The Brothers Karamazov – Book VI – The Russian Monk

Seen from a certain angle, book VI and (its testament to faith) is the ideological counterweight to Book V’s atheism.  There is a problem here though, which is two-fold.  First, the views expressed in Book VI are very closely connected with Dostoevsky’s own views; second, to be blunt, Book VI is a little bit boring.  In fact, Frank notes, many critics have found it underwhelming when considered against Book V and the passion contained therein.  Frank suggests, as a response, that we are to view the whole rest of the novel as a response to Book V, not just this section of it.  I propose another solution: just as, with Book V, I argued that D wasn’t so much articulating a view with which he totally disagreed, but more giving voice to one side of a tension within the dialectic of belief and skepticism, so here, instead of a “response,” we can view it as the emotional and spiritual recoil experienced by Alyosha Karamazov after his emergence from the conversations with his brother.

 Let me explain from another angle: Book VI begins with Father Zosima on his deathbed, with his heiromonks (Fathers Iosif, Paissy, and Mikhail [the not previously introduced “superior of the hermitage”]), Brother Anfim – “a simple little monk from the poorest peasantry (283) – and novices (Alosyha and Porfiry) close at hand.  As Zosima moves towards death, he reveals that the reason he favors Alyosha is that he reminds him of his older brother, who passed away of tuberculosis at age 17 (when Zosima was only 11) – “Alexei seemed to me to resemble him spiritually” (285-286).  After this revelation, the narrator takes a step back and makes a sort of editorial note:

 Here I must note that this last talk of the elder with those who visited him on the last day of his life has been partly preserved in writing.  Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov wrote it down from memory some time after the elder’s death.  But whether it was just that conversation, or he added to it in his notes from former conversations with his teacher as well, I cannot determine… At this point I want to make clear that I have preferred, rather than recounting all the details of the conversation, to limit myself to the elder’s story according to the manuscript of Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov.  It will be shorter and not so tedious, though, of course, I repeat, Alyosha also took much from previous conversations and put it all together (286).

This editorial note may seem unimportant, just a detail needed to provide D. with an excuse to insert a short hagiography of Zosima, for the purpose of laying out his “response” to Ivan Karamazov’s atheistic rant.  I see this note, though, as far more important: it reminds us that this is a tale told by Alyosha, and one he wrote down some time afterwards.  I remember as an undergraduate, this time in Stephen Crites’s “From Hegel to Nietzsche” class, when we studied the young Hegelians, specifically Strauss (who wrote “The Life of Jesus”) – very popular among these young Hegelians was the idea of the “mythic” view of Christ.  To understand the Gospel properly, they argued, one had to understand three things: the text itself, the authors of the text, and the community through which we have received the text.  To me, this seemed like simple anti-fundamentalism, but I guess at the time, in the climate of 19th century intellectual history, this was a radical view, at least with respect to Holy Scripture.  Strauss and others argued that the miracles and all the other supernatural goings-on in the four gospels were largely an effect of the “messianic expectations” held by the group of people who wrote the texts themselves.  They were so ready for a miraculous messiah, so willing to believe that the “end of days” was coming soon, that they saw all the events (or heard reports of the events, since we know the gospels themselves weren’t written during Jesus’s actual life) through this lens.  And the church which receives the text through the years has also added its own expectations, cultural traditions, and so on, such that its understanding of the life of Jesus has achieved mythic status.  Not “mythic” in the simple sense of “not true”, but mythic in the sense that I’s become part of the mythos of the entire culture that reads it.  It becomes impossible to separate out the “given” of Jesus’s life from the “conceptual content” placed on top of it by the gospel’s writers or by contemporary Christian believers.  It also becomes less desirable to attempt such a separation once you appreciate that those expectations and that cultural context are not things to be “set aside” in search of the “truth,” but things to be understood and analyzed as part of it.

That’s a lot of explanation but it squares with the editorial note well.  This is the story of Father Zosima told by a highly expectant Alyosha Karamazov, as heard through the eyes and ears of a whole community of faith.  What’s more, Alyosha’s memories of these speeches (especially on this day, when he’s been so rattled by his brother’s Ivan’s profession of atheism) are tinged with the feeling of panic and doubt he has just experienced.  He’s so not himself that he has entirely forgotten to visit Dmitri, with whom he is very, very concerned.  Alyosha needs very badly for Zosima’s life to have been holy, to have had a point; he needs it to be a counterweight to Ivan’s assertions.  Seen in this light, we can understand to tale of Zosima’s life and teachings not as the thinly veiled views of D. himself, but as the views that D. thought/felt a character such as Alyosha would need to have had about his elder.  Alyosha is clinging to his faith at the moment he walks in Zosima’s cell on that final day.  And when someone is clinging like this, it only makes sense that they would see things as larger than life.  Alyosha’s urge to sanctify Zosima cannot be separated from the reports he gives us of Zosima’s life and teachings.

Alyosha’s manuscript is split in two halves: first, we have “From the Life of the Hieromonk and Elder Zosima, Composed from His Own Words by Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov” (chapter 2), then later “From Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima” (chapter 3).

The Life of Zosima

Alyosha recounts three sequences of events, sequences which, as Frank points out, parallel the experiences/attitudes of the three Karamazov brothers themselves.  This, by the way, is exactly the sort of “expectation” Alyosha himself would have brought to this project: he is so confused by Ivan and Dmitri and his place among them that he must restore order.  What better way than through a posteriori tales of his revered elder?  First, he describes the death of his older brother Markel.  Markel was at first not a believer; he even enjoyed tormenting his mother with professions of his nonbelief (Zosima reports having been very afraid during those times, much like Alyosha with Ivan).  But he took ill with consumption, and on his way towards death, re-imagined everything, and found faith and “paradise” right there in his remaining months.  Zosima says that it was during this time, when he went to church and heard parts of the book of Job read aloud in church, that he first felt what faith truly was.  This episode matches mostly with the experiences of Alyosha.  The book of Job also echoes Ivan’s complaints, just in a different tone, squaring with Alyosha’s remark that the “Grand Inquisitor” story does not criticize Christ, as he meant to have, but actually venerates him.

Next, he tells the tale of his being shipped off to the cadet corps during his post-school years.  He was gone for eight years; after the first three, his mother died (his father had died very early in his childhood, and he never knew him).  While there, he developed a taste for worldly life, and fell in love with a woman, one that, unbeknownst to him was already engaged to another man.  The two of them ended up dueling over this matter.  At the duel, Zosima reports having thrown his weapon aside and asked forgiveness.  This was deeply offensive to the members of the cadet corps, who held the rules of honor and dueling in very high esteem.  But, Zosima informs them not to worry – he has in fact already resigned his command, and would soon become a monk.  This phase of his life parallels the experiences of Dmitri (who also served in the military).

Last, he tells of a “mysterious visitor” (somehow, therefore, paralleling Ivan) who came to him and became close friends with him after he had accepted the holy orders (or was on his way towards it – that’s not clear).  This stranger wanted very much to know what Zosima felt when he had asked for forgiveness during the duel.  He says he has his own “secret” reason for wanting to know about this.  It turns out that secret reason is that this stranger had, fourteen years earlier, committed murder.  He had fallen in love with a woman (much like Zosima had earlier) who had already promised himself to another man.  He was so overcome with desire for her that he eventually planned her murder.  He was meticulous about it, taking steps to frame one of her servants.  The servant was later arrested (who, as luck would have it, was found with blood on his hands and a knife nearby, passed out trunk in the town).  That servant was convicted and died in prison soon afterwards.  At first the visitor (his name was Mikhail) felt okay about things.  He convinced himself that that servant would have died anyway, since he died of the illness he already had when they arrested him.  But later on, he became tormented by this and had strange dreams all the time.  He needed to confess.

He was a very popular society man who had a huge birthday party every year.  At this birthday party, he typed a confession and read it aloud to all the assembled guests.  It was 14 years later, and none of them believed him.  He had the jewelry he had taken from her jewelry box (which had made the murder look like a botched robbery).  He had the letters he had taken from her.  But no one would believe him, and they all immediately developed rationalizations for his behavior.  They decided he was insane, but not guilty of murder.  [This story is basically an inverted version of the rest of TBK, wherein Dmitri his charged and convicted with a murder of his father that he did not commit (though he had every motive for it), and which his servant, Smerdyakov, actually did commit, and whose motives remain entirely hidden from public view].  He speaks for pages and pages about the isolation this experience caused for him.  He also admits that, in the days before confessing to his party, he considered murdering Zosima himself, since he couldn’t bear knowing that he knew.

Alyosha thus frames the life of Zosima as one much like his own family’s, as an amalgam: he is the faithful younger brother, who suffered through worldly temptation, and then hears the confession of one overcome with guilt for a crime he was not punished for.

The Teaching of Zosima

 I found this section underwhelming.  Zosima talks about the isolation and individualism of society, and how the monastic life stands as a radical alternative to all of that.  He issues some fairly formulaic pleas about the need to love and respect children (not nearly as impassioned nor as convincing as Ivan’s Book V observation that humanity has always treated children horribly).  He talks about hell as being a this-worldly state “the suffering of being no longer able to love” (322).   He reminds them to pray, not to judge others, and so on.  I guess if this is Alyosha’s record, it makes sense that reading it might be underwhelming.  Alyosha seems to experience things very deeply, but actually be relatively reserved and not all that effusive when it comes to talking about those experiences.  This part reads a little like if you were reading the lyrics of your favorite songs, divorced from their original musical context.  It would mean something for you to write them down; it wouldn’t do much (or nearly the same thing anyway) for someone reading them later.  Alyosha must have loved these sermons when they were delivered, but they feel sort of flat on the page.

The section ends with another editor’s comment:

 Here ends the manuscript of Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov.  I repeat: it is incomplete and fragmentary.  The biographical information, for example, embraces only the elder’s early youth.  From his homilies and opinions, much that had apparently been said at different times and for various reasons is brought together, as if into a single whole.  What was said by the elder in those last hours proper of his life is not all precisely outlined, but only a notion of given of the spirit and nature of that conversation as compared with what Alexei Fyodorovich’s manuscript contains from earlier homilies (323-324).


Again, why would D. have framed this narrative so self-consciously as the product of Alexei Karamazov if there were not some significance to this framing?  If it’s just an excuse to share the author’s own beliefs, hadn’t he had enough room to do that elsewhere, like in The Diary of a Writer?  I’ve always been frustrated by critics who see novels as thinly veiled normative position papers, and who see it as their job as critics to “decode” or “unveil” this normative content.  D. was a smart and opinionated man, certainly – why read his great works as being so trivially didactic?  In fact, we can see this section as illustrating Alyosha’s own didacticism, his desire for a clear way of life, a clear set of rules to follow, of his desire to avoid the pain, suffering and fear his family’s sensualistic ambivalence produces.

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