Monday, September 2, 2013

Alyosha Karamazov

Nikolaï Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945), Boy on a lawn
Alexey (Alyosha) Karamazov is a “radiant” figure, among the best known of Dostoevsky's fictional universe. The freedom he shows facing difficult and even dark situations is quite amazing. The family drama described in the very last and brilliant novel of the great Fyodor does not leave Alyosha indifferent, but it makes him grow up and mature. His eyes are able to discern precious stones in the middle of the mud. His kindness radiates and awakens, in those who meet him, feelings of trust and bursts of faith.

Having sketched the portrait of the elder son, Dmitri (Mitya), who possesses a passionate and excessive temperament, and then Ivan’s, a dark, restless, tortured person, the novelist describes the third son Karamazov, Alyosha: First of all, I must explain that this young man, Alyosha, was not a fanatic, and, in my opinion at least, was not even a mystic (...) He was simply an early lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was simply because at that time it struck him, so to say, as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love” (I, I, IV)(1). Indeed, at the beginning of the story, Alyosha is a novice in a monastery, where the elder Zossima is his spiritual father.

Sofya Ivanovna, Alyosha’s mother, who died when he was not yet four years old, left deeply impressed memories in his soul. He remembered one still summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (that he recalled most vividly of all); in a corner of the room the holy image(2), before it a lighted lamp, and on her knees before the image his mother, sobbing hysterically with cries and moans, snatching him up in both arms, squeezing him close till it hurt, and praying for him to the Mother of God, holding him out in both arms to
the image as though to put him under the Mother’s protection...” (I, I, IV).

Because of his simplicity and his purity of heart, the young man shows a surprising freedom which opens every door for him: “Here is perhaps the one man in the world whom you might leave alone without a penny, in the center of an unknown town of a million inhabitants, and he would not come to harm, he would not die of cold and hunger, for he would be fed and sheltered at once; and if he were not, he would find a shelter for himself, and it would cost him no effort or humiliation. And to shelter him would be no burden, but, on the contrary, would probably be looked on as a pleasure.” (I, I, IV).

Throughout the story, we see Alyosha trying and rescue his two elder brothers. So it is that he tries to applie the recommendation – a kind of prophecy – made to him by the elder Zossima: Christ is with you. Do not abandon Him and He will not abandon you. You will see great sorrow, and in that sorrow you will be happy (...) Go, and make haste. Be near your brothers. And not near one only, but near both.” (I, II, VII). He is very close to Dmitri, whose excess and extravagance do not hide for him a heightened sensitivity and a deep generosity. And even if his relationship with Ivan is more difficult, Alyosha feels for him an equally deep love. He understands what his anguished search means. In a dialogue with a libertine seminarian, who is convinced that all the Karamazov are debauched and miserly, Alyosha asserts: “It is not money, it’s not comfort Ivan is seeking. Perhaps it’s suffering he is seeking (…) he has a stormy spirit. His mind is in bondage. He is haunted by a great, unsolved doubt. He is one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions” (I, II, VII). The famous chapter called the "Grand Inquisitor" (Part II, Book V) illustrates this thinking of Ivan, for whom the suffering of an innocent child is incompatible with faith in a good God. The implacable demonstration of the "Grand Inquisitor" leaves Alyosha disarmed. Ultimately, his only answer is a kiss on the lips of his brother. And Ivan, deeply shaken, says to him: It’s enough for me that you are somewhere here, and I shan’t lose my desire for life yet” (II, V, V).

To look at the others with a merciful gaze and without any judgment is the typical behaviour of the deified man. And that is the way Alyosha is perceived, especially by his brother Dmitri:
You are an angel on earth. You will hear and judge and forgive. And that’s what I need, that someone above me should forgive” (I, III, III).

The old patriarch himself, Fyodor Pavlovich, in his ignominy, was able to perceive something of the goodness that dwells in the heart of his younger son Alyosha ‘pierced his heart’ by ‘living with him, seeing everything and blaming nothing.’ Moreover, Alyosha brought with him something his father had never known before: a complete absence of contempt for him and an invariable kindness, a perfectly natural unaffected devotion to the old man who deserved it so little” (I, III, I). Moreover, Alyosha will say to his father: “I know your thoughts. Your heart is better than your head” (I, III, VIII).

Nikolaï Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945), Future monk
Alyosha is deeply affected by the death of his beloved elder Zossima. It is for him a terrible test. But, after a painful inner struggle, it results in a new birth. The young man leaves his cell: His soul, overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him (…) Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. ‘Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears,’ echoed in his soul. What was he weeping over? (…) He longed to forgive every one and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything (…) But with every instant he felt clearly and, as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul (…) He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy. And never, never, all his life long, could Alyosha forget that minute. ‘Some one visited my soul in that hour’, he used to say afterwards, with implicit faith in his words” (III, VII, IV). What an amazing experience of birth given by a spiritual father !

Further in the novel, beautiful pages describe Alyosha’s relationships, full of tenderness and respect, with kids (see Book X: “The Boys”), in particular with Kolya Krassotkin and Ilusha Snegiryov. About these episodes, I refer the reader to three texts (unfortunately, not yet translated into English) published in the French version of my blog: “N’ayez pas peur de la vie”, “Ilioucha – ‘Si je t’oublie, Jérusalem…’ and Éternellement, main dans la main”.

Dostoevsky's “five elephants”(3) – not only The Brothers Karamazov – are an inexhaustible mine. But one day I shall have to stop digging there. In the meantime, I felt obliged at least to call to mind the elder Zossima. More to come!

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) All the quotations (Part, Book, Chapter) are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated into English by Constance Garnett,
(2) In the main room of the Russian houses, one or several icons occupied a corner - Krasnoie ugol or "beautiful place" - where they could be seen and worshiped by the inhabitants and visitors.

(3) That is the name given by Svetlana Geier, who translated Dostoevsky into German, to the five great novels of the writer's maturity

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