Tricky Minds

Michael Wood

  • Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet 1871-81 by Joseph Frank
    Princeton, 784 pp, £24.95, May 2002, ISBN 0 691 08665 6

‘The mind is a scoundrel,’ Dostoevsky wrote in his notes for The Brothers Karamazov, ‘but stupidity is straight and honest.’ This wasn’t what he himself thought, or rather, it was only one of the things he thought. In the novel the line is given to Ivan Karamazov, who explains to his younger brother Alyosha that he began their conversation about religion ‘as stupidly as possible’. When Alyosha asks him why, Ivan first says he wanted to be characteristically Russian: ‘Russian conversations on these subjects are all conducted as stupidly as possible.’ Then he says: ‘And second, the stupider, the more to the point. The stupider, the clearer. Stupidity is brief and guileless, while reason hedges and hides. Reason is a scoundrel, stupidity is direct and honest.’ This is the wording of Richard Pevear’s and Larissa Volokhonsky’s 1990 translation – the translation of the notes is by Edward Wasiolek. In David McDuff’s 1993 version we read: ‘The greater the stupidity, the greater the clarity. Stupidity is brief and guileless, while wit equivocates and hides. Wit is a scoundrel, while stupidity is honest and sincere.’ And again, in Constance Garnett’s much older version: ‘The stupider one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.’

One word for stupidity and (in English) four words for its opposite. But the meaning is clear enough. ‘Intelligence’, ‘wit’, ‘reason’, ‘mind’, in this context, all mark the realm of reflecting, calculating consciousness, the way we measure our chances and think through our options. In fact, Ivan Karamazov’s mind is not a scoundrel, it is a mind which has tortured itself into an intellectual corner; and Alyosha’s mind is not a scoundrel either, it is a mind of astonishing moral directness and simplicity, almost ‘stupid’ in Ivan’s terms. But minds can be scoundrels, and the first mind we see in close-up in the novel is one of them. Here is Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, patriarch of what Dostoevsky’s narrator calls ‘this nice little family’, agreeing to let Alyosha become a novice at the local monastery. He is ‘half drunk’, and having a terrific time. He wonders whether there is ‘anyone in the world’ who will pray for him. He too talks about stupidity, but in this novel, and perhaps elsewhere, only clever people ever think about the term. Pretending to be stupid is one of the things that scoundrels do.

My dear boy, you know, I’m terribly stupid about these things, would you believe it? Terribly stupid. You see, stupid as I am, I still keep thinking about it, I keep thinking, every once in a while, of course, not all the time. Surely it’s impossible, I think, that the devils will forget to drag me down to their place with their hooks when I die. And then I think: hooks? Where do they get them? What are they made of? Iron? Where do they forge them? Have they got some kind of factory down there? You know, in the monastery the monks probably believe there’s a ceiling in hell, for instance. Now me, I’m ready to believe in hell, only there shouldn’t be any ceiling; that would be, as it were, more refined, more enlightened, more Lutheran, in other words. Does it really make a difference – with a ceiling or without a ceiling? But that’s what the damned question is all about! Because if there’s no ceiling, then there are no hooks. And if there are no hooks, the whole thing falls apart, which, again, is unlikely, because then who will drag me down with hooks, because if they don’t drag me down, what then, and where is there any justice in the world? Il faudrait les inventer, those hooks, just for me, for me alone.

Alyosha says quietly, ‘There are no hooks there,’ but his father has no intention of letting go of his fantasy. ‘Yes, yes,’ he says. ‘Only shadows of hooks. I know, I know. That’s how one Frenchman described hell.’ And he quotes, in French, an evocation of the shadow of a coachman cleaning the shadow of a coach with the shadow of a brush.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in