Saturday, October 10, 2009

Reflections: The Brothers Karamazov

Hailed as Fyodor Dostoevsky's masterpiece, this book is a treatise on the nature of human vicissitudes. Through the three Karamazov brothers, Dostoevsky explores the spiritual, philosophical, moral and psychological attitudes of the Russian society in the late 19th century. Born to a miserly philanderer of base morals, the three brothers are wary of inheriting the Karamazov spirit - the impulsive and violent passion steeped in lust and greed.

Dmitri: The eldest of the brothers, abandoned and neglected by his father, grows up into a roguish officer with little morals and no money. Embodying the quick and blind Karamzov passion, he represents a crass man who knows not how to lead a life of a gentleman but struggles with himself through an internal battle between good and evil. His moral conscience is tested to its limits when he realizes that his father and he have fallen for the same woman.
Ivan: The intellectual and the philosopher. The socialist who abandons faith in God and religion, yet continually struggles to understand the design of the world, the society and its people. Blessed with an over-sensitive conscience and a gruelingly critical mind, he drives himself to insanity by battling between the good and the evil in him.
Alyosha: The composed and serene monk. The implicit believer of God and religion. His robust faith guides his rational and analytical thought. With an infinite store of goodness, virtues and patience, he worries over his brothers and father.

The three brothers are woven into a drama of self-realization, murder-mystery and a courtroom analysis, packed with essays on the human psyche. Such a preface was enough to draw me into the book and persevere till the end, despite my nearly abandoning it one-fourth of the way. Reading this book was like sitting out on a cold night waiting for the meteor showers. While the wait is frustrating as one struggles to stay awake, ignoring the cold, the buzz of insects and intermittent cry of crickets, once a meteor is spotted, the thrill and excitement is boundless. As the showers start, the wait, the cold and insects are forgotten and what remains of the event is the brilliant finale. So is this book. Dostoevsky takes his time in building up the story, sketching the characters and in setting the stage for the plot to come alive, that at times, he drives the reader to a fit of boredom. Now I should add that this particular meandering tone of the book could have well been because of the inadequate English translation. Sentences were winding down like a sluggish snake, and were jagged in their composition. But after 400 pages of the book, the tone changed and I found myself re-reading several passages to soak in all the wisdom.

The contrasting characters of the three brothers have been brilliantly shaped by Dostoevsky. As Ivan betrays his faith in human goodness and morals, and only sees religion and God as inventions to keep up human morals, Alyosha serenely preaches the miracle of faith and human goodness. I have to admit that Ivan voiced most of my current thoughts - his prime assertion that the belief in the immortality of the human soul is what causes us humans to pay any heed to morality, or fear of God, resonates with mine. If we all had just one life, with no Judgment Day hanging ahead of us, we would invent our laws of survival. Ivan also emphatically argues that each one of us struggles to ebb our "evil" and base instincts to surface what is socially accepted as virtuous behavior (also recently called as the veneer theory).

Through the murder-suspense, Dostoevsky paints a fantastic and thorough picture of the role of Human Conscience. He gave voice to the human conscience and let it speak through the three brothers. He also threads in the philosophical implication of the moral responsibility of any "crime"; is the perpetrator alone responsible, or are all those who drove him to the crime also responsible? How much moral responsibility do we all carry in knowingly or unknowingly influencing another person's actions? If a car mechanic accidentally forgets to properly fix the brakes in a car, is he responsible for the accident, or is the driver who drove at 80 miles an hour, heedless to the traffic rules? How much moral responsibility do these people share? And how does one determine the punishments? What are the purposes of punishments? Retribution for the sake of revenge, or for the sake of the reformation of the individual? Is being punished by our moral conscience more torturous than any legal charge?

Dostoevsky thus elaborates on the different shades of black and white that exist within all of us. No one can be framed completely "evil" or "good". In the depths of apparent malice and base instincts can lie hidden an ocean of goodness constantly struggling to rise up, and in the heights of goodness there can be found craters of ugly and vile instincts. This realistic portrayal of human nature is meticulously brought out.

I'm also extremely impressed with Dostoevsky's psychological acuity... for a brilliant writer to have such an impeccable grasp of psychology, philosophy and spirituality speaks volumes of Dostoevsky's genius! Every time one of the brothers proclaims their opinions, the arguments are so convincing, thorough and wise that often you wonder if Dostoevsky made three different people write this book. And so is the courtroom drama... the best I have ever read. Often, the arguments from the prosecutor and the defense would be such that one argument would sound most logical to the reader. But in this book, a seemingly simple murder scene is analyzed into so many perfect pieces, that I was spellbound. And the most brilliant part was that Dostoevsky not just analyzed the crime scene from the perspective of solving the case, but from the psychological perspective of the accused and the rest of the people involved. The analysis, which he calls as the "double-edged" sword was indeed shown to both prove and disprove the same hypothesis, with outstanding logical and psychological clarity! It's pure genius for someone to prove and disprove the same hypothesis with such fool-proof logic!

I'm not sure if I found enough words to articulate the ingenuity of Dostoevsky, and this classic. This is a brilliant book embodying some of the simplest truths and the greatest wisdom concerning the human's definitely meant to be re-read several times in life. Despite highlighting all the vile human characteristics and skeptic reflection on inherent human goodness, Dostoevsky brings forth immense hope for the ability of most humans to transform and act on their conscience, which can exist with or without external faith in God.


Oorja said...

hope to get my hands on it some time in my life.. i would love to read it..

Diwakar Sinha said...

me too..
lets hope for the best.

Neeraja said...

Oorja - Yes, you definitely takes a lot of effort to read it, but it's completely worth it!

Diwakar - I agree :)