No Excuses: Lecture 14, The Three Grand Inquisitors: Dostoevsky, Kafka, Hesse

Dostoevsky anticipates some central themes in Heideggers works. In Notes from Underground, we are introduced to an unlikable character. Spite and resentment characterizes everything he does. The central theme is that of freedom and free will. Dostoevsky is attacking the enlightenment and the idea that people can improve themselves (which is something Nietzsche also attacks). And he attacks the idea that people can have free choice in a way that it leads to happiness.

Dostoevsky shows that freedom and happiness are opposed. Happiness is very often the absence of freedom. Dostoevsky attacks the entire Enlightenment. What he specifically attacks is the idea that we can create a society that will make everyone happy. But what gets left out with this idea is our personal freedom. What is most important to us is our free will. But in so far as we go along with the plans that are supposed to make us happy, what we loose is our freedom. The Underground Man sees being spiteful as a philosophical freedom, not a character deficiency.

Freedom is a good in it’s own right, it is the most important benefit that we have. Joining and sacrificing freedom for the grand plan of society is to render us inhuman.

In The Idiot, Dostoevsky challenges the assumption that a person who is “very good” will contribute to the well-being of society. Aristotle, Christianity (through the idea of following Jesus’ example) and the Enlightenment all subscribe to this idea: the better the person, the better society. In contrast, the main character of The Idiot, by doing good, makes everybody’s lives terrible. The consequences of goodness are not always good themselves.

The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s crowning achievement. The main concern of the novel is nihilism which Dostoevsky is radically against (as is Nietzsche and Kierkegaard – nihilism was taking over Europe during their time). Ivan represents the Enlightenment philosophy as well as the nihilistic principles. Through Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha – we see the whole spectrum of society with Ivan caught in the middle.

The idea that freedom is central to Christianity is something Dostoevsky wants to throw into question. This isn’t just a religious problem, it’s a dilemma of humanity writ large. He shows this through the Grand Inquisitor who is stunned by Jesus’ reappearance. He decides Jesus has to go because what Christianity has done over the past 1400 years is succeeded in making people happy. They are happy at the hopes it raises, in being saved, in being in the shadow of Jesus who has not yet appeared. But with the appearance of Jesus, people now have to face reality. Given the choice between freedom and happiness, the Grand Inquisitor says people will always choose happiness. So in the end, Jesus is re-crucified.

The same story is presented in Woody Allen’s Crime and Punishment. A man commits a brutal crime under the spell of nihilism – there is nothing worth obeying. Although the crime itself is petty, the man is haunted by a deep guilt. In Brothers Karamazov, Ivan said that if there is no God, then everything is permitted. But what we get from Ivan is a picture of nihilism at it’s absolute worst. Ivan’s world is a world that entirely depended upon God for it’s values and depended upon God for the authority for us to obey those values – and it had cast off that God. If we are dependent upon this God, then it follows that without this God we are left with nothing. Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were against this sort of nihilistic thinking. This is why Nietzsche said “God is dead and we have killed him”. Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky think this dependence on an abstract God is hugely problematic.

The absurd is taken to spectacular heights in Kafka. The novella, Metamorphosis, is likely his most spectacular work. It deals with self-identity. In this story, the body is thoroughly changed, but the mind remains exactly as it is. Samsa has to cope with this change. He has to work with his horrible effect on his family. Kafka explores how our self-identity is construed by our body, but especially by our role in society and especially how other people treat us. His family comes to despise him and hate him. (What happens when you redefine the role in your family?)

Kafka’s The Trial sets the stage for Camus’ trial for Mersault in The Stranger. The idea is that we are all essentially guilty and it doesn’t have to do with any particular crime, there may be no crime at all. Just being human, just being conscious, makes us guilty. Consciousness is not just a blessing, it is also a disease. It allows us to see ourselves as inadequate creatures. With that self-consciousness comes not only guilt, but despair. If we say something is Kafkaesque, what we mean is that something is not only absurd, but also upsetting to our very notion of ourselves as human beings and our concept of life as it should be. We think life should be orderly, but life is not orderly.

Hermann Hesse was primarily influenced by Nietzsche and Buddhism. Hesse is one of the few writers who tries to bridge European and Indian thought. Siddhartha (1922) is an entire novel attempting to make this bridge. In Demian, Demian is a very well-adjusted young man. So well-adjusted that he is independent in a way that young men and children are not supposed to be independent. It is a refusal to go along. His influence on his fellow classmates and friends is far from being demonic. It’s just the kind of challenge that philosophers in Existentialism like to talk about.

In Steppenwolf, the central metaphor is of a 45-year-old man who is half man and half wolf. This was a metaphor used by Goethe and secularized by Descartes. Hesse wants to challenge this bifurcated notion of the Cartesian self – not in terms of a unification of the self, but a further fragmentation or elimination of the self altogether.

Harry Haller, the main character, is in every way a Nietzschean man. He considers himself to be one of the Masters but not in a brutal way. He is polite, mannered, and a good citizen. But he is brilliantly educated, extremely creative and exactly what Nietzsche represents in his discussion of the higher man. Like Kafka, Hesse challenges the very idea of NIetzsche’s “self” (the idea of aspiration, the idea of taking life so seriously). What Haller is mistaken in is thinking that his personality is split half and half (half man, half wolf). Instead, Hesse says Haller has “no self” (which is the same as saying he has many selves). This is demonstrated through the Magic Theater where all values are turned upside down.

The Western conception of the self imagines the self as a fruit – peel off the skin and there is a hard pit core at the center. In Steppenwolf, the self is presented as an onion. Peel off one layer and there is another layer. Peel of that layer and there is yet another layer. There is no center. This is a Buddhist picture. In accepting this picture, Haller can accept a joy and happiness that he was unable to learn otherwise.

Nietzsche’s theory is admirable and persuasive, but there is something obviously missing and that is humor, joy, and happiness. Nietzsche talks about these things, but we are never convinced. Hesse makes us convinced that we can start with something like Nietzsche but attain a passion that even Nietzsche didn’t understand.

Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ (Dreyfus Lecture)

These are my notes from the Dreyfus’ Lecture on The Anti Christ

Similarities between Dostoevsky and Nietzsche:

Jesus is a decadent. What does Nietzsche mean by this? Jesus is clearly not like a Socrates decadent. A Socrates decadent is really decadent. Jesus isn’t that decadent.

One could, with some freedom of expression, call Jesus a ‘free spirit’ – he cares nothing for what is fixed: the word killeth, everything fixed killeth. The concept, the experience ‘life’ in the only form he knows it is opposed to any kind of word, formula, law, faith, dogma. He speaks any of the inmost things: ‘life’ or “truth’ or ‘light’ is his expression for the inmost thing – everything else, the whole of reality, the whole of nature, language itself, possesses for him merely the value of a sign, a metaphor. (p. 156, Anti-Christ)

Reference to Dostoevsky:

That strange and sick world to which the Gospels introduce us – a world like that of a Russian novel, in which refuse of society, neurosis and ‘childlike’ idiocy seem to make a rendezvous – must in any case have coarsened the type: the first disciples in particular had to translate a being immersed entirely in symbols and incomprehensibilities into their own crudity in order to understand anything at all – for then such a type could not exist until it had been reduced to more familiar forms… (p. 154, Anti-Christ)

Jesus was talking in parables. Jesus was bringing in such a new world (being a super free spirit he’s bringing in a whole new world) so he is incomprehensible to the disciples who have only the old vocabulary and the Hebrew language. Naturally they are going to get it wrong so of course Jesus is going to be misinterpreted. But you can glimmer through their incomprehension that Jesus is against moral laws.

Denial is precisely what is totally impossible for him. -Dialectics are likewise lacking, the idea is lacking that a faith, a ‘truth’ could be proved by reasons (-his proofs are inner ‘lights’, inner feelings of pleasure and self-affirmations, nothing but ‘proofs of potency’-). Neither can such a doctrine argue; it simply does not understand that other doctrines exist, can exist, it simply does not know how to imagine an opinion contrary to its own… Where it encounters one it will, with the most heartfelt sympathy, lament the ‘blindness’ – for it sees the ‘light’ – but it will make no objection…

Nietzsche thinks that power and joy is what Jesus is “teaching”. It is also what Markel is saying in the The Brothers Karamazov:

The profound instinct for how one would have to live in order to feel oneself ‘in Heaven’, to feel oneself ‘eternal’, while in every other condition by no means feels oneself ‘in Heaven’; this alone is the psychological reality of ‘redemption’. – A new way of living, not a new belief…

If like Markel, you feel you are in paradise here and now, if you only see it, you are in heaven now. This has all gotten existentialized by Nietzsche.

I grant: in the word ‘Son’ is expressed the entry into the collective feeling of the transfiguration of all things (blessedness), in the word ‘father’, this feeling itself, the feeling of perfection and eternity. I am ashamed to recall what the Church has made of this symbolism: has it not set an Amphitryon story at the threshold of Christian ‘faith’? And a dogma of ‘immaculate conception into the barbain?… But it has thereby masculated conception. (p. 159, Anti-Christ)

Markel is like Jesus who is the Son. The idea is that Markel and Jesus manifest the new way of loving life and this connectedness enters the world in this way. Nietzsche is happy with some feeling of, if not an ocean of love, at least some feeling of some happiness here and now. But why is Jesus called “the decadent”?

So far, everything about him that Nietzsche has presented seems so right.

To resume, I shall now relate the real history of Christianity. – The word, ‘Christianity’ is already a misunderstanding – in reality there has been only one Christian and he died on the Cross. The ‘Evangel’ died on the Cross. (p. 163, Anti-Christ)

The one Christian who was a free spirit died on the cross. Nietzsche doesn’t tell you right off what he did wrong, but it has to do with dying on the cross. He was meek. He should have fought back. He should have led a rebellion of freedom fighters. Instead he was compassionate.

This is the real stand-off between Nietzsche and the Christian view, even the near view Jesus has. What do you do with the people who are weak? Who don’t have the passion to turn over new worlds?

Non-violence and non-passion is not a Nietzsche virtue. The weak and ill-constructed shall parish and one shall help them do so. What is more harmful than vice? Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak. Except for this belief, Jesus comes close to being a free-spirit.

What gives you power is healthy because it is life. Life is constantly getting stronger. Jesus’ concern for the ill-constructed and weak doesn’t help life gain power. Socrates’ interest in truth doesn’t give him power because it leaves him with an “other world” of truth. In the end, Socrates wishes he wasn’t in this world and prefers the “other world”, the abstracted world.

Nietzsche says The Will to Truth is fine as a means but not as an end. If you make truth the end and not the means, you don’t have any outgrowing to do. You don’t have to put in any particular work to make it true (not like Kierkegaard’s subjective truth that depends on your energy). But Socrates’ objective truth is truth whether anyone knows it or not. Socrates wants to find a truth that is stable and doesn’t depend on him in any way to preserve it so there is not a kind of outgrowing or the always creating new worlds sort of thing that Nietzsche wants.

Mediation is OK as a means. It’s a necessary means. If you didn’t go through criticism, if you didn’t get rid of all of the lies, superstitions, etc., you wouldn’t be able to be a free spirit. But Nietzsche doesn’t like Socrates because he thinks he is finding refuse in a world out there rather than facing life as it is. The more disinterested you are the more you are able to discover the objective truth. Nietzsche thinks you should be doing anything you can to be self-critical and to discover the truth. But you should use it as a means rather than an end.

Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky start out with a critique of metaphysical explanations which they think have a wrong view of causality. Metaphysical explanations refer to special powerful entities like the supreme being and eternity and the network of connectedness that are real. On the basis of that, you can explain why people should love each other, get childhood memories, etc. According to Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, this is upside down. You don’t explain the best way of living by bringing in metaphysical, theological beings. The best way of living is self-evident.

For Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, religion really doesn’t have to do with a belief in physical entities that somehow justifies religion.

“…genuine primitive Christianity will be possible at all times…” (p. 163, Anti-Christ)

This is a nice line. Dostoevsky thinks he has genuine primitive Christianity and Nietzsche probably agrees with him. Markel and Alyosha show that it is available at all times and that it is a pretty good thing. It’s got elements of free spirit in it although ultimately it is not free spirited. Dostoevsky and Nietzsche would agree that it is not a belief but a doing.

“…Not a belief but a doing, above all a not-doing of many things, a different being…States of consciousness, beliefs of any kind, holding something to be true for example – every psychologist knows this – are a matter of complete indifference and of the fifth rank compared with the value of the instincts: to speak more strictly, the whole concept of spiritual causality is false.” (p. 163, Anti-Christ)

When you bring in a supreme being that causes you to have belief in God, that has causality upside down. Also, if you think that your beliefs are caused by the Supreme Being, that is wrong. And if you think that your beliefs are what save you, that’s wrong. Your beliefs don’t do any good at all and they don’t cause anything.

If you think because you believe some truth about some ultimate reality such as the Creator God, or that Christ died for our sins, or that God loves us therefore you will be reborn, you are mistaken. You aren’t mistaken because this is false but because this reverses the causality. Whether that is true or false isn’t the question. The question isn’t about what you believe, it is what kind of life you live and whether it works. That is the final text and is the existential refrain.

“Morality and religion fall entirely under the psychology of error; in every single case cause is mistaken for effect; or the effect of what is believed true is mistaken for the truth; or a state of consciousness is mistaken for the causation of this state.” (p. 64, The Twilight of the Idols)

For instance, it turns out that it is the experience that matters. There doesn’t have to be any cause behind it. Take baptism. It isn’t that baptism is sort of magical and works because there is some sort of causality that when you get prayed over the right way or water put over you the right way it will do something about your spiritual state. If Baptism is true, it is because the experience you have, like Alyosha being held up to the Icon, has an affect on how you act later in life. You can say Baptism is powerful, Baptism is true, etc. but that isn’t the point. The point is that there are certain ways of acting that give you positive experiences. You don’t need to ask what causes them. Beliefs do not explain a way of life.

It is not a “belief” which distinguishes the Christian: the Christian acts, he is distinguished by a different mode of acting.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha doesn’t have any beliefs about anything. He doesn’t believe that baptism is necessary, he doesn’t believe in prayer (especially not to a supreme being) or that a supreme being is even necessary. He does all sorts of things but they don’t follow from his belief about anything.

For Dostoevsky it is not a belief in connectedness that creates the experience of connectedness. It’s just the reverse. When we experience ourselves as part of the whole of connectedness and see we are accountable for everything, we do believe it but that’s not important. What is important is that the experience changes the way we act. It is the experience that causes us to act that way we do, not the belief.

But here’s an interesting question:

If we experience eternity in time, have you shown just by virtue of having the experience that eternity in time is possible?

Nietzsche says he doesn’t care whether you believe in eternity or not because it is the experience that is important. Dostoevsky would say, OK, I have described where there are experiences of eternity in time. We get this experience when Alyosha gives the boys the childhood memories at the end of the book which are going to keep them from becoming cynical and so forth later.

Nietzsche would say that we don’t know yet. We won’t know if the memories are there for the boys until they die. Maybe there aren’t any memories or maybe they outgrown them. Or, they get the memories and they hold on to them for the rest of their lives. But this doesn’t prove there is eternity in time. All it proves is that you are weak. There may come a point in time when it makes sense for the boys to be cynical. The highest thing is to be adaptable. Nietzsche would never admit that forever in time is a good thing.

Nietzsche and Dostoevsky would agree that if there is eternity in time, there is evidence that there are people who get it through an unconditional commitment or a moment where the boys are all together having a special revelation, or romantic love. And it could control your life. But you don’t know if this means eternity in time exists. They agree that it is not a question of “is there eternity”. [I am hoping this makes more sense in Dreyfus’ next lecture. I’m not fully following what he is trying to say here.]

If God is dead, all things are possible. Is that a causal claim? Sort of. Is the statement “if God is dead, all things are possible” true or not? It’s not a matter of objective truth, it’s a matter of how people act. In all of Dostoevsky, the experience is that if you do something immoral, you will feel guilt, you won’t get away with it, and that’s the important thing. Can you get away with murder? The answer is going to be found out by what people can do and get away with – not an absolute.

In Woody Allen’s "Crimes and Misdemeanors" it is clear that the guy who murders his mistress is first overcome by guilt and tortured by the idea that he should go and confess but he doesn’t and then he feels better. He goes back to being a pillar of the community and being rewarded and he doesn’t feel tortured.

In "Match Point", it looks like he feels terrible about his crime at first. He feels guilty. He says, “If I am not caught and imprisoned it proves there is no meaning in the universe” to the ghosts. If I get caught, then the ghosts are right, but if I don’t, then it proves there is no meaning in the universe. He feels OK about it by the end of the movie. It’s not certain, but we get the impression at the end of the movie that he is going to be fine. He won’t collapse and kill himself out of regret (or anything like that). [But I do think he is disappointed that there isn’t some sort of redemption for his guilt.]

Kierkegaard says that if the world is just a kind of chaos and those who work don’t get the bread, that would be terrible. But luckily in the world of the spirit it’s OK. Those who work always get the bread. Dostoevsky through Ivan considers that it is just random and chaos and has his own arguments that it is not OK to just kill your father. But it looks like from Woody Allen’s perspective, Nietzsche is right. The world is chaos and sheer randomness.

Can you live as if there was no God and all things are possible? Nietzsche says you can and Dostoevsky says you can’t. [But isn’t Nietzsche saying all things are possible? Isn’t that the point? Get over what you believe to be fixed and create new meaning?]

Kierkegaard – God is that all things are possible. Ethics is either based in what counts as good in the community (Hegel); or there is a sort of absolute ethics (Kant). What does he mean all things are possible? He means that Abraham can kill Isaac and still have Isaac. If you are a moral person and a sensible person, certain things will be impossible for you. Yet if you are a homosexual in 1850 Copenhagen and this is absolutely disgusting and depraved and sick, it still can look to you as the best thing you ever did. You can have this love because for God all things are possible. But that doesn’t mean all actions are OK.

For Nietzsche it’s the opposite: If God is dead all things are possible – there is no punishment, there is no moral order, there is no law. [I don’t think this is exactly what Nietzsche is saying. It’s not that “If God is Dead” all things are possible. All things are possible has always been true, but we got stuck in our beliefs about God and ceased to realize all things were possible.]

Dreyfus says the argument is whether all things are morally permissible and that Dostoevsky would say no and Nietzsche would say yes. But I think this misses Nietzsche’s point!! I don’t think that is what Nietzsche is saying at all! (But I’ve already discussed that in the Gay Science Lecture so will move on.)

There are two different ways of living dangerously. When you live dangerously in Kierkegaard, you see the sword hanging over the head of the beloved. But if you are a Knight of Faith, you do it as though it is the surest thing of all. It’s like swimming over 50,000 fathoms. It’s vulnerable and could disappear at any minute. But if you are a Knight of Faith, you act as if in everything you do, nothing could hurt you. You have a completely absurd way of living. It’s dangerous, but not dangerous. The Knight of Faith isn’t risking anything because they live in the field of faith where all things are possible. The Knight of Resignation doesn’t live dangerously at all. They want to be peaceful and secure. The Knight of Faith has to constantly live in an absurdity they don’t understand.

Nietzsche thinks you have to take the risk that bad things will happen to you and it won’t be OK. There is a peculiar sort of absurd in Kierkegaard’s sense of adventure that doesn’t exist in Nietzsche. Very similar, though.

Dostoevsky and Nietzsche have a totally different view of the religious experience. Nietzsche is against all versions of the Christian experience except Jesus, even if it is based on revelations as in Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky says there is a connectedness of everything and we know this based upon Alyosha’s experience of this.

Nietzsche would refute this:

Christianity has made a great contribution and taught moral skepticism trenchantly and effectively. (p. 178, Anti-Christ)

What is important is this moral skepticism issue. You can have what looks like religious experience but the religious experiences grows out of your needs. Christianity has taught us to fool ourselves into it and then talked us out of it.

One sort of honesty has been alien to all founders of religions and their kind: They have never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. “What did I really experience? What happened in me and around me at that time? Was my reason bright enough? Was my will opposed to all deceptions of the senses and bold in resisting the fantastic?” None of them has asked such questions, nor do any of our dear religious people ask them even now. On the contrary, they thirst after things that go against reason, and they do not wish to make it too hard for themselves to satisfy it. So they experience “miracles” and “rebirths” and hear the voices of little angels! (p. 253, Aphorism 319, The Gay Science)

So back to Alyosha’s experience of the connectedness of all things. He doesn’t ask himself that “hey, gee, it happened after two nights of no sleep and I was desperate to get in touch with something”. He’s just happy to have the experience. Dostoevsky says he really had it and it gave him a connection to this ultimate order. Nietzsche would say you didn’t tell us how it happened to him.

A weak person can’t be honest:

Not to see many things, not to be impartial in anything, to be party through and through, to view all values from a strict and necessary perspective – this alone is the condition under which such a man exists at all. But he is thereby the antithesis, the antagonist of the true man – of truth… The believer is not free to have a conscience at all over the question “true” and “false”: to be honest on this point would mean his immediate destruction. (p. 185, The Anti-Christ)

Match Point (2005)

The most recent volume of Spiritual Cinema Circle includes a short film by Scott Cervine entitled The Miraculous Collision. The basis of the short film is Woody Allen’s film Match Point which greatly troubles Cervine’s character in the film, who always dreamed that one day he would single-handedly wipe out world hunger. He claims the movie is all about chance; that life is just full of chance, nothing more. And we can’t handle that. So what we do is make things up and pretend we create our own reality to make ourselves feel better about it. He said he walked out of the movie theater thinking maybe that’s what he had done with his belief that all is right with the world. He just made it up. And more, he made up an encounter with his dead father because the rest of life just wasn’t happening for him.

At the beginning the film, he dreams his dad is on the ceiling writing something like, “Your only limitation is the voice of fear”. When Scott (I can’t remember his character’s name) goes on a quest, he experiences the voice of fear personified as himself. This voice tells him – “It is all chance. If you could truly impact your day to day existence, it would be heaven, not earth. Life just is. Your only chance for peace is to accept your limitations.”

The rest of the film is about Scott’s character slashing through this voice of fear and reconnecting with his father which is apparently metaphorical for “all is right with the world”. The message being, it’s not just about chance – we can trust that all is right with the world.

So – after watching the short, I went back and watched Match Point. It’s the current film for the Analogical Imagination Group.

***Contains spoilers***

It begins,

“The man who said I’d rather be lucky than good saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependant upon on luck. It is scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when a ball hits the top of a net and in that split second it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward and you win or maybe it doesn’t and you lose.”

The main character is Chris Wilton who, in the beginning of the film, tells Chloe (Chris’s love interest) that he wants to do something special, to make a contribution. Nola (Chris’s lust interest) claims that Chris is aggressive, but Chris says he is simply naturally competitive. I had the sense throughout the film that the ball keeps going forward for Chris but that this isn’t because of luck. It’s because he is controlling.

During a dinner conversation, Chloe brings up the fact that she doesn’t believe in luck, she believes in hard work. Chris makes the comment that science is confirming that all existence is here by blind chance – that there is no purpose or design. Chloe responds by saying that she doesn’t care – she loves every minute of it. Chris claims he envies her for this.

This is a typical Woody Allen theme. The naive people of “faith” in his films are those whose lives are the happiest. Allen himself has said that he wishes he could have their faith but doesn’t think it is a reality. He considers being bestowed with faith as “luck”. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, he says of the rabbi who is going blind, “He’s blessed and lucky because he has the best gift anyone could have. He has genuine religious faith.” While Chloe isn’t necessarily religious, she does have religious sensibilities and talks about doing “the right thing” just as the blind rabbi did in "Crimes and Misdemeanors". (Allen himself claims the universe is at best indifferent. And reiterates, “At best!”)

In continuing the conversation, Tom (Chloe’s brother and Chris’s friend) quotes their pastor: “Despair is the path of least resistance”. Chris counters this by saying “I think faith is the path of least resistance”. Chloe immediately changes the subject.

Clearly, despair is very attractive to Chris. He loves tragedy and is dumb struck by Nola who is almost the personification of despair (the despairing actress) and has the tragic life history to go with her despair. As the film plays out, it appears he is correct. There is a sort of predictability that exists within the faithful that does not exist within those who are despairing. The truly faithful will most likely do “the right thing”, but there is no telling what someone in despair will do. Nola, in her despair, threatens to break up Chris’s marriage and becomes uncontrollable. Chris, in his despair, commits premeditative murder. And again, according to Allen, if you are bestowed with faith, it’s simply because you are lucky. While Chloe absolutely loves life, Chris sees life as tragic.

Chris is calculating. I had the sense throughout the film that everything was sort of like a poker match or something. That Chris is continually playing people and calling their bluff in order to insure that luck stays on his side.

So here is where Cervine might be on to something. If you believe all is right with the world, then there is no need to control events. You can simply experience them. And if it is all about experience, might as well focus on the positive (which he discovers is not the same as denying the negative). On the other hand, if you think life is all about luck, this is likely going to make you extremely controlling (or despondent). It’s more about making things go your way than about trusting that all is as it “should” be.

When Nola gets pregnant, Chris explains that it is incredible bad luck. Nola says it is a child conceived out of passion and that she is pregnant and Chloe isn’t because he doesn’t love Chloe. But when confronted with the ghost of Nola about having killed his own child, Chris quotes Sophocles – “to never have been born may be the greatest boon of all.” (I had to look up boon. It means blessing.)

After Chris kills Nola, he does feel incredibly guilty for what it is he’s done. But part of that guilt is associated with “luck”. (He makes the side comment that he just hasn’t gotten lucky yet). The officer investigating the crime assumes that Nola was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and got in the way of a robbery. He says that Nola simply picked the wrong time to come up – that some people don’t have any luck. But the reality is her murder wasn’t “bad luck”. Her murder was premeditated, not accidental. Chris killed her because she threatened to break up his marriage (which would end the lifestyle he had grown accustomed to).

When Chris encounters the ghost of Nola and the old woman, Nola tells him that he will pay the price – that his scheme is full of flaws. Chris replies that would be good because it would offer a small justice, some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.

But in the end, when Chris is throwing out all of the old women’s jewelry he took to make the motive look like robbery, her wedding band “hits the net” and falls back rather than forward. It falls backward. And a man who later commits a murder in the same neighborhood is found with the ring in his pocket and Chris is off the hook. That the wedding band fell backwards when Chris threw it seems to indicate that Chris is unlucky.

I saw this differently the first time I watched it and Kristen referred me to her post after she saw it at the theater. At first I thought it was like "Crimes and Misdemeanors" – where you commit murder and get away with it – both in terms of nobody finding out and in terms of your own conscience. Just give it a little time and life goes on just as it was. That the ring falls backward does seem to indicate that Chris hasn’t gotten by with it. But I’m not sure that what he regrets is having committed murder. I think what he regrets is that he received no proof, whatsoever, that life is anything but luck. But maybe that’s the same thing? Chris loves tragedy and this is truly tragic.

I’m not sure I agree that Woody Allen had a change of heart since Crimes and Misdemeanors, however. I don’t think Chris’s regret points to any sort of justice. Just the opposite, actually. I think Woody Allen would claim that the reason people believe Chris’s regret points to justice is because they are attempting to create meaning where there is none. I don’t necessarily agree with this, of course. But on a second watching of the film, I didn’t come away with any sense that Woody Allen has come to believe the universe cares. I definitely could be wrong, however.

The Brothers Karamazov Conclusion

These are the final notes on Prof Herbert Dreyfus’ lectures on The Brothers Karamazov from his class, "Existentialism in Literature and Film". (Page numbers here refer to the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.)

I am so grateful to have been able to listen in on this lecture series. I would have gotten a lot out of the book without it, but I learned so much more by taking the time to listen to the 12 hours of lectures – especially about existentialism of which I knew nothing.

Picking up with the third interview between Ivan and Smerdyakov…

Smerdyakov tells Ivan that he murdered Fyodor and was Ivan’s instrument. His “hitman” so to speak. Ivan had said it was OK to murder because he claimed that God is dead and that all things are permissible.

Many critics incorrectly say that Smerdyakov is repentant and therefore commits suicide. He is reading Isaac the Syrian which is the same book Grigory was reading when his son died. Isaace the Syrian is a Father Ferapont sort of person. Smerdykov is reading it because it is gloomy. Not because he has converted to a dark side of Christianity. If he had repented, then surely he would have said something about having killed Fyodor in his suicide note. But all his suicide note says is that he has killed himself and he blames no one.

Alyosha understands what is going on. If Smerdyakov kills himself, then there will be no evidence that Ivan is involved. Ivan is basically Smerdyakov’s god who has failed him and now he hates Ivan. Committing suicide puts Ivan in a horrible position. Ivan knows without a doubt that Dmitri is innocent, yet if Dmitri is in Siberia for a crime he didn’t commit and Ivan is to blame for this, Ivan will suffer a horrible isolation. This is the worst kind of suffering – the kind that keeps you stuck in your wrong and your misery and won’t let you experience joy. (Contrast this with the suffering of Zosima’s mysterious visitor.)

At some point, Ivan asks Smerdyakov if he believes in God since he is giving back their money, and Smerdyakov responds “No, I don’t blieve in God. That’s why I’m giving it back”. Ivan was his God and Ivan repudiated him.

Ivan used to say that everything is lawful and now he is upset. Smerdyakov has lost his God and his motives. He wants Ivan to kill him but Ivan won’t so he kills himself as a way to get back at Ivan. It’s not totally unlike his torture of cats.

According to Dostoevsky, nobody can commit a crime and feel OK about it. And that people cannot feel OK about it is a proof of the existence of God. If God were dead, all would be lawful. (Of course, Woody Allen tends to turn this notion on its head in many of his movies.)

Ivan claims that the basest moment in his life is when he stands on the stairs listening to his father. That was a total detached relationship to his father – being the detached spectator. And of course, this is right before his father was killed.

The question left open is this: Is there a way to existentialize church? In the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus claims that church gets in the way of a relationship with God. But the Inquisitor claims that if you can get everyone to agree philosophically, then the church can be important.

Kolya, the leader of the boys, represents young Russia. Both Alyosha and Rakitin are battling for his allegiance. Rakitin, of course, is teaching about neurons and a disbelief in God. But Alyosha believes the amount you believe in God and feel the connectedness is the amount of love you have for mankind. Like Grushenka, Kolya thinks Alyosha despises him and as soon as he realizes that Alyosha regards him highly, he becomes Alyosha’s angel rather than Rakitin’s devil.

When Ilyusha dies, his body smells sweet. Many critics immediately think this points to a flaw in Zosima since Zosima smelled so bad. But it doesn’t. Dostoevsky never writes anything against the laws of chemistry and physics. Ilyusha’s dead body has open windows, flowers, and although it doesn’t say so, it is highly likely his body was washed. It was also a cool day. Zosima’s body wasn’t washed and there were no flowers (washing and flowers were not traditionally provided for monks). It was a warm day, and the windows are closed. Dostoevsky would not have provided these details if he were trying to create some sort of magical comparison between the sweet smell of Ilyusha and the stench of Zosima. Both were saints because in their own ways, they helped bring agape love into the world. Both create miracles of love. What happened to their body after death had nothing to do with any supernatural understanding common at the time.

Alyosha gives a speech at the stone where Ilyusha had asked to be buried. This is significant because Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom at a rock. There are 12 boys and Jesus had 12 disciples – again this is Dostoevsky banging you over the head with the existentializing of a typical Christian notion – this time the church. Alyosha is founding the existential church through the youth of Russia at the funeral. (See p.774). The way he does this is by creating a shared childhood memory among the boys.

The memory is eternity in time and therefore sacred. Most memories get redefined, but these sorts of childhood memories don’t get redefined, they help you redefine everything else. It interprets all of your other experiences.

On p. 775-776, Kolya asks, “Shall we rise from the dead and be together again?” Alyosha, of course, can’t answer this. But he can say that in this life they will rise and tell each other all that has been. Zosima tells the peasant woman that her child is an angel of God. But Dostoevsky doesn’t believe this. He believed there was no way to know such things. And he also doesn’t believe they will meet again in an afterlife because there is no way to know if there is an afterlife. What matters is what happens in this life.

There is a big fuss about burying Ilyusha under the stone where he wants to be buried or in the church. Alyosha agrees that Ilyusha should be buried in the church. The main reason Dostoevsky points this out is likely because Dostoevsky does not like the massochistic emphasis in Christianity. If Ilyusha had been buried under the rock from which Alyosha gives the speech, that would have far too much massochistic emphasis. He wants the church to be founded on the incarnation alone.

What does it mean to be a Karamazov is the same as asking, what does it mean to be a human self?

The trial is clearly a big joke. Dostoevsky was not a big fan of psychology because it works within a specific framework: it works from the assumption that man is sinful, that human nature is selfish and it has no understanding whatsoever of transformation. And because it has no understanding of transformation, Dostoevsky believes it has absolutely no understanding whatsoever of anything that is important.

We know the prosecution is wrong because we know Dmitri is innocent. He claimed that the Karamazovs need an unnatural mixture of good and bad impulses. But we know this is incorrect. They don’t need and want these contradictions – they have them and are aware of them. It is the the contradictions that make us human. The secular has to make one side of the contradictions “bad”. But the sacred does not need to do this. It can accept both.

From a detached, rational side, the sensual impulses look like the “bad side”. But this side, according to Dostoevsky, is important because it is this side agape love comes from. There are lots of ways to interpret the Karamazovs. The only way to see them as “good” is if you understand that they can be transformed by love. When this happens, the earthy side becomes positive.

The last thing in the book is a cheer for Karamazov. The boys (young Russia) cheer Alyosha Karamazov. The boys are going to go out into the world and make the transformation and bit by bit, this transformation will transform everybody. And this will be the demagicalization of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Brothers Karamazov Part II

These are notes I took from Prof Herbert Dreyfus’ lectures on Part II of The Brothers Karamazov from his class, "Existentialism in Literature and Film". (page numbers refer to the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.)


Ivan wants to get beyond his Karamazov (earthy) side but knows it is impossible. He recognizes the evil in the world and points to the suffering of innocent children at the hands of abusive adults. He claims that punishment for this abuse in another world doesn’t solve anything because the children are still abused. Since he doesn’t think of his involvement in the world as essential, he genuinely believes he can get rid of his earthy side, even if it means he has to kill himself.

Of course, this doesn’t make sense. If he really cared about the suffering, he wouldn’t "give back his ticket". And it is a flaw in Ivan’s thinking to believe he can give back his ticket. Ivan thinks of himself as nothing more than a spectator at a play – if you don’t like the play, you can return your ticket and leave. But our relation to the world doesn’t work this way. His argument is a philosophical argument. He is judging the world as though he is a pure, rational observer of it.

The truth of our reality is that we are always already involved in the world. Ivan is not in a position to accept or reject the way things are because he is not an innocent eye-witness of it. He is a participant.

Dreyfus points out that it could be that Ivan is a sadist because he takes it for granted that people are turned on by torture. If you jump to page 584, Liza tells the story of a boy having his fingers cut which caused him to die in four hours. The man admired what he had done and said that it was good. She tells Ivan who laughs and says it was indeed good and then leaves. Liza is a masochist looking for a Sadist and has found it in Ivan. When he talks to the devil, what he is interested in is torture. (According to Sartre, the attitude of detached observer is sadistic because you turn others into objects to be observed.) In reality, Ivan is responsible for a lot of the evil in his world. It’s not that his logic is wrong, what’s wrong is his philosophical detached idea that he can give back his ticket.

According to Zosima, everybody is involved in and responsible for the evil in the world. Zosima believes he is responsible for all of it. Dreyfuss thinks this is likewise flawed thinking because it is overly exaggerated. If you get out of the world, you no longer recognize good and evil. According to Dreyfuss, Zosima’s attitude is that of Ivan’s. At some level, Zosima knows that “we are all guilty” isn’t right because he sends Alyosha away from the monastery for good.


Alyosha and Liza are existential doubles.

Alyosha shows no compassion for murder and takes no responsibility for it as Zosima does. Alyosha says Jesus takes on the suffering of all and forgives all and is innocent. Dreyfus says this is a faulty perspective and is presented so that the Grand Inquisitor can be introduced.

Dostoevsky hates the idea of Jesus being completely innocent. In order to really help people, you have to have evil in your heart.

Grand Inquisitor

Ivan presents the philosophical argument as though there are only two possible alternatives. Showing how both alternatives are right likewise shows how both are wrong. This allows Dostoevsky to introduce a third possibility that he believes is the sustainable alternative. Dostoevsky believes the Russian Orthodox Church (if cleaned up) provides the 3rd alternative because it is not messed up by Platonism.

The story takes place during the great heresy in the 15th century during the Protestant reformation. The Grand Inquisitor is Roman Catholic and Jesus represents Protestantism.

There are three issues presented that correspond with the three temptations: economic, community, and miracles.

Based on Jesus’ temptation to turn a stone into bread, Dostoevsky presents the economic issue which is predicting communism. How do you organize society so that everyone has enough to eat? Jesus’s answer is asceticism. The Grand Inquisitor claims that it is an impossibility to expect everyone to be ascetic. There are always going to people who will eat all they can and these people will create scarcity.

Father Ferapont is an example of a strict aescetic. He lives on mushrooms and berries and is completely crazy. He’s prideful, jealous and there is generally nothing good about him.

Zosima enjoys cherry jam. He’s not exactly self-indulgent, but he’s not a strict ascetic, either. His attitude is eat what you want as long as you can say “no” to cherry jam. This is the only way to maintain freedom.

The community/morality issue is the next issue presented by Ivan in the Grand Inquisitor and has to do with the temptation to rule the world.

Luther said that each man is a pope. Christianity has no objective validity – each man is on a lonely path. This is the protestant view (shared by Luther and Kierkegaard).

According to the Grand Inquisitor, the spiritual man is able to endure isolation but the rest must be content to follow the herd. Father Ferapont and the Grand Inquisitor say that people will become dangerous if forced to live in isolation. The only cure is to make everyone Christian – get everyone to believe in the same thing.

The specific morality issue has to do with confession. Kierkegaard said that confession was an immoral temptation because inner suffering was necessary. And confessing before men was not good – it was like prittle prattle (?). The Grand Inquisitor says people have to be told what is good and evil so must confess. They will submit the most painful secrets in order to be saved. The protestant view is that you have to decide for yourself what is right and wrong. It isn’t up to what the church says.

Dostoevsky presents a third way of morality/confession but it’s kind of hard to see. But first, on to the miracles issue (devil’s temptation that Jesus throw himself off of the rooftop and have God save him.) Must people have miracles to believe in God?

At the beginning of Ivan’s story, Jesus is performing a miracle. So is Jesus perfect and Godlike or disgusting and worthless? Ivan is like the Grand Inquisitor. He thinks everyone is weak and worthless but he also feels sorry for them (although this is likely denied sadism). When Jesus kisses the Grand Inquisitor, it is Ivan kissing himself. Alyosha then plagiarizes the kiss because like Jesus, he can see the Grand Inquisitor’s good intentions, Alyosha can see Ivan’s.

Dreyfus brings up the fact that hippy communes typically fail because people are fundamentally selfish. Utopias don’t work for the same reason. Dostoevsky agrees that it is human nature to be nasty, selfish and short. To live communally, people would have to be transformed/reborn. So, Dostoevsky has to demagicalize being reborn. Human nature is changeable. Christian culture gives you a radical way to transform nature.

Dostoevsky hates psychology because psychologists take for granted human nature and don’t know anything about transformation. But it is only if people are transformed that they can live communally. Dostoevsky was anticipating the failure of the free market and communism without transformation.

There is an obscure issue earlier in the book where several people are fighting over whether the state should become church or the church should become state. Ivan has written a paper on it and upsets the monks discussing his thoughts.

If the Church takes over the state, the idea is that somehow everyone in the state will become Christian and you’ll get a sort of Christian socialism. In Rome, the Church has become a state. But Dostoevsky believes that Russia will become the Christianization of everything in a non-Christian way. This will be the state becoming the church rather than the church becoming the state.

Third possibilities:

The third possibility between community vs. individual is that as long as there is a community of people who love each other and are open to more people (but not necessarily to all people) then you have something between isolation and the Roman Catholic Church. This is what the early Christian community had.

Russian Orthodoxy has preserved more of the demagicalized existentialized Christianity of the early church.


Roman Catholic confession is an individual to a priest. The Protestants say that confession should be inward. But Zosima did it differently (and appalled members of the Roman Orthodox church in his method). Rather than one on one, he had group reconciliation. Public confession.

The mysterious visitor is an example of this public confession. He committed murder and got away with it and another guy was arrested for it and died in jail so there was never any chance of being found out. (Woody Allen made a movie based on the mysterious visitor called "Crimes and Misdemeanors" about a man who is haunted by the memory of murder. He tries to suffer alone but feels the need to confess. But rather than confess, the movie goes off in an anti-Dostoevsky direction and he gets over it and has a good life.)

Dostoevsky does not believe people should suffer alone as did Kierkegaard. The mysterious visitor is haunted by the murder and has been suffering alone. But he sees Zosima in the dual when he throws his gun rather than participate and this makes him want to confess. He feels as though people don’t know who he is because they don’t him as a murderer. This is man in existential Hell (isolation).

This is not Hell as a metaphor. It IS being in Hell. If the problem is already isolation, confessing to a priest isn’t going to do a thing. He needs to confess to a community. They mysterious visitor can’t be intimate with anyone and feels the need to make an existential confession – a public declaration to friends and family. But over the years, he has become an extremely good man and nobody believes him when he makes his confession. They can’t believe he was ever a murderer. That they don’t believe him doesn’t matter. He has been reborn and now wants to be in touch with everyone. He is not the same person he used to be. The man confessing is getting what he deserves. He claims he is in Heaven after he does this. He has reconnected.

The mysterious visitor has a reciprocal affect on Zosima who has already decided to go to the monastery at this point. But the mysterious visitor reaffirms it for him.

Zosima performed “a miracle” for the mysterious visitor but did not perform any after going to the monastery. Conversely, Alyosha doesn’t do any good deeds until after leaving the monastery. This is very important. The existentialized miracle has to be an intervention from outside the natural order.

Do people need miracles? Jesus (Protestantism) says “no” (he won’t jump off the temple and get held up by angels). If people already have faith, then miracles are fine, but they shouldn’t need them to believe in God. The Grand Inquisitor says “yes” and that the church makes them up in order to keep them believing. So the Church makes them up. The third possibility is the existentialized miracle which has nothing to do with the superstitious definition usually applied by western religion.”