The Brothers Karamazov

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Anne Fremantle, 1956

Anne Fremantle: Introduction to Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Grand Inquisitor. Ungar: New York, 1956.


Fyodor Michaelovitch Dostoevsky was born on 30 October 1821. He was the second son of a doctor, who had been an army surgeon until the end of the war of 1812, when he was appointed resident physician to the Marie Hospital for the Poor, where he lived with his wife and children, of whom there were eventually seven. The doctor was an aristocrat, his wife a bourgeoise; both were devout churchgoers; and they carefully supervised their children’s education. The mother and children used to spend their summers in the country on a little estate the father had bought; here Fyodor got to know the peasants and became attached to the “blessed earth.” He also read voraciously, the novels of Walter Scott and of Fenimore Cooper being his favorite books.


In 1837 Fyodor’s mother died, and his father took him and his elder brother Mikhail to St. Petersburg, to board them there in the Government School of Engineers. But when the boys were medically examined, it was found that the robust looking Mikhail was tubercular; it was the delicate Fyodor who was passed as fit. So Mikhail went to the Engineers School in Reval, whose health requirements were not as high as St. Petersburg’s, and Fyodor was left alone, and lonely, at the St. Petersburg school. He remained there three years, and in 1841, graduated with honors as an ensign. In 1843 he became a sublieutenant in the army.


Meanwhile his father, miserly, greedy, and corrupt, refused Fyodor an allowance, and his last letter to him was a denial of a small sum begged by Fyodor to buy a little sugar and tea to take on summer maneuvers. Shortly after, the father was murdered by his own serfs. The police authorities made little attempt to find and prosecute the actual murderer. “We cannot arrest a whole village,” they said, “and the whole village is guilty.” It was a communal crime, and even those not actually involved in it sympathized with the murderers. Among these was Fyodor himself, who, however, had his first epileptic fit on learning of his father’s death. In all his novels, Dostoevsky emphasizes the collective nature of all crime. And all his books are about crime: “The guilt of every individual is binding upon us all, just as his salvation saves us all. Crime is the center of Dostoevsky’s tragic world,” wrote Romano Guardini.


Dostoevsky came to Moscow when he had finished with his military service; and one evening, after he had been reading aloud from Nicolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (such readings were the fashion then), he gave the manuscript of his first novel, Poor Folk, to D. V. Grigorevitch, who read it then and there, and was so impressed that he took it to his friend Edward Nekranoff, an editor. Nekranoff was equally excited, and the two men walked round to Dostoevsky’s house at four a.m. and rang his doorbell. “No matter if he is asleep,” they said to one another, “we will wake him up. This is above sleep.”


With the publication of Poor Folk in 1846, Dostoevsky found he had become famous overnight, and instantly he became part of a circle of writers and intellectuals as gifted, brilliant, and closely knit as ever existed anywhere. Although Dostoevsky was not a revolutionary (indeed, his friends thought him rather reactionary), yet he was arrested on 23 April 1849, and accused of complicity in a conspiracy, merely because, at a meeting, he had read aloud a letter from a notorious atheist to Gogol. Dostoevsky was condemned to death and spent eight month6 in the fortress of Peter and Paul. During this time he wrote The Little Hero. Then he was taken out, by order of Tsar Nicholas I, with twenty-three others. “They snapped swords over our heads, and made us put on the white shirts worn by persons condemned to death. Thereupon we were bound in threes to stakes, to suffer execution,” Dostoevsky wrote to his brother Mikhail; “being the third in the row, I concluded that I had only a few minutes of life before me.” But instead of the expected shot, the troops “beat a tattoo,” and the men were reprieved, though one had gone out of his mind under the ordeal. Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years hard labor, in chains, in Siberia, and to a further six years of exile from Moscow as a private in a Siberian regiment, under strict discipline. Only in 1859 was he allowed to return to Russia. Yet he always refused to condemn his judges: “It was just,” he said. “The people themselves would have condemned us.”


On his return to Moscow he started a magazine, Vremya, which was suppressed by the censor; and a second, which he founded later, Epoch, fared no better. While in Siberia, he had married a friend’s widow; she and his brother Mikhail both died in 1864, and Dostoevsky took on his brother’s debts, although terribly burdened by his own. In 1867 he married again, and had four children. He published Letters from a Dead House in 1861-2; Crime and Punishment and The Idiot in 1866; The Possessed in 1871; and The Brothers Karamazov in 1880. His youngest son, Alyosha, died at the age of three, of epilepsy, a disease inherited from him. So the circle of guilt was complete: Dostoevsky felt implicated in both the death of his father and of his child. After the boy’s death, Dostoevsky went to the monastery of Optina, to consult a famous spiritual director, Father Ambrose, to whom both Gogol and Tolstoy had confessed. Father Ambrose is the model for Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov.


At Optina Dostoevsky also met Soloviev, whose Twelve Lectures on Godmanhood are said to have influenced profoundly his portrayal of Christ in The Grand Inquisitor, while Soloviev himself is depicted in Alyosha, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers. Dostoevsky and ”Tolstoy both had attended the twelve lectures of Soloviev concerning Godmanhood. On Dostoevsky’s return to Moscow, he predicted that he would die within two years, and he did. In June 1880 he made a valedictory speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin memorial in Moscow and received a tremendous ovation. One of the things he said was, “To be a real Russian, to be wholly Russian, means only this: to be a brother to all men, and to be universally human.” When Dostoevsky died, on 28 January 1881, of a cerebral hemorrhage, vast crowds gave him “the funeral of a king.”


By many he is regarded as the world’s greatest novelist. Maurice Baring, a Catholic, wrote, “Supposing the Gospel of St. John were annihilated and lost to us forever; although nothing would replace it, Dostoevsky’s work would more nearly replace it than any other book written by any other man.” And Sigmund Freud, the Jewish founder of the psychoanalytic method, wrote that “The Brothers Karamazov is the most magnificent novel ever written, and the story of the Grand Inquisitor is one of the peaks in the literature of the world. It can hardly he overpraised.”


The Brothers Karamazov, like two other of the greatest works of fiction, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is the story of a parricide. Dmitri, Ivan, Alyosha, and their half-brother, the epileptic valet Smerdyakov, are the children of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, senile, mean, and sensual. All his children, except Alyosha, who is a novice in the monastery and has found in the staretz Father Zossima a real father, hate old Karamazov, but for different reasons. Dmitri is in love with the same woman as his father; Ivan hates his father because he so nearly resembles him; Smerdyakov loathes him for corrupting his mother and for keeping him a serf. All three want the old man’s money. When he is mysteriously murdered, all are guilty, although it is Smerdyakov who has actually committed the crime.


Dostoevsky has given to each one of the four sons a part of himself: to Dmitri his sincerity, generosity, and courage; to Ivan his intellectual temptations and pride, his unmentionable secret sins; to Smerdyakov his malady. To the father he gave his own name; and Alyosha is both the innocent child he once was, and the saint he would become. Also, Alyosha is something more. At the novel’s end, Alyosha “half laughing, half enthusiastically” tells a group of boys gathered for a funeral, “. . . we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened.” Alyosha, then, is also the genius, the writer in Dostoevsky, the narrator who “tells all that has happened.”


It is Ivan who is the most completely articulated of all the characters, and the one in whom Dostoevsky has expressed himself most fully; it is Ivan who tells Alyosha the story of The Grand Inquisitor. This, he explains, is a “fantasy,” a “poem,” although unwritten and in prose.


Ivan has been describing to Alyosha, in sadistic detail, the sufferings of innocent children: the little girl of seven whom her father enjoys beating; the girl of five dirtied by both her parents; the boy of eight torn to pieces by the dogs of a general who deliberately sets them on the child. The agony of these children proves to Ivan’s “Euclidian ” mind the utter absurdity of the divinely created order of things, according to which “eternal harmony” will be established only after suffering has been inflicted on the defenseless little victims of human brutality. Ivan refuses to accept this “fabric of human destiny, ” wants no share in it, and therefore “most respectfully returns Him the ticket.” Not even Christ who, as Alyosha points out, has suffered “for all and everything,” can make Ivan change his mind. Ivan’s answer to Alyosha is The Grand Inquisitor.


What is its meaning?


At the first, most obvious level, the story sets the person of Christ against the church founded by him. In particular, the story is an attack upon the Roman Catholic Church-not an attack on “the whole of Rome,” as AIyosha points out, but on the Grand Inquisitors in its hierarchy. Be it noted, however, that, in the yes of Ivan the Grand Inquisitor is right, and Christ is wrong; for it is Christ whose unrealistic dreams about freedom block “universal happiness” and perpetuate a social order which a rationalistic, “Euclidian” mind cannot accept. If read within the framework of The Brothers Karamazov, The Grand Inquisitor is therefore an attack upon the Catholic Church only to those who sympathize with Alyosha, to whom Dostoevsky has given his faith. To those, however, who sympathize with Ivan, the Grand Inquisitor and his theories ought to be what they once were for Dostoevsky: the great temptation of their lives.


Dostoevsky’s own faith derives its strength from the fact that he has himself passed through atheism and come out the other side. Commenting on the critics of The Brothers Karamazov, he wrote contemptuously, “The dolts have ridiculed my obscurantism and the reactionary character of my faith. These fools could not even conceive so strong a denial of God as the one to which I gave expression… The whole book is an answer to that…. You might search Europe in vain for so powerful an expression of atheism. Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess Him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.”


Dostoevsky had come to this faith in Siberia. On his way to the labor camp, a lady visiting the convicts gave him a tiny volume, the Gospels, the only book permitted by the prison authorities. From that time on, God was for Dostoevsky “not somewhere, but everywhere”; and as for the painter Cézanne “light was the hero of every picture,” so, for Dostoevsky, God was the hero of every novel as well as of every life.


On another level, The Grand Inquisitor is a terrifying prophecy of the totalitarian state which threatens to reduce the scope of human happiness to the happiness of “babes,” united “in one unanimous and harmonious ant-heap.”


The Grand Inquisitor promises man, as Satan promised Christ in the desert, everything in exchange for the one thing that makes man man: freedom, this terrible, absolute freedom of man’s will to choose or to reject at any and every moment what his own conscience shows him to be a moral good. Wearied by this continual, uninterrupted, and inescapable act of choice which alone makes possible both the act of “free love” and the anti-social act of injustice, the Grand Inquisitor has set out to establish “universal happiness”-in the name of Christ, as he tells his followers, for the sake of “positive Christianity,” as the Nazis proclaimed in their program.


It is in analyzing the three temptations of Christ that Dostoevsky shows himself at his psychological and at his theological best.


The banner of earthly bread, which is the first temptation, the banner which Christ refused to raise, is raised by all modern philosophies. “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue! that’s what they’ll write on the banner which they will raise against Thee,” says the Grand Inquisitor; and so they have from Marx and Mazzini to Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. But “freedom and bread enough for all are,” in the opinion of the Grand Inquisitor, “inconceivable together.” As long, therefore, as men are free not to choose what is best for society, a stable, perfect social order with bread enough for all is impossible.


True, man is hungry not for bread alone. He is capable by nature of searching for an object worthy of worship. But he who gives the bread can easily be mistaken for the “Lord and Giver of Life” (the English word “lord” actually comes from “hlafweard,” meaning “he who guards the loaf”) and so may easily become ersatz for the “Lord” and satisfy the craving for community of worship” still left in the masses.


Christ refused to establish social justice by sacrificing freedom for bread. “Thou didst reject,” accuses the Grand Inquisitor, “the one infallible banner which was offered Thee to make all men bow down to Thee alone- the banner of earthly bread; and Thou has rejected it for the sake of freedom and the bread of heaven.”


The analysis of the second temptation-Christ refused to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple in order to prove that he was the Son of God- leads Dostoevsky into the problem of the “free conscience.”


Man, says the Grand Inquisitor, desires “not only to live, but to have something to live for.” However, this “stable object” of an other-directed life must, according to Christ’s teaching, be chosen by man’s free conscience, aware of good and evil and always able to choose between them. Such a choice causes “spiritual agony”; and therefore, “man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil.” It would be better, maintains the Grand Inquisitor, better for the good of the individual and for the good of society, for man to barter his freedom of choice for “miracle, mystery, and authority.”


In emphasizing that the second temptation offered Christ by the devil was to do magic, to work miracles, to offer man a search for the miraculous instead of for the holy, Dostoevsky laid his finger on one of the perennial dangers to which Christians are always subject. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor sees that once man thinks himself capable of lifting himself to God, of arriving, by techniques of asceticism or prayer, at having power over God Himself, he is “in the bag” and lost. So the Grand Inquisitor suggests to Christ that man can take what he must wait to be given; and this is antichrist indeed, for Christ is God become man, never man jacked up by himself to God: God lifts man up in history, and for Dostoevsky history is just that, the lifting up by Christ on the cross of the whole man.


The third temptation, which resulted in Christ’s refusal to accept from Satan the kingdom of the world, is used by Dostoevsky to analyze man’s “craving for universal unity, ” ” the third and last anguish of men. ” Christ, by refusing to take “the sword of Caesar” from the hand of Satan, preferred centuries of “the confusion of free thought” to a stable society. It is time, therefore, that men like the Grand Inquisitor begin to “plan the universal happiness of man.”


And this third temptation, the will to unity, the conviction that what is believed by many, or by all, is true, is a terrifying prefiguration of modern democracy. “Thou hast only Thine elect,” taunts the Grand Inquisitor, “while we give rest to all.” “We promise that only when they renounce their freedom and submit to us will they be free,” says the Grand Inquisitor, and defies Christ to contradict him. And when the end shall come, and Christ will call the Grand Inquisitor to account, the latter warns Him he will be not a whit abashed. “I will stand up and point out to Thee the thousand millions of happy children who have known no sin.” But on earth, since the Fall, man cannot safely be unaware of what he does; the only safely ignorant people are children. The artificially protracted childishness, by which the masses have no idea that in abandoning their freedom of choice they are abandoning their capacity to know or choose good from evil, is total guilt. True that those who abandon their freedom of choice to the Grand Inquisitor can no longer sin, since the Grand Inquisitor sins for them, but they have, in giving up their freedom, placed themselves outside of God’s providence. The Gestapo officers who only obeyed orders are the perfect examples of how truly Dostoevsky prophesied. The sinner so long as he knows he sins is in his place in creation; the person who has “most respectfully returned Him the ticket” is marginal, powerless thereafter to turn toward God or away from Him. To know we sin is the first step in faith and toward forgiveness.


Dostoevsky’s Christ, that is, the Christ who rejected the devil’s offer, and who is the prisoner of the Grand Inquisitor, does not show himself as the Incarnate Word, who assumed in His flesh and blood the eternal travail of the Father, and answered Pilate’s “Art Thou a King?” with the proud “Thou sayest it” of the Gospel. Dostoevsky’s Christ remains silent, and His only answer is to kiss the Grand Inquisitor on the lips.


What is the meaning of this kiss?


The only man who kissed Christ in the Gospels was Judas. Is Christ’s kiss in Ivan’s story analogous? Reminiscent? Is it approval?


Or is it the Divine pardon? “For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things,” St. John wrote (I John iii, 20). Dostoevsky does not tell; he leaves us an enigma, and since he leaves us with a question let us agree that “we know all the answers; it is the questions that we do not know.”


There have been many conjectures as to where Dostoevsky got the idea for The Grand Inquisitor. It is quite possible that Dostoevsky found his theme among the Carmina Burana, collection of ribald parodies by the wandering scholars, or Goliardes, of the Middle Ages, who wandered from town to town living on their wits and their songs. Published in 1847, one of these parodies, the “Gospel according to the Mark of Silver,” describes how “the Pope said to the Romans: ‘When the Son of Man shall come to the seat of Our Majesty, say you first to him “Friend, for what comest Thou?” And if He shall persevere in refusing to give you anything, cast Him into outer darkness.’ Then it came to pass that a certain Poor Clerk came to the court of our Lord Pope and cried out, saying, ‘Have pity on me, because poverty has me in thrall. For indeed I am miserable and poor, therefore I pray you come to the aid of my calamity and have mercy on me.’ But those hearing Him waxed indignant and said, ‘Friend, may your poverty accompany you to perdition. Get Thee behind us, Satan, for Thou dost not know the things that are of Mammon.’ ”


Other suggestions are that- he took some part of the Grand Inquisitor’s character from Victor Hugo’s Torquemada, or from the Grand Inquisitor in Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos. In this latter, the Grand Inquisitor and the King’s confessor, the scoundrel Domingo, are contrasted with a Carthusian prior.


Whatever the spark may be that ignited this story, it is one that will burn on as long as there are human beings on earth to read it.


The translation used is the familiar one by Constance Garnett.