The Wrap Up Continues
with Dennis Abrams
A continuation of Victor Terras’ “Subtext, Intertext, and Ambiguity in The Brothers Karamazov
“Chapters iv and v of Book Five of The Brothers Karamazov have received a disproportionate amount of critical attention. To those opposed to Dostoevsky’s idea, they have been the most worthwhile aspect of the novel; in those who are willing to accept The Brothers Karamazov as a Christian novel, they have been a serious stumbling block. M.A. Antonovich said that ‘the poem, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ provides the only poetic pages in the whole novel,’ a statement worthy of Rakitin. On the other side, one senses wariness and outright disapproval in K.P. Pobedonostsev’s reaction to ‘Pro and Contra.’ Western readers have tended to react similarly.
The foregrounding of these chapters has meant that ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ has been read not as an integral part of the novel, but as an independent text. In fact, the position of the Legend in the structural configuration of the novel is complex. It has a contrapuntal relationship with a number of specific scenes in the novel, and specific phrases and images of the Legend are echoes in phrases and images throughout the novel. In many instances a phrase in the Legend will sound familiar, and there are cases of mirroring in the opposite direction as well. For example, when Ivan suggests that the Grand Inquisitor ‘has joined…the clever people,’ one immediately thinks of Fiodor Pavlovich’s words when he declares himself a member of that group of ‘clever people sitting snug and enjoying their brandy.’ [MY NOTE: Well, maybe Mr. Terras thinks of that immediately — it got past me completely.] In both instances, ‘clever people’ means ‘people who have discovered that there is no God’ and are using this knowledge to their advantage. In the other direction, the phrase, of course, belongs to Smerdyakov: it appears in the heading of chapter vii of Book Five.
First and foremost, the Legend is a function of the character of Ivan Karamazov. As such it is an expression of Ivan’s particular version of atheism, distinct from the atheism of Fiodor Pavlovich, Miusov, Rakitin, and Smerdyakov. The Legend’s most important contrapuntal relationships are with chapters and passages belong to Ivan: his synopsis of his article on Church and state in Book Two, the chapter preceding ‘The Grand Inquisitor,’ and Ivan’s interview with the Devil.
It was Dostoevsky’s professed intent to present Ivan’s ideas merely in order to refute and to discredit them. In the process, he destroys Ivan Karamazov as a man and intellect by introducing a cleverly disguised subtext of derogatory detail. [MY NOTE: This is where I’m not exactly in agreement or at least question Terras: Are Ivan’s ideas refuted? Is Ivan ‘destroyed’ by Dostoevsky or by the torment of being, in Colin Wilson’s term, an ‘outsider?’] Ivan gets a proper buildup for his role: his precocious maturity, his intellectual brilliance, his early self-reliance and independence [MY NOTE: Not unlike Kolya!] are established even before we hear his voice. From the outset, all the positive things we hear about Ivan are undercut by a strategy that will become clear, even to the attentive reader, only much later. His intellectual ability is presented as unquestioned, but with a hint that it may be overestimated; his proud independence as praiseworthy, yet less admirable than Aliosha’s humble way of accepting as well as giving kindness; his early foams as undoubted, but limited to narrow intellectual circles.
When we first hear Ivan’s voice, it fully lives up to earlier advertisements: his synopsis of his controversial article makes a good impression. It takes an observer of Zosima’s intuition to sense the dissonance under the smooth surface of Ivan’s balanced presentation. At the conclusion of Book Two, the annoying but harmless Makismov boards the Karamazov carriage at Fiodor Pavlovich’s invitation. Ivan angrily pushes him off: a seemingly trivial incident that the reader is apt to forget. But it starts a pattern.
Over a glass of brandy, Ivan’s few words and actions seem well controlled — until the ugly outburst: ‘One viper will devour the other, and good riddance!’ Ivan smooths over the disturbance by suggesting that this was only a wish, and ‘as for my wishes, I reserve myself full latitude.’ Ironically, it is form this point on that Ivan begins to lose precisely what he defends so energetically: his ‘latitude’ as a free individual. From here on, there will be more and more hints that Ivan’s behavior is compulsive and that he is losing control of himself. In chapter v of Book Four, the scene with Katerina Ivanovna, he puts up a bold front, but we know that he will not be able to tear himself away from her.
Book Five shows Ivan at the summit of his role. His rebellion against God’s world is fervently eloquent. His rejection of a God who allows innocent children to suffer has the ring of inspired invective. Ivan speaks like a prosecutor who is convinced of the guilt of the accused. He cheats a bit when he generously declares that he will limit his argument to the suffering of children: ‘This will reduce the range of my argumentation about tenfold, but let it be about children only. It is so much less to my advantage, of course.’ One feels that the speaker’s loathing of the child abusers is stronger than his compassion for their victims, but this hardly reduces the power of his argument. The truth is, of course, that Ivan advances only his strongest evidence, leaving the more dubious aside. One has to read between the lines to realize hos Dostoevsky undermines Ivan’s position, as in this example:
‘And so they dragged Richard, all covered with his brothers’ kisses, up on the scaffold, put him on the guillotine, and in good brotherly fashion zapped off his head after all, on account of God’s grace having descended upon him, too.’
Dostoevsky does not have to say that Ivan, obsessed by his hatred of God’s world and moved by his contempt for the pious citizens of Beneva, is blind to the obvious fact that God’s grace had indeed descended upon the hapless Richard, who died in a state of grace.
At the end of the ‘Revolt’ chapter, Aliosha advances the antithesis to Ivan’s charges: the image and example of Christ. Ivan had anticipated this response, and he has prepared his counterargument: ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’ While the refutation of ‘Revolt’ is left largely to later portions of the novel, the refutation of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is largely implicit in the very ideas, structure, and style of the Legend as Ivan tells it. ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is an intricate web in which the unwary are caught all too easily — and Ivan is himself the first victim of Dostoevsky’s stratagems. Dostoevsky once said:
‘In an artistic presentation, idea and intent manifest themselves firmly, clearly, and comprehensibly. And whatever is clear and comprehensible is of course despised by the crowd. It is quite a different thing with something that is involved and makes no sense. Why, ‘we don’t understand this, and hence it must be profound.’
‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is composed according to this recipe: intricate, abstruse, and difficult to make sense of. However, Dostoevsky has taken care that a sensitive and attentive reader can see through Ivan’s fabrication. He allows Ivan to build what appears to be an impressive argument that is, nevertheless, undermined and eventually destroyed by a counterpoint of false notes, dissonances, insinuations, and inadvertent revelations.
Ivan calls his piece a poem, but it is poetic only in those few passages that deal directly with Christ; the rest is rhetoric, in much the same style as the preceding chapter. Ivan juxtaposes his poem to the medieval Legend of the Virgin’s Descent to Hell, of which he tells Aliosha with somewhat supercilious admiration. In the Virgin’s forgiveness of the murders and tormentors of her son is given a first response to Ivan’s ‘Revolt.’ At the same time, the recollection of the genuine legend helps the reader to expose Ivan’s pseudolegend for what it is. ‘A silly poem by a silly student who never wrote two lines of poetry in his life.’
The melodramatic appearance of the Grand Inquisitor, ‘tall and erect, with an emaciated face and sunken eyes, in which there gleams, however, a brilliance like a fiery spark,’ shows up the unreal quality of this figure — one need only compare it with Father Zosima’s modest and unassuming presence. Later, in Ivan’s nightmare, the Devil will make fun of Ivan’s penchant for romantic glamor. Anyway, the relationship between Ivan and his creation, the Grand Inquisitor, soon turns into one of romantic irony, as Ivan will alternately identify with the Grand Inquisitor and then detach himself from him and present him as a vehicle of his own ideas. He thus deprives his creation of its authoritative voice and its integrity, making it sound self-conscious, overly emphatic, defensive, and even shrill. The Grand Inquisitor’s arguments, recognizably Ivan’s own, are advance intermittently and intertwiningly on several different levels.
On an anthropological level, the notion is advanced that there are tow kinds of men: the superior few and the inferior many. The ideal condition for humanity is that the inferior be ruled by the superior. On a metaphysical level, it is established that there is no God. Therefore man is free. However, only the superior few know this. Inferior men have a need to believe in a higher power and are anxious to relinquish their freedom at the earliest occasion. The superior will oblige and rule them.
On a hermeneutic level, Christ’s temptation by the Devil is reinterpreted as a fatal mistake on the part of Christ, who misjudged human nature when He extended the privileges of superior men to all humans. Meanwhile, on a historical level, the Church has long since decided that Christ was wrong and the Devil right — and has acted accordingly. Finally, on an apocalyptic level, a terrible age of persecution of the Church by the frankly godless is predicted. But humanity’s attempt to erect this second tower of Babel will fail, and mankind will return to the Church, which will then establish its own utopia on earth, based on miracle, mystery, and authority. The elect will know that these foundations of their rule are fraudulent, but they will bear the burden of this knowledge to make the masses of inferior humans happy.
Although these ideas are presented with great fervor, inserted into each and every one of them are details that will undermine and then explode them. Ivan’s anthropology is vitiated by the fact that it is self-serving, for he counts himself among the ‘clever people.’ The Grand Inquisitor has done nothing for suffering humanity. How is one to believe in a love for mankind whose only expression that we have been told of is the burning of numerous heretics?
On a metaphysical level, Ivan is quite unaware of the words he himself said only minutes earlier: in the Virgin’s descent to Hell, mention is made of certain sinners ‘whom God forgets.’ Ivan calls him ‘an expression of depth and force.’ Could he be one of those sinners? Ivan credits himself, through the Grand Inquisitor, with a love of freedom, yet announces similar feelings in others as a ‘mutiny’ of ‘schoolboys’ — while Aliosha’s word ‘mutiny,’ applied to Ivan, still rings in his ears, and while Ivan refers to himself as ‘only a student.’ The Grand Inquisitor will not allow Christ to add an iota to what is said in Scriptures, ‘lest He deprive men of their freedom,’ yet he is himself engaged in a conspiracy to do just that. Moreover, the Grand Inquisitor lets u s know, inadvertently, that without God there is no real miracle, no real mystery, and no real authority, only a false promise and a false pretense of such. For if Christ had only made a move toward the edge of the tower, He would have naturally fallen to His death. So the Grand Inquisitor denies miracle, mystery, and authority; substituting for them magic, deception, and tyranny. The whole secret of the Grand Inquisitor, says Aliosha, is that he does not believe in God. In Ivan’s interview with the Devil, we shall learn that such unbelief comes from weakness, not from strength.
The very words that introduce the Devil ought to be enough to put the reader on guard: ‘The awesome and wise spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-being.’ Who wants any part of self-destruction and non-being? When the Grand Inquisitor advertises the Devil’s temptation of Christ as something that ‘all the wisdom of the world could not equal in power and profundity,’ it becomes clear to any reader who is not blind to the drift of Dostoevsky’s argument that it leads ad absurda. Obviously there is nothing profound about the Devil’s suggestions, for all three have occurred to everybody in one form or another. the wise man knows that the Devil, or any disciple of his, has not the power to fulfill his promises and that his disciples will likewise have to depend on fraud.
Ivan’s claim that the Church has been for centuries in the hands of men like his Grand Inquisitor is based on mere speculation, as Ivan admits. Aliosha indignantly rejects the assertion, even for the Catholic Church as a whole. Still, this might be one of Ivan’s stronger points. Dostoevsky makes sure it remains a marginal one. Ivan’s apocalyptic vision has him use the Book of Revelation to the extent that it suits his purposes. He predicts the collapse of the godless materialist utopia of ‘the Beast’ following Revelation 17:5, but ignores the exposure and disgrace of the Great Harlot. Ivan perverts the Book of Revelation, much as he perverts every other source he uses in ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ (the Gospel, the Legend of the Virgin’s Descent into Hell, Tiutchev, Pushkin).
All these details in the subtext of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ are not easily detected, but an attentive reader will catch enough along the way. Even a less careful reader will be impressed by a basic emotive undercurrent that is present in ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ from beginning to end: the weak, lowly, wretched masses of humanity and the wise and mighty few. A steady stream of abuse is heaped upon the former, a steady flow of self-congratulatory adulati8on descends on the later. The former are ultimately reduced to so much ‘cattle’ and ‘geese,’ while the latter become ‘gods,’ implying, ‘And whosoever shall exalt himself, shall be abased, and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.’ (Matt. 23:12).
The physical details of the Grand Inquisitor’s utopia are made to be very much like those of any socialist materialist utopia. The difference is that the socialist utopia is based on faith in a national effort of an enlightened mankind (Rakitin’s statement); while the Grand Inquisitor’s utopia is produced by an elite for the benefit of the ignorant masses and involves a sham religion.
‘Receiving bread from us, they will of course are clearly that we take the bread made by their hands from then, to give it to them, without any miracle. they will see that we do not change any stones to bread, but in truth they will be more thankful for taking it from our hands than for the bread itself!’
The suggestion that the Grand Inquisitor’s utopia could survive after the socialist utopia has failed seems unconvincing. In competition with Rakitin’s theory, Ivan’s suffers the same fat as does his personal career: by discrediting Rakitin, he discredits himself.
When Ivan finally declares that even Christ ‘turned back and joined…the clever people,’ he forgets that only the day before Fiodor Pavlovich had declared himself to be precisely one of those ‘clever people’ who have discovered that there is no God and take advantage of this circumstance. Soon Ivan will be welcomed to the circle of ‘clever people’ by none other than the lackey Smerdyakov. In the chapters following ‘The Grand Inquisitor,’ Ivan keeps saying and doing things he did not mean to do or say. The reader suspects that he acts under a subconscious compulsion and that this compulsion is somehow linked with the person of Smerdyakov.”
And a question: As far as I can determine, Dostoevsky, after his early flirtation with rebellion, came to believe strongly in the need for the absolute power of the Orthodox Church and the Tsar. If I’m right on this, isn’t he then really on the side of the Grand Inquisitor in that the superior few need to rule over the masses?
More to come…