Absurdity and Alcoholism

Submitted by Olivia C. Ebertz on Thursday, 12/9/2010, at 9:22 PM

I'm writing my paper on the use of humor in Dostoevsky, and as part of the research process I'm reading Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious by Freud. I found this great part about nonsense and absurdity being liberating. For Freud, children find it pleasurable to combine all sorts of random words together to form an absurdist word-salad, but as they get older, their parents scold them and they start to weed out the sentences that are deemed as "nonsensical". Freud therefore sees adult nonsense and freedom of unrestricted thought as liberating because of how restricted it is by societal norms.

Furthermore, Freud sees alcohol as being liberating when one is in a cheerful mood, because it "reduces the inhibiting forces... and makes accessible once again sources of pleasure which were under the weight of suppression... Under the influence of alcohol the grown man once more becomes a child, who finds pleasure in having the course of his thoughts freely at his disposal without paying regard to the compulsion of logic."

I see characters like Myshkin and Alyosha and Zosima and children as capable of evoking an innocently 'silly' effect. Some of their interactions are pleasurable for the reader to witness because they are simultaneously of the utmost gravity and lightheartedness and are unabashed by seeming nonsensical. They also love very readily, and are even beautifully nonsensical in their love (think of Alyosha and Krasotkin's silly and endearing love declarations). Characters like these don't drink much, because they don't need alcohol in order to reduce their inhibition.

On the other hand, buffoonish characters like Fyodor Pavlovich and Ilyusha's father and Marmeladov are way more inane than they are serious and also are constantly wasted. These characters also fall in love fairly readily, although it is decidedly more sensual than the former characters.

And sarcastic characters like Ivan and Rogozhin typically don't drink much, but not because of the reasons that 'silly' characters don't. They seem to feel as though they don't need to--or cannot-- reduce their inhibitions. They are constantly thinking and processing and getting in their own heads and they don't fall in love very easily or often. Interestingly, they tend to come to non-alcohol induced delirium of their own accord.

Once again it seems that child-like and innocent characters win in their uncanny ability to be uninhibited and down-to-earth, and love. They strike a perfect balance between the heavenly and the earthly. They're so perfect that you'd think they'd read all the self-help books on the shelf (I guess that's kinda what the bible is...)

Feminine Beauty

Submitted by Zachary I. Bleemer on Thursday, 12/9/2010, at 9:48 AM

I wanted to change the subject a little bit, just for a moment, and notice what an impact feminine beauty has on Dmitri. It's unclear to me exactly what Dmitri means when he claims that sensuality is the Karamazov trait, but one noticeable result of this sensuality, particularly in Dmitri's case but certainly also for Alyosha and Ivan, is that Dmitri seems to fall in love a lot with women he doesn't know very well. Three times it happens; early in his life with Agafya Ivanovna, a friend he was drawn to by beauty, and in the present story with Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka. In the entire book, Dostoevsky refers to only four women as beautiful, and Dmitri falls in love with three of them- an impressive feat! He repeatedly completely turns his life around so as to be with these women, only to, in Agafya's case, soon leave the area, and in Katerina's case to fall head over heels in love with another. The question I pose is: is this sensuality healthy? It's very much not a conscious part of Dmitri's character, by which I mean he hasn't chosen his sensual nature, but rather just lives it (if it were chosen it would be condemned by Elder Zosima as being as frivolous as Fyodor's taking offense, but this is a different case), so it's not like he could wake up one day and not be sensual, but the question remains- how does Dostoevsky feel about this sensuality, this ease of response to beauty?

An attempt to make sense of Dostoevsky's Love.

Submitted by Michael J. Harrington on Thursday, 12/9/2010, at 2:48 AM

"Before it was just her infernal curves that fretted me, but now I've taken her whole soul into my soul, and through her I've become a man!" (594).

"We fill fight. But love-- oh, I will love her infinitely. Will they let us be married? Do they let convicts marry? A good question. And I can't live without her..." (595).

In "A Hymn and a Secret," Dmitri comes across as a crazed sensualist; he raves about love, embraces his criminal sentence yet fears losing Grusha, considers attempting an escape, and wildly asks Alyosha if he believes the accusation of murder made against Dmitri. Dmitri seems nonsensical, but I believe the odd connections he makes in his talk with Alyosha go a long way to explaining a point Dostoevsky seems to be driving at. It's a thread I have previously missed or, at the very least, did not fully understand the rammifications of the idea as it has been previously expressed. I'll explain what I'm getting at by starting at the end of this scene.

Once Alyosha states that he believes Dmitri is innocent, Dmitri appears to be rejuvenated. "Thank you!... Now you've revived me," Dmitri states (597). This language  is incredibly similar to that used by Alyosha in an earlier scene with Grusha-- the "Onion" scene from Book 7. When Grusha feels pity from Alyosha upon hearing news of Zosima's death, Alyosha remarks, "I came hear looking for a wicked soul-- I was drawn to that, because I was low and wicked myself, but I found a true sister, I found a treasure-- a loving soul... She spared me just now... I'm speaking of you, Agrafena Alexandrovna. You restored my soul just now" (351). What is Dostoevsky getting at in providing similar scenes with similar language? The remarkable restorative potential of genuine human interaction. Dostoevsky constantly depicts terrible characters and cruel acts, but within his tragic narratives appears this amazingly optimistic thread: through human interaction, we can save one another. In other words-- and this may be putting it too simply or may merely be too cheeky, but I'll say it anyway-- while man may be too weak to replicate alone the model set by Christ, humans can lift one another up to a higher level.

This idea is further dramatized through the concept of love-- not brotherly love, but that other sort of love, the sort between Dmitri and Grusha. Their relationship evolves from a purely physical, sensual love to a love that, while still sensual, is sensual in a much higher sense of the word. As Alyosha tells Rakitin, Grusha "is higher in love than we are" (355). In these two scenes, it appears Dostoevsky gives form to the profound power of love; the sensual intimacy between Dmitri and Grusha explains why Dmitri, while facing a prison sentence, can only ask repeatedly "Do they let convicts marry?" Dmitri's reliance on Grusha seems almost crippling at times during his conversation with Alyosha. However, perceiving his love this way is a mistake, I believe; it is precisely their love that uplifts Dmitri and gives him the strength to take on the responsibly  of caring for others around him, including himself.

Dostoevsky's Epilepsy

Submitted by Jenna Iden on Thursday, 12/9/2010, at 1:50 AM

One of my close friends from home was diagnosed with epilepsy during our senior year. He's had a few seizures since, but he's generally pretty medically unremarkable otherwise. (I like calling him Caesar or Myshkin to annoy him.) I reveal this because  I feel that I have a very different understanding of epilepsy than Dostoevsky. Obviously, he had the disease and I just have a friend with a relatively mild diagnosis, but, still, I feel like I would have heard something if my friend was having dramatic flashes of clarity followed by an all-encompassing darkness. That just seems like a detail worth mentioning.

Epilepsy, since it affects consciousness, would reasonably encourage its victims to theorize. The "gahblesyu" we mumble now was meant to restore the soul to a person's body after they sneezed. Anything the body does of its own accord is worth a mythology. Dostoevsky crafts a pretty fascinating story of epilepsy. Hippocrates once noted that diseases cease to be divine once they are understood. My friend knows that his seizures stem from biology. Dostoevsky assumes the spiritual.

I love Dostoevsky's descriptions of Myshkin's seizures. I love the certainty and detail of Smerdyakov's. I believe they are accurate reflections of Dostoevsky's knowledge of seizures. I simply find Dostoevsky's epilepsy more mythic than scientific. Modern medicine removes much of the excitement of neurological diseases.

Should Dmitri go to Siberia?

Submitted by Monique L. Thomas on Wednesday, 12/8/2010, at 11:46 PM

In “A Hymn and a Secret,” Mitya insists that he must go to Siberia “for the wee one,” but I have trouble understanding what this means. How does martyring himself for a cause unrelated to the crime he’s accused of help anyone? So objectively speaking I do not think Mitya should go because his line of reasoning is delusional. Perhaps he should if he truly believes it would help the “wee” ones, but I’m not sure he does. The emotional fulfillment he’d experience would negate the unfair harshness of the punishment, but only if he’s committed wholeheartedly.

I think Dmitri wholeheartedly wants to be fully invested in the salvation of the “wee ones” but his love of Grushenka stops him: finally, he has something to live for and he can’t live without it. Curiously, he terms his inner conflict as Grushenka versus “his conscience” (595), but this is a moot point if, as he says over and over again, he simply can't live without Grushenka; does your conscience matter if it has nothing to guide?


Submitted by Alexander Strecker on Wednesday, 12/8/2010, at 10:55 PM

To disagree with my fellow classmates a bit, I think Smerdyakov shares some qualities with the other Karamazovs. Specifically, him and Mitya have the same relationship with proof, and by extension with miracles. Smerdyakov questions God from his youth (if there were no stars, where would the light come from?) and at the end of his life, depends crucially on the importance of physical proof (or lack thereof) to demonstrating the truth. In sum, he is a decidedly material character, who values the material over the spiritual. Similarly, Mitya demands physical proof throughout the book, for example asking God for miracles to save him from his plight, and clearly like Smerdyakov values the material over the spiritual for much of the book (except, perhaps, at the end, when facing the prospect of Siberia). Obviously this comparison has its limits since Smerdyakov can't express his materialism/sensualism as fully as the able-bodied, incredibly vital Mitya but there is still some connection. Is this enough to make Smerdyakov a full Karamazov? Maybe not, but considering the role he plays in the book, his function in the structure etc., I think he is not meant to be.

Is Smerdyakov a Karamazov?

Submitted by Olivia C. Ebertz on Thursday, 12/2/2010, at 11:32 AM

Smerdyakov is the least creatively thinking of the Karamazovs. He was spawned (I say 'spawned' and not 'birthed') from a wretched, homeless woman whom Fyodor Pavlovich raped and was then brought up as his father's servant. Smerdyakov has the slave mentality to the utmost degree! He is the most filled with ressentiment, and even when he kills he doesn't do it in his own name, for himself, but in the name of Ivan. He clings to his masters yet resents them--he tries desperately to please them and is constantly irrationally afraid that Dmitri will kill him and therefore grovels on his belly in the dirt for him and his brothers.

a twisted karmazov

Submitted by Gabriella N. Verwaay on Thursday, 12/2/2010, at 11:25 AM

I think that Smierdiakov is a Karmazov--by blood, that is to say he doesn't share there same mannerisms. I wonder if this is another of Doestoevsky's arguments about the whole nature nurture argument. Smierdiakov, treated badly by his family as the 'servant', tries so desperately to fit in. He idolizes Ivan's atheistic views, and the brothers hatred for Fyodor: but because of his upbringing and lack of a real father, his morals aren't straight, making the murder inevitable. 

Is Smerdiakov a Karamazov?

Submitted by Jorge A. Alvarado on Thursday, 12/2/2010, at 8:08 AM

This poses an interesting question. In the chapter of "Stinking Lizaveta," the whole town accused Fyodor Pavlovich of impregnating Lizaveta, who was basically a poor, wretched creature. Among a group of drunks, Fyodor Pavlovich said about Lizaveta, "She could be regarded as a woman, even very much so, and that there was even some piquancy in it of a special sort" (98).  More interestingly, Smerdiakov's patronymic name was Fyodorovich, although Fyodor Pavlovich "vehemently disavowed" (100). There is no admittance by Fyodor Pavlovich but rather left up to the reader to conclude whether he is lying or not, which is an interesting choice by Dostoevsky. The question is almost like putting Fyodor Pavlovich on trial. The evidence against him? He is a buffoon and liar. He is a sensualist. Regarding his second marriage and the mother of Ivan and Alyosha: "...but was tempted only by the innocent girl's remarkable beauty, and above all by her innocent look, which struck the sensualist" (13). Who seemed more innocent than the poor Lizaveta? Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence is that he was the one to kill Fyodor Pavlovich. As we discussed in class, one common trait among the Karamazov brothers was that they all wanted to kill Fyodor Pavlovich. Smerdiakov killed Fyodor Pavlovich. Does this make him a Karamazov? Or perhaps he's just a projection of their desires.

Re: Ambiguity

Submitted by Michael J. Harrington on Thursday, 12/2/2010, at 4:09 AM

I was actually going to write something else, but I read Woody's post and it intrigued me, in part because it is on a topic I've been wrestling with myself. Specifically, how are we approaching Dostoevsky in class, what are other ways of approaching him, and what are we missing due to our approach? I think this post may inform these questions , though maybe not explicitly.

I agree with the notion that underpins Woody's idea that "ambiguity" abounds in The Brothers Karamazov. If I am understanding his post correctly, then by "ambiguity" he means the presentation of multiple theoretical arguments, all of which are sound and reasonable and not-stupid, even if they contradict one another. I agree that this occurs, but what is "ambiguous" about this? I don't mean to say that Woody is using the wrong word; rather, I think that a multiplicity of sound arguments in his fiction does mean Dostoevsky's stance cannot be understood. In fact, the very method of study we've used to explore Dostoevsky-- exploring his works chronologically-- demands we know where he stands, for we've seen his general thought develop.

I know I may be stepping on toes when I put forth this conception of reading literature, but it seems foolish to eliminate Dostoevsky from his novel. The multitude of autobiographical details he includes in his novel attests to the fact that these stories spring from his experiences and general thought. Moreover, his use of description and juxtaposition often makes clear which opinions his literary project is working against.

As I said before, however, I completely agree that Dostoevsky actively seeks to introduce a multitude of perfectly logical views in his fiction. "Rebellion" and "Grand Inquisitor" are gripping chapters with appealing arguments (appealing in that they appeal to one's reason, not that they aren't painfully cruel or anything). But if what I'm trying to argue is actually true-- that Dostoevsky's views can be understood while reading his fiction-- than why bother to include these counter-thoughts? I believe these thoughts are necessary to keep open as much as possible one's ability to interpret the themes of the novel; put another way, these thoughts are necessary to ensure The Brothers Karamazov remains a novel and does not become an essay. What is striking about The Brothers Karamazov is the degree to which crucial discussions are open to interpretation. If Dostoevsky closed off this possibility, if he hid from the reader appealing arguments, then he would be restricting the reader's freedom. He would be nothing more than the Grand Inquisitor if the Grand Inquisitor could produce skaz narration. It follows from this that art (or, most specifically, one's reading of art) confirms the existence of one' s freedom; Dostoevsky's religious message thus demands the aesthetic form. He could tell his truth nearly no other way.