A Late Night Raid on Victor Terras’s A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoevsky’s Novel/1

for Cami


“I love Russia, Aliosha, I love the Russian God, though I am a scoundrel myself.”
–Dmitry Karamazov

So, maybe you’ve already taken the plunge back in Wisconsin, and are now immersed in “A Nice Little Family.” I salute you, I envy you, and I may even give in to temptation—once again—to rereading it myself. I read Terras’s book back in 2005 (the 5th or 6th time), and I now scrounge around in my notes to indulge in the joy of landing on this and that, my mischief for mishmash, all for your amusement and excitation——-


Swann said in v. 1 of Marcel that there are really only 4 or so books that matter in one’s life; better to spend one’s reading time with these than ephemera like journalism.

FD is like Dmitri: Worst of all is that my nature is base and too passionate: everywhere and in everything I go to the limit, all my life I have been crossing the line.” 40

Levinas: Zosima: “no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime.” Book 6, chapter iii, h.

Treat all students like Aliosha would, or Buddha.

Mona = volshebnitsa = enchantress 293

Bodhisattva: “everyone is really responsible to all men and for all men and for everything” 369

Details of an imitatio Christi are projected upon all positive characters, while the negative characters are inevitably enemies of Christ. A belief in personal immortality via resurrection in Christ resolves the question of suffering and injustice in the world. [Thanks, a nice theodicy…]

FD was trying to create an individualized “amateur” narrator, remarkable more for a certain ingenuous bonhomie and shrewd common sense than for sound logic, an elegant style, or even correct grammar. Xiv

Stylistic effects: emphatic repletion, parallelism, key words, accumulation of model expressions, paradox, catachresis.

Death of FD’s son in 1878, his pilgrimage to monastery of Optina Pustyn 3

“There is a novel in my head and in my heart, asking to be expressed.” 5

The major difficulty lay in the formidable problems involved in the realistic presentation of a moral and religious ideal. 7

“The last chapter (which I shall send to you), ‘Cana of Galilee,’ is the most essential in the whole book, and perhaps in the whole novel.” 7

His long time project of a “novel about children” 8

“The main problem… is one that has tormented me consciously or unconsciously all my life – the existence of God.” 11

BK is “written in the margins of other books” 13

Pushkin’s little tragedies are felt throughout the novel; theme of man’s usurpation of divine power and the eventual collapse of that rebellion. 18

Scripture sources: Book of Job; 2 Thessalonians 2: 6-12 – the ultimate frame of reference for Grand Inquisitor; John 12:24; Jesus’ temptation – Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4: 1-13.

Alyosha is a new version of Myshkin.

Words of consolation about the death of a child. 27

A man FD met in prison. But it’s only a nucleus and only literary connections and creative additions to this nucleus make Dmitry the unforgettable character he is. 28

“These blockheads have never dreamed of a denial of God which has the power that I put into the ‘Inquisitor’ and the preceding chapter, to which the whole novel is my response. I certainly do not believe in God like some fool (fanatic). And these people wanted to teach me and laughed at my backwardness!” 39

FD is like Dmitri: “Worst of all is that my nature is base and too passionate: everywhere and in everything I go to the limit, all my life I have been crossing the line.” 40

In the world of BK even beauty is involved in an antimony: men who are receptive to the beauty of Madonna may yet—and at the same time—pursue the beauty of Sodom. 42

The presence of God in the world (and therefore man’s encounters with God—or with “other worlds”) is the philosophic leitmotif of the novel. 43

One critic sees three bros as a dialectic structure with Ivan (intellectual man) the antithesis of Dmitry (sensual, aesthetic man), and Alyosha (man of God, or spiritual man). 44

All the fam agree on one point: love of life.

BK is a hymn to life in its entirety 44

Dmitri is nearer to God than Ivan. Through suffering—which he has not sought but which he accepts humbly and almost joyously at times—he finds God, and love of humanity as well. 45 [I love Dmitri]

Cf. Reb Greenberg: pull the child from the fire: Ivan’s intellectual pride leads to sterility of solipsistic, theoretical existence. 46

FD’s famous dictum that he would stay with Christ even if he were proven scientifically wrong suggests no more and no less than a belief in the primacy of moral values over theoretical knowledge. 48

Ivan and Zosima are, however, in essential agreement about the state of the world. Zosima, like Ivan, is painfully aware of the suffering of innocent children. Zosima, believing in God and immortality, feels guilty before all creation and loves all creation, while Ivan, who denies immortality, is reduced to spite and lovelessness. Ivan uses the sufferings of children as a pretext for his revolt, while Dmitri’s dream about “the babe” leads him to a recognition of his responsibility to suffering humanity. 49

Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor really rejects miracle, mystery, and authority and proposes instead to meet man’s needs by magic, mystification, and tyranny. 50 [See Chomsky in Necessary Illusions—the propaganda system]

Ivan, who as the Grand Inquisitor professes a burning love of mankind, admits that he cannot love his neighbor… and knocks a drunken peasant into the snow to freeze to death. 51

Rakitin, a careerist divinity student, represents a lower form of Ivan’s idea. 53

Dostoevsky’s religious feeling and artistic tact forbid him to make any attempt at creating a “voice” for Christ: Christ is more than any man could possible express (John 20:31). [yet see Saramago] Dostoevsky’s silent Christ is the very opposite of the proud and majestic Inquisitor. More than anything else, He is the kenotic Christ of Tiutchev’s poem, quoted by Ivan, the Christ who appears to us in every hungry, thirsty, or naked stranger, in every sick man, and in every prisoner. 55

Ivan Karamazov does not want universal harmony at the price of the sufferings of children. Zosima affirms that “everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything,” so that by forgiving the child’s tormentor we are only forgiving ourselves (Book Six, chapter ii[a]… 57

Breakdown precedes breakthrough: Suffering and death are necessary so that there can be resurrection. 58

Most of all, Zosima and Aliosha are free of the terrible self-consciousness and pride which consume Ivan Karamazov. Dmitry Karamazov discovers his freedom slowly and painfully. He keeps surprising us by doing the unpredictable thing: “Rakitin lies! If they drive God from the earth, we shall shelter Him underground. One cannot exist in prison without God; it’s even more impossible than out of prison. And then we men underground will sing from the bowels of the earth a tragic hymn to God, with Whom is joy”… 58

Aliosha becomes a father figure to a group of schoolboys, Dmitry’s rebirth is marked by his dream of “the babe,” and even Ivan, shortly before his collapse, saves the life of the drunken peasant whom he had earlier knocked into the snow. 61

Kolia K, a double of Ivan Karamazov’s, helps us to understand Ivan. The suffering of innocent children being the pivot of Dostoevsky’s theodicy, the stories of the suffering and death of two youngsters, Zosima’s brother Markel and Iliusha Sneiriov, are all-important: in both instances suffering and early death are shown not to be cruel and meaningless, but meaningful and edifying. 62

Ivan K has lost his faith precisely because he has elevated himself above the people. In this case, “the people” are not necessarily peasants, but are what Ivan, a modern intellectual, is not: human beings who are intellectually and morally humble enough not to set themselves above over the “common crowd.” Having separated himself from the people, the intellectual has also separated himself from the faith of the people, and so from God. 66-67


Look, I’m only up to page 66 and Terras’s book is over 400 pages. I will pause, it’s past my bedtime, though I may continue this in the near future unless I myself get all wrapped up in Dmitri and Grushenka’s suffering!


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