The Ontology of Nonbeing in The Brothers Karamazov

Ioan Onujec, Independent Scholar

The Brothers Karamazov advances a person-bound (issuing from the well-known Bakhtinian polyphonic and dialogic personology) thematization and iconization of the concept of nonbeing. This concept remains mysteriously underscrutinized, if not utterly intractable in Dostoevsky criticism and interpretation, despite the generously available, fundamental or otherwise, ontologies (religiously, mainly Augustinian, and philosophically, mainly Heideggerian) that handle the problematic of being and nonbeing. For a better framing of the magnitude of this problematic in The Brothers Karamazov, diagrammatic, conceptual, and imagic help is drawn from such representative Dostoevskian texts as Notes from the Underground, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, and The Idiot. From the perspective of personologic ontology in the The Brothers Karamazov, the pivotal imagery of the novel is contained in the words uttered by the Grand Inquisitor before Christ: “The dread and intelligent spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and nonbeing [dukh samounichtozheniia i nebytiia], the great spirit spoke with you in the wilderness, and it has been passed on to us in books that he supposedly ‘tempted’ [iskushal] you! Did he really?” (14:252). It is the radical contention of The Brothers Karamazov that it is precisely a person, the Great Spirit, who is the source of both self-destruction and nonbeing in the Dostoevskian universe. Ontically, and paradoxically, the Great Spirit (Satan) is unable to maximally implement his strategies of self-destruction, nonbeing, and temptation, to reduce being to nothingness (it is useful to distinguish, under Augustinian inspiration, between relative nonbeing, nebytie, and absolute nonbeing or nothingness, nichto). The iconization of the supreme inability to convert persons and entities into nothingness is offered by Zosima in his description of hell: “For them hell is voluntary and insatiable. […] They cannot look upon the living God without hatred, and demand that there be no God of life, that God destroy Himself and all His creation [chtob unichtozhyl sebia bog i vse sozdanie svoe]. And they will burn eternally in the fire of their wrath, thirsting for death and nonbeing [nebytiia]. But death will not be granted to them” (14:293). Hell’s demand that God destroy Himself is hell’s demand that God commit suicide (in the Grand Inquisitor’s terminology: “self-destruction,” total nonbeing). But, modally, God’s suicide is impossible. This ontic incapacity of effecting total nonbeing, this irreducibility of being for an entire eternity - is the essence of suffering in hell: hell is the impossibility of nothingness, hell is the inescapability of being. Equally, the devil from Ivan’s nightmare laments his predicament in a world where existence is inescapable: “I, for instance, demand simply and directly that I be destroyed [unichtozheniia]. No, they say, live, because without you there would be nothing [nichego ne budet]” (15:77). The ontology and personology of nonbeing warrant a new interpretation of The Brothers Karamazov.

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