he had contributed considerably to this desirable development through his own writings, and that with this novel, as he wrote in a letter of May 1879, he could complete what he called "the rout of anarchism." That rout had to be accomplished on the religious plane, through the refutation of Ivan's arguments by Father Zossima and Alesha.

Indeed, one may view Dostoevsky's four great novels as a single enormous discussion of the central religious and ethical questions which the men of the 1860's had brought to the fore. In Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky demonstrated that an ethic could not be based upon mathematics (the life of one old pawnbroker to ameliorate the lives of a hundred others); in The Idiot he proved, at least in my interpretation,(4) that an ethic could not be founded upon esthetics; and in The Possessed he showed that the ethical could not be equated with that which promoted the purposes of a political revolution.

Thus in The Brothers Karamazov by a process of elimination Dostoevsky arrived at the conclusion that the only foundation for a true ethic must be revelation, a belief in God and immortality. But he also wished to demonstrate this positively, through the discourses of the great religious figures in the novel.

The Brothers Karamazov contains many echoes of the literature of the 1860's. At one point Madame Khokhlakova quotes Bazarov, when she comments that she had always believed there would be nothing after death, that "'a thistle would sprout on my grave', as a certain author once put it" (XIV:52). Two further points are worth noting in this connection.

First, in 1876, at the very time he began creating The Brothers Karamazov in his mind, Dostoevsky thought briefly of writing a novel with exactly the same title as Turgenev's (Ottsy i deti), although the book's content apparently would have been quite different. (5) And second, Maxim Antonovich, the radical critic whose most famous single piece of literary criticism was probably his intemperate attack of 1862 on Fathers and Sons, devoted his literary swan-song to a long review of 1881 denouncing The Brothers Karamazov as a "mystic-ascetic novel."(6)

Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done?, the greatest single influence on the radical generation of the 1860's, is the source of several echoes in The Brothers Karamazov. Thus the young socialist Kolya Krasotkin tells Alesha that he is an "egotist", i.e. an adherent of the doctrine of enlightened egotism which Chernyshevsky elaborated in his novel (XIV:483); and toward the end of The Brothers Karamazov Dmitry speaks to Alesha of going off to America with Grusha for three years or so in order to learn English and then return as Americans, much as Lopukhov does in What Is To Be Done? (XV:186).

The Brothers Karamazov also contains a running polemic with Dostoevsky's great ideological opponent of the 1860's, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. At one point the gushing Madame Khokhlakova talks of Shchedrin as her mentor in the matter of feminine emancipation: she had recently, she says, dispatched
to him a brief note with the text: "I embrace and kiss you, my writer, on behalf of contemporary womankind, keep it up," and signed it: "a mother." (XIV:350). Here Dostoevsky twits Saltykov by asserting that his most ardent followers are flighty, brainless females.

At another point later in the novel Dostoevsky distorted some of Saltykov's writings of 1875 through paraphrase (XV:78). Saltykov, incidentally, followed these details quite closely, and was quick to reply to his old opponent. Such muted polemics were not the most important part of the novel, of course, although they are strongly reminiscent of the 1860's.

As in Dostoevsky's earlier and more overtly antinihilist novels, the characters of The Brothers Karamazov are divided into those who exist on a more superficial, political level, and those who embody more profoundly metaphysical problems. In Crime and Punishment Lebezyatnikov serves as an example of the first category, Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov of the second. In The Idiot the first category is represented by Burdovsky and the young radicals gathered about him. In The Possessed Petr Verkhovensky is a very well-developed example of the first grouping, while Stavrogin is a most powerful example of the second.

In The Brothers Karamazov we find an entire constellation of figures who fall into the first category. Adelaida Miusova and then Madame Khokhlakova are samples of the scatterbrained emancipated female; Petr Miusov is the fashionable anti-clerical activist; Smerdyakov has grown up as a committed nihilist, and a dangerous one as well, for he is capable not just of murder but of parricide; and the divinity student Rakitin spreads his evil intellectual influence throughout the novel, all the way down to Kolya Krasotkin, who admires Rakitin as his teacher and openly declares his socialist convictions.

And then, in the second category, there is the great metaphysical figure of Ivan Karamazov. Ivan not only - in his "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" - recasts Shigalev's doctrines on the dominion of the enlightened few over the innumerable herd in religious terms, but he and Alesha also grapple with the central religious question of Dostoevsky's world. As the narrator writes of Alesha in a crucial passage:

...No sooner had he, after taking serious thought, come to the astounding conviction that immortality and God exist, than he immediately, naturally, said to himself: 'I wish to live for immortality, and accept no halfway compromises.' He acted just the same way as he would have, had he decided that God and immortality do not exist, in which case he would immediately have become an atheist and a socialist (for socialism is not merely a matter of the labor question... but is first and foremost a problem of atheism, a problem of the contemporary incarnation of atheism, a question of the Tower of Babel which is being built without God not in order to reach Heaven from Earth, but in order to bring Heaven down to Earth). (XIV:25)...

Similarly, later in the novel this argument is extended to the conclusion that if a person decides that God and immortality do not exist, he is obliged to invert his understanding of the moral law entirely and commit acts which would be considered criminal under the old ethical code (XIV:65).

Thus between Ivan on the one hand and Alesha and Father Zossima on the other are established the fundamental dichotomies: between acceptance of the world as it is (Father Zossima urges his followers to consider the beauty of the natural world and comprehend that "life is paradise" [XIV:272]), or its rejection; between belief in God and immortality as the foundation of the traditional ethical code, and atheism, with the inevitable inversion of the established ethical creed which flows from the conviction that God does not exist.

A certain number of relatively superficial themes characteristic of the antinihilist novel of the 1860's occur in The Brothers Karamazov, although they do not occupy an especially prominent place. One such topic, as we have already seen, is that of feminine emancipation, brought to the fore especially through Madame Khokhlakova, and also satirized in such passages as that about the three women:

...Three ladies are sitting there, sir, one feebleminded without any legs, another hunchbacked without any legs, still another with legs but even overintelligent, a student taking special courses who's always trying to get away to St. Petersburg to search for the rights of Russian women there on the banks of the Neva. (XIV:186)...

A second important antinihilist theme is the radical negation of literature, art and esthetics, with Pushkin as the central target of abuse (the dedication of the Pushkin monument in Moscow in 1880 could be interpreted as an explicit rejection by Russian society of the radical view of him: as one character says disgustedly, "they want to put up a monument to your Pushkin for his women's feet" [XV:17]). Thus Smerdyakov declares sharply that "poetry is rubbish." "Who on earth speaks in rhyme?" he goes on to ask. "And if we did all start talking in rhyme, say by order of the authorities, would we get very much said?" (XIV:204).

In Dmitry's long conversation with Alesha where he speaks of Rakitin's influence on his thinking, Dostoevsky depicts the radical contempt for poetry with biting sarcasm. According to Dmitry, Rakitin had taken advantage of Madame Khokhlakova's money to begin writing verses for the first time: "And anyway, Rakitin says, I wrote better than that Pushkin of yours, because I managed to cram so much civic melancholy into a clownish verse" (XV:29).

This remark is followed by an anti-parody of sorts, or a parody on the parodies of Pushkinian works which such satirical poets of the 1860's as Dmitry Minaev used to produce. Entitled "On the Healing of my Object's Injured Leg", it deals with the subject of Pushkin's weakness for women's feet, and illustrates, incidentally, an intertwining of Pushkin's fixation on women's feet and Dostoevsky's fascination with feminine lameness.

Still another antinihilist theme of the 1860's to be found in The Brothers Karamazov is the belief in rationalism, especially rationalism organized as natural science. That true follower of Dmitry Pisarev, Kolya Krasotkin, scornfully dismisses history as "the study of a series of human stupidities, nothing more. I respect only mathematics and natural sciences" (XIV:497).

In one of his conversations with Alesha Ivan rejects the notion of non-Euclidian geometry (XIV:215), much as Chernyshevsky did in real life, and that quite furiously, on the ground that Euclidian geometry is the foundation of a rational explanation of the physical world as it exists, and that it is totally impermissible to toy with the axioms of mathematics or geometry.

Early in the book Father Paisy comments to Alesha that modern science has sought to undo religion for quite some time, but without success on the whole (XIV:155-56). Still, as frequently occurred in the antinihilist novel of the 1860's, propaganda for natural science can have a powerful effect on individuals who are not especially intelligent.

In The Brothers Karamazov that happens to be Dmitry, who for a time succumbs badly to Rakitin's malign influence. He tells Alesha that he now knows there are various "nerves" in the brain with "little tails" which give rise to images in the mind, consciousness, so that the mind is merely a matter of "chemistry". "Rakitin was explaining all this to me yesterday, brother", Dmitry says, "and it was just like a revelation. This science is magnificent, Alesha! And then the new man will appear, I understand that now... But still I feel sorry for God", Dmitry adds, because, as he realizes, "Rakitin hates God" (XV:28-29).

Extreme hostility toward any manifestation of the supernatural was an integral part of the radical worldview which Dmitry has so naively absorbed.

All these themes, however, though they demonstrate certain superficial links between The Brothers Karamazov and the anti-radical novel of the 1860's, do not go to the book's deepest level, formed of an interweaving of the problem of the family, blood relationships between parents and children, and the question of crime - in this instance parricide - and violations of the accepted ethical code.

Radicals in the nineteenth century and since have instinctively recognized the family as a major obstacle to the implementation of their doctrines. When Kolya Krasotkin is asked what he means by declaring himself a socialist, he defines socialism as follows: "This is if everyone is equal, everybody has nothing but common property, there are no marriages, and religion and all the laws are just the way anyone wants them" (XIV:473. Italics added.)

In The Possessed the girl student keeps asking about the origin of the family, to which Stavrogin responds that it might be improper to provide too detailed a reply (X:306);and in The Brothers Karamazov old Karamazov comments to Alesha that "in our fashionable time nowadays people reject fathers and mothers as a prejudice" (XIV:158).

Dostoevsky very brilliantly grasped the crucial hostility of the radical mind to the institution of the family and the idea of blood relationships, and therefore he defended the family at its weakest point in making of his last novel a version of Fathers and Sons which dealt with the relationships between generations on a far deeper level than Turgenev ever reached.

The Karamazov family has a series of mothers, and a father who has not been able to maintain his marriages, who is on the worst of terms with his sons, who is little more than a mere biological progenitor of his children. Into this family which is metaphysically on the very edge of existence Dostoevsky thrusts the issue of parricide in its most extreme form.

The actual murderer, of course, is the son closest to the "nihilist" of the antinihilist literature, but it is the technically innocent Dmitry who is brought to trial. We are told that the fashionable ladies in attendance at the trial are quite certain of his guilt, but at the same time down to the last moment expect him to be acquitted "out of humane feeling, from the new ideas and new feelings which have such currency now, etc." (XV:95).

But in fact the jury finds Dmitry guilty, and he, in accordance with the Christian conception of guilt, accepts his punishment on the grounds that he did wish for his father's death even if he did not actually murder him. Dostoevsky thus shows the absolute dichotomy at the most fundamental level between the radical view of morality derived from atheistic socialism, which holds that it can be quite acceptable even to kill one's own father, and the traditional, religiously grounded ethic, which maintains that one deserves punishment even for seriously wishing harm to another, regardless of whether one has committed some overt act.

In The Brothers Karamazov, then, Dostoevsky goes back over much of the same ground that he had covered in his earlier novels - particularly in Crime and Punishment and The Possessed - in order to make his final artistic statement on the centrality of religious belief to a proper system of ethics. Though with scant regard for chronology, he recapitulates at a higher level the arguments of the 1860's in this novel which he explicitly sets in that decade, and through which he hoped to have the final word in that discussion.

And in my view The Brothers Karamazov did indeed terminate that great philosophical and literary argument which by then had continued for some twenty years.

See Charles A. Moser, "Stepan Trofimovič Verxovenskij and the Esthetics of His Time", Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 29, no. 2 (Summer 1985), p. 158.
All volume and page citations given within the text are to Fedor Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Leningrad: Nauka, 1972).
Victor Terras, A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoevsky's Novel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), p. 63.
Charles A. Moser, "Nihilism, Aesthetics and The Idiot", Russian Literature, vol. 11 (1982), pp. 377-88.
Carl R. Proffer, ed., The Unpublished Dostoevsky: Diaries and Notebooks, 1860-81 (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1975). II. 149

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