August 4, 2000
The Politics of the Inquisitor
By PETER BROOKS
NEW HAVEN -- Though George W. Bush admits he is not an avid
reader, his wife is a serious lover of literature. Laura Bush has read
widely, from Greek tragedy to William Faulkner to Truman Capote. When asked
to name her favorite book, on the long list she has read, she selected
the "The Grand Inquisitor" section of Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov."
This is an interesting and suggestive choice, of a chilling and troubling
chapter in a challenging novel.
Of course Mrs. Bush's choice of reading has nothing to do with Republican
philosophy. But since her husband is the party's nominee for president,
one might speculate about the messages the Republicans could find in this
"The Grand Inquisitor" is actually a story told by Ivan Karamazov to
his brother Alyosha, in which Ivan imagines the return of Jesus to earth
in Seville at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Jesus is taken prisoner
by the 90-year-old Grand Inquisitor who then -- like police interrogators
before and since -- details the suspect's crimes. The return of Jesus after
15 centuries of absence from the world interferes with the work of the
church. Jesus preached a message of freedom, but the church has discovered
that it is not freedom that humankind desires; it is authority.
"Oh, we shall convince them that they will only become free when they
resign their freedom to us, and submit to us," says the Inquisitor. "The
most tormenting secrets of their conscience -- all, all they will bring
to us, and we will decide all things, and they will joyfully believe our
decision, because it will deliver them from their great care and their
present terrible torments of personal and free decision."
As for Jesus, he has no place in a well-regulated society. He is a troublemaker,
a scandal: "For if anyone has ever deserved our stake, it is you. Tomorrow
I shall burn you." He is sent to the auto-da-fé.
Dostoyevsky's creation of 1880 is hauntingly predictive of the inquisitors
of the 20th century who all, from whatever political faith and ideological
position, claim their authority to dispose of human freedom in the name
of authority. Only the inquisitors know what humanity really wants and
needs. We must surrender to the inquisitors for the sake of our salvation.
"The Grand Inquisitor" comes to us in a dialogue between the tormented,
doubting Ivan and the Christian Alyosha, and it is itself a dialogue between
the Inquisitor and Jesus -- who remains silent, but whose presence makes
the speaker shape his words to his presence, to his views and unvoiced
No novelist has ever been more fully committed to open-ended dialogue
than Dostoyevsky. As the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin put it, "Every
thought of Dostoyevsky's heroes . . . senses itself to be from the very
beginning a rejoinder in an unfinalized dialogue." The novelist eschews
his own authority as creator to let his characters dramatize radically
different positions. He refuses certainty, dogma, conclusion.
Who wins in the dialogues between the Inquisitor and Jesus, between
Ivan and Alyosha? "The Grand Inquisitor" in fact has two different endings.
In the first, the Inquisitor sends Jesus to be burned at the stake. Then,
as Ivan continues his debate with Alyosha, he suggests another ending:
Jesus kisses the old Inquisitor on the lips, and the Inquisitor tells him:
"Go, and do not come again . . . never, never!" The prisoner walks free
And in "The Brothers Karamazov" as a whole, it is impossible to say
what final, authoritative meaning the novel leaves with us. If Alyosha
speaks the final, joyful words of faith, for most readers they don't cancel
out Ivan's "damned questions," his wrestling with the darkness of the soul
in a grim world where it seems reasonable to say that "everything is permitted."
As a political and spiritual parable, "The Grand Inquisitor" is ambiguous.
It offers no authoritative answer. It suggests that truth lies only in
the dialogue, open-ended, anguishing. It might be recommended reading for
writers of party platforms, which tend toward self-righteous authoritative
pronouncements on anguishing issues.
The rhetoric of "compassionate conservatism" is belied by a smug claim
to truth on a host of social issues. The G.O.P. might also ponder another
moment in "The Grand Inquisitor," when the Inquisitor imagines still another
voice in the dialogue -- the voice of the utopian protester, like some
of those heard outside the Philadelphia convention hall: "Do you know that
centuries will pass and mankind will proclaim with the mouth of its wisdom
and science that there is no crime, and therefore no sin, but only hungry
men? 'Feed them first, then ask virtue of them!' "
Peter Brooks, a professor of the humanities at Yale, is the
author of "Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature."