100 Days of The Brothers Karamazov

Join us from Sept. 1 to Dec. 10, 2021, as we read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” with guided commentary from Anna Barker. This follows our similar projects: 100 Days of the Decameron, 50 Days of Paradise Lost, 10 Days of Gilgamesh and 100 Days of War and Peace. Read a short section each day, augmented by Anna’s contextual notes and images, as we work our way through this classic of Russian literature.
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Part I, Book I: A Nice Little Family
Chapter 1 Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov
Meet the author – that’s Dostoevsky!!!
In his “From the Author” he outright tells us he is writing not one – but TWO novels about his main character – Alysha Karamazov, the third son of Fyodor!!! The second novel is the important one – the first one – the one we are about to read – deals only with a certain incident in the life of the hero which happened 13 years ago. Big problem – Dostoevsky never wrote the second novel since he died two months after completing Brothers Karamazov!!! Yes, gasp!!! As a matter of fact, Dostoevsky intended to write a trilogy about the life of a great sinner!!! And completed only book one!!! Ah, but what a book!!! In so many ways the trilogy idea was an homage to one of Dostoevsky’s favorite writers, Nikolai Gogol – remember him from my preliminary notes? Gogol wrote his novel Dead Souls in Florence and intended it too to be a trilogy. His inspiration? Dante, of course!!! The three-part structure of The Divine Comedy was the guiding ideal for Gogol – but he too sadly only finished the first novel of the proposed trilogy before his untimely death at 43. So yes, we the readers are super sad that we are stuck with only book one of these potential Russian trilogies – but do not despair!!! If there EVER was THE PERFECT final novel – that is definitely Brothers Karamazov!!! Forward!!!
Dostoevsky tells us that his main character is not “noteworthy,” he is “indefinite,” “indeterminate,” “strange,” and even “odd.” But there is a genius to this “particular” and “isolated” hero:
“For not only is an odd man “not always” a particular and isolated case, but, on the contrary, it sometimes happens that it is precisely he, perhaps, who bears within himself the heart of the whole, while the other people of this epoch have all for some reason been torn away from it for a time by some kind of flooding wind.”
WOW!!! The insignificant and odd character who embodies the totality better than the typical representatives of his age!!! A HUGE idea to remember for the rest of the novel!!!
So why should we be “wasting fruitless words and precious time” on this “humble and indefinite hero”? Dostoevsky is too cute at this point – he suggests we “drop the book after two pages of the first story and never pick it up again”!!! Are you messing with us, Fyodor?!?!?! We are not that easily swindled!!! We have your tome in front of us – we are the lucky few who made it through the Amazon shortages – no one will tear this tome out of our hands in the next 100 days!!! Ah, but then Dostoevsky does it again – calls his intro superfluous!!! I need a laughing emoji at this point – or three!!! Do you see how much fun we are going to have?! Yes, he is messing with us – big time – and we know it – and we LOVE it!!!
“And now to business.”
Meet Fyodor Karamazov!!! A lascivious worthless depraved sensualist buffoon who inhabits everyone’s worst nightmares!!! Do you want to quit reading now, after the two pages Dostoevsky warned us about?! Ah, but he has us on the edge of our seats in line 3 – now we REALLY want to know about his “dark and tragic death”!!! What to do?! Well, at least his first wife sounds fascinating!!! All that gushing over books – such as Shakespeare and Lermontov – made her a romantic yearning for enigmatic and complicated love – why else would a bright girl with a dowry be attracted to this buffoon?! And Fyodor Karamazov knows how to attract a young lady under the spell of literary compositions – an elopement!!! Poor Adelaida – when she understood the true nature of her husband – the trap was shut!!! But do not despair, dear reader!!! She beat him – and abandoned him for a young seminarian – and died a sad and lonely death in a Saint Petersburg attic… And it was hard to tell if her husband rejoiced or wept at her death – or a bit of both… The end…
Just kidding!!! Remember, Dostoevsky warned us about these cursed first two pages!!! Quit now – OR see you in Chapter Two!!!

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais, 1852, Tate gallery, London. Shakespeare’s tragic heroine is mentioned in Chapter 1.

Mikhail Lermontov (1814 –1841), Russian Romantic poet whose poem is referenced in Chapter 1.

Girl with a maple branch, 1886, a portrait of Vera Mamontova, by Viktor Vasnetsov. The woman in this painting is wearing a dress consistent with the fashion of the late 1870 and early 1880s. She is my idea of Adelaida!!!

 


Part I
Book I: A Nice Little Family
Chapter 2 The First Son Sent Packing
Meet the sophisticated European relative – Pyotr Miusov!!! He was really into reading Proudhon and Bakunin – anarchists and Marxists – and – rumor has it – EVEN made it to the Parisian barricades during the Revolution of 1848 – but the more recent “February revolution” of 1870 made him a bit weary of all political agitation. Why not focus on the Russian estates and their income instead – after all its costly to be a Russian landowner living in Paris – and French revolutions come and go – but the Russian estates make money – and that’s the sum total of Miusov’s liberal progressive aspirations!!!
But he did rescue poor toddler Mitya!!! AND forgot all about him almost as fast as his own father!!!
Meet Mitya, son number one!!! Unwanted by all and passed on from relative to relative, he ended up in the army, in the Russian Caucasus (here Anna needs to say hello to all our readers in Georgia!!!), fought a duel (what Russian literary hero wouldn’t?! I teach an entire university course where every single novel we read contains a duel!!! Remember War and Peace?!!!), lead a wild and dissipated life and squanders all his money!!! The apple did not fall far from the tree!!! And the father, a great judge of character, figured Mitya out instantaneously and concluded that he was “frivolous, wild, passionate, impatient” – AND a “wastrel”!!! What a family!!! Needless to say – the father DOES NOT want Mitya to find out if there is any money left behind from his mother and her family!!!
Plus – meet Grigiry the servant!!! If not for him – all three Karamazov brothers would have been abandoned and forgotten by their irredeemable father!!! Are you sure you still want to read more?! Trust me – this book will drag you through the muck in order to help your soul transcend!!! Forward!!!
Meet wife number two – how does Fyodor Karamazov do this?! Another elopement!!! Poor girl’s misery is so boundless that she has two options – the noose or this marriage… Dostoevsky wrote about the horrifying fates of women with no options in life in several books, including White Nights, The Idiot, and The Meek One – quite possibly his most heart wrenching novella…
Sofia, the second wife, this meek, innocent, and timid being was destroyed by the husband – leaving behind two boys – Ivan and Alysha… who once again had to be whisked away by relatives from this house of endless drunken debauches…
The boys grow up…
Ivan makes his way in the world, writes for newspapers, revolves in literary circles, feels at home in educated and sophisticated Moscow homes – and befuddles everyone with an article on ecclesiastical courts. AND THEN show up in this godforsaken provincial town – moves in with his father – AND gets along with him absolutely fabulously!!! Mystery upon mystery!!! Why would Ivan write about ecclesiastical courts? And why would he move here from Moscow? And why does he get along with his father – who even shapes up a bit under Ivan’s influence? All shall be revealed!!!
And now – meet Alyosha… Dostoevsky gave his own first name to the most degraded character he ever created – Fyodor Karamazov – and the name of his son who died at the age of 3 from epilepsy while Dostoevsky was writing this novel to the most spiritually accomplished character he ever created… Alyosha bears the weight of humanity on his clouded soul – but he is all too human… he too, is a Karamazov… And, to top it all off – he is a novice in the local monastery…
Tomorrow’s post will be dedicated to Alyosha…

The Caucasus where Mitya served in the Russian army. The Russian writers Lermontov and Tolstoy served in the army here and Pushkin visited during his travels in the south. These writers were impacted tremendously by their encounters with the Caucasus and dedicated many of their greatest literary works to the region including “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” by Pushkin, Hero of Our Time and “Demon” by Lermontov, and The Cossacks and Hadji Murat by Tolstoy.

Moscow, where Ivan lives, was founded in the 12th century. It was Russia’s ancient capital and ceased to be the imperial city when Peter the Great moved the capital to the newly founded Saint Petersburg in 1712. After the Soviet revolution of 1917, Moscow regained its status as the capital in 1918.


Part I
Book I: A Nice Little Family
Chapter 4 The Third Son, Alyosha

Alysha… Where to begin?!
“There was something in him that told one, that convinced one (and it was so all his life afterwards) that he did not want to be a judge of men, that he would not take judgement upon himself and would not condemn anyone for anything. It seemed, even, that he accepted everything without the least condemnation, though often with deep sadness.”
Some of you noted the fact that the three brothers occupy the traditional professions of soldier, scholar, and cleric. Also note that the three brothers are an homage to the traditional plot of Russian fairy tales where three brothers often appear with the third brother – usually called Ivan the Fool – being the underestimated simpleton who wins the day. Alysha is referred to as a holy fool. I discussed the figure of the holy fool in the Russian tradition in my post on The Idiot – here it is:

“A holy fool or a blessed fool (юродивый) is an Eastern Christian ascetic who practices extreme forms of self-denial in an attempt to pursue the service of God in its most pure forms. Prince Myshkin in The Idiot shares many characteristics of a holy fool such as meekness, kindness, truthfulness, and defenselessness. Dostoevsky created several memorable holy fool characters including Lizaveta in Crime and Punishment, Marya in Demons, and Stinky Lizaveta in Brothers Karamazov. The word fool refers to simplicity rather than madness.”

Alysha comes back to his ancestral home – to seek out the grave of his mother – whose memory was as “specks of light, as it were, against darkness.” The servant Grigory shows him the grave – which was lovingly maintained by Grigory… And Alyosha decides to join the local monastery and become a novice attached to the holy elder Zosima who “was seeking salvation in the monastery hermitage.”

Please recall my earlier posts – the elder Zosima was inspired by the holy elders Dostoevsky encountered in the Optina Monastery where he went to seek understanding and peace after the death of his three-year-old son Alysha… These two characters – Zosima and Alysha – are Dostoevsky’s answer to the boundless and inexplicable darkness of the human soul – and the endless suffering in his own heart…

Fyodor!!! Do you remember my post about the influence of Shakespeare on Dostoevsky? The character of Fyodor Karamazov, along with Semyon Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment and General Ivolgin in The Idiot, were inspired by the character of Falstaff, Shakespeare’s most famous buffoon, who appears in Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, and Merry Wives of Windsor. Dostoevsky’s description of Jewish characters was also influenced by Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice), as well as other English writers such William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair) and Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist). These influences are discussed at length both in George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky and in the five-volume Dostoevsky biography by Joseph Frank.

The contrast between the lascivious sensualist Fyodor and the chaste Alysha is striking and unnerving – Alysha is constantly assaulted by life, but, in the words of Fyodor, is like “an angel, nothing touches” him… Fyodor amuses himself with thoughts of eternal damnation that surely awaits him – after all, if HE is not dragged down by the devils, then they are simply slacking and shirking their responsibilities!!! Fyodor’s parting words to Alysha before his departure for the monastery are profound:

“You’ll burn and burn out, you’ll get cured and come back. And I’ll be waiting for you: I really feel you’re the only one in the world who hasn’t condemned me, you are, my dear boy, I feel it, how can I not feel it…!”

Ah, Alysha… Ah, fathers…
The Transfiguration Monastery (Спасо-Преображенский монастырь) is a 12th century monastery located in Staraya Russa, a small town in the Novgorod region where Dostoevsky worked on Brothers Karamazov. It served as one of the models for the monastery Dostoevsky describes in the novel.


Part I
Book I: A Nice Little Family
Chapter 5 Elders
What a chapter!!! Alyosha’s growth as a person of deep faith is undergoing a tremendous transformation under the influence of Elder Zosima. What is the connection between faith, miracle and truth? Are truth and miracle incompatible? And is faith possible in the world of rapidly shifting social paradigms? What are the points of reference between socialism and Christianity and is atheism an integral part of socialist ideology? Dostoevsky once again references the Tower of Babel (see my comments on Notes from Underground) as a symbol of human hubris that makes us believe we can play god without severe consequences. Dostoevsky’s vision of humanity in the 19th century attempting to drag heaven onto earth instead of elevating earth to heaven is profound and prophetic…
This chapter also provides us with a crash course on Eastern Christianity whose center was Ancient Byzantium – or Constantinople – today’s Istanbul. For a thousand years the Byzantine Empire – or the Eastern Roman Empire – was the cultural and religious Center of Eastern Christianity and the source of Russia’s Cristian faith. The official language of the Byzantine empire was Greek and the Russian alphabet – the Cyrillic alphabet – derives from the Greek alphabet. Ancient Syria, Egypt and Turkey – all parts of the Byzantine empire – were the early centres of Christian monastic life where holy elders attracted huge followings by disciples who, by subordinating their will, deepened their faith and hoped to gain an understanding of the ultimate truth…
Father Zosima has something in common with Mitya – he too was an army officer and he too served in the Caucasus – please note these very important details – we will go back to them later in the novel!!!
Alyosha is a rosy cheeked and handsome youth of nineteen standing on the crossroads of life. He is attempting to forge his relationship with his family and with God, under the guidance of his elder who is very fond of Alyosha, but does not want to shield him from the world. He may come and go from the monastery as he pleases, and he is attempting to figure out the hidden nature of his father and brothers whom he is meeting for the first time in his life. Just before starting his work on Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky finished the novel The Adolescent whose protagonist, Arkadi Dolgoruky, shares many of Alyosha’s characteristics – he too is 19, he too is inexperienced in the ways of the world, he too is attempting to understand the inner dynamics of his unconventional, “accidental” family, he too is looking for truth and “seemliness” in people. Dostoevsky created several famous teenage characters, from Alyosha and Arkadi, to Kolya in The Idiot and and another teenager in Brothers Karamazov who shall remain unnamed for now – we will meet him later in the novel. Dostoevsky saw the teen years as a period of tremendous spiritual striving and a place where human duality, the constant struggle of light and darkness in all of us, was most turbulent and the human soul had the opportunity to choose the path of light and truth instead of descending into irreversible chaos. Dostoevsky is always rooting for his teenagers and hopes their striving and inner struggle will bring them to a spiritually fulfilling path in life.
And now – a Karamazov family meeting in the monastery – an attempt of reconciliation between Fyodor Karamazov and his firstborn son Dmitry – in from of the holy elders!!! What could go wrong?! No wonder Alyosha is filled with dread and gloomy premonitions!!! Stay tuned!!!

Viktor Vasnetsov (Ви́ктор Васнецо́в), 1848–1926, Russian Bishops, 1885-1896, Vladimir cathedral fresco.


Part I
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering
Chapter 1 They arrive at the monastery)

Short chapter – short post! Two new characters – Kalganov, young relative of the 1840 liberal and westernizer Miusov, and Maximov, a landowner from Tula. Dostoevsky is masterful at setting up a scene and heightening our expectations. We are already aware that the result of this meeting could become catastrophic due to the explosive and unpredictable nature of Fyodor Karamazov who gets a rise out of making a fool of himself in front of an audience, but Dostoevsky elevates the excitement to fever pitch through the constant altercations between the Karamazov patriarch and Miusov. Note the lack of religious sentiments among the newly arrived monastery visitors. As Fyodor sarcastically quips: “I don’t see why you’re so greatly agitated… Are you afraid of your little sins?”
Let the judgement commence!!!

Cathedral of Holy Trinity, Staraya Russa, the town where Dostoevsky worked on Brothers Karamazov.


Part I
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering
Chapter 2 The Old Buffoon
Mitya is LATE!!! What a fabulous way to suspend the action and let the characters reveal themselves in front of us!!!
First and foremost – if you think Fyodor is hilarious in the English translation – then my most sincere advice is – please learn Russian!!! AND very good Russian too – because Fyodor Pavlovich is HILLARIOUS in Russian!!! He doesn’t just say that he “came to a little town” and “had a little business there” with “some of their merchants.” In Russian he uses the diminutives of each of these words which is impossible to convey in English – “городишко” instead of “город” (town), “делишко” instead of “дело” (business), “купчишки” instead of “купцы” (merchants). Which makes it sound not cute and diminutive, but suspicious, sinister and borderline sleezy… Ah, translation… You are our best friend – and an unrepentant thief who deprives the original of WAY too much glory… But we will have to accept you as a necessary evil…
Fyodor is, in his own words, a “natural-born buffoon,” akin to a holy fool no less, and his address to the elder is dripping with feigned respect – and deep derision – “sacred elder,” “most holy being,” “great elder,” “great father,” “most blessed man” – and, my personal favorite, “my angel”!!! Alysha is cringing and burning from deep shame – but what can he do? This scene must unfold – and Fyodor must do his thing!!! Who else but Fyodor would say “Blessed be the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou hast sucked – the paps especially!” to a man of God?! His confession is striking in its upfrontness:
“That’s why I’m a buffoon, I’m a buffoon out of shame, great elder, out of shame. I act up just because I’m insecure. If only I were sure, when I came in, that everyone would take me at once for the most pleasant and intelligent of men – oh, Lord! what a good man I’d be! Teacher!”
Is this man in earnest – or superbly playacting again? The elder’s advice follows:
“Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain of a pea – he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility… Do get up from your knees and sit down, I beg you, these posturings are false, too…”
What a soliloquy!!! Where does elder Zosima’s wisdom come from? Remember what we know about his past? He was a Russian imperial officer and served in the Caucasus!!! Stay tuned for more revelations about this striking character!!!
Ah, but “sometimes it’s beautiful to be offended” declares Fyodor and proclaims with scriptural solemnity “I am a lie and the father of a lie!”
“And now, I am silent, from here on I’ll be silent. I’ll sit on my chair and be silent. Now it’s your turn to speak, Pyotr Alexandrovich, you are the most important man left – for the next ten minutes.” We are on the edge of our seats!!!
Dostoevsky mentions a Mother of God icon painted “long before the schism.” Please note in Russian Mary is referred to as the Holy Mother of God, not the Virgin. This comes from the Greek tradition where the mother of Christ is called Theotokos – or the birther of God. The great schism of the Russian Eastern Christian Church occurred in the 17th century when a large number of believers rebelled against the reforms of Patriarch Nikon. This split continues to this day. Old Believers faced repressions in Russia and many of them had to flee to Siberia in order to preserve their authentic notion of the Russian faith far away from the European centers of imperial power. Many of them ended up in Russian Alaska where Old Believer churches still operate to this day. Only with the fall of communism in 1991 were the Old Believer allowed to worship openly. The head of their church is Metropolit Korniliy, not Patriarch Kirill, who is the head of the Russian Eastern Church.
Please note that the Russian word for schism is раскол – a word that form the root of the last name of the main character of Crime and Punishment – Raskolnikov. See, everything is connected!!!

Dormition of the Holy Mother of God, pre-schism 12th century icon from Novgorod, Russia.


Part I
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering
Chapter 3 Women of Faith
Ah, Zosima… Women’s lot is hard – and he knows it… Women’s suffering is boundless and unresolvable – and he knows it… Women’s grief and lamentations are eternal, like the Biblical Rachael’s – and he knows it…
What a set of heart wrenching encounters… written by a man who is mourning the loss of a three-year-old son named Alysha… I can never read this chapter without deep sadness and absolute astonishment at Zosima’s miraculous words to a woman who may have had something to do with the death her brutal husband… Please remember these words when we go back to discussing Ivan’s article on ecclesiastical courts… And when we find out more about Zosima’s life!!!
“Do not be afraid of anything, never be afraid, and do not grieve. Just let repentance not slacken in you, and God will forgive everything. There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love? Only take care that you repent without ceasing, and chase away fear altogether. Believe that God loves you so as you cannot conceive of it; even with your sin and in your sin he loves you. And there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ten righteous men – that was said long ago. Go then, and do not be afraid. Do not be upset with people, do not take offense at their wrongs. Forgive the dead man in your heart for all the harm he did you; be reconciled with him truly. If you are repentant, it means that you love. And if you love, you already belong to God… With love everything is bought, everything is saved. If even I, a sinful man, just like you, was moved to tenderness and felt pity for you, how much more will God be. Love is such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it, and redeem not only your own but other people’s sins. Go, and do not be afraid.”

Vladimir Mother of God (Влади́мирская ико́на Бо́жией Ма́тери), a Byzantine holy icon from 1131, showing the mother and child touching cheek to cheek (the Eleusa or tenderness/mercy icon). It is housed in the Tretyakov Gallery church which is incorporated into the museum.


Part I
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering
Chapter 4 A Lady of Little Faith
After the earthy and earnest simplicity of our encounter with peasant women in the previous chapter, upper-class affectations and convoluted reasonings about faith infect today’s chapter. Loving humanity is easy – loving an individual human being is impossible… Saving humanity is easy – caring for an individual human being is oppressive…
The thirty-three-year-old Madame Khokhlakov, “tastefully dressed,” “still fairly young and quite attractive,” is moved by elder Zosima’s encounter with the peasant women:
“Oh, I understand that the people love you, I myself love the people, I want to love them, and how can one not love them, our beautiful Russian people, so simple in their majesty!”
Ah, those simple people!!! And such pathos coming from an upper-class woman raving of wanting to sacrifice herself for the people, for a cause, for humanity no less!!! Father Zosima’s advise to her is eerily familiar – don’t lie!!! To yourself first and foremost!!!
And she is wringing her lovely hands in misery over her lack of faith!!! “How can it be proved, how can one be convinced?” But here’s the thing – proof of faith is impossible – and Zosima’s wisdom here surpasses even the previous chapter. Proof of faith lies not in external signs and reasonings, but in “active love” and care not for humanity in general, but for each individual human being. And individual human beings are HARD to love – they are “oppressive,” they constrain our freedom, they blow noses and slurp their food, they are unattractive and irritating – but they are real – and active love is the experience of the reality of each and every human being.
“Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtfully you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested. It is certain.”
Ah, Zosima… Bless you…

1865-1867 French Ensemble, silk and cotton, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A dress worthy of Madame Khokhlakov!!!
Remember, even though the novel was published in 1879-1880, Dostoevsky is recounting an incident in the life of his hero, Alysha, which occurred 13 years prior to the composition of Brothers Karamazov.


Part I
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering
Chapter 5 So Be It! So Be It!

Where to begin with a chapter like this one?! Do you see now why the actual plot of this novel is so secondary? The novel hangs on the edge of a philosophical, psychological and theological cliff humanity was facing in Dostoevsky’s time – and the conflicts it identifies remain unresolvable to this day. That’s why this novel remains so relevant!!!
First – the chapter ending – what a cliff hanger!!! Miusov’s tale of the undercover French agent who fears the Christian socialists more than the atheist agitators – please remember it – will be addressed later on when we get into Part II of the novel!!! Poor Miusov – he is so eager to engage Ivan in a deep philosophical discussion – and just when he is about to present his arguments – Mitya FINALLY arrives!!! Miusov is a terrific representative of the generation of the 1840s liberals Dostoevsky so expertly portrayed in “Demons” (Stepan Verkhovenky and Semyon Karmazinov) and “The Adolescent” (Andrei Versilov). His greatest sin is his adoration of all things that come from progressive Europe – whether they are applicable to the Russian context or not! AND he REALLYY wants to appeal to the younger generation of radical thinkers who are treating his generation with mocking disdain. Thus his desire to spar intellectually with Ivan: “Up to now, at least, I have stood very high with all that is progressive in Europe, but this new generation is decidedly ignoring us.” Poor Miusov!!! This statement is applicable to all the 1840s liberals Dostoevsky created in his novels – and to the characters Ivan Turgenev introduced into the Russian literary discussion in such novel as “Fathers and Sons” and “On the Eve.” As a matter of fact, Madame Khokhlakov actually quoted the main character of “Fathers and Sons” in the previous chapter when she said “burdock will grow on my grave.” Bazarov, Turgenev’s main character in “Fathers and Sons,” utters this phrase when he starts giving up on his radical aspirations – and Madame Khokhlakov is despairing that good deeds done for the common betterment of humanity may be of no use to an individual since good deeds or no good deeds – we must die in the end. In “Fathers and Sons,” Bazarov, a young radical nihilist, engages in a number of verbal duels with an 1840s liberal, Pavel Kirsanov, who expresses view very similar to Miusov’s. Dostoevsky was in continuous dialogue with Turgenev starting with Notes from Underground and all through his final novels, including Brothers Karamazov!
I apologize for such a long note on literary connections – but Dostoevsky inserts so many in this chapter!!! He inserts two actual literary titles – “Humiliated and Insulted,” mentioned by Fyodor Karamazov in his taunt of Miusov, is a title of an earlier Dostoevsky novel, and “What’s to Be Done?” – which may seem like a common enough phrase – is the tile of a Nikolai Chernishevsky novel written as a response to Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons”!!! Aaaaaaaaaaaa!!! Yes, everything is connected!!!
Ivan, Ivan Ivan!!! What do we do with Ivan?! He thinks WAY TOO MUCH!!! The church and the state must unite to create a super structure that could control human behavior so much more efficiently than the state alone since the state is a purely punitive structure. Miusov objects – “Sheer Ultramontanism!” he exclaims – which is a super fancy way of saying that these thoughts are from across the mountains – or from Europe which is separated from Russia by the Alps!!! And, amazingly, Father Paissy supports Ivan in his arguments:
“It is not the Church that turns into the state, you see. That is Rome and its dream. That is the third temptation of the devil! But on the contrary, the state turns into the Church, it rises up to the Church and becomes the Church over all the earth…”
PLEASE remember this interpretation of Ivan’s ideas – especially the part about the third temptation of the devil – SO MUCH MORE on this ahead – remember – the Grand Inquisitor is coming!!!
What is Zosima’s reaction to all this merging of church and state and ecclesiastical courts judging criminals? Not a good idea… Why?! A person should not act decently because of the fear of the state/church superstructure which adds a moral component to the judicial process – but because of a belief in God’s love and forgiveness. Acting well out of fear deprives us of dignity – living up to a benevolent love engages our free will and offers us a choice to aspire to be worthy of such love… Wow!!! I love you, Dostoevsky!!!
And then Zosima gives the paramount argument for the separation of judicial system and religion – and his example is the fate of the common criminal. A VERY IMPORTANT POINT since we are reading a murder narrative!!! “But the Church, like a mother, tender and loving, withholds from active punishment, for even without her punishment, the wrongdoer is already too painfully punished by the state court, and at least someone should pity him… besides the established courts, we have, in addition, the Church as well, which never loses communion with the criminal, as a dear and still beloved son, and above that there is preserved, even if only in thought, the judgement of the church, not active now but still living for the future, if only as a dream, and unquestionably acknowledged by the criminal himself, by the instinct of his soul.” Just wow…

Ilya Repin, 1844-1930, Refusal of the Confession (1885), Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
This painting is so incredibly complicated and enigmatic!!! Who refused the confession – the criminal, the priest? Why? The criminal has been cut off from the state – but is he cut off from God… and if yes, was it his choice?…


Part I
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering
Chapter 6 Why Is Such a Man Alive!
Mitya’s eyes!!! That’s Dmitri Fyodorovich, of course!!!
“His rather large, dark, prominent eyes had an apparently firm and determined, yet somehow vague, look. Even when he was excited and talking irritably, his look, as it were, did not obey his inner mood but expressed something else, something not at all corresponding to the present moment.”
Those eyes!!!
AND plot development – finally!!! And so much of it!!!
But first – Ivan!!! Miusov relates an anecdote about Ivan’s solemn pronouncement about humanity at a local gathering – apparently Ivan stated that “were mankind’s belief in its immortality to be destroyed, not only love but also any living power to continue life of the world would at once dry up in it. Not only that, but then nothing would be immortal any longer, everything would be permitted…” THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT CONCEPT OF THE ENTIRE NOVEL!!! Please forgive the caps – but Ivan’s philosophical pronouncement is to inform the development for the rest of Brothers Karamazov!!! The discussion between Ivan and Zosima that follows is ESSENTIAL for our understanding of the character of Ivan. Zosima states that if this is Ivan’s true contention and he believes in it – than he is indeed blessed – but if these are just pronouncements expressed during “drawing-room discussion,” then he is “most unhappy.” Ivan is taken aback by Zosima’s statement – and the elder continues:
“Because in all likelihood you yourself do not believe either in the immortality of your soul or even in what you have written about Church and the Church question.”
Ivan replies with a blush that he wasn’t joking either. Zosima’s words are Ivan’s sentence:
“You weren’t quite joking, that is true. This idea is not yet resolved in your heart and torments it. But a martyr, too, sometimes likes to toy with his despair, also from despair, as it were. For the time being you, too, are toying, out of despair, with your magazine articles and drawing-room discussions, without believing in your own dialectics and smirking at them with your heart aching inside you… The question is not resolved in you, and there lies your great grief, for it urgently demands resolution…”
I would suggest printing out this quote, cutting it out, and keeping it handy for all the times you are wondering about Ivan’s thoughts and actions in the future. If this character seems all too familiar to you, Ivan is an intellectual who can analytically deduce the importance of faith, but, because of his need to rationalize everything, cannot arrive at faith. He lives in perpetual torment – brilliant in his ability to arrive at the essence of faith – but in despair over his inability to resolve his doubt in a “positive way” or a “negative way.” His is the greatest curse of the intellectual being whose reason is in constant conflict with his heart. But at least, according to Zosima, “the Creator has given” him a “lofty heart, capable of being tormented by such a torment.” “May God grant that your heart’s decision overtake you still on earth, and may God bless your path!”
Amen…
Mitya!!! The altercation between father and son had me in stitches!!! Ah, the body rages in both of them and the demands of the flesh cloud their minds!!! First, another literary aside!!! Fyodor introduces his two sons, Mitya and Ivan, as Karl and Franz Moor, the two brothers in Frederic Schiller’s play “The Robbers.” This play inspired one of the two love triangles in Brothers Karamazov. Schiller’s play “Don Carlos” – where the king of Spain and his son Carlos struggle for the affection of a young French princess – inspired the other love triangle, unfolding and raging in this chapter – between the arch sensualist Fyodor and passion driven Mitya who are possessed with a wild desire for a “creature” over whom they are ready to brawl to the point of dueling – “with pistols, at three paces… across a handkerchief!” (another reference to a Schiller play, this time “Cabal and Love”). Fyodor – who lets it all rip in his altercation with Mitya – screams that Mitya’s fiancé, the proper girls who is apparently beautiful, well connected AND wealthy, “isn’t worthy to lick the boots” of the “creature” over whose affection the father and son are murderously clashing. Oh my goodness!!! So much is revealed!!! Apparently Mitya procured money from someone to seduce the “creature” Fyodor wants to win over for himself!!! And why would Fyodor give Mitya ANY money – to spirit away the woman he himself is after?!!! And all this licentious madness in front of the holy elders – in a MONASTERY!!! Zosima’s gesture toward Mitya is stunning – and leaves everyone, including us, the readers, speechless… he kneels before the passion-driven Mitya and bows “at his feet with a full, distinct, conscious bow,” and even touches the “floor with his forehead.” WHAT?! Please please please remember this incredible moment… More shall be revealed soon…
And Fyodor must do what Fyodor must do – instead of joining the celebratory dinner at the monastery – he announces that he is going home and hurls the ultimate insult at the monks – you can’t pave your way to heaven by eating fish!!! Ah, Fyodor!!! Do you think he will ACTUALLY go home after all this excitement?!?!?! Dostoevsky!!! What’s with all these cliffhanger endings!!! You, tormentor, you!!!
Remember I promised a note on the other Dostoevsky-Giuseppe Verdi connection? The Schiller play “Don Carlos” (1787) inspired BOTH Dostoevsky and his love triangle between Mitya, Fyodor, and the “creature” – more references to this play when we FINALLY get to the Grand Inquisitor chapter – AND Verdi – his opera Don Carlo (1867) is based on the play!!! (The first Dostoevsky-Verdi connection is related to the novel The Idiot – see my earlier notes!)

Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497-1543, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1520–22, Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland.
Dostoevsky saw this painting in Basel, and it made a lasting impact on him. The painting became the focal point of his novel The Idiot (please see my earlier notes). The painting has the power to torment the viewer and undermine faith in the immortality of the soul. The main character of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, fears that one can lose faith while looking at this painting. Myshkin’s counterpart in the novel, Ippolit Terentiev, who is an atheist, proclaims that this painting affirms the total victory of nature over everything. Ivan Karamazov is tormented by his belief that if humanity loses faith in immortality, it will descend into murderous and immoral chaos – yet his analytical abilities preclude his faith. His torment is unresolvable…


Part I
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering
Chapter 7 A Seminarist-Careerist
Dostoevsky, as I mentioned at the start of our journey, is DEFINITELY not Tolstoy – or any other Russian writer!!! Remember – my favorite book of criticism is Tolstoy OR Dostoevsky – the two writers are incompatible. Biggest difference? The late Tolstoy, from the last 30 years of his writing, was concerned with improving humanity – AND reforming Christianity by blending elements of other religions into it – such as Buddhism and Hinduism. And all this reformation resulted in his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church at the age of 72!!! Even today, 111 years after his death, he still stands outside of the church – which will not readmit him!!!
– Dostoevsky, on the other hand, is the most Christian of all the great Russian writers – he came by this faith the hard way – that’s why it was so important to read my preliminary notes about his life – especially the Siberia years – and his early writing career. AND Brothers Karamazov happens to be his most theological novel – thus the title of my exhibition – “From Revolutionary Outcast to a Man of God” – a nod at Alysha’s nickname in the novel. Dostoevsky was weary of the contemporary trends that advocated the reformation of humanity – his last 5 great novels – called prophetic in literary criticism – all deal with the issue of free will juxtaposed against social reformational and humanity improving ideology that proliferated in intellectual thought in the 1860s and 1870s. The greatest expression of Dostoevsky’s Christian theology appears in the chapter I mentioned several times – we will read it soon – “The Grand Inquisitor.” According to George Steiner, Dostoevsky, along with his Christ, remains the “eternal ‘disturber,’ the disseminator of freedom and tragedy, the man to whom the resurrection of an individual soul was more important than the material progress of an entire society.” That’s a SUPERB description of Dostoevsky – I can’t beat Steiner!!!
– The most religiously egalitarian novel Dostoevsky has ever written was Notes from the Dead House – I am rereading it right now, almost done! In it he gives fabulous and complex descriptions of people from every walk of life – from aristocrats to soldiers to serfs – AND many religious backgrounds – from Muslims and Jews to Russian Orthodox and Old Believers. Why such diversity? Where can it be encountered in Russia? In a Siberian labor camp, of course, a veritable melting pot of humanity!!! But, since all the convicts are men – there are hardly any women characters in that novel – a housekeeper and her granddaughter at the very beginning – and an occasional washer woman and prostitute here and there! In Brothers Karamazov, on the other hand, you will encounter THE WILDEST women characters EVER!!! Stay tuned!!!
– Brothers Karamazov is the most provincial of all of Dostoevsky’s novels!!! The Double and White Nights and Humiliated and Insulted and Crime and Punishment and The Idiot and The Adolescent are cosmopolitan novels set in Saint Petersburg featuring a great diversity of characters – Brothers Karamazov is a theological meditation on the fate on a great Christian sinner set in the most provincial town. Remember, the epigraph is from the New Testament – one of the characters lives in a monastery – the conscience of the novel is a holy elder – and we are about to experience the mystery of a Christian death, transfiguration, and miracle. The greatest parable about to unfold in front of us is the Wedding at Cana – yes, the water into wine New Testament narrative! So much more theology and Orthodoxy ahead!!! Forward!!!
– Ah, Alysha!!! His soul is in torment – and the elder is pained by the burden of raging passions tearing the Karamazov family apart… He tells the bewildered Alysha to go into the world, get married – and taste the full cup of life’s sorrows – BUT most importantly – be BOTH of his brothers’ keeper… poor Alysha, what is he to do?!
– Rakitin!!! AAAAAAAAAA!!! He is the son of a priest – entitled to free education in the seminary! Does he believe in God? No. He is a Seminarist-Careerist, as the title so aptly points out!!! Rakitin is really good at extracting benefits from every opportunity life throws his way!!! An atheist at heart – he will take the free education offered in the seminary! And, according to Mitya (nickname of Dmitry) Karamazov – Rakitin is bound to become a wealthy Saint Petersburg publisher and landlord!!! Why? Because he is an opportunist and will publish heaps of socialist literature – why?! – because it’s trendy and in demand!!! Does Rakitin believe in socialism? About as much as he believes in God – but he will do ANYTHING as long as there is profit in it for him!!! Please keep track of this character!!!
– Plus, we find out more provincial gossip!!! The wealthy beauty Katerina is after Mitya – AND Mitya is after the local temptress Grushenka!!! All these cursed love triangles!!! More about these mighty damsels soon!!!
– THE MOST IMPORTANT thing we find out from this chapter is that the saintly Alysha is a KARAMAZOV as well – a holy fool like his mother – but a sensualist like his father – at least according to Rakitin!!! You too are a Karamazov, says Rakitin… you too are your father’s son… you too bear the burden of your paternity… you too are boundlessly flawed and human… Ah, Dostoevsky…

Ilya Glazunov, Alyosha Karamazov, 1982, illustration for Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” paper, black oiled chalk, pastel.


Part I
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering
Chapter 8 Scandal
Admit it – you were THRILLED when Fyodor came back to the monastery – I totally was!!! Poor Miusov!!! As one of you so aptly pointed out – never wrestle with a pig – you get muddy – and the pig loves it!!! One could ask Fyodor “Why do you hate so-and-so so much?” His response?! “I’ll tell you why: he never did anything to me, it’s true, but I once played a most shameless nasty trick on him, and the moment I did it, I immediately hated him for it.” And there you have it, dear readers!!! What won’t a human being do out of sheer spite?! As Dostoevsky so aptly pointed out in his brilliant Notes from Underground:
“Now I ask you: what can be expected of man as a being endowed with such strange qualities? Shower him with all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness completely, over his head, so that only bubbles pop up on the surface of happiness, as on water; give him such economic satisfaction that he no longer has anything left to do at all except sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the noncessation of world history – and it is here, just here, that he, this man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer lampoonery, will do something nasty.”
And Fyodor does act outrageously – out of sheer lampoonery – and LOVES it!!! Because he too is human – just like the rest of us… AND he prefers sincerity to nobility and lambasts the monks for their five-course fish and fish and fish and fish and fish meal!!! I am amazed the ice cream was not fish flavored – I tasted sardine ice cream in Spain – it was terrifically gross!!! And who is paying for such pious opulence – the Russian peasant!!! And can Fyodor leave his innocent son Alysha in such a corrupt place?! No way!!! And will they EVER get a kopek out of Fyodor – NEVER!!! And after quoting more Schiller – he departs!!! WHAT a SCENE!!! Can you imagine how much fun it was for Dostoevsky to dictate this to his wife – and how much fun it was for Anna to be on the receiving end of such wild brilliance!!! What a literary power couple!!! Remember, Dostoevsky dictated – or acted out – the final 5 novels to his second wife Anna!!! And this outrageously brilliant novel is dedicated to her!!!
And after all this hilarity – a minor chord sounds at the very end… Ivan kicks the poor Maximov off the departing carriage… If you thought – that’s not very nice – you are right… this incident tells us so much about Ivan… stay tuned…
Fyodor is departing from the fish feast to his suckling pig with kasha and cognac – but first he blasts the monks for their gastronomic opulence – especially the beverages – such as “Medoc bottled by Eliseyev Brothers!” The Eliseyev store is still in operation – on Nevsky Prospect – in Saint Petersburg – I visited it in July!!! It’s FABULOUS!!! My dad took me there when I was a kid – and I am still just as stunned by its sheer opulence!!! Yep, it’s just a Russian grocery store!!! ASTOUNDING!!!
PS The one in Moscow sadly closed this year…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part I
Book III: The Sensualists
Chapter 1 In the Servant’s Quarters
Grigory – he is a tough, harsh man with a biblical and severe sense of justice… Loves reading the Book of Job – remember, this novel is a retelling of this Old Testament tale of human suffering… Grigory and his wife Marfa used to be serfs – but after the liberation in 1861 they stayed with Fyodor. Grigory knows all of Fyodor’s secrets, no matter how despicable they are – but would never betray him… He loathed Adelaida, wife number one – and adored Sofia, the meek second wife – even confronted Fyodor over his treatment of her – but raised all three boys and treated them equally when they were abandoned… He lived in silent harmony with his wife – but pulled her hair once to dissuade her from public dancing… He could not accept his “dragon” child – but wept over his tiny grave and prostrated himself before it… And then there was that one terrifying wail in the night that left him “dumbfounded” – more on Stinky Lizaveta tomorrow… you are about to find out the original sin that is tearing this community apart…

Fritz Eichenberg (October 24, 1901 – November 30, 1990) illustration for Brothers Karamazov.


Part I
Book III: The Sensualists
Chapter 2 Stinking Lizaveta
Stinking Lizaveta made this small provincial town a better place – because everyone was responsible for her. She gave these peaceful inhabitants a common cause – they fed her, dressed her, gave her shelter – and became unified in their need to care for her. Her violation shocked everyone because she was a holy fool – or юродивая – and thus untouchable. Dostoevsky created several memorable holy fools in his novels – another Lizaveta in Crime and Punishment and Marya in Demons. For Dostoevsky, violating these innocents is an unforgivable crime because in their simplicity they stand close to God and thus bless the communities they inhabit with their presence (see my earlier notes on the Russian concept of the holy fool). The violation of Lizaveta is the original sin that will slowly start tearing this community apart – violence against the innocents of this world destroys the best in us as human beings and we do not recover from such a fall from grace…
Three more observations:
They named the child Pavel Fyodorovich – the reverse of Fyodor Pavlovich’s name – he did not object and found the whole thing amusing…
The last name Smerdyakov was added to his name because “stinking” in Russian is smerdyashchaya when applied to a woman (Russian has three genders and the adjective take on the gender of the noun) – thus – he is – supposedly – BOTH his father’s AND mother’s son – the same was said about Alyosha…
And Marfa JUST happened to lose her baby and still had milk for this new infant – Grigory accepted this creature into their lives with scriptural solemnity…

Mikhail Nesterov (Михаи́л Не́стеров), 1862 – 1942, In Rus, The Soul of the People, 1916. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Note the holy fool dancing in front of the people. The painting was created in 1916, one year before the Revolution and the following Civil War that destroyed the unity of the Russian society that Nesterov so lovingly portrayed here. Note that this is a united community who cares for its young, sick, wounded, old, and its holy fools. They are blessed in their unity and support each other. Even though each one follows their own path towards salvation – the young boy who is walking ahead is the innocence of the community who leads them and keeps them united. Note the two men on the right – they are Tolstoy and Dostoevsky!!! Nesterov had so much to say in this painting on the eve of the all-engulfing turbulence that precipitated Russia’s post WWI collapse…


Part I
Book III: The Sensualists
Chapter 3 The Confession of an Ardent Heart. In Verse
Let me write a slight aside in order to contextualize what Dostoevsky is attempting to do in this wildly outrageous book. As one of the readers pointed out – today is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. He was a prolific writer and a politician who was perpetually exiled from the city he loved, Florence, because of political infighting and disagreements with the ruling party. It may be shocking for us to conceptualize this – but because of the political situation in Florence – which was too complicated for us to address in this post – he was sentenced to death – sounds familiar?! – and if he ever returned to Florence – would have been burned at the stake… Even more shockingly – because Dante would not recant his political views – the death sentence was extended to his sons – the family had to become perpetual exiles and his Comedia – the greatest book in the Italian language – written in the Tuscan dialect from which he was perpetually separated – was written by a political exile mourning the loss of his homeland… The word Divine was added to the title by Boccaccio who immediately understood the importance of Dante’s creation for the newly emerging Italian vernacular tradition. But Dante simply called it Comedia – or Comedy – and those of you who read it probably asked yourselves – why?!!! There is not much cheer or hilarity in this book – and our sense of humor has not changed all that drastically since that time period. The silly groundling jokes of Shakespeare are still funny today because we laugh at the same crude stuff as our predecessors. Boccaccio’s humor in The Decameron – remember our dear friend from last spring?! – is relatable because we are just as unsettled today as we were during the horrific years of the Great Plague. So why are the lines of the Divine Comedy so somber, yet Dante called his creation a Comedy? For the same reason that Honore de Balzac centuries later called his compendium of 91 novels and novellas the Human Comedy – even though reading these works is no laughing matter. And the same reason Chekhov called his plays comedies – but we often feel like weeping while watching them. All of these works have one thing in common with Dostoevsky – they deal with the incomprehensible and unresolvable complexity of what it means to be a human being, meandering in a world we do not understand and attempting to relate to people who do not understand us. If we put it this way – it’s truly a mystery how humans actually made it this far!!! And our souls rage at all the injustice and cruelty of the world and we feel so hopeless about what is going on around us – yet we persevere and the world endures – and if we manage to find a comedic aspect in our daily struggle through life – then things do not seem quite as bleak as before. Dante’s Comedy follows the striving of a human soul to come to terms with sin and depravity which eternally abide – yet reach to the heavens and seek divine wisdom and understanding that could ease our progress through the labyrinth of our humanity. Balzac’s characters are often revolting – yet he dedicated 91 literary works to his explication of the complexities and unresolved tangles of our Human Comedy. And Chekhov’s characters meander in the dead end of their own preconceptions – unable to engage their fellow travelers in a dialogue that could ease the suffering of their aching souls. Dostoevsky’s late works belong in this esteemed company – and we may need to add a few more writers into the mix such as Saint Augustine, Milton, and Goethe (more about his influence on Dostoevsky soon). Dostoevsky’s late novels are dark and brooding – but there is hellish hilarity in all of them – each and every one is a Divine AND Human Comedy that slowly and unflinchingly unfolds the complex tapestry of human interactions that are both horrifying and relatable because they are so unsparingly human… We are in despair when we encounter his characters – because to our horror we recognize ourselves in them – and that’s an unsettling sensation to say the least… But we laugh with them too – because what other options have we got in this silly irrational world?! We have no answers – but we keep stumbling towards understanding – and the road is as winding as it is long!!! AND uphill both ways!!! So let me end my winding introduction with the Mark Musa translation of the first lines of Dante’s Comedia:
“Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.”
Dante has been gone for 700 years, yet all of us are still lost in this dark wood – and so are the characters of Brothers Karamazov!!! Let’s see where their path will lead them!!!
About the Karamazov name – it will be explained in the novel – patience!!!
About the Stinky aspect of Lizaveta – the stench of human body is not something that we have to deal with on a daily basis because we live in a culture where cleanliness and hygiene are paramount – and because we don’t really get too close to people. She probably never washed – but the community loved her not BECAUSE but DESPITE her all too human attributes. They cared for her unconditionally without attempting to reform her – she took their gifts – and regifted them immediately – and this never dissuaded them from caring for her. The notion of the stench of the human body will resurface in the novel very soon – and under very different circumstances – please keep this in mind as you read – all shall be revealed soon enough!!!
Mitya!!! Mitya!!! Mitya!!! Mitya!!! Mitya!!!
Do you realize that you JUST READ some of the most famous lines of Brothers Karamazov?! Better yet – grab a bottle of cognac – and reread Mitya’s outpourings out loud – taking into account the drinking age requirement of your location, naturally!!! Ah, Mitya!!! What a soul you have!!! “No, man is broad, even too broad…” Ah, so true, so true… What are we to do with human breadth?! “The terrible thing is that beauty is not only fearful but also mysterious. Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.” Ah, Mitya…
Needless to say, the Schiller poem he is chanting extatically is the VERY SAME that inspired Beethoven in his Ode to Joy – the last movement of Symphony 9!!! Yes, that one!!! So – cognac, Schiller, AND Beethoven – AND MITYA!!! That’s WAY too much you say – but what is a soul to do if it can accommodate this much and feel this much and suffer this much – all at once?! How long can it endure?! And how soon will it rupture?!
“Why was I longing and thirsting for you with every curve of my soul and even with my ribs?” Ha ha ha ha ha!!! The Comedy is here – in the middle of the exuberant confessions of this ardent and restless heart!!! What’s up with Mitya, some of you will ask?! Is he drunk?! No – he is in extasy… Something Alyosha cannot comprehend – but cannot condemn… Thus Mitya’s yearning for precisely this “angel” to come and experience his joy with him – without condemning him!!! Please remember this communion of the two brothers – when you are reading about the Wedding at Cana later on in the novel!!!
“That’s the whole trouble, because everything on earth is a riddle. And whenever I happened to sink into the deepest, the very deepest shame of depravity (and that’s all I ever happened to do), I always read that poem about Ceres and man. Did it set me right? Never! Because I’m a Karamazov. Because when I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I’m even pleased that I’m falling in just such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn. Let me be cursed, let me be base and vile, but let me also kiss the hem of that garment in which my God is clothed; let me be following the devil at the same time, but still I am also your son, Lord, and I love you, and feel a joy without which the world cannot stand and be.”
Que Beethoven’s Ode to Joy…

Part I
Book III: The Sensualists
Chapter 4 The Confession of an Ardent Heart. In Anecdotes
My post for yesterday sounded like a confession of an ardent heart!!! Mitya is a terrible influence!!! Good grief – he is such a self-aware train wreck!!! In yesterday’s chapter he quotes the German poets Schiller and Goethe and the Russian poets Nekrasov and Maikov – in today’s passage references Paul de Kock – and yet confesses that Katerina, in addition to being “proud and truly virtuous,” is “intelligent and educated” – and he is “neither the one nor the other.” Mitya loves to live large and behaves like a typical Russian military officer – remember our army buddies from War and Peace?! A GREAT Russian novel to read to understand the inception of characters like Mitya is Lermontov’s “Hero of Our Time” – I am teaching it tonight in my “Charming, Rotten Scoundrels” class – inside the Dostoevsky exhibition!!! Lermontov’s hero Pechorin, an army officer, thoroughly enjoys wracking women’s hearts and is one of the Russian variants of the Don Juan character – BRILLIANTRY depicted in one of Lermontov’s sources – Lord Byron’s epic poem Don Juan!!! Let me give you an incomplete list of European sources that contributed to the creation of Russia’s charming literary scoundrels!!!
  • Old Testament – Cain
  • Greek mythology – Prometheus
  • Shakespeare – “Othello” – Iago
  • Milton – Paradise Lost – Satan
  • Goethe – Sorrows of Young Werther – Werther
  • Goethe – Faust – Mephistopheles
  • Byron – Childe Harrold’s Pilgrimage
  • Byron – Don Juan
  • Byron – Cain
  • Byron – Manfred
  • Stendhal – The Red and the Black – Julian Sorrel
  • Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo
This list is totally incomplete, but gives you an idea of how the charming rogue character evolved in the 19th century. The lonely, brooding, charming and irresistible Mitya shares many of the characteristics of the European charming rogue, but with a Russian Dostoevskiyan twist – he has a broad soul – and suffers pangs of conscience. The proud young lady came to his room – and he “looked at this one for three or five seconds, then, with terrible hatred – the kind of hatred that is only a hair’s breadth from love, the maddest love!”
“I went to the window, leaned my forehead on the frozen glass, and I remember that ice burned my forehead like fire.”
He bowed to her – and let her go… AND she bowed to him deeply – not like an institute graduate – but like a Russian woman – and left… And now the two of them both feel that they owe to each other – Katerina boundless gratitude and money – and Mitya eternal respect for that most stunning bow… A bow of a proud and inapproachable woman who walked out of his life… And these bonds tie Katerina and Mitya to each other – and drive both of them to distraction… More tomorrow!!!
PS EVERYONE bows to Mitya – Zosima, Katerina… What’s going on?! All shall be revealed!!!

Victor Vasnetsov (Виктор Васнецов), 1848-1926, The Unsmiling Tsarevna, 1916-1926, Vasnetsov Memorial Museum, Moscow. Everyone fusses over Katerina – yet she is subsumed in deep sorrow… The painting depicting this fairytale princess who would not smile always reminded me of Katerina…


Part I
Book III: The Sensualists
Chapter 5 The Confession of an Ardent Heart. “Heels Up”
OK, did you follow the direction of all that flying money?! If not – we must – the entire novel hinges on this!!! Mitya gives Katerina 5,000 – she only needs 4,500 for her dad – after exchanging the promissory note into cash – she loses some of the money – and returns 260 to Mitya – he is amused – and immediately spends the amount on a spree!!!
Forward a few months – Katerina’s father dies – but an honorable man – and Katerina’s wealthy relative loses all of her heirs to smallpox and embraces Katerina as an only heir – gives her 80,000 (!!!) for now – and writes a new will – Katerina is all of a sudden filthy rich!!! AND she is bonkers about Mitya!!! She writes first and proposes – just like Tatyana in Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin – a very important Pushkin/Dostoevsky connection!!! They are engaged – in front of icons and everything!!! BUT Mitya sends a letter to Katerina with Ivan – who falls in love with her!!!
Forward to a few days ago – old Fyodor gives a local temptress named Grushenka – she has entered the novel – finally!!! – financial leverage over Mitya – and Mitya beats someone up who is trying to collect – please remember this incident – much hinges on this in the future!!! So now Mitya is furious as a bull – and wants to beat up everyone – BUT takes one look at Grushenka – AND HER CURVES!!! – and “thunderstorm struck, a plague broke out” – and all of a sudden he wants to spend the rest of his life polishing her boots – or die!!! We just moved – in Mitya’s words – from “drama” to “tragedy”…
AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT – Katerina – who loves Mitya out of a sense of virtuous obligation more than passion – she is THE QUINTESSENTIAL proud woman – gives him 3,000 to mail from the neighboring town to Moscow. Why not from their town? Because she basically wants no traces of this money transaction – and Mitya – because he needs money – and Katerina knows this – sends a note stating he mailed the money – but pockets the entire amount – AND spends it on a SPECTACULAR debauch in the village of Mokroye – with gypsy choirs and champagne (sounds like a typical War and Peace officer party!!!). BUT – he did not get anywhere with Grushenka – so now he is stuck with his rage at his father AND eloquent lust for Grushenka!!!
In addition – Mitya knows his father REALLY wants her too – has an envelope addressed to her – with – would you believe it – 3,000 rubles in it!!! What a coincidence!!! Ivan knows nothing of this money – supposedly – BUT Smerdyakov does!!! Fyodor wants Ivan out of the house – it would be awkward to party with Grushenka – if she appears – with a grown son attempting to get some sleep in the spare bedroom!!! SO – Ivan is being sent to Chermashnya – to finalize a wood sale for 8,000.
FINALLY – Mitya knows Fyodor got 28,000 when he married his mother – and turned it into 100,000 – according to Mitya – who now wants ONLY 3,000 – to pay off Katerina – and go back to being an honorable scoundrel – AND polish Grushenka’s shoes for the rest of his life!!!
I am done!!!

Victor Vasnetsov (Виктор Васнецов), 1848-1926, The Dancing Tsarevna or the Frog Tsarevna, 1918, Vasnetsov Memorial Museum, Moscow. This joyous dancing princess from Russian folklore always reminds me of Grushenka!!! Don’t worry – you WILL see her dance!!!


Part I
Book III: The Sensualists
Chapter 6 Smerdyakov
Yes, my comment for yesterday is essential for our understanding of Brothers Karamazov!!! Please keep it handy – all the money matters I discussed are relevant for the rest of the novel!!! The other essential points we encountered thus far can be summed up as follows:
  • Zosima – caring for humanity is impossible – actively caring for an individual human being is essential
  • Ivan – without immortality everything is permitted
  • Mitya – a human being is too broad
Alysha is still in flux – he is trying to come up with an overarching concept – give him time – he is so very young!!! Katerina and Grushenka barely surfaced – stay tuned!!!
A strange little chapter about a strange little character. To say that Smerdyakov is not likable is an understatement – but note that Dostoevsky gave his first name to Fyodor – one of the most complex character he ever created – and his illness – epilepsy – to Smerdyakov. Other epileptics appear in Dostoevsky novels – Nel in Humiliated and Insulted and Myshkin in The Idiot. Both of these characters are very sympathetically portrayed. Not so with Smerdyakov… He used to hang cats – and perform mock funerals… He applied rational criticism to scriptural studies… He dismissed Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka – a book of fiction – on account of it being full of lies… He found Smaragdov’s world history boring… He became squeamish about everything… He was sent to train as a chef – and became an expert… He proved his loyalty to Fyodor by returning the 300 rubles he dropped… He could become a holy wanderer and reach Jerusalem – or burn down his village – OR BOTH!!! There is an enigma in Smerdyakov… More in tomorrow’s passage… Patience, dear readers!!!

Ivan Kramskoy (Ива́н Крамско́й), 1837-1887, The Contemplator (Созерцатель), 1876, The Museum of Russian Art, Kiev.
Here is the painting description Dostoevsky gives in this chapter: “The artist Kramskoy has one amazing painting which is called “Contemplator”: it shows the forest in winter, and in the woods, on the road, in a ragged frock and straw shoes almost man is standing absolutely by himself; he is standing there as if lost in thought, but he is not really thinking, he is “contemplating” something. If you could just push him, he would flinch and look at you as if just woken up but not understanding anything.”


Part I
Book III: The Sensualists
Chapter 7 Disputation
What an odd chapter… What an odd character…
I had an extensive discussion of this chapter in my Brothers Karamazov Zoom course this week. The incident of the skinned Christian was covered in the Russian news in the 1870s and attracted Dostoevsky’s attention – he wrote about it in his Writer’s Diary. Russia lived under Muslim Tatar-Mongol rule during the 13th-15th centuries and incidents of this nature happened from time to time. Moscow was a part of the Golden Horde Tatar-Mongol khanate and started assert its independence only during the Rule of Ivan III, or Ivan the Great, in the late 15th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Russian Empire expanded to the Black Sea, Russia fought a dozen wars with the Ottoman Empire (which was ever so much bigger than today’s Turkey) over access to shipping and trade routes. These wars were fought between a Christian and a Muslim country, but religion was not the foundation of the conflict – the wars were attempting to settle political, economic, and territorial disputes. Today Russia is a multi-ethnic and multidenominational country with almost 200 ethnic groups speaking close to 100 languages, 35 of which are considered official in various regions and autonomous districts, along with Russian. Several Muslim republics are autonomous within the composition of the Russian Federation, such as Tatarstan, Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Northern Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, etc. If you ever travel to Moscow, please consider attending a service in the spectacular Cathedral Mosque, constructed in 2015 with a capacity to welcome 10,000 worshipers. It is absolutely gorgeous!!!
After this historical aside – back to this odd chapter. Smerdyakov is an enigma – please don’t expect any definitive answers about him any time soon. Note that Fyodor points out that Smerdyakov is developing his complex arguments to attract Ivan’s attention. Please please please watch this complex and developing relationship. Grigory is shocked by Smerdyakov’s line of reasoning. Smerdyakov feels that the Christian in the story should have denied God and saved his life for future good deeds. He creates a dichotomy between intention and action – if the soldier’s intention was to deny God – than the act of excommunication is meaningless – since thanks to the intention the soldier already severs ties with his Christin faith. And, in addition, what’s the point in suffering if God is merciful and forgives everything anyway: “And therefore, trusting greatly in the mercy of God, I live in hopes that I’ll be completely forgiven, sir.”
Fyodor LOVES all these reasonings!!! Calls Smerdyakov Ballam’s ass!!! Suggests sending the skin to the local monastery to increase attendance!!! Concludes it’s God’s fault that we are wallowing in disbelief since he created only 24 hours in a day and that is BARELY enough time “to sleep, let alone repent.” And then the chapter ends… INFURIATING!!! AND there is no answer!!! But do not despair!!! Watch the relationship between Ivan and Smerdyakov, Ivan and Alysha, and Ivan and Mitya!!! AND please pay attention to every discussion of doubt and unbelief!!!
Sorry I do not have more answers – we have so much novel left – patience!!! ALL shall be revealed!!!
Note that Alysha and Smerdyakov are still not very defined as characters.
Ivan’s chief argument is – if there is no immortality – then everything is permitted… watch this argument evolve in the novel…
Mitya feels a human being is way too broad – yes, it is an inexplicable statement at this point – but stay tuned!!!
AND Zosima’s notion of active love is PARAMOUNT in this novel!!! Saving humanity is impossible – caring for one human being is excruciatingly hard – but essential!!!
So much more ahead!!! Forward!!!

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669, Balaam and the Ass, 1626, Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris.


Part I
Book III: The Sensualists
Chapter 8 Over the Cognac
Curse you, Dostoevsky!!! I need to get some sleep before an exhibition event tomorrow – and you hurl another super consequential chapter my way!!! STOP!!! You are way too brilliant – how could you pack so many deeply philosophical ideas into the slurred speech of a great Russian drunkard!!! And disguise the foundational ideas of faith behind all that lewd talk of beatings and whippings and Marquis de Sade?! Three times Fyodor asked Ivan of the existence of God and immortality – and three times Ivan denied God (sounds like Peter in the New Testament). Then Fyodor in his drunk lucidity asked the most quintessential question of faith – if there is no god – who is laughing at us humans?! WOW!!! That’s the question the Biblical Job asks over and over again!!! Ivan smirks back – it’s the devil. Ah, asks Fyodor – but if there is no god – is there a devil?! And Ivan responds – no. Please please please remember this moment!!! Do you understand how important this instance is in the life of Russian literature?! Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita – a BRILLIANT novel – was birthed out of this brief and seemingly inconsequential exchange!!! I really must teach that novel some day – but first we would need to study Goethe’s Faust – and guess what – his Mephistopheles is referenced by Fyodor as well!!! And Lermontov’s The Hero of Our Time – one of the most Byronic books in Russian literature!!! This chapter is so infuriating because it stands on the intersection of EVERYTHING – including literature – European (de Sade and Goethe’s Faust) and Russian (Lermontov’s Masquerade and Hero of Our Time) – all books mentioned for a reason – each one offers a unique take on the terrifying darkness that lurks in the human soul, a darkness that craves more darkness – and absolute control. Thus the importance of Ivan – and the sinister influence he has on people – especially Smerdyakov. Smerdyakov’s theological explications of the previous chapter were meant to impress Ivan – and Ivan alone. Why?! Because Ivan has created a system of thoughts and beliefs meant to appeal to potential followers. Does Ivan respect these followers? Not at all. He speaks of Smerdyakov with disgust, calls him “cannon fodder,” but insinuates that “when the time comes,” he will have “better” followers. Time for what? Followers in what? The great upheaval that Dostoevsky saw looming on the horizon – the great battlefield where ideas will infest humans to the point of total subjugation to ideologies and the destruction of all humanity – and along it all the sins and flaws and imperfections. In order to understand the breathtaking scope of Dostoevsky’s conclusions on this subject – please read his massively dark and wickedly hilarious novel Demons – ah, I might as well teach it on FB one of these years – that would be one WILD ride!!!
In the meantime – Ivan is disseminating ideas that attract followers – people he despises and uses for his own ends – you MUST remember this!!! Fyodor goes along with Ivan’s nihilism and abolition of God and the church – for very practical reasons – look at all that gold and silver going to waste!!! Ivan’s words send a chill down my spine – if you abolish and rob the churches and monasteries – you will be the next one to be robbed and abolished… Fyodor’s response: “Bah! You’re probably right. Ah, what an ass I am!” From calling Smerdyakov an ass – Fyodor self-denigrates and descends deeper and deeper into drunk delirium… But please remember Alysha’s words about Fyodor: “Your heart is better than your head.” Ah, Alysha… In the meantime, Ivan’s words terrify the readers with their clairvoyance – how does Dostoevsky know what will happen in Russia after the Revolution of 1917 – when after the abolition of religion an entire generation of human beings was abolished as well – with impunity? Ah, but if there is no immortality – everything is permitted… Dostoevsky is not a prophet – but a brilliant student of history and human nature – the French Terror unleashed after the Revolution of 1789 was the byproduct of the abolition of the church – and with it of both consciousness and guilt… A GREAT novel written on this subject is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens…
I simply can’t convey all the myriads of nuances of meaning Dostoevsky packed into this beyond dense chapter. Fyodor’s admission that he loves ALL women – especially the “barefoot ones” – since there has “never been an ugly woman” in his life – is too much of a hint at a confession of Smerdyakov’s origins – AND a nod at Mozart and the notorious aria of Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant – see below! But the explication of all the ways he reduced his second wife to hysterics is such an unflinching study of human psychology that it takes my breath away. The spitting at the icon – Dostoevsky created a character in the novel The Adolescent who breaks an icon in half – in a state of possession with ideas that this character is trying to prove as correct – by mocking god – sounds familiar?! Yes, Fydor is Ivan’s father as well… AND Alysha’s mother is Ivan’s mother as well – as he so angrily and irrepressibly hurls at Fyodor who is all of a sudden stunned with this idea…
What a chapter… I am completely exhausted just thinking about the monstrous complexity of everything Dostoevsky accomplished here!!! You might consider reading this chapter a couple of times and taking notes – much of what happens here will resurface later in the novel!!! Oh, how I wish to rush ahead and explain EVERYTHING to you – but I can’t!!!
And now – knock knock!!! Mitya is at the door!!! What could POSSIBLY go wrong?!?!?!
Here is Leporello’s catalogue aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni – do you see the artistic inspiration for Fyodor’s thoughts about women? Here is the Italian original with the English translation:
Madamina, il catalogo è questo
Delle belle che amò il padron mio;
un catalogo egli è che ho fatt’io;
Osservate, leggete con me.
In Italia seicento e quaranta;
In Alemagna[2] duecento e trentuna;
Cento in Francia, in Turchia novantuna;
Ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre.
V’han fra queste contadine,
Cameriere, cittadine,
V’han contesse, baronesse,
Marchesane, principesse.
E v’han donne d’ogni grado,
D’ogni forma, d’ogni età.
Nella bionda egli ha l’usanza
Di lodar la gentilezza,
Nella bruna la costanza,
Nella bianca la dolcezza.
Vuol d’inverno la grassotta,
Vuol d’estate la magrotta;
È la grande maestosa,
La piccina è ognor vezzosa.
Delle vecchie fa conquista
Pel piacer di porle in lista;
Sua passion predominante
È la giovin principiante.
Non si picca – se sia ricca,
Se sia brutta, se sia bella;
Purché porti la gonnella,
Voi sapete quel che fa.
My dear lady, this is the list
Of the beauties my master has loved,
A list which I have compiled.
Observe, read along with me.
In Italy, six hundred and forty;
In Germany, two hundred and thirty-one;
A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one;
But in Spain already one thousand and three.
Among these are peasant girls,
Maidservants, city girls,
Countesses, baronesses,
Marchionesses, princesses,
Women of every rank,
Every shape, every age.
With blondes it is his habit
To praise their kindness;
In brunettes, their faithfulness;
In the white-haired, their sweetness.
In winter he likes fat ones.
In summer he likes thin ones.
He calls the tall ones majestic.
The little ones are always charming.
He seduces the old ones
For the pleasure of adding to the list.
His greatest favourite
Is the young beginner.
It doesn’t matter if she’s rich,
Ugly or beautiful;
If she wears a skirt,
You know what he does.