My imagination makes me human
and makes me a fool;
it gives me all the world
and exiles me from it.
--Ursula K. Le Guin
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December, 2009 - Reading The Brothers Karamazov



Every year I try to read one or two classics that I avoided in college. The list, of course, is too long to make a dent, but, so far, I've found immense pleasures--Magic Mountian, Buddenbrooks, Middlemarch, Auggie March. The most recent, The Brothers Karamazov, I have to say, was more chore than pleasure. I found much of it tedious. I thought most of the main characters were soap opera caricatures--selfish people behaving badly. They never seemed to rise above the emotional level of an adolescent. I thought I would never get through it. And yet, I'm still pondering that ponderous story and the family dysfunction at the heart of it. That may be partly due to the fact that Christmas is looming, a holiday that so magnifies family dysfunction.

The parts I did enjoy: scenes set in the monastery, the chapter on Father Zossima and how he came to the priesthood, the chapter on the schoolboys, especially the precocious Kolya. Because he spoke so little, I listened more attentively to Alyosha, who listened so patiently to all the manics surrounding him. Well, yes, as in life, we're attracted to the good ones, the brave and clever ones, the gentle and sympathetic ones.

The main theme of the novel seems to be the conflict between upholding the basic tenet of Christianity, i.e., to love one another, and the impossibility of loving those who are unworthy. The first is espoused by Alyosha in his speech to the boys at the end. The scene follows their classmate Ilyusha's funeral, an event which Alyosha hopes will tie his message to experience in the boys' memories and give it more weight. He tells them to always remember Ilyusha and the love they have for him. This love, he contends, has made them better than they were, and remembering that feeling will guide them in acting wisely in the future.

The second, and more interesting one, is in the attorney Fetyukovich's closing argument in defense of Dmitri, the son accused of murdering his father. He said that there is a myth surrounding the word 'father' (and I also add the word 'mother') that says because someone gave you life, you are obligated to love and honor them. The truth, he said, is that "filial love for an unworthy father is an absurdity, an impossibility. Love cannot be created from nothing: only God can create something from nothing." He goes on:

Let the son stand before his father and ask him, 'Father, tell me, why must I love you? Father, show me that I must love you,' and if that father is able to answer him and show him good reason, we have a real, normal, parental relation, not resting on mystical prejudice, but on a rational, responsible and strictly humanitarian basis. But if he does not, there's an end to the family tie. He is not a father to him, and the son has a right to look upon him as a stranger, and even an enemy.

Fyodor Karamazov was not a worthy father. How do you love when the injury is so personal? And how does one not love a parent? Neither Dostoevsky nor God answers those questions. I'm reminded of that much-anthologized Philip Larkin poem, "This Be the Verse":

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one anotherís throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And donít have any kids yourself.

It is the question all children of narcissists need to ask, especially at Christmas when family conflict and painful memories of Christmases past cause so much anxiety. If Dmitri and Ivan and Alyosha had not felt that impossible obligation to love, and to win the love of, an unworthy father, how different their lives might have been.

Now, after all this digression, this grumbling about an over-long and tedious text, I must say that I'm glad I read it. And it has to do with something writer David Foster Wallace said about Dostoevsky, that he (D) asked the serious questions without couching them in satire as postmodernists do (pretty much the reason I don't enjoy postmodern writing--even though the writing may be brilliant, the subject fascinating, the tone makes it all seem shallow). Now, maybe Crime and Punishment...?