The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 2

The Old Buffoon

THEY entered the room almost at the same moment that the elder came in from his bedroom. There were already in the cell, awaiting the elder, two monks of the hermitage, one the Father Librarian, and the other Father Paissy, a very learned man, so they said, in delicate health, though not old. There was also a tall young man, who looked about two and twenty, standing in the corner throughout the interview. He had a broad, fresh face, and clever, observant, narrow brown eyes, and was wearing ordinary dress. He was a divinity student, living under the protection of the monastery. His expression was one of unquestioning, but self-respecting, reverence. Being in a subordinate and dependent position, and so not on an equality with the guests, he did not greet them with a bow.

Father Zossima was accompanied by a novice, and by Alyosha. The two monks rose and greeted him with a very deep bow, touching the ground with their fingers; then kissed his hand. Blessing them, the elder replied with as deep a reverence to them, and asked their blessing. The whole ceremony was performed very seriously and with an appearance of feeling, not like an everyday rite. But Miusov fancied that it was all done with intentional impressiveness. He stood in front of the other visitors. He ought — he had reflected upon it the evening before — from simple politeness, since it was the custom here, to have gone up to receive the elder’s blessing, even if he did not kiss his hand. But when he saw all this bowing and kissing on the part of the monks he instantly changed his mind. With dignified gravity he made a rather deep, conventional bow, and moved away to a chair. Fyodor Pavlovitch did the same, mimicking Miusov like an ape. Ivan bowed with great dignity and courtesy, but he too kept his hands at his sides, while Kalganov was so confused that he did not bow at all. The elder let fall the hand raised to bless them, and bowing to them again, asked them all to sit down. The blood rushed to Alyosha’s cheeks. He was ashamed. His forebodings were coming true.

Father Zossima sat down on a very old-fashioned mahogany sofa, covered with leather, and made his visitors sit down in a row along the opposite wall on four mahogany chairs, covered with shabby black leather. The monks sat, one at the door and the other at the window. The divinity student, the novice, and Alyosha remained standing. The cell was not very large and had a faded look. It contained nothing but the most necessary furniture, of coarse and poor quality. There were two pots of flowers in the window, and a number of holy pictures in the corner. Before one huge ancient ikon of the virgin a lamp was burning. Near it were two other holy pictures in shining settings, and, next them, carved cherubim, china eggs, a Catholic cross of ivory, with a Mater Dolorosa embracing it, and several foreign engravings from the great Italian artists of past centuries. Next to these costly and artistic engravings were several of the roughest Russian prints of saints and martyrs, such as are sold for a few farthings at all the fairs. On the other walls were portraits of Russian bishops, past and present.

Miusov took a cursory glance at all these “conventional” surroundings and bent an intent look upon the elder. He had a high opinion of his own insight a weakness excusable in him as he was fifty, an age at which a clever man of the world of established position can hardly help taking himself rather seriously. At the first moment he did not like Zossima. There was, indeed, something in the elder’s face which many people besides Miusov might not have liked. He was a short, bent, little man, with very weak legs, and though he was only sixty-five, he looked at least ten years older. His face was very thin and covered with a network of fine wrinkles, particularly numerous about his eyes, which were small, light-coloured, quick, and shining like two bright points. He had a sprinkling of grey hair about his temples. His pointed beard was small and scanty, and his lips, which smiled frequently, were as thin as two threads. His nose was not long, but sharp, like a bird’s beak.

“To all appearances a malicious soul, full of petty pride,” thought Miusov. He felt altogether dissatisfied with his position.

A cheap little clock on the wall struck twelve hurriedly, and served to begin the conversation.

“Precisely to our time,” cried Fyodor Pavlovitch, “but no sign of my son, Dmitri. I apologise for him, sacred elder!” (Alyosha shuddered all over at “sacred elder”.) “I am always punctual myself, minute for minute, remembering that punctuality is the courtesy of kings. . . .

“But you are not a king, anyway,” Miusov muttered, losing his self-restraint at once.

“Yes; that’s true. I’m not a king, and, would you believe it, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, I was aware of that myself. But, there! I always say the wrong thing. Your reverence,” he cried, with sudden pathos, “you behold before you a buffoon in earnest! I introduce myself as such. It’s an old habit, alas! And if I sometimes talk nonsense out of place it’s with an object, with the object of amusing people and making myself agreeable. One must be agreeable, mustn’t one? I was seven years ago in a little town where I had business, and I made friends with some merchants there. We went to the captain of police because we had to see him about something, and to ask him to dine with us. He was a tall, fat, fair, sulky man, the most dangerous type in such cases. It’s their liver. I went straight up to him, and with the ease of a man of the world, you know, ‘Mr. Ispravnik,’ said I, ‘be our Napravnik.’ ‘What do you mean by Napravnik?’ said he. I saw, at the first half-second, that it had missed fire. He stood there so glum. ‘I wanted to make a joke,’ said I, ‘for the general diversion, as Mr. Napravnik is our well-known Russian orchestra conductor and what we need for the harmony of our undertaking is someone of that sort.’ And I explained my comparison very reasonably, didn’t I? ‘Excuse me,’ said he, ‘I am an Ispravnik, and I do not allow puns to be made on my calling.’ He turned and walked away. I followed him, shouting, ‘Yes, yes, you are an Ispravnik, not a Napravnik.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘since you called me a Napravnik I am one.’ And would you believe it, it ruined our business! And I’m always like that, always like that. Always injuring myself with my politeness. Once, many years ago, I said to an influential person: ‘Your wife is a ticklish lady,’ in an honourable sense, of the moral qualities, so to speak. But he asked me, ‘Why, have you tickled her?’ I thought I’d be polite, so I couldn’t help saying, ‘Yes,’ and he gave me a fine tickling on the spot. Only that happened long ago, so I’m not ashamed to tell the story. I’m always injuring myself like that.”

“You’re doing it now,” muttered Miusov, with disgust.

Father Zossima scrutinised them both in silence.

“Am I? Would you believe it, I was aware of that, too, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, and let tell you, indeed, I foresaw I should as soon as I began to speak. And do you know I foresaw, too, that you’d be the first to remark on it. The minute I see my joke isn’t coming off, your reverence, both my cheeks feel as though they were drawn down to the lower jaw and there is almost a spasm in them. That’s been so since I was young, when I had to make jokes for my living in noblemen’s families. I am an inveterate buffoon, and have been from birth up, your reverence, it’s as though it were a craze in me. I dare say it’s a devil within me. But only a little one. A more serious one would have chosen another lodging. But not your soul, Pyotr Alexandrovitch; you’re not a lodging worth having either. But I do believe — I believe in God, though I have had doubts of late. But now I sit and await words of wisdom. I’m like the philosopher, Diderot, your reverence. Did you ever hear, most Holy Father, how Diderot went to see the Metropolitan Platon, in the time of the Empress Catherine? He went in and said straight out, ‘There is no God.’ To which the great bishop lifted up his finger and answered, ‘The fool has said in his heart there is no God and he fell down at his feet on the spot. ‘I believe,’ he cried, ‘and will be christened.’ And so he was. Princess Dashkov was his godmother, and Potyomkin his godfather.”

“Fyodor Pavlovitch, this is unbearable! You know you’re telling lies and that that stupid anecdote isn’t true. Why are you playing the fool?” cried Miusov in a shaking voice.

“I suspected all my life that it wasn’t true,” Fyodor Pavlovitch cried with conviction. “But I’ll tell you the whole truth, gentlemen. Great elder! Forgive me, the last thing about Diderot’s christening I made up just now. I never thought of it before. I made it up to add piquancy. I play the fool, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, to make myself agreeable. Though I really don’t know myself, sometimes, what I do it for. And as for Diderot, I heard as far as ‘the fool hath said in his heart’ twenty times from the gentry about here when I was young. I heard your aunt, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, tell the story. They all believe to this day that the infidel Diderot came to dispute about God with the Metropolitan Platon. . . . ”

Miusov got up, forgetting himself in his impatience. He was furious, and conscious of being ridiculous.

What was taking place in the cell was really incredible. For forty or fifty years past, from the times of former elders, no visitors had entered that cell without feelings of the profoundest veneration. Almost everyone admitted to the cell felt that a great favour was being shown him. Many remained kneeling during the whole visit. Of those visitors, many had been men of high rank and learning, some even free thinkers, attracted by curiosity, but all without exception had shown the profoundest reverence and delicacy, for here there was no question of money, but only, on the one side love and kindness, and on the other penitence and eager desire to decide some spiritual problem or crisis. So that such buffoonery amazed and bewildered the spectators, or at least some of them. The monks, with unchanged countenances, waited, with earnest attention, to hear what the elder would say, but seemed on the point of standing up, like Miusov. Alyosha stood, with hanging head, on the verge of tears. What seemed to him strangest of all was that his brother Ivan, on whom alone he had rested his hopes, and who alone had such influence on his father that he could have stopped him, sat now quite unmoved, with downcast eyes, apparently waiting with interest to see how it would end, as though he had nothing to do with it. Alyosha did not dare to look at Rakitin, the divinity student, whom he knew almost intimately. He alone in the monastery knew Rakitin’s thoughts.

“Forgive me,” began Miusov, addressing Father Zossima, “for perhaps I seem to be taking part in this shameful foolery. I made a mistake in believing that even a man like Fyodor Pavlovitch would understand what was due on a visit to so honoured a personage. I did not suppose I should have to apologise simply for having come with him. . . . ”

Pyotr Alexandrovitch could say no more, and was about to leave the room, overwhelmed with confusion.

“Don’t distress yourself, I beg.” The elder got on to his feeble legs, and taking Pyotr Alexandrovitch by both hands, made him sit down again. “I beg you not to disturb yourself. I particularly beg you to be my guest.” And with a bow he went back and sat down again on his little sofa.

“Great elder, speak! Do I annoy you by my vivacity?” Fyodor Pavlovitch cried suddenly, clutching the arms of his chair in both hands, as though ready to leap up from it if the answer were unfavourable.

“I earnestly beg you, too, not to disturb yourself, and not to be uneasy,” the elder said impressively. “Do not trouble. Make yourself quite at home. And, above all, do not be so ashamed of yourself, for that is at the root of it all.”

“Quite at home? To be my natural self? Oh, that is much too much, but I accept it with grateful joy. Do you know, blessed father, you’d better not invite me to be my natural self. Don’t risk it. . . . I will not go so far as that myself. I warn you for your own sake. Well, the rest is still plunged in the mists of uncertainty, though there are people who’d be pleased to describe me for you. I mean that for you, Pyotr Alexandrovitch. But as for you, holy being, let me tell you, I am brimming over with ecstasy.”

He got up, and throwing up his hands, declaimed, “Blessed be the womb that bare thee, and the paps that gave thee suck — the paps especially. When you said just now, ‘Don’t be so ashamed of yourself, for that is at the root of it all,’ you pierced right through me by that remark, and read me to the core. Indeed, I always feel when I meet people that I am lower than all, and that they all take me for a buffoon. So I say, ‘Let me really play the buffoon. I am not afraid of your opinion, for you are every one of you worse than I am.’ That is why I am a buffoon. It is from shame, great elder, from shame; it’s simply over-sensitiveness that makes me rowdy. If I had only been sure that everyone would accept me as the kindest and wisest of men, oh, Lord, what a good man I should have been then! Teacher!” he fell suddenly on his knees, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

It was difficult even now to decide whether he was joking or really moved.

Father Zossima, lifting his eyes, looked at him, and said with a smile:

“You have known for a long time what you must do. You have sense enough: don’t give way to drunkenness and incontinence of speech; don’t give way to sensual lust; and, above all, to the love of money. And close your taverns. If you can’t close all, at least two or three. And, above all — don’t lie.”

“You mean about Diderot?”

“No, not about Diderot. Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offence, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill — he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offence, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness. But get up, sit down, I beg you. All this, too, is deceitful posturing. . . . ”

“Blessed man! Give me your hand to kiss.”

Fyodor Pavlovitch skipped up, and imprinted a rapid kiss on the elder’s thin hand. “It is, it is pleasant to take offence. You said that so well, as I never heard it before. Yes, I have been all my life taking offence, to please myself, taking offence on aesthetic grounds, for it is not so much pleasant as distinguished sometimes to be insulted — that you had forgotten, great elder, it is distinguished! I shall make a note of that. But I have been lying, lying positively my whole life long, every day and hour of it. Of a truth, I am a lie, and the father of lies. Though I believe I am not the father of lies. I am getting mixed in my texts. Say, the son of lies, and that will be enough. Only . . . my angel . . . may sometimes talk about Diderot! Diderot will do no harm, though sometimes a word will do harm. Great elder, by the way, I was forgetting, though I had been meaning for the last two years to come here on purpose to ask and to find out something. Only do tell Pyotr Alexandrovitch not to interrupt me. Here is my question: Is it true, great Father, that the story is told somewhere in the Lives of the Saints of a holy saint martyred for his faith who, when his head was cut off at last, stood up, picked up his head, and, ‘courteously kissing it,’ walked a long way, carrying it in his hands. Is that true or not, honoured Father?”

“No, it is untrue,” said the elder.

“There is nothing of the kind in all the lives of the saints. What saint do you say the story is told of?” asked the Father Librarian.

“I do not know what saint. I do not know, and can’t tell. I was deceived. I was told the story. I had heard it, and do you know who told it? Pyotr Alexandrovitch Miusov here, was so angry just now about Diderot. He it was who told the story.”

“I have never told it you, I never speak to you at all.”

“It is true you did not tell me, but you told it when I was present. It was three years ago. I mentioned it because by that ridiculous story you shook my faith, Pyotr Alexandrovitch. You knew nothing of it, but I went home with my faith shaken, and I have been getting more and more shaken ever since. Yes, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, you were the cause of a great fall. That was not a Diderot!

Fyodor Pavlovitch got excited and pathetic, though it was perfectly clear to everyone by now that he was playing a part again. Yet Miusov was stung by his words.

“What nonsense, and it is all nonsense,” he muttered. “I may really have told it, some time or other . . . but not to you. I was told it myself. I heard it in Paris from a Frenchman. He told me it was read at our mass from the Lives of the Saints . . . he was a very learned man who had made a special study of Russian statistics and had lived a long time in Russia. . . . I have not read the Lives of the Saints myself, and I am not going to read them . . . all sorts of things are said at dinner — we were dining then.”

“Yes, you were dining then, and so I lost my faith!” said Fyodor Pavlovitch, mimicking him.

“What do I care for your faith?” Miusov was on the point of shouting, but he suddenly checked himself, and said with contempt, “You defile everything you touch.”

The elder suddenly rose from his seat. “Excuse me, gentlemen, for leaving you a few minutes,” he said, addressing all his guests. “I have visitors awaiting me who arrived before you. But don’t you tell lies all the same,” he added, turning to Fyodor Pavlovitch with a good-humoured face. He went out of the cell. Alyosha and the novice flew to escort him down the steps. Alyosha was breathless: he was glad to get away, but he was glad, too, that the elder was good-humoured and not offended. Father Zossima was going towards the portico to bless the people waiting for him there. But Fyodor Pavlovitch persisted, in stopping him at the door of the cell.

“Blessed man!” he cried, with feeling. “Allow me to kiss your hand once more. Yes, with you I could still talk, I could still get on. Do you think I always lie and play the fool like this? Believe me, I have been acting like this all the time on purpose to try you. I have been testing you all the time to see whether I could get on with you. Is there room for my humility beside your pride? I am ready to give you a testimonial that one can get on with you! But now, I’ll be quiet; I will keep quiet all the time. I’ll sit in a chair and hold my tongue. Now it is for you to speak, Pyotr Alexandrovitch. You are the principal person left now — for ten minutes.”

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