Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf
THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV
Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880
Folio Society, 1964; bound in illustrated boards with slipcase; drawings by Nigel Lambourne
Wagner and Dostoevsky had a lot in common. Neither was ever at risk of underestimating his own genius, and the behaviour of neither improved as result. Both were prone to go over the top. You can find forests of exclamation marks in the writings of both. And both could and did bang on for far too long for some of us. They both badly needed an editor. But if you persist with either of these men of genius, you will come across art of a kind that you will not find elsewhere. The Brothers Karamazov, is a case in point. In my view, it could be improved by being halved – but you would be at risk of abandoning diamonds.
The most famous part of the novel comes with a sustained conversation between two brothers, Alyosha, who is of a saintly and God-fearing disposition, and Ivan, who is of a questing and God-doubting outlook. The conversation comes in Part 2, Book 5, chapters 4 and 5, Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor.
Ivan gets under way with ‘I must make a confession to you. I never could understand how one can love one’s neighbours.’ The author probably knew that Tolstoy had written a book that asserted that the failure of civilisation derived from our failure to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount. We are familiar with Ivan’s biggest problem.
And, indeed, people sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel. A tiger merely gnaws and tears to pieces, that’s all he knows. It would never occur to him to nail men’s ears to a fence and leave them like that overnight, even if he were able to do it ….The most direct and spontaneous pastime we have is the infliction of pain by beating.
Well, that attitude is not completely dead in Russia. Ivan is objecting to the unfairness, and the random nature, of cruelty, and he comes up with a phrase that so moved Manning Clark.
Surely the reason for my suffering was not that I as well as my evil deeds and sufferings may serve as manure for some future harmony for someone else. I want to see with my own eyes the lion lay down with the lamb and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it has all been for. All religions on earth are based on this desire, and I am a believer…I don’t want any more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price….Too high a price has been placed on harmony. We cannot afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket….It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.
That is very strong stuff. There may be answers, but Alyosha doesn’t have them.
‘This is rebellion,’ Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.
‘Rebellion? I’m sorry to hear you say that, said Ivan with feeling. One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me straight out, I call on you –imagine me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.’
‘No I wouldn’t said Alyosha softly.
Nor would any other sane person. So much for rebellion – now for the Grand Inquisitor. Ivan said he wrote a long poem about this functionary. He had set it in Spain during the Inquisition.
The Cardinal is very old, but in fine fettle. He has just supervised the public execution by fire of nearly one hundred heretics. But his peace is disturbed by the arrival of a holy man. ‘In his infinite mercy he once more walked among men in the semblance of man as he had walked among men for thirty-three years fifteen centuries ago.’ The crowd loves him. A mourning mother says ‘If it is you, raise my child from the dead.’ The only words he utters are in Aramaic, ‘Talitha cumi’ – ‘and the damsel arose’. And she does, and looks round with ‘her smiling wide-open eyes.’ The crowd looks on in wonder, but the eyes of the Cardinal ‘flash with ominous fire.’
He knits his grey, beetling brows….and stretches forth his finger and commands the guards to seize HIM. And so great is his power and so accustomed are the people to obey him, so humble and submissive are they to his will, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and amid the death-like hush that descends upon the square, they lay hands upon HIM, and lead him away.
That sounds like the Saint Matthew Passion – doubtless, deliberately so. The Cardinal visits the prisoner in the cells. ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’
Do not answer, be silent. And, indeed, what can you say? I know too well what you would say. Besides, you have no right to add anything to what you have already said in the days of old. Why then did you come to meddle with us? For you have come to meddle with us and you know it……Tomorrow, I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the vilest of heretics, and the same people who today kissed your feet will at the first sign from me rush to take up the coals at your stake tomorrow.
Ivan, brought up in Orthodoxy, explains that that in his view the fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism is that ‘Everything has been handed over by you to the Pope, and therefore everything now is in the Pope’s hands, and there’s no need for you to come at all now – at any rate, do not interfere for the time being’. Ivan thinks this is the Jesuit view. The Cardinal went on.
It is only now – during the Inquisition – that it has become possible for the first time to think of the happiness of men. Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be happy? You were warned. There has been no lack of warnings, but you did not heed them. You rejected the only way by which men might be made happy, but fortunately in departing, you handed on the work to us.
Then comes the bell-ringer.
You want to go into the world and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which men in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend – for nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and to human society than freedom!….Man, so long as he remains free has no more constant and agonising anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship. But man seeks to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that all men at once agree to worship it all together….It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every man individually and of mankind as a whole from the beginning of time…
Ivan comes again to the problem of freedom which is discussed in conjunction with the three temptations of Christ. It’s as if the Church has succumbed to the third temptation and assumed all power over the world.
There is nothing more alluring to man than this freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either. And instead of firm foundations for appeasing man’s conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was exceptional, enigmatic, and vague, you chose everything that was beyond the strength of men, acting consequently, as though you did not love them at all…You wanted man’s free love so that he would follow you freely, fascinated and captivated by you…..But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?….You did not know that as soon as man rejected miracles, he would at once reject God as well, for what man seeks is not so much God as miracles. And since man is unable to carry on without a miracle, he will create new miracles for himself, miracles of his own, and will worship the miracle of the witch-doctor and the sorcery of the wise woman, rebel, heretic, and infidel though he is a hundred times over…
How will it end?
But the flock will be gathered together again and will submit once more, and this time it will be for good. Then we shall give them quiet humble happiness, the happiness of weak creatures, such as they were created. We shall at last persuade them not to be proud….We shall prove to them that they are weak, that they are mere pitiable children, but that the happiness of a child is the sweetest of all ….The most tormenting secrets of their conscience – everything, everything they shall bring to us, and we shall give them our decision, because it will relieve them of their great anxiety and of their present terrible torments of coming to a free decision themselves. And they will all be happy, all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For we alone, we who guard the mystery, we alone shall be unhappy.
The Grand Inquisitor does not believe in God.
A swipe at one church by an adherent of another? A reprise of the fascism latent in Plato’s Republic? A bitter denunciation of the Russian hunger for dominance by a strong man like Putin? A frightful preview of 1984? It could be some of all of those things, but it is writing of shocking power that gives slashing insights into the human condition. It is for just that reason that we go to the great writers. They may not have the answer, but they ask the big questions.