The book that defined my thirtieth year (The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky)

Christ was thirty when he started on his mission of changing the world. Siddhartha Gautama was twenty-nine when he decided to renounce the world and become the Buddha. I was somewhere between my twenty-ninth and thirtieth year when I began reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Imagine a bucket of cold water splashed on your face at 3 A.M in the dead of winter somewhere close to the North Pole. That was the experience I had when I reached the final page of Constance Garnett’s translation of Dostoevsky’s last novel. I thought I was dying. I wasn’t. I was merely coming out of one phase of my life in order to enter another. It’s the caterpillar in the pupa stage fully formed and ready to come out as a butterfly. Such is the lightness with which the book filled my heart.

Only Shakespeare and Dostoevsky can make you feel with every character in their works. You feel with the cruelty of the elder Karamazov, the obsessions of Dmitri the oldest brother, the cold rationality of Ivan that violates the human spirit, the epileptic Smerdyakov who throws bread to a dog with pins in it, the sweet and saintly Alyosha, that embodiment of human goodness Father Zossima, the proud and erratic Grushenka, Ilyusha the child who is dying because he has seen his father humiliated by Dmitri, the story within a story of Jesus coming to the city of Seville and thrown into a prison by the Grand Inquisitor who mocks Christ only to be kissed by him at the end of the narrative, the novel convinces you of  what Hamlet says: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

If The Brothers Karamazov defined my thirtieth year it’s because it freed me of the cynicism of early youth. I took too many things seriously until that point including my own self, but how people felt I did not. For the first time I reversed the equation and made an attempt to know people for what they are and not for what I want them to be. The tendency to imagine that you know people is a vain and self-centered one. Interestingly there is something about your own self that you’re destined never to know. The book made me see that “there are more things in heaven and earth” than what I could dream of philosophizing about.

Can we trust human nature or are we to pity and embrace it – this is the question that haunts Dostoevsky. Not to believe in the goodness of humanity would mean you’re condemned never to know the sweetness of living. To believe in such goodness is at the same time madness because you become vulnerable and lend yourself to hurt without any reason at all. “People are not bad. They may be weak sometimes” says the impeccably beautiful protagonist (played by Irene Jacob) in the last movie of Kieslowski’s trilogy Three Colors: Red that celebrates friendship and trust. The line is a strange one because though she has every reason to feel pessimistic about people she refuses to despair. This refusal to despair simply means you live without being hedged by defense mechanisms and love life for what it is.

That’s a very Dostoevskyean stance: to see people as “weak” and not “bad.” You don’t judge people too harshly and you’re freed of the suspicion that comes from a mentality trapped in the past. If Shakespeare sees human beings as performers, Dostoevsky sees them as victims of an almost fatal “weakness” that each one individually has to come to terms with at a moral and spiritual level. To be saved or to be damned is a choice that you make for yourself. The price is what you pay as a person though the outcome of the choice will either benefit or destroy those around you.

Dostoevsky can forgive many things – almost everything, like “Jesus” himself, the hero of his novels. The most reluctant to forgive however and hardest he is on cynics and cynicism which he sees in the rise of western individualism that he’s never tired of ranting against; because, like Tolstoy he views material progress as an evil working contrary to the spiritual emancipation of humanity. Dostoevsky’s heroes are ultimately innocent – their innocence comes from their knowledge of man’s capacity to sin against his neighbor – in failing his neighbor man has failed God; and Dostoevsky’s heroes are out to demonstrate the innocence that knows that in the end it must suffer betrayal by the ones you love the most.

I vaguely recollect a critic who says that Tolstoy was benevolent but Dostoevsky was kind. The distinction is important: benevolence is a conscious desire to be good; kindness is instinctual and spontaneous. The latter pervades Dostoevsky’s writing as a whole. The love and friendship that Alyosha shares with the kids is one of the most spontaneous episodes in the narrative. That strange and questionable phrase “unconditional love” – Dostoevsky is the only writer who can make you want to believe in it. The world is cruel and cynical but Dostoevsky wants you to love it and be filled with generous feelings towards it. People are born to be happy no matter how much they’ve to suffer for it in the process. The deeply moving funeral scene following Ilyusha’s death at the end of the novel celebrates life and friendship in a mystical, transcendental way:

“Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, probably Kartashov’s, cried impulsively.

“We love you, we love you!” they all caught it up. There were tears in the eyes of many of them.

“Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya shouted ecstatically.

“And may the dead boy’s memory live for ever!” Alyosha added again with feeling.

“For ever!” the boys chimed in again.

“Karamazov,” cried Kolya, “can it be true what’s taught us in religion, that we shall all rise again from the dead and shall live and see each other again, all, Ilusha too?”

“Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened!” Alyosha answered, half laughing, half enthusiastic.

“Ah, how splendid it will be!” broke from Kolya.

“Well, now we will finish talking and go to his funeral dinner. Don’t be put out at our eating pancakes — it’s a very old custom and there’s something nice in that!” laughed Alyosha. “Well, let us go! And now we go hand in hand.”

“And always so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya cried once more rapturously, and once more the boys took up his exclamation:

“Hurrah for Karamazov!”

With Tolstoy you’re constantly impressed by his greatness; Anna Karenina and War and Peace are indeed extraordinary works of art. You can’t be impressed with Dostoevsky; you can only love him and his characters. You laugh with them, you weep with them, you share their jealousies and their obsessions just as much as you share their need to love and be loved. They fill you with boundless pity and affection for a sad and a beautiful world that continues to be sadder and more beautiful than ever.


Categories: Rethinking The World

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