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“My poem is called ‘The Grand Inquisitor’—

an absurd thing, but I want you to hear it.”

Ivan Karamazov


The Karamazov brothers were so young! Ivan was twenty-five, Alyosha, nineteen. Dmitri, their half-brother, was twenty-eight when charged with their father’s murder. Periodically, during long Alaskan winters, I re-read the book (Constance Garnett’s translation, although now I prefer Pevear and Volokhonsky’s, for they bring out its humor, even its joy, in American English.). The vastness of the Interior forests, the darkness of winters made Dostoyevsky’s manic Russia imaginable. His characters’ excesses, their desperation, even their mysticism, loomed up, say in some tiny village far up a frozen river. The monk-elder Zosima was not well understood in world fiction. I observed someone of his like in the Alaskan Interior, and he grew for me in body and radiant spirit, and was never passive, as critics had typified him. I saw that “passivity” was a misreading. His tenderness, his low bow before another’s suffering; the focus of his mind, clarity of spirit; his humility, found in the memory of his long-dead brother’s voice: “‘each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all’”; yet, his good cheer: this deeply Russian personage acted in the monastery in that small town, in a distance province, in the way grace acts upon the heart, and he began to seem believable in literature, as in life.

In those years, his dark, brilliant opposite, the Grand Inquisitor, more often the subject of critical exegesis, was, in my reading, no more than an abstraction and cliché devised for harrowing the Roman Church by Dostoyevsky, the Slavophil. A German professor of mine had said—this was heartening—that one’s first reading of any Dostoyevsky novel was nearly useless; not till the fourth or fifth did it begin to come alive. He was not wrong; and I persevered, out there in the bush, wrestling THE BROTHERS into existence. They were young men struggling with the depravity of the “Karamazov force” running in their blood (depravity?) and trying to be good (but what is a good man?).

In a more temperate climate, I have been thinking about them again, especially about Ivan, and Ivan’s poem, and the implications of his despair, and I find myself contemplating the Grand Inquisitor as rather more than a stock character. – Early on, Alyosha goes to visit Ivan, with whom he is hardly acquainted, the brothers having been brought up separately. At once they begin talking about their father and brother, and about good and evil, God and the devil. Ivan understands that Alyosha believes in God—he is a novice in the monastery, after all, and the protégé of the elder, Zosima—but wants to know by what beliefs his brothers live.

Ivan describes his fury against God, for the unredeemed suffering of children in the name of truth. He is horrified by the idea that one who causes suffering should be forgiven; that a tortured person should forgive his torturer, worse, the torturer of his child, for the sake of harmony with God. “‘I don’t want harmony, for love of mankind I don’t want it,’” Ivan tells his brother fervently. “’I want to remain with unrequited suffering. I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission.’” Alyosha is appalled: “‘That is rebellion,’” he says, casting down his eyes.

You can’t live by rebellion, says Ivan, and he wants to live. He asks Alyosha: If you, as a monk, could find the way to happiness and peace for all humanity, but at the price of the suffering of one child, would you do it?

No, replies Alyosha.

Ivan persists: Would you admit that the humans for whom you are building this happiness would accept it on the blood of the tortured, unjustified child?

No, says Alyosha: because you have forgotten that only one being in the world has the right to forgive all, for everything, and that is the Lord.

I haven’t forgotten, replies Ivan. At that moment, he confides that he has composed a poem (“‘Oh, no, I didn’t write it,’ Ivan laughed, ‘I’ve never composed two lines of verse in my whole life. But I made up this poem and memorized it. I made it up in great fervor’”), and he wants to tell it to Alyosha.

He is as proud and nervous as any young poet, showing off, yet believing intensely in that which he has made.

In his poem, as in medieval tales and verses (he says fussily; he must have a “literary preface”), a “higher power” comes down to earth. (“‘He comes onstage in it; actually, he says nothing in the poem, he just appears and passes on. . .but, strange to say, everyone recognizes him. This could be one of the best passages in the poem, I mean, why is it that everyone recognizes him?’”) His poem is set in the sixteenth century, in Seville, on the day after nearly a hundred heretics have been burned alive in the town square. All the populace, high and low, are out in the street. Ivan describes the loving, compassionate, silent man going among the crowd of the sun-drenched city, and how the people recognize him: “‘Here an old man, blind from childhood, calls out from the crowd: “Lord, heal me so that I, too, can see you,” and it is as if the scales fell from his eyes and the blind man sees him.’”

The man performs a miracle, raising from the dead a child in her coffin. The crowd is full of joy.

The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor crosses the square and comes to the door of the cathedral. He “‘is an old man, almost ninety, tall and straight, with a gaunt face and sunken eyes, from which a glitter still shines like a fiery spark. Oh, he is not wearing his magnificent cardinal’s robes in which he had displayed himself to the people the day before, when the enemies of the Roman faith were burned—no, at this moment he is wearing only his old, coarse monastic cassock. He is followed at a certain distance by his grim assistants and slaves, and by “the holy” guard. At the sight of the crowd he stops and watches from afar. He has seen everything….’”

(From Ivan’s eyes, too, a glitter still shines like a fiery spark.)

The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor has the man arrested and put in the prison of the holy court. After a hot, airless nightfall, he visits his prisoner and interrogates him. (“‘I don’t understand what this is, Ivan,’ Alyosha, who all the while had been listening silently, smiled. ‘Is it boundless fantasy, or some mistake on the old man’s part, some impossible qui pro quo?’

(“‘Assume it’s the latter, if you like,’ Ivan laughed, ‘if you’re so spoiled by modern realism and can’t stand anything fantastic—if you want it to be qui pro quo let it be.’”)

It’s absurd to try and paraphrase a poem. It is the character of the Cardinal which looms up suddenly, again, in my mind. Should I rehearse his argument, his denunciation of the good man whose identity he knows full well? It is subtle and complex. Hasn’t it been rehearsed often enough during the last, blood-filled century and a half? Not his argument, but his psychology, is my concern; his reading of human, not divine, nature is my concern. He could be called a good man, in a way, though he has burned the heretics, and would do so again, in the name of humanity, whose weakness he recognizes and pities. This is my concern.

The Cardinal’s arraignment of his prisoner is drawn upon the Temptation in the Desert. He faults the prisoner for having rejected all that was offered him by the “tempter’s” (the Cardinal uses the word dryly) three questions. The prisoner rejected earthly bread (and the desire of men to bow before idols), in the name of freedom and heavenly bread. But humans are weak, explains the Cardinal. They cannot bear the weight of their God-given free will. They long for satisfaction of their bodily hunger, not food for the soul; they long to worship in community, without dissention; they long to obey, and will be bought with bread.

He says: “No, the weak, too, are dear to us.” They are dear because they will become obedient and dependent, because they can’t stand to be free and hungry; and heavenly bread isn’t enough: only for the very strong, the few. “‘But we shall say that we are obedient to you and rule in your name. We shall deceive them again, for this time we shall not allow you to come to us. This deceit will constitute our suffering, for we shall have to lie. This is what the first question in the wilderness meant, and this is what you rejected in the name of freedom, which you placed above everything.’”

Secondly, he accuses the prisoner of having acted “proudly and magnificently, like God,” by refusing to throw himself from the height and rely on God and his angels to save him. (The Cardinal’s argument is Voltairean:) “‘But you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles. And since man himself cannot bear to be left without miracles, he will go and create new miracles for himself, his own miracles this time, and will bow down to the miracles of quacks, or women’s magic, though he be rebellious, heretical, and godless a hundred times over.’”

On this, the second, count, the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor is most furious in his condemnation. Here, Dostoyevsky was at his most prophetic, by demonstrating the tortuous working of the dialectic; reading it is like going back in time.

“‘You did not come down again [from the cross] because, again, you did not want to enslave man by a miracle and thirsted for faith that is free, not miraculous…But here, too, you overestimated mankind, for, of course they are slaves, although they were created rebels.’” “‘I swear, man is created weaker and baser than you thought him!’” “‘Respecting him so much, you behaved as if you had ceased to be compassionate, because you demanded too much of him—and who did this? He who loved him more than himself! Respecting him less, you would have demanded less of him, and that would be closer to love, because his burden would be lighter.’” If men are rebels, they are so as schoolchildren, “‘feeble rebels, who cannot endure their own rebellion.’” They will blaspheme and say that Who created them rebels meant to laugh at them; they will despair; they will blaspheme, and grow more miserable, “‘for human nature cannot bear blasphemy and in the end always takes revenge for it.’”

He asks: “‘Is it the fault of the weak soul that it is unable to contain such terrible gifts? Can it be that you indeed came only to the chosen ones and for the chosen ones? But if so, there is a mystery here, and we cannot understand it.’” And thus, “we” must also preach mystery, and say that free choice and love do not matter, but obedience matters. The Cardinal: “‘And so we did. We corrected your deed and based it on miracle, mystery, and authority.’”

The third gift refused was earthly power. But, mankind seeks “‘someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill—for the need for universal union is the third and last torment of men. Mankind in its entirety has always yearned to arrange things so that they must be universal…Had you accepted Caesar’s purple, you would have founded a universal kingdom and granted universal peace. For who shall possess mankind if not those who possess their conscience and give them their bread? And so we took Caesar’s sword, and in taking it, of course, we rejected you and followed him.’” He means “the tempter.”

The Grand Inquisitor has made a mazy maze of arguments: “‘Oh, we shall convince them that they will only become free when they resign their freedom to us, and submit to us. Will we be right, do you think, or will we be lying? They themselves will be convinced that we are right, for they will remember to what horrors of slavery and confusion your freedom led them. Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze….’”

Alyosha is astonished and appalled. The poem praises Christ, not reviles him, as Ivan meant it to; and Ivan’s idea of freedom is unbelievable. As for the Cardinal, he is not the whole of Rome, but the worst of it—“‘the Inquisitors, the Jesuits….’”

But wait, Ivan asks, “‘Why can’t there happen to be among them at least one sufferer who is tormented by great sadness and loves mankind?’” Someone like this old Inquisitor, who has suffered and overcome the flesh through great will, who loved mankind all his life, only to learn that it is for nothing, and that most of mankind, weaker than he, is made miserable by its freedom. “‘Having understood that, he returned and joined … the intelligent people. Couldn’t this have happened?’”

“‘Whom did he join? What intelligent people?’ Alyosha exclaimed, almost passionately. ‘They are not so very intelligent, nor do they have any great mysteries and secrets … Except maybe for godlessness, that’s their whole secret. Your inquisitor doesn’t believe in God, that’s his whole secret!’”

“‘At last you’ve understood,’” says Ivan. That is the whole idea: strength of will given over, first, to service of God; then, tragically disillusioned, going on in service to Man, to poor, weak, suffering humankind. “‘Who knows, perhaps such ‘ones’ have been found among the Roman pontiffs. Who knows, maybe this accursed old man, who loves mankind so stubbornly in his own way, exists even now…with the aim of making them happy.’”


The godless Cardinal was a figment of Ivan’s despairing mind. Dostoyevsky looked closely into the minds of such men, intelligenty, and was not wrong about them. Their like did come to power, but in the Supreme Soviet, and, surely, the Cardinal, “this accursed old man who loves mankind so stubbornly in his own way,” was a figure of Lenin. This is not a new observation, although, from where I sit, the time of the Soviet seems now so very long ago. It was curious, then, that Clara Gyˆrgy’s tale of the Marxist puppet master arrived, as if as a reminder and an incitement to think again. Puppets, and their masters, interest me. Published variously before 1987, including in samizdat, her story was the fictional monologue of a well-known Hungarian sociologist, a New Intellectual, party member, veteran of the ’56 uprising, soaking in the gall of disillusion. “‘My puppet-game, my idiocy is not an historical category, I too had dreams once with my friends about the redemption of the world. . . .’”


The argument about Rome continues, until Alyosha asks how the poem ends. “‘I was going to end it like this,’” replies Ivan: The Inquisitor falls silent; silence weighs; his prisoner has listened intently but still says nothing. Then, calmly, directly, he kisses the old man on the lips, gently. “‘That is the whole answer.’” The old man shudders, and tells the man to leave, and never to come back. He lets the prisoner out into the darkness, and the prisoner goes away. As for the Inquisitor: “‘The kiss burns in his heart, but he holds to his former idea.’”

The poem of the Grand Inquisitor has been read in many ways, not least as prescient of the absolute, blood-soaked tyrannies of the twentieth century. Dostoyevsky’s intuition of the absolutist’s psychology was subtle and accurate. Such a one is not a cynic, he wishes to build the happiness of humans, he pities and recognizes their weakness. Isn’t that nearly the same as contempt, however? His argument is with human—God-given—free will and its freedom to err. He seeks power not for “lucre” or earthly splendor, but because he “loves the weak” and will rule them for their own good. That the Inquisitor was a tragic figure, not the cynic, the lapsed idealist of the Marxist puppet master, makes him (surely) not less possible; perhaps more horrific?

Ivan advises Alyosha not to take the poem seriously, he’s not about to run off and join the Jesuits. “‘Good lord, what do I care? As I told you: I just want to drag on until I’m thirty, and then—smash the cup on the floor!’

“‘And the sticky little leaves, and the precious graves, and the blue sky, and the woman you love! How will you live, what will you love them with?’ Alyosha exclaimed ruefully. ‘Is it possible, with such hell in your heart and in your head? No, you’re precisely going in order to join them . . . and if not, you’ll kill yourself, you won’t endure it!’”

Coldly, Ivan replies: “‘There is a force that will endure everything…. The Karamazov force . . . the force of the Karamazov baseness.’”

Alyosha now is truly appalled: “‘You mean “everything is permitted”? Everything is permitted, is that right, is it?’”

One again, a thunderclap out of the old century. If God is dead, there is no morality; there is only despair.

Alyosha silently kisses his brother on the lips. “Literary theft!” Ivan cries, enraptured.


I contrast two kinds of love. The elder, Zosima, bears one kind. “The monks used to say of him that he was attached in his soul precisely to those who were the more sinful, and that he who was the most sinful the elder loved most of all.” The Grand Inquisitor carries another: “We who love the weak.”

The Vatican has been trying to reverse time, and several weeks ago, two notices marked a step forward, two giant steps back. First, it was announced that the Pope John Paul II would move to canonize two of his predecessors, John XXIII, who convened the great council of Vatican II, which opened wide the doors of the Church and welcomed in the people; and Pius IX, who will be remembered by history as a tyrant who tried to reassume “Caesar’s purple,” and as an anti-Semite. (I note with curiosity that Pius IX and Dostoyevsky were contemporaries. The author finished THE BROTHERS in 1860, after three years of labor; while, in 1858, the pope drew his line against modernity, and in 1864, disseminated his reactionary Syllabus of Errors. I wonder if, after all, they might not have held certain beliefs in common, particularly an opposition to atheism and Freemasonry, and realize, again, that my little essay is skimming the surface. There are treacherous depths beneath.)

Second, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, issued a binding letter to the bishops saying that the Roman Catholic Church would no longer refer to “sister” churches—referring particularly to the Anglican and Orthodox—at the “universal” level, as the Roman Church was the “mother” of all Christian churches. The pope’s authority was to be recognized as primate over all heads of church, and the Roman church was to be understood as the true way of salvation. O, the heart sinks in embarrassment! I read, though, that some Orthodox prelates who are considered as conservative in their areas as Ratzinger is in his, have been equally insistent that the churches are not “sisters”—nor are Catholicism and Orthodoxy “two lungs” of the same body, as the Polish Pope has called them—because Orthodoxy is the true church, and only through its ministers are the sacraments administered in truth. (I hear the Slavophil argument; yet, Alyosha, the novice, at least never took the extreme position.)

After feeling alarm and dismay, I almost laughed. Perhaps these are only old men shaking their fists at each other.

Is “the Church” the hierarchy? Is it the magisterium, the teaching authority? Is the Church the visible body of Christ incarnated in its believers? Those who were born Catholic, especially before Vatican II, grew up in a hierarchical, liturgical world, in which we were a segment of, and slightly set off from, the secular-Puritan American society; but also, we were part of that society, which has no category of royalty or obedience to royalty, including the papacy.

The historical authority of the hierarchy is implicated with a deep hatred of “Woman,” the near-sinful nature of women, except for the Virgin Mary, who is the exception. It carries the mummified remains of great secular power (Cardinal Ratzinger’s pronouncement that there are not “sister” churches sounds like revanchism), as well as sacral legitimacy. The line of the authority of bishops is traced back to Peter. The pope is the vicar of Christ on earth. But the faithful no longer believe that in matters of faith and morals the pope cannot err, although his vicarage is the basis of the claim to his magisterial infallibility. They simply don’t believe it anymore. You cannot go backward; you cannot give up freedom of thought, and allow yourself to fall back under old rules of obedience.

Cardinal Ratzinger is head of the holy office that succeeded from the Office of the Inquisition, and the most common cliché attached to him remarks this fact. I won’t presume to wonder if he ever read THE BROTHERS. Would it matter? It is the portrait drawn in Ivan’s terrifying, but also rather lurid, poem of a will to power based in contempt for one’s fellow humans—fellow sufferers, fellow sinners—that the twentieth century proved as deadly accurate, and not as criticism of Rome. Let me grant the idealism of Ivan’s Cardinal: couldn’t one do what he did out of love for one’s fellow men, not for love of lucre or earthly power? Grant that; grant that few have maintained the integrity of their love and desire to serve, even to the point of burning the ‘beloved’ heretics for the good of their souls; while so many mimic it for their own purposes – grant it. Look, then, at its burnt-out case, the Marxist puppet master:

“‘You know, only those people are being kicked out of “our” company who deserve it, those who don’t even make an effort to play the puppeteer’s role even half-heartedly. You may do anything, nobody would notice it as long as you hold up the puppet representing you: the puppet’s face is well-manneredly rigid so that you can put any words into its mouth. You may freely kick your friend in the ass if your puppet bows afterwards. Then you may apologize by referring to a momentary black-out, to collective responsibility, or to some disturbing news of foreign policy. Soon, he, the abused one, will be begging your pardon; how could he even suppose that you assaulted him deliberately?’”

Thus, the abused one learns to forgive, begging pardon of, his oppressor. What is the difference, in that case, between love and contempt . . . ?


Ashes from the collapse of the Russian empire are stirred, as an ember flares in Rome. I am dismayed by these recent pronouncements, because they call out the worst impulse in people. If Americans, as believers, as the “laity,” can ignore them, if we can live with divided minds, we will be safe from their wickedness. But our experience is secular and democratic; we are not used to bowing before the hierarchy, and nobody is going to burn us as heretics. It is not doctrine that disquiets me. What disquiets me is the psychological mechanism embedded in it. It is this mechanism—a sense of superiority as the elect of God, an untouchable supreme being, which claims absolute authority for the institutional Church—which is deeply wrong. It is wrong because it permits oneself, even the smallest self, to feel superior to another person of a different faith, and condescend, and proclaim one’s love even for this person. The consequences of this mechanism have been too great; the mechanism itself needs to have sand thrown in its gears. How should one think, now, of Pope John Paul II, an heroic old man without whom the Soviet Empire would not have collapsed as it did, and Cardinal Ratzinger, his distinguished theologian? They have not asked for this, but perhaps we are being asked to bow before their suffering, as the elder, Zosima, would have done?

And yet, a sobering observation was made last January, by Archbishop Rembert Weakland, the humane prelate of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, in a confidential letter to his archdiocesan priests. The letter was later published by the Milwaukee Journal and excerpted in the National Catholic Reporter, and it caused much comment. Speaking of his announced retirement in 2001, Weakland said he could not predict who his successor would be, but that the man would probably reflect a general movement in the church toward conformity, away from diversity in the liturgy.

“If my generation, the first after the council, erred in some of its more radical implementations of Vatican Council II, it did so out of zeal and unbridled enthusiasm, but with a clear theological perspective it derived from Vatican Council II,” Weakland wrote. “I fear the restorationist implementation that is characterizing the second post-conciliar generation will err on the side of rigidity, rubricism and a fear of the gifts of individuals, especially of the laity, and build their renewal more on reaction than on theological insights.”

He concluded, wryly: “The subsequent or third generation may well just get it right, but most of us by then will already have seen the fullness of Truth.”

I write this as, among other things, a long-fallen-away Catholic. I am not writing about belief, and not only about Catholics, but about the corrupting nature of fundamental power, and I am troubled by what I see.



THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (North Point, 1990)
National Catholic Reporter
, March 10, 2000

Confessions of a Marxist Puppet Master” – this issue

On the Marionette Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2 A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4
The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4 On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3
Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3 Fantastic Design, with Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1
On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2 Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4
Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1


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