KARAMAZOV: The Devil and Ivan: Discussion Thread

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KARAMAZOV: The Devil and Ivan: Discussion Thread

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Redigeret: dec 19, 2010, 11:14pm

Ilya Glazunov: illustration for Netochka Nezvanovna by FMD 1970

It is terrible to watch a man who has the incomprehensible within his grasp, does not know what to do with it, and sits playing with a toy called God!

Letter from Dostoevsky to his brother Mikhail Mikhailovich, about Hoffmann’s tale The Magnetiseur. 1838.

After The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, it’s difficult to imagine anything more powerful, that Dostoevsky could pull off something like that again. But in this chapter he gives us an even more powerful ‘picture’: the devil visits Ivan. Or does he?

This chapter is the epitome of Dostoevsky’s poetics regarding paradox and the techniques of ambiguation through laughter, irony, and Dostoevsky’s absolutely corrosive sarcasm. At the same time it brings together so many of the arguments pertaining to belief and atheism that run through the novel, and through Dostoevsky’s post-1862 career, that it’s worth looking at in more detail.

A possible key to understanding the chapter lies in Voltaire’s maxim, which has already appeared several times in the novel already: “If God does not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”. Here, of course, the maxim has been changed by implication to: “If the Devil does not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” And so Dostoevsky does invent him to explore what possibilities this raises in illuminating the struggle between belief and atheism.

The whole chapter plays with the idea: does the devil exist, or is he an emanation of Ivan’s mind? This is crucial, because it’s not only a literary question on the level of the novel, but it’s also a religious question, on the level of belief. The ambiguity of the status of the devil’s existence is very carefully maintained by the narrative, which goes to great pains to suggest that the devil is only an emanation, while at the same time endowing the devil with the greatest realism possible.

I’m going to do a chronological close reading of the chapter, dwelling on anything which catches my attention. Please add-subtract-question- ignore - hector -etcetera at will.

dec 20, 2010, 3:17pm

I was most impressed by how much Ivan and Smerdyakov's illnesses reminded me of Raskolnikov lying in his bunk in the boarding house, sweating out his murders through "brain fever".

dec 20, 2010, 9:24pm

Another fabulous chapter in BK!

Redigeret: dec 24, 2010, 2:03pm

An argument for the devil as Ivan's hallucination (or for him wanting Ivan to think so) is his use of advanced physics (which was Ivan's branch of learning at the university):

... had to fly through space to reach your earth…. Of course, it took only an instant, but you know a ray of light from the sun takes full eight minutes...

... in those ethereal spaces, in the water that is above the firmament, there's such a frost … at least one can't call it frost, you can fancy, 150 degrees below zero!

"What would become of an ax in space? Quelle idée! If it were to fall to any distance, it would begin, I think, flying round the earth without knowing why, like a satellite. The astronomers would calculate the rising and the setting of the ax, Gatzuk would put it in his calendar, that's all."

Edit: spelling

dec 23, 2010, 7:34am

The devil gets some hilarious lines.

My reading so far is that Ivan's 'devil' is his internal voice of reason - corrosive, undermining, casting doubt on everything. Is that far off how other people are reading this chapter?

dec 24, 2010, 6:48am

I am in Bangkok with very intermittent internet connections. I'll resume posting on Monday 27th when I get back to Taipei.

Pim, those are great excerpts on physics! Tommy, that's more or less how I'm reading it. The devil has ALL the best lines, and all the best moves!

Merry Offensive Religious Festival to everyone!

dec 24, 2010, 12:27pm

Jesus loves you Murr! God bless you!

dec 26, 2010, 10:20pm

1. The Devil and the Censor

Dostoevsky spent a long time on this chapter, polishing each word with care. He was mindful of what had happened to two of his previous works: Notes From Underground, and ‘Stavrogin’s Confession’ in Demons: key chapters had not been passed by the censor. It was essential to his design for the novel that this chapter be passed. He wrote in a letter to his editor Lyubimov:

I don’t think the censorship will find anything objectionable, except perhaps two little expressions: ‘’the hysterical squeaks of the cherubim.” I implore you, get these passed in that here it is the devil who is talking, he cannot speak otherwise…

The same letter offers us a clue to the importance of the chapter for the design of the novel, and for Ivan’s characterisation:

I have for a long time consulted the opinion of doctors. They maintain that before a cerebral fever not only are such nightmares possible, but also hallucinations. My hero of course does see hallucinations too, but he confuses them with his nightmares. Here we find not only a physical (sick) trait when an individual at times begins to lose the distinction between the real and the illusory (which has happened to almost everybody at least once in his life), but also a moral trait which concurs with the hero’s character: denying the reality of the illusion when the illusion has disappeared, he stands up for its reality. Tormented by unbelief, he unconsciously desires at the same time that the illusion might not be a fantasy, but something in actual fact...

2. Narrative Uncertainty
From the very first word, the presence of the devil in Ivan’s room is ambiguated. This is the first time in the novel a chapter begins with the word ‘I’. The narrator is foregrounded here to an extent that we have not seen so far in the novel. The hints we have had so far as to the provenance of the story and the character of the narrator are here brought right to the front of the chapter:

I AM NOT a doctor, but yet I feel that the moment has come when I must inevitably give the reader some account of the nature of Ivan's illness. Anticipating events I can say at least one thing: he was at that moment on the very eve of an attack of brain fever.

We saw in TLGI how Ivan gave us examples from literature of celestial/supernatural beings appearing in tales; this was to prepare us for the inclusion of the devil in this tale. However, right at the beginning of the chapter, a rationalist explanation is foregrounded, rather than literary precedents. This casts doubt on everything which follows: are we to understand this as a real visit from the devil, in other words, is the devil another character in the novel, or is he a hallucination proceeding from Ivan’s heat oppressed brain, as Macbeth says of his dagger.

This interpretative double bind is a trick Dostoevsky learnt from Hoffmann, whose greatest contribution to literature, perhaps, was in just this kind of thing. See Hoffmann’s tales: The Sandman, and The Uncanny Guest, which both exercise an influence on this chapter. But the biggest Hoffmann influence on the chapter, is the tale The Magnetiseur, or The Hypnotist, in which the same interpretative uncertainty regarding the existence of a character is revealed. Hoffmann’s narrative suggests that the evil Major and the man Alban are the same person, emanating from the brain of the Baron in a nightmare, due to the effects of a disordered stomach (the same suggestion is made later in this chapter, as we shall see). The tale involves also flights across midnight gardens, and crucial uncertainty as to whether doors and windows are open or closed. Sound familiar? Dostoevsky wrote about this tale of Hoffmann’s as long ago as 1838 in the letter to his brother which I quoted at the beginning of the thread, where he reveals that what struck him most about the tale was the spectacle of a man struggling with the incomprehensible in his grasp: surely a thumbnail sketch of Ivan in this chapter. Hoffmann’s tale lay dormant in Dostoevsky’s soul all his life, to form a ghostly influence on BK.

At the same time, this interpretative double bind brings to mind the question of the independent existence of the devil –and therefore of god- or whether they are mere fantasies projected by man onto an uncaring universe. It also brings up the question, voiced many times by Dostoevsky, as to whether it’s in fact possible to arrive at an answer to this problem of the existence of both by rational means. As he wrote in the Dairy for 1876:

Faith and mathematical proof are two irreconcilable things. There’s no stopping someone who has made up his mind to believe. 1876. Mar.2.3

Redigeret: dec 28, 2010, 9:15am

3. The Devil’s Appearance
The devil’s appearance is described with great care. In Russian the euphemisms ‘guest’ and ‘gentleman’ stand for the devil, rather like the ‘prince of darkness’ in English. Dostoevsky brings these euphemisms to life by describing the devil as a gentleman belonging to that class of idle landowners who used to flourish in the times of serfdom and as a long stay guest, a hanger on, a parasite, the type that we have already seen in the novel, in the character of Maximov. His appearance matches what Ivan says of him later:

“Talk gossip, you are a parasite, you ought to talk gossip. …
"C'est charmant, parasite. Yes, I am in my natural shape. For what am I on earth but a parasite?”

The devil’s appearance is yet another attack on the generation of the 40s that D makes time and time again in his work. He is a member of the liberal landowning class, of which Turgenev was the prime example. There are many similarities between the devil and Turgenev: his hair and beard, for example:

a Russian gentleman of a particular kind, no longer young, qui faisait la cinquantaine,* as the French say, with rather long, still thick, dark hair, slightly streaked with grey and a small pointed beard.

And here is a picture of Turgenev:

4. The Devil’s First Words
These also highlight the interpretative difficulty of the devil’s presence: he could just be the projected personification of that part of Ivan’s mind which reminds Ivan that he had forgotten to ask Smerdyakov if he had received a visit from Katerina Ivanovna. As Ivan himself says:

"I would have remembered that myself in a minute, for that was just what was tormenting me! Why do you interfere, as if I should believe that you prompted me, and that I didn't remember it of myself?"

In the devil’s first words, and Ivan’s reaction to them, a rational explanation (based on the science of the mind) is offered for the appearance of a supernatural being in Ivan’s room.

5. Rational Proof and Doubt
“What's the good of believing against your will? Besides, proofs are no help to believing, especially material proofs. Thomas believed, not because he saw Christ risen, but because he wanted to believe, before he saw…The other world and material proofs, what next!”

This is Dostoevsky’s attack on rationalism. Is it possible to use rationalism to deduce proof of Gods’ existence? If not, then the attempts of the medieval scholiasts to reconcile belief and reason, Aquinas’s Quinque Viae in particular, are just nonsense. This can be construed as part of an attack on Western Christianity from the perspective of slavophile Orthodoxy, which largely disdained such attempts at rationalizing belief.

“And if you come to that, does proving there's a devil prove that there's a God?”

This is telling us that the arguments we use – and Ivan uses- here in the novel to try to interpret the reality of the devil’s existence are also to be applied to the question of God’s existence. This question was raised also right at the beginning of the novel, in the conversation over the brandy with Ivan, Smerdyakov, Grigory, Alyosha and Fyodor Pavlovich.

6. “You are my hallucination. You are the incarnation of myself, but only of one side of me... of my thoughts and feelings…”
This also stands as the atheist idea that god is the invention of man, man’s projection. We can paradoxically invert Genesis 2.5 to see this idea more clearly:

Then the man formed a god from the incarnation of himself and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the god became a living being. Voltaire’s maxim is implied all through this section of the conversation.

The atheist Ivan then says that his tiny iota of belief is only human frailty, implying that we have invented supernatural beings out of human frailty.

Later in the chapter Ivan says:
You’re dishing out to me all that is most stupid in my own nature…

If the notion of god is a projection of all that is most virtuous and aspirational in man, the devil then is a projection of all that is most negative and vile. Positive and negative have their own projections. (except I don’t find the Judeo Christian god Yahweh to be very virtuous: he’s more vindictive and malicious and tyrannical than anything else…)

dec 28, 2010, 11:49pm

7: The Devil Incarnate
If the son of god can incarnate as an illiterate carpenter’s son in Galilee, then why can’t the devil incarnate as an 18 stone Russian merchants’ wife?

The devil loves to sit in bathouses. In Russian folk culture, the bathhouse was also a site of divination and fortune telling, and other activities frowned upon by Orthodox authorities. In Eugene Onegin, Tatiana and her nurse plan to spend the night in the bathhouse telling fortunes, but they chicken out at the last minute.

In his hilarious description of flying through the realms of (spiritual) space in evening dress, the devil further mocks attempts to rationalize belief by conflating scientific cosmology –physics and astronomy, as Pim noted above- with biblical cosmology, and revealing the absurdity of trying to conflate two widely divergent world views.

Dostoevsky will rework this dialectic in the trial scene, where with great subtlety he will explore the question of whether it’s even possible to pit reason and faith against each other, given that their aims and methods are so totally divergent. Here he plants a seed for this.

The devil mocks doctors and medical science as being unable to cure his cold. With his incarnation the devil suffers from all sorts of ailments. This is part of a general attack on Doctors in BK. The local town doctor has the name of the greatest Westerniser of them all: Herzenstube, who always says the same thing when he visits every patient: “I can make nothing of it.” Kolya mocked the doctor in the last book. Do we sense some of D’s own frustrations with his own doctors? He was very ill with emphysyma by this time, and the writing of BK had been considerably slowed down by his epilepsy. It is not too much to say that he was on the verge of total physical collapse, but nonetheless driven to keep working, much as Dickens was at the end. The best his doctors could do was propose endless, boring, timewasting and expensive trips to the spas at Ems.

As part of his incarnation on earth, the devil wants to publish a letter in the newspaper but his request to do so is turned down: the devil does not exist, he is told, but he can write it as a joke. Echoes of Rakitin’s description of Ivan here: an atheist who writes religious articles for a practical joke, and a further subtle foregrounding of interpretative difficulties.

8. Indigestion and its Influence on Dreams
Note how the devil plays with Ivan all the way through the chapter. Just when the devil spouts something original, something that Ivan, to his horror, is not able to recognize as having a source from within himself:

“My word, you didn’t get that from me….”

…the devil gives a rational explanation for it:

“Sometimes when a man is asleep, especially when he has a nightmare (due to indigestion or the like)… he sees such events- or rather, a whole series of events linked by a plot… I say things which are original, things that have never occurred to you before, which means, I’m not merely repeating your thoughts and yet at the same time, I am simply your nightmare and nothing else….”

“You’re lying……”

The devil has a twofold role here involving trickery: 1) to mislead Ivan into believing in him (assuming the devil is an emanation): if Ivan believes in the independent existence of the devil, he will find it easier to believe in God; on the other hand, 2) he could be trying to mislead Ivan into not believing in him (assuming the independent existence of the devil): if Ivan decides the devil is only an emanation, then he will be prevented from believing in God. In 1), Ivan will be led astray from his atheism, or , in 2) he will be led astray from a potential for faith. Either way is a kind of trickery, a betrayal by the devil, but which is the greater evil?

9. The Manichean Heresy
‘No, you must go and negate, without negation 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.

I am not at all equipped to go into this further but I would be fascinated to hear more from those who are. It seems to me that the devil’s notion that his role is to provide a foil, a counterbalance of evil to good for the necessity of life in the universe is (some version of ) Manicheism.

Without suffering, what pleasure would there be in life? Without the presence of evil, how do we know what is good?

Later in the chapter, the devil admits that he was tempted to join in the Hosannas when Christ returned to heaven, but he knew that if he did so, everything would fall apart because his role is to negate: without negativity, positivity also cannot exist:

'And so, solely from a sense of duty and my social position, was forced to suppress the good moment and to stick to my nasty task. Somebody takes all the credit of what

10. “I am the x in an indeterminate equation.”
I would also like to know more about this. I am mathematically dyslexic, but Dostoevsky studied math in his engineering school, so I sense that there is a whole level of meaning here that remains opaque to me, a level of meaning linked to the Euclidean geometry and the discussion of parallel lines we had earlier in the novel. What is an indeterminate equation? X is something unknown. Is D implying that it’s impossible to ‘know’ whether the devil exists, and by extension, whether god exists by use of this x?

dec 29, 2010, 8:04am

>10 tomcatMurr: ‘No, you must go and negate, without negation 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.

With Murr, I'd love to hear more about the religious echoes here.

It also leaves me wondering, whose devil is this?

Dostoyevsky's? From FD's notebook on BK: "It is not as a boy that I believe in Christ...My hosanna has passed through a great furnace of doubts."

Ivan's devil: "But hosanna is not enough for life. The hosanna must be tried in the crucible of doubt."

(And was FD thinking of himself when he has the devil speaks of those who can "contemplate such depths of belief and disbelief at the same moment that sometimes it really seems that they are within a hairsbreadth of being turned upside down"?)

Or Russia's devil, as suggested by his appearing as a typical Russian liberal landowner? (9 above)

Or humanity's - the voice of doubt that has tempted so many souls from Christ?

"I...fulfill my destiny...to ruin thousands for the sake of saving one. How many souls have had to be ruined and how many honorable reputations destroyed for the sake of that one righteous man, Job."

Striking echo of the GI's argument, but also of Zossima's love for the story of Job, subjected here to the devil's ironic mocking.

And if much of FD's vision is built on the importance of conscience, what are we to make of:

“What tortures? Ah, don’t ask. In the old days we had all sorts, but now they are chiefly moral punishments – ‘the stings of conscience’ and all that nonsense. ... And who’s the better for it? Only those who have no conscience, for how can they be tortured by conscience when they have none?”

Can we say that the devil has just cut the ground from under D's whole vision?

dec 29, 2010, 10:13pm

oh interesting questions! D's personal devil appears in his dialogue with Ivan. I think there's a strong case for this devil expressing all of FD's doubts, as you say.

dec 29, 2010, 10:20pm

11. “My dear fellow, upon my word I don't know”
The devil appears to man, and man asks him whether God exists, and the devil replies that he doesn’t know. This is the essence of the whole chapter.
Can sarcasm get any more corrosive than this? Can irony get any more bitter than this? If the devil doesn’t know, who does? The ramifications of this little snippet of dialogue are endless and spinning.

Is the devil an atheist or an agnostic?
Is the existence of the devil necessary for the existence of God?
If I believe in the devil, do I believe in God?
What if the devil is lying?
Does the devil exist, or is he a projection of man’s?
Is it easier for an atheist to believe in the devil than in god?
If an atheist becomes convinced of the independent existence of the devil, does it then follow that an atheist might eventually come to believe in god?

In asking these questions, we operate on at least three levels: theological level, belief level, and literary level. What is the theological, doctrinal point of view? What do I believe about this? What is the ideational, symbolic position of the character in the scene?

12. Phenomenology and consciousness
"'Je pense, donc je suis', I know that for a fact; all the rest, all these worlds, God and even Satan -- all that is not proved, to my mind. Does all that exist of itself, or is it only an emanation of myself, a logical development of my self which alone has existed for ever."

This is one of the most startling sentences in the novel. We had a lot of discussion in an earlier thread with dchaikin about the role of consciousness in Dostoevsky, and here the devil puts out another little snippet that encapsulates everything in contemporary and modern philosophy pertaining to phenomenology and consciousness: Descartes, Kant, Claude Bernard, Buddhism, Merleau Ponty, Husserl and modern neuropsychology. Is the world, is reality, merely an emanation of the brain, of the nervous system? If so, then the devil may also be part of that world, as well as an emanation. So is the devil real or not real?

13. The Legend of the Philosopher in Paradise
This is incredibly funny: the devil reveals in his preamble to this legend that the discoveries of modern science have thrown heaven into an uproar: all hell broke loose, that heaven also has its secret police and spies, that the traditional torments have given way to modern pangs of conscience ‘and all that rubbish.’ The most devilish thing about the devil is his utterly wicked sense of humour.

Who has benefited? Only the unscrupulous, because what are the pangs of conscience to those who have no conscience?

This puts the finger on my objections to Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance, and the Christian bullshit about meekness, which only serves to perpetuate the power structure of society by enjoining the oppressed to embrace their oppression rather than fight against it.

Further interpretative difficulty is foregrounded when Ivan suddenly remembers that the legend of the philosopher in paradise was created by him in high school. Ivan takes this as evidence that the devil is only a hallucination from his mind; but the devil is one step ahead:

“Listen, it was I caught you, not you me. I told you your anecdote you'd forgotten, on purpose, so as to destroy your faith in me completely."
"You are lying. The object of your visit is to convince me of your existence!”
“Knowing that you are inclined to believe in me, I administered some disbelief by telling you that anecdote.”

Because the devil’s role is to negate, and that includes negating belief, and negating truth with falsehood…

14. The Relative Nature of Truth
“Yes, till the secret is revealed, there are two sorts of truths for me -- one, their truth, yonder, which I know nothing about so far, and the other my own. And there's no knowing which will turn out the better…”

I see in this the seeds for a solution to the struggle between belief and atheism: a simple acceptance of the simultaneous existence of two truths, two discrete systems: a rational, scientific one, and a belief based system. And there’s no knowing which will turn out better.

That the seed for a solution should come from the devil, though, is a further irony. And that it’s the devil who proposes relativism and (subjective?) multiple truths should come as no surprise to those who deny that truth is relative, and who assert that there is only one truth, and that they (or their church) are privy to it.

dec 29, 2010, 10:43pm

an indeterminate equation has more than one unknown

rather than x - 6 = 5, for instance, it would be x + y = 5. In addition, it has an infinite set of solutions, so a single solution, or even a set of solutions can't be determined. As with x + y = 5, if x is one then y is 4; but x could be anything, so y could be anything. As to the meaning to Dostoevsky, I don't know. God + devil = ?

dec 30, 2010, 8:38pm

More than one unknown I think is the key, solla, if I understand you correctly. X is the devil, and the other unknown is god. Would that make sense?

Redigeret: dec 30, 2010, 8:48pm

15. “'There are new men’”
Note the double punctuation marks all through this passage (My Oxford World Classic edition royally fucks this up). Here, for the first time in the conversation, the devil is actually quoting Ivan’s thoughts/words back at him. Of course, if we believe that the devil is nothing more than a projection of Ivan’s subconscious, then everything he says throughout the conversation is really Ivan’s thoughts. On the other hand if we believe in the independent existence of the devil as a character in his own right in the novel, the things he says are his own. But here in this long, important paragraph, these ideas are deliberately, unambiguously, by the use of quotation marks, presented as coming from Ivan, whom the devil is quoting.

This is a typical Dostoevsky ambiguating device, to have the thoughts of one character expressed by his interlocutor in the conversation. He uses the same device in 'The Devils' in the conversation between Shatov and Stavrogin, where Shatov repeats Stavrogin’s ideas back at Stavrogin, and Stavrogin neither denies nor confirms them, like Ivan here

The paragraph is very difficult, combining ideas from Fyodorov, scientism, utopian utilitarianism, and D’s own abhorrence of these ideas, with little or no signaling as the discourse switches between them. Let’s unpack it a bit.

Ivan disagrees with his contemporaries. They want to destroy everything, and start again with anthropophagy. This notion is very curious: on the one hand, anthropophagy for Dostoevsky/Ivan is an extreme symbol of ‘Everything is permitted’: if there is no god and we are simply creatures of determinism, subject to the will of the laws of nature only, then we can even go so far as to eat each other. On the other hand, anthropophagy is also the central symbol of Christianity, in the form of the Eucharist, in which an act of cannibalism is worshipped as the supreme mystery of the religion.

Ivan’s idea, in contrast to the idea of his contemporaries the nihilists and the revolutionaries, is not to destroy everything, but just to destroy the idea of god:
"'I maintain that nothing need be destroyed, that we only need to destroy the idea of God in man."'

"'Once the notion of god has been destroyed, Men will unite to take from life all it can give, but only for joy and happiness in the present world."'

This sounds very positive, an ideal all humanist atheists would like to work toward (this was Herzen’s idea), but in the next sentence Dostoevsky the arch conservative slavophile, negates this ideal:

"'Man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear."'

I feel that this little sentence is quite different from all the others around it. Without god, man will elevate himself to god like status, in the eyes of an Orthodox conservative, a blasphemy, but in the eyes of an atheist, a non sequitor: the removal of god does not necessarily result in the elevation of a man-god, the one does not necessarily give rise to the other, as D’s/Ivan’s/ the Devil’s rhetoric seems to think it does, here. For an atheist, both man-god and god-man are unnecessary.

Then the description of an ideal of a godless, present- orientated world continues:

"'Everyone will know that he is mortal and will accept death proudly and serenely like a god. His pride will teach him that it's useless for him to repine at life's being a moment, and he will love his brother without need of reward. Love will be sufficient only for a moment of life, but the very consciousness of its momentariness will intensify its fire, which now is dissipated in dreams of eternal love beyond the grave"'…

except, the word ‘pride’, is another insert from the Orthodox Dostoevsky.

It seems to me this knowledge that it is useless for man to repine at life's being a moment is a kind of humility (actually, another Buddhist idea), not pride. This state, Ivan’s (humanistic) ideal (also an idea from Fyodorov) will be the final golden age. However, Ivan wonders if it will ever come: "'If it does, everything is determined and humanity is settled for ever."'

Ivan then goes on to warn of the dangers he sees in this ideal. Man’s stupidity will invariably pervert it, and the notion that with the death of god ‘all things become permitted’ will simply become an excuse to act totally selfishly: "'Everyone who recognizes the truth even now may legitimately order his life as he pleases, on the new principles. In that sense, 'all things are lawful' for him."'

Ivan is saying that without the controlling force of religious morality, man will turn to depravity and selfishness. Ivan asserts that, without some controlling external, god oriented morality, and the corresponding power structures this entails, man is incapable of brotherhood and society, that the maxim: “everything is permitted” – a source of freedom to do whatever you want - will in effect become: “Everything is obliged” - an injunction to be as depraved as possible.

Permission is not the same as obligation. I am permitted to do anything I like, but I can still restrain myself out of an inborn sense of right and wrong; I am not obliged to do everything I like, I am not obliged to act out my most depraved fantasies and cruel desires just because I am permitted to. I can still restrain myself in the knowledge that I am not going to take advantage of the fact that I am permitted to enact my fantasies and cruelties.

Perhaps this restraint in the face of permission is the supreme inner freedom, the only one we are capable of in a world ruled by the determinism of the laws of nature.

Ivan denies that man is capable of this kind of moral distinction and restraint in the face of unlimited permission. He is convinced that with unlimited permission will come unlimited depravity, through a confusion of obligation and permission brought about by man’s lack of inner restraint. This is excessively bleak. Is he right?

The passage ends with another paradox and interpretative double spin:

"'if you want to swindle why do you want a moral sanction for doing it?"'

the moral sanction of course is that ‘everything is permitted’.


The existing religious power structures, as examined, for example in TLGI, also provide a moral sanction for swindling: “Thou shalt not question or challenge the authority of the church which sanctions the existing power structures, for remember, children, the meek shall inherit the earth. So suffer meekly (at our hands) now in the knowledge that His (entirely fictitious ) Kingdom is coming, where the meek shall come first, and where the rich will tend to the camels.” Which is, of course, as Herzen recognized, the biggest swindle of them all.

16. The Devil’s Last Words

“Do you hear? You'd better open," cried the visitor; "it's your brother Alyosha with the most interesting and surprising news, I'll be bound!"

"Be silent, deceiver, I knew it was Alyosha, I felt he was coming, and of course he has not come for nothing; of course he brings 'news,'"

This brings the conversation full circle, as the identical ambiguating device used at the beginning is repeated at the end. The devil could simply be a projected personification of that part of Ivan’s mind which knows Alyosha is here, a projected personification of that part of his mind which can rationally deduce that the only reason someone is frantically knocking at the shutter at 1 o’clock in the morning on a snowy night is because there must be some emergency.

As in the devil’s first words, a rational explanation (based on the science of the mind) is offered for the appearance of a supernatural character in the novel.

dec 31, 2010, 6:47am

14, 15> No single solution. Could it stand for all the endless doubts which have no answers?

jan 15, 2011, 10:38pm

Wow Murr...just wow. I'm a bit overwhelmed by this all. I could meekly comment that "the man-god will appear" does not have to mean that a will call himself God, only that we may treat ourselves as if we are god, as if we, individually ourselves (or just perhaps all mankind) are only the purpose of existence...or something along those lines.

Redigeret: okt 19, 2018, 7:42am

Concurrent with the many beautiful insights expressed here, especially by tomcatMurr, I urge you to look at this chapter in light of left temporal lobe epilepsy with Gestaut-Geschwind traits. I’ll articulate this further, late in the game as I am, in coming days, as I am formulating the argument currently for my doctoral exams. I’d bet my epileptic life that the devil is a personification of that sickness, as if FD, through Ivan, is talking through his frustration with it. At the same time, he is not NOT speaking of the devil, as hyperreligiosity and hallucinations are part of this kind of epilepsy. People point to Smerdyakov as the key representation of epilepsy, but his are of a convulsive nature. In Ivan we see a side of epilepsy that even Dostoevsky might not have fully understood in his time. You’ve probably long-forgotten this thread, but if you’re still getting notifications for old threads, please take a moment to look up temporal epilepsy/Geschwind. I would so love to read your thoughts about this.