Friday, March 19, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How to corrupt a hero

I'll start this week's workshop on The Brothers Karamazov with a follow-up to last week's post. I attempted to explain why Dostoevsky chose to interrupt a nicely galloping mystery plot with a biography of an idealized individual, who is not even central to that plot. The broad answer is that the mystery story is merely a scaffolding on which Dostoevsky hangs his spiritual portrait of Russia--so he is not only free but obliged to wander off into theological labyrinths just as the central crime is about to take place. This structure does serve to create suspense (which may or may not be the same as reader frustration). Also it's interesting that a mystery tale is the apparatus for theological exploration. For Dostoevsky, God and the human heart are intertwined mysteries, so it makes sense that the ostensible plot is about searching, wondering, fastening on clues and chasing down false leads, and being desperate for answers. We literary writers could do well to revisit various forms of genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, romance, detective, horror, thriller, etc.), with an eye to how these plots might lend themselves to various Big Questions. Personally I find the juxtaposition of genre and anti-genre (if you will) in BK quite bracing.

The Zossima section, as I mentioned last time, depicts religious ecstasy in a convincing manner. Zossima, his professed atheist brother, and a local dignitary who's wrestling with a secret crime, all come to realize and exalt in the interconnectedness of all beings. Zossima's vision is humanistic, by which I mean he believes heaven and hell are ultimately provinces of the human heart. The greatest joy comes when we sense our own hearts opening to reveal infinite love for all creation, the heaven that is contained within each of us. We are all capable--temporarily--of love on this divine scale. A modern equivalent of Zossima's tales might be David Foster Wallace's "All That," which is a really beautiful story. In both, such ecstatic moments are always fleeting; perhaps because the heart can't bear such joy for long without exploding, or maybe because--as Dostoevsky makes explicit in BK--the human vessel is literally corrupt.

Now we discover another reason for the long digression on Zossima's life. Dostoevsky has set him up in order to bring him down. Way down. Writing teachers tell us not to protect our characters, especially those we love and admire the most, and here Dostoevsky complies by causing Zossima's body literally to stink. First, the ailing monk passes away, somewhat peacefully, but not without significant pain, surprising both Alyosha and the reader. Like Alyosha, we're expecting God, and / or the author, to grant this saintly man a painless death. But then things get even worse. There's a general belief on the part of the monks and the townspeople that God does not allow the corpses of holy men to rot. As Zossima's body is laid out and viewed, everyone looks forward to witnessing the miracle of his physical preservation...and then someone suggests they open a window. Zossima's body is rotting, and even faster than expected. This brings cynical delight to all who like to see great men cut down, and it devastates Alyosha--not because he wanted to see a miracle, but because he can't understand why God would humiliate his faithful servant in such a gruesome manner.

Of the corruption, Dostoevsky says,

I should, of course, have omitted all mention of it in my story, if it had not exerted a very strong influence on the heart and soul of the chief, though future, hero of my story, Alyosha, forming a crisis and turning-point in his spiritual development, giving a shock to his intellect, which finally strengthened it for the rest of his life and gave it a definite aim.

And this is why authors should imitate Dostoevsky and his God. They must bring the mighty, especially the morally mighty, low. You need not be cruel; you do not want readers like the cynical townspeople and monks, who like to see goodness punished for their own gratification. But there is nothing more human than corruption, in the larger sense. And nothing more challenging to faith and love. You need to give some genuine "shock" to the intellect and emotions of your characters, to strengthen them and give them definite aim. That's how they become real literary heroes.

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