Ivan vs the church vs the Economist vs Nabokov

So I’m just about 70 pages into Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky is getting on with being Dostoevsky. His narrator has gone off on a tangent about why a realist is more likely than a convert to accept the existence of miracles,[1] and an avowed atheist (Ivan) has gotten into a friendly (if that’s the right word) debate with a church elder about the relationship between mortality and morality, the relationship of the church to the state, and the possibility that only the church can reform a criminal.

It’s this last bit that interests me, and not just because it comes from an apparent atheist. It also happens to jive with an article I espied in the Economist a few days ago. Researchers plotted crime rates for a group of 67 countries on the y-axis of a graph. On the x-axis they plotted the difference between the number of people who believed in heaven less the number of people who believed in hell. In a nutshell, crime rates are higher when many people believe in heaven but few believe in hell, which suggests that in order to reduce crime, preachers and parents should go on about the afterlife’s dangers instead of its pleasures.

So I thought, could we relate this to Ivan’s conversation with the Elder Zosima?

Probably not, for the following reasons:

  • For one thing, I’d guess that Ivan and Zosima think that belief in heaven goes hand in hand with belief in hell. And so the chart from the Economist would list them at zero on the x-axis along with countries whose main religion might not even allow for life after death (e.g. Thailand).
  • The chart isn’t designed to test Ivan’s hypothesis; it attempts to illustrate the relationship between crime rates and the difference between the number of people who believe in heaven and those who believe in hell. Ivan’s specific point regards whether or not people believe in life after death, not how many people believe in heaven vs how many believe in hell.

Nevertheless, it is interesting ground for thought. Ivan and Zosima’s talk takes place in the context of another debate—whether the church should continue to exist within the state, should become the state, or if the state should move to become a part of the church. A part of Zosima’s theory is that, so long as the church and state continue as separate entities, a criminal may justify himself by saying that he has not broken God’s law (which theory would incidentally seem to agree with the data in the chart). But, Zosima goes on, if the state changed to resemble the church, a criminal could not so easily justify himself—he could only claim that he is right and has understood God’s law better than every other member of the church; according to Zosima this is unthinkable and so the criminal would have to repent and reconsider his ways.

That is a pretty fucking remarkable idea to put out there a tenth of the way into your book, if just for the fact that your reader could argue with it so easily. For one thing, what if the person who goes against what everyone else thinks happens to be actually right, like Jesus in the bible or in FMD’s own parable of the Grand Inquisitor? Would that person then be a criminal in the church’s eyes? Wouldn’t the church then be evil? On top of that, FMD writes screeds in his other books about the tyranny of rationalism and how some men will always choose freedom, even if it is rationally worse for them to do so. Is having one church any different from having one government or one set of Enlightenment principles of government? Would people disobey even if it was spiritually worse for them? Could anything bring everyone under the same tent? Wouldn’t the implication of this be that anarchy be the only system that allowed for freedom? (come to think of it, maybe this is why some FMD continues to be popular among lefties, despite beliefs that would make him most of those same lefties label him as a certifiable right-wing nutjob in 2012 America).

Unlike most ideological writers, FMD doesn’t even try to give an answer. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even think such an answer is possible, though that doesn’t make the struggle any less intense for him. He’s mortally engaged in the debate, but his contribution is the way he captures its effect on people, the frank way he treats the relationship between ideals and fallible humans who live with them. Personally I think that this is the main reason that FMD is so appealing to college students; for all his curmudgeonliness, FMD never lost touch with youth’s attraction to huge, fundamental questions about identity, the nature of human bonds and communities, and how those communities allow for meaning in spite of conflicting presence of rationalism. Furthermore, I think one reason why FMD’s books were so popular in the sixties is because people were inclined to think about ideals and their relationship to their society.

To pick up a theme of my previous post, I have to include a hypothesis as to Vladimir Nabokov’s take on all this: he might suggest that, as interesting as these lines of thinking and questioning may be, FMD is merely doing a good job at illustrating the quandaries and concerns of the young and ardent, and that such an enterprise in and of itself doesn’t qualify as art. We can psychologize Nabokov all we want or just accept that he was a supremely intelligent man who was very, very confident in his opinions, but, whatever the reason, much of his writing went against the grain of the sixties: he was Olympian, aesthetic, removed and liberal only in the aristocratic mold of Cicero.

And so we come to the obverse of my earlier statement: what does it say about us if Nabokov studies, so to speak, have superceded those of FMD? Do we not care about the issues that concerned FMD any longer? Do we care more about rarefied meta-aesthetic agendas than we do about idealism and commitment and how we define ourselves?


[1] Weirdly this little flourish reminded me of the part of Atlas Shrugged in which Francisco d’Anconia inverts a commonplace and goes on and on (and on) about how money is the root of all good. The big difference between FMD and Rand is that Rand shoots her bolt at this point in her novel and spends the remaining hundreds of pages repeating herself, while FMD has oodles, oodles more in store.

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One Response to Ivan vs the church vs the Economist vs Nabokov

  1. Andrew Barker says:

    Regarding your essay-ending question: yes, absolutely. And as much as I love Nabokov, you really don’t have to be a sentimentalist to feel a little uneasy about that.

    To cite the money-quote from David Foster Wallace’s FMD essay:

    “The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we – here, today – cannot or do not permit ourselves.”

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