On Romancing The Devil
Warning: This review might contain spoilers even outside the hidden ‘spoiler alert’ regions. I honestly am not capable of discriminating.
The book is not about the murder or about who did it, those things were very apparent before half the book was completed, the narrator taking special pains to spoil all suspense for his readers at the very beginning (harkening back to the days of greek drama and Euripides – according to whom, the effect of a story, even a whodunnit, was not in epic suspense about what was going to happen next, but in those great scenes of lyrical rhetorics in which the passion and dialectic of the protagonists reached heights of eloquence. Everything was to portend pathos, not action, which was always there only as a container for the pathos, to give it form). This was probably done so that the typical clue-seeking aspects of a mystery does not detract his reader from addressing the real, the painful questions littered all across his treatise, almost with indecent abandon. *spoiler* After all, we were shown by Dostoevsky varying degrees of foreshadowings of every event that eventually became turning points in the plot – starting with the numerous leading comments of the narrator including the one in the opening paragraph, Zosima’s prediction of suffering for and apology to Dimitri and Smerdyakov’s not so subtle clues to Ivan among many others. And do not forget that Dostoyevsky even gave us the alternate route that Mitya could have taken in the Zosima narrative – the parallels in that story are too numerous to list out here. *spoiler ends*
No, this story is not about the murder or about the murderer or about his motivations or about the suspense for his final fate. The story is about the reaction – it was all about the jury. Many theories abound about how the Karamazov family represents Russia/humanity/all characters but the reality is that they represent individualities; while it is that terrible faceless jury, always adressed to and never addressed by, that represents humanity. The job of the country, the society, of the whole human race is to judge, to determine the fate of individuals based on the stories that they construct, literally out of thin air, out of the small pieces of a life that they can only ever observe. The best character sketches, fictional or otherwise can only ever be the minutest portion of a real character – but from that tiniest of slivers we build this ambiguous thing called ‘character’, as if such a thing can possibly exist for a creature as fickle-minded and forgetful of himself as man. Character of a man is the greatest myth, propagated best by novelists, as no story can proceed without a ‘constant’ man who behave with some level of predictability or with predictable unpredictability, but real life is the result of adding a minimum of three more ‘unpredictable’ as adjectives to that earlier description, to come close to describing even the simplest and most boring idiot alive. But yet we construct stories, to understand, to predict, to know how to behave, we even make up stories about ourselves so that we may have an illusion of control over who we are – so that we do not melt into the amorphous protean mass that is the rest of humanity – my story separates me from all of them. I construct, therefore I am.
These are the romances that Dostoevsky wields his best work against and the trial is a trial of reason, of reality pitted against the overwhelming circumstantial evidence in favor of romance, of the myth of character, of individuality, of cause and effect, of there being anything predictable when such a wild variable as a human mind is part of the equation, how can such an equation be anything but ‘indeterminate’ (to borrow Dostoevsky’s own expression)?
That was the grand trial, the inquisition of reason. But how can the defense stand up in favor of reality without explaining to the jury (to humanity) why they see things not as they are, that they have made up a story that is perfect but is never real as no story can ever be – as no cause can really cause a definite effect when human beings are involved? You have to tell a story to convince the jury. You have to tell a story to defend the fact that stories do not exist. A story now, about stories. Or multiple stories to show how all stories are false if only one can be allowed to be true. The only other option is that all are true, simultaneously. By proving which you include your own story in that ‘self-consuming’ super-set and doom your own argument. There is the irresolvable conflict of the trial, of the story, of the novel, of life. You cannot discredit the myth of the story without the help of a story as the jury that judges cannot understand, cannot comprehend any reality outside of a story, human beings cannot think outside their romances. They will continue to exist as prisoners to their own stories. That is why it is a comedy and not a tragedy, as no one died and no one killed and it remains akin to a sphinx setting us a riddle which he cannot solve himself. But, judgment had to be passed as the story was told. One story among many.
An expanded review might follow and will try to address some of the big themes of the book, enumerated below:
1) On Fatherhood – The second big theme of the book. Possibly the real theme, the above only being my own story…
2) On Crime & the Efficacy of Punishment – On how men will always rise to be worthy of their punishment/mercy; On suffering and salvation and on how no judgement can be stronger, more effective or more damning/redemptive than moral self-judgement; On how would Ivan’s ecclesiastical courts eventually would have behaved – would they have behaved as predicted by him in his prose poem and let christ go, unlike the real court? So, in the end his alternate vision of Satan’s court is what really shown by the current judicial apparitions? But in the fable who was it that really forgave the inquisitor or the inquisitee? And in the overall story too, who forgives whom in the end? Christ or Humanity, Satan or Church, Dimitri or Russia?
3) On Collateral Damage – inflicted by the main story on side stories, on how the small side stories are over shadowed, no murdered by the main one and without any risk of conviction.
4) On the Institution of Religion– On morality and the question of the necessity of religion; On the basis for faith; On the implications of faith/lack of faith to the story one tells about oneself; On how Philip Pullman took the easy way out by expanding Dostoevsky’s story for his widely acclaimed novel; On the enormous burden of free will; On the dependence of men on the security of miracles that is the source of all hell and of all action.
5) On the Characters – On how Dostoevsky took the cream of his best-conceived characters from the universe of his creation, from across all his best works to populate his magnum opus, his story about stories, to trace out their path with the ultimate illusion of realism, with the ultimate ambition and to show/realize how it should always, always fall apart; On how he reflected the whole universe in a small lake and created a novel about all novels, disproving and affirming them simultaneously, murdering its own parents in its own fulfillment; On how they might have their Hamlets, but we have our Karamazov’s.
6) On Hope & Redemption – On how ultimately Zosima’s world view trumps the cynical aspects that dominated the book; On how Zosima predicted it all at the very beginning and apologized to Dimitri on behalf of all mankind – ‘taking everyone’s sin upon himself”, thus creating an inverted reflection of the christ figure, its image playing on both Dimitri and on Zosima for that split second and then passing on to Alyosha until finally projected back to Dimitri, in the ultimate paradox, where he becomes at last a christ figure and a buddha figure, exemplifying self-knowledge and enlightenment through true suffering; On how even the Karamazov name can be inspiring and be cause for cheers even though it represents the worst (best?) of humanity; On The Sermon at the Stone.
7) On Nihilism – On the absurdity of life and trying to explain it. But oh wait, this is what I talked of in paragraph length already.
Ps. By the way, when you read this, keep your ears tuned towards the end – for somewhere in the distance you might hear the laugh of the Grand Inquisitor echoing faintly.
- Book review. (aussiemandias1.wordpress.com)
- Dear Paris Review, What Books Impress a Girl? (theparisreview.org)
- Rereading Dostoevsky (themillions.com)
- Don’t Lie to Yourself! (theplacesthatscareyou.wordpress.com)