In early October 2020 I finished an audiobook version of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. It was my second time going through the book, the first time being by traditional reading in 2018 – not counting the three unsuccessful attempts over the preceding six years. Upon finishing the book, I took to Twitter to lay out why, in my view, Bros K is the greatest novel, qua novel, ever written. My Tweet threat – which unexpectedly, yet unsurprisingly, took 25 tweets – is copied below this brief context.
For a while I’ve meant to revive my book blog (it really doesn’t deserve the name, considering how few posts I managed), if only to record what I find noteworthy of the several books I teach my middle and high school students. Because the majority of my personal reading over the past few years was written by Dostoevsky or about him, he will, no doubt, fill my blog (as he does my Twitter handle). One could do worse.
What in my younger years I shallowly considered a dour corner of 19th century literature, to be read as a necessary chore (you can see why Bros K took me so long – thank God for the hiding of mysteries until we are ready for them!), has grown closer to my younger obsession with Shakespeare in which I cut my literary teeth than anything I’ve experienced in a while. The more I read of Dostoevsky, the more I want to read of him, and that includes biographical materials.
I’ll save my encomium for later posts (indeed, much of it is below), but broadly I find the more I read of Dostoevsky the more I understand not only the 19th century but also the 20th. Generally an inverted historicist when it comes to literature (I tend to understand history/time periods through the works written at the time, rather than the other way around), I have found this a real boon as a reader, teacher, and writer: reading Dostoevsky has helped me understand not only the novelistic artform, but also 19th century literature as a whole, to say nothing of the frightening accuracy of what he predicted for the 20th century.
In Camus’s words, “The real nineteenth-century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx.” It’s to understand this – and the things he tried to articulate – that I decided a few years ago to read through Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography on him, reading and rereading his works in order of writing alongside. I’m gaining much from the obscure and lesser known works, with my eye always on the masterpieces Dostoevsky would later write, but I’ll devote a later post to them.
So, to my original Tweet, which more or less lays out the basics of why I’ve devoted much of the previous couple of years and, God willing, will devote much of the next couple, to understanding the Russian Prophet and his work:
Finished Bros K for the 2nd time last night, this time via audiobook; will prolly take 1-2 more reads–after/while finishing J. Frank’s biog of Dostsky–b4 i can confidently speak on it with understanding (since assuming we understand books often keeps us from understanding em);
I nonetheless contend it’s the GOAT novel, qua novel, ever written. This is bc it does what a novel is supposed to do (or what they were supposed to do in the 19th c, when the novelistic form peaked): it distills & concretizes all of the major questions/issues in the culture into characters (whom Dost presents via succinct & consistent details which describe both their physical and their psychological & moral states) who, acting out their inner value conflicts, inevitably produce concrete external conflicts–vis a plot.
Dostoevsky’s the master bc, while his narr (notably a local Orth monk – a man who has implicitly chosen a life of humble observation & moral contemplation) offers commentary on the events of the plot, he does not arbitrarily impose the plot; rather, it rises organically from the choices of the chars, who, again, are behaving according to the psychology & values produced by both their circumstances & their choices in response to them. Dost’s narration is not one of intrusion but of selection–ie of the details, background, & events relevant to the climactic trial of F. K’s murder.
Meanwhile, tho the plot is driven by concrete action, there are, nonetheless, identifiable abstract themes–again originating from the chars. These involve the questions in the Euro-Russian culture of the time, the various ans to which we are still dealing w/ after 1.5 centuries:
Whether belief in God is justified after seeing atrocity (*Dost’s accurate prediction of the Bolsh Rev in his book Devils is worth noting here; that his answer to this primary question has, imo, withstood the 20th c only speaks to his depth & rigor of perception);
Whether a person or culture can consistently claim the benefits of a moral system (both metaphysical & social) built on an understanding of God w/o believing in God–in the book’s verbiage, “If there is no God all things are lawful,” a question Dost had already examined in C&P;
Whether holiness, morality, or theosis are to be found in rejection of the world for the monastery/church, or whether they can only be found by being lived out thru a life of love in & for even the most unlovable parts/members of the world (the hero, Alyosha’s, central conflict);
Whether being born into terrible circumstances (Smerdyakov’s illegitimacy and epilepsy–notably shared w/ the author) justifies resentment for those in better states, and the role pity and (un)gratefulness play in such resentment (one’s reminded of Kierkegaard’s identification in Fear and Trembling of the weight of pity as the impetus for Richard III’s viciousness);
Whether children, as close to natural man as possible in society, are naturally good, evil, or only potentially either; whether there are hard moral differences between children and adults–a question that both reveals kids as possibly vicious and grown-ups innocent;
Whether class[ically] lib[eral] ideas like equal rights, comprehensive edu, sep of church & state, freedom of speech, equitable dist of wealth, & Qs of how reason & force should shape soc[iety] (all being imported by the upperclasses to Rus from Fr) bring freedom & virtue or impose burdens & vice; Etc.
To reiterate, Dostoevsky’s narr only rarely directly engages in these questions & themes; his focus is the characters. It is they, through discussion, choices, and, most often, the misalignment of their stated values/desires/motives & their actions, who produce the themes.
One often can only point out the book’s themes after-the-fact, and even then it can be difficult bc the narrator is not focused on the philosophy/questions of the time; he is, once again, focused on the concrete details of FPK’s murder. THIS IS THE KEY THAT MAKES BROS K THE GREATEST NOVEL, QUA NOVEL: the distillation & presentation of all the philosophical & social issues of the times (and their implicit psychological underpinnings, motives, & ironies) into/via a single, concrete, character-driven plot.
It’s worth saying that in the 19th c (again, when the novelistic form peaked), novels were not seen as mere entertainment: rather, they were seen as the primary crucibles of finding/discerning truth in an ever-developing cultural milieu (that they are no longer seen thus is, imo, one of the most debilitating effects of the very scientism Dostoevsky warned about–which, btw, he identifies as a primarily religious movement, secular tho it presents itself); this view of the novel was explicit in Russian literary culture, the participants in which saw the novel as the best means of bringing other countries’ ideas to the Russian ppl (most of whom were recently serfs/peasants) w/o losing the good aspects of Russian culture.
Dostoevsky took this view of the novel and transcended it, broadening & deepening it to deal not just with the questions of his own culture but of European/Western (and, i dare say, all) culture at large. The Bros K contains & responds to ALL PRECEDING CENTURIES since the cross, And his central answer is precisely that: the cross, personally, authentically, consistently. Dealing w/ the same 19th c questions, Nietzsche responded to the changes begun by Luther with the pronouncement “God is dead…and we have killed him…who will wipe the blood from us?” Dostoevsky had already raised the same conclusion & question – & given an answer: Alyosha.
It is in Alyosha’s theosis–in his personally learning to embody the virtues of Christ, w/ neither apology nor apologetics. By living out Christ’s virtues–primary of which is humble love, Alyosha implicitly resurrects–and reinterprets into a 19th c milieu–the Christian truths/virtues that had, in Dost’s opinion, had been alternately sacrificed by the later medieval Cath Church and made impossible/emptied by the modern subjectivity birthed by Luther.
Whether one reaches the same conclusions as he, it is not the question of where should Russia look for truth but “What IS truth?”, that Dostoevsky asks, & thus he makes his novel a universally relevant work. 🙏 This concludes–but by no means exhausts–my Ted Talk; ty for reading