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Dostoevskij’s guide to spiritual epiphany in The Brothers Karamazov

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The essay examines the three main epiphanic experiences in The Brothers Karamazov and shows how Dostoevskij’s treatment of these experiences may offer a guide to spiritual renewal. The three experiences are Alësha’s vision of the resurrected Zosima and transfigured Christ, Dmitrij’s vision of the suffering babe, and Ivan’s vision of the devil (which serves as a counter example to the first two). By examining the content of each of these visions, as well as the parallels and variations in the scenes leading up to these visions, this essay seeks to explore Dostoevskij’s understanding of transformational revelatory experience.

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  1. The English text cited here is from the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation (Dostoevskij, 1993a: 550); the Russian original is from PSS 6: 421). All further quotations from Dostoevskij’s Russian texts will be noted by a parenthetical reference containing the volume and page number from this thirty-volume collection.

  2. George Gibian remarks “The epilogue has been called unprepared for, weak, and disjointed” (1955: 992).

  3. Both Myshkin’s and Kirillov’s sensations are derived from those experienced by Dostoevskij himself. See the memoirs of Nikolaj Strakhov (1990: 412).

  4. The English-language text cited here is from the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation (Dostoevskij, 1990: 287). All further citations from this text will be noted by a parenthetical reference providing the page number.

  5. For a thorough discussion of the theme of memory in The Brothers Karamazov, see Thompson (1991).

  6. Thomas Hopko writes: “Baptism is the symbol of death and resurrection; Christ came to the earth in order to die and be raised” (1984: 142). Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware state: “Christ’s baptism in Jordan renews our nature...and it renews and regenerates, not our human nature only, but the whole material creation” (1977: 57). They continue: “When He went down into the Jordan, as the New Adam, He carried us sinful men down with Him: and there in the waters He cleansed us, bearing each of us up once more out of the river as a new creature, regenerate and reconciled” (58).

  7. See Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (1977: 58).

  8. It might also be noted that Dostoevskij believed that it was in the Russian national character that a special capacity for such synthesis could be found. As he wrote in an essay in 1861, the Russian character possesses a “highly synthetic” capacity, a capacity for “universal reconciliation” and “panhumanity.” For a discussion of this aspect of Dostoevskij’s world view, see James Scanlan (2002: 212–219); I have used Scanlan’s translation of “panhumanity” for the Russian word vsečelovečnost’.

  9. As Sergei Hackel has observed, Dostoevskij made reference to the Transfiguration in his notebooks, but he does not make an explicit mention of the event or its significance in the novel (1983: 152).

  10. As Malcolm Jones (2005: 64) has pointed out, Alësha’s initial fear in the sight of Christ’s light has antecedents in Russian Orthodox spirituality. In The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky quotes an extensive passage from “The Revelations” of St. Seraphim of Sarov in which Seraphim’s disciple is fearful of the light that suddenly begins emanating from Seraphim. Lossky comments that this account displays all the doctrines of the Eastern fathers on gnosis, “that knowledge of grace which reaches its highest degree in the visions of the divine light” (2002: 229).

  11. The motif of illumination is, of course, an important element during the Feast of the Epiphany as well. As Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Timothy Ware point out, January 6 is also known as the “Feast of Lights” (1977: 57). Cf. Hopko (1984: 117–121).

  12. For an extended discussion of the apophatic principle and its place in the Eastern Church, see Lossky (1976: 25–43).

  13. Dmitrij himself declares that when he was a child, Grigorij was “my own father” (459; otsom moim, PSS 14: 414).

  14. As readers have noted, there is a clear parallel between Dmitrij’s act of violence perpetrated on Grigorij and Zosima’s violent attack on his servant. Robin Feuer Miller aptly observes that these violent acts “became part of a chain of events precipitating a spiritual conversion” (1992: 98).

  15. It might be observed here that Stewart Sutherland finds the miraculous in The Brothers Karamazov to be “a matter of the inner change of emotion and mind,” rather than a physical occurrence (1977: 132). For a discussion of Dmitrij’s experience at Mokroe as a miracle in itself, see Carol Flath (1999: 596–597).

  16. Scanlan finds in Dostoevskij’s works the idea that “he identified the need for faith as a need for connectedness, for the completion lost with the individualization of society” (2002: 240).

  17. Vladimir Lossky quotes St. Seraphim of Sarov on the relationship between God and the devil in terms of warmth and cold, light and darkness: “God is a fire which warms and kindles our hearts. If we feel in our hearts the cold which comes from the devil—for the devil is cold—let us pray to the Lord, and he will come and warm our hearts for him and love for our neighbor” (2002: 225).

  18. For a stimulating discussion of the potentially positive “opening” that death creates in Dostoevskij’s artistic world, see Caryl Emerson (2004: 169–171).

  19. In his illuminating study, Jones argues that while Dostoevskij’s soul was “sometimes suffused in a spiritual tranquility,” it must be granted that “its most characteristic state, throughout his life, was one of unrest” (2005: x). It is this unrest that is magnificently depicted in the character of Ivan Karamazov, and it is interesting to note that Dostoevskij concluded his series of three epiphanies with Ivan’s nightmare, rather than with Alësha’s rapturous vision.

  20. Malcolm Jones notes: “although Dostoevsky projected a novel in which Orthodoxy would be vindicated and atheism refuted, its realization was to take place in a future novel, which he never wrote” (2005: 69). Carol Flath comments: “stories require conflict and suffering: peace and harmony are dull subjects” (1999: 584).

  21. Apropos of such a synthesis Orlando Figes declares: “Dostoevsky’s whole life can be seen as a struggle to combine the teaching of the Gospels with the need for social justice on this earth” (2002: 339).


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Correspondence to Julian W. Connolly.

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Connolly, J.W. Dostoevskij’s guide to spiritual epiphany in The Brothers Karamazov . Stud East Eur Thought 59, 39–54 (2007).

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