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The Brothers Karamazov 

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Fyodor  Dostoyevsky

One can say that the entirety of The Brothers Karamazov can be thought of as a response to Ivan Karamazov’s “rebellion,” which he articulates close to the midway point of the novel. Through Ivan Dostoevsky mounts the most austere accusation against God that he can imagine. Ivan refuses to take part in a cosmic program which allows evil to exist. He imagines a cruel God. He returns his ticket to the heavenly banquet.

Ivan’s rebellion is satanic, insofar as we remember the epithet that the Bible ascribes to Satan: he is The Accuser. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer is described in a similar fashion. He accuses God of tyranny, claiming then that it is better to “reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Like Milton’s Lucifer, Ivan rejects God’s plan for creation as intolerable. He conveys his argument to his brother Alyosha, a novice monk, in a series of anecdotes about brutality against children. How could God allow this? Ivan’s prosecution of God pushes Alyosha to an emotional brink. Our culture is filled with this tenor of accusation. The existence, the persistence, of evil is proof that God is an illusion - albeit a historically necessary one - and that the systems of democracy and science will deliver us from barbarity (barbarity which we can perceive in the very religions meant to reveal God to humanity). But Ivan is no atheist. He does not deny the existence of God. Worse, he denounces a real God whom he will expose for his cruelty.

 

Ivan’s is the rhetoric of usurpation. If God can not even protect children, then we will. But the force of his declaration is thrown into startling relief in his legend of the Grand Inquisitor, a story he delivers to Alyosha during this same meeting at the coffee house in which he announces his rebellion. In this story the Inquisitor, the representative of Catholicism, is the usurper. The Church, the Inquisitor proclaims, has replaced God’s gift of freedom with mystery, miracle, and authority, in turn granting humanity the comfort and certainty which it desires more than unbearable freedom. Just as Ivan delivers his rebellion, his accusation, to Alyosha, the Inquisitor delivers his accusation to none other than Jesus Christ, who has returned at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Returned, to do what? To be silent, to be imprisoned, to be condemned, all over again. Jesus receives the Inquisitor’s accusation, and responds with a kiss, which, in some translations, “burns” in the Inquisitor’s heart, and in others, “glows.”

 

It is in this Jesus that many locate the beginning of Dostoevsky’s response to Ivan. It is beautifully ironic - the response begins in Ivan’s own mind. The rest of Ivan’s life will consist of the unraveling of his position; he is turned inside out by the presence of Satan within him, who appears later in the novel as his tormenting double. But I can go no further than to call The Brothers Karamazov a “response,” rather than a solution or answer. In the face of evil, all we can do (and all we must do) is respond. This mode is counter-cultural, insofar as our culture turns on a problem-solution ethic. For Ivan’s Jesus - indeed, for the Jesus of the Gospels - evil will not be solved with a program that plays the binary game that Satan tempts us toward. Rather, we are called to respond to evil with love, by standing with the accused and the victimized, offering a kiss in the face of death.

Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor
December 2017