*** We interrupt this blog's normal string of tedious posts about finance and economics (and very soon, daily posts about the 2008 NFL season) to bring you a supremely tedious post about Dostoevsky's masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. ***
I was recently asked, by a group of friends, to name my favorite novels and then pick out the one I thought was the best of them. I quickly rattled off Catch-22, Paradise Lost, LotR, Anna Karenina, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Catcher in The Rye and so on and so forth. Mostly I listed all the literary crap that makes me seem way super smarter than I am so girls will want to sleep with me.
My two unquestioned favorites, without even thinking about them, are 1984 and Catch-22. And out of all the books on my list, I think the best is probably Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Nowhere on my list, however was The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky's epic is a rigorous read (challenging even for a former lit major) and it's not my favorite. I also don't think it's better than many of the others on my list, but it's the one I probably think about more often than the others.
The Brothers Karamazov basically asks two timeless questions: "What is the true nature of evil, i.e. what causes it?" and "What is permissible if God no longer cares about us or doesn't exist?"
These two questions were not new when Dostoevsky posed them; writers from Voltaire to Milton to Shakespeare and all the way back to Virgil and Homer, have asked the God-related question. But I'm not going to delve into that side of the book here... instead I'm going to talk about the "nature of evil" question. This question has also been asked by the great literary minds of the past and it's one still asked today. Witness these Time Magazine covers from 2007 and 1991 among many, many, MANY examples out there.
What I want to point out in my analysis is where I think Dostoevsky was right about where evil comes from and how he may have subconsciously illustrated it. Again, I don't want to mess with the spiritual questions of the book since that would mean writing a well thought out, yet ultimately polarizing, post on a site only a completely insane person would ever take seriously.
I don't want to cover too much plot here but I do have to outline a few of the novel's characters. Those of you who are lazy and know you won't ever read the book can go directly to Wikipedia now for a nice overall summary. Those of you who aren't lazy can go to Amazon, buy the book, read the first two pages, stick it on your bookshelf and then go directly to Wikipedia. Either way, spoilers ahead:
Old Man Karamazov is a semi-wealthy widower in pre-revolutionary Russia. He is father to three grown boys, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, who are in their late teens and early twenties. A fourth boy, Pavel Smerdyakov, lives in the old man's house as a man-servant and is rumored to be his illegitimate son by a mentally handicapped, homeless woman. Interesting man this Old Man Karamazov so far, no?
The old man is a hard living, alcoholic, sexually insatiable boor with a surprising talent for managing his money. Dmitri, the eldest son, has inherited his father's alcoholism and sex drive but not his penchant for finance. Ivan, the middle son, is an atheist and intellectual loner. Alyosha, the youngest, is a God-fearing young man adored by the members of his church and the surrounding community for his angelic nature and decency. Finally, there's Smerdyakov, the sullen epitome of a life of misery gradually converted to anger. Dostoevsky uses the four boys' interactions with each other and their awful father, to pose his questions about evil and God. The driving plot of the book centers on the sons' disgust and occasional outright hatred of their father and the old man's eventual murder (by one of the four boys, natch).
The conclusion Dostoevsky seems to give is that the presence of evil in men results from a lack of meaning in life. Critical essays and other academic opinions have also argued this point and claimed Dostoevsky was illustrating that, without some higher meaning, people go insane and commit murder. I disagree with these analyses because I think Dostoevsky's genius and insight into the human condition may result in a better explanation of evil that owes more to psychology than philosophy or theology.
Let me explain...
Dostoevsky imbued the two "haunted" sons (Ivan Karamazov and Pavel Smerdyakov) with loner mentalities. He may have done this subconsciously but he certainly did it without the benefit of modern psychological research that's shown the absence of social connectivity is often a trigger for psychosis. The Enlightenment, which came before Dostoevsky's time, stressed the importance of time alone with one's thoughts to reflect and to think. Believing in those types of ideals, Dostoevsky may have felt that to be a great thinker and intellectual one must spend a lot of time alone. Or he may have just been following the psychological deconstruction of a character's mind first explored by Goethe's lonely, titular character in The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Either way, Dostoevsky started writing Brothers K. before Wilhelm Wundt and Sigmund Freud began their first forays into the scientific study of human psychology (Goethe predated them all by more than one hundred years, interestingly). So although Dostoevsky may not have had access to any psychological research, his book (and most great literature) has always reflected some sort of psychological motivation.
So let's examine the four boys a little further and see what's revealed: Alyosha, the most loving and caring character, is always involved with other people – through church and community organizations, constant talks with the other members of his family and most characters' general desire to be around him. Dmitri, despite being an alcoholic, hard-partying loudmouth, always finds someone else to drink with. He's also in love, so when he's not drinking, he's trying to get time alone with his on-again, off-again girlfriend. If we contrast Alyosha and Dmitri's personalities with Smerdyakov's and Ivan's, the two loners, I think we start to see that, subconsciously, Dostoevsky may not have realized that his Ivan and Smerdyakov's issues don't result from the loss or the destruction of their God (or the destruction of some higher meaning), but instead it's the absence of social interaction with others.
Ivan and Smerdyakov have differing reasons for their isolation: Ivan makes a conscious decision to withdraw because he's pursuing what he believes is an enlightened form of intellectualism. His withdrawal from society is driven, at least in part, by his skepticism of humanity's goodness and his distrust of society. Basically Ivan thinks the world is terrible so he tries to abandon it. Smerdyakov's isolation, on the other hand, is forced upon him. He suffers from epilepsy and has two uncaring, unloving father figures in his life. Old Man Karamazov often verbally abuses him, and the small community where the family lives ostracizes Smerdyakov for being the bastard child of a mentally handicapped woman.
Suddenly the arguments for why these two men commit evil acts starts to face the light of modern psychology; a psychology that says social connectivity is central to a valued life and the absence of social connectivity is often extremely damaging.
Literature has long held a romanticized view of mentally disturbed characters as "deep" and the characters most often lauded by critics as honest and complex are the ones shown dealing with some sort of psychosis (Heath Ledger's Joker stands as a perfect and timely example). Dostoevsky may have felt the true nature of man reveals itself when a man loses his mind. But positive psychology has begun to proclaim just the opposite; that a bright, shining truth is revealed when someone lives a virtuous, happy life. It is, new psychology says, much easier to be unhappy than happy, and perhaps we can see through these ideas that it is not an innate, nor required, trait of intellectualism to be a haunted, miserable loner.
The theme many academics may be missing in Brothers K., is one of social connectivity – Ivan's descent into madness occurs when he finally realizes he bears some responsibility for the actions of others. He finally understands, on some level, the need for social connection. I think the basic point of the book (whether Dostoevsky intended it or not) is that evil arises from unhappiness. Which is not radically new, but what creates the unhappiness in Brothers K. is loneliness and isolation, not whatever Dostoevsky intends, and it's certainly not a wandering, lifelong scholarly search for the proof of God's existence.
The "isolation-as-cause-of-psychosis" argument deepens when we continue examining Ivan and Smerdyakov. For an intellectual like Ivan who has self-selected seclusion to spend time questioning the meaning of life, an evil act is never really a possibility. Indeed Ivan never commits murder nor does he ever state that he wants to see his old man dead (though he does wonder whether he wished it to happen, after the fact). Dmitri, the brother actually blamed for the old man's murder, is also incapable of killing his father. He contemplates it, for sure, but despite his hot temper and raging jealousy at the old man for diddling his girlfriend, he still can't bring himself to murder. But Smerdyakov lives in a different world, one completely devoid of happiness; a place where his lack of social connectivity can't be changed. It's this forced absence of social interaction that inevitably leads him to commit both murder and suicide.
The things most modern psychologists have pointed to as those that makes us most happy are love, friendship, family, social standing and respect. Among these, the most important is love. Most literary poets, great thinkers and novelists have said love is the one defining trait humans need and desire the most. It might even be a physical necessity.
Three modern psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon conducted numerous studies to illustrate our physical need for love. Their studies (among many others) showed that the limbic region of the brain where emotions reside, functions best when the person has love, family or close friends around them. People without those semblances of love tend to develop irregular limbic systems. What this means is that love (and social connectivity) might actually have biological underpinnings.
Lewis, Amini and Lannon concluded that people are most happy when they're around other people on a constant basis. In their wonderful book, A General Theory of Love they state, "A person is more likely to be happy if he interacts regularly with others; married people are happier than single people and people are more likely to be happy when interacting with friends and family or are in a social setting." Some of this makes obvious sense on a biological level because social interactions with multiple people give our brain stimuli.
Altogether these conclusions might illustrate the "evil" in Ivan and Smerdyakov more accurately than Dostoevsky could have known.
Now then, before you say that Dostoevsky's examination of evil is incomplete, let me agree with you and say that it IS incomplete. Old Man Karamazov was a man guilty of a great many sins – not necessarily crimes, but he was certainly an unvirtuous, greedy man who mistreated all his sons. Smerdyakov had plenty of motives to kill the old man, though Dostoevsky never concretely defines one for us. It's possible Smerdyakov killed the old man because he was living by Ivan's philosophy that if God doesn't exist then anything is permitted. Or he may have just wanted to kill his dad because he wanted to know what it felt like to murder. In any case, the various underlying motives Dostoevsky presents end up leaving us with a defensible action by Smerdyakov and the chance he may not have been acting out of pure evil.
It's probably impossible to capture the inner-workings of a completely insane character's mind in fiction. Dostoevsky couldn't create an "evil to the marrow" character because in the end, true evil is not something even his powerful mind could understand. True evil is something psychology still doesn't have a firm grasp upon (other than to tell us psychopaths have improperly wired brains).
The first serial killer to receive media attention and indeed the very creator of the term 'serial killer', Jack The Ripper, arose 6-years after Dostoevsky's death. Although there were mass murderers before Dostoevsky's death (savage warring armies, sadistic rulers, etc.) they weren't subject to the rationalized moral laws of the western world as are our modern mass murderers and killers. But even had he lived to witness Jack The Ripper, would he have been able to understand a serial killer's motivations? Of course not.
The question of evil and where it comes from is therefore incomplete. Dostoevsky did a fantastic job creating the perfect psychological profile of an unhappy person driven to murder, and that's a profile we can understand. But it's not the profile of a completely unhinged serial killer that we'll probably never understand.
None of this is a knock on the book at all. Instead it's my attempt at a grand and fawning celebration; Dostoevsky took us as far inside the heads of men driven insane as we're ever likely to go. The book would be an absolute masterpiece for that alone. But again, I haven't even mentioned the theological questions raised in The Brothers Karamazov and those parts of the book are as mind warping as anything you'll ever read. In fact, there are entire graduate lit and theology classes dedicated to the chapter of Ivan's story of The Grand Inquisitor.
But that's a conversation I haven't yet resolved with myself, so I'm can't begin to discuss it here. Nevertheless, I do hope this post wasn't too awfully painful for you. If you never decide to spend a few weeks valiantly attempting to plow through the book, I don't blame you. But at least if you read this post you can understand why so many scholars think it's such a ball-grabbingly fantastic novel. You can also lie to your friends and say you read it.
As a final word, I do want you to understand that I willingly accept any and all admiration for the fact that I DID plow through it. TWICE!
And then I was decent enough to write about it for you.
... LOVE ME DAMMIT!!!