This article has been condensed from the original, which appeared in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Winter 2000, Volume 3:1. To sample other articles from Logos, please visit us at www.stthomas.edu/cathstudies/logos.
Why would university students, forced to read 800 pages for a grade, become fascinated and stick it out to the bitter end? Author Janine Langan explains why The Brothers Karamazov leaves us with a remarkable gift.
"In every part of me I discover something fighting against my mind, and it makes me a prisoner of sin that controls everything I do."
Dostoevsky had a message of hope, intended to recreate community out of his decadent society, and he was set on communicating it by any way that worked. There is no doubt that he saw himself as extending a project launched thousands of years ago by Jewish prophets, and refocused by Christ’s Gospel writers. He wanted to be a witness to the truth as it reveals itself, moment by moment, in our daily lives. His work is training in seeing this truth. And this is why his readers get caught: Truth is, after all, seductive.
The power of Dostoevsky’s writing resides in its honesty: He never spoke of what he had not lived himself. And he had lived more intensely than most of the key experiences of “everyman.” He knew the terror of history in the making: he lived the tail end of Czarist Russia, smelled its decay and the approach of the bloody revolution about to overwhelm the West. But he also experienced a more personal kind of anguish: the panic of the loser, incapable to shed his addictions, unworthy of his own vision and dreams.
Dostoevsky was thus an expert in chaos. His books are hymns to the light which promised to inform that chaos, to the light which made possible the first creation and can again bring about a new creation out of that chaos: the light of “pravda,” the light of Truth. Glimpses of Truth The word “pravda” means reality, but also justice. Truth
Glimpses of TruthThe word ”pravda” is an awareness that the present is already the seed of all we hope for. Dostoevsky’s books are glimpses of such truth. They awaken the reader’s desire for any concrete evidence that hope is not madness. No one has ever shown better how far our acts transcend our little conscious lives, how vital it is to live them lucidly, with clear eyes. No one is better than he at tracing the typical lies we use to escape our own Truth or at exposing our refusal to accept the responsibility to become our real selves.
It is astonishing that a book published in 1880, and intended to be intensely contemporary, can seem so real a century later. But the fact is The Brothers Karamazov responds to challenges we experience today with terrible intensity. In painstaking exploration of Mitya, the seductive wild brother, who like Dostoevsky, is a poet, attempting to hide his shame behind his songs, we recognize clues through which we betray to others and to ourselves the ugliness of our inner response to the world. All the brothers, but also all their mates, must eventually recognize their incapacity to love. We learn from the brothers that we will have to transmute the program inscribed in our genes into the material of a radiant, fully human life, or fail pathetically.
Shaken to the Core Dostoevsky is more than a perspicacious psychologist, however. He tackles sociological challenges equally powerfully, and those challenges, too, are still ours. Dostoevsky had to face a frighteningly decadent nation. Facing a firing squad for his participation in a self-styled intellectual revolutionary group, his sentence suddenly was commuted to slave labor in Siberia. There, he was shaken to the core by the fact that the violent criminals who shared his fate shunned him and him alone, because he did not believe in God.
This astonishing presence of God in the underground was the launching pad of Dostoevsky’s literary career. He had understood that the people – the silent majority – were the keepers of a wisdom lost by the aristocracy and the intelligentsia. They knew instinctively what rational realists denied: that political struggle was but the symptom of a deeper contest.
In Siberia, Dostoevsky learned there is no bulwark for the person under attack but whatever the word God stands for. And this is the last and greatest of the eternal challenges Dostoevsky tackles in this work: the God question. Here again, the power of the book comes from the fact that the author works from experience. He knew that faith in God is far from self-evident in a world so scandalously full of injustice and pain. Victims of injustice could only find freedom and dignity through the reconciliation of man with man through God.
The very heart of Dostoevsky’s teaching is this: we are “creatures,” inextricably flesh and spirit, and will only find joy when we accept this fundamental reality, a paradox which is the ground of our freedom and dignity. His effort to find an image of man in search of God for his time is what makes him timeless. His unrelenting honesty, refusal to fudge with the scandal of a universe where God’s presence is far from obvious, shying away from dogmatic Christian answers, led Dostoevsky ultimately not to despair, but to an insight that is the very heart of Christianity.
"The very heart of Dostoevsky’s teaching is this: we are “creatures,” inextricably flesh and spirit, and will only find joy when we accept this fundamental reality, a paradox which is the ground of our freedom and dignity."
Light and CourageThe Brothers Karamazov tackles at all levels – psychological, sociological, political and religious – some of the anguished questions of the contemporary world, ours, as well as his. This must not be taken to mean that we should look there for final answers, but rather for light and courage in our own quest for Truth/ “pravda.” This book leaves the family still facing chaos. But it launches its hero, Alyosha, clear-eyed into life, and us readers along with him. It is true that this book does not provide answers, but it is meant to help us restructure our search.
How should we now tackle life? How should we deal with our chaotic existence? To begin with, we must stop demanding answers and solutions either from God or from specialists. We need to seek instead for the causes – so near to ourselves – of the mess we encounter daily. For The Brothers Karamazov is a mystery story – a whodunit. The methods used by Dostoevsky for unraveling this mystery are the ones we need to use, in order to unravel our own life situation. The idle reader is sent back to life, after these 800 pages. Once demystified, the world of dream, of escapism, of words, must be left behind, and reality actively re-entered.
Dostoevsky wants us to recognize the wound that festers underneath the subjects we investigate. He wants us to recognize in that wound our very own condition; what in fact makes us all brothers and sisters, makes us all human. Scripture speaks of this wound as original sin: the fundamental experience that we are not the self we wish, but cannot will, to be. Our spirit cannot free itself from the weight of the flesh, to use Pauline categories. The flesh is what I find myself to be; the spirit is what I wish I were, what I am responsible for becoming.
Alyosha walks out of the Karamazov tragedy free, alive and sane, because he has acquired this double vision. Alyosha enters the fray, extends an ear, an eye, and a hand to his brothers in trouble. He never gives up his fundamental trust that every person is human, and therefore motivated by thirst for “pravda.” Dostoevsky leaves us with a remarkable gift: that fantastic realism which helps us see, in daily life and below its surface, the man/God struggle in process – a powerful insight of hope.