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Do Fools Need Faith?

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“That remark you just made: ‘Not to be so ashamed of myself, for that is the cause of everything’ – it’s as if you pierced me right through and read inside me. That is exactly how it all seems to me, when I walk into a room, that I’m lower than anyone else, and that everyone takes me for a buffoon, so ‘Why not, indeed, play the buffoon, I’m not afraid of your opinions, because you’re all, to a man, lower than me!’ That’s why I’m a buffoon, I’m a buffoon out of shame, great elder, out of shame. I act up just because I’m insecure. If only I were sure, when I came in, that everyone would take me at once for the most pleasant and intelligent of men – oh Lord! What a good man I’d be! Teacher!” he suddenly threw himself on his knees, “what should I do to inherit eternal life?” It was hard even now to tell whether he was joking or was indeed greatly moved.”

— The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, p. 43-44

“It seems to me that I am constantly being taken for a fool, and because of that I actually become a fool, I am not afraid of your opinions! That’s why I’m a fool – from spite and defiance. I am rowdy because of a lack of trust.

It was difficult to decide if he were fooling, or if he actually was depreciating himself.”

— The Notebooks for The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, p. 28

“1) You have <understood?> me just now with your remark: ‘Don’t be ashamed so much of yourself, because everything comes from that.’ With that remark you have sort of seen right through me and have read what’s inside of me. It is precisely in that way that it seems to me when I enter a room full of people, when I enter somewhere that I am baser than all of them, and that they rake me for a fool – well, if that’s so I will really play the fool [for them], to show them that I’m not afraid of their opinions, because all of them, every single one, is more of a fool baser than I am! That’s why I play the fool precisely from shame, fool, great Elder, from shame. I make a row from mistrust alone. If only I were sure that when I walked in I would be considered extremely pleasant and intelligent right away – my God – what a good man I would be then!

It was difficult to determine then and now, whether he was joking or was really experiencing a change of heart?”

— The Notebooks for The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, p. 44-45

Dostoevsky’s notebooks for the Brothers Karamazov contain the essential ideas and motivations behind the story of the novel. Scenes are transformed from abstract visions in the notebooks to their dramatic incarnations in the novel. Many key ideas, later adopted by specific characters and circumstances, appear in the notebooks as conceptions alone. The way Dostoevsky worked — from ideas to details, from internal conflict to narrative personification – highlights his internal struggle. We see in the notebooks personal questions, conflicts, and gestures that only take shape later. In one section, Dostoevsky asks of himself simply, “why live if not for one’s pride?” (BK 38) In their original form, these loosely defined formations flow right from the author’s own sense of inner turmoil and questioning. Formulations appear as fragments, apparent notations to the author of unresolved questions. Tracing dialogue in the novel back to its corresponding germination brings Dostoevsky’s larger project into sharper focus, for it is clear that his ideas are what led him to the novel’s details and not vice versa. (Wasiolek, 18) Dostoevsky’s central conflict is personal. He is searching for a confirmation of his religious faith. And yet this conflict acquires an eternal dimension in the novel; it becomes a struggle to reconcile faith and suffering, to rescue Christian orthodoxy from aesthetic nihilism. In this way, the circumstances of the novel are born of sublime inquiry. Specificities of character and conflict “stand for more than themselves; infinity attends them; though yes, they remain individuals, they expand to embrace it and summon it to embrace them.”

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov plays the role in The Brothers Karamazov of the bitter buffoon: insecure sensualist, reckless drunk, careless father. It is only at the commencement of the novel that the head of the Karamazov clan is being reunited with his dysfunctional family for the first time. Fyodor’s tendencies oscillate between desperate extremes of temperament. Companions beg Fyodor to behave himself but he seems unable to act other than an ape. Buffoonish outbursts serve to reveal the complicated composition of a man we might otherwise simply label ‘the fool.’ Fyodor is not just “a monster of wickedness existing solely on the level of his insatiable appetites; he is clever and cynical…and he is shown to have strange velleities that suggest some concealed modicum of inner life.” In one outburst, which takes place in the Elder Zosima’s cell, Fyodor reveals the intention behind his outward affectation. He declares that feelings of insecurity motivate him to preempt others from labeling him a fool by playing the part intentionally. To examine the contradictions that litter this speech is to search for Dostoevsky’s sense of the “inner life” of the fool. For it is precisely in outwardly saying one thing that Dostoevsky’s “fool” divulges his true, quite contradictory, motivations.

In the Elder’s cell, along with his sons Ivan and Alyosha, Fyodor is gathered with his cousin Miusov and a small group of monks. Fyodor has been apologizing with profuse theatrics for the lateness of his son, Dmitri, when he is affected suddenly by the Elder Zosima’s command. Zosima beseeches Fyodor not to be ashamed of himself, since shame “is the cause of everything.” Fyodor’s initial response is sarcastic and guarded. He says that he is “touched” by this sentiment, but warns the “blessed father” that others need to be protected from his natural state. Midway through his speech, Fyodor appears affected by a sudden change of heart. At this point he claims that Father Zosima’s warning has pierced through to his soul with its reading of his internal motivations. Fyodor admits that he is, indeed, ashamed, and that his shame comes from a feeling of inadequacy: “This is exactly how it all seems to me, when I walk into a room, that I’m lower than anyone else, and that everyone takes me for a buffoon…” If only he could feel sure, Fyodor claims, that men would take him to be “most pleasant and intelligent” he would behave accordingly. But since they do not, and take him for a fool, Fyodor plays the part.

Two separate entries in Dostoevsky’s notebooks correspond precisely to this monologue, along with several other relevant fragments. Careful examination of these two entries reveals important transformations of this speech from its origins to its final form. Dostoevsky colors rather vague ideas with keen psychological insight, exposing otherwise hidden inclinations. Take, for example, a single sentence from the notebooks:

“It seems to me that I am constantly being taken for a fool, and because of that I actually become a fool.”

And compare it to a nearly identical implementation in the novel:

“That is exactly how it all seems to me, when I walk into a room…that everyone takes me for a buffoon, so ‘Why not, indeed, play the buffoon…?’”

While the use of “buffoon” and “fool” is apparently interchangeable, one change is striking. Perceiving that others take him to be a fool, Fyodor “actually becomes” one in the notebooks, while he “plays” the fool in the novel. In a later passage of the notebooks, Dostoevsky also substitutes the notion of playing versus actually becoming a fool. This difference is subtle but essential, for to “play” the fool implies a certain deliberation and intention that one who more passively “becomes” a fool does not have. Such a slight alteration in word choice adds a dimension of psychological intuition that is absent in the notebooks, the likes of which characterize Dostoevsky’s portrayal of complex characters throughout The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor acts the role of the buffoon in order to assert a sort of power, ensuring that others will judge him according to the image he puts forth of himself. His self-dramatization amounts to an “ordering of the world according to one’s own patterns,” rejecting any externally imposed judgments of his character.

Two important consistencies of this passage between the notebooks and the novel accentuate contradictions between Fyodor’s spoken words and inner insecurities. Separate notebook entries, as well as the passage in the novel, contain the declaration, “I am not afraid of your opinions.” While other parts of the passage are expanded and modified, this phrase remains unaltered. Fyodor’s claim that he does not fear what others think of him is followed immediately by the admission that a fear of judgment provokes his buffoonish act. This contradiction underscores an essential aspect of Dostoevsky’s fool – he says precisely the opposite of what he means, and is so consumed with “aggressive shame” that he lapses from thought to thought without realizing his own foil.

A second consistency indicates the spiritual conflict motivating the buffoon. Though missing from this passage’s first iteration in the notebook, it appears in the second as follows: “If only I were sure that when I walked in I would be considered extremely pleasant and intelligent right away – my God – what a good man would I be then!” In the novel, this phrase reads: “If only I were sure, when I came in, that everyone would take me at once for the most pleasant and intelligent of men – oh Lord! what a good man I’d be!” Fyodor appeals to the Lord for a sort of faith that he lacks, one that would endow him with a feeling of comfort and belonging. His desperate cry – “oh Lord!” – underscores the internal conflict in the outsider “on the battlefield of his heart” between “God and the Devil.” If only Fyodor could acquire the intuitive faith he cries out for, he would not feel so exposed by Zosima’s command “not to be ashamed.” Father Zosima bestows “Christ’s silent kiss” upon the outsider, the disbeliever, the fool: challenging the tenability of a faithless position and shaming him into buffoonery.

The notebooks grant the reader insight into the evolution of Dostoevsky’s thought concerning the foolish outsider, consumed by his own self-dramatization. Though he lacks faith, he reaches out for it. Fyodor is ashamed of himself in front of faith, unable to act authentically, paralyzed by suspicion of others and what they might think of him. Here one might point to a warning “against Nietzschean ‘superman’ theories,” and the position acquired by man after the death of faith and God. Fyodor’s buffoonery demonstrates that, without a trusting belief in something absolute, there is no possibility for morality. It is for this reason that Fyodor is cast as an pariah: Dostoevsky wants to underscore the danger of a God-less morality for the demand it makes on the self. To assert oneself with immutable authority requires a faith in oneself that, to Dostoevsky, amounts to an unthinkable burden. Fyodor cannot bear this burden, and as a result is paralyzed by his own self-loathing.

But Fyodor is no mere or simple fool. The crisis of faith that leads to his many contradictions give his character an inner complexity. To give such dimension to someone that most in The Brothers Karamazov are content to demean and cast aside is a way for Dostoevsky “to dare everything and say everything. For if the voices of his nihilistic heroes were also his voice, if his dark heroes were as much a part of him as his light heroes, then he had decided to confess everything…to let his unbelief speak to his belief, his doubts to his convictions.” This daring begins in the notebooks, with Dostoevsky’s own self-questioning, and reaches its fullest expression in the dialogue and actions of his intricate characters.

Works Cited

Belknap, Robert L. The Structure of The Brothers Karamazov. Slavistic Printings and

Reprintings, 72. The Hague: Mouton, 1967.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, eds.

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton

University Press, 2002.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.

Pachmus, Temira. “Soviet Studies of Dostoevsky, 1935-1956.” Slavic Review. XXI/4, 1962, pp. 709-721.

Trahan, Elizabeth Welt. “The Golden Age – Dream of a Ridiculous Man?” The Slavic and East

European Journal. III/4, 1959, pp. 349-371.

Wasiolek, Edward, editor and translator. The Notebooks for The Brothers Karamazov. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1971.

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