Karamazov: Preliminary Investigation; Art/Life.

This is going to be a longish and somewhat rambling post in which I try to formulate some thoughts about Book Nine of The Brothers Karamazov, Предварительное следствие [The Preliminary Investigation], and some critical responses to it. It will, obviously, contain spoilers, and I doubt there will be much in the way of philological/etymological material; I’m mainly going to be musing about what Dostoevsky is up to and how it fits with my (and the critics’) ideas of how the world works. Proceed at your own risk.

In the previous book, Dmitry (Mitya), the eldest of the brothers, having run all over town trying to borrow enough money to leave town with his beloved Grushenka if he can pry her away from his father (who he imagines is his rival in love), discovers to his horror that she has in fact gone to nearby Mokroe to meet the Pole who five years before had taken her virginity and left her in the lurch but now has written her a letter apologizing and saying he wants to marry her, so he hires a troika and telega and gallops off to Mokroe, where he intends to magnanimously “make way” for the loving couple and then shoot himself at dawn. When he gets there, he bursts in, assures everyone he’ll cause no trouble, joins the merry company (there’s another Pole and various hangers-on), and starts spending money like water — he’s mysteriously acquired a wad of hundred-ruble bills even though he had been penniless the day before; once it turns out the Pole is just a grifter who wants to take advantage of Grushenka again and is willing to sell her to Mitya, the scales fall from her eyes and she realizes it is Mitya she loves, and he realizes he wants to live after all. Then the police show up and arrest him for the murder of his father.

Book Nine comprises the interrogation of Mitya by the examining magistrate and the public prosecutor, followed by questioning of various witnesses to his actions. It is brilliantly done: all his wild behavior of recent days add up to a perfect case against him, aided by his own admission that he had wanted to kill his father and had expressed that desire more than once. He begins by pouring out his soul, treating the investigators as newfound friends in whom he can confide (he is, after all, drunk and tired), but when he begins to realize that they don’t believe his assurance that he is innocent he rages at them, alternately threatening not to say another word and proudly throwing his apparent guilt in their faces. Meanwhile, they are thoroughly professional, following protocol and taking everything down in writing without ever threatening or bullying him. In the end, exhausted and beginning to feel the radiance of Christian repentance, he lets them take him off to prison. As you would expect of Dostoevsky, everyone’s psychology is presented in a convincing way.

Now, here is what Dostoevsky’s great biographer Joseph Frank has to say:

Time and again, though, he candidly acknowledges all the overpowering impulses that might have led him to commit such a murder and, under the calculated questioning of the investigators, unwittingly builds the case against himself. Dimitry has now begun that process of self-scrutiny and self-judgment that will lead to his moral metamorphosis. […] None of these responses is taken into account, any more than his statement that he is “a man who has done a lot of nasty things, but has always been, and still is, honorable at bottom, in his inner being.”

While this is technically accurate, there is a definite implication that the investigators should have taken those things into account, and when we look at Victor Terras’s comments in his Karamazov Companion, it’s no longer a matter of implication:

The investigator’s language is also eloquent, yet very much unlike Dmitry’s spontaneous and imaginative speech. Note the long sentences, with adroitly embedded subordinate clauses, well-chosen but bookish words, and smooth, grammatical syntax. […] Where Dmitry speaks as man to man, Nikolai Parfenovich uses legal jargon […]

Incidentally, the translation “the sharp-witted junior” misses a nuance: in the original, “Nikolai Parfenovich’s sharp little mind” (vostren’kii um, where the diminutive suffix goes with the adjective) suggests that the investigator’s mind, efficient in a petty and shallow way, will perform ancillary duties well, but is hopelessly below the task of understanding the generous Dmitry. […]

The irony of the encounter between Dmitry and the prosecutor is that the latter assumes that Dmitry is creating a fiction, while his own version of the events is true to fact. The exact contrary is, of course, the case. […]

Dmitry and his interrogators think on different levels—he senses the whole monstrosity of the crime of parricide, while they do not. Also, Dmitry, whose mind and soul are deeper and broader than theirs, can understand them, while they cannot follow him. […]

At this point it becomes clear that the prosecutor sees the evidence entirely from the viewpoint of someone convinced of Dmitry’s guilt. For one who has more or less accidentally felled a man, Dmitry’s is the only natural reaction; not so, however, for a man who has just murdered his father. […]

A brilliant detective like Porfiry Petrovich would have long since recognized his innocence, but Ippolit Kirillovich has “caught” the wrong man […]

Once more, Dmitry can understand Ippolit Kirillovich’s pedestrian casuistry, while the latter lacks the ability to think like the honorable, chivalrous Dmitry.

This boggles my mind. Terras was a prominent scholar of Russian literature in general and Dostoevsky in particular (here’s his Spanish Wikipedia page — he doesn’t have an English one yet), but here he seems to have the sensibility of an adolescent all hopped up on megadoses of Catcher in the Rye: “Those cops, man, they’re so square! Their petty souls can’t understand Dmitry’s wonderfulness!!” It’s a childish way to look at any literature, let alone one of the greatest novels ever written, but it made me nervous, because I’m not entirely sure that Dostoevsky didn’t agree. He’s too good a writer to spell it out the way Terras does, but apparently he disliked the recent reform of the judicial system, and one of the things he wanted to do with the novel was show how an innocent man could be convicted even as all the proper procedures were followed.

And of course that’s true; the thing is that it’s true in any system of justice ever devised, because the world is full of coincidences (I’ve read about cases even more open-and-shut than Dmitry’s where the alleged perpetrator turned out to have been innocent) and there’s no way to look into the human soul and discover the truth. And yet Dostoevsky seems to think… what exactly? It is of course absurd to imagine that anyone, even “a brilliant detective like Porfiry Petrovich,” could somehow know that a suspect was innocent even though all the evidence pointed to guilt, and surely Dostoevsky didn’t believe that only guilty people were convicted in pre-reform days; if he didn’t like the new judge-and-jury system, what did he think would work? Should the tsar, in his view appointed by God to rule over the Orthodox, judge every case with his infallible wisdom? And what exactly is wrong with professionals behaving professionally? Could Terras, or anyone, possibly imagine magistrates and prosecutors falling on their knees and weeping with joy at Dmitry’s new-found repentance, or letting him go because he said he was innocent and they believed him?

And this gets into a whole different mess, but why is Dmitry so admirable in the first place? He rants about his sense of honor, but in fact his behavior is pretty much uniformly vile throughout, from when he uses money as a lure to get Katerina Ivanovna to come to him to when he throws her over for Grushenka, uses the money she asks him to send to her sister to take Grushenka to Mokroe and have a wild spree, and goes to his father’s house intending to kill him (and instead bashes in the head of poor old Grigory). It’s great that he then has a heavenly vision, realizes how vile he’s been, and repents, but is that supposed to be a get-out-of-jail-free card? Let’s face it, the Karamazovs are about as nasty a lot as the Snopeses, and they admit it themselves — there’s no point trying to whitewash them.

On a more abstract level, let’s say Dostoevsky really did believe that there was some infallible way to tell if someone was innocent or guilty and wrote his novel based on that assumption. I don’t believe that, so how am I supposed to approach the novel? That cuts to the heart of what literary fiction is; it’s fiction, so it has made-up stuff in it, but it has to take place in a recognizable world, the world we live in, if it’s not to be considered fantasy. Fortunately, the novel is not obviously based on such a contrary-to-fact assumption, so I can read it without having that problem, but it’s annoying to have to worry about it. Of course, I haven’t finished the novel (I read it decades ago but have forgotten all the details), and I may well change my mind as I go, but what are blogs for if not to vent half-baked premature ideas?


  1. Among the three brothers, Alyosha represents an ideal, shining but almost unreachable, Ivan’s sin is thinking too much and the lack of faith, and Dmitry represents a fallible, complicated person, following his emotions rather than reason. I exclude from this list the father and one other important protagonist (in the unlikely case it will be a spoiler) who are unreformably evil each in their own ways. If Alyosha is an ideal, Ivan is a wrong path then Dmitry is an “ordinary person” who has to get through a tragedy to become the best man he can be. Of course, BK is not a morality play and this three are not the cardboard cutouts, but I believe this is roughly the setup Dostoevsky had in mind.

    His idea about judicial reform was not that it created a system worse than before, but that it is unable to truly solve society’s problems because those problems belong to the individual and their soul, not to institutions. Dostoevsky doesn’t criticize judicial clerks, they are incapable of finding truth and, more importantly, correcting the wrongs, and even more importantly, producing any real progress because that progress happens outside the institutional bureaucratic system. If Dost is criticizing anyone it is Westernizers who believed that good institutions would lead to improvement of human condition.

    This line of thinking is not possible to continue further without the “spoilers” and I will suspend my pontifications until you make it to the end of the novel.

  2. Thanks, that’s helpful!

  3. 19th century Russian judicial reform created very advanced (possibly too advanced for the kind of society Russia was), very sophisticated legal system, efficient, free of corruption and widely perceived as fair and just.

    It’s lost forever, of course. Lawyers I know talk about it as a lost golden age, never to be surpassed.

    Just like the Russian literature.

  4. But Dmitry is not exactly an “ordinary person”. His behavior is, as Hat wrote, “pretty much uniformly vile”.

    My own thought about it was that Dostoevsky is prejudiced in favor of the rogue/criminal whose behavior spontaneously springs from “a passionate heart” (so to speak) as opposed to people who think too much and lack faith. Dmitry is supposed to be some kind of “noble savage” while Ivan is the corrupt modern person.

    I think these posts about The Brothers Karamazov are very interesting. I find it a very puzzling book.

  5. My own thought about it was that Dostoevsky is prejudiced in favor of the rogue/criminal whose behavior spontaneously springs from “a passionate heart” (so to speak) as opposed to people who think too much and lack faith. Dmitry is supposed to be some kind of “noble savage” while Ivan is the corrupt modern person.

    Yes, I think that’s right, and it represents a substantial blind spot in Dostoevsky (probably related to his blind faith in the goodness and wisdom of the Russian peasant and his repellent prejudice against non-Russians).

  6. there’s no way to look into the human soul and discover the truth […] some infallible way to tell if someone was innocent or guilty

    Well, of course D did believe that could be done, namely by God. And he further believed that the more Godlike a human being was, the better they were at this. His objection to traditional conservatism was that he didn’t believe that a higher social rank made you more Godlike. “Truth [istina] is known only to God”, which is quite another thing from swearing “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. Anna Weetabix’s article on truth and untruth in Russian and English is very much on point.

    Could Terras, or anyone, possibly imagine magistrates and prosecutors […] letting him go because he said he was innocent and they believed him?

    Not to us, no, because we treat the trial stage as formal. But the common-law tradition has a place for this idea both before and after the trial. It’s commonplace for cops to not arrest someone, despite circumstantial evidence, because they believe in the sincerity of the person’s denials. Studies show that people are crappy at this and that so-called “tells” are no better than chance, but they do it anyway. Similarly, American judges have pushed back very hard against fixed sentencing: they want an informal sentencing process that is informed by the facts, but just as much by the judge’s individual judgment of the guilty defendant (and what are judges for if not to exercise judgment?)

    In Mexico, I understand, it’s the other way about: police arrest people based on purely formal criteria, and the informality arrives at trial. Anglos call this “corruption”, but it’s no more so than a small-town cop refusing to arrest someone based on the cop’s knowledge of the person’s character.

  7. I doubt there will be much in the way of philological/etymological material

    Perhaps you should change the blog’s name to “Language Ushanka”. 🙂

    But as I have often said to you before: de te fabula narratur.

  8. Dostoevsky notes with derision that the jury consists of “four of our officials, two merchants, and six local peasants and tradesmen”, prompting him to wonder “what can such people possibly grasp of such a case”, as if these were real people deciding a real case, rather than fictional characters who Dostoyevsky can make do or say or be anything he wants to make any point he likes. I don’t think FD understood the role of the jury in a criminal trial, and to be quite honest that can equally be said about his understanding of law in general – he was what we would nowadays call a crank; his abiding interest in (even obsession with) the subject was uninhibited by any legal training or education. Obviously his views were rooted in some very profound philosophical and religious principles, but it’s nevertheless a bit overdramatic to see some sensible procedural reforms as the harbinger of doom for Russia and Orthodoxy. I think this is why the satire of the trial always felt rather limp to me – the best satire comes from a deep love and understanding of your subject, not from snobby condescension.

    Paradoxically all of this context only strengthens the novel for me – somehow all of that crankish peevery transmuted into something deeply humane. It amuses me to imagine that Dostoyevsky conceived it as a political manifesto, and becoming exasperated at its reception as a philosophical and literary masterwork.

  9. Yes, exactly! I used to wish that authors I admire hadn’t been such cranks, but I’ve come to realize their crankery was probably an inextricable part of what made them great.

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