These words belong to Dmitri Karamazov in Fyodor Dostoyevskyís
novel The Brothers Karamazov. We have been reading this book
for the greater part of the semester in Introduction to Ethics.
There is nothing quite like a novel by Dostoyevsky to quicken the
level of discussion in an undergraduate class, or any class for
that matter. If you have ever read Dostoyevsky, you will have a
difficult time being captivated by other modern literature as the
characters never reach the point of thinking beyond the level of
a child. The latest novels I have read, Plainsong, A Man
in Full, Angelaís Ashes, and The Shipping News,
read more like case studies than novels. The characters are never
to blame for their faults, given that they are from "dysfunctional"
families. The reader is subjected to pages of characters mistakenly
trying to find themselves in a meaningless world where nobody ever
rises beyond being a victim of circumstances. There is never a mention
of God or a soul, which severely limits self-reflection and the
pangs of conscience and renders the characters incapable of any
judgment beyond the level of strong sentiment. Unlike Dmitri you
will not find a character in these novels able to speak twelve sentences
from the depths of his soul.
Which is not to say that in Dostoyevskyís novel there arenít
characters from "dysfunctional families." His characters
are from broken families. Dostoyevsky would never call his families
"dysfunctional" because this word is a biological term,
denoting a disordered or impaired functioning of a bodily system
or organ, and the human being is beyond being an organ whose life
is determined by the larger system. To use a biological term denies
free will, reducing the individual to being a product of his environment
who simply reacts to circumstances. Such characters are not creatures
worthy of creation; they even fail at being pathetic characters
because they do not grow by their sufferings to overcome the victimization
of environment. They lack, in the common expression, "blood
and guts" and are so squeamish that such books read like newspapers,
never to be read twice.
Dostoyevskyís characters rise out of broken homes. They are
fallen creatures who are or are not involved in their own transformation
before God. Dmitriís father Fyodor, for example, has four children
by two wives and the rape of Stinking Lisaveta, the village idiot.
Fyodor is all a father should not be; he does not abandon his children
but simply forgets them in the back yard. If it were not for his
servant Grigory, his children would have starved to death. He is
a lecherous buffoon who proudly tells his grown sons, "I never
thought a woman ugly in my lifeóthatís my rule! Youíve milk in your
veins, not blood. Youíre not out of your shells yet. My rule has
been that you can always find something interesting in every woman
that you wouldnít find in any other." A few pages later he
tells Alyosha that the "wenches" wonít come to him in
his old age, so he is saving all his money for prostitutes, "For
sin is sweet. All abuse it but all men live in it. The only difference
is that others do it on the sly and I do it openly."
With this in mind, Dmitriís words at the beginning of this
essay are addressed to his nineteen-year-old brother Alyosha. Dmitri
tells Alyosha he is battling with two contrary ideas of woman, the
Madonna and the harlot, and the battlefield is in his heart. He
is not the author of the image of the Madonna, nor of the harlot;
these are not natural images of woman, though they appear in the
world. The world, Godís creation, is the battleground where God
and the Devil are fighting, and Dmitri recognizes the battle rages
within him in his desire for Beauty, set in the contrary images
of the sacred Madonna and the sensual harlot.
Dmitri, an ex-army officer, is twenty-four years old and currently
engaged to Katerina, his former commanderís daughter, but he is
presently captivated by the vamp Grushenka. Grushenka flirted with
Dmitri enough to fuel his lust to the pitch of a fever-heat and
then turned a cold shoulder his way. Dmitri, at the beginning of
the novel, is in the grips of a fury. To add fuel to the fire, Fyodor
Karamazov is also pursuing Grushenka ("whose figure suggests
the lines of Venus de Milo") and is willing to pay 3,000 rubles
for her attention. Katerina, who knows of Dmitriís passion for Grushenka,
swears she will always remain faithful to Dmitri. Grushenka, meanwhile,
is not interested in Dmitri, Fyodor, nor anyone in particular. Thus,
we have Katerinaís faithful love for Dmitri who in turn desires,
along with his father, Grushenka, who does not want either one of
Dmitri sees that no one is going to understand man unless
he realizes that "for the immense mass of mankind, beauty is
found in Sodom."
Look around! Dmitri states the obvious. The young woman exercising
on the stair-stepper next to me at the university gym this morning
knows what interests Dmitri. She did not come right out and say
it, but the title of the lead article on the magazine cover propped
on her exercise machine said it for her, "Want the Perfect
Body?" Can anyone say "no" to such an offer? I wanted
to point to the article and say, "I do," but, in these
times, when words are easily misunderstood, she might think I was
trying to work myself into that shape. I am years beyond wanting
to have a perfect body in that sense. However, to look at perfect
bodies, heavenly bodies, well¼ that
is another matter.
Anyway, the sirens on the cover of the magazine "strutting
their stuff," in their push-up-bras and short dresses, torment
young girls and modern women with the image of the "perfect
body." I did not have the heart to tell the young woman that
Cher was older than I; that she used to have a nose (a regular honker,
way larger than her current cookie-cutter nose), that her breasts
are silicone, and that one more face lift would probably draw her
face so tight she would not be able to close her mouth or shut her
eyes when she slept. In all of this, a woman must remember there
is nothing complete in the perfect body Dmitri desires that will
hold his attention any longer than a workout on a stair-stepper.
In his own words,
Today it would be a lady; tomorrow a wench out of the streets.
I entertained them both. I threw away money by the handful on
ladies, too, for theyíll take it easily, that must be admitted,
and be pleased and thankful for it. Ladies used to be fond of
me; not all of them, but it happened, it happened. But I always
liked the side paths, little dark back alleys behind the main
roadóin the dirt... I love vice. I love the dishonor of vice.
I love cruelty.
He loves vice; he loves to dishonor women. Dmitriís dishonoring
of woman is possible only because of his contrary ideas of woman.
He cannot dishonor a woman without also being able to honor a woman.
Without the Madonna, the image of the complete woman as a sacred
being honored by God, there is not an image of the dishonorable
woman, a way to defile the perfect body meant to house a child of
Imagine a young man in 2000 using the words Beauty, riddles,
soul, ideal, Madonna, Sodom, devil, God, and battlefield all in
one paragraph, concluding that God and the devil were fighting for
his heart. If a modern young man spoke this way, he would undoubtedly
be committed to a variety of therapists for observation and diagnosed
as suffering from a chemical imbalance, the product of a dysfunctional
family, or of abusive, cult-oriented parents, or some equally traumatizing
activity, like too many hours of playing video games resulting in
the hallucinations of spirits fighting in his heart, of all places.
In short: a victim.
Imagine a modern young man being tormented like Dmitri, battling
between the image of woman as Madonna and the image of woman as
harlot. The only Madonna most young men and young women know of
is the siren who wears her underwear in public for "shock effect."
The harlotís perfect body bombards man at every turn, from his multi-channeled,
pay-for-view television to thousands of pornographic web sites;
from the racks of air-brushed babes on the magazine covers at convenience
stores and supermarkets, to the packets of condoms in menís rooms;
from coquettes wrapped around tequila bottles in liquor stores and
advertising manual shavers, to young beauty queens too pretty to
be taken seriously in the television roles of doctor, detective,
The images of woman being sold to women at check-out counters
range from Cosmopolitanís, which advertises "Land that
man, ace your job, and look your sexiest ever," to Glamourís
recent discovery of a "new technique for satisfying your lover
while not feeling guilty having an affair." Tom Wolfe, in his
previously mentioned novel A Man In Full, characterizes the
image of modern woman as a "boy with tits," a fitting
result of the current push for equality between the sexes; women
now are treated as men. Equality means sacrificing womanhood to
be recreated in the image of man.
Dmitriís lust for "dark back alleys" is modern manís
desire for the procreative act without creation. Make women equal
to men and the love between them will be no higher than manís desire
for man, a woman created in a manís image, a narcissistic love.
It is the desire for a sexual union that, though fertile by nature,
denies the reproductive act. The end of the procreative act becomes
the gratification of sexual desires freed from the responsibility
of children. It is the image of woman as a sterile object, unproductive
and clouded by the desire for self-gratification.
The back alleys Dmitri loves to frequent in the 19th
century have become our super highways in the 21st century.
What was once a toll-road has become a freeway littered with unwanted
Back to the stair-stepper and the next article in the womenís
magazine, "Are You Sexually Normal?" Who would ever float
such a question through a young womanís mind? Would her parents
or grandparents ever trouble her with such a concern? Dmitri at
least has the sense to know that this question is a temptation meant
to dishonor and defile woman. This question is older than the author
who wrote the article. It is a question that existed in the darker
side of Dmitriís soul, floating through his mind and our minds as
well. How is such a question to be answered? With a survey? A test?
Once the norm is established, obviously the Madonna will be a deviant.
And who wants to deviate from the norm?
In all of this, the question before the reader remains the
same, "Who is winning the battle for my soul?"
And so it goes.