The Brothers Karamazov – Book V – Pro and Contra

This is really long.  I thought  a lot about it.  I hope you will read 🙂

Book V is the ideological heart of TBK.  In a series of chapters set at a local inn, Ivan and Alexei discourse about belief in God and moral responsibility.  The centerpiece of this is the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, a “poem” Ivan says he’s composed in his head and memorized but not yet written down.  These chapters, as Frank points out, parallel the earlier “confession” of Dmitri (also directed at Alexei), in both verse and anecdote.  But where before, Dmitri was “confessing” to a set of actions taken towards Katerina Ivanovna, and a sort of psychological explanation of their causes, here Ivan “confesses,” in front of his monastic younger brother, the full range of his beliefs.  

When I was a freshman in college, I took Donald Moon’s “The Moral Basis of Politics” class; it was my favorite class of that year, maybe even of college.  In it, we had a unit on violence and morality.  I remember being asked to read sections of The Prince, Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and The Grand Inquisitor (published in its own slim paperback volume).  I think I misunderstood it severely at that time.  I don’t remember being told it was part of a longer novel, I just remember reading, and trying my best (but failing) to understand (a) what it said, and (b) its relevance to the other readings.  I know I actually did the reading – I always did for that class – but all I really remember from that first experience with this text was something about stones and bread.  I was confused about who was talking, and who was listening.  Even upon reading this a second time (now together with the whole novel) about three and a half years ago, I did not understand exactly who the “inquisitor” was, and who he was speaking to, much less what it had to do with the rest of the novel (or still, for that matter, “The Moral Basis of Politics”).  I don’t say this to create a kind of false modesty; I’ve read lots of complicated philosophical and political theory texts and have understood many of them, more or less.  Something in the density and intensity of Ivan’s prose always throws me off.

This time, yesterday, while sitting on the lakefront, a few hundred yards west of the Shedd Aquarium, watching bikers ride by and tourist families from Michigan purchase Snapple, I think I got somewhere.  It might seem strange to be reading this book out in the 90+ degree heat of Chicago in June, but I think the book is actually set around this time of year.  The characters all stay up late, and it’s already light early in the morning when Ivan Karamazov wakes up at the end of Book 5.  So maybe the heat, and not the presumed Russia cold, suits it.

“A Betrothal”

Before the Ivan-Alexei rendezvous, some other things happen.  In “A Betrothal,” Alyosha and Lisa meet and exchange kind words.  It’s not clear to me that there was an actual “betrothal,” but she does allow him to kiss her, and he does say some nice things and some things about the future.  He describes his experiences with the Snegiryovs, focusing especially on the attempt to give the father the money, and his indignant refusal.  Alyosha has some really acute observations about why he refused it, suggesting the refusal happens precisely because of the fantasy Snegiryov had elaborated just before it, when he explained all it could do for his family.  Alyosha seems to understand that the revealing of all this information was severely embarrassing to the old man, and in his soul, he must have recoiled just when he realized how embarrassing it was, and refused the money.  In a different way, this sort of reversal is what Alyosha is experiencing with Lisa – she has such feelings for him that she expresses herself through the opposite outward appearance, insisting she was “joking” about her letter when Alyosha knew she wasn’t.  I guess alyosha just has this effect on people.

Having read the rest of book 5, there’s also an interesting parallel at work here: Alyosha’s offering the money to Snegiryov and his refusing it closely parallels the discussion Ivan and Alyosha later have about the first temptation of Christ (to turn stones into bread), and Christ’s refusal to do so.  Alyosha suggests that, having now refused it, the old man will be more able to take it on a later day.  In “The Grand Inquisitor,” the inquisitor suggests that Christ’s refusal of the power of turning the stones into bread, and the consequent alienation of the people, would pave the way for the later performance of the same deed by a would-be Catholic-socialist authoritarian government, as an actor of secular salvation, one for which the people would be grateful.

After that, Alyosha goes to find Ivan at his home.  He sneaks in the back way, where he is surprised to overhear Smerdyakov wooing a young lady (Ivan’s landlord’s daughter) with a guitar.  Frank suggests Smerdyakov’s sweet words are a parody of Alyosha’s, and where Alyosha’s seem touching and vulernable, Smerdyakov’s seem cold and, to some extent, calculating.  After listening in for a while, Alyosha sneezes, and then, his cover having been blown, he walks up to them.  He asks where Ivan is, and gets redirected to the tavern, where, Smerdyakov says, Ivan was supposed to meet Dmitri.


“The Brothers Get Acquainted,” “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor”

Then we come to the pivotal conversation.  It’s interesting in that it feels almost like a break from the story that’s taking place; it’s thematically related, but doesn’t really drive the plot.  In fact, after the discussion, the next morning, Ivan leaves for Moscow and effectively exits stage right.  In some ways this conversation is like the eye of a storm, or like Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy (it covers a lot of similar theological and metaphysical ground too).  Upon reflection though, one of the things that’s interesting about this conversation is that though it is abstract, and seemingly unrelated, it also seems totally realistic.

Ivan and Alyosha are brothers who have not spoken for a long time, maybe not even ever.  In a touching sequence (touching for me, as the oldest of four siblings) Ivan explains how when they were younger, he couldn’t talk with him:

 “I’ll order some fish soup for you, or something—you don’t live on tea alone, do you?” cried Ivan, apparently terribly pleased that he had managed to lure Alyosha.  He himself had already finished dinner and was having tea.

“I’ll have fish soup, and then tea, I’m hungry,” Alyosha said cheerfully.

“And cherry preserve?  They have it here.  Do you remember how you loved cherry preserve at Polenov’s when you were little?”

“You remember that?  I’ll have preserve, too, I still love it.”

Ivan rang for the waiter and ordered fish soup, tea, and preserve.

“I remember everything, Alyosha, I remember you till you were eleven, I was nearly fifteen then.  Fifteen and eleven, it’s such a difference that brothers of those ages are never friends.  I don’t even know if I loved you.  When I left for Moscow, in the first years I didn’t even think of you at all.  Later, when you got to Moscow yourself, it seems to me that we met only once somewhere.  And now it’s already the fourth month that I’ve been living here, and so far you and I have not exchanged a single word.  I’m leaving tomorrow, and I was sitting here now, wondering how I could see you to say good-bye, and you came walking along.”

“So you wished very much to see me?”

“Very much, I wanted to get acquainted with you once and for all, and I want you to get acquainted with me…” (228-229).

Personal aside: If you’re not in a larger family, you might not understand this, but in my own way, with each of my brothers and my sister, I’ve had moments like this.  When you’re young you don’t have the perspective, necessarily, to care about younger siblings, but you still know them, they are still there… I would say Ivan is wrong to question whether he loved Alyosha at that earlier time – even the detail about the cherry preserve alone signifies that love.

After “the brothers get acquainted,” Ivan moves the conversation into a more abstract realm.

 (Ivan) “Tell me, what did we meet here for?  To talk about Katerina Ivanovna, or about the old man and Dmitri?… Was it really for that?”

(Alyosha) “No, not that.”

(Ivan) “So you know yourself what for… Why have you been looking at me so expectantly for these three months?  In order to ask me: ‘And how believest thou, if thou believest anything at all’?” [According to a footnote, this is from the Orthodox service for the consecration of bishops – the bishop responds by reciting the creed] (233).

What follows is, as Frank agrees, an extremely powerful and impassioned profession of Ivan’s atheism.  It’s so powerful, Frank notes, that some critics have wondered whether the beliefs expressed here, and not in Alyosha’s monastic orthodoxy, are Dostoevsky’s own.  Frank dismisses this thesis, suggesting it would make Dostoevsky intellectually dishonest, since over and over, in his correspondence and in nonfictional writings, he affirms the orthodox position.  But I have to say, having read a lot of those nonfictional writings, there is really never quite the ringing affirmation of faith you would expect (or Frank seems to assume it present).  Frank himself notes at several points through the biography that D. never speaks or writes candidly about his own beliefs.  He writes about what would be good for Russia, or for the world – and if you read Ivan’s words closely, this same distinction is there.  Like Kierkegaard’s Johannes di Silentio, Ivan wants to believe; he can’t.

I often tell my students that, in good argumentative writing, when advancing a counter-argument, one you wish to refute, you owe it to your reader and to yourself to express that counter-argument as persuasively and as sympathetically as possible.  The thing that happens when you get a student really to commit to doing this, is sometimes surprising: they will actually change their opinion.  Their experience of threshing out the contrary position can, at times, have a profound effect on a writer.  It doesn’t usually make you end up affirming that very counter-argument, but it can lead you to a much more nuanced position, one that respects the fundamental intuition at the base of the objection.  Without ruling, therefore, on what D’s beliefs “really are,” I still say that the very penning of Ivan’s “rebellion,” just like Roskolnikov’s and the Underground Man’s before him, must have shown D a kernel of truth somewhere within it.  He must have worked himself into such a frenzy giving voice to it – there is something he must identify with.  This is just so far from the straw-person-ish affirmations of a lesser novelist’s antagonist.

So I guess I prefer to see Ivan not as an extremely eloquent and impassioned straw man, but instead as an aspect of the tension that the novel is giving voice to.  Yes, the tension.  I prefer to read this less as a “thesis-driven” anti-atheistic novel, and much more as a display of the profound and deep struggle that religious belief and atheism have always experienced.  I do not find myself compelled to affirm Alyosha’s faith and reject Ivan’s atheism (or Dmitri’s and Fyodor’s crass materialism) – I find myself marveling at the cogency of the presentation of all four of their lives.  I am left questioning on all fronts.  Frank, the intellectual historian, seems not to have a place for this sort of thematic ambiguity.  He wants to see D as an ideological combatant in the intellectual history of the 19th century.

What does Ivan actually say?  The part I found most compelling was his focus on children: “I simply wanted to put you in my perspective.  I meant to talk about the suffering of mankind in general, but better let us dwell only on the suffering of children” (237).  Ivan is not raising a novel objection to Christian faith – his is the age old question of theodicy (I think I’m using that word correctly) – how can God exist if there is suffering?  D seems to recognize that this objection is not one best resolved on the level of abstract theorizing, but instead, through the emotional embodiment of literary characters.  Ivan lays forth numerous examples of what he sees as recent events of wonton and intentional cruelty towards children – there is a Turkish, a Swiss and a Russian example.

 “You see, once again, I positively maintain that this peculiar quality exists in much of mankind—this love of torturing children, but only children… The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear god.’  I’m not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!  I’m tormenting you, Alyoshka, you don’t look yourself.  I’ll stop if you wish” (241-242).

There are suggestions throughout these chapters that Alyosha is sincerely rattled by Ivan’s ideas.  He’s also rattled by what he perceives in Ivan’s mental state, which, to use a more modern term, seems almost clinically manic.  Ivan runs on and on for pages and pages, and Alyosha is, at times, brought there with him.  Again D superbly displays the interpersonal and systemic nature of dysfunction: in his own way (not Ivan’s) Alyosha is brought to such a state as well.  His reply to Ivan’s request just quoted “Never mind, I want to suffer too” (242).  What Ivan experiences as manic frenzy in Alyosha is transfigured into masochism.

As he comes to the end of this portion of his speech, Ivan proclaims that he would like to “return his ticket” (for God’s grace), that he and his “Euclidian mind” can make nothing of the challenge of faith.  To him, he says, it’s like imagining that two parallel lines intersect: it just cannot be understood, as much as he would like to understand it.  Alyosha responds “that’s rebellion!” and refuses to accept Ivan’s conclusions.  To do so, he mentions Jesus (for the first time in the conversation), that he has died for human sin.

Ivan’s answer made me laugh: “I’ve been wondering all the while why you haven’t brought him up for so long, because in discussions your people usually trot him out first thing!” (246).

This allows Ivan to present his “poem” called “The Grand Inquisitor.”  It is a story which imagines that Jesus appeared in a 16th century Spanish square, on the day after scores of heretics had been burned at the stake.  Ivan recognizes this is contrary to the conventions of 19th century realism, but, speaking clearly for Dostoevseky now, suggests that in days of old (i.e., the days of Dante, Milton, etc.) people could accept such departures from realism in art.  In his poem, Jesus appears on the town square, heals a sick man, and the whole crowd recognizes him for who he is right away.  The “Grand Inquisitor” shows up to the town square and has Jesus arrested.  After he is led to his cell, the Inquisitor lets Jesus know just what a world they have here, 15 centuries after Jesus appeared on earth, and just how much to blame for it he, i.e., Jesus, is.  The Inquisitor’s tone towards Jesus parallels Ivan’s towards Alyosha.

The Inquisitor confronts Jesus for his refusal of each of the devil’s three temptations.  First, he savagely criticizes him for having refused to turn stones into bread, preferring to maintain humankind’s freedom of choice, despite all the starvation, war and everything else that ensued.  Second, he rejects Jesus’s refusal to jump from the temple’s pinnacle, to demonstrate that angels would save him, because now the people lack any proof of Christ’s divinity.  Third, he angrily judges Jesus for having refused to accept all earthly power.  Each of these refusals, the Catholic Inquisitor lets Jesus know, have, however, given rise to the human solutions of the Catholic church.  For the first, there is the socialistic ideal of bread for everyone, in exchange for human freedom (what he calls a “miracle”).  For the second, there is the “mystery” of Catholic dogma, and for the third, there is the world “authority” the Church first claimed for itself eight centuries prior, when the Roman first claimed its right to control a handful of Italian cities.  The Inquisitor insists that had Jesus only accepted these offers of the devil, none of this would have been necessary, and so, how can Christ actually love mankind?  [Interesting, Frank notes, Jesus’s healing of the man and the crowd’s recognition of him parallel the “miracle, mystery and authority” the Inquisitor says his church has created].

The Inquisitor, pleading with him for an answer, is disappointed: Jesus replies only with a kiss.

Returning to the outer narrative frame, Ivan, pleading with Alyosha for an answer, is similarly disappointed.  In one of the more disarming lines of the book, Alyosha responds simply: “Your poem praises Jesus, it doesn’t revile him…  as you meant it to” (260).  Alyosha goes on to explain that this is only a portrait of a power-hungry pseudo-religious tyrant, wanting to exploit the world’s imperfections to maximize his own power.  [To state the obvious here: just 35 years after this book was written, just such a monstrous anti-religious tyranny actually overtook Russia, actually trying to exchange human freedom for abundant bread, etc. etc.]

Alyosha is concerned, but also maintains his faith.  He lets Ivan know that he still believes in God, and he now sees that Ivan does not.  Ivan departs, claiming he won’t see him again for many years, since he’s going to live a sensual life in Moscow and points beyond.  They depart and Ivan says “you go right, I go left,” signifying for the reader (in flagrantly handist fashion) that Ivan is in league with the devil, and Alyosha with God.  Alyosha is rattled enough, however, that he loses sight of one of his goal for the day: to meet up with Dmitri.  He says that, in hindsight, he wondered all his life why he didn’t remember to look after Dmitri on that day.


“A Rather Obscure One for the Moment”, “It’s Always Interesting to Talk with an Intelligent Man”

The narrative camera then follows Ivan to his house, where he meets with Smerdyakov (Frank points out that two encounters with Smerdyakov frame the action of this book), who is eager to convince Ivan to leave the city for a while.  Ivan is disgusted with Smerdyakov’s seemingly simplistic embrace of Ivan’s ideology as it’s been hammered out at recent dinner conversations.  What for Ivan is an impassioned struggle with hope and despair, he discovers in this conversation, is for Smerdyakov just cold and calculating, unthinking affirmation of atheistic dogma.  Smerdyakov strongly hints that he will be faking an epileptic fit over the next three days, and that Ivan had been clear out, so as to avoid suspicion for things that are going to happen.  There is even the suggestion that Smerdyakov thinks he’s doing Ivan’s bidding, though Ivan hasn’t asked him explicitly to kill Fyodor, Smerdyakov seems to think he’s decoded Ivan’s meaning in all of his atheism, and wants to commit this murder and have it pinned on Dmitri, so that the other Karamazov brothers can reap their inheritance.  Smerdyakov also lets Ivan know he’s told Dmitri about his, Grushenka’s and Fyodor’s system of secret knocks on the door, which they use to report of Grushenka’s comings and goings.  The knocks are supposed to keep Dmitri, who is presumably always lurking outside Fyodor’s door, waiting to catch Grushenka, from catching them.  Ivan is confused as to why Smerdyakov has done this, but we, as readers can see that it’s just the sort of crucial detail that will allow Dmitri to be framed for the murder later.

The book ends in a confusing sequence wherein Ivan, after having had trouble sleeping that night, awakens the next day, announces he is leaving, and agrees to visit a nearby village, instead of Moscow, to complete a real estate transition for his father.  On his way to the station, however, he changes his mind, and sends word back to his father that he went to Moscow instead.  (“’I am a scoundrel’ he whispered to himself” (280)).    We also learn that Smerdyakov’s fake epileptic attack has begun, and Dmitri still waits expectantly for Grushenka to come to him – “It was borthersome for Fyodor Pavlovich, but never had his heart bathed in sweeter hopes: for it was possible to say almost for certain that this time she would surely come…!” (282).

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2 Responses to The Brothers Karamazov – Book V – Pro and Contra

  1. David says:

    Fascinating, Josh. So does Aloysha offer a response to Ivan’s version of the ‘problem of evil’–anything like a clear ‘theodicy’? You mention that Aloysha is unpersuaded by Ivan’s ‘argument,’ but does he make any effort to explain why?

  2. Josh says:

    I think some of the force of Alyosha’s “reply” is supposed to come from the lack of an argumentatively rigorous answer. Much like Jesus’s kiss on the cheek of the Grand Inquisitor. Like, the way he lives his life, and its overall fulfilling nature (and our getting to see it as readers) is the response. Though it’s interesting – in the next chapter, he actually ends up quoting Ivan directly. He says he doesn’t rebel against God, but he does say that he “rejects his world.”

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