David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: brothers karamazov

Dostoevsky’s Sequel

James L. Rice in the TLS clues us in to the unwritten second half of The Brothers Karamazov, which sounds like it would have been a good deal better than Gogol’s disappointing sequel to Dead Souls.

Alyosha remains at the end, to face his destiny, uncertain whether it may be for good or evil. His bonding with the adolescent boys in the village, whose leader Kolya is unmistakably a future radical, points the way to the hero’s role in the unwritten sequel.

Dostoevsky discussed his general plan for the Karamazov sequel with a few people close to him, on different occasions with his wife Anna Grigorievna, and the eminent publisher Aleksei Suvorin (a brooding and devoted friend who was later also a confidant of other complex writers, including Vasily Rozanov and Anton Chekhov). The author’s concept found its way not only into their diaries and memoirs published after the Revolution, but also, through rumour “in Petersburg literary circles”, into the front-page report of an ephemeral Odessa daily newspaper on May 26, 1880 – when Book Ten of The Brothers Karamazov had yet to appear. The anonymous correspondent had attended the author’s public reading of bewildering excerpts from the forthcoming instalment. Despite great admiration for Dostoevsky’s genius, the critic complained that most of his characters were mental cases, who sometimes appeared to communicate by psychic means. Rumour in the tsarist capital had it that Alyosha would become the village schoolmaster, and by obscure “psychic processes in his soul” would arrive at “the idea of assassinating the tsar” (ideya o tsareubiistve). Although the Novorossiiskii Telegraf had a circulation of 6,000 and subscribers as far-flung as Kiev, Moscow, Petersburg, Warsaw and Paris, this astounding remark never reached the authorities. It tallies exactly with the diary of Suvorin published forty-three years later (1923), which directly quotes the novelist on Alyosha’s future: “He would be arrested for a political crime. He would be executed” – very nearly the fate of the author himself in his youth. In the sequel there might have been, of course, any number of plots and paths to such a tragic outcome. In one plausible version, Alyosha retreats to the monastery as a clandestine revolutionary.

The surest proof that The Brothers Karamazov was conceived with such a denouement in store is the very name Karamazov: it is very close to that of Dmitry Karakozov, whose point-blank shot at Tsar Alexander II on April 4, 1866, missed its target but heralded an era of terrorism in Russian politics. Karakozov was publicly executed in Petersburg on September 3, 1866. His deed, incidentally, had interrupted serialization of Crime and Punishment – its hero another deranged student dropout with murderous “Napoleonic” ambitions. The Karamazov plot unfolds at the end of August, 1866, so that Dmitry Karamazov’s arrest for the murder of his father occurs at about dawn on September 3, precisely when in real life the would-be assassin Karakozov was led to the scaffold.

Wishful thinking? Rice implies the same wish that I and so many other teenage Dostoevsky readers have had, that he would stop compensating for what really is an obsession with evil and let his books become the ultimate refutation of Christianity and the Good that they so badly want to be. The goodness in them never achieves the grace of, say, this:


Brett Bourbon: Finding a Replacement for the Soul

This is a strange one. Subtitled Mind and Meaning in Literature and Philosophy, this book comes as neither an inhabitant of a particular established field of study, nor as the cross-disciplinary generalizations of a well-known academic like Richard Rorty or Stanley Cavell. Its topic is how literature has something unique to contribute to metaphysical concerns, specifically something that cannot be obtained from philosophy. It’s very idiosyncratic, and while I’m not sure how anyone could agree with all or most of it, there should be more books like it.

The question considered, stated early on, is:

What does it mean to be a human person with our capacities and our fate? How could we answer such a question? Maybe with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the works of Aristotle, or Bach’s Mass in B Minor…Every answer to “What does it mean to be human?” is a restatement of another riddle. (20)

I take the question of meaning in human life to be metaphysical. There are extreme epistemological concerns that overlap with it, such as how such a meaning is communicated to others, how it is perceived, and our own sense of ourselves as humans to begin with. But where Wittgenstein (whose late work figures prominently in the book) would relegate these questions to a mystical status, Bourbon follows them in a comparatively concrete manner. When he says “meaning,” he constitutes it in a Heideggerian way: what does being human constitute that could not be constituted by a robot or a computer program? Here is how he describes this distinction:

To talk about seeing humans as machines, if by machine we mean as automata and thus as not human in the way that I am, or as machines in the same way that clocks and computers are, is not to see humans under some aspect or description. It is to understand human beings as not human. Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

The question of “seeing” is epistemological, but the metaphysics underpinning this passage are quite aggressive. There is some bootstrapping going on in the book, as though to assume that the question of human meaning is paramount to Da-sein, and that the path to an answer can be found through literature, and specifically, through “The various ways sentences and phrases lose sense.” I am sympathetic to this approach, but Bourbon goes after it with such single-mindedness that he will lose many along the way who do not agree with the centrality of his concerns.

One of his final conclusions–

The deformations of our variable relation to and participation in language are the only legitimate things that we can read through literature. (259)

–is less shocking in context simply because it flows so easily from
the strong opinions that have preceded it.

The significance of these topics are as a way of saving/replacing the authoritative voice, and how to preserve a method of meaning (as a human) in the absence of a definitive religion or other authority. This is presented as an ethical question as much as an ontological one. Where oracles once spoke with a particular type of intentionality that provided a foundational basis for truth, we now cannot fall back on such myths:

Our ethical judgments and their particular intentional content and concern lack a foundation that would include an intrinsic relation to their normative form. (46)

In other words, it is necessary to build a foundation for ethics that stands aside from the scientific, objective world–perhaps even the propositional world described by Russell and early Wittgenstein. There is an echo here of Levinas’s project to save morality, as well as Alasdair MacIntyre’s endorsement of Aristotle’s ethics. The difference is that it is far more deductive than even Levinas; from literature and “human meaning” will flow a river that picks up ethics downstream.

To be continued…

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