Category Archives: Classic Books

The Appetite for Life

 

Ivan Karamazov in the novel Tthe Brothers Karamazov is the epitome of the man of reason, but this does not prevent him from knowing the joy of passion and love. He is also, presumably, the nihilist that does not believe in God, and hence can do anything he desires without moral consequences, but nonetheless he knows the importance of nature, life, love, and morality. He is the one who says if God does not exist, everything is permitted. But, As Ivan told his much more saintly brother, Alyosha,

 

“… even if I believed that life was pointless, lost faith in the woman I loved, lost faith in the order of things, or even became convinced that I was surrounded by a disorderly, evil, perhaps devil-made chaos, even if I were completely overcome by the horrors of human despair—I would still want to live on. Once I start drinking from this cup, I won’t put it down until I have emptied it to the last drop…many times I’ve asked myself  if there is anything in this world that would crush my frantic indecent appetite for life and have decided that nothing of the sort exists. This appetite for life is often branded as despicable by various  spluttering moralists and even more so by poets. It is of course the outstanding features of us Karamazovs.”

 

His appetite for life has overwhelmed his nihilism. Even though he is passionate about ideas, as Dostoevsky himself was, Ivan says,

“…so I want to live and go on living, even if its contrary to the rules of logic. Even if I do not believe in the divine order of things, the sticky young leaves emerging from their buds in the spring are dear to my heart; so is the blue sky and so are some human beings even though I often don’t know why I like them; I may still even admire an act of heroism with my whole heart, perhaps out of habit, although I may have long since stopped believing in heroism.”

 

Besides loving the world, including that world of nature he so glowingly described, the green world that emerges from its buds, he also loves the world of civilization—western civilization exemplified by Europe. It is where he finds meaning in a world that often seems meaningless. As Ivan said,

“I’ve been wanting to go to Western Europe and that’s where I’ll go from here. Oh  I know that going there is like going to a graveyard, I tell you!  The dead who lie under the stones there are dear to me, and every gravestone speaks of their ardent lives, of human achievements, of their passionate faith in the purpose of life, the truth they believed in, the learning they defended—and I know in advance that I’ll prostrate myself and kiss those stones and shed tears on them, although the whole time I’ll be fully aware that it’s only a graveyard and nothing more. And I’ll not be weeping out of despair, but simply because I’ll be happy shedding those tears. I’ll get drunk on my own emotion. I love those sticky little leaves in the spring and the blue sky, that’s what! You don’t love those things with reason, with logic, you love them with your innards, with your belly, and that’s how you love your own first youthful strength.”

 

After this magnificent speech in which he makes clear that he too is filled with passion, passion that includes the mind, includes intelligence, he asks Alyosha, his younger holy brother who has been preparing to become a priest, if this makes sense. And Alyosha says, “I understand only too well,” proving that he is also a Karamazov. All of them are filled with passion. All of them have this astonishing “appetite for life.” Even Alyosha, the near holy man, a near ascetic, says, “I’ve always thought that before anything else people should learn to love life in this world.”

He is no ascetic monk. He is a Karamazov.

 

 

Joy to the World

 

Dmitri Karamazov, like his father, is a man of deep sensuality and near infinite passion. He drinks the joy of the earth. The joy of sacred nature in all its manifestations. And the joy of God. For Dmitri, sensuality is near divine. It is where his religious quest leads him. Many see the divine and the sensual in conflict but not Dmitri. His religious quest is for the love of Grushenka or is it the love of Katrina? Sometimes it is very hard to tell. He seems to be in love with both women at the same time.

 

Dmitri is sad for his holy brother, Alyosha, because “it’s such a pity you really don’t know what exaltation is.” I am not sure at all that Dmitri is right about that. I will come back to this after we consider how Alyosha and the young boys held hands at the funeral of their young friend Ilyusha. He came every bit as close to exaltation as Dmitri did, but in a different way. And an important way as well. And he exalted in it too.

 

Dmitri finds joy in the sensual. Like his father he was deeply sensual.  So, he starts his confession with Schiller’s Hymn or Ode to Joy.  The joy is sacred. This poem was the basis for Dmitri’s strange confession. Many think a sensualist like Dmitri should confess, so in a weird sense he does confess, but he does not regret.

Ivan Karamazov, sees the world through his intellect. He is driven by reason, but in a way that shows reason can be passionate too. In that sense, Dostoevsky is like Saul Bellow.  His brother Dmitri sees the world through the body.  And we will get to Alyosha. He is different than both brothers. He is studying to be a priest.  Alyosha understands and does not disparage or even criticize his brother’s approach to the divine. He is not judgmental.

Reminding me of the spirituality of indigenous North Americans, Schiller in his poem puts it this way:

“Man must enter an alliance

With eternal Mother Earth”

 

Dmitri starts his “confession” by eliciting Schiller, but as a sensualist he has trouble with this idea of divine. To him the relationship should be more sexual and this confuses him. Dmitri says, “I don’t know how I could possibly enter that eternal alliance with Mother Earth. I don’t kiss Mother Earth.  And in a directly sexual, allusion, he says, “I don’t plow her soil.”  As a result of his confusion, “everything in this world is a puzzle.”

Dmitri then deals with his dilemma in this remarkable way:

“…because I’m a Karamazov, because if I must plunge into the abyss, I’ll go head first, feet in the air. I’ll even find a certain pleasure in falling in such a humiliating way. I’ll even think that it’s a beautiful exit for a man like me. And, so in the very midst of my degradation, I suddenly intone a hymn. Even if I must be damned, even if I’m low and despicable, I must be allowed to kiss the hem of the veil in which my God is shrouded; and even if  I may be following in the devil’s footsteps. I am still Your son, O Lord, and I love You and feel the joy without which the world cannot be”.

 

Then he adds a verse from Schiller:

“Joy eternal pours its fires

In the soul of God’s creation,

And its sparkle then inspires

Life’s mysterious fermentation…

All things drink with great elation

Mother Nature’s milk of joy.

Plant and beast and man and nation

Sweetness of her breast enjoy,

To man prostrated in the dust,

Joy brings friends and cheering wine;

Gives the insects sensual lust,

Angels—happiness divine.”

 

As he read this tears were flowing, and even the eyes of his holy brother, Alyosha’s were “glistening.”

Dmitri also realizes that to live like this is difficult and even dangerous. He says he is an insect. One of those filled with what Schiller called “sensual lust.” And he said that lust lives in Alyosha too.  For he is a Karamazov even though he is holy. Even though he is his “angel brother.” Alyosha is more traditionally religious than either of his two brothers or their father, but he is still a Karamazov. That sensual lust is in all of them. That is his confession.

Dmitri warns his brother Alyosha that this will “stir up storms.”  “Because “sensuality is a storm, even more than a storm. Beauty is a terrifying thing.”  Dmitri warns his brother that “a man with a noble heart and a superior intelligence may start out with Madonna as his ideal and end up with Sodom as his ideal.” That is the risk for sensualists like the Karamazovs. All of them.  “What the head brands as shameful may appear as sheer beauty to the heart,” Dmitri tells his brother. He adds, “the terrible thing is that beauty is not only frightening, but mystery as well. That’s where God and the devil join battle, and their battlefield is the heart of man.”

 

A twisted Business: The Absurdity of Love

 

 

One of the recurring themes of the novel The Brothers Karamazov  is the absurdity of love. Katerina loves Dmitri, and maybe Ivan, his brother,  who also loves her. Mrs. Khokhlakovs, not the most reliable of guides since she seems to lack all sense, even though she is rich, says “they’re both throwing away their lives for no good reason; they are perfectly aware of it and actually enjoying it.” Sometimes in the novel it is very difficult to discern who loves whom. Or whether the emotion is love or hate.

But immediately Dmitri abandons Katerina for Grushenka instead. Even though he still loves Katerina. Both Dmitri and his father love the same woman—Grushenka. And perhaps Dmitri and his brother Ivan also love the same woman—Katerina. It is confusing to say the least.  That causes problems and sets the novel in motion.

Grushenka said she would be “the god to whom Dmitri will pray.” That brings the religious quest to an entirely new level. And Ivan, the man of reason, even tells Katerina that he approves of this twisted business, even though it seems so absurd.

Lise loves Alyosha and Alyosha loves her. But she can’t believe this is possible. And nothing seems to happen as a result of this professed love. It is still-born.

The loves in the novel are as crazy as religions. It was all a “twisted business” and “a twisted ecstasy.” Just like religion.

On it surface  the novel is an absurd  love farce and a murder mystery. And. yet it is a great novel. One of the greatest involving a profound religious quest.

Katerina loves (and hates) Grushenka and yet tries to keep her away from Dmitri. Dmitri and Ivan at one point nearly fight over Katerina. For a while Grushenka and Katerina love each other, even though they were competing for the same man,  but quickly those loves break into a thousand tiny shards. In all of this heartbreak where does the truth lie? Obviously, in this twisted business it is impossible to find the truth. It is the result of the “violent and conflicting passions of the Karamazovs.” Particularly “when it is possible to fall in love and to hate at the same time.”A twisted Business  And particularly when those passions involve God. Another twisted business.

 

Love and Hate

 

 

The novel The Brothers Karamazov is a novel of ideas and passions.  To Dostoevsky  they are interrelated.  Ideas are believed (or not) with passion. One of those ideas that is explored in the novel is love.

A curious aspect of the novel is how closely connected love and hate are.  Dostoevsky does not see them as opposites. They are really two sides of the same coin.  As Dmitri said about Katerina “I stared at her with a terrifying hatred that is only a hair’s breadth from the maddest most desperate love.” It is just like “ice burning my forehead like a flame.”  Dmitri asks his brother “Can you understand Alyosha that there are moments of ecstasy in which we could kill ourselves.”

Dmitri also tells Alyosha “Falling in love with someone doesn’t mean loving that person. It’s possible to fall in love and hate at the same time.”

Dmitri can passionately love 2 women at the same time. Katerina and Grushenko. Of course that makes things very difficult.

Often the loves resemble hate. Even the lovers sometimes fail to see the love. The love between Dmitri and Katerina are like that. “It was a hysterical twisted love made up of offended pride, a love that resembled revenge more than love.” Dostoevsky says, “They were like two enemies desperately in love.” Dmitri tells Katerina “I swear to you, I loved you while I hated you.”

Grushenka  tells  Dmitri to forgive her because she loved him but deliberately made him suffer. How is that possible?   She tells him, “I made you all suffer just out of sheer viciousness” and I “drove your old man insane.” It reminds me of what Shakespeare’s King Lear said, “We are to the gods as flies to wanton boys. They kill us for their sport.” These twisted loves are so crazy that Grushenka says If I were God I’d forgive everyone.

And  in he world of Dostoevsky all of these contradictions can be true, in some sense, in the furnace of the Karamazov’s passion. Somehow, in some very strange way, it makes a kind of sense.

Dmitri begs Grushenka to forgive him for “ruining you with his love.” And that is exactly what he did. He even did the same for Katerina. He ruined two women with his love.

These are all strange loves.

.

The Many gods of the Brothers Karamazov

In a way there are many gods in the novel The Brothers Karamazov. Is Fyodor Karamazov—the father of the 3, or perhaps 4, Karamazov brothers—God? He certainly is God-like. He is fickle, absurd, unreasonable, and demands adherents be faithful no matter what. Sounds a lot like God doesn’t it?  His former serf Gregory is faithful to him when faith has not been earned or deserved. As Dostoevsky explains about Fyodor Karamazov, “For some complex and subtle reasons, that he himself could not explain, he felt an urgent and pressing need to have someone loyal and trustworthy by him.” Again this sounds god-like. If he is a god, then, of course, his 3 or 4 sons, are all sons of God.

 

Because of the absolute loyalty,  the father liked his youngest son, Alyosha who “touched his very heart, by being there, seeing everything, and condemning nothing.” Remember he is the one who judges no one. Alyosha gave him “something he had never had before—a complete absence of contempt for him…he treated him with invariable kindness—and a completely genuine and sincere affection which Karamazov little deserved.” Of course he treated everyone that way. He was a near saint. Or you could say he was God-like.

Elder   Zosima is certainly god-like. As is Alyosha. But so is Karamazov. He is an absurd god. But in many respect the god of the bible is also absurd. The God of the Bible is the god who lets a small child freeze to death in a shed in a Russian winter. Ivan could not accept such a god.

Dmitri (also known as Mitya) is a god to Katerina. She bows down to him, as Elder Zosima bowed down to Fyodor Karamazov and Dmitri to Grushenka. In fact, Grushenka had father and son “conquered and lying at her feet.” Again a bit God-like.

Dmitri also treats Alyosha like a god. He confesses to Alyosha:

“I’ll make a clean breast of everything, for there must be someone who knows the whole truth. I’ve already told it to the angel in heaven and now I’ll tell it to the angel on earth. Because you are the angel on earth Alyosha.”

 

What are we to make of so many gods on this religious quest?

 

 

God’s Fools

 

In the book The Brothers Karamazov, the monastery was where Alyosha, one of the three sons of the patriarch Fyodor Karamazov, was learning how to find light and love with the assistance of his mentor, the elder, Zosima, a near Saint. The elder lives in a small room in the monastery that was far from grandiose. It is not the Vatican. Nor the lavish home of American televangelists. As Dostoevsky described it, “The whole cell was rather small and drab-looking. It has only the most indispensable furniture, and even that was poor and crude.”

It is interesting that we learn a lot in a chapter of the novel titled, “The Old Buffoon.”  The elder Karamazov as invariably he does, acts like a buffoon.  And he is exactly that.  In fact, he introduced himself to Elder Zosima that way, and then acted the part with gusto. He refers to himself as “one of God’s fools,” and even says there may be an unholy spirit in me too, but it must be one of minor rank—if it were more important it would surely have chosen better quarters.”

Miusov also acted the part of the fool. As Dostoevsky said of Miusov, “He rated his own powers of judgment rather highly, a weakness which was excusable in him, since he was already past fifty, an age at which an intelligent, cultured man of the world of independent means acquires an exaggerated opinion of his own judgment, sometimes despite himself.” I guess I am lucky, not being a man of means nor cultured.

The three sons are each fools but each in their own way.

Is elder Zosima an old fool for living so simply? In the novel when elder Karamazov plays the buffoon to such an extent that his son Alyosha can’t stand to see his father acting so in front of his mentor Zosima. But the elder Zosima, echoing Christ with Mary Magdalene, throws himself at the feet of the Fyodor Karamazov the father. According to Rakitin, “That’s the way it always is with God’s fools: they’re liable to cross themselves at the sight of a tavern and then hurl stones at a church.”

But Zosima impressively treats the fool like a nobleman. There are many of God’s fools in the novel, sometimes in disguise.  Some of the fools are very intelligent. Wise men are harder to find. Isn’t it always like that?

The way to light and Love

In the novel The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha, also called Alexei is the youngest son and least like the father. He is the most likeable of all the Karmazovs, and I might even say, the most God-like of the brothers Karamazov. He did that by being free of resentment. He was filled instead with compassion and fellow feeling that left no room for resentment. Unlike his father and his brothers, He “never held a grudge when someone offended him.” Instead he had fierce, frantic modesty, and chastity.” He was “in no sense a fanatic…he was not even a mystic.” As Dostoevsky said, “he refused to sit in judgement of others.” Or like Bob Dylan said, “he knows too much to argue or to judge.” Some of us, (I am looking in a mirror now) could learn a lot from Alyosha.

 

What was his secret?  It wasn’t dogma. Or following rules. He had no need of either.  As Dostoevsky said, “he was just a boy who very early in life had come to love his fellow men.”  Simple but effective! As the author shows us in his novels, many men  claim to love their fellows but few are able to do that. Alyosha did go to a monastery but that was “simply because at one point that course had caught his imagination and he had become convinced that it was the ideal way to escape the darkness of the wicked world, a way that would lead him toward light and love.” This was his religious quest. He was as unencumbered by vows or rules as his Father was unencumbered by scruples. Near the end of the book Alyosha shows us that there is better way. But really the whole novel leads us there. I will get to that later in my posts on this book. I must meander there. There are no shortcuts to truth.

 

This is the genuine way of religion. This is the true faith of the religious quest. Religion without dogma. What a blessing that could be. Alyosha shows us the way by example.

 

The Quest of the Abandoned for an Absent God

 

Dostoevsky shows us in his magnificent novel, The Brothers Karamazov that the religious quest in the modern age is the quest to deal with abandonment by God. At least according to Ivan, the atheist son, when God leaves a child to suffer that is something he cannot accept. Even if suffering leads to discovery of God, a some suggest,  that is not good enough, for it is not worth the price.

 

The father Karamazov is successful in business ventures because he is “unencumbered by scruples.” Later Ivan accuses God of the same crime. He creates a world which many of us feel is a great success, but it contains suffering children so God considers that their suffering is worth the price. To Ivan it is not worth the price. The less unencumbered one is by scruples the more successful one will be. No one is more successful than God. But children suffer! He thinks there is something terribly wrong with such a world. It is not good enough and if that is the best God can do,  God is not Great as Christopher Hitchens said.

 

 

The Brothers Karamazov: Abandoned by God

 

In the book The Brothers Karamazov the brothers have a most unusual father. The father feels no responsibility to the sons and virtually abandons them all to their own devices. In the first sentence of the novel, we learn that the father has died under “tragic and mysterious” circumstances so I am not giving much away when I suggest that the most likely suspects are his sons. And it could be anyone of them, even though only Dmitri is charged with his murder.

 

The father had 3 “legitimate” sons and one other son who works for the father as a servant.  We never learn for sure whether he is actually a son or not. In that first paragraph we also learn that the father is “wretched and depraved but also muddle-headed in a way that allows him to pull off all sorts of shady little financial deals and not much else.”

 

The problem between the father and at least one of the sons, Dmitri, is that both love the same woman. And they compete for her violently. Here is how the prosecutor put it in his summation to the jury: “it was an amazing and fatal coincidence that these two hearts should have been set afire simultaneously.” And this set off “a month of hopeless passion.”  And no one could be more passionate than the Karamazovs for it was that passion that set off “the idea of parricide.”  This is such a powerful idea that, as defense counsel said, “the idea of it shocks and impresses us so much that the inadequate proof seems adequate and the questionable facts cease to appear questionable.” The idea is like a magic elixir that can transform a substance into something foreign. The very idea of it can make the false true and the true false.

 

However, as dangerous as that may be, there is more. Dmitri’s brother Ivan so different from him, is the atheist brother who argues that if God does not exist “all is permitted.” In fact, it could be said that the very idea of a dead God is a magic elixir that could mean all is permitted. That is where his religion ended.  Yet as the  defense lawyer explains to the jury, Dmitri’s father was not a real father for he effectively abandoned his children, therefore it would not be a monstrous thing for a son to murder such a father. It would be understandable. The consequence to Dmitri as his legal counsel explains, is that “my client grew up under no one’s protection but God’s, which means that he grew up as wild animals.” That seems like a horrible indictment of God, but it also gives license to Dmitri. For as we all know, if our parents disappear, we are given permission, in practice to do anything. The same with an absent God. All is really permitted. This is a lesson we also learned at the funeral of the very young Ilyusha who has an absent mother, not in fact, but in reality, for she has lost her reason. His mother was as bad a mother as Dmitri’s father was a bad father..

 

Being abandoned by a parent is as devastating as being abandoned by God. And that is the crux of the enigma of the religious quest in this novel. Abandonment by God is central to the whole idea of the death of God which gripped philosophers starting in the 19th century.

That shocking idea was born in the writings of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche and then carried on by the existentialists.

Re-Reading the Brothers Karamazov

 

 

 

A couple of years ago I started two projects. One was to re-read at least one great classic book  each year. As a result I have re-read Albert Camus’s book The Rebel, Joseph  Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I also started a project I call Religious Quest in the Modern Age based on a course taught by University of Winnipeg Professor Carl Ridd in the 1970s. I heard a short version of it in 1972 on television. In it he covered some of the same books. Teh idea of such a quest, has  an inspiration to me for 50 years! Some of the books I am reading overlap both of these projects. This is one of them.

I just recently re-read  one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It is a brilliant novel that is infused with a powerful religious quest by the main characters. All of them in very different ways. That makes it perfect for both projects.

The book is 936 pages long (with an introductory article) and very complicated. Often, I had to re-read lengthy passages to make sure I had caught on to what is going on. That makes for very slow reading. But it is very enjoyable reading. I feared It might take me half of our 3- month holiday to wade my way through it, making many of the books  dragged out to Arizona  unnecessary. I feared I would not get to them. But that was all fine. I could not have enjoyed  my reading more. It actually took me slightly less than a month to read even with the back and forth and making notes.

I originally read The Brothers Karamazov after or just after my first year of Law School in 1972. I decided that since I had such an all-consuming year trying to learn law and had married a lovely and wealthy young lady, Christiane Marie Jeanne Calvez, the year before, and she had a fantastic $600 in her account, that I should take advantage of this to take a summer off. I reached the daring conclusion that I should take the summer off instead of working and read Russian novels instead.  This probably struck her as insane, but she did not object even though we could have used the money. My bad.

That summer I read 3 of Dostoevsky’s long novels and it was an incredible experience. I recall intense dreams filled with startling Russian characters. And I loved it. And Christiane put up with it. She has frankly put up with a lot! I had worked for 5 years of University in which I studied intensely and figured I should take a lengthy break to avoid burn-out. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was magnificent.

I know my wife wished I had learned more practical things like carpentry or plumbing, but I was focused on adventures of the mind. This year in 2024 it was a wonderful thing to re-experience. That is what re-reading classics is all about.

When I re-read the book in the winter of 2024 while in Arizona, I found it was everything I remembered and more. More than 50 years later I came to the book a very different person then I was the first time, a young man filled with piss and vinegar with a lot to learn. Now I am an old man mostly “vebrukt,” (broken) but unfortunately still with a lot to learn

And now I decided to re-read the greatest of those Russian novels. Perhaps even the greatest of all novels.  And once again, it was an astonishing experience. The novel is that good and I recommend everyone read it.  Do it now before it’s too late.