A Karamazov Diary: 4 – Religion

So saturated is this novel with religious belief, I find it hard to see how anyone who refuses to view religion with anything other than disdain could possibly appreciate it. At the very least, an imaginative sympathy with the religious mindset is required: otherwise, the novel would merely emerge as gibberish. 

To attempt to summarise the religious content of The Brothers Karamazov is presumptuous, as any summary, even the most incisive, is bound to be a crude simplification, and hence, a distortion, of the very complex issues broached in the novel. But one issue this novel does not address is the one many would think is the most basic issue of all: does God exist? It is not that Dostoyevsky does not have an interest in this matter: it’s more that this is not what the novel is about. Ivan Karamazov, in the chapters entitled (in David McDuff’s translation) “The Brothers Become Acquainted” and “Mutiny”, presents the most powerful argument I have come across against the idea of religion. But before he presents his argument, he states quite clearly that he is not interested in whether God created man, or whether man created God. His argument concerns not the existence of God as such, but the nature of the world that God, should He exist, has created: and this world Ivan cannot accept. He acknowledges that he is a “worm” incapable of understanding God’s greater purpose; that it may well be that there will ultimately be an eternal harmony in which all is resolved, an infinity where parallel lines do indeed meet. But if life is the price to be paid for this eternal harmony, then, whatever it is we are paying for, the price is too high. And he, Ivan, most respectfully “returns the ticket”. 

Such a summary – indeed, any summary – of Ivan’s argument sounds glib. The chapters in which this argument is presented really require to be read. Indeed, if there is any writing that may be described as “required reading”, it is this: in an earlier post, I described it as a sort of “hammering inside the head”. That is how I felt when I first read it aged fifteen, and that is how I feel reading it now, aged fifty. It is impossible to convey in any summary the overpowering intensity of passion with which this argument is presented. 

And it is strange that Dostoyevsky could present this argument with such passion, because his own position – stated in a letter to a friend, and later attributed to the character Shatov in the novel The Devils – is that even if it were to be scientifically proved beyond all doubt that God doesn’t exist, he would rather be wrong with Christ than right without. Where Ivan rejects God even if God exists, Dostoyevsky accepts God even if He doesn’t. In both Dostoyevsky’s view and in Ivan’s, the actual fact of existence is an irrelevance. 

And yet, given that Dostoyevsky and Ivan are diametrically opposed to each other, it is remarkable how very convincingly Dostoyevsky presents Ivan’s argument. If, from this, we may conclude that there was at least a part of Dostoyevsky – even a large part of Dostoyevsky – that was in sympathy with Ivan, it is also true, I think, that there is a part of Ivan – once again, a possibly large part – that is in sympathy with his creator. For Ivan is no mere pocket atheist: he is aware, only too aware, of the endless complexity of it all: there is no single point where he – nor, one suspects, Dostoyevsky himself – could settle upon, and say with certainty “Here I stand”: each argument has simultaneously its counter-arguments, and the contradictions this involves co-exist; and yet, these contradictions cannot ever be resolved.  As a consequence, the fictional world of The Brothers Karamazov is one in which everything is in endlessly in a state of flux. 

And these are not merely abstract ideas: perhaps no other novelist has presented so convincingly a world in which ideas matter – in which the way we live our lives, our very perception of life itself, is predicated upon the intellectual; where, indeed, the intellectual is also the emotional. The philosopher Nietzsche once said that an idea could make him physically ill: the novelist Dostoyevsky depicts how this is possible. For Ivan is certainly ill. This is perhaps not so remarkable in a novel where more or less every character seems hysterical or mentally ill in some way or other, but Ivan, in particular, cannot remain sane with all these contradictions whirling inside his brain. For, immediately after presenting to Alyosha his arguments against religion, Ivan tells of a “poem” he had once written: “The Grand Inquisitor”. 

If summary of Ivan’s case against religion had been difficult, a summary of “The Grand Inquisitor” isn’t even to be attempted. Here, the earth seems to open at our feet. The story itself is simple enough: after an auto-da-fé in 16th century Spain, in which the Grand Inquisitor, a wizened old man with bloodless lips (a figure borrowed from Schiller’s play Don Carlos) had burnt at the stake hundreds of heretics, Christ himself descends to earth. Everyone recognises Him, and flocks to Him: the aged Grand Inquisitor recognises him also, and angrily orders Him to be arrested. He is obeyed. And then, that night, the Grand Inquisitor enters Christ’s cell, and delivers to him a long monologue, explaining why, the next morning, he will order Christ to be burnt at the stake, and why, once again, he will be obeyed. Christ himself remains completely silent as this monologue is delivered. And this monologue opens up areas of enquiry that are well beyond the scope of an ordinary novel. 

As with those deeply enigmatic parables of Kafka, there seems no end to the possible interpretations of this extraordinary “poem” of Ivan’s. But interpretation seems pre-empted, because – again as with Kafka – the parable itself contains its own interpretation. The Grand Inquisitor interprets the chapter from the Gospel according to Matthew in which Satan offers Christ three temptations in the wilderness, and Christ rejects them all. The Grand Inquisitor spends much time on each of these temptations, teasing out the last possible drop of meaning, of significance. Christ, argues the Inquisitor (and I am afraid I have to summarise here!) had offered mankind freedom, and hence, responsibility; but in doing so, he had over-estimated mankind. The Grand Inquisitor, on the other hand, a true lover of mankind, has been correcting Christ’s work. Christ, he argues, should have accepted what the Devil had offered: for the sake of mankind he should have accepted. 

I don’t know that my grossly inadequate grasp of theology or of philosophy qualifies me to comment on any of this. But it does seem to me that this fable, however one interprets it, undercuts immediately the argument that Ivan had previously presented. Unless, of course, one were to be in agreement with the Grand Inquisitor: some readers, I imagine, might. Ivan, I don’t think, is, and, being the intelligent man he is, he realises that his argument against religion, although it remains uncountered, and hence, still valid, cannot exist simultaneously in his mind with his hatred for what the Grand Inquisitor stands for. And yet, in Ivan’s case, the two do co-exist, and ultimately, this drives him mad. 

The novel is exploratory rather than didactic: Dostoyevsky makes no attempt to resolve the dichotomy presented. But the dichotomy is religious in nature, and exists at the very centre of this deeply troubling work. For what the Grand Inquisitor stands for is surely what we would now call totalitarianism: it is an attempt to rob humanity of its freedom and its responsibility, to regulate and to re-engineer not merely human behaviour, but human perception itself. Most, I imagine, would think of this as wrong, but Dostoyevsky went further: he was a deeply religious man, and, like Pasternak after him, thought it nothing less than sinful. And yet, for all that, Ivan’s argument against religion – against God’s creation, even if God exists – remains unanswered. This irresolvable conflict gives this novel a peculiar tension that I don’t think I have encountered anywhere else. 


I realise that in the above, I have been writing about issues that I am not qualified to write about: I have no background whatever in philosophy, theology, metaphysics, or in anything of that nature. This is why I hesitated before attempting to write anything at all on this matter. But these issues are so much at the heart of The Brothers Karamazov, that it would be nonsense to write about this novel and not broach them in some way or other. But never have I felt more diffident about putting up a post. However, inadequate though this post is, I suppose it might as well stand.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alex on December 7, 2010 at 1:20 am

    Illuminating, as always. I love your blog and read it with the utmost attention. In the not so distant future I’d love to read your opinions about one of your favourite novels, the one about that wily man who wandered in Dublin.


    • Hello Alex, thank you very much for that. Although his works fascinate me, I do find Dostoyevsky a difficult writer, and often quite alien to my sensibilities. He is certainly a troubling writer, but it’s worthwhile being troubled by him (if that makes any sense!), and I find that writing up my thoughts in some form helps me get them into some sort of order.

      As for the blog, I suppose I started it partly for my own benefit (as I said, writing up one’s thoughts does help impose some order on them), and also because, ideally, I envisaged to myself a sort of virtual literary cafe where interested readers can drop in and talk about serious literature in a serious manner. Whether it will eventually develop into something like that I don’t know, but for the moment, I am certainly enjoying writing these posts, and it’s great to see the blog attracting a few readers!

      I’d love to write about “Ulysses” some time – maybe next year. It certainly won’t be an academic treatise, but Joyce didn’t write this book with only academics in mind. Indeed, it may provide me with a good excuse to read the thing again!

      All the best for now,


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