Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Brothers Karamazov

I have re-read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov after more than 30 years. I remember being almost spellbound by the novel when I first read it – it led me into The Idiot which I also found a revelation. A curious feature of my reading of both books is that, after such a time, the plots had faded almost entirely in my memory. I did remember a pervading sense of delirium yet a strong sense of realism in the writing. Obviously the impact was on me was emotional not narrative. Let’s face it the human condition seldom gets described accurately by popular culture and Hollywood - when we come across a quality portrayal the description sticks. Particular emotionally-charged passages I recall vividly as if I read them yesterday. One terrifying image that stuck is of a peasant beating a horse around its ‘gentle eyes’. Yet I had forgotten almost entirely about Fyodor Karamazov, his death and the prosecution of Dmitri which provides the bulk of the second half of the story.

In the chapter before that titled the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ Dostoyevsky exposits what, as far as I know, is one of the earliest versions of the ‘ticking bomb’ problem that I recall discussing on John Quiggin’s blog a few years ago. In the version I discussed the question was whether one should torture a terrorist who knew where a ticking bomb was concealed if the discovery of the bomb would prevent the deaths of millions. Dostoyevsky poses this problem much more dramatically. Should you torture to death a young innocent child if by so doing you could bring eternal happiness to all in the world? Our hero, Alyusha* Karamazov, thankfully says ‘no’! I thought I might have been the first to recognise this literary connection to a contemporary problem of ethics but Dostoyevsky’s argument, and its link to the ticking bomb issue, is, in fact, widely- known.

The Brothers Karamazov is not all gloom and pessimism and it does capture real life in all its complexity. I am intrigued by the initially peripheral figure Grushenka who is initially portrayed as a conniving slut but who gradually is revealed as a highly intelligent free spirit and ultimately as the ideal Russian woman. Indeed the whole novel is fascinating writing. Freud described it as the most ‘magnificent novel ever written’. In the absence of evidence to the contrary - and given my limited literary experience - I concur.

I was lucky enough to read this book in a beautiful Folio edition illustrated with wood engravings. It does make a difference reading an enjoyable novel that is so elegantly presented - hard cover, heavy high-quality paper and attractive non-miniscule fonts.

*Incidentally Alyusha was the name of Dostoyevsky’s young son who died aged 3 from epilepsy – a disease his father inflicted on him through his genes.


Anonymous said...

The phrase "afflicted on him through his genes" is somewhat perjorative, although I might not be if there was better public understanding.

Some epileptics, particularly where the source is the left temporal lobe, choose to not quite take enough medication, because of some of the advantages of the condition, greater inventiveness and flashes of insight, which caused ancient peoples to view epileptics as touched by the gods, although by malevolent or benevolent ones varied from culture to culture.

Objective measurement of creativity (similar to presenting an "obvious" join-the-dots, and asking people to see what pictures they can make) demonstrates that left-temporal lobe seizures are associated with creativity (but not epileptics where the aetiology involves brain insult).

Moral and religious issues are often seen to "light up" the same parts of the brain that are lit in normal people when presented with sexual imagery they like. This pre-occupation is well displayed by Dostoyevski's writings, particularly "The Idiot", deeply concerned by moral issues, with above-average and underused mathematical skills, falling in love with the wrong woman. (Too close to real life, I won't read it again).

LT lobe epilepsy has a not insignificant genetic component where receptors in the brain work differently and neurons work faster.

Just as with over-clocked computers that are more powerful, yet more prone to crashing through overheating, providing a better cooling system (using a subcranial peltier fridge lowering brain temperature by 2 degrees) helps control seizures in rats.

Is an over-clocked computer "afflicted"? Overclockers admit the downsides, but see enough of the upside to choose increased speed over reliability.

Many neurotypical people, obviously yourself, have gained benefit from these genes circulating in the population. Would you like to be seen as gaining from the "afflicted", or even "taking advantage"?

If you choose to edit your "afflicted" sentence to make it less perjorative, feel free to rework/trim my comment down considerably (perhaps to the bit about epileptics being sensitive to moral questions). I fear you may suffer the ire of those who share my condition, but are more liable to be offended, and would hate to see them offended.

hc said...

Dostoyevsky's epilepsy was as you mention diagnosed as 'temporal lode epilepsy' which does have a genetic component so unclear of your point.

Dostoyevsky himself regarded the disorder as inherited and experienced anguish on this account.

Freud diagnosed Dostoyevsy's epilepsy as hysteria on the grounds that epilepsy was incompatible with genius. This is wrong.

I reject any claim I am being "perjorative".

derrida derider said...

The best rebuttal of both the "tortured child" and "ticking bomb" scenarios is Burke's - the grave uncertainty created by our limited knowledge of the interconnectedness of things. We cannot foresee the future with any certainty at all, so we should be deeply wary of doing anything that imposes certain evil in the hopes of creating any (inherently uncertain) good.

This is quite different from Alyosha's implicit rebuttal, which revolves around the uniqueness of each human soul and hence the immorality of all attempts at interpersonal comparisons of utility.