I finally finished The Brothers Karamazov Sunday after what has been essentially a month-long victory lap after completing my yearly reading challenge. Having just bested a purely numerical challenge, I wanted to knock one of the more intimidating-looking classics of my to-read list. And a Russian one at that — often the most intimidating of all!
As is the usual way with these things, it turns out that Dostoyevsky is actually considerably less difficult to read than I had imagined. And every bit as rewarding.
I was seduced from the start by the character of Ivan Karamazov, since I felt a lot of myself in his character. He’s a very rational person, capable early in the novel of making an argument in favor of ecclesiastical courts in which he does not actually believe. His logic prevents him from taking the notion of God terribly seriously, and his perception of suffering in the world convinces him that if a God truly did exist, it wouldn’t be one that warrants his affection.
Unlike the cereal box atheists that I encounter all the time on the Internet, Ivan does not consider his atheism a problem solved. He remains a deeply moral person with a passion for life. The central problem of his existence is reconciling his love for life with a God-less existence and continuing to act like a deeply moral person in a world where “everything is permitted.”
Even more important than his trifles with God are his objections to his fellow man. Where the deeply religious Alyosha has no trouble being his brother’s keeper, in the most literal of senses, Ivan sees his neighbor as ugly, brutish and corrupt. His description of the suffering of innocents as a consequence of personal freedom has no real rebuke. Even the fires of hell, he says, do not justify or take back the suffering of even one little girl.
I think it is perhaps unfair that Ivan’s ultimate end in insanity is such an ignominious one. I think it was enough for him to realize that his apparent concern for the suffering of people in the abstract stands in opposition to the fact that he chose to let his father die. His belief that we are all autonomous free-thinkers responsible only for ourselves denies the fact that his philosophy is what allowed Smerdyakov to commit murder. I suppose his insanity probably stems from a more Orthodox view of hell, however, which is the anguish one feels in life when separated from God’s love, which is apt in Ivan’s case.
Ultimately the conclusion the inquiring agnostic gleans from Dostoyevsky’s work is that logic fails to solve the most essential of man’s moral concerns. Reason destroys God, a world without God destroys morality, and man without morality commits himself to the abyss. The only other choice we’re presented is simple faith in the goodness of individuals, exemplified by Christ’s kiss of the Grand Inquisitor.
Somehow leaving that quandary essentially unanswered and leaving us only with the example of Alyosha to live by (or remember, as in the last chapter) seems the most honest approach he could have taken.