Christ Is Not an Idea
In Dostoyevsky's greatest novel, logic and rationalism don't hold up in the face of unexplained suffering--but Jesus does.
BY: James Wood
The Brothers Karamazov, for all its "dialogism," represents a vast Christian exhortation. It tells the story of the unstable and passionate Karamazov family, gentry in a miserable provincial town dominated by a monastery. The hated patriarch Fyodor is murdered, and suspicion falls on Dimitri, who had visited the house at the time, and who had emerged covered in blood and apparently three thousand rubles richer. In fact, Fyodor was killed, as we discover late in the book, by his atheistic skulking servant Smerdyakov, who is a kind of devil-figure. But each of the three brothers, Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, had at one time imagined the murder of his father. Dimitri had attacked Fyodor and had several times threatened to kill him; Ivan, an atheist who believes that in a world without God and immortality "everything is permitted," appears to countenance killing Fyodor when he meets the murderous Smerdyakov and informs him that he will be away from the house for a certain period. Certainly Smerdyakov takes Ivan's comment to be an official approval. Even the saintly Alyosha, who had been a monk in training at the monastery, admits that he has imagined murder. ***
The Brothers Karamazov is a book in love with, and afraid of, ideas. In the end, I think, it proposes the peace of a realm beyond ideas: paradise. This is best seen in the novel's most famous chapter, Ivan's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor." Just before he tells this story to the believer Alyosha, Ivan attacks God for allowing to exist a world in which children suffer. Ivan is one of those atheists who stands on the rung just below faith; he is an almost-believer, and Dostoevsky clearly admires him. In such a man, unbelief is very close to belief, just as in many of Dostoevsky's other characters love is close to hate, punishment to sin, buffoonery to confession. Religion, Ivan says, tells us that in a future paradise the lamb will lie down with the lion, that we shall live in harmony. But "if everyone must suffer in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children to do with it....Why do they get thrown on the pile, to manure someone's future harmony with themselves?" He continues: "I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child. They have put too high a price on harmony; we can't afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket."
He gets Alyosha, the true Christian, to agree with him. If one could build "the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny child ... and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears--would you agree to be the architect of such conditions?" Alyosha says that he would not. But, replies Alyosha, there is Christ, who can "forgive everything, forgive all and for all." To which Ivan responds with his now famous legend. It, and the preceding chapter, are deservedly revered. The writing races on a thousand legs and finally takes flight. It has the ferocity, the august vitality, the royal perspective, of scriptural writing. It is, truly, visited prose. In the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, Christ is upbraided for allowing humans too much freedom. Humans do not want freedom, says the Inquisitor to Christ, humans are afraid of freedom. They want, really, to bow down to an idol, to subject themselves. They have no desire to live in the freedom to choose between good and evil, between doubt and knowledge.