"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Family, Character, Love, And The Brothers Karamazov

There was something common to the Karamazovs - Father Fyodor and sons Dmitri, Ivan, Alyosha, and their bastard half-brother Smerdyakov.  Something untamed, vigorous, and potent and despite many dissimilarities in character and outlook, there were indeed a family.

“He’s a Karamazov”, would explain everything.  It explained if not justified the wild, passionate excesses of Dmitri; the obsessions of the father, the sharp, demanding intellect of Ivan, the righteousness of Alyosha, and the cunning of Smerdyakov.  Any of the boys could have murdered their father, given the right moment and the right conviction; and it was not surprising that Dmitri and his father and even Ivan, and saintly Alyosha were captivated by the charms of Gruschenka.  They were all Karamazovs and could spin theology, doctrine, and a canny understanding of women into a grand guignol worthy of Eugene O’Neill.

Nor was it surprising that Smerdyakov, the son who inherited most from his father, murdered him for spite, revenge, arrogance, but certainly not money.  He was as cunning and calculating as Iago, but not evil.  He was Dostoyevsky’s amoral anti-hero – passionate, brilliant, and necessary.  Dostoyevsky spoke kindly of criminals just as he did of the Devil, both antisocial, abrasive, characters who dared to do what others feared.

The Karamazovs were, in modern parlance, dysfunctional.  So much so that Freud used The Brothers Karamazov as a primer.  Alyosha was the superego, a moralist who was never a pedant but a constant reminder of good.  Dmitri was the id - passionate, capable of love, but unable to control the wild swings of his emotions.  Ivan was the ego – intellectual, disciplined, logical, and restrained.  Smerdyakov was an amalgam of all three – practically brilliant and cunning, passionate enough for murder, and reflective enough to commit suicide because penitence, denial, or arrogance.

Can one say, admiring or dismissing an act of my children or myself say, “He’s a Parlato?” Is there something so predetermined and absolute about genetic offspring that we all all share common traits? A close friend of mine, a psychologist, remarked how much my children were alike.  I was surprised, for I had always seen them as quite different, similar in intelligence and decency, but different in approach to life and the way it should be led.  “No”, my friend said, “They share a certain centeredness”.  At first I dismissed the idea.  What had that got to do with their various traits of perception, abstraction, discipline, creativity, humor, and sexuality?

I had for years dismissed my friend’s observation.  My children were different in their unique perceptions, innate and acquired abilities, and the way they applied them to their lives.  Every child inherits bits and pieces of DNA from his parents, grandparents and random great-great-aunts and uncles; and their final composition is a pastiche of their genetic past, but a unique one.  I could neither accept that environmental factors – growing up with the same mother and father – nor the influence of recent gene acquisition could trump the centuries or even millennia of genetic inheritance.  My children had to be different, unique, and individual.

Dostoyevsky and the Karamazovs forced me to rethink the whole premise.  Maybe there was such a thing as ‘a Parlato’ – a predictable, family-related action that was inevitably characteristic.

The Carters, neighborhood friends of ours, are not very different from the Karamazovs.  To be sure they collectively and individually lack the brilliance, outrageousness, intellect, and saintliness of the Dostoyevsky family; but they resemble each other enough so that  particular family events are recorded as ‘a Carter’ – in their case a come-as-it may simplicity and easy acceptance of life’s promises and reverses.

‘A Birnbaum’ would be to suffer unusual and unexpected adversity.  The Birnbaums, for example, took a trip to Tanzania, and all contracted a dubious psycho-medical ailment that sent them back to Chicago.  On a second trip taken to validate their commitment to Africa and to reject what had become a commonly-held view that they were accident-prone, one of their daughters fell of a camel on Day Two, and the other developed dropsy. Both Phil and his wife Betty were combative and adversarial in everything they did, from challenging the DC school system on issues of inclusion and fairness, to taking on the Board of Supervisors on property taxes.  Their legal and community battles were endless and unending.  Doing ‘a Birnbaum’ meant tilting at all comers and inevitably losing. Falling off a camel on an otherwise programmed and ordinary ride on the beach was typical of the Birnbaums.

My sister’s in-laws are practical to the extreme.  They will never take a trip to get a quart of milk without calculating route traffic, congestion, parking, and total cost.  Mr. Zimmer spends hours on the phone looking for the best prices on wing nuts, PVC pipe, and garden hose.  According to him there is indeed an absolute value to every transaction, and that is paid price.  Opportunity cost means nothing to him.  There are no relative values in the hours spent on the phone trying to locate the best downspout at the lowest price.  Two hundred pages of Dostoyevsky, musing in a hammock by the lake, or puttering in the garden mean nothing.

In my sister’s family, whenever her husband or his sisters act like their parents – spending hours over a fraction of percent interest on bonds, comparing costs of a new slider on a refrigerator crisper drawer, or arguing the best way to get from Arlington to Vienna - it is called ‘Doing a Zimmer’.

The brothers Karamazov loved each other despite their differences.  Alyosha defended Dmitri despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against him.  Ivan loved Alyosha and saw him as the spiritual anodyne to this tormenting doubts.  Dmitri loved his brothers on a more visceral level.  He was irritated and annoyed at Alyosha’s religious insistence and at Ivan’s implacable rationality, but still loved them implicitly.

Dostoyevsky questions the irrational family ties that bind brother and parents.  Fyodor has been an abusive, autocratic, and dismissive parent; so why can’t the brothers be done with him?  Why does his virility, potency, and patriarchy exert so much influence when the brothers know he is a lecherous buffoon? Why can’t Ivan, Dmitry, and Alyosha simply let go?

The answer is clear.  Not only does nature trump nurture, but the family is at the very center of all that is.  No writer has ever disputed this claim.  Sophocles set the bar high when he wrote Oedipus Rex, and every playwright since set family as the crucible for individual maturity.  Shakespeare understood that the highest and lowest form of individual expression came from within the context of family.  Hamlet was incestuously in love with his mother, hated his stepfather, and demanded vengeance for the murder of his father. Arthur Miller’s morality plays – Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Price  - are all set within the context of family. 

Biff and Happy, Willy Loman’s sons, hate their father for his slavish bourgeois mediocrity, but they realize that they are no different in their simple, un-dramatic desires for social and personal legitimacy. Eugene O’Neill’s stories of the Tyrone family are tales of father-envy and mother-worship. Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer is as primal, basic, and Freudian as any of Dostoyevsky and as powerful as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Edward Albee understood the dynamics of family as well as any playwright, and although he was far from sympathetic, he knew that the family was the crucible in which individual character was formed.

Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha Karamazov love each other despite their dramatic differences. For either Ivan, the doubting intellectual, or Dmitri, the passionate man of the hour, to love Alyosha, a quintessentially pure, spiritual, and other-worldly spirit is a matter of family.  More is accepted and respected from brothers than would be tolerated from anyone else.  The brothers depend on Alyosha to set the moral compass; on Ivan to provide the unassailable logic of denial; and on Dmitri to be the Karamazov, man of instinct and passion.

Ivan, the intellectual, muses on the nature of parenthood.  Why, he wonders, should one automatically and without hesitation respect, obey, and defend one’s father if he is a degenerate, buffoon, reprobate?  What is there about family which provides context for social morality?  Fyodor Karamazov is a clown, an insensitive, arrogant fool; so why should anyone pay attention to him?

None of the sons can dismiss old Fyodor so easily.  He may be the antithesis of an evolved spiritual being (Alyosha), a common brute (Ivan), or a sexual competitor (Dmitri), but he won’t go ways.  All three brothers have a motivation for killing him; and the Oedipus myth is played out yet again.

Family is on the way out in modern America, and so necessarily are the dramas of Sophocles, Dostoyevsky, Miller, and O’Neill.  The crucible of today’s his-and-her families contain only thin gruel.  The poisonous hatred and jealousies of Othello, Little Foxes, The Brothers Karamazov, or Mourning Becomes Electra are absent in an era of inclusivity, diversity, and social idealism.

The brothers Karamazov love each other unequivocally; and despite their jealousies, rivalries, and disputed claims are inexorably and inevitably bound to each other.  Smerdyakov is the only brother who, despite his lifelong desire to be seen as legitimate intellectually, morally, and spiritually as his siblings, decides in the end to give up the struggle.  He has won in the eyes of Dostoyevsky, his creator, because he, the actor beyond the pale, the Superman beyond good and evil, the amoral unit in a very Christian family, has vengefully destroyed his past and in his passing become the hero.  In the eyes of the family, he has reneged on his responsibilities, avoided taking responsibility for his crime, and become only a mechanistic tool of family destruction – neither hero or villain.

Our modern age values neither family nor family history.  The old struggles for favor, place, and inheritance have been replaced by bickering.  No souls are damaged when stepsons and step-cousins are pitted in fights over wills and inheritance.  Children – his and hers – accommodate each other rather than dig in in a Freudian struggle for parental favor. Inherited wealth and position in a modern, multi-cultural and pan-democratic world means little.

What is lost are the titanic struggles in the Tyrone or Giddens family; or those of Henry IV, Henry VI, or Richard III.  Gone are the epic battles of George and Martha, or Hedda Gabler and Tesman, or Laura and The Captain.

My mother never disaggregated the Peterson family – Herb, Cindy, Herb Sr. and Carla. They were just ‘the Carlsons’, and we all knew what she meant – a bourgeois plasticity and slavish deference to the WASP 400.  All the Petersons suffered from the same ills – an affability designed to please, an eagerness beyond their intelligence, and a fundamental Swedish bullheadedness which allowed no insight or art.

She was right of course.  Herbie became a banker like his father and never moved more than five miles from their walkup on Steele Street.  His sister Cindy married a jeweler from Bristol. Carla Peterson gassed herself in her garage at 2 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, the most undistinguished and unremarkable time and ay of the week, and Herb Sr. and his golf bad dropped unceremoniously on the 15th hole of the Shriver Meadow Country Club in his latest and last attempt to break 90.

Dostoyevsky was right.  Families are the crucibles within which we all are annealed and become, for better or for worse, adults.  There is no escaping the families which provide the brick, mortar, and kilns.  There will always be Freudianism until multi-culturalism renders it irrelevant. Until then we will always be Pollitts, Sutpens, Yorks, Lancasters, or Tudors.

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