Part 4: Karamazov takes to the stage.
Book 2, chapters 1, and 2.
“The only thing that bothers me is that I shall have to share your company, Mr. Karamazov.”1
This week, we find our heroes at the local monastery, ostensibly to discuss the dispute over the family inheritance. Instead, our protagonists will end up antagonizing one another. Karamazov will purposely act the fool even when in the presence of the revered elder Zossima. This will cause fraying of tempers and much wringing of hands. Along the way, Zossima doles out religious and moral advice to peasants ladies while angry and scandalized men are left to stew in a room together.
Furthermore, an alien bacterium known as the Andromeda Strain (which is not actually a bacterium but a sort of microscopic chrystaline matter-energy converter) will decimate the population of Piedmont, Arizona. Five of the most boring scientists ever are afterwards confined to a needlessly contrived subterranean lab to save their nondescript world from certain doom. And then the doom turns out to be not so doomy at all. Perhaps the last bit should not be part of this week’s discussion. And perhaps I should stop reading two books at the same time.
Anyway, back to our favorite dysfunctional Russian family…
The first chapter of book two swiftly describes the added attendants to the coming dramatic festivities. Although several of the attendants are little more than pieces of decór, mention has to be made of a local aristocratic landowner with Parisienne (read: atheist, liberal) tendencies. He goes by the name of Miusov. Much of the verbal fireworks in the following chapters result from the interaction between Karamazov and Miusov. The latter cannot stand the former’s buffoonery, as evidenced by the line cited above. And even though Miusov is aware of the effect that the drunk old clown has on his state of mind, he will often be beside himself, and react furiously to the man’s continued trolling. Faced with hostility from Miusov, Karamazov adopts an attitude best summed up by the rallying cry of 14 year old Call of Duty players everywhere… In short: “u mad, bro?”
One of Karamazov’s favorite tactics is lampooning sacred institutions and etiquette by playing the part of annoying court jester. He mimics the behaviorial formalities of the aristocracy, and tirelessly engages in sexual innuendo. He tries to subvert any and all normal discussion through non-sequiturs or remarks intended to scandalize. Professor Maxim D. Schrayer suggests that; “[Karamazov] distorts the holiest ideas of humanity. Not only is nothing sacred to this man, but, essentially, sheer sacrilege is his religion.”2 Some of the things that would scandalize upper class Russians seem quaint to us, like Karamazov’s continuous mention of one “von Sohn.” This is a reference to a famous criminal case in which a certain well known lecher was found murdered in a brothel. Karamazov will repeatedly call one of the monks present at the meeting a “von Sohn.”
He does this the very first time he sees this monk by the name of Maximov, where this exchange takes place:
‘A most tiresome old fellow,’ Miusov observed in a loud voice after Maximov had run back to the monastery.
‘Reminds me of von Sohn,’ Karamazov said suddenly.
‘You would say that! Why does he remind you of von Sohn? Have you ever seen von Sohn?’
‘I’ve seen his photograph. […] The very spit of von Sohn. I can always tell from the face.’
‘Well, I daresay. You’re an expert on that.’3
Miusov here rightly points out that this is a case of a pot calling the kettle black. Karamazov attempts to cast the image of the scandalous lecher upon someone other than himself. It is projection, employed as diversionary tactic. Despite Miusov’s accurate perception of Karamazov’s intentions, however, he will fail to keep his emotions in check. For, the old buffoon, much like the court jester, is acutely aware of how to get under a man’s skin – and where the insecurities and frailties of men reside.
If sacrilege is Karamazov’s religion, then his mission is to recast the world in his own depraved image. When he observes that there are different ways for visitors to enter the secluded chambers of the elders, Karamazov implies this to be a “secret passageway from the hermitage to the ladies.”4 His words are crafted to imply the worst about those viewed by society as respectable, revered or even, holy. At one point, he posits that the monastery’s previous elder had a tendency to “beat even lady visitors with a stick.”5
He also has a tendency to subvert religious texts: “Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps that gave thee suck – the paps especially.”6 This is a mangled quotation from Luke 11.27 (quoted apparently from the Douay-Rheims Bible). The next passage, (Luke 11.28) reads “But he [Jesus] said: Yea rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it.” Clearly, Karamazov is not a godly man. At one point, he goes so far as to imply he is the Dark Lord himself. In reply to the elder’s advice about not telling lies, and to be not ashamed of himself, Karamazov replies: “And I have been lying, I’ve indeed been lying all my life, every day and every hour. Verily, I am a lie and the father of lies!”7
Despite all of Karamazov’s attempts to goad the elder into losing his temper, or to get under his skin, Zossima remains mild-mannered and kind. As mentioned before, he advises Karamazov to mend his ways. To stop lying, to stop feeling ashamed of himself, and to stop living a debauched life. But the advice will fall on deaf ears, despite all protestations to the contrary. Still, the elder remains the only one present at the gathering who is not perturbed, ashamed or angry because of Karamazov’s antics. For his demeanor, Zossima is rewarded with a barbed compliment:
“Well, sir, I want you to know that I was acting like that all the time on purpose so as to try you. I’ve been watching you carefully all the time to see whether one could get on with you. Whether there was room for my humility beside your pride. Let me hand you a certificate of honour: it is possible to get on with you.”8
It must be quite the honor for a man of faith, to receive such praise from the devil incarnate…
Next time: female diversions and religious conversions…
Image: “Get away from me, Satan – Отыди от меня, Сатаноʺ by Ilya Repin. Licensed under public domain via WikiArt.
Doesn’t always refer to himself in the third person.
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METAMORPHOSES OF ‘BEZOBRAZIE’ IN DOSTOEVSKIJ’S THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV: MAKSIMOV-VON SOHN-KARAMAZOV. Maxim D. Schrayer. From: Russian Literature XXXVII (1995) 93-108. North-Holland (p. 96) ↩
The Brothers…, p. 38 ↩
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Ibidem, p. 47, emphasis added ↩
Ibidem, p. 49 ↩