Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review of The Brothers Karamazov

Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1880. Read in Russian. Glossy's rating: 4/10.

This book is a soap opera interspersed with earnest discussions about morals and God. The amount of scandal, drama and heartbreak per hour of narrative in it is highly unrealistic. The characters overact wildly, scowling, blushing and crying hysterically at every opportunity. The style is plain and functional, the prose easy to follow but artless.

I didn't see anything in Dostoyevsky's moral and theological speculations that most readers wouldn't have thought of by themselves, but he obviously meant well with it all. I'm sure that lots of people have improved their behavior after reading this book, not because the author gave them any new intellectual reasons to be better men, but simply by following the example of his characters, the same way that kids who listen to gangster rap act like brats to their parents afterwards.

Alyosha, the protagonist, is almost saintly, and nearly everyone in the book, even the villains, treats him with affection. I don't think that's unrealistic. People despise weakness, but revere kindness. These two things are sometimes hard to tell apart even in one's own motivations, but some people really are kind, and even the most rotten souls feel bad about taking advantage of genuine kindness.

Why isn't everyone kind then? Well, obviously, humans have always competed with each other for limited resources. I've known some pretty unselfish people, but none as kind as Alyosha Karamazov.

Father Zosima, Alyosha's spiritual guide, talks at length here about his vision of an ideal society. I was surprised to learn that there were no masters, servants or kulaks in it. The latter were specifically condemned. Dostoyevsky hated socialists, atheists and revolutionaries, but apparently shared their ideal of a classless, non-exploitative society, which almost was achieved for a while in the USSR, after the original revolutionaries were shot and jailed in the late 1930s.

Speaking of social class, the language of the peasants and servants in this book sounds more rural and downscale to a modern Russian speaker's ear than any kind of Russian that exists today. That's to be expected. What's surprising is that even the language of the narrator and of the gentry sounds a bit rustic by modern standards. Not as bad as modern low-end accents, but slightly shifted in their direction from current proper Russian.

At one point Dmitry Karamazov, a retired officer of noble (i.e. landowning) class asks a provincial government official if he had ever stolen anything in his life "from someone else's pocket. I'm not talking about government funds, everyone steals that, and you of course too". Real theft, the kind that's abhorrent to Dmitry, is from real people.

Another observation: it's implied here that Odessa is in southern Russia. It's now one of the Ukraine's largest cities. Yet Siberia wasn't Russia to Dostoyevsky at all. He describes a man returning from there as coming back to Russia.

Through father Zosima Dostoyevsky predicted that the atheist revolutionaries would be defeated, though there's no sign here that he imagined that they would win at first.

At one point Zosima, a monk, says that the most important thing for a man to do is to refuse to lie to himself. It's ironic that this is exactly why I can't believe in God - my ancestors' version, Zosima's version or any other. I know that faith is good for individuals and society, but I can't convince myself that it's not a lie, that it's not a bunch of wishful thinking. The people who wrote the Genesis story about forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil could not have known any atheists, but atheism does act a lot like their fruit. One can't unknow its terrible truth, and one is forever less innocent for knowing it.


  1. "Why would a son of a multimillionaire be culturally working-class? The above-mentioned IQ issue. Also, his natural machismo.If you ask an Italian-American elevator mechanic from Jersey or Staten Island about law and order, free trade or immigration, you'll hear the same things that are coming out of Trump."

    Then in a review you quote the author approvingly about what ensues:

    "For a modern Western bestseller Submission has an absolutely shocking amount of gender realism. Houllebecq's protagonist acknowledges that women crave submission to rich and powerful men (the title doesn't only refer to Islam), that their looks fade much earlier than men's, that their entry into the workforce destroyed the family, and that giving them the vote may not have been a very wise decision."

    Should we conclude your IQ be 105-110 too? :D

    You have a stereotyped view of intelligent people, maybe because most of those in the limelight pose as cult-marxists/the mainstream media does everything to make educated (yet characterless) people believe the mantra that the intelligent all align with their worldview (or interests masqueraded as such...).

    I'd say that the more intelligent people are more prone to wishing to be IN, and then fall in line with whatever they perceive the dominant opinion -- the fad the powers of their time are imposing.

    And what about Houellebecq's IQ? Is that 105-110 too?

    The real separation is between the IN and the OUT (of fashion), with the intelligent much more likely to fall for cultural narcissism and follow the cultural trends, as blindly as people act under the yoke of narcissism.

    1. Trump's political views are more like the views of below-110-IQ whites than like the views of above-130-IQ whites, but that's not why I concluded that his IQ is in the 105 - 110 range. There are very smart right-wingers, some of whom are listed in my blog roll on this page, and there are dumb left-wingers. Such people are unusual (among Euro-Americans), but they exist.

      The reason I think that Trump is less intelligent than the average politician is that I've heard him talk a lot. Same thing with W. It's the tone of voice, the kind of humor he likes, what sorts of facts he knows and doesn't know.

      I remember reading about studies where people were asked to estimate a person's IQ based on their voice and/or appearance. The guessed IQs correlated well with the actual IQs, as shown by paper-and-pencil tests. Our ancestors' survival depended on them being able to judge people quickly and accurately, so it's not surprising that we can do this.

      Right now, because of Trump's politics, his fans want to think that he's smart and his opponents want to think that he's dumb. But what did the average person think of him before he went into politics, before everyone's judgments were affected by partisanship? I don't think the average person considered him smart then. Did you think he was smart then?

      Having said all this, I don't regret that I voted for him. I hope to vote for him again 4 years from now.

      "And what about Houellebecq's IQ?"

      Based on "Submission" I'd say that Houellebecq is smart but not genius-smart. 125 wouldn't surprise me. His view of gender relations is correct, but atypical of smart people.
      "You have a stereotyped view of intelligent people..."

      Most stereotypes are true on average, meaning that there are exceptions.

      "I'd say that the more intelligent people are more prone to wishing to be IN, and then fall in line with whatever they perceive the dominant opinion -- the fad the powers of their time are imposing."

      The powers that be promote leftism by saying that it's upscale. Lots of people have given up on trying to be upscale because of their age, health, low socio-economic status, lack of smarts, etc. So downscale people tend to have a less lefty, less politically correct, more realistic view of human nature and politics than upscale people.