09 September, 2008

Yes, Dostoevsky said it! Again!

A while back—a long while back—I tried to explain, contra the received wisdom on many internet sites, that it is correct to quote Dostoevsky as having written in The Brothers Karamazov,

You can follow that link back to the entry and judge for yourself whether my attempt succeeds.

I mentioned that I've been reading the novel again, for the first time in twenty years. I find that this idea arises elsewhere in the novel on fairly regular occasions, usually in association with Ivan, the "intellectual" brother. For example,
"You mean 'everything is permitted'? Everything is permitted, is that right, is it?" Ivan frowned, and suddenly turned somehow strangely pale. …"Yes, perhaps 'everything is permitted,' since the word has already been spoken. I do not renounce it."
The context is noteworthy: Alyosha and Ivan spend three chapters conversing about a number of "heavy concepts". (Ivan calls them "eternal questions" which obsess the "Russian boys" of their time.) The above quote occurs in the most famous chapter of the book, "The Grand Inquisitor", pg. 263 of the edition I have.

Ivan admits some sort of belief in God, so he isn't exactly convinced that everything is permitted, but it is also clear that he struggles with the same corrupt lifestyle that the father indulges. Ivan refers to projective geometry to explain his difficulty.
[I]f God exists and if he indeed created the earth, then, as we know perfectly well, he created it in accordance with Euclidean geometry, and he created human reason with a conception of only three dimensions of space. At the same time there were and are even now geometers and philosophers, even some of the most outstanding among them, who doubt that the whole universe, or, even more broadly, the whole of being, was created purely in accordance with Euclidean geometry; they even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid cannot meet on earth, may perhaps meet somewhere in infinity. I, my dear, have come to the conclusion that if I cannot understand even that, then it is not for me to understand about God.
The argument appears to imply that God cannot logically exist, but Ivan does not in fact mean that, and seems to resign himself to an agnosticism. Although he has begun with a rather abstract and questionably argument, it later becomes clear that his struggle understanding projective geometry parallels (pun intended) his struggles understanding how a just God can create a world some of whose inhabitants, especially children, endure horrifyingly unjust suffering.
"It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket."

"That is rebellion," Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

Ivan's reference to the word's having been spoken already is to a conversation earlier in the novel where their brother Dmitry was present. The conversation appears on pg. 69 of the edition I have, in the chapter titled, Why Is Such a Man Alive? Quoting selectively (it's too long to reproduce),
(Miusov) "[Ivan says that,] were mankind's belief in its immortality to be destroyed, not only love but also any living power to continue the life of the world would at once dry up in it. Not only that, but then nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy. And even that is not all: he ended with the assertion that for every separate person, like ourselves for instance, who believes neither in God nor in his own immortality, the moral law of nature ought to change immediately into the exact opposite of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation. …"

(Dmitry) "Allow me to be sure I've heard correctly: 'Evildoing should not only be permitted but even should be acknowledged as the most necessary and most intelligent solution for the situation of the godless person'!"

(the elder) "Can it be that you really hold this conviction about the consequences of the exhaustion of men's faith in the immortality of their souls?"

(Ivan) "Yes, it was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality."

[emphasis added]
Thus in "The Grand Inquisitor" Ivan acknowledges as correct the statement that If God does not exist, then everything is permitted. (Miusov and Dmitry may use different words, but the essence is the same.) Ivan states explicitly that Mitenka's version is not so bad.

Now that I am halfway through reading it again, it occurs to me for the first time (I'm not as smart as I fancy) that perhaps this idea is the very theme of the novel. I am not alone in thinking this. Pevear and Volokhonsky write that the scholar Victor Terras is justified to think that the following passage holds the "master key" to interpreting the novel:
Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it.
Again, once could summarize this argument as, If God does not exist, everything is permitted.

Thus the assertions that Dostoevsky did not write, let alone mean to write, such a statement, strike one as truly bizarre. Whether he agrees with the statement is immaterial (although it appears to this reader that at the very least Dostoevsky wants to believe it). He does make statements equivalent to it, and even makes that statement, as I documented in the previous post.

In case you doubt me, perhaps the Elder Zosima's words will convince you:
[I]f you have no God, what crime is there to speak of?

(pg. 315, "From Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima")

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