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The last and greatest of Dostoevsky’s novels, The Brothers Karamazov is a towering masterpiece of literature, philosophy, psychology, and religion. It tells the story of intellectual Ivan, sensual Dmitri, and idealistic Alyosha Karamazov, who collide in the wake of their despicable father’s brutal murder.
Into the framework of the story Dostoevsky poured all of his deepest concernsthe origin of evil, the nature of freedom, the craving for meaning and, most importantly, whether God exists. The novel is famous for three chapters that may be ranked among the greatest pages of Western literature. “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor” present what many have considered the strongest arguments ever formulated against the existence of God, while “The Devil” brilliantly portrays the banality of evil. Ultimately, Dostoevsky believes that Christ-like love prevails. But does he prove it?
A rich, moving exploration of the critical questions of human existence, The Brothers Karamazov powerfully challenges all readers to reevaluate the world and their place in it.
Maire Jaanus is Professor of English and department Chair at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of Georg Trakl, Literature and Negation, and a novel, She, and co-editor of Reading Seminars I and II, Reading Seminar XI, and the forthcoming Lacan in the German-Speaking World.
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About the Author
Few authors have been as personally familiar with desperation as Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), and none have been so adept at describing it. His harrowing experiences in Russian prisons, combined with a profound religious philosophy, formed the basis for his greatest books: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov. When Dostoevsky died in 1881, he left a legacy of masterful novels that immortalized him as a giant of Russian literature.
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From Maire Jaanus’s Introduction to The Brothers Karamazov
Dostoevsky’s characters are concerned with infinitude. They refuse to live without infinitude or without a Hamlet-like concern with the eternal questions. A maddening lack of satisfaction sustains desire in this novel—sexual desire, intellectual desire, and spiritual desire, along with all the more mundane desires for money and power. And all these desires are blocked by impossibility, by the finite. One can choose to live only in the finite, but then, according to Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, one is in despair. To find joy, one has at that boundary of the finite to choose belief and love. Even a fragmented and muddled being like Dmitri understands that although mankind is conflicted because of too many choices between good and evil, and too broad— “Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower”—if you whittle him down you lose freedom and ethical accountability, and Dmitri’s major question concerns ethics. “What is ethics?” he asks, and what is the right thing for me to do? If you reduce the human being, you also lose desire and love. Then you create the hell that is “the suffering of being unable to love,” to connect, to reach for the impossible.
Modern bureaucratization and technologization aggravate the rupture between us and infinity. This infinity that it was still possible to grasp through religion or philosophy in Dostoevsky’s era is today only maintained by psychoanalysis via the passions, via that which is bodily and seemingly a product of the body and yet not bodily: that is, via the body’s demand for its own beyond. Thus now we can grasp infinity only by a transcendence of our sexual reality toward death or toward love. It is the transcendence that Dmitri is at the end striving for with Grushenka. He feels perturbed and changed by his affective experience with her. She has become for him the unexpected event, an encounter with a love that is beyond phallic sexuality.
Dostoevsky does not consider the questions of ethics, epistemology, and subjectivity without considering their founding in the passions, in human desire and fantasies and their attendant modes of enjoyment. He also knows that paradoxically our enjoyment can be a resistance to joy, a desire for unhappiness. Thus Dmitri has said, “There’s no living without joy,” but Dostoevsky puts Lisa into the novel to contradict him: She says, “I don’t want to be happy.” The conscious, commonsense idea that everyone wants to be happy becomes thereby more thorny and complex, as does everything having to do with the human passions in Dostoevsky. It was Marx who investigated the grounding of culture in economic labor, work, and production, and similarly it is Dostoevsky who investigates the grounding of the thinking and speaking subject in the work, movement, and productions of the emotions and the passions.The Brothers Karamazov energizes and taxes the intellect; it calls on the reader to think about and to answer the “eternal questions”: What is human happiness? Is there a God? What is despair (or Hell)? What is a father? What is the law and how should it operate? When does one forgive? Why is there cruelty? What is ethics? Why do we suffer? How can we face and comfort each other over death and loss? It is because he asks the eternal questions that Dostoevsky is above all a humanist, someone deeply interested in the possibilities and limits of the human condition, someone who wonders where we are going, what our purpose is. The humanist reminds us of the needs and dimensions of the human, what Dostoevsky calls mankind’s broadness. We have no boundaries; we bring into the world a sense of something beyond anything in reality or anything graspable. And this dimension is so much a part of mankind that if it is destroyed his being is destroyed. What supports this beyond is freedom, love, belief, and language. Without these things, there cannot be a true subject.
There are intellectually taxing sections in the novel that may make some feel Dostoevsky is just beyond their head; but that is because Dostoevsky understood that the human condition as such is beyond our head. Who understands life, its purpose or meaning, given that it empirically concludes in death? Who understands love or death? Life, love, and death are issues that are beyond our logic and comprehension. They permanently and profoundly disturb our existence. The corpse is the ultimate fear and challenge to our courage and the body that is desired is the ultimate object of strife, contest, and war.The main question of the novel—it was perhaps the most passionate question of the nineteenth century—is: What can bind and constrain or what can best guide these passions? Love or law? Not law because, for one, humans transgress it, and, for another, it is not commensurate with human and interhuman complexity or the mystery of human nature. The magnificent extended court scene at the end of the novel proves that law is not enough. An innocent human being, Dmitri, is sentenced for a murder he has not committed, but only desired.