Love Note – Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov

AKA men who look at the stars

Last Thursday, I went to see the touring production of Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. In a signature Elizabeth Harper move, I bawled my eyes out pretty consistently throughout the entire production [SPOILER ALERT]: during ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, when Gavroche was shot, when Éponine was shot, when Enjolras was shot, when Marius sings ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ and, finally, during Jean Val Jean’s death with the lyric ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’. I’m not a Christian, but I just think that is the most beautiful idea: there is something spiritually transcendental about loving another human being from your very core.

Turning into a weeping willow aside, I enjoyed Les Misérables because I got to see one of my favourite characters being performed in the flesh: Inspector Javert, who sings ‘Stars’, my favourite song in the musical.[1] Javert reminds me of another of my favourite male characters, who I like for very different reasons but, incidentally, also has a beautiful and interesting relationship with the stars. I am going to offer a short and snappy comparison between Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

On a very basic level, I want to sit Javert down and tell him that everything is going to be OK and that he just needs to ease up on life. For those who are not familiar with the story, Javert is born in jail to parents embroiled in poverty and crime and raises himself in life through his dedication to the law and authority. He becomes obsessed with Jean Valjean, who, in Javert’s singularly black and white worldview, is a thief and an inherently ‘bad’ person. Javert looks to the stars as his guiding lights of order and control within the chaos of revolutionary France, and of his own personal history:

‘Stars

In your multitudes

Scarce to be counted

Filling the darkness

With order and light

You are the sentinels

Silent and sure

Keeping watch in the night

Keeping watch in the night

 

You know your place in the sky

You hold your course and your aim

And each in your season

Returns and returns

And is always the same

And if you fall as Lucifer fell

You fall in flame!’[2]

Click here for Philip Quast’s rendition of the song: 

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He sees stars as pinpricks of certainty, surrounded by a dark, unknowable vastness. He is invested in certainty, predictability, of a specific and very dichotomous construction of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. He perceives Jean Valjean as Lucifer: a rebel, a traitor, and someone who must be brought to justice. In his search, he is unrelenting, and has no room for mercy or any sense of moral ambiguity. I find Javert so endearing and interesting because he believes completely and utterly that order and control are what keep himself and the world a safe and just place. As a character, I think he speaks to anyone who, at one point or another, has believed that ‘being good’ has in some way protected them from the storminess of life and the people within it. Certainty, however, is an illusion. It is his inability to accept that life is impermanent, fluid and precisely uncertain that leads to his loss of faith: in, what is for Javert, an unprecedented act, Jean Valjean spares his life, thereby undercutting the embodiment of ‘badness’ that Javert has spent decades projecting onto him. It leads to Javert in turn sparing Jean Valjean’s life, which he cannot fathom, he cannot reconcile with:

 

‘I am reaching but I fall,

And the stars are black and cold,

As I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold.

I’ll escape now from that world;

From the world of Jean Valjean.

There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!’[3]

 

The world of Jean Valjean is a world of disorder and chaos that overwhelms Javert. He feels abandoned by the stars, consumed by the darkness that he has kept at bay all throughout his life by being so devoted to a very literal interpretation of law and order, good and bad. This, eventually, leads him to take his own life. Interestingly, he does this by throwing himself into the running waters of the Seine, the river being a stark embodiment of the fluidity and tumult that Javert could not accept.

Alyosha Karamazov, on the other hand, rediscovers his faith and love for all of humanity through looking at the stars. His spiritual guide and mentor, the Elder Zosima, dies midway through the novel. His corpse begins to rot, which sends shockwaves throughout the monastery: the superstition is that a truly holy man’s corpse would not rot, but would instead stay pristine and intact. Young and still slightly naïve, Alyosha is swayed by the mutterings of his fellow monks, and begins to doubt the spiritual integrity of the Elder Zosima. Throughout the novel, Alyosha is presented as a character whose goodness, his joy and his desire to help the flailing and chaotic people around him are all expressed through his face. If you’re interested, this essay (‘The Faces of the Brothers Karamazov) is a brilliant summary of the various faces within the novel. One of Alyosha’s faces that the writer of this essay doesn’t mention, however, is Alyosha’s face after the rotting of the Elder Zosima’s corpse. Where his face is closely related to beauty and youth before this point, it changes, at what the narrator refers to as a ‘critical moment’:

‘Alyosha suddenly gave a twisted smile, raised his eyes strangely, very strangely, to [Father Paissy] the one to whom, at his death, his former guide, the former master of his heart and mind, his beloved elder, had entrusted him, and suddenly, still without answering, waved his hand as if he cared nothing even about respect, and with quick steps walked towards the gates of the hermitage’.[4]

In this moment of doubt, which is confirmed as such in the next chapter by the narrator, Alyosha’s normally bright and entreating face becomes different, almost cynical and manic. To see someone described as almost angelic become ‘strange’ signifies an unnerving change in the character. In a novel where much of the action involves the men of the Karamazov family passionately rushing about with Alyosha in their wake trying to tie up all the loose ends, here we see Alyosha himself caught in a storm. This is further emphasised by the uncomfortably long sentence, broken apart by commas, almost as if the words are panted with the effort of hurrying.

Yet, it is the stars that help Alyosha to re-discover his faith, hope and love for life and all of humanity. The following is one of my favourite pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Gear up, it’s a long one:

‘Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars… Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears…,” rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang again in his soul. But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul. Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind-now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say afterwards, with firm belief in his words…’[5]

 

Where Javert lost his faith in order and the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the stars for him turning into a great void of chaos and confusion, in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha is humbled and overcome by the joy of life because of the stars. Under the celestial wonder of the Milky Way, Alyosha comes to understand and appreciate the depth and beauty at work in every human being. Whilst Javert is consumed by the abyss, Alyosha cries with joy, ‘even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss’. Furthermore, where Javert throws himself into the waters of the Seine, Alyosha accepts the uncertainty and ecstasy of a life of difference and love, and throws himself to the floor, finding himself on solid ground. It is this paradoxical acceptance of uncertainty, chaos and tumult that helps Alyosha to find a sense of stability, and of his place in the world. Ultimately, and again unlike Javert in the most tragic sense, Alyosha’s reconciliation with mystery and ambiguity leads him to a place of forgiveness and gratitude. It brings him to love himself and all of mankind, no matter what has been done or whatever will be done. It is a moment of irreverence, peace and boundless love, steeped in the wonder of living life hopefully. In short, a piece of writing everyone would do well to keep in mind.

These men remind us that in looking at the stars we have a choice about how we perceive ourselves, our place in the world and, indeed, the universe. Javert’s story is poignant in its tragedy; Alyosha’s for its eruption of joy. Carl Sagan said that ‘we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself’: these two beautifully crafted characters, in their relationship to the stars above them, provide two compelling and very moving blueprints. In the musical and in the novel, we see them play out the archetypal human experience of living with uncertainty and mystery in their own very different but no less endearing ways.

 

 

[1] My assessment of this character has purely come from the way in which he is portrayed in the musical version of the novel (I will get round to reading it at some point) but considering how well-loved and culturally important the musical is, I think that is enough.

 

[2] ‘Stars’, Les Misérables, Claude Michel Schonberg / Alain Albert Boublil / Herbert Kretzmer

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky transl. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear (London: Vintage Books, 2004), p.337.

[5] Ibid., p.362-3.

First response: ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and religion

I read The Brothers Karamzov over a seven month period, from November 2016 to June 2017. Sigmund Freud described the novel as ‘the most magnificent novel ever written’, which is hardly an overstatement.  Unfortunately, it also renders it extremely difficult to condense into such a small space what makes this novel so brilliant. I am not going to attempt to give a full academic reading of it or compose a coherent overarching argument here; even in the months that have passed since finishing it, I am still overwhelmed and disorientated by the scope and volume of potentially interesting areas to pin down and explore: from the characters and their psychological shifts and traumas; the various plots; and its tragicomic abyssal relationship with time as the novel sceptically celebrates old Russia whilst also sceptically acknowledging its own inherent and deeply restless modernity. Mikhail Bakhtin referenced Dostoevsky as the writer of the ‘polyphonic novel’; whilst I have not yet read all of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre, this is the noisiest book I have ever read and I am still piecing together the various fragments that stood out to me during this reading.

I want to share some thoughts about moments in The Brothers Karamazov that were particularly arresting and interesting. I will begin with some thoughts on religion in the novel, and in particular the movement downwards that I observed in the Elder Zosima and subsequently Alyosha. John Donne also made his way into this piece for comparative purposes after an insightful conversation with my wonderful friend and early modernist, Annie Dickinson. Whilst the speaker of Donne’s Sonnet 14 from the Divine Meditations does not throw himself physically downwards, there is a metaphysical topographical movement downwards as he calls for the disintegration of his multiple and fragmented self. In both texts, this passionate movement downwards, whilst motivated in part by religion, is an act that I argue can provide inspiration and insight beyond religion’s dogmatic trappings.

One of the most important spaces in The Brothers Karamazov is the monastery where Alyosha lives and works as a novice before being sent off into the world by the Elder Zosima. It is one of the first settings the novel introduces us to as Alyosha sits with his father Fyodor, his brother Ivan, the Elder Zosima and a collection of other monks and family acquaintances who want to observe the settlement of the inheritance dispute between Fyodor and his eldest son Dmitri, who is running late. Over the course of the novel’s earliest stages, Alyosha spends a lot of time running backwards and forwards around the town, which in part constructs the unsettling restlessness of the novel, but always returns to the monastery; it is like a fixed point of safety for him from the sensual, emotionally hyperactive and jealous aggression that consumes the Karamazov family.

Whilst the Russian Orthodox Church is discussed and played with at length at various points throughout the novel (Fyodor Karamazov mocking the monks in the monastery;  the  soap operas of various pilgrims who believe in and visit Elders; Ivan Karamazov mocking Alyosha by telling him to eat fish soup; the Elder Zosima’s corpse beginning to rot thereby inciting denouncement from the fickle mystical monks at the monastery etc.), the moment that chimed most powerfully with me throughout all of these episodes was during the digression into the Elder Zosima’s history and personal doctrine. The novel’s third person speaker warns us that the homilies are jotted down by Alyosha during Zosima’s final hours and so are full of potentially unreliable information; indeed Alyosha is said to have expanded upon and added his own memories and philosophies to the homilies. In spite of this, however, what is described is an incredibly moving section that uses the doctrine of Russian Orthodox Christianity as its bedrock, but is a call for affiliation that goes beyond the confines of religion alone. This means that even for someone who is not a strict religious, God-believing Christian, Zosima’s language and ideas can bring connection and revelation.

There are a number of moments that I would like to draw on in particular. Primarily, the act Zosima talks about and performs a number of times:

                ‘Love to throw yourself down on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it, tirelessly, insatiably, love all men, love all things, seek this rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears’.[1]

  The first observation I made with this is Zosima’s insistence on moving down towards the Earth and kissing it. It is an action that appears at other times in the novel; notably when Zosima bows down to supplicate his servant Afansy whom he wronged when he was young (p.298) and when Alyosha, in Zosima’s stead, beholds the Milky Way and bows down to kiss the Earth in his rapture (p.362). Whilst institutional Christianity has always favoured an upward motion, with arches, high ceilings and spires all dominating Christian architecture, it may seem odd that Zosima chooses to move in the opposite direction. The movement downwards is perhaps a nod to Russian folk culture, which privileges a relationship to the Earth and, in so doing, the communal relationship that exists between human beings. This is something discussed by Russian critic Bakhtin with regard to carnival-esque folk life in Rabelais and His World:

                ‘To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into a void of non-existence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth take place. Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and womb. It is always conceiving’.[2]

Bakhtin argues that a movement downwards metaphysically privileges the areas of the body that are considered ‘grotesque’ compared to the superior, divine rational capabilities of the thinking head. Yet, he argues, these lowly, oftentimes bawdy organs, depicted as engorged in carnival-esque texts, for example in Gargantua and Pantagruel  and The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Bruegel  the Elder, or emphasised in the squatting choreography of traditional Slavic folk dances, are the most important part of the body’s sexual, reproductive capability. This is because a movement downwards, a movement towards the Earth, also indicates a movement towards rejuvenation and the bringing forth of all life.

Zosima’s aforementioned feverish appeal to his followers appears similarly engaged in this joyful embracing of all of Earth’s grotesquely born life. ‘Love’, ‘all’ and ‘kiss’ are repeated, followed by a quick succession of adverbs, verbs and adjectives that are familiarly sibilant, like ‘tirelessly’, ‘insatiably’, ‘seek’ and ‘ecstasy’. The overall effect is a panted, sexual, frantic and joyful admonition for human beings to take care of one another and revel in the wonder of life. As Bakhtin refers to ‘the fruitful earth and warm’, Zosima encourages his followers to ‘water the earth’, so as to bring forth the fruit. It is a collective, positive, hopeful vision for human beings that brims with excitement. Zosima encourages followers like Alyosha to show selflessness in their love for one another and the Earth, making use of the body’s movement downwards and the emission of emotional bodily fluids in their worship and in the display of that love. The traditional Biblical command to ‘love thy neighbour’ seems so stale and uninspiring in comparison.

This passage reminded me of some of the religious poetry of John Donne that, whilst entreating unambiguously to a Christian God, conveys an energy and passion that is intriguing whether we believe in the God being addressed or not. More specifically, I would like to draw comparison with Sonnet 14 from Donne’s Divine Meditations, originally published in 1633. Donne wrote these devotional sonnets a couple of hundred years before Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamzov; however, there are similarities that can be observed in the almost pulsating sexual energy of the language used. The same frantic pace is present in Donne’s poem through the fast staccato rhythm that bursts forth from the very beginning:

                ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you

                As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

                That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

                Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new’.[3]

 The use of commas here to break up the quick successive actions of knocking, breathing, shining, rising, overthrowing, bending, breaking, blowing and burning, work in a similar way to the ones in Zosima’s passage; the commas create a quick rhythm that sounds equally panted and rapturous. Whilst Zosima uses sibilance to convey the sexual watering of the Earth with tears and love, the speaker in Donne builds the ideas to a noisy almost violent climax; a heavy ‘b’ opens the poem, paving the way for a crescendo  of ‘b’ sounds at the end of the fourth line to describe personal annihilation at the hands of God. The sound reflects the power and force behind this destruction, but also the speaker’s yearning and desirous anticipation of them. This employment of commas throughout all of the lines continues throughout the rest of the sonnet and culminates in the following lines:

                ‘Take me to you, imprison me, for I

                Except you enthral me, never shall be free,

                Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me’.[4]

A quick succession of ideas, separated by commas, brings the poem to an end, with the speaker’s desire to be ‘ravished’ by God. ‘Ravish’ has a twofold meaning here: it suggests an almost violent sexual experience: ‘ravished’ in the Oxford English Dictionary reads both, ‘to drag off or carry away (a woman) by force or with violence (occasionally also implying subsequent rape)’, and, ‘to transport (a person, the mind, etc.) with the strength of some emotion; to fill with ecstasy, intense delight, or sensuous pleasure; to entrance, captivate, or enrapture’.[5] The speaker is in a traditionally feminised position, to be sexually overwhelmed and overpowered here; the significant difference being that he consents and desires force to be exerted on him. Additionally, the adjectives used to describe ‘ravished’ in the OED could all be employed to describe the emotional outpouring of Donne’s speaker, whose fast-paced, broken language echoes the rapture and sexual ecstasy at the prospect of being overcome by God.  The emotion of the speaker rises to an almost fury through the pace and final idea of ravishment. It suggests that engaging with God and the Christian faith on such an intimate and personal level can be euphoric and exciting.

Furthermore, what is significant in both Zosima’s speech and in Donne’s Sonnet 14 is that the rapturous construction of the language points more specifically to each speakers’ desire to have their subjectivity removed or disintegrated. It is, in effect, a movement downwards. Whilst Zosima physically throws himself to the ground in his selfless love and devotion to the world and the people in it, and entreats others to do the same, Donne’s speaker wants to be broken down, reduced and disintegrated by God’s influence. This is because he recognises that without God’s divine influence, his constructed sense of self is impossibly fractured. This is evident in the aforementioned quotation when he declares ‘for I except you enthral me’. There is a separation between the speaker’s ‘I’ and ‘me’ and he suggests that although God enthrals and empowers him, he is also enthralled and empowered by himself. This is not something he wants to continue, instead he wants his split self to broken down into one God-ful singularity. This is hinted at earlier on in the poem:

                ‘I, like an usurped town, to another due,

                Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,

Reason your viceroy within me, me should defend,

                But is captive, and prove weak and untrue’[6]

Here, again, we see that the speaker sees his self as split and confused; the comparison made is with a town being overtaken and supplanted by those who are external or rivals in some capacity. In a similar vein, Donne’s speaker sees his subjecthood as split and confused, which makes it difficult for him to fully admit God into his life.

Additionally, Donne’s speaker feels that his ability to reason and be reasonable is something given to him by God; however, he suggests that he is not currently governed by reason. There are two potential arguments for why this is the case, and both potential readings hinge on the ambiguous statement ‘me, me should defend’. Here, Donne creates a distinction between ‘me’ and ‘me’ through the comma that physically and rhythmically breaks them apart. He suggests both that God-given reason should defend ‘me’ from ‘me’, but also that ‘me’ should defend God-given reason from ‘me’. As a result, the line ‘but is captive, and prove weak and untrue’, refers to both reason and the speaker himself. This is because the tugging between the contrasting ‘me’ and ‘me’ leaves the speaker impotent and lacking reason, but also that reason within him is dimmed and unfulfilled. This seems to contrast with the way in which the speaker describes God as ‘three-personed’, perhaps giving reference to the holy trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. I, however, would argue that the speaker acknowledges that although God is split into three separate but entwined entities, this is impossible for himself. Multiplicity within his own self cannot be successful because the constant tugging between ‘me’, ‘me’, ‘I’ and ‘reason’ prevents him from living up to the standards that he believes God requires. For the speaker, I argue, the only way forward for his fractured self is to be broken down, disintegrated and then melded together in a singular new whole, something he anticipates with a sexual fervour.

The physical and metaphysical movement downwards discussed by Zosima and Donne’s speaker can be read as a supplicatory act, bowing down to the limitless power of a Christian God. I, however, would argue that moving downwards in this way is a passionate act of self-disintegration. They are not simply humbled by God: they are invigorated by their love for others and with their hope for self-improvement.  Whilst God has, inevitably, inspired these responses in Zosima and Donne’s speaker, the presentation of these emotional, excitable characters is such that the texts are not bogged down and laden heavy with Christian dogma. The sexual, desirous reverie conveyed in the brisk, energetic language suggests a bacchanal devotion to the idea of helping people, loving all and freely and looking beyond the trappings of ourselves to be of service to a greater idea or project. I think this extends beyond religion: there are many moments in The Brothers Karamazov where Zosima appears to subscribe to a form of both socialism and vegetarianism, which I want to discuss at length in future with the help of Gerard Manley Hopkins (another poet whose work provides inspiration and joy beyond the potentially  arbitrary boundaries of religion).  Because Dostoevsky and Donne present characters that are loud, emotional and conflicted that conceive beyond themselves, as opposed to characters that are strict, composed and self-righteous, they have written about religion in a way that does away with religious dogma, with heavy, performative language that reveals their ‘modern’ potential. These characters are enabled by their passion and their love, joyful in their disintegration and rich in the goodness of throwing themselves to the ground, whether physically or metaphysically. It is in this presentation of religion that I think both Dostoevsky and Donne can inspire those for whom Christianity may have no relevance.

 

[1] The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky transl. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 322.

[2] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World trans. Helene Iswolsky (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 21.

[3] ‘Sonnet 14’ lines 12-14, John Donne: The Complete English Poems ed. A. J. Smith (London: Penguin Books, 1996) p.314.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary

[6] Ibid lines 7-8.