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“You see, like you, I suffer from the fantastic and so I love the realism of earth. Here, with you, everything is circumscribed, here all is formulated and geometrical, while we have nothing but indeterminate questions!”(said to Ivan by “The Devil”, 776)
Through Ivan, Dostoevsky sets up an impossible question that aims at the mystery of faith, the mystery of being able, paradoxically, to accept something that defies logic. Ivan desperately wants to believe; he has a strong mystical element to his character, but is tormented simultaneously by a bitterly imperative sense of rationality. This duality is his torment, his own personal paradoxical hell; his rational mind renders him unable to accept the God he so wants to believe in. The complex nature of his character is such that this emptiness is, for him, a torture. In his simplest sentiments, Ivan wants to believe in God with the same full-hearted faith as Alyosha. But in his fatal proclivity to measure his mysticism against his rationality, he stamps out the space for anything so enigmatic and incomprehensible, so “indeterminate” as faith.
Ivan’s difficulty is not that he doesn’t believe in God, (on the contrary, it is his belief in God that rends his soul), but that he can’t bring himself to accept “God’s world”. What keeps Ivan from the perceived comfort of faith cannot accept the illogic of a world that, among other transgressions of reason, would allow children to suffer. Nor can he accept the idea of ultimate harmony in the Kingdom of God, if it is at a cost so detrimental as the suffering of even one innocent child. That God could allow such horror defies Ivan’s stubborn, stringent sense of logic.
Ivan struggles, stuck “half-way” between faith and despair. He loves life, but he cannot reconcile the fact that he loves it “… regardless of logic…”(274). He cannot affirm, or even justify his love for the “… sticky little leaves as they open in spring…”(273) as it is without reason or rational “meaning”.
Ivan reveals himself most often not through direct dialogue, (in conversation he is slippery and hidden), but through strange parables and visions. In his tale of ?The Grand Inquisitor’, Ivan reveals the true, torturous nature of his relationship with God.
In his fantastical “poem,” Ivan recounts a meeting between the Grand Inquisitor and Christ at the height of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Christ has come to earth again and is mysteriously recognized by all who see Him, including the Grand Inquisitor himself, who orders Him seized and imprisoned; there follows a “dialogue” between the two men.
The tale is a representation of the elements that are at war within Ivan. The Inquisitor is Ivan’s relentless logical mind, and Christ represents Ivan’s faith — silent, and unable to answer any questions, but always undeniably, infuriatingly present.
Ivan’s logic is bitterly furious with God, because it is God’s existence that is the center of the paradox tormenting him. The Inquisitor berates God for having condemned man with the freedom that makes him so unhappy. The Inquisitor even sneers at God, mocking Him, boasting that he has made Him obsolete: “… and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves…”(308). Ivan is fatally caught between belief and reason, and he blames God.
“The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know.”(Pascal) Ivan’s dilemma is that he does not allow for his ?heart’ — his ?reason’ must ?know’ everything. Ivan’s iron sense of reason has rendered him a man unable to justify even the most instinctive of his convictions; for Ivan as an intellectual, to exist without even faith in existence, is torture. Father Zossima discerns this torture in Ivan in the “unfortunate gathering” between the elder and the family Karamazov. In this revelatory scene, Zossima illuminates the paradox that wrenches Ivan’s soul, the eternal paradox of the question of God’s existence: “… the question is still fretting your heart… in your despair, you, too, divert yourself with magazine articles, and discussions in society, though you don’t believe your own arguments, and with an aching heart mock them inwardly… That question you have not answered, and it is your great grief, for it clamors for an answer… If it can’t be decided in the affirmative, it will never be decided in the negative.”(79). By the same brutally rigid sense of logic that prevents Ivan from committing to the certainty of God’s existence, he can never commit to the certainty of His non-existence.
It is not, however, Ivan’s inability to commit to the existence of God that leads to his spiritual and mental collapse, rather it is his inability to commit to humanity. According to Dostoevsky, faith in God and faith in man are consecutive and inter-reliant, and for Ivan, lack of one has led to the lack of the other. Of the two, it is his lack of faith in humanity that proves to be the more fatal for Ivan.
When Smerdyakov confesses to the murder of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, Ivan is forced to a recognition of his criminal irresponsibility. Ivan’s soul is shaken at the realization that all those nights around the dinner table when he was spouting empty philosophy and meaningless conclusions, as if life were nothing but a game of logic, there was someone taking every word for truth, as if it had come from “God Almighty”(737). “For every individual… who does not believe in God or immortality… crime must become, not only lawful but even recognized as the inevitable, the most rational, even honorable outcome of his position. There is no virtue if there is no immortality.”(79) It is this absolutism that rends Ivan’s soul. For Ivan there exist only two possibilities: either there is no God and everything is permissible, or God exists along with Absolute Virtue. There is no middle ground, because to relinquish the absolute is to throw oneself into the impossible paradox — God exists, but there is no virtue, and everything is permissible. But Ivan cannot renounce his absolutist’s logic, and it is out of this profound faith-lessness that Ivan speaks, and, unconsciously, “… puts [Smerdyakov] up to murder…”(751).
In visiting Smerdyakov therefore, Ivan is confronting the incarnation of the malicious fruits of his own reasoning mind. In his logical scheme of the world, Ivan has neglected to give validity to life and humanity, although he remains a part of life and humanity despite his self-imposed exile in the cold realm of intellect and reason. In hearing Smerdyakov’s confession, Ivan must come to terms with the fact that he has not been isolated from man. He finally understands that “… we are all responsible to all for all…”(362), and that he has disgracefully shirked his responsibility. Ivan’s wretched guilt goes beyond the murder of his father; he understands that he is guilty of invalidating humanity, and his only redemption is to confess his part in his father’s murder, and so begin to accept his recognized responsibility. Symbolizing that he has resolved to accept his duty to humanity, on his way from his last interview with Smerdyakov, Ivan spends an hour helping the peasant whom he had previously knocked down in the snow find warmth and shelter.
At this point, Ivan has leaped from the rational extreme to the mystical, human extreme of his fatal absolutism. In a last strange parable, Ivan comes face to face with his devil, Logic.
In this surreal scene, it becomes clear that Ivan’s fatal weakness is not merely his logic, but his absolutism. The reader understands that if only Ivan could exist between the paradox rather than deny it, if only he could affirm and embrace the contradiction and irrationality of life, he would be redeemed from insanity. “No, you must go and deny, without denial there’s no criticism and what would a journal be without a column of criticism? Without criticism it would be nothing but one ?hosannah’. But nothing but hosannah is not enough for life, the hosannah must be tried in the crucible of doubt and so on….”(780) Ivan is willing to live only one extreme or the other; the distance between the two is a “quadrillion miles”, and he is not willing to accept the arduous journey — in his desperation, he still believes in the simple absolute of the “one hosannah”.
But even this belief is shattered when Ivan learns of Smerdyakov’s suicide. Ivan now recognizes that the impossible simplicity toward which he was desperately striving is truly impossible. He can no longer redeem himself from his damning logic by confessing and receiving punishment for his part in his father’s murder. The paradox has multiplied and compounded itself until Ivan’s spirit, in its weakness (for it has been weak all along), collapses of “brain fever”: “… hesitation, suspense, conflict between belief and disbelief — is sometimes such torture to a conscientious man…”(784).
Afflicted with a chronic faithless-ness, Ivan is truly a tragic figure. Condemned to allow himself to live only through the lens of his common sense, the “indeterminate questions” infuriate and exasperate Ivan’s “three-dimensional mind”. Through Ivan, Dostoesvky sounds the question of the value of intelligence and reason, if it is at the cost of compassion, humanity, and faith. Ivan undergoes a breakdown because his soul lacks the strength to travel the quadrillion miles. The paradox of Ivan’s weakness is tragic — because he cannot believe in the “two seconds of joy”, he will never find even one moment of respite from the torture of his self-defeating logic.
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