During this time of universal hogwash, where the most unbridled nonsense circumnavigates the globe in milliseconds, it’s a relief and a pleasure to escape the madness in the pages of a work of classic literature. It was with this goal in mind that I recently sunk my teeth into one of the longer works that’s been on my to-read list for many years, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
Last time I read Dostoevsky, I was at uni. One of my main recollections was that I found his works somewhat melodramatic. I still do. The Brothers Karamazov is an unrelenting melodrama. But it’s not melodrama for its own sake and it’s certainly not the soppy melodrama of a television soap opera. Rather, purpose of the melodrama in Karamazov is to convey an intensity of emotion that couldn’t be achieved otherwise. Furthermore, the melodrama is contrasted against a backdrop of religion in the first half of the story and criminal justice in the second half while the hero of the story, the youngest Karamazov brother, Alyosha, provides the calm, virtuous and loving anchor around which it all swirls. He is the ground and frame for the drama of the story.
Having said that, the plot of Karamazov does seem exaggerated.
A wanton wretch of a father who seeks nothing in life but money and pleasure, had all but abandoned his three sons from the day they were born. The sons, born to two different mothers who died when they were young, were raised by other people. Now all in their 20s, they have returned to the small town where the father still lives.
But the old man has not changed his ways. On the contrary, he is trying to steal the mistress of his profligate eldest son, Dmitri, while also short changing him on his inheritance. The hot-headed Dmitri knows what his father is up to and has threatened to kill him over the matter. Meanwhile, the girl they are pursuing is having a great time stringing them both along and delighting in watching them fight over her. To top it all off, the middle son, Ivan, is in love with the woman who Dmitri is engaged to. That’s just the basics of the story!
All of this sounds like the kind of thing you might see on one of those American talk shows where the father and sons spend the whole time screaming at each other and end up coming to blows while the audience cheers. This comparison might seem flippant and yet it captures, I think, a crucial point about the novel and what it says about modern western society.
The characters in Karamazov would never in a million years take their personal issues onto a television show for the whole world to see. That would be a punishment worse than death for them and the reason is a concept which has become almost wholly foreign to us in the modern West: shame. The modern West is, in a technical sense, shameless and this is no accident. It’s a result of ideas that were taking hold when Dostoevsky wrote his masterpiece and which he introduces as one of the main themes of the book.
Dostoevsky shows us an old-fashioned kind of shamelessness in the character of the father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. He represents a character that occurs a lot in 19th century literature but which I used to think didn’t exist in the modern world; namely, the man who spills his guts to all and sundry and blurts out the most intimate details of his mind to complete strangers. I say I used to think that because the last time I read Dostoevsky social media was in its infancy. But social media has shown that the psychology of Fyodor Karamazov is still with us.
It’s a daily occurrence on social media to see people still blurt out whatever is on their mind for all the world to see. Often what’s on their mind is some rather vile thoughts about some person or group; the kind of thing that would be much better kept to yourself. Such posts quickly get deleted, but it’s normally too late by then. Some troll has already taken a screenshot of the offending post and happily re-posted it to the internet to remind the world.
What’s behind all this is the concept of shame. People delete a social media post because it revealed something about themselves that they didn’t want revealed. Even in our shameless culture, there are still some boundaries left. We’re tempted to say that the novelty of social media has tricked people into such dumb behaviour; that it’s made it too easy to type in anything and press send. But Dostoevsky shows us the psychology in great detail in The Brothers Karamazov which is full of characters blurting out things that are not in their interest or their conception of self.
The novel takes place in a second tier town in a second tier province at a time before even local newspapers. As a result, everybody in town knows everybody else’s business. But more than that, for the main characters in the novel, the town is their world.
From our vantage point at a time of instantaneous global communication, we might think of this as limiting or even suffocating. But Dostoevsky doesn’t. On the contrary, he repeatedly pokes fun at the several characters in the novel who make a pretence of being wise and learned simply because they’ve read the latest stories in the Moscow or Petersburg press or, even worse, the latest ideas from Paris or Berlin. Such characters want to come across as learned, rational and objective. But that is just pride. And it’s an inferior kind of pride than that which leads to interpersonal conflict because sitting in armchair and reading a newspaper or some sociological treatise cannot activate the conscience and therefore cannot be a (real) provocation to ethics and self-knowledge.
Dostoevsky would not have been surprised at the posturing and preening and the virtue signalling which is endemic on social media. It is just a more extreme form of the psychology that was already there in the late 19th century. It’s a way to escape “the real world” i.e. the flesh and blood world of family relations, friendships, messy love affairs and all the other “melodrama” that makes up real life. In small towns of the past like the one in Karamazov there was no way to escape that except by moving to the big city. But, nowadays, it’s possible anywhere. You can escape without leaving the comfort of your own home.
Our public discourse provides the pretence of objectivity and rationality. But as we’ve seen in the last two and half years, when the pressure is on, the veil is lifted and we see that what sits just beneath the surface is the same human emotions and feelings. For most people, the public discourse is nothing more than a screen on which to project their own issues. Dostoevsky already knew that in 1880 and he captured it most clearly in the character of Rakitin in the novel. Even the wretched Fyodor Karamazov is superior to a Rakitin because the old man makes no attempt to cloak his real self (his will, emotions, feelings) in “objectivity” and “modern ideas”.
I use the word cloak here deliberately because the etymology of the word shame is related to the idea of covering up. We want to “hide our shame” because shame is a revealing (an uncloaking) to the world of something about ourselves that we do not want the world to see. The drama in Karamazov revolves around pride, honour and shame and the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of people’s motives as they inevitably read their own biases and prejudices into others. All of these misunderstandings cause their own trouble in turn. That’s what happens in a small town. When you misinterpret somebody, you hurt their reputation. That has consequences for them and for you. Unlike exchanging the latest acceptable opinions on social media, everybody has skin in the game.
The source of the shame for the characters in Karamazov, however, is not vanity and this is a crucial point to make. All of the main characters, even the old drunken letch, Fyodor Karamazov, have a conscience. Their shame comes from this internal sense of right and wrong and, even though they are often driven by vanity or other base emotions, they ultimately stand before their conscience.
To will, to desire, to strive and to act are revealing. Obviously, by acting we reveal ourselves to the world. But what’s less obvious is that we also reveal ourselves to ourselves. “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say,” said E.M. Forster. That is what is going on throughout Karamazov. The characters are ashamed for their behaviour in front of others but they are also ashamed in front of themselves, in front of their own conscience.
Pride, honour and shame are the exoteric, public-facing, dimensions of right and wrong. To defend one’s honour is to defend an ethical conception of the good. Even in vanity, there is still an ethical claim. I claim this thing is good and that I am an exemplar of it. If you prove that I am not and bring shame on me, we still agree on what is good. In this way, even vanity can lead to the good as long as it is tied to conscience.
Conscience is the esoteric, inner-facing dimension. Note that the word conscience is very similar to the word consciousness. In fact, they both have their origin in the Latin word conscientia meaning to know thoroughly (the word “science” is related).
This is, I think, Dostoevsky’s point. So-called objective, rational knowledge that does not have an esoteric, personal component is almost valueless. Only through direct knowledge, gnosis, can you bring your conscience to bear and only then can you know in the fullest way possible. This is why know thyself is the basis of all knowledge.
How do you know who you are until you see what you do? To challenge oneself is exactly to put yourself in a situation where you don’t know what you will do. Will you crumble? Will you bring shame on yourself?
The main characters in the novel, Fyodor and Dmitri Karamazov, are driven onwards by passions they can barely control. This leads them to do things that are disgraceful, dumb and completely against any pragmatic self-interest they might have. What redeems them (moreso for Dmitri than his father) is their conscience i.e. that they have not lost sight of the good. Though they might slip back into vanity and pride, they do not lose the higher conception. That is the primary difference between them and the characters who are purveyors of modern ideas, including the middle brother, Ivan. These have swapped passion, emotion and feeling for a lukewarm objectivity that in the lesser characters is nothing more than a cover for pride and self-interest and, in its purest form in Ivan, unleashes evil.
If this interpretation is right, Dostoevsky counts among the writers of the later 19th century who foresaw the tidal wave of evil that was threatening to be unleashed by the new ideas. Of more relevance to the post war years, he also foresaw the vacuous, comfortable bourgeois ethic which reaches its apotheosis in social media. One no longer even needs to leave the house to propagate the latest thing, the new ideas, the acceptable opinions. All of this is the flimsiest cloak for petty and shallow moral grandstanding.
That cloak doesn’t hide shame for there is nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that there is nothing to be ashamed of is the whole problem because it implies there is no esoteric content involved; no heart, will, passion, desire or emotion. Accordingly, there is no chance to activate one’s conscience. It’s all a hollowed out, empty shell of reason that will crack and disintegrate with the merest touch of emotional and intellectual honesty.
I suspect many people know that at some level. The hysteria we see on social media and in modern public discourse in general is also present in Karamazov but it is reserved for the times when people are desperately trying to cover themselves up. Jung and Dostoevsky would be in agreement on this: people really, really hate to self-reflect and will go to great lengths to avoid the task. In Karamazov, that might mean getting drunk in a tavern and starting a brawl, fainting on the couch or perjuring oneself in court. Nowadays, you can simply distract yourself with social media or an infinite number of other electronic diversions.
Ultimately, though, these are all short term measures and in the long run you will have to face the music. Karamazov shows that in the form of a court case representing the exoteric “conscience” at work. But the highest judge in Dostoevsky is one’s own conscience. That is also the highest form of truth. If he’s right, then our modern world, which systematically denies the conscience as the arbiter of truth, is missing something fundamental.