Dostoyevsky ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and Kafka ‘The Trial’, Essay Example
ISU Assignment 1: Annotated Bibliography
Buzina, Tatyana. “Two Fates: Zosima’s Bow and What Bakthin Said.” In: Robert Louis Jackson (ed.) A New Word on the Brothers Karamazov. Evanston, IL:Northwestern University Press, 2004. pp. 68-73.
Buzina discusses some of the Orthodox Chrisitian motifs in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, providing a useful synopsis of some of the author’s religious views. Buzina identifies Dostoyevsky’s interpretation of the relation between the all-powerful God and the freedom of human will, as it is expressed in the character of the monk Zosima. At first glance, this relationship may seem contradictory: how can God be omnipotent and how can the human be free? Buzina argues that Dostoyevsky develops this relationship in terms of the link between freedom and responsibility. In other words, freedom only has meaning when it is tied to responsibility. Responsibility accordingly ties into notions of fate, since responsibility is a responsibility to something other than oneself, whereas fate also refers to something other than the individual.
Jones, Malcolm V. Dostoyevsky and the Dynamics of Religious Experience. London,UK: Anthem Press, 2005.
The author attempts to argue that Dostoyevsky’s works such as Karamazov do not merely offer a message of Christian salvation, but rather depict the very struggle between God and the devil or good and evil. Namely, Dostoyevsky is not so much interested in presenting a message of salvation, but instead tries to carefully describe the inner spiritual war that defines human existence. Accordingly, Dostoyevsky may not offer an entirely optimistic Christian message, but rather tries to show that all Christian life is always confronted with profound ethical problems. Dostoyevsky’s Christian message, according to Jones, is therefore that it is this very “dynamism” that characterizes the Christian life.
Gregorsson, Klaus. “A Somewhat Irregular Defense of the Death Penalty.” The Chateau D’If Press. June 5, 2010.
Although Gregorsson’s overall text is experimental and satirical in nature, there are nevertheless valuable insights about the connection between Kafka and Dostoyevsky. The author argues that Kafka’s worldview is based on an atheism, wherein all the constructions of man are absurd. In contrast, Dostoyevsky, while also maintaining the absurd nature of existence, denies the significance of this absurd existence by comparing it to a world of transcendental godliness. In this way, both authors provide critiques of society, but in radically different ways.
Leavitt, June O. The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modern Spiritual Revival. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Against many interpretations that suggest Kafka is an atheist, Leavitt tries to argue that there is a spiritual aspect to his work. Yet this spiritual takes a more esoteric path in Kafka. Namely, Kafka’s religion is related to issues of the esoteric secret knowledge of God’s existence and how this should be achieved. The result of this interpretation, however, is that from a traditional Christian perspective, Kafka’s type of spiritualism borders on the occult.
Lowy, Michael. Frank Kafka’s Trial and the Anti-Semitic Trials of His Time. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge. Vol. 7, Issue 2. pp.150-157.
Lowy argues that Kafka’s Trial functions as a radical critique of political oppression. By linking Kafka’s Jewish background to the persecutions of Jews in Europe, Lowy tries to show how the story is an analogue for this persecution. From this perspective, Kafka becomes a writer who expresses the injustice of the human world and tries to provide a way out of this system by showing its absurd quality.
ISU Assignment 2: Process Portfolio
Fyodor Mihaylovich Dostoyvesky: Biography
Fyodor Dostoyevsky is viewed as one of the most crucial and important Russian writers. Born in Moscow, Russia in 1821, Dostoyevsky was the son of a doctor, however did not have a particularly privileged upbringing. His mother also died in his youth. Dostoyevsky was encouraged to study more scientific fields, but was uninterested in these areas. This is perhaps a significant event, as Dostoyevsky’s father Mikhail came from a family of priests, yet Mikhail rejected the priesthood in order to study medicine. In this regard, Dostoyevsky himself rejected the sciences and became a profoundly religious writer.
Dostoyevsky’s own intellectual development was constituted by radical changes. He was initially an anti-monarchist and was sentenced to a stint in prison in Siberia as punishment for his involvement in revolutionary groups. Nevertheless, he eventually changed his existential position, becoming deeply committed to the Orthodox Christian faith as a response to the problems of his time period. Furthermore, during the writing of The Brothers Karamazov, his son Alyosha died, thus perhaps providing a decisive influence on the religious character of this work.
Throughout his life Dostoyevsky suffered from epilepsy and also a gambling addiction. His epilepsy could be argued to be a factor in his religious turn, since epilepsy in old times was associated with forms of possession and communication with the transcendent world, both in its demonic and divine guises. Dostoyevsky’s gambling problem left him in a constantly precarious financial state. Ultimately, his health declined and
His two main works are considered to be Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. In both these novels, Dostoyevsky develops a theme about the nihilism of the modern world and its fundamental lack of meaning. In a text such as The Brothers Karamazov, these contrasting views on reality are embodied in the three brothers. It is the brother Alyosha who most represents the opinions of the mature Dostoyevsky, as he is committed to the possibilities of salvation present in Orthodox Christian life. In this regard, Dostoyevsky was a fierce critic of a modern world without a spiritual foundation.
The Brothers Karamazov Research Notes
Although The Brothers Karamazov is a deeply religious work, it is not the only worldview that Dostoyevsky presents in the novel. In other words, Dostoyevsky describes a large number of different positions toward the world and depicts them all in detailed fashion. The narrative centers around three brothers, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha. Each of these three brothers signify different existential paths taken in life. The detail with which he explores these different characters shows Dostoyevsky’s commitment to thoroughly portraying the diverse world-views that constitute the human relationship to the world.
The oldest brother, Dmitri, is more animalistic and hedonistic in his character. Although, Dmitri is nevertheless a sympathetic figure, he is consumed by an addiction to gambling, is a passionate womanizer, prone to bouts of violence and a drinker. (131) This leads him into a confrontation with his father, Fyodor, to whom he is most alike. (138)
Ivan is representative of the intellectual and free-thinker of the Western European style. Ivan is academically gifted, having published in various academic journals. (23) His world-view can be considered to be broadly scientific and nihilistic in approach. This is most clearly demonstrated in the part of the novel in which he discusses his hypothesis of the Grand Inquistor. In this section of the novel, Ivan presents a hypothetical scenario to his brother Alyosha, in which he identifies the hypocrisy of religious belief and the ultimate impossibility to account for the evil in the world if God exists. In this crucial section, Ivan argues that if Jesus Christ would have returned to the world in the time of the Great Inquisition, the religious authorities would have also killed Christ. (515) Ivan is committed to exposing a certain cruelty of the world that cannot be explained by the doctrine of religion.
Alyosha, the younger brother, represents the defender of Christianity in the text. However, Dostoyevsky is careful to portray him not in the light of a religious zealot because this contrasts with his views of what Christianity means. Hence, the author writes that he “was not a fanatic, and, in my opinion at least, was not even a mystic….He was simply an early lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was simply because at that time it struck him, so to say, as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love.” (28) Alyosha thus provides Dostoyevsky’s ideal view of what the Christian spirit entails: it is a recognition that there is cruelty in the world, and that one must trust in the divine and not the world, so as to overcome this cruelty.
All these characters articulate different world-views, such that the novel can be read as a philosophical text, in which these ideologies interact with each other. In this regard, the narrative of the story is itself not so important, but rather the underlying message of how these worldviews co-exist and oppose each other is the crucial “why” of the entire story. The story occurs so as to unfold these different viewpoints.
Franz Kafka Biography
Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague, Bohemia, coming from a Jewish background. Prague was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, and Kafka’s family were primarily German speakers, so his fiction was written in the German language. Kafka died at a fairly young age, at 40, and most of his work was published after his death. Kafka studied law at university and worked in various occupations related to the field. At the same time, Kafka composed literature in close connections with various friends. His young death resulted from the increasingly worsened condition brought upon by his bouts with tuberculosis.
In terms of political and religious life, Kafka was drawn to the left of the political spectrum. It is often cited that he was sympathetic to both anarchist and socialist ideas. Since most of his intimate relationships were with members of the Jewish community, it can also be suggested that Judaism remained an important factor in Kafka’s life. While his works seem to be atheistic character, when one considers the persistence presence of Judaism in his life, from his family to his friends and romantic interests, his apparent atheism could also be interpreted as a Jewish approach to religious questions.
Unlike Dostoyevsky, Kafka was not a celebrated author during his life. While alive, he published only a few works. Furthermore, Kafka ordered his remaining works to be destroyed after his death. This request was not upheld by the executor of his will and Kafka’s work began to be published.
Some of Kafka’s most important works are The Castle, The Trial, Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony. A guiding thread of these works can be considered their attempt to show an underlying absurdity to a life without meaning. This often comes in the form of absurd governmental bureaucracies, such as the legal system, which trap the individual in a meaningless web of relationships. The underlying point of these criticisms can be said to be that the absurdity of the system tries to cover up its own meaningless and thus also hide the void that lies at the heart of existence.
The Trial Research Notes
At the very outset of Kafka’s trial, the motif of a certain incompetence of the bureaucratic, political and legal systems of society are demonstrated. Hence, Kafka’s beginning to the story is quite explicit: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.” (3) This sentence effectively foreshadows the subsequent development of the narrative, as this lack of reason at the heart of K.’s arrest will manifest itself throughout the story.
The fact that K. is never revealed why he is arrested leads to some of the major tensions of the story. Hence, K. continually asks himself: “was he being punished for his honesty with a telling off? And was he to learn nothing about the reasons for his arrest or those who were arresting him?” (11) This notion of being brought to trial without reason can be considered to be a symbol of a certain meaningless of existence: when one further examines the parameters of one’s life, it is increasingly difficult to find a clear and determined logic behind what occurs. Rather, everything is contingency and chance, which takes the illusion of meaning and reason.
The narrative reaches numerous absurd conclusions, such as the location of where the trial will be held in an attic. (45) Furthermore, a series of romantic encounters in bizarre situations emphasize the overall insanity of the mise-en-scene of Kafka’s narrative. If The Trial can be read as a search for meaning, it appears that the final moral of the story is that this meaning does not exist. This is most clearly demonstrated in a parable told towards the end of the narrative to K. by a priest. This is a key point to understanding the story, as the parable’s story of a man who comes seeking the law but ultimately finds nothing. The priest describes the moral of the story as follows: “You don’t need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary”, to which K. replies: “Depressing view,” said K. “The lie made into the rule of the world.” (161) In this passage we therefore see clearly the bleakness of the Kafkian world-view as it presented in The Trial: the world is constructed as a façade of truth, whereas in reality, there is nothing behind this curtain. In this regard, perhaps the who, what, why, where, and when of Kafka’s story therefore serve as merely opportunities to expose at every turn this meaningless of existence contrasted against a world that continually tries to justify its existence. That the story concludes with the senseless murder of K. by unknown men perhaps connected with the bureaucratic apparatus and the line “like a dog!” (167) to describe this death underscores this thoroughly nihilistic interpretation.
The Answer or Lack of Answer to Nihilism of the World in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Kafka’s The Trial
To the extent that religious debates about God – in various forms such as the polemics of believers against atheists – continually occupy our public and social discourse, it is entirely logical that such polemics also find themselves present in art. At the same time, there is nothing new to these debates; rather, their consistent presence in our lives, regardless of particular historical periods, indicates that these polemics themselves indicate something essential regarding what it means to be human. That is to say, what constitutes the social and existential space of the human animal is a constant speculation in regards to the possibility of some form of divine transcendence and how this transcendence relates to our world, if it in fact exists. Two of the great authors of the European canon, Dostoyevsky and Kafka, also included such themes within their works, although in radically different forms. For Dostoyevsky, there appears to be a clear commitment to the notion of a transcendent God, despite a modern society that continually advances scientific discourses which appear to threaten the viability of this concept. In contrast, for Kafka, the treatment of God in his works tends to evoke what may be termed a “nihilistic” perspective, according to which the promise of God is not merely an illusion, but, moreover, all the social institutions that constitute our every day life in themselves are without meaning, only covering up the greater meaninglessness of our lives. In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, his advocation of God, however, takes place against this very backdrop of the absurdity of existence, whereas in Kafka’s The Trial such absurdity necessarily excludes the existence of God. How these two authors come to such radically different conclusions from essentially the same premise – i.e., the absurdity, cruelty, and meaningless of existence – demonstrate two possible responses to an underlying shared social condition.
Many commentators have argued as to the precise form of Dostoyevsky’s religious belief, since his convictions are undeniably explicit in a work such as The Brothers Karamazov. Hence, Malcolm V. Jones notes, many interpretations of Dostoyevsky describe a “fragmented world, but also hold out the promise, especially in the Brothers Karamazov, of rebirth and renewal through the Christian faith.” (x) This is a compelling conception of the precise form of religiosity that Dostoyevsky argues for. Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov is not arguing against the “fragmented” status of our world, with its various scientific discourses, violence, and anti-religious stance of modernity, but is rather arguing for the existence of God against this very situation. In this regard, it is important to note that Dostoyevsky also underscores the nihilism of the world, and does not deny it. Through the character of Father Paissy, Dostoyevsky expresses the common-sense narrative of a world that has no need for religion, viewing it as an artifact of a barbarous past: “according to certain theories only too clearly formulated in the nineteenth century, the Church ought to be transformed into the State, as though the would be an advance from a lower to a higher from, so as to disappear into it, making way for science, for the spirit of the age, and civilization.” (120) In this passage, Dostoyevsky is describing the dominant scientific world-view of which we are all accustomed to: the progress of science renders such views of religion, the Church and God as wholly archaic and mere obstacles towards the development of a civilization free of other-worldly superstition. But what are the results of this apparent movement towards “civilization?” This is Dostoyevsky’s characterization of the absurdity of the world of “modernity”, a world that does not need religion and its underlying cruelty. In a crucial passage of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky offers a parable called “The Grand Inquisitor.” This passage, composed by the scientifically inclined of the brothers, Ivan, is narrated to Alyosha, the brother described as religious to the extent that “he was simply an early lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was simply because at that time it struck him, so to say, as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love.” (28) That the telling of “The Grand Inquisitor” occurs in the context of a conversation between Ivan and Alyosha and their opposed world-views is clearly crucial to the ideas that Dostoyevsky is attempting to present. The basic gist of Ivan’s story is as follows: set against the backdrop of the Inquisition in Spain, even the Inquisitors, proclaiming to be on the side of Christ and thus justifying their torturous actions according to Christ, would kill Christ if he were hypothetically to return during that period. In dialogue with a silent Christ, the Grand Inquisitor accuses Christ of not having come to the aid of men, whereas the Church did, such that the Church in its violent inquisitions has performed the role of Christ better than Christ himself: “Thou wilt come with Thy chosen, the proud and strong, but we will say that they have only saved themselves, but we have saved all….What I say to Thee will come to pass, and our dominion will be built up. I repeat, to-morrow Thou shalt see that obedient flock who at a sign from me will hasten to heap up the hot cinders about the pile on which I shall burn Thee for coming to hinder us.” (531-532) In this passage, therefore, Dostoyevsky emphasizes the absurdity of the Western Church, which serves as a symbol for the absurdity of the world in general. The Church, which proclaims to act for Christ, does not even need Christ in order to carry out its mission: the world believes that its own laws and rules are sufficient, much like scientific discourses. This is absurd because, as mentioned, even institutions such as the Roman Church view that the divine transcendent God is unnecessary to their work.
Accordingly, Dostoyevsky does not dispel the absurdity, suffering and cruelty of the world, but rather emphasizes it. Yet it is precisely by emphasizing the cruelty of the world, that Dostoyevsky gives the same possibility for the hope of overturning it. That is, there is nothing to struggle against, but the way to resist the world is, in a way, to accept its nihilism. The Grand Inquisitor concludes as follows, as described by Ivan: “The old man longed for (Christ) to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered.” (537) For Dostoyevsky, however corrupt the world is, one can nevertheless resist it by the simple ascetic act of rejection, which ties into the description of Alyosha cited above. The point is not to question the absurdity of the world, because this entails that one thinks according to its logic. Klaus Gregorsson describes Dostoyevsky’s view as follows: “For Dostoyevsky…the absurdity is the existence of the world itself….Like the ancient ascetics to be against the world, one has to commit to something that does not exist in the world. This is the Orthodox interpretation of the law.” (2010) This is, in Dostoyevsky’s way the only way to argue against the madness of the world; we are not to argue that the world is not mad, but to reject its corruptness and commit oneself to another form of life that is the divine transcendence, despite its total disharmony with the world.
In this regard, Kafka serves as the diametric opposite to Dostoyevsky. In a work such as Kafka’s The Trial, the characters are overwhelmed by the absurd nihilism of the world and suffer because of it. Kafka’s story is a chronicle of a series of absurdities, in which the main character Jozef K. is to be brought to trial for a reason that is never revealed. Kafka’s contention is explicit at the outset of the story and foreshadows the rest of the narrative: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.” (3) The story continues to develop according to revealing the absence of a reason for Jozef K.’s torments, eventually culminating in his brutal murder at the end of the story. K himself shouts in response to the fact that he will be killed, essentially without reason: “like a dog!” (167) These extremely bleak opening and closing moments of The Trial completely encapsulate Kafka’s wholly nihilistic world view: the entire motor of the narrative is started with the lack of a reason, and ends with a violent death that in itself is senseless and reasonless. In Kafka’s almost apocalyptic landscape, there is a lack of meaning that haunts every aspect of the world, such that The Trial can be understood as a detailed mapping of all these empty locations within our existence. Hence, Lowy describes the brutal conclusion of the Trial as follows: “The conclusion of the novel is both pessimistic and resolutely non-conformist.” (157) The pessimism is clear in the character’s concession that of the despair, hopelessness and senseless of the world. However, it is difficult to understand how Lowy understands this non-conformity: for K. clearly accepts this hopeless fate, and insofar as the world itself is constituted, according to Kafka, by such nihilistic despair, this acceptance means that K. conforms to this very hopelessness.
This is further emphasized by a crucial parable that occurs in the story, a form that mirrors Dostoyevsky’s use of the parable of “The Grand Inquisitor.” This parable “Before the Law” can be considered to be the exact opposite of Dostoyevsky in terms of its conclusion, but not in its expression of the absurdity of the world. This parable speaks about a man who wishes to understand the law, but it turns out that the law is merely an empty façade. The priest, who recounts the parable, describes the moral of the story as follows: “You don’t need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary”, (Kafka, 161), to which K. replies: ““Depressing view,” said K. “The lie made into the rule of the world.” (Kafka, 161) That the final message is transmitted by a priest once again shows Kafka’s views on religion, while showing the bleakness of his general world-view. In the case of religion, as Leavitt notes, paraphrasing Alter, “Kafka derails the sacred and reverses and subverts its goals.” (119) In the case of the general social structure of the world, the institutions, such as the law, that attempt to lend structure to our lives exist as illusions, and as such do not really exist. In contrast to Dostoyevsky’s final moment of Christ’s kiss, Kafka offers no possible rejection of the world’s nihilism.
Accordingly, both Dostoyevsky and Kafka endeavor to show the underlying cruelty of the world, its internal contradictions, and its underlying emptiness. However, what is striking about works such as The Brothers Karamazov and The Trial is that from this basic shared viewpoint two entirely world-views are generated. In the case of Kafka, the hopelessness of the world overwhelms the protagonist, who is ultimately consumed by the cruelty of the reality. In the case of Dostoyevsky, the cruelty of reality, while it will consume the individual, must nevertheless, be to a certain sense rejected – one cannot argue with this corruption, but rather oppose it with a gesture such as the kiss of Dostoyevsky’s Christ. The question that remains open in these similar accounts of the world is the extent to which religion becomes the only alternative to nihilism: perhaps it is precisely this problem that the authors leave to be discovered in these respective texts, and perhaps this problem itself defines the essence of human existence.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov.
Gregorsson, Klaus. “A Somewhat Irregular Defense of the Death Penalty.” The Chateau D’If Press. June 5, 2010.
Jones, Malcolm V. Dostoyevsky and the Dynamics of Religious Experience. London, UK: Anthem Press, 2005. Kafka, Franz. The Trial.
Leavitt, June O. The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modern Spiritual Revival. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Lowy, Michael. “Frank Kafka’s Trial and the Anti-Semitic Trials of His Time.” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge. Vol. 7, Issue 2. pp.150-157.
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