The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 7

The Controversy

BUT Balaam’s ass had suddenly spoken. The subject was a strange one. Grigory had gone in the morning to make purchases, and had heard from the shopkeeper Lukyanov the story of a Russian soldier which had appeared in the newspaper of that day. This soldier had been taken prisoner in some remote part of Asia, and was threatened with an immediate agonising death if he did not renounce Christianity and follow Islam. He refused to deny his faith, and was tortured, flayed alive, and died, praising and glorifying Christ. Grigory had related the story at table. Fyodor Pavlovitch always liked, over the dessert after dinner, to laugh and talk, if only with Grigory. This afternoon he was in a particularly good-humoured and expansive mood. Sipping his brandy and listening to the story, he observed that they ought to make a saint of a soldier like that, and to take his skin to some monastery. “That would make the people flock, and bring the money in.”

Grigory frowned, seeing that Fyodor Pavlovitch was by no means touched, but, as usual, was beginning to scoff. At that moment Smerdyakov, who was standing by the door, smiled. Smerdyakov often waited at table towards the end of dinner, and since Ivan’s arrival in our town he had done so every day.

“What are you grinning at?” asked Fyodor Pavlovitch, catching the smile instantly, and knowing that it referred to Grigory.

“Well, my opinion is,” Smerdyakov began suddenly and unexpectedly in a loud voice, “that if that laudable soldier’s exploit was so very great there would have been, to my thinking, no sin in it if he had on such an emergency renounced, so to speak, the name of Christ and his own christening, to save by that same his life, for good deeds, by which, in the course of years to expiate his cowardice.”

“How could it not be a sin? You’re talking nonsense. For that you’ll go straight to hell and be roasted there like mutton,” put in Fyodor Pavlovitch.

It was at this point that Alyosha came in, and Fyodor Pavlovitch, as we have seen, was highly delighted at his appearance.

“We’re on your subject, your subject,” he chuckled gleefully, making Alyosha sit down to listen.

“As for mutton, that’s not so, and there’ll be nothing there for this, and there shouldn’t be either, if it’s according to justice,” Smerdyakov maintained stoutly.

“How do you mean ‘according to justice’?” Fyodor Pavlovitch cried still more gaily, nudging Alyosha with his knee.

“He’s a rascal, that’s what he is!” burst from Grigory. He looked Smerdyakov wrathfully in the face.

“As for being a rascal, wait a little, Grigory Vassilyevitch,” answered Smerdyakov with perfect composure. “You’d better consider yourself that, once I am taken prisoner by the enemies of the Christian race, and they demand from me to curse the name of God and to renounce my holy christening, I am fully entitled to act by my own reason, since there would be no sin in it.”

“But you’ve said that before. Don’t waste words. Prove it,” cried Fyodor Pavlovitch.

“Soup-maker!” muttered Grigory contemptuously.

“As for being a soup-maker, wait a bit, too, and consider for yourself, Grigory Vassilyevitch, without abusing me. For as soon as I say to those enemies, ‘No, I’m not a Christian, and I curse my true God,’ then at once, by God’s high judgment, I become immediately and specially anathema accursed, and am cut off from the Holy Church, exactly as though I were a heathen, so that at that very instant, not only when I say it aloud, but when I think of saying it, before a quarter of a second has passed, I am cut off. Is that so or not, Grigory Vassilyevitch?”

He addressed Grigory with obvious satisfaction, though he was really answering Fyodor Pavlovitch’s questions, and was well aware of it, and intentionally pretending that Grigory had asked the questions.

“Ivan,” cried Fyodor Pavlovitch suddenly, “stoop down for me to whisper. He’s got this all up for your benefit. He wants you to praise him. Praise him.”

Ivan listened with perfect seriousness to his father’s excited whisper.

“Stay, Smerdyakov, be quiet a minute,” cried Fyodor Pavlovitch once more. “Ivan, your ear again.”

Ivan bent down again with a perfectly grave face.

“I love you as I do Alyosha. Don’t think I don’t love you. Some brandy?”

“Yes. — But you’re rather drunk yourself,” thought Ivan, looking steadily at his father.

He was watching Smerdyakov with great curiosity.

“You’re anathema accursed, as it is, Grigory suddenly burst out, “and how dare you argue, you rascal, after that, if — ”

“Don’t scold him, Grigory, don’t scold him,” Fyodor Pavlovitch cut him short.

“You should wait, Grigory Vassilyevitch, if only a short time, and listen, for I haven’t finished all I had to say. For at the very moment I become accursed, at that same highest moment, I become exactly like a heathen, and my christening is taken off me and becomes of no avail. Isn’t that so?”

“Make haste and finish, my boy,” Fyodor Pavlovitch urged him, sipping from his wineglass with relish.

“And if I’ve ceased to be a Christian, then I told no lie to the enemy when they asked whether I was a Christian or not a Christian, seeing I had already been relieved by God Himself of my Christianity by reason of the thought alone, before I had time to utter a word to the enemy. And if I have already been discharged, in what manner and with what sort of justice can I be held responsible as a Christian in the other world for having denied Christ, when, through the very thought alone, before denying Him I had been relieved from my christening? If I’m no longer a Christian, then I can’t renounce Christ, for I’ve nothing then to renounce. Who will hold an unclean Tatar responsible, Grigory Vassilyevitch, even in heaven, for not having been born a Christian? And who would punish him for that, considering that you can’t take two skins off one ox? For God Almighty Himself, even if He did make the Tatar responsible, when he dies would give him the smallest possible punishment, I imagine (since he must be punished), judging that he is not to blame if he has come into the world an unclean heathen, from heathen parents. The Lord God can’t surely take a Tatar and say he was a Christian? That would mean that the Almighty would tell a real untruth. And can the Lord of Heaven and earth tell a lie, even in one word?”

Grigory was thunderstruck and looked at the orator, his eyes nearly starting out of his head. Though he did not clearly understand what was said, he had caught something in this rigmarole, and stood, looking like a man who has just hit his head against a wall. Fyodor Pavlovitch emptied his glass and went off into his shrill laugh.

“Alyosha! Alyosha! What do you say to that! Ah, you casuist! He must have been with the Jesuits, somewhere, Ivan. Oh, you stinking Jesuit,who taught you? But you’re talking nonsense, you casuist, nonsense, nonsense, nonsense. Don’t cry, Grigory, we’ll reduce him to smoke and ashes in a moment. Tell me this, O ass; you may be right before your enemies, but you have renounced your faith all the same in your own heart, and you say yourself that in that very hour you became anathema accursed. And if once you’re anathema they won’t pat you on the head for it in hell. What do you say to that, my fine Jesuit?”

“There is no doubt that I have renounced it in my own heart, but there no special sin in that. Or if there was sin, it was the most ordinary.”

“How’s that the most ordinary?”

“You lie, accursed one!” hissed Grigory.

“Consider yourself, Grigory Vassilyevitch,” Smerdyakov went on, staid and unruffled, conscious of his triumph, but, as it were, generous to the vanquished foe. “Consider yourself, Grigory Vassilyevitch; it is said in the Scripture that if you have faith, even as a mustard seed, and bid a mountain move into the sea, it will move without the least delay at your bidding. Well, Grigory Vassilyevitch, if I’m without faith and you have so great a faith that you are continually swearing at me, you try yourself telling this mountain, not to move into the sea for that’s a long way off, but even to our stinking little river which runs at the bottom of the garden. You’ll see for yourself that it won’t budge, but will remain just where it is however much you shout at it, and that shows, Grigory Vassilyevitch, that you haven’t faith in the proper manner, and only abuse others about it. Again, taking into consideration that no one in our day, not only you, but actually no one, from the highest person to the lowest peasant, can shove mountains into the sea — except perhaps some one man in the world, or, at most, two, and they most likely are saving their souls in secret somewhere in the Egyptian desert, so you wouldn’t find them — if so it be, if all the rest have no faith, will God curse all the rest? that is, the population of the whole earth, except about two hermits in the desert, and in His well-known mercy will He not forgive one of them? And so I’m persuaded that though I may once have doubted I shall be forgiven if I shed tears of repentance.”

“Stay!” cried Fyodor Pavlovitch, in a transport of delight. “So you do suppose there are two who can move mountains? Ivan, make a note of it, write it down. There you have the Russian all over!”

“You’re quite right in saying it’s characteristic of the people’s faith,” Ivan assented, with an approving smile.

“You agree. Then it must be so, if you agree. It’s true, isn’t it Alyosha? That’s the Russian faith all over, isn’t it?”

“No, Smerdyakov has not the Russian faith at all,” said Alyosha firmly and gravely.

“I’m not talking about his faith. I mean those two in the desert, only that idea. Surely that’s Russian, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s purely Russian,” said Alyosha smiling.

“Your words are worth a gold piece, O ass, and I’ll give it to you to-day. But as to the rest you talk nonsense, nonsense, nonsense. Let me tell you, stupid, that we here are all of little faith, only from carelessness, because we haven’t time; things are too much for us, and, in the second place, the Lord God has given us so little time, only twenty-four hours in the day, so that one hasn’t even time to get sleep enough, much less to repent of one’s sins. While you have denied your faith to your enemies when you’d nothing else to think about but to show your faith! So I consider, brother, that it constitutes a sin.”

“Constitute a sin it may, but consider yourself, Grigory Vassilyevitch, that it only extenuates it, if it does constitute. If I had believed then in very truth, as I ought to have believed, then it really would have been sinful if I had not faced tortures for my faith, and had gone over to the pagan Mohammedan faith. But, of course, it wouldn’t have come to torture then, because I should only have had to say at that instant to the mountain, ‘Move and crush the tormentor,’ and it would have moved and at the very instant have crushed him like a black-beetle, and I should have walked away as though nothing had happened, praising and glorifying God. But, suppose at that very moment I had tried all that, and cried to that mountain, ‘Crush these tormentors,’ and it hadn’t crushed them, how could I have helped doubting, pray, at such a time, and at such a dread hour of mortal terror? And apart from that, I should know already that I could not attain to the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven (for since the mountain had not moved at my word, they could not think very much of my faith up aloft, and there could be no very great reward awaiting me in the world to come). So why should I let them flay the skin off me as well, and to no good purpose? For, even though they had flayed my skin half off my back, even then the mountain would not have moved at my word or at my cry. And at such a moment not only doubt might come over one but one might lose one’s reason from fear, so that one would not be able to think at all. And, therefore, how should I be particularly to blame if not seeing my advantage or reward there or here, I should, at least, save my skin. And so trusting fully in the grace of the Lord I should cherish the hope that I might be altogether forgiven.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:49