Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov casts a shadow over European literature. Sigmund Freud described it as “[t]he most magnificent novel ever written”, while Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged his Russian contemporary as: “the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn”. In its intimate understanding of human depravity it anticipates a destructive phase of history, while proffering a healing idealism with enduring appeal.
The novel anticipates the birth of the unconscious in psychology and poses questions that seemed to drive Nietzsche mad. The best and the worst in the human character are laid bare: “A father has been killed and they pretend to be shocked … They’re just putting on a show in front of one another. Hypocrites. Everyone wants his father dead. Let dog eat dog.” The sexually rampant and mendacious figure of that father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, merits comparison with President Donald Trump, against whom we now hurl opprobrium rather than profitably acknowledging shades of our own characters in the roundly despised leader of what we once called “the free world”.
As an “unacknowledged legislator”, to use Percy Shelley’s term, Dostoyevsky moulded values that entered the common stream of human ideas that merit revisiting. The Brothers Karamazov, his last and most realised work, articulates spiritual and intellectual principles in a confused postmodern age that has lost sight of significance since the decline of organised religions and utopian ideologies.
Yet perhaps Dostoyevsky’s greatest achievement here is to avoid being overbearing or didactic. A moral code by which to live one’s life is faithfully rendered, yet deviant characters are not drawn in black and white. We inhabit their outlooks and arguments, as the writer seems to, but have available to us the vision of a reformed and universal Christianity, redolent of St Francis of Assisi.
A potential reader should not be intimidated by the book’s length, just shy of a thousand pages – or its long, frenzied paragraphs – as untangling its subterfuges becomes compulsive. Completed in 1880, it still brims with lessons for a disorientated humanity, not least in the wake of Brexit and Trump: warnings on the psychological consequence of admitting to the death of God; meditations on a universal responsibility for sin; reflections on the corruption of organised religion; and suggestions of an overarching harmony. The author subjects belief systems, including his own, to almost mocking interrogation. There is no refuge in this trial of modern man, personified by Dimitri, the eldest of the Karamazov brothers.
Dostoyevsky identifies a broad moral continuum in a single person between a capacity for the highest and basest deeds and actions, reflecting Carl Jung’s idea that there is a murderer in us all. If any character represents the views of Dostoyevsky himself it is perhaps the chief prosecutor Ippolit Krillovitch, who, uncannily, like the author, dies within a few months of the novel’s central events. These are the apparent patricide, and its aftermath, of the debauched sensualist Fyodor Karamazov, who competes with his son Dimitri for the affections of his paramour Grushenka. His sons exhibit facets of an enduring character, representing to Freud the id, ego and superego. In the ensuing trial Krillovitch draws attention to the inadequacies of each brother. So searing are his insights that Dimitri is inclined to thank his own prosecutor for telling “me a lot about myself that I didn’t know”.
Krillovitch describes those of the Karmazov ilk as having: “natures with such a broad sweep … capable of encompassing all manner of opposites, of contemplating both extremes at one and the same time – that which is above us, the extremity of the loftiest ideals, and that which is below us, the extremity of the most iniquitous degradation”. He says “others have their Hamlets; so far, we Russians have only our Karamazovs”, but that archetype extends beyond Russia, into the multiplicity of our selves.
First there is Alyosha, the youngest, who at the start of the tale we find considering a monastic life, but following the advice of his mentor, the mystic Elder Zosima, he returns to the disorder of the world. The narrator writes of Alyosha: “it seems that he lived his whole life with an absolute faith in people, though no one ever thought of him as simple or naive. There was something in him that said, and made you believe, (and this was so throughout his life), that he did not wish to sit in judgment over others and would never take it upon himself to censure anyone.” To Freud he represented the superego, the ethical part of a personality, setting the moral boundaries in which the ego operates.
Alyosha is possessed of magnetism, empathy and intuition. Other characters find a reflection of their failings in his benign nature, including the alluring Grushenka, who exerts a fatal attraction over both Dimitri and his father. She sets out to seduce the youngest brother, but is instead so disarmed by his purity that she begins a redemptive journey of her own. She performs a Jocasta role in the archetypal oedipal tale: Dimitri, the son, mistakenly perceiving he is frustrated by his own father, Fyodor, in realising a sexual fantasy, plots to kill him.
The nature of Dimitri’s frenzied attempts to win over Grushenka also reflect the damage that has been inflicted on him by the early loss of the mother who abandons him, and the household, after tiring of Fyodor’s affairs. That his father should be a competitor compounds his anger and brings him to the brink of patricidal intent. He also maintains that he has been cheated of his inheritance, with which he hopes to restore his honour, having stolen money from his spurned fiancée Katerina Ivanova to satisfy his sensual appetites. These resentments, set against the influence on him of Friedrich Schiller’s espousal of universal love, generate one of the most conflicted characters in modern literature.
Alyosha occupies the place of deepest compassion on the Karamazov scale. The prosecutor Krillovitch, ever-vigilant to human failings, warns of the pitfall of taking refuge in mysticism and failing to honour the rational, egotistical and male side of his nature:
he has come, it seems to me, to represent that timid despair with which so many people in our impoverished society, frightened of its cynicism and corruption and mistakenly attributing all evil to the European enlightenment, rush towards “the soil of their birth”, into the maternal embrace, as it were, of their native land, like children frightened of ghosts, their only desire being to slumber peacefully in the shrivelled bosom of their exhausted mother, or even perhaps to spend their whole life sleeping there, merely to escape the sight of the fearsome visions.
At least Alyosha, encouraged by his mentor Zosima, rejects the sanctuary of the monastery, as this is unnecessary for one of his benevolent nature. Contrary to displaying “timid despair” Alyosha actually exhibits bravery by confronting the imperfections of the external world. This is especially evident in his compassion for the child Ilyusha after he bites him on the hand.
Krillovitch also warns Alyosha against a “dreary mysticism”, here represented by the outlook of another monk, the severe and ascetic Father Ferapont, who foments superstition, and stands in judgement over others.
Observing the rise of fundamentalism in the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere, we see the heirs of Ferapont turn religion into a reactionary force. Unfortunately this is how it most commonly appears in the world, explaining why so many of us wash our hands of it altogether. This widespread detachment may, however, have profoundly damaging psychological consequences: Carl Jung found he seldom succeeded in helping patients overcome mental disorders unless they recovered a capacity for religious experience.
Like many of his previous anti-heroes, including Stavrogin and Roskalnikov, the second eldest brother, Ivan, is a quintessentially thrusting modern man representing Freud’s idea of the ego. This typology also bears resemblance to Turgenev’s character Bazarov from Fathers and Sons, who suffers a similar hubristic demise. Like Nietzsche, Ivan descends into madness after proclaiming the death of God. He is not however a simplistic personification of a degraded European civilisation. Ivan’s analysis of human nature remains acutely troubling: “We often talk of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is terribly unjust and insulting to beasts: a wild animal can never be as cruel as man, as artistic, as refined in his cruelty.”
Surveying all too common and inexplicable atrocities, especially those carried out against children, he rejects the idea of divine harmony: “It’s not worth one little tear from one single little tortured child, beating its breast with its little fists in its foul-smelling lock-up, and praying with its unexpiated tears to its ‘Dear Father God’. He tells Alyosha: “It’s not God that I don’t accept – understand that – it’s His creation.” Ivan cannot comprehend how any God could permit such depravity, pointing to atrocities committed by the Turks in Bulgaria, and also to stories of torture perpetrated against children in “Christian” Russia. In response to the tirade Alyosha responds that: “He can forgive everyone for everything, because He Himself shed His innocent blood for everyone and everything.” For Alyosha this act of love is oceanic in its reach and can steer us from the moral void, into which Ivan eventually descends. If we believe Alyosha, no crime is so great that redemption is not possible.
As a brief aside it is useful to explore Jung’s conception of evil in the world, of which Ivan and Alyosha’s debate may remind us. Jung’s approach diverges from the Catholic doctrine of Privatio Boni, which identifies evil simply with the absence of good, and not as an independent and eternal phenomenon. In contrast, “Evil,” Jung says “does not decrease by being hushed up as a non-reality or as mere negligence of man. It was there before him, when he could not possibly have had a hand in it.” Jung argued that: “The future of mankind very much depends upon the recognition of the shadow.” Dostoyevsky also confronts evil in an attempt to control it.
Later Ivan is attended by a supernatural visitor, a devil, who claims to have “turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing”; a creative invitation taken up decades later by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The Master and Margarita. This devil imagines an earth recycled a billion times: “endlessly perhaps, and always the exact same, down to the last detail”. Intriguingly, this cosmology corresponds with ideas current in physics. Neil Turok writes: “If the universe can pass through a singularity once then it can do so again and again. We have developed the picture into a cyclic universe scenario, consisting of an infinite sequence of big bangs each followed by expansion and collapse.”
A form of what Nietszche referred to as “eternal recurrence” is similar to Carl Jung’s description of the hell of the mad, which is not only that time has “ceased to exist for them but some memory of what it and its seasons once meant to them remains to remind them of the fact that it is no longer there”. The devil reminds Ivan of time’s lapse.
Ivan is dazzled by his intellectual brilliance. His spiral into madness represents a failure to nurture the divine in his nature. Ivan’s devil taunts him: “Although I’m a hallucination, nevertheless, as in a nightmare, I say things which are original, things that have never occurred to you before, which means I am not merely repeating your thoughts and yet at the same time I’m simply your nightmare and nothing else.” His elevated rationality is assailed by the unknowable mysteries of the unconscious that intrude on his calculations.
At the start of the novel Ivan, who is described as a poet, treats us to one of the great characters of modern fiction: the Grand Inquisitor that Laurens van der Post called “the visionary anticipation of Stalin and his kind”. The tale is set in post-Reformation Spain, where the Inquisitor is visited by a resurrected Christ. This fearsome creation, however, dismisses the putative saviour, admitting that the Catholic Church has embraced the devil: “we have accepted from him what You had rejected with indignation, that last gift that he offered You, showing You all the kingdoms of the earth: we accepted Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and we proclaimed ourselves the only kings on earth, the only true kings”. The Grand Inquisitor is convinced that he is serving the interest of the common people, who will despair if freedom of conscience is permitted. Instead he promises to continue serving him: “we shall withhold the secret and, to keep them happy, we shall opiate them with promises of eternal reward in heaven”. Marx himself could not have performed a more thorough hatchet job on the Catholic church, though, ironically, Grand Inquisitors prospered in communist Russia.
Through Ivan, Dostoyevsky is voicing his deep animosity to Catholicism, the Jesuit order in particular and the conflation of religious with temporal power generally; a charge of devilry in this enterprise previously levelled by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. Ivan, however, throws the baby out with the bathwater, failing to grasp the benefits of the compassion his brother Alyosha discovers through his mentor Zosima. This philosophy does not require miracles to bind awestruck followers. Symbolically, after his death, Zosima’s body is left unburied for some days and begins to give off an “odour of putrefaction”, rather than the miraculous fragrance that some of his superficial followers seek as confirmation of his holiness. This reflects a passage from the Gospel of St Mathew when during his trial in the desert Jesus responds to the demand of the devil that he should perform a miracle by saying: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The importance of Zosima lies in ideas of compassion that he embodies, in opposition to the diabolic scheming of the Grand Inquisitor.
The extended writings of the Elder Zosima that appear in the book are a moral touchstone for the characters, deviation from his precepts resulting in torments such as Ivan’s. This section was inspired by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, and at its core is the idea that we share a collective guilt for the sins of one another and should refrain from judgment. This is a concept developed in another novel of Dostoyevsky’s, The Devils, where the fictional elder Tikhon (confusingly he bears the same name as the historical figure) responds to the confession of Stavrogin to a heinous crime against a child by bursting into tears and asserting his own culpability. In The Brothers Karamazov the approach is laid out in full. The essence is that we have a common responsibility for the world we live in.
Some critics have argued that Tikhon’s philosophy did not coincide with Dostoyevsky’s admittedly complex views, but the presence of this teaching in The Devils and full elucidation in The Brothers Karamazov suggests the author subscribed to this code. Dostoyevsky went to the length of transcribing by hand the mystic’s autobiography when he encountered it in a monastery, and presents almost a facsimile in the novel. It seems inconceivable that he would give it such faithful treatment if he did not consider this a profound insight. Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy displayed a similar moral candour, which also allowed for sympathetic treatment of the “sinful” characters, such as Odysseus, that he meets in hell. It is perhaps the tragedy of postmodernism that most contemporary writers have abandoned a firm moral foundation. In its place we have the narcissism of autobiography and the cult of authenticity. As Laurens van der Post put it: “characters no longer bubble up, fountain-like, in the art of fiction but have been replaced by men and women who have been ‘researched’ as novelists proudly assert, and so are not individual conceptions any more but statistical abstracts of humanity that live only as a form of dead accountancy”.
In Discourses and teachings of Starets Zosima it is proclaimed:
There is but one salvation available to you. Take yourself in hand, and be answerable for all the sins of all men. My friend this is actually true: you need only make yourself sincerely answerable for everything and everyone, and you will see immediately that it really is so, and that it is you who are actually guilty of the sins committed by each and every man. Whereas, if you blame one another for your own sloth and weakness, you will end up becoming imbued with satanic pride and will turn against God.
This is a radical Christianity that overthrows an assumption of moral authority, and where sin is approached as collective error. Instead of passing judgement we embrace the failings of each other as our own. It corresponds with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s more recent assertion that “nobody is responsible except you, because you are the world and the world is you”, although evil should not simply be dismissed as a projection but confronted as an active force in ourselves and the world.
Zosima’s doctrine of compassion is relevant nonetheless to the despair felt by many at the failings of political and religious leaders. We might usefully explore the origin of the bile directed at President Trump, whose lies and raging sexuality deserve comparison with those of Fyodor Karamazov. Before inveighing against his excesses, it is useful to acknowledge that he is an extension of the world that we are all responsible for. For example, we castigate his denial of the reality of climate change but that denial is implicit in how many of us lead our lives. Scapegoating Trump and his acolytes is hypocritical unless we alter our own behaviour. Moreover, it was our collective fascination with his abusive rhetoric that gave him the exposure necessary for a political revolution. Besides, can any of us who listen to Trump say we have never had a racist, sexist or thuggish thought? Or that we have always been entirely honest and not asserted ourselves aggressively? “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.”
Those characteristics are dormant in most of us but hatred of Trump is conditioned by a struggle to contain our shadow, which amounts to the repression of these tendencies in ourselves. To admit to such infamy is challenging, but only by understanding this can we truly confront Trump. Similarly, Jung claimed that the Russia problem in the external world would never be resolved without more disaster unless we first dealt with the “Russia in ourselves”. Dismissing, as Hillary Clinton did, Trump’s supporters as a: “basket of deplorables” was probably the gravest error of her campaign. That term is associated with “basket cases” and “white trash”, suggesting that his supporters were like garbage that ought to be destroyed.
Trump preyed on this but also on a rampant rationality that makes expertise remote, specialised and inaccessible. His jocular policy shifts and tendency to speak the language of the uneducated classes was the shadow of a growing dissonance in the West that is the shadow of a high-pitched rationality inaccessible to most ears, which creates divisions in society and engenders a post-truth dismissal of expertise.
That is not to say we should not confront the evil of Trump’s vindictiveness and obtuse denial. In fact we have a moral obligation to do so, but it is important to voice opposition in such a way that does not speak down to his supporters, and acknowledges that there is a serious problem with the way we communicate ideas. A challenge for any politician opposed to Trump is to summon the oceanic compassion and skilled communication required for global leadership.
Zosima’s vision of harmony also extends beyond the human species:
If you love every kind of thing, then everywhere God’s mystery will reveal itself to you. Once this has been revealed to you, you will begin to understand it even more deeply with each passing day. And finally you will be able to love the whole world with an all-encompassing universal love.
We are urged to “love animals”, and not set ourselves above them, an apparently oriental view on the relationship between humans and other species which is increasingly relevant to the growing awareness of the need to curb the appalling treatment of animals by human beings in the contemporary world.
It is perhaps Russia’s situation on a geopolitical fault-line between Europe and Asia that explains its extraordinary cultural achievements – especially in the nineteenth century – straddling the continents and drawing lessons from both. A more obviously Buddhist approach was later adopted by Dostoyevsky’s contemporary Tolstoy – including embarking on a fruitful correspondence with a young Mahatma Gandhi – he opined that “as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields”.
Zosima concludes his tract with an answer to the question: “What is hell? I argue thus: it is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.” Here he avoids simplistic recourse to supernatural explanation, instead preferring a profound psychological insight into the origin of human unhappiness.
The eldest brother, Dimitri, represents in Freud’s schema the id of uncoordinated instinctual passions. He is also an idealist in the mould of his youngest brother, Alyosha, but vulnerable to the sensual indulgences of his father. These competing forces battle for his soul, with his benign nature ultimately prevailing:
I am a Karamzov … I fall into the abyss, I go head first and even take pleasure in the extent of my own degradation, even find beauty in it. And from those depths of degradation, I begin to sing a hymn. I may be damned, I may be base and despicable, but I kiss the hem of the robe that envelops my God; I may be serving the devil at that same moment, but I’m still your son, O Lord, and I love you and feel that joy without which the world could not exist.
Although in one episode he beats his father, and also later metes out terrible violence to his father’s servant Grigory, who acted in loco parentis when as a child he was abandoned and allowed to roam barefoot like a wild animal by his real father. He draws back, however, from the ultimate violence of patricide. In his own words he is saved by a guardian angel. In contrast to Ivan’s nihilism, belief in a divine harmony allows him to resist a violent passion at the critical moment.
Dimitri’s salvation arrives through a willingness to accept the consequences of a sin that we learn he did not commit. After being found guilty of the crime he says: “I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him and, perhaps, really would have killed him.” He takes possession of an act for which he has no direct responsibility as the philosophy of Tikhon ordains we should.
There is, it seems, a fourth son that completes the Karamazov circle of virtue and vice: Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov, although whether he is indeed Fyodor’s son is never confirmed. He is the child of the mentally ill, so-called Stinking Lizavetta, who had been raped by the arch-sensualist Fyodor Karamazov. The pitiful half-wit dies in childbirth and the infant’s upbringing is left to Grigory and his childless wife, Marfa. They obligingly take care of the surly, epileptic boy, who eventually goes to Moscow to study cookery, returning as Fyodor’s scheming chef and trusted confidant. Smerdyakov offends against the natural order: torturing dogs by putting pins in scraps of food, and denigrates poetry: “it’s a lot of rubbish. Just think about: who in the world speaks in rhyme?” Ultimately he murders his own likely father when the opportunity presents itself after Dimitri baulks at the prospect. Then he leaves the crime scene so it appears, beyond reasonable doubt, that Dimitri is responsible.
Smerdyakov had developed a close relationship with Ivan, who is simultaneously repelled and drawn to his illegitimate brother. It is to Ivan that Smerdyakov nonchalantly confesses the murder. In a sense, he is an elemental force that arises to avenge the misdeeds of the father, but on another level he represents a corrupted youth, familiar to readers of The Devils, that has abandoned a moral code. Explaining the murder, he quotes Ivan’s own ideas back at him: ‘“everything is permitted” … if there is no eternal God, then there is no virtue, and, what’s more, absolutely no need for it. You really meant it. That’s what I reckoned.” Ivan’s ideas may have been more refined, but his student Smerdyakov draws his own lessons just as the followers of Marx drew theirs. Ivan denies responsibility but his descent into madness is symptomatic of a failure to take responsibility for the deed, unlike his redeemed brother Dimitri.
Here we encounter Dostoyevsky’s prophetic capacity. If another great novelist of his era, Tolstoy, offered great insights into the heart of the Russia of his day, Dostoyevsky had his eyes on a turbulent future. Legions of Smerdyakovs drawn from an impoverished and downtrodden proletariat would carry out the appalling atrocities of Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union.
The Marxism that rejected the idea of God did not develop a moral code to replace that founded on metaphysical ideas. Instead society was viewed in dialectical and oppositional terms, with human rights subservient to advancing the historical process. The Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin acknowledged in 1914: “there is nothing more ridiculous … than to make Marx’s theory an ‘ethical’ theory. Marx’s theory knows no other natural law than of cause and effect, and can admit no other such law.”
All too many have been killed in the name of God throughout history, and still today, but the denial of individual human rights opens an appalling vista where “everything is permitted”. The measured humanism that Ivan displays can easily mutate into contempt for any human life that stands in the way of a mechanistic ideal. By denying an over-arching truth, beauty and justice man may be trampled into the mud. As for Smerdyakov, in the end he hangs himself, reflecting Zosima’s view that hell “is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore”. No redemption arrives for this ill-starred character.
Readers may find Dostoyevsky relative avoidance of strong female characters unappealing. This may be seen throughout his writings, wherein they typically act as foils to male protagonists as temptresses or saints. Some of Dostoyevsky’s women, like Darya in Devils and Sonya in Crime and Punishment, set an example of compassion which the male characters learn from, but again it is proffered in a supporting role. On the other hand, Tolstoy did present strong, wilful female protagonists in Anna Karenina (both Kitty and Anna) and War and Peace (Princess Mary and Natasha). Dostoyevsky was less inclined to do so, for whatever reason.
One can read great works of philosophy and history in an attempt to understand human nature, but the power of literature such as The Karamazov Brothers is that it invents a recognisable world in which human passions play. Dostoyevsky’s idea of collective responsibility for human error is as important now in the era of Trump as ever, and his message of compassion for all life on Earth is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of the West that have permitted us to lay waste to the world. He was clearly a visionary, not without limitations, who intuited the terrible cruelties that would soon reign ascendant in his country and beyond. The work will be a source of pleasure and wisdom for angry, but hopeful, young men, and hopefully women too, for generations to come.
Frank Armstrong is a Dublin-based writer currently researching a book on the connection between poetry and justice. His twitter handle is @frankarmstrong2