What I Think About, When I Think About “The Brothers Karamazov”

September 12, 2010 § 3 Comments

Alyosha, Ivan, and Mitya

Having finished reading The Brothers Karamazov recently, I find that writing a “book review” of it seems absurd, when luminaries such as Sigmund “Best novel ever written” Freud , Albert Einstein, and James Joyce sing praises of it. For the past week I’ve been filling out blog posts with portions I found incredibly interesting and worth many thoughts. So in summary, and possibly in jest, I’d like to round it off with a few more. Specifically those that will immediately come to mind when I think back about this novel, or start a conversation about it with someone (Anyone?).

1. The Depth of the Human Soul

From Dmitri Karamazov to Alexei Karamazov:

“A man with a noble heart and a superior intelligence may start out with the Madonna as his ideal and end up with Sodom as his ideal… Yes sir, a man’s range of feelings is wide, too wide even, and if I had my way I’d narrow it quite a bit. Its a hell of a situation, you know: what the head brands as shameful may appear as sheer beauty to the heart…

Weren’t you aware of that secret? The terrible thing is that beauty is not only frightening but a mystery as well. That’s where God and the devil join battle, and their battlefield is the heart of man.”

My comment: A man who gives in to his vices is of the breadth to remain pious to his beliefs but also disgusted by his erroneous ways. The best writers can show this trait in characters in their work.

2. The Karamazov Trait

The Defense Counsel’s Speech:

“…the Karamazov nature, that can accomodate simultaneously the most contradictory traits and two infinities, the infinite heights of the most noblest ideals and the infinite depths of the longest festering degredation.”

“…The feeling of degradation is as indispensable to those unbridled and unrestrained nerves as the sense of supreme nobility.” And this is very true; what they need is that unnatural combination, and they need it all the time unceasingly. The two infinities, gentlemen, they need the two infinities at the very same moment, and without them they are unhappy and frustrated, they feel that their life is not complete. Ah, the breadth of our natures is as wide as our mother Russia, and it can contain everything; everything can coexist within us!”

My comment: Here the Defense counsel is talking about the Karamazov trait to be noble, kind and loving, but at the same time contain the greed, lust, and other debauchery that the Karamazovs are supposedly notorious for. This trait really is the human condition, or “what it means to be a fucking human being.” Because it all comes from the heart, and the heart, as mentioned above, is the battleground.

3. Religion/ Atheism, Faith/Doubt, and the Immortality of the Soul

From The Grand Inquisitor:

“For the mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding everything to live for. Without a concrete idea of what he’s living for, man would refuse to live, would rather exterminate himself than remain on this earth, even if bread were scattered all around him”

My comment:

Ivan Karamazov recites a poem in prose he created to his brother Alyosha. The parable tells of Christ returning to the world in Seville during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs miracles and is recognized by the people, but is captured by the Inquisition and sentenced to be burned the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits Christ in his cell and explains how he is useless to the church and will only be an interference with their plans.

Ivan’s narration of The Grand Inquisitor is the story’s centerpiece. While it is about Ivan’s doubt of a benevolent God , it strangely has cast some doubts over the atheist beliefs I have. Not of the belief in Christianity, but the plausibility of Religion in general.

This masterpiece can be read and appreciated on its own. If you care to, here’s the free text online. Once done, you can have a visualization of it by watching the recent Russian television production of the portion, even if you don’t speak Russian.

I find myself readily identifying with Ivan’s character at times:

“His mind is not in harmony with his heart”

Reason proves the impossibility and baselessness of religion and God, but the heart craves and believes in the good of man and the immortality of the soul.


On Grushenka:

“But her magnificent, abundant, dark brown hair, her sable eyebrows, and her beautiful blue-grey eyes with their long lashes were certain to stop even the least interested, most absentminded man who met her in the street or saw her in a crowd, even if he was in a hurry- he would not be able to help stare at her at remember her for a long time…

For under the cashmere shawl, he could see her broad shoulders and her full young bosom. The curves under her dress suggested the proportions of a Venus de Milo although already somewhat exaggerated. Those who know the beauty of Russian women could have told by looking at Grushenka that, by the time this young beauty was thirty, her body would lose its harmony, her face would grow flabby, wrinkles would appear around her eyes and forehead, her complexion would coarsen, perhaps turn ruddy- in a word, Grushenka had the “beauty of an hour”, a fleeting beauty that one so often meets among Russian women”

My comment: I think of WTA pro Maria Kirilenko when I read this portion of text.


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