Albert Camus' Literary Criticism of Ivan Karamazov

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Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French-Algerian writer, literary critic, and philosopher. Although heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, as well as his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre, Fyodor Dostoevsky's work, in particular, would exert a profound influence on Camus' philosophy of absurdism (Aronson; Davison 42-63; Illing 217-242; Natov 439-464; Simpson). Over the course of his career, Camus would reference Dostoevsky in fourteen of his works, such as The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, as well as Camus' own stage adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Possessed (Natov 441), which Camus considered to be one of the "four or five supreme works" in the history of literature (Illing 218; Todd 395). The character of Ivan Karamazov from The Brothers Karamazov would become crucial to Camus' philosophical development, and he would discuss Ivan in The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, and his published notebooks, the Carnets (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus 64-66, 95-102; Camus, The Rebel 55-61; Natov 441).

Albert Camus in 1957.

Camus' Early Engagement with Ivan Karamazov

Camus' first engagement with Ivan occurred when Camus produced Jacques Copeau's stage adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov for Le Théâtre du Travail (created by Camus in 1935 whilst still a young man in Algeria) (Natov 444-445). Importantly, Camus would also play the role of Ivan in the production and, reflecting on his career in a 1958 interview with Paris-Théâtre, would describe the role as his favourite:

J'ai aimé par-dessus tout Ivan Karamazov. Je le jouais peut-être mal, mais il me semblait le comprendre parfaitement. Je m'exprimais directement en le jouant (Natov 444-445).

[I loved Ivan Karamazov above all else. I may have played it wrong, but I thought I understood it perfectly. I expressed myself directly by playing it.]

Still enjoying the success of his staging of The Brothers Karamazov, Camus would continue reflecting intensely on Ivan's character (Natov 445). In August 1938, Camus, twenty-five years of age and seriously ill with tuberculosis, was drawn by his medical condition to ruminate on death (Natov 445). This rumination led him to the following conclusion: to hold death as inevitable and the termination of everything and, furthermore, to deny the existence of a transcendent God, implied the subversion and abolition of all traditional values (Davison 46; Natov 445). For Camus, true freedom could only be had with the acceptance of an inevitable death, a godless universe, and the abolition of all values (Davison 46; Natov 445). Writing in the Carnets in August 1938, Camus considered Ivan's nihilistic slogan—without god, "everything is permitted" (Dostoevsky 539-541)—as being an accurate definition of human freedom:

L'homme vraiment libre est celui qui acceptant la mort comme telle, en accepte du même coup les conséquences—c'est-à-dire le renversement de toutes les valeurs traditionnelles de la vie. Le 'Tout est permis' d'Ivan Karamazov est la seule expression d'une liberté cohérent. Mais il faut aller au fond de la formule (Davison 46; Natov 445).

[The truly free person is the one who accepting death as it is, accepts simultaneously the consequences—namely the overturning of all traditional notions of values in life. Ivan Karamazov's 'Everything is permitted' is the only expression of coherent freedom. But it is imperative to get to the bottom of the statement.]

Ivan Karamazov in The Myth of Sisyphus

In 1942, with the publishing of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus would once again revisit the topic of human freedom (Natov 446). For Camus, the individual who accepted the inevitability and finality of death and, in addition, refused religious or moral values—and, thus, arrived at Ivan's nihilistic slogan—was the archetype of the "absurd man" (Natov 446).

But Camus discerned the bitterness and torture through which Ivan arrived at these thoughts and, furthermore, warned readers to avoid understanding such freedom in a vulgar sense, recognizing the danger that such a nihilism posed (through making evil actions just as legitimate as good actions) (Natov 446):

'Everything is permitted,' exclaims Ivan Karamazov. That, too, smacks of the absurd. But on condition that it be not taken in the vulgar sense. I don't know whether or not it has been sufficiently pointed out that it is not an outburst of relief or of joy but rather a bitter acknowledgement of a fact. The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity. The choice would not be hard to make. But there is no choice and that is where the bitterness comes in. The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. Everything is permitted does not mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend a crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus 65).

Camus considered Ivan to be one possible manifestation of the "absurd man" (Natov 446). For Camus, Ivan refuses to believe in any notion of divine redemption, equating belief with humiliation and, in doing so, takes on the character of the "absurd man" (Natov 446). In particular, Ivan's refusal to go beyond his human lucidity and understanding to the bitter end marks him as the "absurd man" (Natov 446).

Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov try out the absurd truths in practical life. . . . They try their skill at being Czars. . . . Ivan is likewise by refusing to surrender the royal powers of the mind. To those who, like his brother, prove by their lives that it is essential to humiliate oneself in order to believe, he might reply that the condition is shameful. His keyword is 'Everything is permitted', with the appropriate shade of melancholy. Of course, like Nietzsche, the most famous of God's assassins, he ends in madness (Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus" 99).

Ivan Karamazov in The Rebel

With the publishing of The Rebel in 1951, Camus would once again direct his thoughts towards Ivan Karamazov (Natov 446). This time, Camus would dedicate an entire chapter to explicitly deal with Ivan's horrifying and gut-wrenching presentation of the problem of evil in The Brothers Karamazov (Natov 446).

In Ivan, Camus believed he had found the perfect model of metaphysical rebellion: a movement characterized by an indignant protest against the entirety of creation—and, thus, its creator—as being inherently unjust (Natov 447). For Camus, the metaphysical rebel values the attainment of justice above all other values, even God himself (Natov 447). The metaphysical rebel places themselves in the role of judge and, thus, evaluate God himself and his actions—to unfavourable results: God is found to have abandoned his creation and, therefore, had become complicit in evil (Natov 447). Camus identifies all of these characteristics with Ivan (Natov 447):

With Ivan, however, the tone changes. God, in His turn, is put on trial. If evil is essential to divine creation, then creation is unacceptable. Ivan will no longer have recourse to this mysterious God, but to a higher principle—namely, justice. He launches the essential undertaking of rebellion, which is that of replacing the reign of grace by the reign of justice. . . . "If the suffering of children," says Ivan, "serves to complete the sum of suffering necessary for the acquisition of truth, I affirm from now onward that truth is not worth such a price." . . . Ivan's most profound utterance, the one which opens the deepest chasms beneath the rebel's feet, is his even if: "I would persist in my indignation even if I were wrong." Which means that even if God existed, even if the mystery cloaked a truth, even if the starets Zosime were right, Ivan would not admit that truth should be paid for by evil, suffering, and the death of innocents. Ivan incarnates the refusal of salvation. . . . "It is not God whom I reject," he says, "it is creation." In other words, it is God the father, indistinguishable from what He has created (Camus, The Rebel 55-56).

Such a judgement of God, according to Camus, arises from a deep compassion for human suffering and, furthermore, a refusal of individual salvation (symbolized in Ivan's decision to return his "entrance ticket") (Natov 447). Once again, Camus finds Ivan to be the perfect example to illustrate this feature of the metaphysical rebel (Natov 447):

In addition, Ivan is the incarnation of the refusal to be the only one saved. He throws in his lot with the damned and, for their sake, rejects eternity. If he had faith, he could, in fact, be saved, but others would be damned and suffering would continue. There is no possible salvation for the man who feels real compassion. Ivan will continue to put God in the wrong by doubly rejecting faith as he would reject injustice and privilege (Camus, The Rebel 56-57).

Camus also discerned the danger inherent in metaphysical rebellion and, hence, Ivan's own rebellion (Natov 448). In rejecting all moral and religious values, metaphysical rebellion can itself become the cause of horrendous evil (Natov 448). Without such values, the metaphysical rebel is unable to condemn injustice in the world and, furthermore, can be perfectly justified in perpetrating their own injustices (Natov 448).

What is the bitter end of metaphysical rebellion? Metaphysical revolution. The master of the world, after his legitimacy has been contested, must be overthrown. Man must occupy his place. "As God and immortality do not exist, the new man is permitted to become God." But what does becoming God mean? It means, in fact, recognizing that everything is permitted and refusing to recognize any other law but one's own. Without it being necessary to develop the intervening arguments, we can see that to become God is to accept crime (a favorite idea of Dostoievsky's intellectuals). Ivan's personal problem is, then, to know if he will be faithful to his logic and if, on the grounds of an indignant protest against suffering, he will accept the murder of his father with the indifference of a man-god. We know his solution: Ivan allows his father to be killed. Too profound to be satisfied with appearances, too sensitive to perform the deed himself, he is content to allow it to be done. But he goes mad. The man who could not understand how one could love one's neighbour cannot understand either how one can kill him. Caught between unjustifiable virtue and unacceptable crime, consumed with pity and incapable of love, a recluse deprived of the benefits of cynicism, this man of supreme intelligence is killed by contradiction. "My mind is of this world," he said; "what good is it to try to understand what is not of this world?" But he lived only for what is not of this world, and his proud search for the absolute is precisely what removed him from the world of which he loved no part (Camus, The Rebel 58-59).

Works Cited

Aronson, Ronald. "Albert Camus." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/. Accessed 12 March 2019.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Translated by Justin O'Brien, London, Penguin, 1975.

---. The Rebel. Translated by Anthony Bower, New York, Knopf, 1956.

Davison, Ray. Camus: The Challenge of Dostoevsky. Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 1997.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Constance Garnett, New York, Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Illing, Sean. "Between Nihilism and Transcendence: Camus's Dialogue with Dostoevsky." The Review of Politics, vol. 77, no. 2, 2015, pp. 217-242. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43671060.

Natov, Nadine. "Albert Camus' Attitude Towards Dostoevsky." Revue de littérature comparée, vol. 219-220, no. 3-4, 1 July. 1981, pp. 439-464. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1293168011?accountid=14656.

Simpson, David. "Albert Camus (1913-1960)." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/camus/. Accessed 12 March 2019.

Todd, Olivier. Albert Camus: A Life. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Further Reading

Davison, Ray. Camus: The Challenge of Dostoevsky. Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 1997.

Natov, Nadine. "Albert Camus' Attitude Towards Dostoevsky." Revue de littérature comparée, vol. 219-220, no. 3-4, 1 July. 1981, pp. 439-464. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1293168011?accountid=14656.