Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was a famous Russian writer who influenced the world of literature well enough to be considered one of its towering figures. If you have ever been interested in literary fiction tackling deep questions about life, meaning, suffering, and death, then perhaps you’ve heard the names of novels such as The Idiot or The Brothers Karamazov. Those are Dostoevsky’s novels. But Dostoevsky is not for everyone. If you are looking for a fast-paced, light reading, I doubt his books will entertain you to that end because they are dense, slow-paced, and packed with detail.
I have read some of his books, and now I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov, the novel mostly known in Western academic circles for the story of the Grand Inquisitor. The main character of the novel, Alyosha Karamazov, comes from a dysfunctional and broken family (his dad is a corrupt and immoral person; his mom dies when he is four). Early in the novel, he decides to become a monk. His dad (Fyodor Karamazov) and his two brothers (Dmitri and Ivan) don’t take religion as seriously as Alyosha does.
Dostoevsky was an Eastern Orthodox Christian, who spent several years in jail under the Tsar regime where he had the chance to read the gospels but also interact with all sorts of people. In the novel, The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky describes his prison experiences, where we meet some Christian characters and see how the inmates celebrated Christmas. The influence of the Bible and wrestling with theological-philosophical questions radiate from his writings. However, Dostoevsky does not write cheap, apologetic stuff or propaganda, and he was certainly not an angel (he consistently uses pejorative Russian terms for Jews). The man was a genius who took images from the Bible and blended them with ambiguity and the imagination that literature offers.
Here I want to share some preliminary reflections on the way he deploys the famous Psalm 14:1 (or 53:1, which is the same as 14:1 with a slight variation) in The Brothers Karamazov as an entry point into describing what I call the chief intellectual hypocrisy and the biblical caution about it. On one hand, the scripture judges this kind of hypocrisy as unacceptable; on the other, it implicitly warns us to not judge individual cases simply imitating the Bible.
Let’s start with the psalm.
“The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” are the opening lines of the psalm 14:1. After that, the psalm continues to describe how the unjust or evildoers oppress the poor, and it states that God is with the righteous.
Psalm 14:1 has a phonetic and structural parallelism in Hebrew that is lost in English.
אָמַר נָבָל בְּלִבּוֹ, אֵין אֱלֹהִים
הִשְׁחִיתוּ, הִתְעִיבוּ עֲלִילָה–אֵין עֹשֵׂה-טוֹב
(Amar naval blibu eyn Elohim
Hishkhitu, hit’ivu aleila — eyn oseh-tov)
The parallelism suggests a connection between “the fool says in his heart” and “no one who does good.” Perhaps the Psalmist implies that not believing in God increases the probability to do evil or morally corrupt deeds. However, this is poetry, and we don’t necessarily need to hunt for doctrine. If anything, the psalm amplifies and dramatizes the possibility. According to various commentaries, the word “nabal,” translated as fool, is taken to mean “morally corrupt” and does not seem to indicate a judgment on the intellectual stance that denies God’s existence. In other words, it is not about atheism but a corrupt morality that starts from assuming God does not exist. Throughout this post I will take a different (and reasonable, justified) stance in relation to the word “nabal,” but let’s leave the verse for now and turn to Dostoevsky’s use of Psalm 14:1 and its context.
In the novel The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor (the father), Dmitri (the oldest son), Ivan (the middle son), Alyosha (the youngest son), and two other members of the extended family meet in a monastery so that Zossima, a well-respected elder monk, may mediate among the family members to solve a problem. Another important person at this meeting is Pyotr Miusov, who is described as a classic liberal, highly educated, and dismissive of religion. During the meeting, Fyodor, who is not just corrupt but also cynical, messes up the gathering.
As soon as Zossima enters the room, Fyodor begins to talk, pointing out that unlike his oldest son (Dmitri) he is never late to meetings. Fyodor introduces himself as a clown who can’t stop joking but justifies himself by saying that he clowns around because people treat him like one, and he believes in God though he had been doubting for some time. At some point, Fyodor likens himself to the philosopher Diderot (in terms of his faith). He tells the story of how the philosopher Diderot came to Russia and met with a high church official and denied God’s existence during their discussion. But this high church official answered that, “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God.’” This made Diderot believe in God, and he got baptized. To this statement Miusov objects, saying that this is just a lie. Fyodor agrees but also accuses Miusov of destroying his faith. Fyodor says that he made up Diderot’s baptism story, but then he goes on to tell another story (a gory story related to a martyr) that he had heard from Miusov during a chat over dinner that turned him into a doubter. Miusov denies these allegations and this time defends himself by saying that dinner chat is just talk and nothing serious. Then Fyodor kneels and asks forgiveness from the monk for his lies and doubts. He says, “Teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life?” (This refers to Matt 19:16)
But the crux of the story is this: the way Fyodor behaves and speaks throughout this whole scene is highly ambiguous; it can be interpreted either as him ridiculing everyone or as him really recanting. In case we miss this ambiguity, Dostoevsky tells us that so it was; it wasn’t clear whether he was ridiculing or joking or really recanting. Moreover, it is unclear whether this ambiguity is directed at other characters only or whether it also extends to the readers who perceive Fyodor through the eyes of the omni-scient narrator. In Russian, the description has comic and irreverent elements, but the author does not let us know what to make of them. Is clowning around Fyodor’s way of coping with the seriousness and sincerity of his feelings that make him vulnerable? Or is he really just fooling around and ridiculing everyone, including the old monk?
Thus, Dostoevsky builds an uncertainty and ambiguity wrapped in comedy, creating an uncanny sense of being fooled; is the reader supposed to take this Bible-quoting, Diderot-citing, recanting clown and his implied theological questions seriously or not? The author lays the burden of discernment or judgment upon the shoulders of the reader, whose beliefs and philosophy will undoubtedly come into play of how to understand the text and what to make of this unsettling character. Moreover, we don’t know if Fyodor is aware that he is quoting the Bible or if he sincerely believes that the quote belongs to the church official who talked to Diderot. This is uncertain in the novel, and the answer to the question would change everything.
Now, in this story we hear Psalm 14:1, more precisely the first line of it (“The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God’”). One can be tempted to take Fyodor as a fool or buffoon because he acts as such. We may reason that Fyodor belittles the sacred space and its monks because he does not practically believe in God. (Pyotr Miusov’s thoughts hint at that, and Fyodor’s own actions in previous chapters strongly suggest his sardonic approach towards religion.) Therefore, he is the prototype of the fool that the scripture speaks about. But we can’t pass judgment on him or make a case for or against him so soon because as a reader we have been left in limbo without crucial knowledge for such a judgment. Dostoevsky gives us the thoughts of Miusov and of some other characters but never that of Fyodor. In other words, we readers know what’s going on in Miusov’s heart, but all we have to go on for Fyodor is his outward behavior and speech, which is neither here nor there. So by taking Fyodor for a fool and without knowing the character’s heart, we may pass judgment on ourselves and expose our own foolishness in hasty judgment.
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