“[T]hat sort of buffoonery is sometimes tragic in the extreme.”

The book group will discuss Book XI this week, but Theater of War will present Oedipus at Colonus at the same time, so I must miss the meeting.

Having finished the book ahead of schedule, I’ve been reviewing a few resources, including the fourth lecture in the course “Life Lessons from the Great Books,” in which J. Rufus Fears outlines helpful historical context; for example, how orthodoxy and autocracy defined nineteenth-century Russia. 

In the course’s supplementary text, Fears notes, “In Dostoevsky’s mind, each of the four sons represents a part of the Russian soul: the violent and sensuous (Dmitri), the misguided (Ivan, trying to import Western ideas), the strong in faith and conviction (Alexei, the true spirit of Russia), and the mysterious and vile (Smerdyakov).” This sorted well with an early observation in book group that the sons seemed to represent body (Dmitri), mind (Ivan), and soul (Alexei).

(Related aside: In a neat bit of readerly synchronicity / synthesis / serendipity, I recently (re)read the following passage in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:

Body, soul, mind. To the body belong sense perceptions, to the soul impulses, to the mind judgements. The receipt of sense impressions is shared with cattle; response to the puppet-strings of impulse is shared with the wild beasts, with catamites, with a Phalaris or a Nero; having the mind as guide to what appears appropriate action is shared with those who do not believe in the gods, those who betray their country, those who get up to anything behind closed doors.

So if all else is held in common with the categories mentioned above, it follows that the defining characteristic of the good person is to love and embrace whatever happens to him along his thread of fate; and not to pollute the divinity which is seated within his breast, or trouble it with a welter of confused impressions, but to preserve its constant favor, in proper allegiance to god, saying only what is true, doing only what is just.

Oh, the unintentional parallels that occur in the reading life, eh? I love the way one book can inform another.)

I also read Harold Bloom’s essay on The Brothers Karamazov in The Bright Book of Life (2020). While it seems apparent that Dostoevsky intended Alyosha (Alexei) to be the novel’s hero, I am with Bloom in preferring Ivan: Doubtless because of because of my own peculiarities, I prefer Ivan: enormously intelligent, skeptical, tragically caught between a Western regard for cognition and his own Russian soul, whatever that is. (p. 246)

To me, Dostoevsky’s depiction of women was not particularly charitable, so I was heartened to read Bloom’s comment, “Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoevsky seems to me uneasy in representing women.” (p. 246)

(Speaking of Tolstoy, last night I read “Master and Man,” the fourth story George Saunders discusses in his wonderful A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (2021). After spending the last two-plus months (trying to) decipher Dostoevsky, I found Tolstoy startlingly… clear. As Saunders writes:

Some stories — let’s admit it — we read from a sense of duty, the way we walk through a middling local museum: noting things we should feel interested in but aren’t, really. Reading such stories, we are merely reading them. They keep being a series of words we’re dutifully decoding. They’re a clever dance the writer is doing, which we are politely enduring. Reading “Master and Man“ we begin living it; the words disappear and we find ourselves thinking not about word choice but about the decisions the characters are making and the decisions we have made, or might have to make some day, in our actual lives. 

That’s the kind of story I want to write, the kind that stops being writing and starts being life. (p. 223)

At the Chicago Humanities Festival, Joyce Carol Oates observed that Tolstoy offers readers sweeping vistas while Dostoevsky remains primarily in our heads, his characters talking, talking, talking. She stopped short of specifying a preference, but when Saunders later used the phrase “cinematic propulsion” to describe Tolstoy’s story structure, I realized that maybe I have one. By the way, I highly recommend A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, which is drawn from the Russian short story class Saunders has taught at Syracuse for two decades.) 

For the commonplace book:

Book X: The Boys
Chapter IV: The Lost Dog
“Oh, no; there are people of deep feeling who have been somehow crushed. Buffoonery in them is a form of resentful irony against those to whom they daren’t speak the truth, from having been for years humiliated and intimidated by them. Believe me, Krassotkin, that sort of buffoonery is sometimes tragic in the extreme. His whole life now is centered in Ilusha, and if Ilusha dies, he will either go mad with grief or kill himself. I feel almost certain of that when I look at him now.”

“I understand you, Karamazov. I see you understand human nature,” Kolya added, with feeling.

Chapter VI: Precocity
“[…] But I am convinced now that you don’t despise me; it was all my imagination. Oh, Karamazov, I am profoundly unhappy. I sometimes fancy all sorts of things, that every one is laughing at me, the whole world, and then I feel ready to overturn the whole order of things.”

“And you worry every one about you,” smiled Alyosha.

“Yes, I worry every one about me, especially my mother. Karamazov, tell me, am I very ridiculous now?”

“Don’t think about that, don’t think of it at all!” cried Alyosha. “And what does ridiculous mean? Isn’t every one constantly being or seeming ridiculous? Besides, nearly all clever people now are fearfully afraid of being ridiculous, and that makes them unhappy. All I am surprised at is that you should be feeling that so early, though I’ve observed it for some time past, and not only in you. Nowadays the very children have begun to suffer from it. It’s almost a sort of insanity. The devil has taken the form of that vanity and entered into the whole generation; it’s simply the devil,” added Alyosha, without a trace of the smile that Kolya, staring at him, expected to see. “You are like every one else,” said Alyosha, in conclusion, “that is, like very many others. Only you must not be like everybody else, that’s all.”

“Even if every one is like that?”

“Yes, even if every one is like that. You be the only one not like it. You really are not like every one else, here you are not ashamed to confess to something bad and even ridiculous. And who will admit so much in these days? No one. And people have even ceased to feel the impulse to self‐ criticism. Don’t be like every one else, even if you are the only one.”

Chapter VII: Ilusha
“I don’t want a good boy! I don’t want another boy!” he muttered in a wild whisper, clenching his teeth. “If I forget thee, Jerusalem, may my tongue—” He broke off with a sob and sank on his knees before the wooden bench. Pressing his fists against his head, he began sobbing with absurd whimpering cries, doing his utmost that his cries should not be heard in the room.

Book XI: Ivan
Chapter IX: The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare
“C’est du nouveau, n’est‐ce pas? This time I’ll act honestly and explain to you. Listen, in dreams and especially in nightmares, from indigestion or anything, a man sees sometimes such artistic visions, such complex and real actuality, such events, even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy has never invented. Yet such dreams are sometimes seen not by writers, but by the most ordinary people, officials, journalists, priests…. The subject is a complete enigma. A statesman confessed to me, indeed, that all his best ideas came to him when he was asleep. Well, that’s how it is now, though I am your hallucination, yet just as in a nightmare, I say original things which had not entered your head before. So I don’t repeat your ideas, yet I am only your nightmare, nothing more.”

“You are lying, your aim is to convince me you exist apart and are not my nightmare, and now you are asserting you are a dream.”

3 thoughts on ““[T]hat sort of buffoonery is sometimes tragic in the extreme.”

  1. I find your posts like this especially challenging because of the way you enhance your reading with additional resources. I tend to plow my way through books–all of them–rather than truly savoring the best ones. I need to work on that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: What I’ve been reading | Nerdishly

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