By Dane Neufeld
For much of my adult life, if asked to cite one of the most influential books in my spiritual journey, I would have said The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This despite not having read it since I was 18 years old. It was certainly the first really serious book I ever read and partially understood. I recall those exciting weeks with some clarity, alone in my room on weekend nights, indifferent to friends or campus distractions, completely absorbed in one of the greatest novels of all time.
Strangely, if asked all these years later what the book was about, or why it was influential, I would probably have struggled to give a coherent reply. I could have sketched the overall plot and perhaps described the weightier aspects of the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter. Beyond that the details would be scarce. More than anything I remember being spellbound by the young brothers and the arresting contrasts they provided, as I myself was trying to figure out who exactly I was and what was worth living for. The stormy desires and passions of Dmitri, the cool and tragic intellect of Ivan, and the simple if at times confused piety of Alyosha, became a live set of options that seemed to come to life all around me. Undoubtedly, I wanted to be like Alyosha.
Truthfully, I have not thought much about The Brothers Karamazov in recent years. If pressed I might have said it was a young man’s book, one that speaks into that spiritually-intense period of our lives when we first begin to understand the melancholic and singular desire to find and discover the big, overarching truths of the world. Dostoevsky’s novels live in these realms, the characters are exaggerated and unnaturally potent, the dialogue almost impossibly sophisticated and feverish. The brothers are all in their 20s after all, and each of them devoted singularly to some ultimate concern, always teetering on the edge of an all-or-nothing reality or consequence.
I recently picked up the book again with some hesitation, knowing that I was probably a long way from those early days. Now in my late 30s, it was the old men, Fyodor Pavlovitch and Father Zosima, who seemed to stand up off the page. Dostoevsky’s ability to delineate a character is incredible, and in the context of a family in particular, Fyodor emerges as the chaotic center of the devolving drama. He is devoted to a wide variety of sins, and cannot sustain a single mood but allows himself to be carried in whatever direction he feels compelled to follow. At times cunning or careless, ruthless or overly sentimental, he enjoys tormenting others without purpose, and he constantly speaks folly and absurdity just to observe their effects (89). Whereas his sons seem driven by a single purpose, Fyodor plays the buffoon because he knows he has long abandoned any form of integrity or purpose at all.
There are not many people entirely like him of course, but he evokes the diffusion of the urgency of youth as it transfers into the complacency of a middle age that flounders in the absence of a deeper vocation (134). Instead of striving toward something noble, he deflects, dabbles, evades, and pretends. He is bound by his trivial desires, and he cannot muster the energy to rise above them as he seeks to drag everyone else into the mire. Fyodor tries to conceal his selfishness in a mirage of buffoonery and idle chatter in which he himself no longer knows what he actually means or not. Fyodor plays the role of the buffoon in order to evade any serious forms of engagement with others, and to protect himself from the responsibilities that are natural to his position.
The contrast with Father Zosima is deliberate and powerful. When I was yonger I found his long speeches to be tedious and repetitive, but I found myself lingering over these the more recent time around. The two older men have spent their lives in the service of very different masters, and the trail of wreckage and blessing that follow them both in turn provides the greatest evidence for the godly life that Dostoevsky can muster. Contrasting the way of the “men of the age” with the way of the monk, Zosima says:
They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure seeking and self display. To have dinners, horses, carriages … is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice life, honor, the love of mankind, and will even kill themselves if they are unable to satisfy it … very different is the monastic way. Obedience, fasting, and prayer are laughed at, yet they alone constitute the way to real and true freedom. I cut away my superfluous and unnecessary needs, through obedience I humble and chasten my vain and proud will, and thereby, with God’s help, attain freedom of spirit. (314)
These two great themes of bondage and freedom drive the narrative, and while many of the characters dive into one in pursuit of the other, Zosima emerges as a stable and enduring witness to the way of freedom lived over the course of an entire lifetime. He urges his fellow monks to read the scriptures — “a carven image of the world” (292) — in which the suffering journeys of figures like Job or Joseph light the way to eternal life and freedom from desire. It is this freedom from the self and availability for others in Father Zosima, the Spirit of Christ, that draws countless pilgrims to his cottage. Even Fyodor Pavlovitch, who still, through the darkening frame of “mutual envy” and “self display,” perceived dimly some richer grace and joy than that which he had yet to know.
I’m old enough now that the end seems closer than the beginning. The youthful purity of Alyosha is a little less compelling than the final clarity and vision of Zosima. Between, of course, lies the multifaceted specter of Fyodor Pavlovitch, whose buffoonery seems all the more tragic given his age, and the opportunities refused to deny himself for the sake of others. But his life, exhibited by Dostoevsky in the extreme, represents a real possibility for any of us in a world where the alternatives to self-satisfaction seem increasingly scarce.
This Lent we could do worse than rereading an old classic or picking it up for the first time. Even better of course, we could heed the timeless call to humble and chasten our vain and proud spirits, with God’s help, in service of a greater freedom.