By: Gaither Stewart
(The essay was first published The Greanville Post)
In the first line of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s famous “poem”, often referred to as “the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”, Ivan Karamazov says to his brother Alyosha that a preface is necessary to the unwritten story he is about to relate. Then in the third line of chapter V in Part Two of THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Ivan asks rhetorically “For what kind of a writer am I?”, implying that although he, Ivan, is not even an artist, his creator, the author of the written book, Fyodor Dostoevsky, is the greatest of all.
The writer and/or his character, Ivan, seem to be informing future readers that this novel is Dostoevsky’s greatest work.
Is that what Dostoevsky is about in these lines? Is he reaching out of the book toward future generations of readers? Is he begging for praise or simply praising himself? Most likely all three. For like most writers he is vain, vain about his creations and their legitimacy. Especially vain about this novel, the work of three years and his most ambitious work. Whatever this great writer had in mind—there is always a chasm between a writer’s unarticulated ideas and the words that he puts on paper—from the reader’s point of view he certainly succeeds.
Meant to crown his entire incredible work with this novel, Dostoevsky first did meticulous background studies because as he himself recorded THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV was his most difficult book. During those three years of the writing he was afraid his creative force would not suffice or that he would die before completing it.
“The older I get, the harder it is,” he wrote in his diaries. For in this book he had the Karamazov’s to deal with! The performances of his creations—the good (Alyosha), the cynical (Ivan) and the ugly Fyodor)—could not be banal lest he, their creator, be a failure.
Above all, it had to be a work of art too, “and that”, he wrote very realistically and truthfully, “is a most difficult and risky affair: it (the novel) should elevate and affirm my name, otherwise I have no hope.”
In other words, he who had been sickly, indecisive and an addicted gambler to boot, was betting his creative life on it. So vanity or not—which is forgivable in any case—this book was both his commitment and his desperation. In his turbulent and chaotic life Dostoevsky, like his creations, had already shown both his flawed character and his ambitious creative-intellectual force.
Dostoevsky’s characters, all parts of his complex person, are always at odds with and striving against their unstable identities; in this sense Dostoevsky resembles more modern authors than himself, especially in the philosophical and existential realm. All of his characters seem to be desperate in their seeking what they have in common with Dostoevsky himself. Just as one hundred years later, the Italian Alberto Moravia proclaimed that writers had to be desperate, as if to say, if not what would they write about? Such is the direction of Dostoevskian characters, dark, unformed, withholding, moving around in mysterious restricted places where anything can happen and in extremely short and cramped periods of time, where nothing is ever certain, everything is in flux, everything is innuendo, even ideas which are the essence of Dostoevsky’s work. He is simply too Russian to explain all the mysteries, even if he knew the answers. For the hand of God and/or Russian sudba (fate) had to play their role at the end … even though sudba too is as volatile as the soul of man.
“The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” is the culmination of the novel THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, just as THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is the culmination of Dostoevsky’s lifetime work, his final word on the question of man’s freedom.
In pure Dostoevskian style, the “Grand Inquisitor” is more an idea than a story. Even the narrator of the “poem”, Ivan, fades from the reader’s mind. His interlocutor, Alyosha, hardly exists; he only smiles from time to time (mystically of course) and says, ‘I don’t understand, Ivan!’ So the legend is really not even a legend; Dostoevsky too calls it a poem. A poem-accusation against the organized Church, in this case and time, against the Roman Catholic Church.
The story line is threadbare: in the sixteenth century Christ returns to earth to the city of Seville where people immediately recognize Him and want to benefit from His miracles. The ninety-year old Grand Inquisitor who runs things in Seville also recognizes Him; there is no doubt in his mind about His identity. Immediately the priest has Him arrested. At night in His cell the old man interrogates Him. The interrogation is an accusation-monologue. Christ never speaks. The Grand Inquisitor (that is, Ivan the narrator and one part of Dostoevsky) prefaces his terrible charges with one question: “Why did you come back?”
In this chapter of twenty-one pages the Grand Inquisitor articulates the Church’s devastating message: God is God and the Church is the Church; the Church does not believe in God and man no longer needs God; the Church promotes His work like a product and uses His name, but it renounces Christ. The Church does God’s work for Him; it is a Church without God.
After threatening to burn Him at the stake like a heretic, the Grand Inquisitor is disconcerted by Christ’s silence. The prisoner only looks at him and then at the end quietly kisses the old man’s bloodless lips with a kiss that the reader knows will burn for all eternity.
The old man starts, something moves on his lips, he goes to the door, opens it and tells Him: “Go and never return again.”
The prisoner leaves.
That is the story line.
Yet the meaning, the idea behind the story, is terrible. With Christ’s wordless departure, Dostoevsky, whose faith is always shaky, pronounces the divorce between faith and the Church. Neither Ivan—who pronounces Dostoevsky’s famous existentialist claim that “if God is dead, all is permitted”—nor Dostoevsky himself in reality attack Christ; they attack the Church. Ivan does not defend his atheism; he defends true belief. Dostoevsky charges the Catholic Church of having robbed Christ’s message for its own imperialistic ends. In substance, the writer charges all churches and organized religions of what was then called Caesarism—the rule by force of one charismatic leader.
The priest-Grand Inquisitor is not a believer. He does not believe in God and refuses to hear or listen to the God-Man. “You have no right to add one single word to what you have already said,” he tells his prisoner.
He does not believe in man either and insists that the Christian doctrine of free choice between good and evil is too great a responsibility for man. Christ’s man could choose freedom but if he did his conscience would torture him because of his sins. The Christianity offered by Christ is a religion of pain and suffering. A religion for only a few. For an elite of the strongest.
The Grand Inquisitor points out that man can choose submission instead. Man, he affirms, prefers comfort, or even death, to the freedom of choice between good and evil. Man only wants to be happy. He wants earthly bread. And that, he tells Christ, is the Church’s concern: man’s happiness on earth.
The Grand Inquisitor-Procurator claims that the Church loves man more than does the creator who placed on man’s shoulders a too heavy burden to bear. He charges that Christ overestimated the strength of his creation when he gave him the freedom of choice: “You acted without pity for him, you demanded too much from him.”
The religion Christ created is impossible for the masses. It is aristocratic. Ceasarist. Today we would be speaking of the 1%. Religion, the old man claims, must be for the masses. It must comfort all, the ignorant and the weak and the mean and the sick. It must be vulgar, as the 1% knows. Instead of the freedom and the uncertainty and spiritual suffering that Christ offers, the Church of the masses offers happiness. Since the weak and hungry and mean masses are not interested in heavenly bread, that Church promises them only earthly bread.
The Grand Inquisitor and his Church have chosen for man. For man, weak robot. The Church’s work, he says, is to correct Christ’s work. The earth is the reign of mediocre happiness. “None of your great spiritual aspirations!” he says. “Oh yes, men will have to work. But then during their leisure we organize their lives like a child’s game, childish songs and dancing. We even let them sin.” (To this writer, this recalls the political programs of contemporary political parties.)
Here appears the highest point of Dostoevsky’s dialectical genius: he is for man, his whole idea is the human problem; he believes that godlessness leads to the denial of the freedom of the spirit to be a true individual. He foresaw revolution in Russia against the 1% ofhis time; he was in the Socialist camp and wanted revolution. But he wanted a revolution with God and Christ. Religious philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, labels Dostoevsky “a socialist with Christ.”
Dostoevsky aspired to a spiritual Communism in which all would be responsible for each other.
He opposed the idea of an aesthetic state, of the aesthetic socialism the Grand Inquisitor proposes. In that sense too his novels are tragedies of the human condition—double tragedies in that they are never resolved, no more than are his great mysteries. No more than did he resolve his dubious form of Christianity. Yet universal ideas stand behind those decisions he makes. In his revolutionary attack on the Church, he is attacking the Grand Inquisitors in every church, in every state.
Dostoevsky was the embodiment of the very Russian idea of vsyechelovechnost, the idea of an all-human brotherhood. Berdyaev suggests that the Internationalism (of Soviet Communism) was in reality a distortion of the Russian idea. Hence, at least until the Russian Revolution and the great wars of the twentieth century nationalism was largely foreign to Russian mentality. (That is something for the contemporary imperialist US Empire to think about—if they only had some real understanding of others!)
In his interrogation-monologue the Grand Inquisitor reminds Christ of His rejection of the three temptations in the desert. First, He refused to use earthly bread to convince man to follow Him. Then, He refused to use authority to force man to follow Him because He wanted to be loved freely. Third, He refused to use miracles.
The Grand Inquisitor’s Church instead is founded precisely on Christ’s rejections: on earthly bread, authority and miracle. Man on earth wants three things, the Grand Inquisitor insists: someone to bow down to, someone to hand over his conscience to, and a way to unite everyone in one common anthill. The Christianity of his earthly Church is a Church for all, not only for the strong. For love of man, the Church betrayed God. According to the Grand Inquisitor the figure of Christ is a symbol to hide the fact that the Church is not spiritual but social.
As the oral poem develops Alyosha grasps that the great secret of Ivan’s Church is that it does not believe in God. Yet for Ivan and for Alyosha, for the Church and for all Dostoevsky’s characters, God is always the question. Disorder and anxiety are everywhere, in every character, caused by the question of God. Is He there or not? The mystery in THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is God.
In this big book an enormous number of events take place in a very few days. The canvas is peopled by a vast cast. All with God on their lips. Everyone from the simplest of fools to the intellectuals to the monks have deep thoughts about God. Danger threatens, mystery reigns, presentiments and fates, crimes and passions, and secrets abound, but everywhere God is the question. If God does not exist, all is permitted!
In this work Dostoevsky does not question the existence of God, as Nietzsche was soon to do. Nor is his Christianity the vague type that Kierkegaard depicted. Dostoevsky is not interested in transforming the particular into the universal, or vice versa. He does not attack Christ-God; he attacks the Church. His Church calls to mind the contradiction between the life of St. Francis of Assisi who opted for God and poverty and lived in simplicity and talked with birds and the institutions his followers constructed: a super rich order and the town of Assisi turned to gold, all in His name.
The Existentialist Dostoevsky does not search for the secrets of creation. He does not delve into the idea of two Creator Gods as others have. He does not search for the secret of two humanities. His characters do not note that in Genesis God created one man on the sixth day and another on the eighth day, and that Adam, the man He formed on the eighth day, the man who could eat from all the trees except the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but did eat and that in such a manner the confusion began between a good strain and an evil strain of man.
Already here the mystery of mankind begins. Through most of his work Dostoevsky examines the evil strain, but he does not question God. Instead he questions the Church. The Church that in “The Grand Inquisitor” does not believe in God.
Today I find it strange that Ivan does not bring up the two CREATOR GODS and the two strains of man theories History shows that monotheism is not for all men. Primitive peoples saw the need for more. A plurality of gods, sometimes one against the other. A system of spiritual checks and balances. Besides, some philosophers contend that God needs man as much as man needs God. Even the God of the Old Testament complained through the mouth of His prophet Isaiah that He was a slave of man. That He needed help.
But the question remains that if there are two—or more—Creator gods, one good and one evil, which is the God of the Christian Church? Or, as Dostoevsky rightly says, does it have none? For the God of the Old Testament is truly terrible, committing all the sins He forbade to man. He blessed theft and treachery. He was jealous, no other God but Him! He fornicated with any woman He wanted under the eyes of their husbands. He favored genocide. He lied and made false promises. He cursed man in every way. And though He has absolutely nothing in common with Jesus of Nazareth, according to the Church’s Bible He even sent His own son to hang on a cross. And moreover, why did He always hide his face? Some think because He was the evil God, ashamed to show His face.
Dostoevsky continually mixes countless details and minute particulars with great universal truths. The Church of the Grand Inquisitor is the Roman Catholic Church of his times, the Church in incessant dispute with Russian Orthodoxy for the soul of European man. The sickness of the Church he attacks is an old sickness. The sickness infecting organized religions preceding Dostoevsky’s age that has now burgeoned in our times. Today, religion and God and Allah are on the lips of all, of believers, false believers and non-believers in every part of the world who claim to know the right way and the true God or gods. And perform the vilest actions in His name.
I would transpose the Grand Inquisitor’s society into our times in the guise of the immoral, big brother, capitalist, imperialist, Orwellian state which is leading inexorably to the death of the nation-state and democracy, the result of the aesthetic choice of earthly bread and non-freedom of the brainwashed herd, as opposed to Dostoevsky’s ethical choice of oneself and the freedom of the thinking, truly social man.
Here are some suggestions for readings for getting to the heart of Dostoevsky:
- DOSTOEVSKY, Henri Troyat, Fayard, Les Grandes Etudes Littéraires, 1960. In English: FIREBRAND: the life of Dostoevsky, Roy Publishers, 1946.
- THE ORIGIN OF RUSSIAN COMMUNISM, Nicolas Berdyaev, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1960. (Maybe in out-of print books.)
- LES HUMEURS DE LA MER-INTERSECTION, Vladimir Volkoff, Julliard/ L’Age d’Homme, 1980. (For thoughts on the idea of two Creator-gods and two strains of humanity.) See Internet for English translations.
- EITHER/OR, Kierkegaard, Doubleday, 1959. In volume two, the “Or” part, in the chapter on Equilibrium, the author discusses freedom in Dostoevskian terms: man can choose himself as an individual, and thus choose freedom. The choice of freedom is an ethical choice, of oneself, as opposed to the aesthetic choice, which is the life of earthly bread the Grand Inquisitor offers. Nothing is further removed from Dostoevsky than the choice of the aesthetic life. Kierkegaard says that “the more one lives aesthetically, the more requirements his life makes, and if merely the least of these is not fulfilled, he is dead.”
- AS MUCH as I admire Harold Bloom and his THE WESTERN CANON, I do not take to his reduction of Dostoevsky to “his nihilists” and his “preaching anti-Semitism, obscurantism and the necessity of human bondage.” In his many references to the writer, Bloom continually misses the point of Dostoevsky’s dialectic, and that his message was on the contrary human freedom.
Senior Editor Gaither Stewart, based in Rome, serves—inter alia—as our European correspondent. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was just published by Punto Press.