2017-07-12
Excerpted from a longer review of Joseph Frank's "Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881" with permission of The New Republic Online.

The Brothers Karamazov, for all its "dialogism," represents a vast Christian exhortation. It tells the story of the unstable and passionate Karamazov family, gentry in a miserable provincial town dominated by a monastery. The hated patriarch Fyodor is murdered, and suspicion falls on Dimitri, who had visited the house at the time, and who had emerged covered in blood and apparently three thousand rubles richer. In fact, Fyodor was killed, as we discover late in the book, by his atheistic skulking servant Smerdyakov, who is a kind of devil-figure. But each of the three brothers, Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, had at one time imagined the murder of his father. Dimitri had attacked Fyodor and had several times threatened to kill him; Ivan, an atheist who believes that in a world without God and immortality "everything is permitted," appears to countenance killing Fyodor when he meets the murderous Smerdyakov and informs him that he will be away from the house for a certain period. Certainly Smerdyakov takes Ivan's comment to be an official approval. Even the saintly Alyosha, who had been a monk in training at the monastery, admits that he has imagined murder. ***

The Brothers Karamazov is a book in love with, and afraid of, ideas. In the end, I think, it proposes the peace of a realm beyond ideas: paradise. This is best seen in the novel's most famous chapter, Ivan's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor." Just before he tells this story to the believer Alyosha, Ivan attacks God for allowing to exist a world in which children suffer. Ivan is one of those atheists who stands on the rung just below faith; he is an almost-believer, and Dostoevsky clearly admires him. In such a man, unbelief is very close to belief, just as in many of Dostoevsky's other characters love is close to hate, punishment to sin, buffoonery to confession. Religion, Ivan says, tells us that in a future paradise the lamb will lie down with the lion, that we shall live in harmony. But "if everyone must suffer in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children to do with it....Why do they get thrown on the pile, to manure someone's future harmony with themselves?" He continues: "I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child. They have put too high a price on harmony; we can't afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket."

He gets Alyosha, the true Christian, to agree with him. If one could build "the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny child ... and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears--would you agree to be the architect of such conditions?" Alyosha says that he would not. But, replies Alyosha, there is Christ, who can "forgive everything, forgive all and for all." To which Ivan responds with his now famous legend. It, and the preceding chapter, are deservedly revered. The writing races on a thousand legs and finally takes flight. It has the ferocity, the august vitality, the royal perspective, of scriptural writing. It is, truly, visited prose. In the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, Christ is upbraided for allowing humans too much freedom. Humans do not want freedom, says the Inquisitor to Christ, humans are afraid of freedom. They want, really, to bow down to an idol, to subject themselves. They have no desire to live in the freedom to choose between good and evil, between doubt and knowledge.

In these two chapters, Dostoevsky mounts perhaps the most powerful attack ever made on theodicy (the formal philosophical term for the effort to justify God's goodness in a world of evil and suffering). In particular, Dostoevsky challenges the two chief elements of theodicy: that we suffer mysteriously on earth but will be rewarded in heaven; and that evil exists because freedom exists--we must be free to do good and evil, to believe in God or not to believe in Him. Any other existence would be robotic, unimaginable. In this scheme, Hitler must be "allowed" to have existed. To the first defense, Ivan says that future harmony is not worth present tears. And to the second--to my mind even more devastating--Ivan says, in effect, "why is God so sure that man even wants to be free? What is so good about freedom?" After all--Ivan does not say this, but it is implicit in his speech--we will probably not be very free when we get to heaven, and heaven sounds like a nice place. So why are we all so ragingly and horribly free on earth? If there are no Hitlers in heaven, why should it have ever been necessary for there to be Hitlers on earth?

Dostoevsky did not invent these objections, of course. They are as old as rebellion. Moreover, he knew that theodicy has always been incapable of an adequate response to these hostilities. He merely gave them the most powerful form in the history of anti-religious writing. And this is why many readers think that the novel never manages to escape these pages, that the Christian Dostoevsky, in allowing such power to anti-Christian arguments, really produced not a Christian novel but an unconsciously atheistic one. The philosopher Lev Shestov thought that Dostoevsky, for all his orthodoxy, was so corroded by doubt that when he came to imagine the doubter Ivan, he could not help giving him a vitality and appeal far beyond the saintly and bland Alyosha. Those of Shestov's mind think that even if the novel demonstrates that atheism is finally a murderous idea because it kills Fyodor, religion is so damaged by Ivan's onslaught that it cannot mount a proper reply.

Yet Dostoevsky very much wanted to reply to Ivan's attack. He worried that Father Zosima and Alyosha would not be what he called, in a letter to an editor, a "sufficient reply" to "the negative side" (the atheistic side) of his book. Well, can there be a reply to Ivan's arguments? Alyosha says what any Christian must say: that Christ forgives all of us, that he suffered for us so that we may not suffer, that we do not know why the world has been constructed the way it is. Depending on our beliefs, we will find this adequate or inadequate.

But Dostoevsky's novel enshrines, in its very form, a further argument. It is that Ivan's ideas cannot be refuted by other ideas. In debate, in "dialogism," there is no way of defeating or even of matching Ivan, and Alyosha does not really try. At the end of Ivan's legend, he simply kisses his brother. The only way in which we can refute Ivan's ideas, the book seems to say, is by maintaining that Christ is not an idea. Socialism is an idea, because it is "reasonable"; atheism, too. But Christianity, so profoundly unreasonable--what Kierkegaard called "lunacy"--is not an idea. The painful part is that the only realm in which Christ is not an idea, in which he is pure knowledge, is in heaven. On earth, we are all fallen, and we fall before ideas, we have only ideas, and Christ can always be kicked around the ideational playground.

But Christ is not an idea. This is surely the only way to explain the intellectually incoherent behavior of Dimitri, who, though innocent, is willing to be guilty for all and before all; or of Father Zosima's equally extreme advice that we should ask forgiveness "even from the birds"; or of Alyosha's final words, which close the book, that resurrection does indeed exist: "Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see, and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been!" Such notions have really fallen off the cliff of ideas and into the realm of illogical, beautiful, desperate exhortation. Belief has smothered knowledge. And this exchange--of the unreason of Christianity for the reason of atheism--means finally that there can be no "dialogism" in this novel, either of the kind that Bakhtin proposed, or the kind that Dostoevsky so ardently desired. There is neither a circulation of ideas nor an "answering" of atheism. For the answer--the unreason of Christian love--no longer belongs to the realm of worldly ideas, and thus no longer belongs to the novel itself. It truly exists in Paradise, and in that other, finally un-novelistic book, the New Testament.



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