The Brothers Karamazov – Book II

First a summary then some observations – the events of Book 2 (“An Inappropriate Gathering”) are probably easier to relate, but they mostly take place against a backdrop of almost a dozen characters, many of whom are briefly, it at all, introduced by the narrator.

// Begin Summary

On the appointed day for the Karamazov’s meeting with Zosima, two carriages pull up.  One contains Fyodor Karamazov and his son Ivan, the other Miusov and a younger acquaintance of his named Pyotr Fomich Kalganov.  Immediately Fyodor K. and Miusov begin quarrelling.  They’re roughly the same age but of different ideological persuasions.  They’re the sort of people that have more in common than either can admit: Fyodor is a sort of bumbling, quasi-educated “sensualist” – an “old buffoon” as he repeatedly labels himself.  He’s got the sort of confused reverence for religious figures that quasi-educated buffoons generally have.  He keeps addressing everyone by the wrong title, uses lots of pseudo-magnanimous gestures and phrases, convoluted biblical references and historical anecdotes that are generally half right in funny ways (it’s worth the time to examine the footnotes to get a sense of this).  Miusov is a more straightforwardly atheistic liberal who keeps himself detached from the proceedings.  The trouble is, Miusov is also better educated about this stuff (mildly), and he can’t resist the urge to chastise Fyodor for his mistakes, even as he makes his own.  He’s also repeatedly insisting that Fyodor isn’t showing enough reverence or acting appropriately, which is odd, but somehow fitting, given his own atheism. The back-and-forth between these two in this section had me chuckling many times.  That back-and-forth also subtly contributes to Fyodor’s agitation, which builds throughout this section, through to the “scandal” with which Book II is punctuated.

So these four – Fyodor K., Ivan K., Miusov and Kalganov – arrive at the monastery – Dmitri is supposed to be there but is late.  They meet Maximov (the monastery’s “landowner”), who says that after they meet with Zosima, the Father Superior (the head of the monastery) would like to dine with them.  Then they meet another monk who brings them through the woods to the hermitage where Zosima lives.

When they enter Zosima’s hermitage, there are already two “hieromonks” (the footnotes says these are priests who are also monks – not sure what the distinction is).  They are the “Father Librarian” (later we learn named Iosif) and Father Paissy. There is also is a young seminarian who we later learn is named Rakitin.  Zosima then enters, with two younger people in tow – Alexei Karamazov and “another novice” (later we learn named Porfiry).  The careful reader will now note there are 10 people in the room – Fyodor K., Ivan K., Miusov, Kalaganov, Zosima, Father Iosif, Father Paissy, Rakitin, Alexei K. and Porfiry.  Fyodor and Miusov begin arguing about some story about Diderot, which Zosima manages to subdue.  Zosima then leaves briefly to attend to some others who have come the monastery in this day.

The “camera” then follows Zosima (plus novices) as he attends first to several peasant women, and then later to a wealthier (and not sympathetically protrayed) Madame Khoklakov and her crippled daughter Liza (often called Lise, in the French, always signifying obnoxious aristocracy in D’s novels).  Madame Khoklakov’s questions for Zosima sound very recognizably those of the idle-rich-woman-with-spiritualistic-pretentions, a type we certainly still have among us.  He offers advice to each of these in turn, with Alexei at his side.  We learn during this sequence that Liza has some sort of interest in, and is mildly flirtatious with Alexei.

Zosima, Alexei and Porfiry return to the hermitage, where another argument breaks out, this time about an article Ivan has recently published about the relationship between the ecclesiastical and secular courts.  He has argued that the state should “become” the church, taking great pains to distinguish this from the idea that the church should become the state, which he identifies as the Devil’s 3rd temptation of Christ (similar ideas are advocated by D. himself in his Diary of a Writer).  This argument goes back and forth, and Fyodor becomes more and more animated.

At last the oldest Karamazov son, Dmitri, arrives – meaning there are now 11 people in the room.  Dmitri blames his father’s servant (Smerdyakov) for having misinformed him as to the time of the meeting.  Dmitri, upon his arrival, is described as “irritable by nature, abrupt and erratic of mind” (68).  Pretty quickly, Dmitri and Fyodor start arguing.  Fyodor accuses Dmitri of having seduced a woman (we later learn named Katerina Ivanovna) into accepting his hand in marriage, while continuing to see one Grushenka, a “loose woman,” on the side.  It shortly comes out that Fyodor and Dmitri have been fighting over this Grushenka, and also that Ivan has been making moves on Dmitri’s fiancée.

They get more and more angry at each other, until finally, Dmitri yells out (in front of the assembled cast of 10 others) “why is such a man alive!”  Sensing some tension, to say the least, Zosima gets up and kneels at the feet of Dmitri, saying “Forgive me! Forgive me! All of you.”  Dmitri then, overwhelmed with emotion, exits the hermitage, and following closely after him, sort of swept up in the moment, I guess, are Ivan K., Fyodor K., Miusov and Kalagnov.  They have a brief argumentative conversation about whether to stay for the dinner the Father Superior has invited them to.  Dmitri leaves of his own accord; Fyodor declares he is leaving as well.  Ivan, Miusov and Kalagnov thus head towards the dinner.

After this dramatic exit, Zosima exchanges some words with Alexei, who wants to ask what the bow was supposed to signify, but he decides if Zosima wanted to tell him, he would.  In fact, Alexei says very little in the whole of this book – all we really get are observations by the narrator, from time to time, of how nervous or embarrassed he is about his family.  Zosima suggests that he go to the dinner, to help serve his relatives, and that they will “need” him there, presumably to calm the tension and restore order.  On his way there, he runs into Rakitin, who is labeled as a “careerist” by the narrator – “he had a restless and covetous heart” (85).  He turns out to be very calculating and probably doesn’t really believe in God; he’s just there to make a name for himself.  Rakitin explains a lot of the back story involving Grushenka (who, he says cryptically, he has his own reasons for seeing, though he claims them to be non-sexual).  He even accuses Alexei of also desiring Katerina Ivanovna.  Just as their conversation is drawing to a close, in the distance, Rakitin points out, they can see all the other Karamazovs, including Fyodor, running from the Father Superior’s quarters, with some yelling and attendant chaos.

The time sequence jumps back a few minutes then.  Just as the dinner was beginning, Miusov was attempting to render some sort of apology to the Father Superior (who seems already to have been informed by Iosif and Paissy, the two heiromonks, who are also at the dinner, of what has happened – there is also a 3rd heiromonk there too).  Fyodor bursts in shouting: “They thought I was gone, and here I am!”  He then proceeds to slander and ridicule the monastery and those who live there, dismissing them as parasitic hucksters, drawing funds from unsuspecting townspeople (including himself, presumably).  “You, holy fathers,” he shouts defiantly, “are sucking the people’s blood!” (89).  He demands that he will remove Alexei from the monastery as well, invoking his “parental rights.”  During this scene, the narrator engages in a hilarious line-by-line refutation of some of Fyodor’s lies, not unlike the moment in The Royal Tenenbaums when Alec Baldwin, narrating, does something similar (“at the very moment Royal uttered these words, he realized they were true” or something like this).

As they are leaving, he invikes Maximov, the landowner, to come dine at his house, saying they’ll have much more fun and the food will be much better.  Maximov, absurdly, runs after their carriage and tries to jump in.  Just at that moment, however, Ivan shoves him off, throwing him from the carriage just as he was foisting his way in.  The chapter ends with a sort of Curb-Your-Enthusiasm-esque awkward silence: “Ivan Fyodorivich shrugged contemptuously and, turning away, began staring at the road.  They did not speak again until they reached home” (91).

// End Summary

// Begin Observations

I know that’s long and convoluted.  It’s also far less funny than reading the original was (for me anyway).  Frank spends a lot of time talking about the intellectual disputes and interests referenced in this section.  There are a lot of them.  One of the peasant women is in a situation a lot of D’s own – her three-year-old passed away.  Zosima’s words to her are strikingly compassionate, absent the sort of mechanistic “don’t cry, they’re in heaven” response one often hears in these circumstances: “And do not be comforted, you should not be comforted, do not be comforted, but weep.  Only each time you weep, do not fail to remember that your little son is one of God’s angels… and you will be filled with this great mother’s weeping for a long time, but in the end it will turn into quiet joy for you, and your bitter tears will become tears of quiet tenderness” (50).  There is also a woman who has killed her husband who beat her, for which Zosima forgives her.  There is also the upper-class lady’s fashionable “I wish I were more religious” posturing, Miusov’s liberal atheism, Ivan’s paradoxical nihilism, Alexei’s faithful silence, etc. etc.  I’m not saying I don’t find it interesting to trace down these characters’ intellectual antecedents, I’m just saying, that’s not the main thing I take from this book.

What is that main thing?  It’s something about the interaction between these different perspectives, the group dysfunction they create.  There is something fascinating about imagining 11 people, all with slightly different ideological axes to grind and all with slightly different emotional states, giving rise to climactic and hysterical-to-read moments of grandiosity, embarrassment, awkwardness, humiliation and violence.  Frank often draws attention to the “dialogical” nature of D’s writing, and I’m not saying he’s wrong, but these dialogues do not move along in the expected Platonic fashion.  Ideas are presented by multiple characters and there is some elenchus (the parts where Socrates demolishes someone else’s view – most of the characters say Socratic things to each other from time to time).  But there is rarely any aporia – no one ever stops and recognize the incoherence in their position.  There is definitely never any positive dialectikos.  The ideologies and emotions collide and create action, but they don’t resolve themselves into anything like a coherent philosophy.  I haven’t read a lot of the secondary literature about D other than Frank’s biography, but it makes me wonder if this aspect of the intellectual fireworks has been considered.

It’s sort of an interesting question what would happen if you put an atheist, a depressed nihilist, a devout monk and a bunch of their underlings all in the room at the same time.  D may be asking that question as much as the one of “who’s right?”  D himself (or at least TBK as a novel distinct from D) may have a more complicated, and less conclusive agenda than just the condemnation of atheism.  I know he’s on record a lot of times saying that’s what all his books are about, but there’s just so much in the reading of them that becomes problematic if that’s the case.  Why not embrace the problematic nature of it and make that the centerpiece of interpretation?  At that point, we can learn from the text in a way we really can’t if the idea is to see how effectively it recognizes an antecedently-judged-to-be-flawed ideology and rejects it.  It also allows for a squaring of the narrative-literary aspect of the text with the ideological-political-historical aspect.  The consequences that ensure from the clash of ideologies and emotions are far from clear in their import, and so is who’s to blame for it.

// End Observations

I’m going to start Book 3 (“The Sensualists”) now – I’ll be back in a couple of days with my thoughts.

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2 Responses to The Brothers Karamazov – Book II

  1. Nates says:

    I wonder if you would like Bakhtin more than Frank. His work on D downplays the ideology and focuses on the literary side — in particular, the polyphony of different characters’ voices (and the way D employs this to achieve certain effects).

    When I was first reading Russian literature as an undergrad in the early ’90s, everyone was all about Bakhtin. But it looks like his star has fallen:

  2. Josh says:

    I actually have a copy of “Problematics in Dostoevsky’s Poetics” or something like that, waiting to read after I finish the Frank biography. They had it at the seminary coop; it’s in that generic yellow-covered academic reprint format.

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