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.

1 comment:

  1. Dostoevsky may indeed have wanted to show that the existence of God defines morality. Readers may find that his novels show the opposite, that human beings and the worlds they create demonstrate the meaning of morality.

    Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—the novelists who wrote the Gospels—wanted to show that Jesus was merciful. Instead, they showed that he introduced the idea of Hell into the world, the most merciless concept that could possibly have been created. Dostoevsky was a better novelist than they were, so his case is somewhat more convincing, but good novels are about complex characters and situations, leading to a variety of readings.