Whooshup Reorganization

To reflect what this blog has become, the format has changed to emphasize the enormous number of useful links to resources we provide. To go to the whooshup blog and conversations about these resources, just scroll to the bottom of the lists of resources!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Discussion: Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov

(Warning: This discussion will give away many highly interesting plot details of the novel. If you intend to read the book, don't read the following!)

Now that, in his "Existentialism in Literature and Film" class, Dreyfus has performed a thorough vivisection of The Brothers Karamazov, I would love to generate some discussion on it, but what is left to say? Bert has convincingly highlighted the author's careful existentialization - the "demagicalization" - of Christian religious motifs. He has shown how three prototypical configurations of the soul's struggle with its corporeality can be framed. One of these three resides in each brother, who grapple with these motifs in a contrived fictional reality that nevertheless represents us all in one magisterial Work of Art, The Brothers Karamazov: Alyosha the simple friendly spiritual adept who fastens onto agape love but has not yet confronted his own fleshly dynamics; Ivan the cold intellectual who by rational thought suppresses and sanitizes the perverse demands of his body; Dmitri the frank impulsive sensualist who can't control his bodily passions yet ardently desires nobility of spirit. They all, it turns out, conspire to murder their wicked father. Alyosha looks away, Ivan goes away, and Dmitri flails away, but none of them smashes old man Karamazov's skull. They are all technically innocent, but existentially guilty. This is all great stuff, and I absolutely loved the book and the classroom study of it.

But I am fascinated by the character of Smerdyakov. He is the brother "unnaturally born" who is the efficient cause of the old man's death. Dreyfus did not spend much time on Smerdyakov - suggesting that his configuration is the absence of a configuration. He has no soul, and he does not particularly have much in the way of bodily passions either. He is, if anything, a sort of robotnik, a soulless machine fit to act as a lackey, a cook, a criminal, but not really a human like the others. He is closest in temperament, one would guess, to Ivan, who he idolizes. But Smerdyakov is not nearly as educated or refined as Ivan, and thus cannot intellectualize his condition in life, but only resent it.

For argument's sake, I propose to rehabilitate Smerdyakov as an integral part of Dostoevsky's portrayal of our cultural and psychological condition. He is as fully Karamazov as Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, and should be considered side by side with the rest - there really are four brothers, not three.

1. Smerdyakov has the opposite guilt configuration from the other brothers: he is technically guilty, but existentially innocent. Why is he existentially innocent? For the same reason a soldier who is trained to shoot, guided to the battlefield by his officers, encouraged by his religious leadership (either by their silence or their vocal approval), and authorized by his political leadership to pull the trigger, must be existentially innocent of the death of the bullet's human target. Smerdyakov looked to his foster father and half brothers for guidance. Grigory's baleful parenting turned him in boyhood to killing cats and dogs - a sort of inhuman resentment training. He was, by his childhood experience, "anti-baptized". Alyosha, who had a spiritual impact on everyone around him, apparently avoided Smerdyakov - he remained a silent voice. Dmitri, who Smerdyakov feared, was constantly shouting about killing the old man. Ivan, who Smerdyakov most closely watched for direction, gave him what he took for tacit approval to do as he thought fit - even to murder. Smerdyakov was merely being a good foot soldier to Alyosha his priest, Dmitri his officer, and Ivan his governor.

2. Smerdyakov is redeemable. To explain this, let's assume the opposite, that he is unredeemable, and that Dostoevsky thinks people are born, or can make themselves, unredeemable. The counter-evidence to this is considerable. Not only is the "redeemability" of all mankind a central tenet of Christianity, it is a theme frequently explored by Dostoevsky himself, and perhaps even lived by Dostoevsky himself, whose conversion from radical idealism to radical Christianity apparently followed a dramatic brush with death by execution for political activities. The clearest example from his work is the redeemability of the axe murderer Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. But even in Brothers Karamazov, the characters of the boy Ilyusha, who Smerdyakov trained in cruelty (killing dogs), and the boy Kolya, who Rakitin trained in rational disbelief - both central traits of Smerdyakov's own character - were ably engaged, corrected, redeemed and raised up to a higher consciousness by Alyosha. Why then, was Alyosha never interested in similarly engaging his brother Smerdyakov? Why is there no hope of redemption for him? At the end of the novel, we as readers may hope for the redemption of Ivan in the Siberian mines, and even for the recovery and softening of the mentally unstable and deathly ill Ivan. But Smerdyakov is dead, hanging himself to spite Ivan and snub the callous world he was born into. Was he, like Rakitin, simply a personified devil, that is, structurally beyond hope? I don't think the text supports that view - Smerdyakov is everywhere treated in a more ambiguous light than Rakitin. Neither do I think that Dostoevsky believed in a form of spiritual predestination - that some souls are condemned before time to lostness, and others are assuredly not.

3. Smerdyakov's biological origin is unique and significant. One could argue at this point that Smerdyakov is really just a "throw-away" in The Brothers Karamazov - that he has a role in sharpening the characterization of the three other brothers, and advancing the plot, but no great revelatory significance himself beyond lacking a soul to work with. (This seems to be the line taken by Dreyfus in his exegesis of the novel.) But if we grant that Dostoevsky is himself intensely interested in biological origins - who the father and mother were, their traits, and how those are expressed in the child - then we must admit Smerdyakov is perhaps the most interesting son of old man Karamavoz. If we assume Smerdyakov is throw-away, then we would assume his mother Lizaveta is also throw-away, but that clearly is not the case. The background elements of Lizaveta, and the circumstances surrounding her conceiving and bearing a child, are if anything much more crucially Dostoevskian than those of the other two upper-class mothers who bore Dmitri (Adelaida), and Ivan and Alyosha (Sofya). Lizaveta was a poor, retarded, homeless beggar girl dressed in filthy rags who was held in general contempt by her betters. But the common people took care of her, and treated her with a kind of superstitious veneration, as if she was under God's special protection. This description should read as a sort of warning flag to Dostoevsky readers: he is once again framing the issue of how we treat the innocent among us, particularly our women, children, and mentally ill (Lizaveta is all these). A parallel can be made to Prince Myshkin's story about the Swiss peasant girl Maria in his earlier novel The Idiot. In that story, the prince is kind to a destitute, dishonored shepherdess (a figure in many ways similar to Lizaveta and other Dostoevsky heroines) who the "upright" citizens of the village demean and detest. But the prince's kindness and agape love flowing to Maria generates the kind of spiritual outflowing among the local children that is found in the last part of Brothers Karamazov, when Alyosha works with the boys to existentialize the church as a sort of youth fellowship. So Dostoevsky frames two outcomes to the "Lizaveta/Maria" motif of a helpless young woman in rags: one stemming from tender care in The Idiot's Maria story, and one from foul abuse in Fyodor Karamazov's sacrilegious rape of Lizaveta that produces her miserable death during Smerdyakov's unattended birth in the Karamazov bathhouse. By the way, the Lizaveta story is perhaps the most damning indictment of Fyodor's utter wickedness, which makes him eminently murderable - a theme explored by the defense lawyer Fetyukovich during Dmitri's trial. Clearly, Smerdyakov avenges his own sordid beginning, but that cannot be all of it. We are forced by the structural configuration of Smerdyakov's origin to ask what larger role he plays in this masterfully structured novel.

4. Smerdyakov does have a soul, but it is crippled and cannot be easily reached. The assertion that Smerdyakov has no soul needs further analysis. Certainly his foster-father Grigory tells him he is soulless, that he grew from the mold in the bathhouse. But is this Dostoevsky's comment on Smerdyakov, or Grigory, or the narrator, or us all? We can find evidence for a soul in many places: in Smerdyakov's obsessive interest in French culture, which reveals the intelligence his family disparages; in his devotion to Ivan, who he desperately seeks the approval of; in the ordinariness of his later domestic situation - living with a girlfriend and her family. Certainly he is cruel to animals and heartless to people. Certainly he lives like an outcast with little or no sociability. But the fact that he possesses some shred of conscience is displayed in his dealings with Ivan both before and after the murder. He gives Ivan an opportunity to "call off" the cryptically agreed upon murder of their father, but Ivan brushes him off, ambiguously giving an affirmative signal. Would a soulless person need such a go-ahead? He pleads with Ivan to acknowledge him and praise his actions when Ivan visits him after the murder. Would a soulless man need such human justification? Finally, when all he sees from Ivan is rejection, and all he sees from further life is guilt, shame, inferiority, and hiding his crime, he commits suicide rather than face that future. I think there is a good case to affirm that Smerdyakov had a soul, but it was crippled, and it was left untouched. By contrast, what might have happened if Ivan had truly connected with Smerdyakov unselfishly, like Alyosha would have, if he had been Smerdyakov's mentor? What if Ivan had urged him to confess the crime, and had offered to publicly admit his own complicity to the world, on Smerdyakov's behalf. Would such an action have changed the novel's ultimate catastrophe into a miraculous and cleansing redemption for them both?

5. Smerdyakov completes the existentialization of the crucifixion. Dreyfus argues that the crucifixion is distortedly represented by the suffering of Dmitri in the "right way" of opening up a positive message to others, vis a vis the suffering of Ivan in the "wrong way" of self-inflicted penance. Admittedly, they both bear their crosses, undergo temptation, prepare their hearts and minds through suffering, and get publicly humiliated in a near-death manner at the end of the book. But perhaps the key here is to look for three crosses. The story has it that one in the middle held Jesus, with two thieves on either side. One criminal scoffed at Jesus, and the other criminal believed. I propose Smerdyakov is the third embodied criminal hanging from a cross on Dostoevsky's existentialized Calgary. If Alyosha is the undefiled soul who escapes crucifixion by acting on the connectedness of all beings, if Dmitri is the noble heart of the innocent man whose very human body gets nailed to the middle cross like Jesus, and if Ivan is the criminal who at the very last minute sides with Dmitri and his spirit-keeper Alyosha, then perhaps Smerdyakov is the third criminal who spits at them all and dies unredeemed. This unredeemed death of a redeemable soul is, I believe, a central problematic for Dostoevsky and all serious Christians. As described, the fault was not his. Smerdyakov was no more guilty of murder than the others, perhaps far less guilty. He relied on the wrong man - on Ivan and the rational supremacy he admired so much. Smerdyakov represents those of us who follow the teachings of the most intellectual but misguided of our culture's leadership. Where Ivan represents the elite educated mandarin class, Smerdyakov represents the unlettered masses, the public sphere, the loyal enabler, the hit man of our modern civilization. If the existential Christianity Dostoevsky proposes cannot reach Smerdyakov, then it cannot save the world. Dostoevsky builds in the fatal flaw to his own construct, and, in my reading, uncovers a fundamental structural problem for posterity: how to save a Smerdyakov.

6. Smerdyakov requires a trip to Hell. Perhaps because all such "Smerdyakov souls" are too shrivelled, too deformed, too buried under their fathers' transgressions to ever actively reach out and grab the "onion chain" with which sinners pull other sinners out of the metaphorical lake of fire (or ice), using the immense potential of agape love as exampled by Alyosha, nothing remains but that they must suffer and die alone and without hope, unless we enter into their lived Hell to grab them first - the deed even Alyosha shirked. Otherwise, the redeemable die unredeemed, and thus it may well be that only the suffering death and mystical, practically un-demagicalizable, transmigration of an inspired innocent like Jesus will ever enable us to reach them, and then only if it thematizes the existential act of ultimate outreach. The central, vexing problem Dreyfus uncovers about Christianity in general, of how the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross could ever be construed as structurally, existentially, saving everyone else in the world, not through their own claustrophobic experience of suffering, but solely, impersonally, through the public demise of Jesus, may be explained in the three day side-trip which stone-dead Jesus made to "harrow Hell", there to muck about in search of the Gestas Smerdyakov, that scorned and sullen lackey who scoffed at his fellow sufferers, to tell him the good news of his existential innocence, and lift him up to stand with his brothers in the end.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Ska -Ska -Skunked Again

Whatever happened to the staff of experts that was supposed to be making sure that the Dreyfus 189 lectures would be available to the podcast community? Are they too busy girl watching to push the on/off button on a recording device? Or are we so entrapped with cheap foreign technology that breaks down at an inappropriate time in an inopportune way that we fail to make the occurrent available?

Evidently, Heidegger never typed any anything out, but gave his manuscripts to his affable brother Fritz, who typed them up. As a result, he was more familiar with his brother's work than most professional philosophers of the day. He did have a habit of stuttering when he got serious, hence the da-da-sein came into the world.

Fritz, where are you now? We might do better if someone would take their lecture notes and nail them to a tree.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

New Program in Second Life

Next time you log into Second Life, you may find that you need to download a 35 Mb program file to get back in (I could NOT log in with the existing program Saturday night). Evidently, there was a major crash on Saturday, and things are still being worked out. I got back in Sunday morning, although my avatar looks something like a headless scarecrow that has been through a shredder at the local meat packing facility. Kinda cool actually, I might keep it! I do have a head that seems to be floating in my midsection, happily spinning around and occasionally darting out "peekaboo" . Halloween come early. Hopefully things will be back to normal this afternoon and evening!