August 4, 2000

The Politics of the Inquisitor

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 literary work. 

"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 objections. 

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 disappears. 

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."

Home | Site Index | Site Search | Forums | Archives | Marketplace

Quick News | Page One Plus | International | National/N.Y. | Business | Technology | Science | Sports | Weather | Editorial | Op-Ed | Arts | Automobiles | Books | Diversions | Job Market | Real Estate | Travel

Help/Feedback | Classifieds | Services | New York Today

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company