Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Some Contrarian Thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov Fresh From Just Having Finished It

Here's the (one) thing: for us in these more or less thoroughly secular/atheistic times, for anyone with a bit of intellectual sophistication, the idea that without God as a moral source all is moral anarchy, or, put another way, there is no morality, seems altogether quaint and anachronistic, a sophomoric notion that bright kids in high school might debate. In Shakespeare no such naive questions form the themes of any of his plays, I'd be inclined to argue.

So I resist intuitively anything so simple minded as being the metaphysics of an artist of such overpowering talent, intellect, psychological and representational penetration as Dostoyevsky. But there it is, seemingly.

I was so moved by the last Chapter, where the simplicity of the ideas in Alyosha's final speech make so much thematic sense to me within the context of the fiction, that, maybe just by personal predeliction, I struggle against a reading of the novel rooting that wisdom in the necessity of faith. But struggle as I might, I have thus far come up pretty empty.

But not altogether so.

One possible support I can look to, as I now see things, is that Ivan, whose cynicism is an experiment in finding meaning, and Smerdyakov, his intellectual disciple but pathologically malign and very smart, albeit poisonsously so, both run feelingly and experientially into the limits of moral anarchy without God by confronting the overall impact of Smerdyakov's murder of Fyodor in their three final conversations, and especially the last one. Those conversations raise and amplify the moral meaning of the murder in their consciousnesses.

They don't need, don't have, faith at the moment of their realization, but their guilt, Smerdyakov's legal guilt, and Ivan's spiritual or moral guilt--that latter needing some parsing, now's not the time--drives the first to suicide and tips Ivan over into physiological (brain fever leading to a coma) and mental breakdown. (What the future holds for Ivan, we of course don't know.)

So their realization suggests a ground for seeing morality within the novel not needing to be based on faith. So do the various acts of goodness, love forgiveness and reconcilation--such as the final one between Dmitri and Katerina and the partial one, still in the works, so to speak, between Katerina and Grushenka. So does the most powerful and beautiful relationship in the entire novel, between Ilyusha and his father. Familiality, filiality and literal brotherliness, for three integrally related instances, are sources for natural, intuitive and from-the-ground-up human bonds not needing God or faith for their formation.

None of any of these instances, arguably, need faith at their base and thus may speak to an ethic of compassion, pity, love and fellow feeling based on common humanity in a tragic world, a vale of tears marked in part by the reality of unspeakable evil, with religion being one mode of the representation of, struggle with, that overarching compexity and moral range in existence.

(Mark Lilla has argued that from about Rousseau on religious thinkers like Hegel and others saw God and religion as man made but an ideal worth socially incorporating with even a national de jure church and compulsory attendance and belief because Christianity represents the highest conception man has of himself. Lilla suggests that these ideas are the ferment out of which Reform Judaism came. But all this is a, possibly relevant, aside.)

I'd have to reread Alyosha's last speech but I don't recall the necessity of faith as its anchor, even though he's a believer and a moral centre of the novel.

One final thought: for me it's guff that we're responsible for the sins of others even without our complicity in those sins. I think Father Zossima, another moral centre in the novel, says we are. I have some thoughts about how that idea works in The Brothers Karamazov without being guff.

That at another time perhaps.

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