February 17, 2017
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
In “Philebus”, Socrates and Protarchus attempt to understand unity. Socrates states, “The one and many become identified by thought…They run about together, in and out of every word which is uttered…This union of them will never cease, and is not now beginning, but is an…everlasting quality of thought itself, which never grows old.” In other words, the idea of unity is an ancient one – older even than Plato’s writings and Socrates himself. So it is not surprising that Dostoevsky also grapples with forms of unity in The Brothers Karamazov. In the Epilogue, Alyosha (also Alexei) and the schoolboys grab hands and vow to never forget their friend Ilyushka. This action strongly resembles Jesus Christ with his disciples. Alyosha says to his friends and disciples, “You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, all our lives, who, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages of ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!” After this proclamation, all the boys join in and reinforce Alyosha’s words. What strikes me with interest is the way in which Dostoevsky wrote this scene. He has all boys join in as if one voice, then occasionally separates out a single voice. It is important that at times the voices are indistinguishable. For example, the boy who yells “Karamazov, we love you!” is possibly Kartashov’s, but not definitively. The others join in again as one mixture. Only Kolya and Alyosha are singled out as individuals. Part of this is due to the fact that the narrator never introduced the other boys to the reader. They have always existed for us as a group. The religious metaphor is obvious, but I am curious about the idea of one among many and how the many become one. Certainly, they have agreed upon a pact, but also, this decision (if we can call it that) was led by Alyosha. Kolya strongly reinforces Alyosha’s idea, and therefore, the others all follow along. In my mind, then, Alyosha and Kolya rise slightly above the others in their importance, which makes it difficult for me to label them as a single, unified body.
From the beginning of the novel, the narrator has always claimed that Alyosha was intended to be the hero of this novel. He says this despite the fact that no one will not believe it. He writes, “But suppose they read the novel and do not see, do not agree with the noteworthiness of my Alexei Fyodorovich? I say this because, to my sorrow, I foresee it. To me he is noteworthy, but I decidedly doubt that I shall succeed in proving it to the reader. The thing is that he does, perhaps, make a figure, but a figure of an indefinite, indeterminate sort. Though it would be strange to demand clarity from people in a time like ours. One thing, perhaps, is rather doubtless: he is a strange man, even an odd one. But strangeness and oddity will sooner harm than justify any claim to attention, especially when everyone is striving to unite particulars and find at least some general sense in the general senselessness. Whereas an odd man is most often a particular and isolated case”. After I finished reading the novel, I realized how closely Alyosha aligns with another great Dostoevsky character. The main character in the short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is also odd, unique, different, and therefore, separate. In this story, the narrator desires that everyone laugh at him, and in return he gives only love and forgiveness. Alyosha too gives love and forgiveness. At times Alyosha’s family embarrasses him (as in the scene in front of Zosima), but he forgives all of their irrational, eccentric and immoral actions. Alyosha never waivers in his love. He grants acceptance and love to all. For this reason, the narrator names him as the hero of the story.
Just after Ilyushka dies, the narrator notes, “They all [the boys] stopped at the big stone. Alyosha looked and the whole picture of what Snegiryov [Ilyushka’s father] had once told him about Ilyushechka, crying and embracing his father, exclaiming: ‘Papa, papa, how he humiliated you!’ rose at once in his memory. Something shook, as it were, in his soul.” In other words, something from deep within Alyosha forces him to stop these boys and mark the importance of the moment. It is different from his reaction to his own father’s death or even Dmitri’s trial, for example. This created community, this unity, marks an important change. It forces him to create a bond from a moment of suffering. Once he proclaims that they must all remember, they have something more important than friendship: unity. Even though it is noted that they will all go their separate ways, and may err or get in trouble, Alyosha demands that they recognize how goodness once filled them. Their unity is not one of similarity. They are unified solely through past experience, which now must be recalled by memory alone. Or, as Socrates states, they are unified in thought only.
Yet this unity is not an ideological one, not one of reason, but more closely resembles passion. Dostoevsky masterfully crafts each character, and Alyosha is a good example. He is reminiscent of Christ, but not the same as Christ. Alyosha does no teaching in this novel, rather he forgives everything of everyone. In a similar way, the group of disciples functions both as a unity and as individuals. The many strings converge into one large knot, which also allows Dostoevsky to conceive of many issues in one plot. At the heart of Alyosha’s complexity is his ability to love without judgment. Dostoevsky’s point may have been in the direction of proving that universal love and forgiveness is possible. Furthermore, Alyosha’s brand of forgiveness steps slightly away religious realms, and also divorces it from the realm of logic. The world is far from ideal, but is a very human mix of passion and love.
It seems to me that The Brothers Karamazov clearly calls for love, kindness and forgiveness to an extent not currently seen in society. For this reason Alyosha is the chosen hero. Everyone loves him, but he is also considered an oddity in the community. It is unclear to me, however, if Dostoevsky believes that Alyosha’s brand of forgiveness is able to be repeated, or if it should remain rare. Setting Alyosha as the hero, though, suggests that the reader must learn something from him. In a way, we even enter Alyosha’s path of learning.
One of Alyosha’s greatest struggles comes after the death of Zosima, Alyosha’s religious mentor. As Zosima’s body decays, the smell allows others to gossip about his failings. The idea that Zosima was flawed greatly disturbs Alyosha. The narrator writes, “Alyosha considered this rueful day one of the most painful and fatal days of his life. If I were asked directly: ‘Could all this anguish and such great perturbation have arisen in him only because, instead of beginning at once to produce healings, the body of his elder, on the contrary, showed signs of early corruptions?’ I would answer without hesitation: ‘Yes, indeed it was so.’ I would only ask the reader not to be in too great a hurry to laugh at my young man’s pure heart. Not only have I no intention of apologizing for him, of excusing and justifying his simple faith on account of his youth, for instance or the little progress he had formerly in the study of science, and so on and so forth, but I will do the opposite and declare firmly that I sincerely respect the nature of his heart. No doubt some other young man, who takes his heart’s impressions more prudently, who has already learned how to love not ardently but just lukewarmly, whose thoughts, though correct, are too reasonable (and therefore cheap) for his age, such a young man, I say, would avoid what happened to my young man, but in certain cases, really, it is more honorable to yield to some passion, however unwise, if it springs from great love, than not to yield to it at all.” Simple faith and great love – are these desirable qualities in humanity? Alyosha’s teachings become important to the reader also.
I keep returning to the idea of witness. Alyosha hears and sees terrible acts, but never participates. A boy bites his finger to the point of bleeding, and his response is to wonder at what wrong has been committed against the boy. Also, Alyosha is the only one who never suspects Dmitri as the murderer, despite the facts. Alyosha sets an example of a different type of reason, something empathetic, something unreasonable in contemporary society. Grushenka says that one “should love for no reason, like Alyosha”. We often speak of heartbreaks, but I wonder if in this novel, it is as if the mind must break and the heart heal.
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