The Psychology of Dostoyevsky’s Karamazov Brothers

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Although this blog is not a forum for literary critiques and commentary, my recent four-month wrestling match with The Karamazov Brothers (the translator of the edition I found in my branch of the New York Public Library maintains it is as ridiculous to call the book “The Brothers Karamazov” as it is to refer to “The Brothers Marx”) yields several startling insights into the psyche, which is the ancient Greek word for soul.

Along with the complete text of Don Quijote and all of Dante’s Comedy, (I have merely read into both many times) Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, his last novel, is one with which I have long meant to enter the ring. In part, I was inspired by the serendipitous finding of a wedding invitation, in Russian, of my paternal grandparents. “Froim Naiman gives his daughter, Aneta, to Simon Lomke (son of Peizyr Lomke) on August 18, 1904.” The Belarus and Ukraine parts of my heritage are largely unknown. But this invitation, long hidden, touched my imagination, so that I vowed to read novels and other works heretofore missed: by Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and of course, Dostoyevsky. An old invitation was transformed into an invitation to literature; and for reasons not otherwise or completely explicable, I started with the last-named. This was and wasn’t what some might call “a spurt of the moment decision.”

The portion of The Karamazov Brothers I had been familiar with is the chapter entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” Most everyone knows it is about the return of Christ to fifteenth-century Spain, with the tragic consequence of his dismissal as a supernumerary.

This chapter, a tale told by the ultra-rationalist Ivan Karamazov to his saintly brother Aloysha, is but a fragment of the vast inner landscape and explosive epic of conscience, collective guilt, and individual innocence depicted and probed by Dostoyevsky. Except for the trial of Dimitri Karamazov, which occurs several months after most of the action, but also takes place within roughly twenty-four hours, the book, in Aristotlean fashion, covers barely several days.

The theme of patricide goes back at least to Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy and continues to Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of the death of God. Dostoyevsky adds layers of (Eastern Orthodox) Christian doctrine and burgeoning psychological (pre-Freudian of course since the novel was published ca. 1880, not long before Dostoyevsky died, a planned sequel never leaving the drawing board) insights to this most heinous crime. If the novel does give epilepsy a bad name (readers of Karamazov will recognize the reference), it will not disappoint in its painful humor and tragic dimensions.

If there is one theme relevant to the work of AMHF that rises above the others, it is that of the psychological component, against the theological, of collective guilt. How is this sense of guilt instilled throughout childhood and adolescence? What are the eventual consequences of the parent, already in a position of supreme authority in the household, who bullies and abuses his (or her) children? Against this backdrop, does deviant behavior actually go hand in glove with the neural misfiring and problems of neuro-transmission associated with the epileptic sensibility? Is there even such a thing? Where does neurology end and psychiatry begin? (Freud, after all, was a neurologist.) Where does psychology end and religion (or philosophy) begin? (Remember the origins of the words psyche and, of course, psychology.)

If, on first examination, none of these questions is exactly newsworthy 130 years after Fyodor Dostoyevsky published his greatest novel, perhaps we are well to remember Ezra Pound’s celebrated definition of literature as news that stays news.

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