The Brothers Karamazov

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.

28 thoughts on “The Brothers Karamazov”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this book a lot recently, due mostly to world events and Russia’s central place within a lot of the current happenings. In particular this passage said by Ivan:

    ‘I want to go to Europe, Alyosha, I’ll go straight from here. Of course I know that I will only be going to a graveyard, but to the most, the most precious graveyard, that’s the thing! The precious dead lie there, each stone over them speaks of such ardent past life, of such passionate faith in their deeds, their truth, their struggle, and their science, that I–this I know beforehand–will fall to the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them–being wholeheartedly convinced, at the same time, that it has all long been a graveyard and nothing more.’

    For starters, I think Dosteyvsky could sense that the spring and summer of Europe was long gone in the Spenglerian sense, but the love expressed here for the ‘graveyard’ gets so far beyond the way we in the modern west think about things that it is almost like a refreshing dip in the sea.

    There is no puritan white washing within this thinking, no hatred of past sins, just a boundless love. Perhaps it is because Russia is at the stage of soul development the west was at 1000 years ago, feeling a new way forward to something way beyond, but I think it also may go someways to explaining why Russia has seemingly been extraordinarily patient with Europe as the latter continues to hate and antagonise the former.

    Could it be from love? Of a beyond material adoration of everything that exists or has existed, of a forgiveness that is expressed in awesome fashion in the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ story within this book.

    To top it all off, these things are said and discussed by Ivan, the rationalist of the book! And to bring it all back around, Alyosha loves Ivan as a riddle, because the internal contradiction within Ivan is that despite all his rationality he still feels something beyond and is prone to these moments of metaphysical introspection.

    It is just such a tour de force.

  2. We can’t have individuals listening to their own consciences, they might come to a conclusion that differs from the approved Narrative™!

    Your comment about skin in the game takes me back to a thought that I’ve mulled over for years, since learning Luther’s catechism at school. In his explanation of the eighth commandment, Do not give false testimony against your neighbour, he ends with “and take their words and actions in the kindest possible way”. It struck me even already as a school kid that that is what was lacking in current society; people now so often actually seek out opportunities to take offence at others’ words and actions.

    When you had skin in the game, this made you into a hysteric busybody, inherently untrustworthy in serious matters. Now it gets you likes and hearts.

  3. Skip – Patrick White captured the same idea in Voss i.e. Faustian man goes into the desert to die.

    I think Ivan’s the tragic character in the book because it was his naivete which inspires Smerdyakov. He was the one who could (and should) have stopped it but he ran away. But I guess you could say that was his cross to bear and each character has their own cross to bear.

    It would be highly ironic if Russia was acting from love (whatever it means for a nation state to do that) because in the West we pride ourselves on kindness and supposed compassion even though it’s precisely the people who make such a song and dance about the subject who so quickly turn to hatred. I don’t claim to know anything of modern Russian culture. Would be interesting to know whether Dostoevsky is still popular there.

  4. Yeah love is probably the wrong word for how a government behaves, but Dmitry Orlov has talked about how old things of the west, such as music and literature ,are loved and cherished in modern Russia. They don’t hide from the horror and tragedy inherent in it all, but embrace it as something lived and remembered. This is what I think Ivan is expressing here. In the West we have the tendency to actively hate our past and wash it away as sinful.

    I suppose you could say to love is to accept and cherish something despite its (myriad) flaws.

  5. AM – that’s a great quote from Luther. I think most of the offence taking is a form of power game. You simply insist on a position until the other side gives up. That kind of game doesn’t exist in Karamazov. Rather, the people who claim to know stuff are just trying to look smart to other people. The skin in the game that happens in the novel is about important matters of ethics. Do you owe me money? Are you trying to steal my woman? Are you emotionally blackmailing me for financial gain? Most of the misunderstandings are there because the stakes are so high, not because people are willfully trying to misunderstand. I think there’s only one busybody in the book which is Madame Holakov. But even she has good intentions.

    Skip – good point. If “conscience” means to know fully then it means to know and acknowledge the good and bad parts. It’s clear that in the modern west there is a strong desire on the part of certain players to completely ignore the good parts and try and paint western history as one long string of villainy. Just like the endless Hitler/Nazi/fascist references, it’s incredibly childish. Almost by definition, the whole discourse implies a lack of conscience.

  6. ? even worse, the latest ideas from Paris or Berlin.
    ? A casual observation almost as an afterthought!

    We all harbour a dark side we’d be embarrassed of if made publicly known. It aligns with natural order of things, these inner demons and embarrassment alike. The shame is an essential powerful force in social architecture, maintaining the cohesion rooted in core values. It should be, or else. The current cheerful celebration of all things deviant & perverse manifests this else. Not a road to a well-functioning society ? Anywhoo, so it goes.

    The esoteric twin of exoteric shame is guilt. The shame is society’s tool to provide clues for individual consciences what to torment us about ?
    ? Part-time saints. Full-time sinners. Angels with broken halos. []

    It’s a tired trope that the soft-headed were always among us in +/– steady quotas, and they hardly felt any compunction in spilling their guts around. Just the stupidity & vile were veiled from beyond their tiered locales. Enter the age of instant worldwide communication, with its inherent propensity for exponential amplification. Same for ‘ever increasing prevalence’ of extreme weather events. The curse of availability heuristic.

    ? misunderstandings and misinterpretations of people’s motives as [we] inevitably read [our] own biases and prejudices into others

  7. Daiva – it seems to me that the celebration of deviance is actually about normalising it which ends in normalising everything. And when you normalise everything, you deny the basis for any shame. Conscience and science both have etymological roots in the words to cut or divide. To divide things into good and bad, for example. Normalising deviance is denying such analysis (which also means to divide). Seems to me this goes back to Rousseau and the idea that the root of all bad things is division. So, deny analysis and division and you solve the problem. That’s the best I can frame the philosophy behind it all. Of course, this way of thinking doesn’t allow for the possibility of transcendence which is exactly what happens in Karamazov (or any great story for that matter).

  8. Simon — What transcendence to speak of, you’re spot on! Once the left brain is not allowed to analyse, its right counterpart has nothing reality-based to form its big picture from. Gleefully we ride, on delusional imagination flight ?

  9. Daiva – well said :). I guess it’s also true that the Victorian era was all left brain and now we’ve swung too far back the other way.

  10. Dostoevsky does certainly seem to be ‘on to us’ 150 years ago. ‘The Crocodile’ is so scathing in is criticisms of our amoral modern capitalism as could only, it seems, come from Russia. Can the confounding contradictions of Soviet Communism be reconciled as an attempt by conscientious Russians to adjust to an inevitable collapse of faith ‘in’ anything to just pure ‘Faith’: I Hope It Works Out!
    The Crocodile short story available here,

  11. Interesting that the left-right brain dichotomy comes up here. I am just reading Mcgilchrist. He has given that topic a lot of thought and i think he might disagree with what was said here.
    He argues that a lot of our current problems come from an overdominant left hemisphere.

  12. Hg – thanks for that. After 900 pages of novel, I could do with a short story 😛

    Roland – It’s noteworthy that both conscience and conscious(ness) have the prefix con- which can mean “with” or “together”. So, the old meaning of those words is literally “to bring together that which was separated”. I’d say that bringing together is what is missing these days. Interestingly, Dostoevsky presents two forms of bringing together in the novel: religion and the state. But he seems to reject both in favour of “love”.

  13. Simon – you’ve done what no-one’s been able to do for some years now, i.e., inspire me to read a really long classic. Which translation did you read, out of interest?

    Roland – agree that McGilchrist would disagree w/ the above left-right brain analysis. From what I’ve understood, he sees excessive left-brain emphasis as a vicious circle our civilisation is stuck in, hence it’s been worsening: the crazy illogic of today’s world – e.g., scientistic vs. scientific thinking (my interpretation of McGilchrist’s take) – is what you get when left-brain dominance is unchecked, hence he links schizophrenia to right-brain damage & left-brain tyranny.

  14. Shane – damn. I should have thrown in an affiliate link 🙂 The translator of the version I read was Constance Garnett. I imagine Dostoevsky would be relatively easy to translate, though, since he relies heavily on dialogue and isn’t trying to impress anybody with linguistic gymnastics.

  15. Thanks, Simon. The most popular translation currently seems to be the acclaimed Pevear & Volokhonsky’s, but I hated their version of Anna Karenina, if I can’t read something in the author’s voice, I prefer a voice that doesn’t annoy the crap out of me. Garnett seems sound; I tend to prefer older translations of classics because updated idioms can sound dissonant in a historical context & seem like dumbing down for lazy readers.

    Anyway, for a super quick comparison:

    ‘Precisely how it happened that a girl with a dowry, a beautiful girl, too, and moreover one of those pert, intelligent girls not uncommon in this generation but sometimes also to be found in the last, could have married such a worthless “runt,” as everyone used to call him, I cannot begin to explain.’ – Pevear & wife

    ‘Just how it came to transpire that a girl with a dowry, who was also attractive and was, moreover, one of those pert, intelligent girls so frequently encountered in our present generation, though not entirely absent from our last, could have given her hand in marriage to such an insignificant ‘weakling’, as everyone called him then, I shall not labour to explain.’ – David McDuff

    ‘How it came to pass that an heiress, who was also a beauty, and moreover one of those vigorous, intelligent girls, so common in this generation, but sometimes also to be found in the last, could have married such a worthless, puny weakling, as we all called him, I won’t attempt to explain.’ – Garnett

    Garnett seems less fussy & more economical w/ words.

  16. Roland, Shane — Poe‘s law must be seriously tired after all these long years of continuous winning in every remote interwebs corner ? My nose in rarefied air, I thought the in-your-face bastardised riff on the magnificent McGilchrist‘s theory would shine through and fool nobody ?

  17. Shane – yes, Garnett sounds best there. Although, I prefer McDuff’s use of comma (and I just like the name McDuff) 😛

    Daiva – it might interest you to know (if you don’t already!) that Australian indigenous languages (and other world languages) do not have words for “left” and “right”. Rather, such languages use geographical encoding. So, you wouldn’t say “left brain”. You would say “side of brain (currently) facing north”. But if you turned around, it would now be “side of brain (currently) facing south”.

  18. Simon — fascinating! ? And I thought the Amazonian Pirahã doing fine without number names was the weirdest of ‘em all! On quick second thought, it still is. How would the impossible burger of my last sentence translate? ?

  19. Shane — fascinating! to you too ? To my amateur ear, the family duo’s version is hands-down superior! As far as I can judge from your super quick comparison, that is. Larissa is a Russian native, and it shows.

  20. Daiva – ok, I didn’t know that one. My recollection is that there are (were) many languages which have only limited numbers for counting. Something like one, two, three, many.

  21. Jean-Pierre: it is curious that the author of this novel, Dostoyevsky, did not know what he was writing, that is, he did not have the analytical framework to understand the behaviors of his own characters, since psychology as a study of human behavior and personality did not exist in the 19th century. Simon Sheridan presents a part of this analysis.

  22. Jean-Pierre: even more curious… We could say that each of us today has our analytical framework to try to understand the personalities of others and that these psychological analyses are… totally false.

  23. Jean-Pierre – even if that were true, it would just show that most of our psychological understanding is non-analytical (subconscious/instinctual/intuitive).

  24. Yes, Simon, I too prefer McDuff’s more sparing use of commas – it’s just that his higher word count threatens to add pages to an already long novel. 🙂

    daiva – you got me! 🙂 I was just trying to say that going to any extreme produces a longer or darker shadow… the radical far right, the fascistic left etc.

    I hear that Larissa does the most accurate translations. But maybe for me it’s like music; my partner used to play those tribute nights (Jeff Buckley, Cat Stevens, the Beatles etc.) & the best covers were often those that took the most liberties w/ the originals. (Not saying I’m ‘right’!)

  25. Shane — presacktly, just as a verbatim translation = the surest way to poetry ruination ? Humanity as a whole does need all its diverse cultures to flourish. Each & every left to their own devices to evolve at their own pace, and to gainfully cross-pollinate of their own accord. Cultural appropriation makes the podium of the most abominable concepts the woke invented.

    I imagine(?) hearing the original vibes in Larissa’s take—but not the others. True, it’s been a while and my memory banks are depleted (from late school & uni years, much of Dostoyevsky interspiced with Hesse then). Would be nice to revisit, no doubt—yet I woefully lack the mind discipline required to unplug from watching our civilizational decline unfolding in real time ?

  26. Hey, Simon, no – that path presented itself some years ago during professional editing training, but I turned away from it in horror. Can mostly tell when I’m overworking my left hemisphere: headache on the left side of my head. 😉 I much prefer the structural stage of an edit – more creative because way less rule-based than copyediting, involving synthesis of varied factors vs. just following a style sheet etc.

    daiva – cultural cross-pollination w/o excessive policing sounds more natural to me. 🙂

    I read the first few pages of Larissa & hubby’s translation of The Bros K & it sounded fine to me, it kind of rocked – unlike their version of Tolstoy’s Anna K. Maybe that’s partly Tolstoy’s fault? But probably it’s my fault, because I hear the words in my head. Not a fan of talking books; the narrators rarely seem to nail it.

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