Karamazov: Suddenly Halfway.

I’ve reached what is structurally the halfway mark of The Brothers Karamazov, the end of Part Two (Book Six) and of the first volume of my faded yellow 1970 Soviet edition, even though it’s considerably less than half the number of total pages, and I thought I’d post a few thoughts about what I’ve read. I’m not going to go on and on about the Grand Inquisitor and the Life of Zosima (which end the first half) like everyone else does, partly because everyone else does and partly because I just can’t take them as seriously as I did in college now that I’ve read the Writer’s Diary — the first just seems to me like a fictionalized version of the rants from the Diary (Catholicism is going to merge with socialism and become atheist and stamp on the human face forever!) and the second like a barely fictionalized version of the ideals he promotes there (we must all love our neighbor and take on each other’s guilt!). It’s kind of interesting to see how Dostoevsky handles the intractable problem of theodicy (no better than anyone else, because there’s really nothing you can say but “God works in mysterious ways,” no matter how you dress it up), but it does stop the novel dead in its tracks for a while, much as the historical rants do in War and Peace (the difference being that Dostoevsky’s rants are better written). I will, however, quote the bit that resonates most strongly with my personal sense of how to approach the world morally, Alyosha’s response to Lise’s “aren’t we showing contempt for him, analyzing his soul like this?”:

Рассудите, какое уж тут презрение, когда мы сами такие же, как он, когда все такие же, как он. Потому что ведь и мы такие же, не лучше. А если б и лучше были, то были бы все-таки такие же на его месте…

Think about it, how can it be contempt when we ourselves are just like him, when everyone is just like him? Because we too are just like him, no better. And even if we were better, we would have been just the same in his place….

No, I’m going to talk about the language, the repeated words and phrases that tie the text together and accumulate meaning in ways that make the book sink into your mind and heart. There are obvious candidates like свобода ‘freedom’ and радость ‘joy,’ and of course Ivan’s famous клейкие листочки ‘sticky little leaves’ (swiped from Pushkin: “Распустятся клейкие листочки”). There is Ivan’s use of Euclidean geometry as a stand-in for his rationalist outlook on life (which is brilliant on Dostoevsky’s part, because of course non-Euclidean geometry is also valid), and his vivid use of a natural equivalent of parallel lines meeting in his description of beauty’s mystery: “Тут берега сходятся, тут все противоречия вместе живут” [Here the river banks meet, here all contradictions live together]. There are the косые лучи [slanting rays] of sunset light that stand in for divine grace, and the fateful три тысячи [three thousand (rubles)] that become more and more ominous as they recur.

But the thing that’s most struck me is the little word вдруг ‘suddenly.’ I don’t remember seeing an author use a word in quite this way; it functions much like a sudden close-up or camera shift in a movie, drawing your attention to something and heightening suspense or emotional intensity. There are examples on every page; I’ll pick at random the end of Book 4, Chapter 6, “Надрыв в избе” (A Laceration In The Cottage in Garnett’s version). Alyosha has gone to see Snegiryov, whose wife goes into a rambling anecdote; then (I’ve bolded the вдругs):

И бедная вдруг разрыдалась, слезы брызнули ручьем. Штабс-капитан стремительно подскочил к ней.

— Маменька, маменька, голубчик, полно, полно! Не одинокая ты. Все-то тебя любят, все обожают! — и он начал опять целовать у нее обе руки и нежно стал гладить по ее лицу своими ладонями; схватив же салфетку, начал вдруг обтирать с лица ее слезы Алеше показалось даже, что у него и у самого засверкали слезы. — Ну-с, видели-с? Слышали-с? — как-то вдруг яростно обернулся он к нему, показывая рукой на бедную слабоумную.

Garnett has:

And the poor mad woman [suddenly] broke into sobs, and tears streamed down her cheeks. The captain rushed up to her.

“Mamma, mamma, my dear, give over! You are not lonely. Every one loves you, every one adores you.” He began kissing both her hands again and tenderly stroking her face; taking the dinner-napkin, he began [suddenly] wiping away her tears. Alyosha fancied that he too had tears in his eyes. “There, you see, you hear?” he [suddenly] turned with a sort of fury to Alyosha, pointing to the poor imbecile.

I have added in the [suddenly]’s that she quite properly omitted — if you put in “suddenly” for every вдруг, it would be unreadable. Why does it work in Russian? Because it’s only one syllable, vdrug, that can be slipped in with minimal disturbance to the flow of the sentence. It’s sort of as if you put “boom” in: “And boom, the poor madwoman broke into sobs…” But of course you can’t do that either. It’s just one of those untranslatable effects that makes me glad I’m reading it in Russian.

A couple of other observations: in the Life of Zosima (Garnett), he describes hearing a church service as a child and being struck by the story of Job: “Был муж в земле Уц” [There was a man in the land of Uz] (in my edition, there is a rare and amusing typo: Ун [Un] for Уц [Uts]). Unfortunately, this would have been impossible, because the Church Slavic version universally used in the early 19th century has the Septuagint name Ausitis (Авситида) rather than Uz: “Человѣкъ нѣкий бяше во странѣ авситидийстѣй, емуже имя Иовъ.” And at the very end of the Zosima section, Из бесед и поучений старца Зосимы (Garnett), he has some thoughts on suicides:

Но горе самим истребившим себя на земле, горе самоубийцам! Мыслю, что уже несчастнее сих и не может быть никого. Грех, рекут нам, о сих бога молить, и церковь наружно их как бы и отвергает, но мыслю в тайне души моей, что можно бы и за сих помолиться. За любовь не осердится ведь Христос. О таковых я внутренно во всю жизнь молился, исповедуюсь вам в том, отцы и учители, да и ныне на всяк день молюсь.

[Garnett:] But woe to those who have slain themselves on earth, woe to the suicides! I believe that there can be none more miserable then they. They tell us that it is a sin to pray for them and outwardly the Church, as it were, renounces them, but in my secret heart I believe that we may pray even for them. Love can never be an offense to Christ. For such as those I have prayed inwardly all my life, I confess it, fathers and teachers, and even now I pray for them every day.

This is questionable from the official Orthodox point of view, though it has its defenders (Can we commemorate those who have died by suicide?; in Russian see Страшное горе: как молиться за самоубийц?), but it chimes beautifully with the start of Leskov’s Очарованный странник (The Enchanted Wanderer; see this post), where a mysterious stranger on a boat (who turns out to be the titular wanderer) denies that suicides can’t be prayed for and tells about a drunken priest who was allowed by his bishop (after some urging by the Venerable Sergius of Radonezh, who visited him in dreams) to do exactly that.

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Right about theodicy, of course; attempts at it rapidly become embarrassing at best and scandalous at worst.

    The nearest thing, for me, has to do with the line in the hymn: Aethost trwyddi gynt dy hunan (I’ve moaned elsewhere about the lame English version, which neatly manages to miss the whole point.)

    I shall reserve the rest of my deep insights on this matter for the rival blog, ReligionHat.

  2. When I read BK many a decade ago, I didn’t come out with impression that the parable of the Grand Inquisitor is specifically anti-Catholic. It is clearly anti established religion, but Dostoevsky either didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to write about official Russian Orthodoxy. His “moral heroes” are startzy (elders), charismatic Christian leaders, whose teachings and, more importantly, followship, didn’t please church hierarchy too much.

  3. When I read BK many a decade ago, I didn’t come out with impression that the parable of the Grand Inquisitor is specifically anti-Catholic.

    That’s because you hadn’t just immersed yourself in the Дневник писателя. Trust me, it’s anti-Catholic (as well as anti- other things, of course).

  4. John Cowan says:

    Christianity actually has a decent answer for the Problem of Evil: “Man — intelligence everywhere — must have free will. Otherwise we’re puppets and have no reason to exist. Free will necessarily includes the capability of doing wrong. We’re here, in this cosmos during our lives, to learn how to be good of our unforced choice.”

    But the problem of pain, that’s another story. For that one may need to look elsewhere. (That’s not a link to C.S. Lewis, for those who thought it might be.)

    “”The priests have told me to deny a false creed and to acknowledge a mystery. Neither instruction feels right. Or am I asking too much?”

  5. David Marjanović says:

    What’s a “reason to exist”?

    Disclaimer: nooooooo, I’m not suicidal or anything. It’s just that most of the universe rather obviously exists without any “reason” other than the fact that it’s not physically impossible. Shit happens because it can – shit has a nonzero probability of happening, and so do I.

    I’ve never quite understood the question “what is the meaning of life” either. (But there it may not help that it’s subtly different in German – Sinn, literally “sense”, rather than Bedeutung.)

  6. what is the meaning of life

    42

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think saying that you don’t understand the meaning of the question “What is the meaning of life” is really just a periphrastic way of answering “There isn’t any, and I don’t see how there even could be” (a respectable intellectual position.)

    I was reading some of the works of the Welsh Wittgensteinian theologian D Z Phillips (whom I did not just invent on the spur of the moment) but getting increasingly irritated by his tic of describing metaphysical questions he doesn’t like, not as “meaningless” in the standard Positivist way, but as “unintelligible.” Try harder, D.Z!

  8. Christianity actually has a decent answer for the Problem of Evil: “Man — intelligence everywhere — must have free will. Otherwise we’re puppets and have no reason to exist. Free will necessarily includes the capability of doing wrong. We’re here, in this cosmos during our lives, to learn how to be good of our unforced choice.”

    That’s only a decent answer from a strictly intellectual point of view. It doesn’t help anyone confronting the results of evil in the actual world we live in.

  9. John Cowan says:

    It’s just that most of the universe rather obviously exists without any “reason” other than the fact that it’s not physically impossible.

    Fine, but that just reduces the question to “Why are the laws of physics as they are?” Unless you hold a really strong anthropic position, that these laws are the only ones in which a universe containing intelligence can exist at all, you’re still in the same fix.

    Sinn, literally “sense”

    Sure. And “Why are things the way they are? What sense does it make?” is one that can be asked about many phenomena, from the Holocaust to Microsoft Windows. Explanations in terms of efficient causes are not ultimately satisfying. (I’ve always liked the fact that the German telegraph and radio signal for “Message unintelligible” is OS.)

    It doesn’t help anyone confronting the results of evil in the actual world we live in.

    It isn’t really meant to. The question is, “Why does God, who is ex hypothesi always good, tolerate evil at all?” Tolkien speculated that the universe as we know it might contain some tolerated sub-creational constructs, but he is far from a dualist, indeed denying that Evil can make anything at all (as oppsed to twisting and ruining, like the Orcs. Obviously the question can be undermined by denying God or denying that God is always good.

    One answer on the latter tack, taken by Olaf Stapledon among others, is “It’s all about the art, man.” And even Tolkien reports that Ilüvatar says to the as-yet-unfallen Melkor/Morgoth: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the Music [by which the world was shaped] in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”

  10. Obviously the question can be undermined by denying God or denying that God is always good.

    Yes, those are the options, neatly summarized by Archibald MacLeish as “If God is God He is not good, if God is good He is not God.” An all-good, all-powerful god is incoherent.

  11. Wasn’t Dostoyevski’s anti-Catholicism more related to his phobia of Poles than to his fascination with the Orthodox thought? Although the Poles were omnipresent in St Petersburg in no small part because of the quirk of the Orthodox thought, which held that literacy is only needed for the chosen few (and so the government had an insatiable appetite for the literate Poles to fill its clerical jobs in St Petersburg)

  12. Stu Clayton says:

    (I’ve always liked the fact that the German telegraph and radio signal for “Message unintelligible” is OS.)

    A freestanding question mark “?”, that is “..__..”, is the international Morse prosign for “transmission not understood”. Prosign means “procedure sign”. The matching voice procedure word is “SAY AGAIN”.

    A colon “:”, that is “…___”, has the mnemonic OS. It’s not particularly German, but I found it listed at this German site for scouts. The mnemonic given for the question mark is IMI. These mnemonics merely reflect a parsing of longer codes, such as those for punctuation, into parts that are the codes of letters.

  13. @John Cowan: That quote from Eru sounds more Calvinist than Catholic, with even the free will of the lesser beings being part of the pre-existing divine plan.

  14. Dostoyevsky family lived in Poland-Lithuania from 1506 (where they emigrated from Muscovy) till Second Partition of Poland in 1793.

    The main, Pinsk branch of the family, eventually adopted Polish language and culture and converted to Catholicism, but the junior branch in Volhynia remained Orthodox and Russian.

    This religious, cultural and ethnic split of the family was likely a very sensitive subject for young Fyodor. Hence, intense dislike of Catholicism and Poles in particular.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    That quote from Eru sounds more Calvinist than Catholic

    We didn’t invent predestination. We just like it a lot.

  16. I think, Dostoevsky fell into a usual psychological trap of compensation “Western Europe is more advanced technologically than Russia, it means we must be good at something else…. Spirituality!” I mean, it’s not only him, it’s a big and juicy school of Russian thought.

  17. Wasn’t Dostoyevski’s anti-Catholicism more related to his phobia of Poles than to his fascination with the Orthodox thought?

    No, his dislike of Poles was separate (though, of course, related, since they were Catholic). He seriously thought that the Pope was scheming to rule the world and France was his eternal agent (no matter that the French government was anti-clerical). He was completely nuts on the subject. Read the Diary.

  18. John Cowan says:

    Stu: This is about coded (radio)telegrams that can’t be deciphered rather than mere radio interference. In one instance during WWI (or II, not sure which) a German station sent a message in a code the Allies had never seen before. The receiver replied using a partly-understood code: “[reference number] OS XXXX YYYY”, where “XXXX” was known to mean “Send in code”. It wasn’t too big a leap to conjecture that “YYYY” meant “old”. Sure enough, the original sender sent a message of about the same length in the old code, thus providing a nice entry point to solving the new code.

    Some prosigns actually have etymologies from American Morse, Samuel F. B. Morse’s original code. For example, the prosign SK-overline, didididahdidah, that is used to indicate end of message is “30” in American Morse. Similarly, AA-overline, didahdidah, which is used to separate lines of an address, was comma in American Morse. American Morse didn’t work very well across underwater cables because there were too many dits and they could get lost easily, but you could send 20% faster over land lines, so it remained in use in the U.S. long after the rest of the world adopted International Morse.

  19. “Western Europe is more advanced technologically than Russia, it means we must be good at something else…. Spirituality!”

    “Couldn’t the Swiss have Dostoyevsky, but we live like normal people?” (c) don’t remember who

  20. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm 6 October
    Do you mean that you do not believe there is a higher purpose or sense to life/your own life, I. e., other than satisfying basic human needs and duties necessary to sustain life within the community you live in? My mother used always to say that beings from outer space or 10000 years in the future would find our actions and the “higher purpose” behind them silly and pointless. But I think “how does she know (old, maybe she knows now, being in some other realm herself) what extraterrestrials or future humans think?”😊

  21. I know (virtually) a blogger who seems to believe that the current Pope is a socialist bent on destroying Christianity, allied with neo-totalitarians such as environmentalists and pro-immigration activists. He’s a highly educated scholar, a Catholic by upbringing and a theologian and linguist by training.

  22. He and Dostoevsky could have had some interesting conversations!

  23. Is the Pope Catholic?

    The current one isn’t.

  24. Here’s a good place to start if you want to investigate his attitude towards Catholicism and its world-conquering ambitions.

  25. “Dostoevsky’s rants are better written” – love it!!! 🤣🤣🤣

  26. We’re here, in this cosmos during our lives, to learn how to be good of our unforced choice.

    If God is so great and everything, why didn’t he make us good from the outset? Or are we here as toys for God’s entertainment? Surely not for his enlightenment, since he already knows everything.

    There are theories out there nowadays that the whole universe is a simulation run by super-intelligent aliens in order to answer questions about how life, the universe, and everything evolved. Whether you buy that or not, it makes more sense to me than theological contortions to explain why God made a universe in which bad things happen.

  27. John Cowan says:

    Raymond Smullyan’s classic dialogue “Is God a Taoist?” is mostly about free will rather than theodicy, but it tells us that God cannot make any persons without free will, that being (in God’s view, as given by Smullyan, as given by God) a logical contradiction. Smullyan’s God-character is not a moralist, but a utilitarian…. Oh, I can’t summarize it, read the piece yourselves. It’s a 7500-word romp, and well worth it.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    @dm 6 October

    Sorry, too busy all week. 🙁 These are things that require more thought than I currently have time for.

    seems to believe that the current Pope is a socialist bent on destroying Christianity

    He is the most liberal person who could possibly be elected pope at present.

    Which means, of course, he’s still far more conservative than the mainstream of the societies he finds himself in, and far more willing to shoot his mouth off about topics he hasn’t studied.

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    I am a socialist not bent on destroying Christianity, so the thing is possible.
    On the other hand, I must admit that I am not currently the Pope. That may make a difference.

  30. Stu Clayton says:

    Why must you admit to not currently being the Pope ? Because otherwise you would blow your cover ? This “admission” looks to be another of those socialist ruses to demoralize the faithful. I am convinced there are more Popes than meet the eye.

  31. John Cowan says:

    Indeed. Pope is the title of the head of the Oriental/Ancient Orthodox Coptic Church, and has been since long before the upstart bishops of some peninsula in the middle of the Mediterranean usurped assumed the title.

  32. J.W. Brewer says:

    David E. did not exactly deny being *a* Pope, merely being *the* Pope, thus buying into the notion that it’s not really a worthwhile distinction unless unique. The traditional Popish polemical line of accusing Protestants of letting every man be his own Pope has indeed often left its recipients puzzled, because they have internalized the Popish notion of there being no real point to being *a* Pope rather than *the* Pope. The Discordians, of course, have viewed a multiplicity of Popes more positively, while the writer of the Bros K. was it may be hoped a good enough Slavophil to know that one Pope v. many Popes is a fruitless and diversionary quarrel, since a proper embrace of Собо́рность would make the whole fuss besides the point.

  33. PlasticPaddy says:

    DM 8 October
    Don’t worry, no one needs to reply to everything. Gottschalk the heretical Fränkische TV host and Trpomir, his long-suffering and dyspeptic network boss will one day find an author worthy of their story.

  34. letting every man be his own Pope

    That’s nothing.

    Buddhism allows every man reach an enlightenment after long chain of reincarnations and become his own Buddha.

    Beat that

  35. January First-of-May says:

    while the writer of the Bros K. was it may be hoped a good enough Slavophil to know that one Pope v. many Popes is a fruitless and diversionary quarrel

    …it didn’t help that, etymologically speaking, Russian поп “priest” is the same word as “Pope” (though Russians use a different word for actual Popes… which, ironically enough, also means “daddy”).

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Beat that

    Challenge accepted. In Mormonism, every man who doesn’t go to hell becomes the creator god of a whole new planet.

    Women, admittedly, only get to populate those planets by, uh, begetting souls with the aforementioned men.

  37. Stu Clayton says:

    Here’s a Catholic presentation of the Mormon belief that every man becomes the god of an entire universe, not just a planet. Sounds like a precursor of the multiverse:

    # Latter-Day Saints do not believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the only three gods there are. Rather, they believe in a “plurality” of gods, gods without number, each one ruling his own creation. Thus, the three separate gods who rule our universe are finite in power—they sustain and govern only a tiny portion of all that exists.

    The other gods have either preceded or followed the Heavenly Father who organized our world. In fact, men living today on this planet will one day become gods of their own universes. As such, they will mate with heavenly wives, beget spirit children, populate new worlds, and receive the worship and obedience we are now expected to give to our particular, current God. #

  38. David Eddyshaw says:

    I am, as it were, professionally anti-Mormon; nevertheless I admired their way-to-go response to the Trey/Stone production:

    “You’ve seen the musical: now read the book!”

  39. The Church of JC of the LDS allows every man to become a god (“all power, glory, dominion, and knowledge”) and rule his own planet (according to some)

  40. John Cowan says:

    The Discordian Pope Card looks something like this:

                                       THE BEARER OF THIS CARD
                                   IS A GENUINE AND AUTHORIZED
                                                           𝕻𝕺𝕻𝕰
                                          So please Treat Him Right
                                                    GOOD FOREVER

                     Genuine and Authorized by The House of Apostles of Eris
    ————————————————————————————————————
           Every man, woman and child on this Earth is a genuine and authorized Pope.
    Reproduce and distribute these cards freely • P.O.E.E. Head Temple, San Francisco

    P.O.E.E., we are told, stands for Paratheo-Anametamystikhood Of Eris Esoteric; the pronunciation is of course “POEE”. The Head Temple, also known as the Joshua Norton Cabal, is located in Malaclypse the Younger’s pineal gland (not especially close to the temple, but what the hey).

  41. AJP Crown says:

    What if you’re a Mormon but you refuse, as I would, to go to another universe and be worshipped? If you’re forced to, you’re unlikely be obeyed when you won’t obey others yourself. I’m not sure this has been thought through.

  42. J.W. Brewer says:

    AJPC: If the ever-increasing multiplicity of worlds requires an ever-increasing multiplicity of gods, surely Satan can’t keep up with things if he is assisted only by the one-third of the original host of heaven that (per LDS teaching) followed him in his initial disobedience. So he’s probably always looking for new recruits?

  43. AJP Crown says:

    They’re all always looking for new recruits, hence the advertising. It must be hard for Satan to beat this promise of your own universe where everyone obeys you. It reminds me of the old British army posters of grinning water-skiing young men in red berets.

  44. GODS IN RED BERETS
    Ski to Your Own Universe!

  45. AJP Crown says:

    Cross-country, water- or downhill?

  46. David Marjanović says:

    Downhill. While drunk.

  47. AJP Crown says:

    Schifoan (standarddeutsch Skifahren; österr. Schifahren).
    Golly. Great song. I can blast it out of my Norwegian window, come January. Is this a case of the middle consonants disappearing in the manner of your very droll example this morning? No, that was elsewhere.

    Die Wiener Metal-Band Alkbottle hat in den 1990er-Jahren eine Parodie mit dem Namen Schiffn (umgangssprachlich für urinieren) auf dem Album „Blader, fetter, lauter“ veröffentlicht. Dort lautet der Refrain: „Schiffen is des leiwandste wenn ma si wo hinstöön konn“ (Pinkeln ist das Schönste, wenn man sich wo hinstellen kann).

  48. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve looked for that one several times on YouTube over the years, but it’s never there 🙁

  49. PlasticPaddy says:

    David. Your problem might be with GEMA (or the Austrian version), as I can see videos on YouTube of the song from Irish IP address….

  50. David Marjanović says:

    No, my problem was with finding it in the first place. Now that I know it’s by Alkbottle, searching YouTube for alkbottle schiffn brings up this immediately, and I can watch it without problems.

    The vocalized syllabic nasal is intriguing. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that before.

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