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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.


BH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BH said...


You gave us a lot to think about.

It sure seems as though Dostoevsky stacks the deck against Smerdyakov from the very beginning. Beyond the reprehensible crime that led to his conception, I think that Smerdyakov's relation to Grigory is also a telling feature.

We are told how Grigory cared for Dmitri, Ivan and Aloysha when they were abandoned by their father. From the text it looks like his actions regarding these three is nothing but praiseworthy. Dostoevsky also notes that he seemed to have affection for children which might explain his actions springing from a certain warmth of his heart.

He takes Smerdyakov in as he had done with the others (there actually must have been a time when Ivan, Aloysha and Smerdyakov were all in his care though this is never mentioned) there seems to be critical differences that effects his relationship to Smerdyakov.

One seems to be the way he viewed the mother of the boys. Grigory, despite his station, trys to defend the abused mother of Ivan and Aloysha. But with Smerdykov's mother, the situation is entirely reversed. He defends Fyoder (one has to assume that Grigory is fully aware of his debauched character) against the poor, innocent victim of the crime.

The other was the circumstances of his rejection of his own child and the grief at that child's death. This experience seems to have thrown him into a brooding mysticism. When Smerdyakov is found, Grigory declares it is the union between "the devil's son" and the "the innocent one" (which seems to declare that Grigory knew who was at fault in this affair all along). This seems like reversal of the conception story of Jesus.

With Smerdyakov, we hear no more about Grigory's affection for children and get no more information regarding how he looked after his ward (with the exception that he made efforts to educate him). Smerdyakov seems to bear the brunt of Grigory's peasant superstitions that have now been intensified through his reaction to the birth and death of his own son. Seeing Smerdyakov as the offspring of an unholy union, he can quickly accept that boy is not human. He sees the killing of the cats but does not see the rites the child performs over them. As he called his own deformed child "a dragon" he now calls Smerdyakov "accursed".

Also, Dmitri, Ivan and Aloysha are allowed to escape the environment of the Karamazo household at a young age. Smerdyakov is not so lucky. He is trapped. In this way, the three legitimate Karamzov's get a break. Dostoyevsky is not going to let Smerdyakov off that easily.


Karl Tyson said...

Brad - you are right to look at Smerdyakov's childhood for more clues. Dreyfus has emphasized two things that seem pertinant for us: look at childhood memories to affect adult behavior, and that he (Dostoevsky) will always hit you over the head with significant allusions.

Clearly, Smerdyakov has the deck stacked against him, and he did nothing to deserve it. He is an innocent until twisted by childhood misfortune handed off to him by the sometimes unintended quirks of others.

One theme I wonder about is this - is Dostoevsky saying that an Alyosha can only reach a Smerdyakov type as a youth (as in Ilyusha for example)? But then, why is he so capable to help adults (Dmitri and Grushenka)?

My point is that the Alyosha figure must "aim" to help the sorriest sinner Smerdyakov, and disaster follows when that cannot happen. The real question then becomes one about Alyosha - what are his limits? Will he always let the most important sinner slip past him to murder and suicide?

BH said...


Was Aloysha ready to help Smerdyakov? Throughout the first half of the book he is a novice whose central aim seems to be devotion to Zossima. During this time Aloysha seems to have a beneficial influence on most of the people he encounters but this does not seem to be his aim. It also does not work on everyone. Ivan and Grushenka are not effected in this way for reasons that are at least partly the fault of Aloysha himself.

Isn't it only after the death of Zossima and Aloysha's "trial" that his true "aim" becomes clear. It is only after that night at Grushenka's that he is now ready to leave the monastery and go into the world as his Elder charged him.

Does Aloysha come into contact with Smerdyakov after that night he visited Grushenka with Ratekin? I read the book a year ago so I am not sure. But quickly flipping through the pages I can't find that he did.

If not, could it be said that Aloysha could not save Smerdyakov because his time had not come yet?
But even if this is the case, I seem to remember that Aloysha showed very little sympathy for his "fallen" brother Smerdyakov after the murder.

This question regarding Aloysha seems central and has led me to start reading the book again. I look forward to seeing how this thread develops.


Karl Tyson said...

A reader emailed the following criticism of this Smerdyakov story: "I'm not convinced. To begin with, I think he has no sensual side at all. What makes you think that the woman who is taking care of him is his girl friend?"

The criticism, it seems to me, is aimed at my proposition that Smerdyakov should be analyzable under the same umbrella as the other three brothers, and in particular my lazy and self-serving definition of "soul" as a sort of narratively revealed inner humanity. To Dreyfus, and Kierkegaard, this subject indicates nothing other than the "Self", a specific configuration of bodily and spiritual aspects. By questioning my claim (in 4. Smerdyakov does have a soul...) that he was in an "ordinary" relationship with this neighbor woman, the critic directs our attention to Smerdyakov's lack of sexual passion or intensity, either open or repressed, a defining characteristic of all the other Karamazovs, even, in an undeveloped form, of "saintly" Alyosha. If Smerdyakov has no sensual impulses to relate to his spiritual impulses (which may also be, arguably, lacking), he presumably loses the binding Kierkegaardian significance of the Karamazovs in the present Dreyfus-directed analysis of the novel.

As with all good criticisms (please add your own!), the challenge that Smerdyakov does not structurally fulfill the role of a Dostoevskian exemplar of Kierkegaard's concept of Self, really made me think hard about it, and go back to the text and the lectures. There is no doubt, and I have to admit, that the author goes to lengths to portray Smerdyakov as far less sexually charged than the rest of the male cast members, as evidenced not only in his "fastidious" primping and generally aloof manner ("he seemed to despise the female sex as much as the male"), but he is several times described as looking like a eunuch.

But there is also evidence going the other direction. A close reading of the short chapter "Smerdyakov with a Guitar" (Chapter 2, Book 5), where Alyosha accidentally stumbles across Smerdyakov sitting in the neighbor's garden with his presumed girlfriend Maria Kondratievna, would verify that however passively and unemotionally, our cook is, in fact, courting her. He strums a guitar and sings a love song in his "lackey tenor" and haughtily expatiates on his favorite theory, the superiority of foreign culture over Russian. For her part, she coos in a "caressing" voice - clearly wanting much more romantically charged attention than she's getting. All this implies that Smerdyakov has at least some wee bit of sex appeal, at least to impoverished, unsophisticated Maria, and that it amuses him, for whatever reason, to encourage that feeling with song and banter.

After the murder, Smerdyakov goes to the hospital for recovery (where Ivan visits him the first time) and then to stay as a semi-invalid at "a tiny, lopsided log house, the present lodgings of Maria Kondratievna, formerly Fyodor Pavlovich's neighbor, ... to whom Smerdyakov, in those days, used to sing his songs and play on the guitar. ... [T]he sick, nearly dying Smerdyakov had been living with them ever since Fyodor Pavlovich's death." (end of Chapter 5, Book 11) There Ivan visits a second and third time, and the narrator observes "God knows on what terms he lived with them: was he paying, or did he live there free? Later it was supposed that he had moved in with them as Maria Kondratievna's fiance and meanwhile lived with both of them free. Both mother and daughter respected him greatly and looked upon him as a superior person compared to themselves." (start of Chapter 7, Book 11). Even with this obvious ambiguity concerning sleeping arrangements, typical of the narrator, the scene is set as something that would ordinarily take place among ordinary folks, underlain by the premise of a marriageable couple.

What Dostoevsky seems to give us in Smerdyakov is a weakened, attenuated, servile version of Ivan's configuration of the Self, wherein the bodily desires are not so much repressed and sanitized, as diluted from the start, even castrated (as of eunuchs). Perhaps Smerdyakov desires Maria for some other reason than lust. Perhaps she represents normality and comfort for his pursuit of "higher" culture. But in this setting it all comes as a package.

That the above is enough to give Smerdyakov a stunted, weak aspect of bodily desire - what I call "ordinary" desire for a wife and family, as opposed to the "extraordinary" desire we find in both Dmitri and his father Fyodor for the voluptuous Grushenka, or repressed and desperate in Ivan for Katya or Lisa, I think is arguably established. The further claim that Smerdyakov also possesses a mental or spiritual side to contend with his tepid corporeal side is even more defensible. His childhood mock masses over cats, his intellectual pretensions, his feisty defense of his atheism -- to Grigory, that God illogically created light before the heavenly bodies, to Fyodor and the brothers, that God must logically be forced to forgive every sinner or condemn all but "two hermits in Egypt" whose faith actually would move a mountain (Chapter 6, Book 3) -- and finally his apparent reading of "The Homilies of Our Father among the Saints, Isaac the Syrian" in his last, cornered, suicidal day (Chapter 8, Book 11), all underline this well defined, but incongruous, spiritual aspect of his fictional constitution.

To correlate these materials as closely as we can with the Kierkegaardian framework laid out by Dreyfus, we may need to imagine a dual persona - one essential thrust into a rational denial of the existential compromise in two coordinated lives - Ivan's and Smerdyakov's. In this reading, Smerdyakov becomes Ivan's lackey doppleganger. Just as Katya is Ivan's female double, perhaps Smerdyakov is his lower class double. He is the lower class intellectual where Ivan is the upper class intellectual. He is more practically dangerous - Ivan is more theoretically dangerous. These two may be what one would arrive at if the character Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment got split like a gemstone along some hidden fracture separating the intellect to justify, from the brutality to commit, such a "crime of reason" as the two murders central to the two novels.

At this point I will pause, since the critic addressed only this point concerning the basis of a "Self" exemplar for the Smerdyakov character.