Titian’s Cain and Abel
One of the most prominent aspects in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is that every one of its pages displays his unrelenting love for mankind. Allow me to remind you of the fine sensibility with which he portrays Russian peasants, servants, men of law, criminals, religious fanatics, stray characters, dim-witted women, alcoholics (why so many of them?!) and so on. Not many writers have been able to create such a wide diversity of characters in such depth. Very few of these, if any, could be classified as “good” by today’s strict standards of morality. However, Dostoyevsky manages to make them all believable, absolutely real and multidimensional. And even lovable in spite of all their shortcomings.
Dostoyevsky’s vision of the world had a religious basis: he was a believer, but not one full of bigotry or fanaticism. He was much too intelligent for that and loved life too deeply. He didn’t want to annihilate but to entice. All throughout his book one can feel his devotion for life and his desire to tell the truth: life must be accepted as is, in spite of all its hardship. Nietzsche would also write about this some years later: he called it amor fati (after Marcus Aurelius). This doesn’t mean resignation; humans are definitely not “designed” for resignation, not thorough human beings, anyway, just as they are not made for shallow enjoyment. Amor fati means acceptance of facts, of reality as is. Denying it won’t change it a bit. Setting our goals of happiness in another life after death means denying the world, would say Nietzsche, whose views against religion and moral rules were firm. Dostoyevsky did have faith. So, how can it be understood that Nietzsche admired him so much and was so greatly influenced by him?
The answer can only lie in the fact that Dostoyevsky’s proposals are overwhelmingly believable. He is not playing with truth, he is not disguising it, either, he is just exposing it, all its crudity as well as all its beauty. And he transmits us his thirst for life, for that is what we have: an immensity of joy and pain, of ugliness and perfection. Life is multiform and complex, just like Dostoyevsky‘s characters. Why not learn to love it?
Neither Dostoyevsky’s nor Nietzsche’s views were romantic. Dostoyevsky goes as far as to ask us to love pain and suffering, simply because they are part of life. Nietzsche didn’t believe in god, but his passion for life was unrivalled, and even braver, we dare say, as he expected no divine reward afterwards. But both shared the same sincere vision of life and unequalled honesty to describe it.
After giving it a lot of thought so many questions arise, and perhaps the first one is: one can accept all the above intellectually, certainly, but how to accept the existence of evil? How to deal with it? This is precisely Ivan Karamazov’s main preoccupation, the reason why he had lost all faith in god and life. He kept wondering why children had to suffer, innocent of all mischief as they are since they haven’t tasted the fatal apple and therefore cannot tell good from evil. How could anyone stand the suffering of one single child, even if it was the condition to save the whole mankind? Why such suffering, why such evil? Who is responsible for that? Some fathers are not good fathers, that is for sure. Ivan knew that well, for he had been abandoned by his own father. Did he have to feel guilty for not loving him? Was he guilty for not believing in god?
Snowstorm by Turner
But he didn’t kill his father, or… did he? Everybody knew the tragedy was imminent. There was too much hatred with such a depraved father as head of the family. Dimitri, his elder brother, was evidently going to kill him soon, so full of rage as he was. What did Ivan do about it? He fled away. Perhaps he thought: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, as the Bible reads. Why should I feel responsible for his actions?
Dostoyevsky doesn’t condemn him, but he shows us that Ivan could certainly have, at least, tried to prevent the crime. His intelligence, sensibility and education were superior to his brothers’. And he was well aware of Dimitri’s wild unbridled character and the rivalry between him and their father.
Ivan left and an obscure Karamazov force, Smerdyakov, Fyodor Karamazov’s illegitimate son, committed the announced crime out of bitterness and resentment.
The question “Am I his keeper?” appears several times throughout the book. And one other idea is equally recurrent: everyone is responsible for everybody else’s sins. Could this mean for Dostoyevsky that, all of us sharing the same conscience, we know better and cannot just look the other way? Isn’t the actual murderer as guilty as the person who allows the crime? Talking, as Dimitri used to do, is not killing. Not acting is the same as acting when a benefit is involved. And Ivan left. He hated his father as everyone else did. Not everything is licit, whether god exists or not. Ivan realizes this much too late, after a life’s struggle between faith and freedom. Where does the difference lie?, seems to be Dostoyevsky’s answer.
Cain kills Abel by Gustave Doré