Who then is laughing at mankind?

9 May 2012 § Leave a comment

Dostoevsky isn’t really a writer for the dictionary of quotations. Granted, there are a few famous lines – “Everything is permitted”, “beauty will save the world” – but to quote them like that is to take them right out of context, and render them meaningless. The other day though, I was thinking about this, and wondering if I could come up with a “favourite quote” from Dostoevsky’s novels. The closest I could manage comes from the conversation “over the brandy” between Fyodor, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov. Fyodor alternately asks his sons whether God and the immortal life exist. Alyosha says yes, Ivan, no. One last time, Fyodor asks Ivan:

“…I say, Ivan, tell me for the last time and categorically: is the a God or not? I’m asking you for the last time”.

“And for the last time there isn’t”.

“Who then is laughing at mankind Ivan”

Ivan answers that it must be the Devil, before quickly going on to assert that of course the Devil doesn’t exist either. But it’s that bleak, poignant question, from the disgusting old drunkard, “who then is laughing at mankind?” that brings me up short every time I read it. He doesn’t ask who is judging us, or protecting us, or loving us – no, all that Fyodor Karamazov thinks we are fit for is being laughed at, or mocked. It’s probably the most truthful thing the old man ever said.

Here we are, industrious little ants, who seem to think that we have an important place in the universe, and the idea that if there’s any point to our existence it’s just to amuse a cruel deity nicely puts a stop to any anthropocentric ideas about the universe being created purely so that we can exist in it. We all need to be laughed at from time to time, to shake us out of our pomposities, to deflate our sense of self-importance. If it applies to us as individuals, why not the whole species? We’ve created such wonderful things – Durham Cathedral, the B-Minor Mass, The Brothers Karamazov –  but we need a reminder that in the grand scheme of time and space, we’re really nothing.

Yes, the question of who is laughing at us is terrible, but it has a frightening beauty to it, that echoes the frightening beauty of that vast empty universe in which we float. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams imagines the “total perspective vortex” which drives its victims to insanity by showing them just how small and insignificant they are in relation to the rest of the universe. Perhaps just being laughed at is the best way to deal with the problem – if there is anyone there to laugh at us.

Fyodor Karamazov seems to have reached his old age untroubled by the metaphysical questions that torment his sons, particularly poor Ivan. Ivan gets himself tied up in horrible knots thinking seriously about the problem of God and his creation, when a little humorous detachment might have helped him to disentangle himself from his deadly confusion. Dostoevsky must surely understand this, for why else would he conjure up for Ivan his greatest comic creation – the Devil that springs from serious Ivan’s own imagination to taunt and tease him. If there’s no God to laugh at us, we have to create our own petty demons to do the job for us.

A world without God

21 February 2012 § 5 Comments

The believers and the atheists are at it again, with plenty of dangerously ill-informed nonsense being spouted on both sides. One of the things that has always troubled me is the assumption made by some believers that without God, society will collapse into immorality, and that everyone will give up in despair, with nothing to guide them onwards. At the same time, the more militant atheists defensively insist that all believers make this assumption, which only makes the misunderstandings worse.

It’s easy to assume that Dostoevsky falls firmly into the first camp: after all, there’s Raskolnikov the nihilist murderer apparently finding salvation and repentance through the Gospel and through Sonya’s faith; Stavrogin driven to despair by his inability to find redemption; Ivan Karamazov preaching that “everything is permitted”; and various dreams and visions of a monstrous future without god, where people devour each other and are crushed under the feet of Nietzschean supermen. Richard Dawkins certainly claims that Dostoevsky thought this way, when he writes in The God Delusion (p227):

It seems to me to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness. It is widely believed that Dostoevsky was of that opinion, presumably because of some of remarks he put into the mouth of Ivan Karamazov…

And he goes on to quote from Ivan’s “Geological Upheaval” poem where he has imagined a world without God, in which there are no longer any moral laws and that everything is permitted. But what Dawkins doesn’t mention here is that these are the words of a younger Ivan, and that when they appear, they are being thrown back in his horrified face by the devil of his nightmare. The young Ivan had gone on to say that anyone who renounces God ahead of the masses is already entitled to contravene all the old moral laws – but he has taught this to Smerdyakov and has now seen the terrible consequences. His father has been murdered, his brother Dmitry has been arrested,  two women, Katerina and Grushenka, have had their lives turned upside down, and if you’ve read the book, you know even more (as you know, I try to avoid plot spoilers!). Ivan by this point has seen the awful consequences of “everything is permitted” and is being driven out of his mind by the knowledge of what he thinks he has unleashed. Similarly, Raskolnikov is already being tormented by his actions before he meets Sonya. It’s true that her Gospel message brings him comfort, but it’s his own conscience that  has led him to Sonya.  Stavrogin finds no respite from the torment caused by the memory of his crimes; rejecting God doesn’t release him from the consciousness of his sin, and every moment of possible happiness is tormented by the memory of his victim. Dostoevsky knows full well that the human spirit is perfectly capable of telling right from wrong, without needing a church to boss us around and tell us what to do. His (Roman Catholic) Grand Inquisitor says that weak mortals need the discipline of the church to make us behave but for Dostoevsky free will trumps all. He offers faith, and above all, the loving example of Christ, as something for us to aspire to, but  that’s not the same as saying that religion gives us our morality.

Rowan Williams has pointed out that Dostoevsky isn’t actually that bothered about proving the existence of God either way, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. Where Dostoevsky is really interesting is in his explorations of the borderlands between faith and unbelief . Characters like Ippolit and Kirilov are assumed by those around them to be atheists, but really they’re just furious with God and rebelling against him, without actually denying his existence. Ivan Karamazov gets himself completely tied up in knots, especially over the business of suffering; I think he’s desperately trying to find in himself a faith that isn’t there, and he would be much better just acknowledging that for him, God doesn’t exist, and getting on with his life.  One of the messages I get from reading Dostoevsky is that some people have the right psychological make-up to benefit from a religious faith, and others don’t. What’s important is to know which  type of person you are, and not to force yourself into believing in God or denying him, if that goes against your nature. I don’t think Dostoevsky ever quite worked out whether he actually had faith or not, and his great devotion to the figure of Christ  complicates things, and his fiction is his own way of trying to find out.  It helped me to work it out though, allowing me to admit to myself what I think I’ve actually known for a long time.

And to those who fear moral breakdown in a godless society, Dostoevsky in fact offers a much more  positive vision of a world without God, in The Adolescent, in a dream inspired by Claude Lorrain’s painting Acis and Galatea:

The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality, would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world. To people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state…The would wake up and hasten to kiss each other, hurrying to love, conscious that the days were short, and that that was all they had left. They would work for each other, and each would give all he had to everyone, and would be happy in that alone. Every child would know and feel that each person on earth was like a father and mother to him. ‘Tomorrow may be my last day,’ each of them would think, looking at the setting sun, ‘but all the same, though I die, they will all remain, and their children after them’ – and this thought that would remain… would replace the thought of a meeting beyond the grave.

Is Dostoevsky depressing?

16 November 2011 § Leave a comment

A while ago, a friend of mine made a comment about Dostoevsky being depressing. It wasn’t really the time to launch into a full-blown defence, and I got no further than a feeble “no he isn’t”, but  I kept thinking afterwards about what I should have said, as one always does. I remembered it again last night; I’d had a bad day, and had a headache, but forced myself to sit down at the computer and get some work done on the book. An hour or so later, I was feeling much better: on this occasion it was probably just the absorption in work that had cheered me up, rather than Dostoevsky himself, but it got me thinking again about exactly why it is that his novels are not in the least bit depressing, and often quite the opposite.

The delight of reading any book comes from the ability of an author to absorb the reader completely, to take them to a different place, and even if that place is less comfortable than the sofa and glass of wine that’s left behind, there’s still pleasure in the sense of escape from daily life. Dostoevsky has this ability in bucketloads; his plots gallop along, full of unexpected twists and tantalisingly half-answered questions and you have to keep reading and reading out of a desperate desire to know what’s going to happen next. Will Raskolnikov get caught, or will he crack and confess? Who really murdered old Fydor Karamazov? Will Dmitry get a fair trial? Which man will Nastasya Filippovna finally choose? And so on. The novels are packed with action and drama, full of larger-than-life characters who sparkle off the page: when I’m delving into one of the novels looking for a reference, I have to be on my guard not to get sucked back into the story, otherwise I’d never get anything written.

There’s also a fair amount of humour (I even spotted a book in the library entirely devoted to the subject of humour in Dostoevsky, although its contents seemed disappointingly dry), from the straightforward buffoonery of Rogozhin’s entourage, to the sharp digs aimed at the odious and stupid Luzhin (the conversation between Luzhin and Lebezyatnikov when they attempt to discuss the “woman question” is hilarious). One of my favourite scenes is when Raskolnikov teases Razumikhin about his obvious desire for Dunya and the two of them become helpless with laughter (yes, Raskolnikov laughs!), and even the utterly terrifying portrayal of madness that is the Devil’s visit to Ivan is full of humour.

What really nails it, however, is the irrepressible love of life that pervades everything that Dostoevsky writes. Even in the midst of madness and violence, there seems to be a desperate struggle to keep going, to find some way onwards: there is no defeatism in Dostoevsky’s novels. Ivan faces his great crisis of faithbecause he loves life and humanity so much, and the reason that we retain a shred of sympathy for Stavrogin, is because he tries so hard to find and hold onto something good, even though it eventually slips from his grasp. It’s why Dostoevsky won’t let Ippolit succeed in his suicide attempt, and why Kirillov does not, in the end, willingly shoot himself. Dostoevsky sees the miracle of human life as something huge and wonderful, and it is this sense of wonder that gives him the power to magnify the excitement of life, with all its messiness and complications, to the dimensions that it reaches in his novels. Reading Dostoevsky is exhilarating, and at times exhausting. He makes big demands of his readers, but pays them back for the effort. He’s scary, exciting and sometimes a lot of fun.  And never, ever depressing.

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