Tagged: #TheBrothersK2022

The Superfluous Brothers Karamazov Read-Along Part 3: Father Killer, Qu’est-ce que c’est?

If you find yourself in perplexity, go to the master post for the read-along schedule.

Reading Dostoyevsky can feel a bit like a Grandpa Simpson story at times. Back to the murder plot, please!

In Part 3, after some preliminaries with Alyosha, who is disillusioned when his hero Elder Zozima turns out to be just human after all (i.e. smelly), and after learning the phrase “to give an onion” (which was the style at the time) we finally get to Mitya’s money-making schemes, murder, and mayhem. When then kids say “last night was a movie”, I think they were talking about Mitya’s post-murder “spree” to Mokroye, complete with champagne, singing peasants, crooked card games, and white-girl-wasted Grushenka.

Speaking of disillusionment, I really felt for Grushenka when she realized the guy she had been pining for these past five years is… just a guy. With an annoying friend who won’t stop hanging around. It happens to the best of us.

In my scramble to catch up with the reading (don’t ask where I am in Part 4), I’ve been bouncing back and forth between the P&V and the McDuff translations, and was struck by a difference in what Grigory calls Mitya moments after the murder: P&V translate it as “Parricide!” while McDuff has him shout “Father-murderer!” This sums up the difference between the two translations, for me. P&V never hesitate to use an obscure or old fashioned word, but somehow, I think it works better than the awkwardly-hyphenated “father-killer”.

The latter chapters of Part 3 are a police procedural, with various officials questioning the drunk and disorderly crew at Mokroye. Things aren’t looking good for Mitya, and I don’t read murder mysteries much, so I can’t tell if the eventual court case will resolve itself the obvious way, or with a twist, or maybe not resolve at all.

This all reminds me of my favourite real-life parricide, Dennis Oland. If you’re not Canadian (and even if you are), you might have missed this story (I read about it in Shadow of a Doubt, a true crime book, in 2017). Prominent Saint John business man Richard Oland was violently murdered by his son Dennis in 2011… probably. All the evidence pointed to Dennis from the beginning, like Mitya, and Richard was not well liked, carried on with mistresses, and was known to be stingy, like Fyodor.  The book outlines in great detail how Dennis felt entitled to financial help from his dad – and how Richard was increasingly reluctant to give Dennis money. At the time of the murder, Dennis was sinking fast (he needed way more than Mitya’s 3000 roubles). There aren’t any brothers, and as far as I know there was no Grushenka between them, but both cases seem to point squarely at the son, with the exception of a few details. In fact, with the Olands, one of those details involves a door and whether it was open or closed – just like the gate at Fyodor’s house.

I get the feeling that the Karamazov case might end up like the Oland one – Dennis was convicted and went to jail, but was found not guilty on appeal. Officially, it’s resolved, but to this day I go back and forth between thinking he *must* have done it, and thinking there might be another explanation. I assume the Karamazov story will resolve too, but will we find out what truly happened?

(Another difference worth noting is that Dennis did not go on a “spree” after the murder. Security camera footage showed that he went grocery shopping, and, in true maritimer fashion, to Tim Hortons.)

Anyway, onward to Part 4, where we suddenly turn the story back to a bunch of school kids, for some reason. Dostoyevsky is trying my patience again!

The Superfluous Brothers Karamazov Read-Along Part 2: Was Dostoyevsky a longtermist?

If you find yourself in perplexity, go to the master post for the read-along schedule.

While feverishly reading Part II to keep this read-along on track, I took a Twitter break and stumbled upon this book review. The book is called What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill, a prominent “longtermist”, a philosophy associated with Elon Musk and other tech-bro luminaries. The quote that caught my eye was:

According to a study commissioned by MacAskill, however, even in the worst-case scenario—a nuclear war that kills 99 percent of us—society would likely survive. The future trillions would be safe. The same goes for climate change. MacAskill is upbeat about our chances of surviving seven degrees of warming or worse: “even with fifteen degrees of warming,” he contends, “the heat would not pass lethal limits for crops in most regions.

Longtermism says that ethical decisions should be made with the long-term future in mind. In application, this seems to mean using math and logic to discount the wellbeing of people who are alive today, prioritizing anything that makes it even slightly more likely future humans get to do things like colonize other planets, or upload their consciousnesses into a simulation (assuming we’re not already in one!)

MacAskill is saying that nuclear holocaust and climate disaster, and the horrendous suffering that ensue, aren’t that big a deal, as long as some humans survive and have “good enough” lives. 

As I went down this rabbit hole, I started seeing some connections to some of Dostoyevsky’s favourite themes, as one does.

  • Longtermism is based on utilitarianism, a philosophy that says right and wrong should be based on logical outcomes, as opposed to, say, religious doctrine. Dostoyevsky looks at utilitarianism in many of his novels, famously in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov tells himself that is was okay for him to murder the old pawnbroker because of the pain and suffering she caused, though a couple mental breakdowns later, he’s not so sure. 
  • Longtermism is also based on effective altruism, a much newer philosophy of the 2000s that suggests people use logical outcomes to figure out how to do the most good, and then do that. Using this framework, it’s okay to make money doing unethical things, if you donate some of it to good causes. This reminded me of how Dostoyevsky points out the hypocrisy inherent in a lot of charity in The Brothers Karamazov. For example, Zozima’s mentor donates the proceeds of his heinous murder-robbery to an almshouse “on purpose to ease his conscience regarding the theft.” 

To be very clear, in this era of “problematic authors”, Dostoyevsky was not exactly a proponent of utilitarianism, nor am I suggesting he’d be a proponent of effective altruism or longtermism, despite my click-bait title. I just can’t help but wonder [/Carrie Bradshaw voice] if he’d create a longtermist character if he were writing today. 

And maybe he sort of did, in Elder Zozima.

In Book 6, “The Russian Monk”, we hear Elder Zozima’s life story as interpreted by Alyosha. The parable “Can One Be the Judge of One’ Fellow Creatures? Of Faith to the End” first got me thinking about how Dostoyevsky would have had much to say about social media outrage cycles (and not for the first time), with the Elder advising us to stop doomscrolling and do something useful with our lives: 

“If the villainy of people arouses indignation and insurmountable grief in you, to the point that you desire to revenge yourself upon the villains, fear that feeling most of all; go at once and seek torments for yourself, as if you yourself were guilty of their villainy… you will understand that you, too, are guilty, for your might have shone to the villains, even like the only sinless One, but you did not. If you had shone, your light would lighted the way for others, and the one who did villainy would perhaps not have done so in your light. And even if you do shine, but see that people are not saved even with your light, remain steadfast, and do not doubt the power of heavenly light; believe that if they are not saved now, they will be saved later. And if they are not saved, their sons will be saved…your work is for the whole, your deed is for the future.

Pevear and Volokhonsky translation

Then it got me thinking about longtermism, and how it’s similar to to religious faith, even though the longtermists probably don’t see it that way. These guys are more Ivan than Alyosha. But religious and longtermist worldviews are both about sacrifice in the present for a future that may never come to pass.

And I can’t help noticing that these guys are all, well guys: the priests and monks demanding we sacrifice and be faithful, awaiting reward in heaven, and the philosophers demanding we put the interests of hypothetical, future people ahead of actual, living people (which, incidentally, sounds like a religious “pro-life” talking point).

It’s also pretty convenient that the Elders preach, but don’t have to deal with the messy business of living in society. Similarly, these overwhelmingly male philosophers want the future population to balloon into the “trillions”, but won’t be the ones carrying, giving birth to, or caring for all these babies (unless they’re quietly working on some sort of incubator pod in between rocket launches.)

Dostoyevsky died 135 years before “longtermism” became a thing, but he certainly thought about the future, how to do good, and how to determine right from wrong. Maybe longtermism is descendant of the nihilism, utilitarianism, and atheism he wrote about so astutely. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to write a planned sequel to The Brothers Karamazov, let alone a novel satirizing Millennial philosophy bros. 

(For an even more critical overview of longtermism, check out this article, which, not surprisingly, ties longtermism to men’s rights advocacy, cryptocurrency, and eugenics. Ferris Bueller was right!)

The Superfluous Brothers Karamazov Read-Along Interlude: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

And apparently, nobody expects their read-along to be derailed by summer vacation. I missed this Monday’s post on Part II due to travel, but I am done the reading, and have surprisingly little to say about Ivan’s Spanish Inquisition story, “The Grand Inquisitor”, despite it being the best-known part of The Brothers K, and thought to sum up its themes.

I’m more interested in talking about “The Russian Monk” chapter, where we learn the life story of the Elder Zozima – surprisingly, as it takes us away from the love triangles and murder aspects of the story.

So while I try to come up with something intelligent to say about that, and essentially bump the whole read-along schedule out by a week, talk amongst yourselves…