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May 8, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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I Understand Nothing

“I understand nothing,” Ivan Karamazov says to the angelic Alyosha, “and I don’t want to understand anything now. I want to stick to facts. I made up my mind long ago not to understand, for if I should want to understand something, I’d instantly alter the facts….”

This moment in The Brothers Karamazov was jarringly resonant. Most days I habitually (compulsively) check the Guardian,, NZ Herald, and my covert Twitter account that follows The New York Times and National Geographic. The proliferation of facts is murderous. A media pattern of interpolating a stream of tragedy with tales of banal “goodness” ensures that I can sustain neither hope nor despair. I understand the facts individually, but more often I do not understand the sum of all these parts, what action to carry out, or what lesson to take away with regards to them; increasingly I do not wish to understand. Yet I cling to these “facts”, I even actively seek them out, a condition which I suspect is not peculiar to me.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov, has had an impressive influence over 20th century European thought, propelling the pens of seminal thinkers such as Sartre, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. Stalin, Putin, and Hillary Clinton refer to it as their favourite book — take from that what you will. Characteristic of Dostoevsky, the book focuses on the mishaps of dysfunctional outcasts — in this instance, the Karamazov family, which consists exclusively of men: the father Fyodor and the brothers Mitya, Ivan, Alyosha, and the “bastard” Smerdyakov. The plot eventuates in one of the Karamazov brothers murdering their miscreant patriarch, Fyodor, followed by a lengthy trial.

Heavy in religious musing, The Brothers Karamazov is perhaps unfashionable for those who believe the human soul to be non-existent or otherwise unimportant; yet, it imparts other considerations which may still enliven the godless reader. In particular, the relationship between understanding and fact is a prescient concern in these “post-truth”, “alternative fact” times.

But first let us attend to the founding question of this opine — what is a fact? Simplified, fact is something true or “known” to be true, and it is this latter nuance which spurs us to reexamine our relationship to it. We may even ignore the former definition; the truth status of all facts are contingent on our comprehension of their related forces — also contingent — that produce them. To appropriate Carl Sagan, if you wish to have something confirmed as undeniable truth, you must first know everything about the universe.

In December 2016 the Huffington Post published “Post-Truth Nation”. The author Samuel C. Spitale writes that “the greatest problem of our future is […] the battle of fact versus fiction.” Spitale’s term “post-truth” impelled polarised reactions proper to any post-x claim. For NZ Herald, Robert Nola writes that the humanities may have succumbed to gloom, but that science (phrenology, perhaps) may rescue us from being “engulfed” by post-truth. Narelle Henson, for Stuff, blames philosophers and the “intelligentsia” for telling “simple folk” that truth does not exist and, in a bout of self-inspired reverie, she also relates, “we find Truth standing unscathed… He [truth is a man to Henson] is, however, startlingly reliable.”

“Post-truth” relies on the premise of there once having been an accessible truth, and thereby conceals an extensive history of the public being misled. This was pointed out by Deby Rune Møller Stahl and Bue Rübner Hansen, in Jacobin, who describe how politically manipulated facts “have been with us for a long time.” Stahl and Hansen gloss the politicisation of fact by liberals, theorising that fact became a monopolised tool for technocrats to managerially assess and balance the state. One need only think of the Green and Labour parties’ attitudes towards budget responsibilities; their stringent assessment of policy through the lens of “fiscal responsibility” does little to inspire hope. Such an approach tends to omit problems contained in less quantifiable aspects of reality — the social, moral, and cultural. It is here, in the realms of human truths, that the practice of understanding rears its uncouth head.

“Rational” understanding can be seen as a way of willing reality to order by way of principles and, seen in this way, it may also then obscure the truth it seeks to parse. Dostoevsky further underscores the shortcomings of “rational” understanding; reason, for him, is not sufficient to explain the terrific strangeness of, not only the world, but of people.

Acknowledging our fallibility and our occasional manipulation of reality, rather than declaring our truths “startlingly reliable,” is necessary to the understanding that Dostoevsky professes. For systems of reason are limited, sometimes stretching only to the point of exhaustion before they are traded for less polished forms of persuasion and action. Turn your attention to these illuminating lines from Notes from the Underground: “…what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two make four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!”

Logic, rationality, and “facts” make us their subjects, and to belie them is seen as not only “stupid” but, in the secularised and educated milieu, immoral. To this end, it would be facile to gesture at fact-defiant Brexit or Trump voters; indeed it is arguably more accurate to subsume the majority of the human population under the category of “Rebels Against Reason”, myself included.

In Brothers Karamazov, the trial concerning the murder of Fyodor Karamazov deals in rivaling facts. During the proceedings, Grushenka irrationally betrays her beloved Mitya by producing proof of “mathematical conclusiveness” that he is responsible for his father’s murder. It is a damning instant for Mitya, made acutely painful as only moments earlier his brother Ivan had confessed that he himself is the parricide, presenting alongside this revelation his own evidence, rivalling Grushenka’s. Ivan’s declaration of guilt is partially symbolic, an act of martyrdom that inverts the Passion’s paradigm — his guilt disperses to include those who actively participate in its appointment. He lambasts the court and accuses them (and perhaps the reader) of enjoying the spectacle of the crime because “they all desire the death of their fathers!” Where we place our faith, Ivan hints, discloses something of what we long for.

brothers karazamov 1

“Kirollovich and Fetyukovich”. Illustration by Harriet Bailey. 2017.


Mitya’s trial demonstrates how even one fact bleeds credibility into a string of hyperboles and falsehoods. This absurdity is put to task by the lawyers, Kirollovich and Fetyukovich. Kirollovich, the prosecutor, is the more rousing of the two, tending towards the poetic rather than the prosaic; his speech is littered with exclamation marks and grandiose evocations of nation and sanctity. The narrator tells us that Kirollovich “spoke of the blood that cried for vengeance… He pointed to the tragic and glaring consistency of the facts.” This “consistency” is assessed by defence lawyer Fetyukovich, a man of more modest comportment who speaks “very simply and directly.” Fetyukovich charges that “not one fact” presented during the trial “will stand criticism if examined separately.” Understanding is Kirollovich’s game; he traffics in the principles of psychoanalysis, morality, and nation. Conversely, Fetyukovich’s concern is not unity but the individual facts. He carefully dissects the body of the prosecution’s case to show how each organ does not fit neatly with the other. Yet, because each piece of evidence is “fact”, and because longing for meaning is stronger than longing for certainty (the former is often enough to substitute the latter), all that is required to create a patina of cause and effect — of “reason” — is for Kirollovich to appeal to the spectators’ principles.

The recent outrage regarding the disappearance of 14 girls in the Washington D.C. area over 24 hours illustrates how “facts” may be narrativised to appeal to spectators’ principles. This “fact” is accompanied by a number of (darkly excitable) theories as to where the girls vanished to. Most striking to me is the indictment of the police force: because all the girls are black, the tirades sing out, nobody cares to look for them. However, an NBC report shows: at no point in the D.C. areas have 14 children disappeared over one day in 2017; the missing children are all classified as having left their homes voluntarily; the Police Department has begun a new tactic of increasing social media distribution of missing person reports which has exaggerated the sense of epidemic; celebrities posting about the missing girls drew inordinate attention to the factoid — a caution to double check your sources.

The NBC report works to dispel outrage as it lays out its facts in bullet points with no emotive language. This is not to argue that the news media is infallible, but rather to highlight spectacle. The viral factoid was spread through social media platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter etc., and took the form of images — always so potent — of smiling young black girls alongside highly charged language. But, without the outrage, the NBC report would not have been released. Relevant to this last point is the role that contemporary forms of information-sharing play in “fake news”. We reside in the vacuum of a monopoly on facts once held by the media and, in the disseminated, blurry, dually private and public spaces of the internet, the spread of misinformation is epidemic. As Dostoevsky shows, the success of misinformation requires some invocation of preconceived principles, faith or desire. I hazard to say that, hyperbole aside, there is a certain “truth” underwriting the viral spread of this story; that is, the truth of the strained relations between law enforcement and the African American community.

For Dostoevsky, the abstract and imagined are given more significance than “truths” of the material world, in part because subjectivity is the conduit between potentiality (the potential embedded in will) and fact. In this space, redemption is always possible. Rivalling Ivan as one of the most fascinating brothers is the “blackguard” Smerdyakov. While similar antagonists are driven by some internal impetus, Smerdyakov seems to lack even the faculty for motive, let alone the vices of lust, greed, or ambition that usually assail villains. He spends his days hanging stray cats to no discernible end. Set up as Smerdyakov’s opposite is Alyosha, a “cherub” whose “heart could not stand uncertainty,” who “could not love passively.” Alyosha and Smerdyakov’s polarity comes to a head upon Ivan who, at the height of his illness, fixates on the belief that he is responsible for Fyodor’s murder. Seeing his brother’s distress, Alyosha acts “automatically”; he ascertains — despite not knowing that his brother has been entertaining the thought — that “it was not you [Ivan] who killed father.” Conversely, Smerdyakov, during a private confrontation, tells Ivan, “you are the only real murderer in the whole affair.” These contradicting pronouncements indicate a split in Ivan’s psyche: rather than rule one another out, “good” and “evil” are conterminous. Dostoevsky makes it possible for us to consider Ivan guilty, though not in the way of material fact. The power of suggestion relies on wanting to believe or, to some extent, already believing in what has been suggested and Ivan’s guilt here is immaterial, relating to his will-to-murder more than the physical act of murder. For Dostoevsky, subjective truth, the realm of free will, is accompanied by the responsibility and privilege of choice — Ivan can pronounce himself good or evil. Whether he is convinced or not by his decision, if he acts according to that belief, then he may bring it into reality. This is not to succumb to absurd relativity or solipsism; rather it is to actively recognise the degree of agency we have in how we interpret the facts and, subsequently, how we react to them.

Like the reading of a novel, the pursuit of facts promises the possibility of total comprehension. Somewhere among all these facts we ought to at last find the hidden link that will enlighten us to the reason for all of this. Imagine, approximately 200,000 years of pain, joy, and horror reduced to certainty. What Dostoevsky shows us instead is that how we choose to understand the world precedes fact. Indeed, the claim that we live in a “post-truth” world is deceptive, for it occludes how so much of the present is pre-truth. It is only the hindsight of history that filters out what is false or unimportant to render our otherwise disjointed reality comprehensible. Dostoevsky’s work compels us to not passively encounter the flow of facts that besets us. If to understand is to will the world to order, then it is no trifle that we should cultivate an understanding that is, like Alyosha’s capacity for love, honest, dynamic, imaginative, and compassionate.

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