Zosima, Mikhail and Prosaic Confessional Dialogue in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov
Contino, Paul J., Studies in the Novel
In the first chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, the narrator digresses to tell a story:
I knew a young lady of the "romantic" generation before the last who after some years of an enigmatic passion for a gentleman, whom she might easily have married at any moment, invented insuperable obstacles to their union, and ended by throwing herself one stormy night into a rather deep and rapid river from a high bank, almost a precipice, and so perished, entirely to satisfy her own caprice, and to be like Shakespeare's Ophelia. Indeed, if this precipice, a chosen and favorite spot of hers, had been less picturesque, if there had been a prosaic flat bank in its place, most likely the suicide would never have taken place. This is a fact, and probably there have been not a few similar instances in the last two or three generations of our Russian life.(1)
The narrator suggests strongly that a prosaic setting would have successfully counteracted the solitary, self-dramatizing, and romantic impulse - and the woman would have chosen to live.
The beneficial influence of the prosaic can be located as running throughout The Brothers Karamazov - especially in the many scenes of confessional dialogue throughout the novel, the vital importance of which Mikhail Bakhtin emphasizes: Dostoevsky "asserts the impossibility of solitude, the illusory nature of solitude . . . confession is the object of his artistic vision and depiction. He depicts confession . . . in order to show the interdependence of consciousnesses that is revealed during confession. I cannot manage without another, I cannot become myself without another."(2) In each of his major novels, Dostoevsky's confessors - Sonia Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, Father Tikhon in The Possessed, Alyosha Karamazov and Father Zosima - assist others when they are most violently fractured and self-destructive. The splintered selves of these confessants is often due to their overweening concern about the way they are being perceived by others The confessor's authority lies in his or her capacity to assist the other toward recovering what Bakhtin calls "the deepest I,"(3) or what might be understood as "the prosaic self." The prosaic self proves capable of free, integral speech and action before others, and the "labor and fortitude" of what Zosima calls "active love" (p. 49). The encounter between Zosima and Mikhail, his "mysterious visitor," offers an exemplary instance of prosaic confessional dialogue.
Bakhtin and the Prosaic Self
In Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson coin the term "prosaics to cover a concept that permeates Bakhtin's work":
Prosaics encompasses two related, but distinct, concepts. First, as opposed to "poetics," prosaics designates a theory of literature that privileges prose in general and the novel in particular over the poetic genres. Prosaics in the second sense is far broader than theory of literature; it is a form of thinking that presumes the importance of the everyday, the ordinary, the "prosaic."(4)
In its second sense, prosaics is a form of realism. It attends to and accepts the limits and graces embodied in the here and now, the temporal, and suspects the romantic, utopian, and apocalyptic. The concept of the prosaic self extends this understanding of prosaic by integrating what seem to be conflicting strands in Bakhtin's work: his affirmation of both the open and closed in human experience.
On the one hand, and as is commonly accepted, Bakhtin celebrates openness and unfinalizability. He extols Dostoevsky's "new artistic position" in relation to his characters, "a fully realized and thoroughly consistent dialogic position, one that affirms the independence, internal freedom, unfinalizability, and indeterminacy of the hero."(5) On the other hand, in his earlier ethical writings, Toward a Philosophy of the Act and "Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity," Bakhtin stresses the necessity of "finalizing" one's deeds before the eyes of others. …