Friday, December 21, 2007

The Brothers Karamazov - Book Review

Dostoevsky is a philosopher, and the Brothers Karamazov is his masterwork. He said "I'd die happy if I could finish this final novel, for I would have expressed myself completely." So it would be natural to discuss his philosophy when reviewing this book.

However, his philosophy is, well, religious. Dostoevsky is not just a Christian, but he's a converted atheist. That's right - he's not just suffering from parental indoctrination, but he's someone who momentarily basked in the glow of the truth and then consciously rejected it in favor of a fairy tale. He himself said: "Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess Him. My hosanna has come forth from the very crucible of doubt."

His "philosophy", to condense it shamelessly, is that heaven on earth could be achieved if every person accepted responsibility for the sins of everyone else. This sort of moral socialism is so intellectually bankrupt that attacking it would be akin to shooting fish in a barrel (turns out that it's not especially easy to shoot fish in a barrel, but even if you miss, the shock waves in the water kill them anyway...thank you, Mythbusters.)

So I'm going to look right over that when reviewing the book, because it's tempting to just dismiss everything he has to say and not take him seriously because of his juvenile religious beliefs. And that would be a shame, because there is a lot of value in his work.

First - don't read this for pure fictional enjoyment. The plot doesn't even begin for 500 pages...this novel about patricide doesn't have a single father-killing incident until we're halfway done. It is laboriously slow at times, and the characters are less than compelling. They are intentionally extreme, almost caricatures, as Dostoevsky uses them to illustrate different aspects of human nature. This is useful as a device, but does not give the reader much of a chance to identify with them. It's practically impossible to look at any of these characters and think "I'm just like that!" or even "I know someone just like that!" because they are not balanced, realistic personalities.

However, the characters do serve as people we can identify with in small degrees. The convicted father-killer himself, an almost completely irrational hedonist named Dmitri, has occasional moments of lucidity. During one of these moments, he spouted this gem:

But destiny will be accomplished, and the best man will hold his ground while the undeserving one will vanish into his back-alley for ever -- his filthy back-alley, his beloved back-alley, where he is at home and where he will sink in filth and stench at his own free will and with enjoyment.

I totally get that. Who hasn't traded future suffering for a few moments of guilty pleasure? Ok, maybe not everyone, but I sure have. And I've done it with full rational knowledge of the mistake that I'm making, but I sink into the filth willingly and anxiously anyway. Dostoevsky elucidates this point brilliantly, and continues to do so with this character throughout the book.

And for anyone that has the remotest interst in Christian theology - even if you just depise it - there are two chapters of this book that are well worth reading. Since the characters and plot are not especially involving, you can read these two chapters without choking down the entire book.

The Grand Inquisitor is the story of Jesus' second coming, during the sixteenth century, where he is discovered by the Catholic Church and thrown in jail for heresy. Here he's visited by the Grand Inquisitor himself, who proclaims that Jesus failed the world by rejecting the temptations of Satan during his 40 days in the wilderness. He explains that the true genius was in the questions themselves, not in the denials of Jesus, and that the Church since that time has been working to provide those three things that He refused to. The Inquisitor goes on to say that they are doing quite well without Him, and that they do not want His interference. As an atheist who despises the Church, or a devout Christian who feels that the church has at times lost its way, this chapter is pure genius. It's truly worth reading in either case.

The Devil, Ivan's Nightmare is a chapter where the atheist Ivan is visited in a dream by Satan himself. Satan portrays himself as a prisoner - not truly evil, not desiring to do evil, but trapped by the knowledge that without his existence there could be no free will. Speaking of life, he opines: "Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious." (Interestingly, an endless and tediously holy church service is exactly the picture of heaven represented in the Bible.) This personification of the devil is fascinating, insightful, and amusing at the same time.

To sum up all this rambling - I can't recommend the book, unless you're really into philosophy - but the two chapters I linked above should be required reading.


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