Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Six Theses on The Brothers Karamazov

1. "Monsieur sait-il le temps qu'il fait? C'est à ne pas mettre un chien dehors," jokes the Devil at the end of chapter nine of book eleven of The Brothers Karamazov. "Do you know what the weather is like? One would not put a dog outside." The punchline of the joke, our faithful translators (Pevear and Volokhonsky) note, is, "You, sir, are not a dog," uttered by the host to his visitor who, again, had meant to--without saying so--place himself on a footing, with respect to social etiquette, greater or equal to that of a dog. Why would you toss me out, he asks, when one would not put a dog outside in this weather? But it's not that the host's response simply renders him inferior to a dog; it changes the very terms of the first movement of the joke. The host alters the semantic meaning of the original statement--that this man here is at least as respectable as the genus of dogs--but merely by taking it at its syntactic face-value: you are not a dog and therefore should be cast out. We are no longer comparing one genus (man) to another (canine), but reducing a fact to a fact: humans are not dogs, and dogs should not be cast out into the cold. You, sir, will therefore be put outside.
2. The Brothers Karamazov is an angel that, at the end of Dostoevsky's life, comes crashing to earth. By this we mean that it is the truth in the guise of a lie. It is a book at bottom about lying and the question of the "guise," which the lie would by definition be, and which hides or obscures the truth, whatever such a word--truth--may mean and whether or not, by novel's end, it retains any meaning beyond being a heuristic device for making lies appear. I will say in advance that I do not believe this last supposition to be the case and that truth, in Brothers, produces what it discloses in the very act of disclosing it. This is the moment in which art becomes philosophy, so-called faith becomes reason, the lie becomes true, and the Father becomes what he already was. Then as Alyosha's elder, Father Zosima of the smelly corpse, pontificates moments before his death, this guise is "a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world," by which "the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds." But nothing less than the logic of our joke--that not even a dog would be put outside--provides the foundation for this touch, this point of intimacy that binds our fallen world to the world that transcends it absolutely. Many scholars of Dostoevsky and his proto-modernist contribution to literature have called it faith, but our terminology here must differ, because we neither accept "modernism" as a category for art nor "faith" as anything more than a placeholder for a term that respects what Dostoevsky wrought and so must be amended: instead of faith, we thereby propose "lying." But as Razumikhin declares in Dostoevsky's earlier Crime and Punishment, all truth begins with a lie. We only add that it is a lie repeated twice.
3. Let’s investigate the logic of this joke. The first line is a lie in the formal sense of not saying what it does, or of doing more than it says, in the same way that when a groom and bride say, "I do," they thereby authorize the state to marry them. "I do" does not or does not only assent to the terms of marriage but is on its own the act of marriage. So our liar seems to confirm a state of affairs: it is temps mauvaise, and no one with any compassion would put out a dog in such weather. More importantly, this statement--and this is what gives the liar his or her character--only fulfills the intention of the speaker by hiding it. It can become what it is--a declaration that does not persuade but is already, in itself, an assent to its own terms--only by appearing to denote an already existing state of affairs, by disguising the motive that "lies behind" it. Of course, the speaker could ask to remain indoors, but in order for this statement in particular to work felicitously, the preceding conditions must be met. The particular can only be accomplished when one smuggles it in a universal, applying by definition without exception. But like a conditional statement for which the antecedent is false and the consequent true (and that is thereby true), the addressee upends the statement precisely by allowing the intentions that underlie it to disappear completely and taking it at its word. So he deprives the lie of its false character by assenting to its superficial meaning, the surface connection of its parts; in this way it becomes an assertion that is not only thwarted but that actually achieves the opposite of its goal. A lie coincides with fact and so becomes the truth, but in its very form and the assent to its form, qua expression of a desire that expresses it by hiding it, this swindle punishes the liar who bears it--the "scoundrel," in Dmitri Karamazov's words. This punishment is the source of our novel's conflict. The lie is already in itself its own punishment. To become what it is, it must simply be said twice.

4. At the very moment that the lie is assented to ("believed"), it becomes true by punishing the liar. Punishment is therefore not a fact superfluous to crime but is contained in the "Amen" that lets it be so, that lets it be advanced as the truth. The lie returns to itself as truth, but also as guilt for having been a lie. We must then ask what the truth is and, by the same gesture, categorically reject the notion that it is a lie that the spirit believes in the form of faith. If we understand Dostoevsky's art at its core as depicting a "leap of faith," then we are lost and do not understand it. Not only does such an image mistake for criminal psychology the theological edifice that, for Dostoevsky, is at the core of modern democracy, it also presupposes that which it discovers. If faith is conceived as a claim about an existing state of affairs, then of course we will find in its light of lights only the darkness of unknowing. But, for our purposes, faith, or the passage of a lie into the truth as the very creation of what is revealed, is rather a practice and a form of life that produces eternity (die Ewigkeit, from the old high German ewa, which can mean tradition and marriage as well) at the same time that it invokes it. Belief is a practice that liturgically returns to the light of God that it invents as if it were already there. Let me take an event--a crime, for every event in Dostoevsky is a crime--at random. Dmitri Karamazov's supposed parricide will be our event and beginning, the place from which--yes--we leap. Dmitri Karamazov has expounded to no end his desire and even intention to murder his father. Then there is of course the seizure of his withheld inheritance that would, short of the profound satisfaction of simply killing the vile man, be Dmitri's motive. But it becomes clear as Dostoevsky goes on that, for Dostoevsky's world in the same sense as for Kafka's, modern law attempts to substitute a motive for what has actually occurred, preempting a firsthand and factual witnessing with causes on which the jury agrees are sufficient. If the lie is already implicitly its own punishment, then all punishment also has the form of a lie. The law makes word into deed, wish into act, certainty into truth. The two worlds differ in that Kafka's is narrated by the letter of the law itself, from the "perspective" of bureaucracy (but which has, like a digital piano programmed to be out of tune, the man estranged from civil society as its subject). On the contrary, Dostoevsky gives voice to a Russian people that, out of a hysterical worldliness and Francophilia, has invented a system of right that will--and that eventually does--ruin it. It is to wrong as the seed of all right that our novelists must return.
5. Thus and therefore the law at its core invents the guilt that it finds by assimilating motive to act and decreeing that want is identical to fact. But Dostoevsky claims--or, better, intervenes in order to say--that Christianity already fabricated the same connection before the advent of modern law, and that therefore at the heart of law is the Christian practice of salvation. Christianity in itself already connects thought and action, a wish and its fulfillment, but not in the form of the "thought-police." No: "love," precisely the love of God, not authority or the divine fiat of God Himself, is the Christian feeling that reflects one's word and promise--that I, Dmitri Karamazov, will kill my father--already into the godlessness of the real and makes of them the same. Here we have Kant's moral law within and starry skies above, which together kill God by believing in him.  Love is the minus that binds the heart of being, the cogito of thought, and the world of dreams, madness, and doubt, this trinity of trinities. Why? Here we bear on the secret of Dostoevsky's logic. If I express a wish in public, as Dmitri Karamazov does, then this wish is as good as fulfilled, because the very idea of a wish to be fulfilled is Christian. The content of every wish is the love of God before God, because wishing begins with the concept of a God that wants to be and so immediately is. God is the first and last wish. Why? Here we bear on the secret of Dostoevsky's logic. If God is, then He is because He has taken away His ability not to be. When God decides to be, He destroys the very possibility of what we might call a non-wish, of a state of being (Zustand) that I would imagine without wanting. Christianity is only worthy of consideration for both art and philosophy at the point where love and evil merge in the form of a wish. And in this dual image of Christianity, art and philosophy, if only for an instant, are the same. So the devil says in the chapter that Dostoevsky appoints to him, "By some pre-temporal assignment, which I have never been able to figure out, I am appointed 'to negate,' whereas I am sincerely kind and totally unable to negate." This inability to negate is itself a negation of the devil's negativity, which means that the devil will always have fulfilled his role as potentate of negation. And later on, he adds, "There's a secret here, I know, but they won't reveal this secret to me for anything, because then, having learned what it's all about, I might just roar 'Hosannah,' and the necessary minus would immediately disappear and sensibleness would set in all over the world, and with it, of course, the end of everything, even of newspapers and journals, because who would subscribe to them?"

6. Chekhov, we know very well, once said that if a gun appears onstage, it must be fired. He neglects to mention that it has already been fired by being there; the lasting piece of art will refuse to let the gun go off.