Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Brothers K. (2)

Anyone interested in the 19th century novel, or intellectual history--or history for that matter--should add this book to his or her reading list. Though I don't suppose there are many who will: it is not a lot of fun; it's raw as well as deep; it'll tear you up (well, it tears me up); it's nasty, brutish, long, AND thoroughly, minutely intelligent. It makes me wish I knew Russian for it seems, in a very deep way to be 'about' language itself as a communal enterprise, created by all, controlled by none, that ties people together when religion and ethics fail. As fail they must.

Published in 1880, it seems to take place at some earlier time (about which Dostoevsky is deliberately evasive) either shortly before or shortly after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861--a time, that is, when Russia was beginning to be seriously influenced by Western modes of rationality (science, liberalism, the Enlightenment). The rational organization of social, economic and political life, already well advanced in the West, was still a new thing in Russia, which makes Dostoevsky's novel--as he was well aware--unique: to read this novel is to enter a world that had not changed in any essential respects for thousands of years. The lives of ordinary people in pre-modern Russia had more in common with Roman peasants than with the life of anyone born in the West after, say, 1900.

I still don't know how to talk about this book, which firmly resists analysis and summary. Unlike other 19th century novels and most of the 20th century novels as well, The Brothers K seems not to have a plot. And here I want to quote something that Goethe said about Hamlet:

It pleases, it flatters us greatly to see a hero who acts of himself, who loves and hates as his heart prompts, undertaking and executing, thrusting aside all hindrances, and accomplishing his great purpose. Historians and poets would fain persuade us that so proud a lot may fall to man. In Hamlet we are taught otherwise: the hero has no plan, but the piece is full of plan. Here is no villain upon whom vengeance is inflicted according to a certain scheme, rigidly and in a peculiar manner carried out.... Here in this play of ours, how strange! Purgatory sends its spirit and demands revenge; but in vain! All circumstances combine and hurry to revenge; in vain! Neither earthly nor infernal thing may bring about what is reserved for Fate alone. The hour of judgement comes. The bad falls with the good. One race is mowed away, another springs up.

No one before Goethe had ever noticed that Hamlet gives the illusion of not being a play at all, for the very good reason that the very idea of such a play was unprecedented. (Perhaps the only precedent in the 19th century for a novel that creates the illusion of not being a novel was The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy?) The old cliche about Hamlet, that he can't make up his mind, contains a smidgeon of truth: in a play without a plot, you have to have a hero who doesn't know from minute to minute what he is about to say or do. Now this exactly describes the Karamazovs who never know what they will say or do next. And this strikes me as a very modern development in the art of the novel.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


The Brothers K, like Moby Dick, is a whale of a book, but there the resemblance ends. In the world of Dostoevsky's novel, it is possible to drive oneself mad over this question: If God doesn't exist, and it seems that he doesn't, does the bottom drop out of morality? In the brave new world of modernity, anything goes?

Melville's novel, written about thirty years earlier, is, uniquely, calmly, philosophical; the non-existence of God is simply taken for granted--by Melville and his narrator, Ishmael, at least; it is not about God but Nature. The whale, Moby Dick, is just a whale, a very smart whale to be sure, who turns on his tormentors as other animals have been known to do. Captain Ahab is merely deluded--or, rather, mad--like a lot of other people.

Moby Dick is unique in that no other western European novel, since its 18th century beginnings, had shown much if any interest in religion. Victor Hugo plainly adores the saintly Priest and Bishop who revolutionizes the life of the hero Jean Valjean, but religion is not at the center of what the novel is about. Nor is religion central to any other important novel of the 18th, 19th--or even 20th centuries though I am aware of some significant exceptions like Rusdie's Satanic Verses.

So far as the novelists of western Europe were concerned, God might as well have died before they began to write. Indeed, the novel itself as a literary form appears at just about the time (1700) when in Swift's terms, people began to settle for nominal Christianity instead of the real thing, whatever that was, a question that had not and could never have been settled on the killing fields of Europe no matter how many people were slaughtered or how long the slaughter lasted--thirty years in Germany; there had been sporadic massacres and wars all over western Europe for almost two centuries.

Russia observed all of this from afar, untouched either by the religious conflicts of the Reformation or the intellectual revolutions we call the Renaissance.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Swift's "Argument Against Abolishing Christianity" (1708)

Reading through the novels of Dostoevsky during the last few months, I got to thinking about Swift's satiric Argument. I'll have to try to explain the connection later. Here, for now, is some of the purest satiric prose ever written:

Swift begins his satiric 'argument' by apologizing to his readers for being so foolish as to oppose the opinion of the majority on this matter, which--he says--is like opposing "the voice of god." Yet, though "it may be neither safe nor prudent to argue against abolishing Christianity at a time when all parties appear so unanimously determined on the point, I know not how, whether from the affectation of singularity or the perverseness of human nature, but so it unhappily falls out, that I cannot be of this opinion. Nay, although I were sure an order were issued for my immediate prosecution...I should still confess that in the present posture of our affairs at home or abroad, I do not yet see the absolute necessity of extirpating the Christian religion from among us. This perhaps may appear too great a paradox even for our wise and paradoxical age to endure; therefore I shall handle it with the utmost deference to that great and profound majority which is of another sentiment.

And yet the curious may please to observe how much the [character] of a nation is liable to alter in half a century: I have heard it affirmed for certain by some very old people that the contrary opinion was [once] as much in vogue as the other is now, and that a project for abolishing Christianity would then... have been thought as absurd, as it should be at this time to write or discourse in its defence.

THEREFORE I freely own that all appearances are against me. The System of the Gospels, after the fate other systems is generally antiquated and exploded, and the mass or body of the common people... are now grown as much ashamed of it as their betters--opinions, like fashions always descending from those of quality to the middle sort, and thence to the vulgar, where at length they are dropped and vanish.

But here I would not be mistaken [i.e. misunderstood] and must therefore be so bold as to borrow a distinction from the writers on the other side [i.e. defenders of Catholicism, perhaps] when they make a difference between nominal and real Trinitarians. I hope no reader imagines me so weak-minded as to stand up in the defense of real Christianity, such as used in primitive times (if we may believe the authors of those ages) to have an influence upon men's belief and actions: To offer at [argue for] the restoration of that would indeed by a wild project; it would be to dig up foundations, to destroy at one blow all the wit and half the learning of the kingdom, to break the entire frame and constitution of things, to ruin trade, extinguish arts and sciences and the professors of them: in short to turn our courts, exchanges and shops into deserts . . . .

THEREFORE, I think this caution was in itself altogether unnecessary, since every candid reader will easily understand my discourse to be intended only in defense of nominal Christianity, the other having been for some time wholly laid aside by general consent as utterly inconsistent with our present schemes of wealth and power.

And so the trap is sprung, the poor reader is left hanging, and the 'argument' proceeds, in which the material advantages of preserving the appearance at least of Christian faith, virtue and integrity are thoroughly and exhaustively demonstrated. And the reason why Swift's satire hurts, even today, is that its seemingly preposterous premise (the irrelevance of real Christianity) is essentially true. That's how satire works.

By 1700, England had become the first relatively 'modern' nation and state; to put it as crudely as possible, the state of one's soul had become politically and socially irrelevant; what mattered was the size of one's wallet or bank-account. Money, believe it or not is an equalizer--over time: the old rule of thumb in England was that it took three generations to make a gentleman.