125 years ago on 9 February 1881 died arguably the most well-known Russian novelist in Europe, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (Фёдор Михайлович Достоевский). What should a today’s reader remember about him as a writer, thinker and a man?
In his vast work consisting of 11 novels, three novellas, 17 short stories and many other publications, Dostoyevsky depicted a staggering amount of social plots and characters. What they share is not just the urban and rural backdrop of the tsarist Russia, but Dostoyevsky’s ceaseless pursuit to understand the human soul. And no wonder, already during Belle Époque intellectual circles in European cafés considered that the Russians with their “great soul” are particularly apt at perceiving the fragile and complex fabric of our anima. The vastness of Siberia, chill of continental winters, and constant threat of a foreign invasion from several directions explains the emergence of tsarist autocracy. But perhaps it also led the Russians to start being strongly attuned to suffering and passing moments of happiness. In this Dostoyevsky’s writing is exemplary: with the same blow, his work can put the human soul at the top of a pedestal of virtue and ethics, only to strike it down the very next moment to the abyss of despair, insanity, or petty day-to-day maliciousness.
The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s last novel, is such a work. Sons to a debauched father, who spent his life as a womanizer and careless buffoon, capture in their personalities different aspects of Russian character. Dmitri seems like the national archetype, a sensualist with a short temper but a warm heart, contrasting him to the haughty intellectual Ivan, who is actually concerned for humanity to such an extent that it leads him to reject God as the ultimate cause of grief and misery. Dostoyevsky’s Christian ideal is clearly Representation in the third brother, caring Alyosha. Alyosha does not deny there is suffering, but he tries to sublimate it through help, compassion, and perceiving the good even in the shades of darkness.
In The Brothers Karamazov, human yearnings reach their full play. The seductive beauty of Grushenka, a woman whose abuse by a Polish officer had led her to torment men, sparks off a vicious struggle between a son and father for her attention. Proud and beautiful Katerina, on the other hand, is trying to save her fiancé Dmitri from himself. Even if that means creating a barrier between her and Ivan, all the while the two of them share an actual, yet hidden love. Next to these colourful characters, Alyosha’s good nature might seem to go to such extents that his personality is almost disappearing in the background. This draws a parallel between him and Count Myshkin, the hero of another Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot. Both are Dostoyevsky’s answer to what he saw as problems of his time: that a lot of suffering comes from the fact that one gives in too greatly to human passions and relies on rationality alone to solve complex social ills. The political manifestation of this was, for Dostoyevsky, nihilism and socialism, as portrayed on the revolutionaries of The Possessed. The effort to uproot and reorganise all social structures is only one consequence of deeper forces at play in the human psyché.
Our Russian author tried to demonstrate that we eternally, perpetually yearn for bliss, satisfaction, and perfection, while the struggle to reach them here and now fuels rifts, conflicts, and creates even more destruction. My happiness might be your doom, as Dmitri realises as his madness deepens from the thought that Grushenka may “fall into his father’s clutches”. The ancient Greeks understood this very well too, but, unlike Dostoyevsky, they saw the conflict as without a resolution and not needing any higher justification than itself. Life could be regarded as beautiful still, because its greatness and its misery portray one whole, in a kind of a piece of art that is tragedy. In one of the highly memorable quotes from The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri observes that “[t]he awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” Dostoyevsky therefore agrees with the premise that human passions clash; even in beauty darkness and the light are intertwined. Yet for him this conflict can be reconciled in God, specifically in (Orthodox) Christianity. While human beings cannot entirely forgive injustices, Christ did and can. The best one can do, Dostoyevsky believes, is therefore approximating our behaviour to the Christian ideal, which is the background of the characters of Myshkin and Alyosha. Their strength of character is not supposed to be “diminished”, but to offer a glimpse of a different form of acting: understanding and letting people reach their potential for goodness, rather than making a constant effort to impose one’s will and subject others to the individual’s schemes and plans.
In Ivan, who represents Western modernity, we are offered strong rebukes to Orthodox Christianity. Ivan rejects Christianity, because even if God existed, he says, he could not love humanity at all: meaningless pain and sorrow that he creates are without an excuse, particularly for children who could not yet even commit any sin. Chapter 4 of the book contains this horrifying paragraph, narrated by Ivan to Alyosha:
“There was a little girl of five who was hated by her mother and father. . . . This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy [outhouse], and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans!
Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark in the cold and weep her meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted?”
Where was God then? asks Ivan. To press this point further, he also tells to Alyosha a Biblical apocrypha about the figure of a grand inquisitor—which since then became known as a story on its own. (The reader can see it below in the riveting performance of John Gielgud in the 1975 short film from the Open University.)
In this story, which is happening during the times of Spanish inquisition, Christ once again walks the earth, performing miracles. But the grand inquisitor puts him behind the bars, claiming that Jesus interrupted their work. He is not needed; he is actually the reason behind human misery, the inquisitor tells him. Instead of offering to humans bread, guidance in the form of earthly rule, and certainty of afterlife, he only gave them freedom. And that freedom, the inquisitor says, is good for nothing, because it cannot satiate passions and needs. With freedom, human beings will only go after each other’s necks. Perhaps Christ therefore did not love humanity at all, when he put on them such otherworldly demands, Ivan and the grand inquisitor say together. To that Jesus replies only by a kiss.
I will leave the reader to make his or hers own conclusions. What is clear is that the author of The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, or short stories such as The Meek One or The Gambler was always dominated by the quest to understand what is happening in human minds, hearts and souls. Perhaps this might give us a few thoughts to ponder about even in the digital 21st century?
(updated on 19 February 2016)