Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Perhaps more commonly known as: The Brothers Karamazov , but in the edition I bought (the Wordsworth Classics edition pictured on left), it was called The Karamazov Brothers.

(Book Review)

My History With This Book

My first exposure to Dostoevsky was in a college literature class, in which we were assigned to read Notes from the Underground.

Based on political orthodoxy, by all rights I should have hated Dostoevsky.  (Dostoevsky spent most of his career writing polemics against anarchists and socialists--ideologies which I self-identified with.)
And yet, despite the fact that Dostoevsky's politics were completely opposite to mine, I was absolutely fascinated by Notes from the Underground.  I found the tragedy really touching, and I was also really interested in the psychological portrait Dostoevsky had painted of a man who continually creates his own misery.

I also had the benefit of having a really good professor, who explained all of the themes of the book very well in his lecture.

The professor mentioned The Brothers Karamazov as Dostoevsky's greatest masterpiece, and so, hungry for more Dostoevsky, I went to the library to check it out.

I never made it past the first 100 pages.
The Brothers Karamazov is a whopping 900 pages, and by page 100, the reader is still waiting for the story to start.  (Notes from the Underground, by contrast, was only about 100 pages in total.)  I was 20 years old, and I just didn't have the patience for such a long slow moving book.
Apparently this experience is not unique to me.  The Brothers Karamazov clocks in at number 47 on the list of The Most Begun "Read but Unfinished" book ever, indicating that a lot of people pick this book up and don't have the patience to see it through.

However, it's always been on my list of "books I plan to read eventually".  In part, because it's considered by many people to be the greatest book of all time.  And in part because Dostoevsky was writing in the 19th century, so this book fits squarely within my interest in 19th Century history and literature.
In the intervening years, I did manage to read one more Dostoevsky novel: Crime and Punishment, which I read in 2006.  Sort of.  Actually I cheated a bit because I did it by audio book.  Which perhaps isn't the best way to fully absorb Dostoevsky.  But I at least managed to absorb some of it.

Why I Decided to Read it Now

Aside from the fact that I always meant to finish this book someday, the reason I picked it up now rather than later is because we've started a book club over here, and this was the first book we all agreed on.
(This is a different book club than the one I'm doing for professional development at work.  At the moment I've got two book clubs going over here.  But I won't bore you with all the details of my book club organizing life.)

This book club consisted of two other members: Tom and Sabrina.  (In my first draft of this review, I tried to keep them anonymous.  But I want to include their opinions in this review to balance out my own, and it proved stylistically too awkward to constantly be saying "one book club member" or "another book club member".)

The selection of books is limited over here in Saigon, but there are at least a couple English bookstores which mainly stock cheap editions of the classics.  But that actually suited me just fine, because I tend to think the purpose of a book club is to help me knock off some of these old classics.  And fortunately Tom and Sabrina were of the same mindset.
I went around to the English bookstores in Saigon and made a list of all the classics they had in stock, and then shared the list with Tom and Sabrina, and we decided we'd go with whatever book got unanimous approval first.

The Brothers Karamazov was actually not my first choice.  My first choice was The Scarlet Letter, but Tom shot that one down.  (He had read it already in high school).  Tom counter-proposed The Brothers Karamazov,  and I thought, "Sure, why not?  I'm going to have to read this book at some point before I die anyway, so I might as well get it out of the way now."

Because the book was massive, we spread it out over 2 months.  The novel is divided into 4 "Parts"--each part is subdivided into 3 "Books" and each book is further subdivided into separate chapters.  We decided to do one "Part" every two weeks, and would meet up on Fridays to talk about it (so roughly a little over 200 pages every two-weeks.)
And now that we're finally finished, here I am with my review

The Review
Okay, so first off, this book requires a lot of patience.  Like, a lot of patience.  The plot moves incredibly slowly.

But hopefully any potential reader knows that ahead of time.  (This book does have a reputation, after all).
Since this was my second time attempting the book, I already knew it was going to require patience, and was able to adjust my expectations accordingly.  And being in the right mood for a book like this helps a lot.

The good news is that it's not particularly difficult--it's not like James Joyce or anything, where you have to struggle to understand it--if you have the patience to stick with the slow moving story, then the prose is pretty straightforward and easy to understand.

The initial premise of the novel shows some promise: there are three brothers, all in their early 20s, all trying to find their way in the world, but each with a radically different personality and worldview.  Throw in their decadent and debauched father, and you can be sure that drama will ensue whenever this family gets together.

If that sounds suspiciously like the plot of an American television sitcom (throw all these diametrically opposite people into the same house, and then just watch the drama unfold), I suppose it kind of is.  But that's a strength as well as a weakness.
The weakness is that Dostoevsky's characters are designed to represent certain archetypes (in this case the three Karamazov brothers are the sensualist, the intellectual, and the spiritualist, respectively) and so his characters never embody the complexity and contradictions of human nature the way that Tolstoy's characters do.
But the strength is that this set-up delivers on what it is designed to do.  It does give us drama, and conflict, and more importantly, it does give us some good debate between these characters as their three different views of the world collide.

That being said...
I'm  not sure Dostoevsky took full advantage of his set up.  Everyone in my book club ended up being disappointed that the debate among the 3 Brothers didn't really take off more than it did.
Perhaps this was a problem of high expectations.  When a book is advertised as being the greatest philosophical novel of all time, you expect a lot more philosophy.
But in the second half of the novel especially, there just weren't a lot of good conversations.

As I expressed it to Tom: "For a book that's often called the greatest philosophical novel of all time, there really wasn't that much philosophy, and there really wasn't that much of a  story."

And I think that's as much as I can safely say without moving into spoilers.
Do spoilers really matter for a book like this?  Lots of people say no. This video, for example, tells its viewers that spoilers don't matter for Dostoevsky, because the books are more about the philosophy than the plot.  And while that's true enough, there were one or two things that happened in this book, and my bookclub and I all agreed that we would have enjoyed the book more if it had been unspoiled. So, spoiler warning.

*********************** SPOILERS**********************

Okay, I put up the spoiler warning, but, let's be honest, it's pretty pointless, isn't it?  With classics like this, it's pretty much impossible to go into the book unspoiled.  You know King Arthur finds the sword in the stone, you know Romeo and Juliet commit suicide, and you probably know that there's a patricide in The Brothers Karamazov.

And if you didn't know, them the book cover tells you.  (In my edition, right on the first sentence of the back cover).  So it's pretty much impossible to read this book unspoiled.

But, had it been possible,  I think I would have preferred to read the book unspoiled.  The murder doesn't occur until halfway through the book, and while there's a lot of foreshadowing, there could also have been some suspense.
The Karamazov father so dominates the first half of the book that it seems almost impossible to imagine he would be killed off.  Even though I knew it was coming, I still only half believed it.  I think I might have been legitimately shocked by the murder if I didn't know it was coming.

But alas, since it's impossible to enter into this book unspoiled these days, in the first half you know the father will get murdered eventually, and you're just patiently waiting for that to happen so that the real plot of the book can get started.

And then the murder happens.

"Alright," I thought.  "Now the story is finally going to take off."
But I was mistaken.  In fact, if anything, the murder represents the end of the forward momentum of the story.  The rest of the book is just recounting the night of the murder over and over and over again.

Dmitri, the oldest Karamazov Brother, is arrested for the crime, and interrogated by the police.  It's a long interrogation scene, and Dostoevsky writes down the whole conversation, in which Dmitri recounts to the prosecuting attorneys everything he did the night before.
It might have been an interesting scene, except the reader already knows everything that happened to Dmitri the night before. (In the previous chapters, the narrator had already followed all of Dmitri's movements in detail.)  So all of this amounts to a long conversation in which absolutely nothing new is revealed to the reader.
Everyone in my bookclub agreed that this recounting of old information was trying to our patience.  I personally suspect this whole scene probably couldn't have been published today.  (I suspect nowadays an editor at  a major publishing house would have worked with Dostoevsky to cut out all the repetition out of his work) and that scenes like this are just a remnant of a time when publishers exercised a lot less editorial control over the manuscripts.  (Also, The Karamazov Brothers, like many 19th century books, was originally serialized in newspapers, so that may also explain the repetition.)

If you want to be generous, the scene is not completely without value.  Dostoevsky expertly recreates all the tricks police prosecutors use to poke and prod at a suspect in order to get him to inadvertently reveal extra information.  So it was cleverly done, but it was also tedious to read through.

Then comes the trial scene, in which the same night is recounted again.  First, all the witnesses recount what the reader already knows.  Then the prosecuting attorney retells his version of the night of the murder.  Then the defense attorney retells a different version of the night of the murder.

As Tom said: "If I was sick of the same story when it was recounted two times, I was really sick of it by the time it had been recounted 5 times."

Of my bookclub, I was the one who was the most forgiving of the courtroom scenes.  Tom and Sabrina both vehemently hated the whole trial, while I admitted that, yes, it was a bit of a slog to read through, but I thought that there was also some good courtroom drama in those scenes, and I've always been a sucker for good courtroom drama.
Tom disagreed with this.  "But it wasn't really courtroom drama," Tom said.  "In a good courtroom drama, there are lots of surprises and plot twists as the details of the case are revealed through the courtroom scenes.  Here, the trial provides absolutely no new information to the reader."
This was true enough, but Dostoevsky's trial scenes did at least have the drama of the clash of personalities, and argument, and counter-argument, even if there were no surprises or plot twists.

Also, I thought the speeches by both the prosecutor and the defense attorney were cleverly done.
First the prosecutor sums up all the facts of the case, and the prosecutor makes a pretty air-tight case against Dmitri.  Even though the reader knows Dmitri is actually innocent, the prosecutor makes such a good case against Dmitri (based on all the circumstantial evidence) that I thought there was no way the defense attorney could get out of this.
But then, the defense attorney comes along, and absolutely demolishes the prosecution's argument.  But then the prosecutor comes back and pokes holes in the defense attorney's arguments.

Of course, in reality it is the author Dostoevsky who is writing both sets of speeches.  And, in my opinion, Dostoevsky brilliantly shows off his ability to argue both sides of the case.  So, I thought, it was quite clever for what it was.  But it requires a very patient reader, who was willing to sit through all this back and forth.

It is also frustrating for a reader who is looking for a greater philosophical meaning.  All the courtroom drama scenes didn't appear to have much off a point, other than just Dostoevsky showing off his literary abilities.
This again gets back to the problem of high expectations.  In any other novel, the fact that a large section of the story didn't appear to have much of a point wouldn't matter much.  (After all, the point of a story is usually just the story.)  But The Brothers Karamazov has such a huge reputation.  It's supposed to be the greatest philosophical novel of all time.  It's supposed to tackle the question of the existence of God and the meaning of life.  And here was Dostoevsky just wasting 300 pages on a murder trial that appeared to add nothing to the story or the philosophy.

In fact, after finishing the book, Tom announced that he was now completely done with Dostoevsky, and would never pick up another Dostoevsky book ever again.

For me personally, I ended up deciding that Dostoevsky was a writer first, and a philosopher second.
I got the impression that Dostoevsky was like Stephen King--a writer who was just incapable of writing a short book.
It's no good wondering what the purpose is off all the digressions in The Stand.  The reason is that once Stephen King puts pen to paper, he just gets carried away and can't stop himself.
In the same way, I suspect it's pointless to wonder what the purpose of the long murder trial is in The Brothers Karamazov.  The only purpose is that Dostoevsky gets carried away with setting the scene and making speeches, and before he knows it, 300 pages have gone by.

At least, that's my best interpretation.  Someone tell me if I'm missing something deeper.

The Themes of the Book

So there is a lot of philosophy in this book--way more stuff than I could ever hope to talk about in one blog post.

...And yet at the same time, I was disappointed at how little there was in this book.

Do I contradict myself?  Allow me to try to explain.

There was a lot of little philosophical tidbits scattered throughout this book.  Characters would bring up and discuss all sorts of issues, and there's way more issues in this book than I would ever have time to analyze.

And yet, the book didn't tackle the one issue I was expecting it to tackle.
Long before reading this book, I was familiar with it by reputation.  This was supposedly the greatest philosophical novel of all time, and this book would supposedly tackle the question of the existence of God.

As an agnostic (border-line atheist) I expected to have my unbelief severely challenged by this book.  I was a little bit nervous, but also a little bit excited to see what amazing arguments Dostoevsky would put forward for the existence of God.

And there was just nothing at all in this book that met that expectation.  I got to the end of the book with a lot of disappointment.
I wondered if maybe I might have missed something.  Perhaps I just never picked up on the symbolism or subtext or something.

So I asked my bookclub if, before we moved onto the next book, we could spend one week just researching the commentary on this book to make sure we weren't missing anything.  They agreed.

I'm going to try to summarize what we found out below:

Almost all of the commentary we found focused on The Grand Inquisitor section.  We had difficulty even finding commentary that addressed other sections of the book.  And we couldn't find anything which justified the incredibly long drawn out trial scenes that we had all found so tedious.
This confirmed Tom's opinion that the rest of the book wasn't even worth reading.  "This is just what I've been saying all along," he said.  "All the interesting philosophy happened in the first half of the book, and the second half of the book was pointless."

The Grand Inquisitor is a short section of The Brothers Karamazov that can probably stand on its own independent of the rest of the book.  And in fact, it often does.  (It is frequently excerpted and published on its own or placed into anthologies).  And if you're just interested in the philosophy, and don't care much about the novel, you could probably just read The Grand Inquisitor  and safely skip the other 900 pages of The Brothers Karamazov.

What's interesting about The Grand Inquisitor section, though, is its not an argument for the existence of God.  It's an argument against God.

There's a lot to say about The Grand Inquisitor section, but because so many intelligent people on the Internet have already offered their commentary on The Grand Inquisitor section, I suppose there's no point in me trying to attempt my own amateurish explanation of it.  If you want to know more in detail about what kind of arguments The Grand Inquisitor section is making, just search the Internet.  (I recommend these guys HERE).

For now, all I'll say is that The Grand Inquisitor section was very powerful.

When we met up to discuss this section at book club, Tom and Sabrina were surprised at what a strong case The Grand Inquisitor section was making against God.
I told them I was sure this wasn't Dostoevsky's final thoughts on the matter.  "Dostoevsky was a very devout Christian," I said, "And this book is supposed to be the one in which he tackles the existence of God.  I'm sure he's only just making this argument in order to refute it later in the book."

And yet, the refutation never came.  I got to the end of the book, and was disappointed that not only had Dostoevsky never refuted the arguments he set out in The Grand Inquisitor section, he never really makes a positive case for the existence of God.

So what's going on here?

In my research, I came across two different explanations.
One explanation I heard is that because the book was serialized, Dostoevsky originally intended to later refute all the arguments he had laid out in The Grand Inquisitor section.  However, Dostoevsky had made the case so well in The Grand Inquisitor section that he never did come up with a way to counter it.
Another explanation is that Dostoevsky never intended to refute the argument, and that he was trying to write a novel in which every character could presented a different world view in its strongest form without being directly refuted.

Irregardless, what the reader is left with is that all the problems laid out in The Grand Inquisitor section (the problem of evil, the problem of suffering, the problem of free will) are never resolved.

This is why The Grand Inquisitor section is sometimes referred to as "the best atheistic writing by a Christian author".  (And in fact in my book club, Tom said that The Brothers Karamazov just further confirmed him in his atheism.)

So what then on the pro-God side?

There appear to be two arguments that Dostoevsky puts forth for God.

One is the implication that our morality depends on God.  This is put forward by Ivan (the intellectual) who argues that because there is no God, everything is morally permissible.
The implication for the reader, however, is the opposite.  Obviously everything is not permissible.  There are morals in this world.  Therefore there must be a God.

If it sounds like you've heard this before, then I'm sure you have.  Most likely you've heard it every time you went to Church.  (I remember this was a favorite topic of my high school youth pastor, who used to spend just about every Sunday School class talking about how ridiculous it was for atheists to believe in morality without God.)
It's also an argument that's been answered by atheists several times over the past 200 years.  Numerous atheist intellectuals have made the case that it's possible to have morality without God.

Now, whether or not those atheist intellectuals have convincingly made the case for morality-without-God is perhaps a matter of opinion.  And I'm not going to try to re-litigate that whole debate in this blog post (there's a lot more things I still need to get through in this book review).
For now, all I'll say is that if you're looking for new philosophical insight into the God-question, you won't find it in this book.  Everything Dostoevsky says is something you've heard before.

The other argument for that Dostoevsky makes for God in The Brothers Karamazov (according to my research) is an argument by example.  By showing the Christian examples of Alyosha and Father Zossima, Dostoevsky is trying to show how powerful the Christian message of love and mercy can be.

A question I asked myself while I read this book is: Is it a legitimate argument to create a literary portrait of someone?  And to be honest, I don't know.

As I read this book, I often thought of Aesop's parable of the man and the lion  [LINK HERE]:

A MAN and a Lion were discussing the relative strength of men and lions in general. The Man contended that he and his fellows were stronger than lions by reason of their greater intelligence. “Come now with me,” he cried, “and I will soon prove that I am right.” So he took him into the public gardens and showed him a statue of Hercules overcoming the Lion and tearing his mouth in two.
  “That is all very well,” said the Lion, “but proves nothing, for it was a man who made the statue.”
        “WE CAN EASILY REPRESENT THINGS AS WE WISH THEM TO BE.”
So, for example, socialist Jack London represents the ideal man as a socialist, objectivist Ayn Rand represents the ideal man as an objectivist and atheist H.G. Wells represents religious people as a weak-minded cowards.  

And yet...I don't know, maybe Aesop's fable doesn't actually apply to what Dostoevsky is trying to do.  Because the parable of the lion and the man is discussing the danger of mis-representing things as they actually are.  But I think Dostoevsky, through the character of Father Zossima, is trying to show what things could be like if the Christian message of love and mercy were fully embodied.  So maybe Dostoevsky gets a pass here?  Or am I being too generous?

However, even if one accepts Dostoevsky's portrait of Father Zossima as legitimate, it still struck me that all of the reasons that the novel advances against God are existential arguments , and all of the reasons that Dostoevsky advances for God are sociological arguments.

The reasons laid out against God in The Grand Inquisitor section are problems that get to the very existence of God (the problems of a good God allowing evil and suffering).
The arguments laid out for God are all sociological ones:  the assertion that God is necessary for morality, and a portrait of why people needs love and mercy.

The problem with sociological arguments for God, however, is that they cut both ways.  An atheist could argue that the fact that religion so perfectly meets a sociological need is actually an indication that religion must have been invented by man.  (Voltaire's famous qoute:  "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.")

But all that being said... 
While I was reading the book, I did actually find Dostoevsky's portrait of Father Zossima and Alyosha to be very powerful.  And I did actually find myself agreeing with Dostoevsky that Christianity offered something that secularism couldn't provide. 

I'm not really doing it justice in this book review, because for full effect you really do need to read the whole book to get the whole literary picture Dostoevsky paints of Father Zossima.  But it's a very powerful portrait once you do read the book.

To clarify my perspective: I have never agreed with Christopher Hitchens argument that Religion Poisons Everything.  To me, it's just as ridiculous to believe that something would always be bad as it is to believe that something would always be good. If religions are human-made institutions, then we can expect them to behave like any other human-made institution--sometimes they will do good, sometimes they will do bad.

And so, I don't consider it inconsistent with my agnosticism to consider that religion may have sociological benefits.  Religion may well fill an important role in society.
That doesn't, to my mind, justify any of the existential truth claims that religion makes--it doesn't prove that God created the world, or that Jesus rose from the dead.  But it may nevertheless mean that religion performs an important sociological role that the secular government can not replace.

To illustrate this, let me tell a short story:  I was walking to work one day here in Vietnam, when I saw a government propaganda poster that I thought said "Love one another".
"That's strange," I thought.  "Imagine a government poster that tells people to love each other.  You'd never see that back home.  That's clearly not the government's job."
It turns out, the poster didn't say anything of the sort.  I had just mis-read it with my bad Vietnamese.  (One of the frustrations of learning a tonal language is that there are so many words that are spelled alike but have different meanings.)
But even though it was a mistake, it got me thinking nonetheless.  If we get rid of the Church, then who is going to tell people to love one another?  The government?
Actually, you could almost see the government doing this in some parts of Asia, where the government has historically always had a sort of paternalistic Confucian role.  But in America, we've very sharply divided the role between Church and State.
So if we get rid of the church, who will tell people to love their enemies? Or turn the other cheek? Or to show mercy?

This is something that struck me when reading the sections with Father Zossima.  And it's something I brought up at the book club.
We discussed it.  Tom was of the opinion that religion did more harm than it did good (and he may be right.)  Sabrina was of the opinion that this kind of morality didn't necessarily have to be religious-- you could just as easily get love and mercy from secularism (and she may be right).
And indeed, I myself, in different moods, have argued their same points as well (sometimes on this blog).

I don't know.  And I'm not going to try to arrive at a definitive answer in this blog post.

For the purposes of this book review, I'll just say that I thought Dostoevsky did make a powerful literary portrait of Christian virtue with Father Zossima, and that it affected me as I read it.
Whether or not it's a legitimate argument, or whether or not it's cheating to paint overly favorable literary portraits of your own side--I'll have to leave for others to argue.

Other Stuff

Oh, wow, so I feel like I've written forever, and I still haven't gotten to half the themes that are in this book.

I think I'm going to have to resign myself to the fact that I simply don't have time to talk about everything in this book.  (As much as it frustrates my completist personality to leave stuff out).  So I'll try to touch on a few things very briefly, and leave the rest for other people to comment on.

By the numbers then:

1) Tolstoy Versus Dostoevsky

Someone else who was tangentially in our bookclub was another friend named Oliver.  (He had already read the book years ago, so he didn't come to our meetings, but we chatted about it at work).

Both Oliver and I were of the same opinion regarding Dostoevsky versus Tolstoy.

Dostoevsky seems to have a view of human nature that humans are irrationally drawn to sin.  Dostoevsky's view of human nature seems to be summed up by what Paul wrote" I do not understand what I do. For the good that I want to do, I do not do, but the evil that I don't want to do, I do." (Romans 7:15)

This was probably partly based on Dostoevsky's own life experience as a gambling addict--someone who knew he was doing something stupid when he gambled away his money, but who just couldn't control his addiction.
It is also maybe the only possible explanation for a lot of the irrational and self-destructive human behavior that we see in the world all around us.  Reading the news, it's hard to deny humans do seem to have this irrational self-destructive tendency.

Tolstoy, on the other hand, writes characters who make bad decisions, but who make bad decisions for seemingly rational reasons.   When one of Tolstoy's characters makes a bad decision, even though the you, the reader, know it's a bad decision, you can clearly see exactly the  thought process that lead to the decision, and sympathize with it.

The result is (both Oliver and I agreed) that Tolstoy writes characters the reader can identify with.  (When I read War and Peace, I felt like Pierre and Andrei were both me.)  But that Dostoevsky creates psychological portraits of other people--people who the reader feels are no doubt out there in the world somewhere, but who the reader doesn't personally identify with.

As a result, both Oliver and I felt like War and Peace was much more readable than The Brothers Karamazov even though both books were extremely long and slow moving.

2) Is the Grand Inquisitor section ironic?

I said I wasn't going to attempt to analyze The Grand Inquisitor section (too many people on the Internet have already done it).  But I should probably at least mention that the commentary on The Grand Inquisitor sections seems to be evenly split between people who think it's a serious religious objection, and people who think it's ironic.
Some people think that The Grand Inquisitor section is Dostoevsky's serious statement about a real theological problem--the problem of how God gave us too much free will, and that free will causes suffering.
Other people think that The Grand Inquisitor section is meant to be interpreted ironically, and is Dostoevsky's warning about the type of people who think humans have too much free will.  In other words, many people think this was Dostoevsky's warning about the socialist generation, and some people give him credit for predicting Stalin.

Which brings me to point 3...

3) I Don't Really Understand Dostoevsky's Politics

Despite trying to research this book, I feel like I've never really gotten a clear explanation of Dostoevsky's politics.
I mean, I understand that he believes that people are inherently sinful, so that progressive politics won't work.
But he was a supporter of Tsarism, right? Which is what I don't understand (and have never heard clearly explained).  If people are inherently sinful, then wouldn't the Tsar be sinful?  Shouldn't a doctrine of total depravity be wary of human monarchs?
If Dostoevsky was trying to warn us about the Socialists taking away our free-will (as some people think is the purpose of The Grand Inquisitor section) then what did Dostoevsky think about the lack of free expression under the Tsarist regime?  Why did he support the Tsar?
(I had the same questions when I finished Crime and Punishment).

4) The Psychology of Monks

As I mentioned above, even though the major themes of this book are disappointing, there are all sorts of little minor themes along the way that can lend themselves to interesting discussion.
One of the things I found interesting was Dostoevsky's description of life in the monastery, and all the various egos that were clashing.
It was interesting, because you would normally think of monks as having given up their own personal ego.  But in fact, Dostoevsky portrays them as constantly bickering, and being jealous of each other.  Monks resented it when other monks were recognized as being more holy than they were.
It's odd, of course, because monks are supposed to believe in a philosophy in which respect and status on earth don't matter.  And yet, they can't help themselves from being concerned about these things.
It made me wonder if it is possible to get rid of the human ego entirely.
For example, if I were in a monastery, and I knew I was the holiest monk there, but I didn't get any respect, and instead other monks were being recognized as being more holy than me, would it be possible for me to not feel resentful of it?

I also interpreted this as Dostoevsky admitting that in real life the church had a lot of disfunction in it. I thought this was his way of separating his portrait of the church as it actually is, from his idealized portrait of Father Zossima (which represented the Church as it could be.)

5) Suffering as a Theme

There are sections of this book which are just really sad.
Specifically, the sickness and death of the child Iluysha.
And Dostoevsky describes the whole scene with just unrelenting pathos.  It's just one tear-jerking description after another, describing the pathetic scene of Iluysha's family and friends burying the boy.
The ability of Dostoevsky to create a tragic scene was masterfully done, and, I'll admit it, I got pretty teary-eyed while I was reading this scene.  (Which was embarrasing because I was in a public place, in a coffee shop.  But what could I do? My heart is not made of stone.)
But at the same time, even though I was caught up in the emotion of the scene, I resented the fact that this book was making me sad.
I don't like books which are just sad for the sake of being sad.  I've got enough problems in my life without some author making me feel sad about fictional characters.
However, one of the Youtube videos I found researching this book, made me view the scene in a new perspective.  (If memory serves, it was this one).
One of Dostoevsky's main theme is that life is suffering.  (Which, unfortunately, when you think about it, is kind of true.  Someday every one that you love is going to get sick and die.)  So if you think the purpose of life is to be happy, then you are going to be completely fall apart when you encounter suffering in life.  Instead, the purpose of life is to become strong in the face of suffering.

6) Connections With Other Books I've Read
There's a character named Miusov, who is the uncle of one of the brothers, and represents the liberal intelligentsia in Russia.  (He figures very prominently in the beginning of the book, and then just strangely completely disappears for the later chapters.  Which I thought was strange, but anyway...)
Dostoevsky describes him as having taken part in the Revolutions of 1848, and having known Proudhon and Bakunin personally.

Also:
Further Internet research into The Brothers Karamazov reveals that Dostoevsky had plans for a sequel, which he never got around to writing because he died suddenly.  But the sequel would have dealt with an attempted assassination of the Tsar, and would have been loosely based off of the real historical incident.  In fact, apparently the very name Karamazov was based on the name of the first would be assassin of the Tsar, Dmitry Karakozov.
Dmitry Karakozov was portrayed in the book To Kill a Tsar.

7) An Old Conversation I Once Had

I remember a conversation I once had with a friend back in college.  He was telling me why he had become a philosophy major instead of a literature major, and why he thought studying literature was a waste of time.
I argued that you could learn a lot of philosophy from literature.
But he said that literature was a very inefficient way of studying philosophy.  He used The Brothers Karamazov as an example.  It was extremely slow moving, and given the amount of pages you had to read, you gained very little philosophy from it.  Besides which, the philosophical debate has moved on since Dostoevsky was writing in 1880.

This conversation sticks in my head 18 years later, partly because it left a question in my mind.  Was The Brothers Karamazov a great philosophical book, or was it a waste of time for philosophy majors?

After now having read it, I have to say I agree with my friend.  If all you want is insight into the philosophical question of the existence of God, reading this 900 page book is the most inefficient way you could go about it.  Just go straight to the philosophy books instead.

8) Conversations With a Russian

One of our co-workers is actually a Russian.  He was invited to join our bookclub, but he declined.  But he was a bit embarrassed that we were reading Dostoevsky, whereas he, the actual Russian, was not.  So he tried to explain himself.
"In Russian school, we get so much of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy shoved down our throats," he said, "that by the time I graduated, I was sick of them, and I never wanted to read anything by Dostoevsky ever again.
"Besides," he continued, "Dostoevsky's writing style is really irritating.  He has no idea how people actually talk in real life."

Actually, I had noticed this myself.  I remember this from Crime and Punishment.
In Crime and Punishment, there were several scenes when the young students were sitting around and gently teasing each other. The general idea that students would have fun joking around with each other was of course completely believable.  But the actual dialogue was not.  There was something about the rhythm in which they talked that did not seem realistic at all.
It felt like Dostoevsky knew that young people liked to joke around with each other, but that he couldn't replicate the actual dialogue.

At the time, however, I thought it might be a translation problem.  I assumed that in the original Russian, it must have sounded more natural.
When I started noticing the same thing in The Brothers Karamazov, however, I got more suspicious.
And then when my Russian friend told me that even in the original Russian Dostoevsky's dialogue sounded strange, I realized it probably wasn't just a translation issue.

9) 12th Grade Religion Class

A lot of times, classic books like this have a way of spreading their themes and ideas into the wider cultural.  So with any great classic, you probably have absorbed a lot of its themes without even knowing it, and when you do finally get around to reading it, then you're constantly like "Oh, so that's where that came from!"

I had at least one moment like that when reading this book.
At my Christian high school, my 12th Grade religion teacher spent a whole unit on Theodicy (the problem of evil).  To illustrate the problem, he described vividly about how during the Serbian-Bosnian Wars in the 1990s, the Serbs would nail the ears of children to trees.
It turns out, that this is straight from The Grand Inquisitor section in The Brothers Karamazov.  And that it wasn't from the 1990s, but from the 1800s .  And it was the Turks who did it, not the Serbians.
I suspect my 12th Grade religion teacher never actually read The Brothers Karamazov, but that he had heard this example from someone who had heard it from someone else who had heard it from someone, else et cetera.  And that's why the details of the incident got mangled along the way from the Turks in the 1800s to the Serbs in the 1990s.
But this is at least one example of how parts of this book had influenced my high school education years before I ever got around to reading it.

10) Links

Blogging the Canon (a blog I happened across a few years back, and have started following) also reviewed this book.  LINK HERE.

11) Book Club Notes

Below are some of the notes from our Facebook page for the Book Club. Just to give you some idea  of the discussion online.

Post 1:
Schedule: Read Part 1 by Friday December 23rd. (In the Wordsworth edition, this is through page 176).

Post 2:
By the way, I'm going to be skipping the publisher's introduction. I usually find those things spoil the book, so I read them after I finish the book, not before.
Even though I know this isn't one of those books where the plot is the main point, I'm going to stick to that same principle here.
What do you guys usually do with the publisher's introduction?

Post 3:
I mentioned this to Tom today, but the audiobook is available free online.
I've been listening to it here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ds57w-rA7xc&t=21s
I don't really absorb audio books well for new material (although some people do), but for me I find this works best only as a review of what I've already read. I've been putting it on lately while I putter around the apartment just to help keep the book fresh.

Post 4:
I'm going to post here what we agreed on today just to make it official. Next meeting is Friday January 6. Aim to have part 2 read by then (up to page 362.)
By the way, really great discussion today. Couldn't ask for better book club friends to work through this book with

Post From Sabrina
We agreed to meet next on February 3rd and aim to finish Books 7-10 (up to page 630).
Comment from Me:
Excellent. By the way, Sabrina, I owe you an apology. I was wrong. The temptation of Christ was in Matthew, Mark and Luke
Comment from Sabrina:
Haha, well we were both partly correct

Post 5
Finished page 630 today. Boy, that book can be a downer, sometimes, huh?
Still on for this Friday?

Post 6
Okay, so here's the plan moving forward. (Correct me if I'm remembering.)
The next book is "Down and Out in Paris in London" by George Orwell.
Bookstores in Vietnam don't carry it, so we're going to use on-line copies.
Some people prefer to read it off of their kindles or other devices, but I'm going to print out a physical copy for myself on Monday. Anyone who wants me to make a copy for them, let me know before Monday.
We're going to meet to discuss the first half of the book (Paris, chapters I–XXIII) in two weeks time on Friday March 3.
We've now finished reading "The Brothers Karamazov", but because some of us (i.e. me) felt like they didn't really understand all the themes of the book, we're going to spend one week researching the book and reading literary criticism of it, and then meet one week from today (Friday February 24) to discuss the criticisms.
Until then, we can use this Facebook page to share articles, videos, and audio lectures about the Brothers Karamazov, in hopes of understanding the themes of it better.
Comment from Oliver:
Its been awhile since I read brothers k but I just listened to this podcast episode about the grand inquisitor section. You might find it useful/interesting
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/phi-fic-a-fiction-podcast/id1112662727?mt=2&i=380300896

Post 7
Okay, I'm only slightly in to the research here, but based on the podcast that Oliver recommended (see Oliver's comment on the previous post) and based on this video I watched this morning...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bj-sxNNDuNU
...I think I'm beginning to see some themes emerge. Let me know what you think.
If memory serves, when we talked about "The Grand Inquisitor" part way back when, someone mentioned that Dostoevsky appeared to be arguing an atheist world view.
If memory serves, at the time I said that this couldn't be possible, since Dostoevsky was deeply religious, and so he must be establishing an argument only to later demolish it.
Only he never did come back to demolish it later.
The youtube video below hints that since this book was serialized, he initially set up the problem of evil in one segment, and intended to refute it later on, but that he had done too good a job of setting it up, and so consequently never was able to refute it.
For this reason, the podcast that Oliver linked to mentions that this is considered some of the greatest atheist writing ever done, even though it's written by a deeply religious Christian. (I'm paraphrasing, but I think that gets mentioned in the podcast.)
So that's all on the atheist side.
On the pro-Christian side, there's the re-occuring theme that if there is no God, then everything is permissible. (The implication being that since obviously everything is not permissible, then clearly there is a God).
And I think that's the strongest argument Dostoevsky sets up for God. Or did I miss something?
Comment from Oliver
The kiss, it's all about the kiss.

Post From Tom
Here is the Great Courses material on Dostoevsky. Go to page 29 for the lecture outline. It should accompany the Youtube video linked here.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayh-ehvFVfU

Comment from Oliver:
Great courses are ....well great. Haven't listened to this one but I'm sure it's great
Comment from Me:
Just watched the video. A lot in there to chew on, but what surprised me most was that the Brothers Karamazov was just meant as a prelude to another novel Dostoevsky was planning to write about how Alyosha becomes a revolutionary. But Dostoevsky died before he could write that.
I've quickly searched the Internet, and found some interesting stuff: http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/187633108x00238


http://www.waggish.org/2010/dostoevskys-sequel/

Comment from Tom:
>prelude
>planned sequel
Well that's a timely death if I've ever heard of one. Thank the stars that never came to fruition.

Video Review

Video here and embedded below.



Link of the Day
Stefan Molyneux & Noam Chomsky Great Conversation

10 comments:

Whisky Prajer said...

Ye cats - a Dostoevsky-length (and, perhaps, inspirationally structured) review!

I read it over several flights to and from California, when my parents lived there. Many of the interactions between characters seemed similar to the sorts of stuff that took place in the prairie hometown of my childhood, so reading the massive book was never a slog for me.

Who was the translator, btw? Ignat Avsey did the OUP translation, which made all the difference in the world for me. The prose was so much more fluid than other translations (and probably not as "faithful" to Dostoevsky's Russian).

If you're reading it for the arguments, then, yeah, that's going to be a very long slog. Most philosophy of religion texts just include The Rebel/The Inquisitor sections, and leave it at that, which better suits readers of a brusque, combative disposition. To my eyes the deeper appeal of the novel lies in the psychological exploration he devotes to arcane episodes, some of which seem to have little bearing on the "mystery" (such as it is). There's a really troubling meditation on evil schoolyard behaviour amongst little boys that's really stuck to my brainpan.

Joel Swagman said...

Yeah, sorry, I guess it was a pretty long review. In my defense, there's a lot in this book, and it's tough to do a short review.

My edition was translated by Connstance Garnett in 1912. Apparently this was the first English translation.
I'm sure just about any other translation would have been better. But this was actually readable enough. Aside from the artificially sounding dialogue, my big complaints weren't actually at the prose level. I was more frustrated by how slow the plot moved.

I think you're right though, the real value of the novel is just on the little psychological explorations of all the episodes.
And for that, there's a lot in here. Way more than I had time to get to in this review. (The schoolboys was just one of many little episodes I never got around to talking about in this review.)
But it also requires a very patient reader to get through all of it.

Just out of curiosity, which parts in particular were similar to the stuff in your hometown?

Whisky Prajer said...

The religious worries, the anxiety for signs and wonders, pretty but tormented girls (usually on the cusp of "ineligibility") with ever-present men in their parlours -- fathers and sons occasionally sniffing after the same girl. Alcohol wreaking havoc on family life. I think I've said before that in such a religiously steeped environment, where Hell is a constant concern, a person doesn't fall from Grace by half-measures -- they REALLY go off the deep end. The Karamazovs and their neighbors seemed to exist in the same emotional miasma that engulfs that particular ever-present meditation.

I also like how "pre-Internet" Dostoevsky is in all his books. People obsess over things when they're apart, then come back together to discover the other person has changed unexpectedly, almost unaccountably. Often his heroes are troubled by the sense that they suspect they know others better than themselves, only to discover themselves wrong on both counts.

Not that I do a lot of Dostoevsky re-reading -- C&P is the only book I've read twice. Russians are best read while trapped in an airplane for a very lengthy flight.

Whisky Prajer said...

You've got me mulling over this business of reading novels for their arguments.

On one level all stories are embodied arguments -- funny stories play to and against expectations, often of a moral nature, either affirming or challenging the listener's preconceptions. A novel's success or failure as an embodied argument lies in its convincing portrait of the psyches that accept the argument's definitions and act it out, with consequences that follow. I'd say Mad Men is closer to Dostoevsky than most of what's passed for exciting contempo-AmLit in the last 20 years. Freud LOVED this novel, and he was an atheist (well ... depending, but mostly). It may just be we are too far removed from the particular historical moment to recognize the moment's arguments as they are playing themselves out in the psyches of these characters. Our own consciousness has been altered and rendered into another, almost foreign entity.

Given those conditions, it is marvelous to me that Plato's dialogues retain such powerful appeal to the Western mind after all these millennia. They're "stories" too, after all -- instantly comprehensible to anyone who reads (or hears) them.

Joel Swagman said...

Whisky, thanks as always for your comments. There's a lot of interesting stuff in here that improves the quality of this blog post tremendously.
I don't really have too much to add to your musings, but you've got me thinking about a couple things now.

There is definitely a lot in this book, and I may have over-stated the negatives in my review.
The primary frustration with my book club was the long police investigation scene, which basically just retread the previous chapters. And the long trial scene, which basically just went over the same ground again.
Basically, I guess, the whole second half of the book.

What did you think about that whole long trial? Did you feel like you got anything out of it, or was it just worth reading for the way Dostoevsky sets the scene?

Whisky Prajer said...

Oof - no, that was when I slipped into high-gear speed-reading mode, stopping and backtracking only when he flourished scenes with a few character oddities. I honestly don't understand this penchant of his to devote such epic length to the "conclusion" - perhaps to refute expectations of genuine (or superficial) conclusion?

Whisky Prajer said...

BTW, now that you've ploughed through this you might dig The Brothers K - eminently more readable and (possibly) relatable.

Joel Swagman said...

Yes, I read that way back in 2000.
A roommmate was big into it back then, so I got it off of him, and I was really interested in the 1960s at the time, so it fit my interests perfectly.
It was well-written. My only criticism is I think it dipped into cliches a bit. But then there's no use complaining about that, because that's basically what you picked up the book for: to explore 3 different arche-types of the 1960s.

In fact I've linked to that book off this blog before.
There's a really great quote in that book attributed to Abbie Hoffman. ""The Left has a marvelous ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory." It's stuck in my mind, and I've been tempted to re-use it myself on some of my blog posts. But I can never find it anywhere except for that book. Even when I do a google search, Brothers K is the only place that quote comes up. Maybe that's a sign it's not an authentic quote, I don't know. But it's such a great quote I use it anyway. So when I want to use that quote, I just link to the Google Books version of the brothers K as the link for the citation. As in this post: http://joelswagman.blogspot.com/2016/05/paris-commune-reading-list.html

Whisky Prajer said...

O-ho - so you did! I do now recall, yes. Thanks for the link.

"Snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" - I've heard that quite frequently, and wonder if it in fact originates with Duncan. I suspect not.

Joel Swagman said...

Yeah I don't know. Either way, it's way too great of a quote not to use, no matter who said it.