Last night I started reading The Brothers Karamazov. The last time I read Dostoevsky’s masterpiece was two decades ago when I was a teenager in high school and it had a tremendous impact on me. Ever since I considered it my favorite book and the greatest novel ever written. So, I decided that being in my mid-thirties, a husband, and father, I should revisit it from a more mature point in my life.
Right away I was struck by the narrator’s voice is a lot more comical and light-hearted than I remembered. The book is framed in a typical 19th-century fashion where the assumption is that the narrator is telling the reader a true story and every fact and detail is through the lens of an unnamed speaker recollecting the events to the best of his ability and also injecting a fair amount of his own personal commentary. The opening chapters that lay out the background of the story contain a lot of historical and literary references that I appreciate a lot more now that I’m much better educated on 19th century European and Russian history and politics.
But it was in Book II Chapter 2 where the novel really begins and I immediately re-discovered why it’s considered a masterpiece.
The section is titled An Inappropriate Gathering and takes place at the local monastery. The Karamazov family agrees to discuss the matter of Dimitry’s inheritance while the elder Father Zosima acts as the mediator between the father and son. Upon arrival at the elder’s chamber, the horrendously boorish and offensive Fydor begins running his mouth, insulting the people around him, and playing the fool. He turns to Father Zosima and in a mocking fake victimhood he asks “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
Father Zosima’s response is fantastic.
Father Zossima, lifting his eyes, looked at him, and said with a smile:
“You have known for a long time what you must do. You have sense enough: don’t give way to drunkenness and incontinence of speech; don’t give way to sensual lust; and, above all, to the love of money. And close your taverns. If you can’t close all, at least two or three. And, above all- don’t lie.”
Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill- he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness.
The above passage is outstanding. Like our modern day outrage hunters, Fyodor Karamazov is an opportunist who seeks to defraud and take advantage of others.
I believe lying to oneself is one of the main problems underlying our current cultural malaise. We tell ourselves fantasies about who we are, what we can achieve, what is good, what is moral, and react negatively when faced with the truth. We force lies onto others and act indignantly when they refuse to acknowledge our fantasies. We take actions that were considered foolish a century ago and are crushed when the predictable results harm us.
So much of the current cultural and political climate would be improved if everyone followed Father Zosima’s teaching.