Friday, May 1, 2009

My perspective on Ivan's Dilemma

For those who know Dostoevsky, Ivan Karamazov confronts his little brother, Alyosha, on a dilemma he is facing concerning life.
Ivan begins his conversation with Alyosha with an acknowledgement of his own “greenness”, his own youthfulness which is his thirst for life. Ivan is convinced that even if he were to loose everything, and be confronted by the bestiality of man's worst crimes, even then he would not loose faith in life. In his own words, he has bent to the cup and will not stop until he has drained the cup. (It is interesting to note the imagery of the cup as reminiscent of the torment of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. ) Such passionate attachment is quite common in youthfulness, yet Ivan also calls this thirst for life a feature of the Karamazovs, and this is painfully true, both in it's sensualist deprivation so apparent in Fyodor, and less in Dimitry, and also in the extreme love and acceptance dwelling inside Alyosha, the “lover of mankind”. However, even as Ivan proclaims his love for life, he concludes that he will most likely toss the cup away from him around his thirtieth year. This thirst for life, he claims may become old to him, and he may drain any form of nobility from the thirst for life, leaving behind only sensuality and licentiousness. Perhaps this resignation to some sort of predestined fate to wallow in the same pit as his father now finds himself is built out of fear of this very possibility. If so, Ivan is setting himself up for failure. And yet, even still, he claims the “sickly green leaves” and blue sky are dear to him, and he loves them, not with his mind, but with his “gut”.

After a little sidetracking, Ivan returns to the thread of his dilemma, with the observation that Russian boys sit together and talk about the “big questions” of life and death, and God, and other such things. Ivan puts himself in with them and claims that he accepts God, pure and simple, (slightly shocking, considering his prior declarations of atheism) but he can not accept his world. Ivan has a “childlike conviction” that the sufferings of all mankind will be smoothed over one day, and that all the irreconcilable things of this world will be reconciled, but he refuses to accept it. He doesn't care what may happen, he even wishes to see this take place, but he will not accept what lies before him. Ivan even acknowledges his incompetence in understanding God's will, and isn't put off by that. He understands, through analogy, that to his Euclidian mind, two parallel lines never meet, and yet in Eliptical Geometry, they do. Ivan challenges the two parallel lines to meet, even before his eyes, yet still he will not believe it. This ties back to the beginning of the book, where Dostoevsky inserts a passage on the realist. “A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact.”

Ivan believes, in his heart of hearts he does. He believes in the sickly green leaves and the thirst for life. He believes in the resurrection and the smoothing over of human sufferings and loss. He believes in all these things, and yet he will still throw down the cup. Ivan believes, and has a conviction about these issues which are entirely compelling and attractive, but he throws these notions back in God's face, crying “I accept you, but not your world.” Ivan is caught is a web of a rebellion deep and blasphemous, but why is he caught? We must wait for him to tell us.

Fyodor Dostoevsky. “The Brothers Karamazov” Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, p 25

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