|"Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest forever, you chose all that is exceptional, vague, and enigmatic; you chose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though you did not love them at all--you who came to give your life for them!"|
This haunting quotation appears in the celebrated chapter "The Grand Inquisitor," from Dostoevsky's masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. By insisting that freedom does not suffice for the amount of innocent suffering in the world, the Grand Inquisitor repudiates Jesus' claim to God's goodness and love. The Brothers Karamazov, originally published periodically by chapter in Russia, was Dostoevsky's last, most exhilarating novel.
Born in 1821 in Moscow, Fyodor Dostoevsky is regarded as a literary genius throughout the modern world and is perhaps the best known Russian author ever. This enigmatic figure was never afraid to tackle formidable questions about morality, politics, and spirituality in his work. Troubled by poverty, gambling, epilepsy, and tragedy during his lifetime, Dostoevsky found solace in Christianity while in a Siberian prison camp, where he kept a copy of the New Testament under his pillow for several years. Christian themes permeate Dostoevsky's novels. In fact, Malcolm Muggeridge said that it was counterproductive for Stalin to ban the Gospels in Russia but permit his people to read the fiction of Dostoevsky.
One of Dostoevsky's earlier, shorter novels is Notes from Underground (1864), in which psychological conflicts of freedom and love plague the novel's antiheroic narrator, the Underground Man. Crime and Punishment (1866) is an extraordinary tale of a murder that displays the possibility of redemption through suffering. Signifying the political influence Dostoevsky had on his Russian countrymen, his 1872 novel Demons (also translated The Devils or The Possessed) depicts a revolutionary group which attempts to overthrow the government. Dostoevsky himself was involved in such an attempt for which he was sentenced to prison.
Edward Ericson, professor of Russian literature at Calvin College, suggests the translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for Dostoevsky's novels mentioned above. Ericson further recommends the following secondary sources: Nicholas Berdyaev's Dostoevsky (Cleveland and New York, 1957) expounds upon the thought, spirituality, and aesthetic qualities of the novelist's work; and The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky's Spiritual Act (Gateway Editions, 1985), by George Panichas, traces the religious themes through five of Dostoevsky's novels. "Religion is the matrix of Dostoevksy's sensibility;" writes Panichas, "it is, first and last, the education and discipline of his imagination."
There are several illuminating interpretations of "The Grand Inquisitor" and how it addresses the problem of theodicy. A significant analysis can be found in Berdyaev's volume under a chapter of the same name and Ellis Sandoz's book Political Apocalypse: A Study of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor (ISI, 2001) gives a penetrating examination. The Times Literary Supplement notes that no interpretation of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor "is as satisfying, as full, or as provocative as that offered by Ellis Sandoz." Also focusing on "The Grand Inquisitor," Bruce K. Ward and P. Travis Kroeker explain Dostoevsky's critique of modernity and how it is relevant to contemporary society in Remembering the End: Dostoevsky as Prophet to Modernity (Westview, 2001). Finally, Ralph Wood has a forthcoming article called "Dostoevsky on the Nature of Human Freedom," to be published in First Things, which argues that "The Grand Inquisitor" is frequently misunderstood by readers who conflate distinct notions of freedom. The Grand Inquisitor, like many Western readers, understands freedom as the autonomous choosing of one's own end, whereas Dostoevsky distinguishes this idea with an Orthodox conception of freedom that humbly realizes its outside obligations.
Culminating in over a quarter-century of scholarship, Professor Joseph Frank has written the critically acclaimed, definitive biography on Dostoevsky in five volumes, all from Princeton University Press. His work not only covers the carefully-researched details of the Russian novelist's life but also provides extensive commentary on Dostoevsky's challenging writings. The first three volumes (1976, 1983, 1986) develop the formative years of Dostoevsky's life prior to his success as a writer, including the significant period from 1850 to 1859 that Dostoevsky spent in a Siberian prison. Upon finishing the fourth volume in 1995 entitled The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, Frank was interviewed on Volume 18 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. Frank noted that Dostoevsky is known for capturing "the moral struggle inside the personality" of his characters, which causes the psychological conflicts so salient in his inspiring novels. Frank recently finished the fifth and final volume, The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881, which covers the time during which Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov. Readers intimidated by the breadth of Frank's work might want to start with the single-volume biography by Konstantin Mochulsky entitled Dostoevsky (Princeton University Press, 1972).
Dostoevsky's other novels include The Gambler (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Eternal Husband (1870), and A Raw Youth (1875). Other recommended resources are Edward Wasiolek's Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction (MIT Press, 1964) and David Walsh's discussion in After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (HarperSanFrancisco, 1990). Christiaan Stange's Dostoevsky Research Station provides 200 relevant links about Dostoevsky. The website High Spirit Low Spirit contains more of his biographical information. [Posted July 2002, PAR]
|J. C. Whitehouse, on Georges Bernanos and the mystery of the human person (MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, March/April 2002) MHT-55.2.2|
Joseph Frank, on moral themes in the fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky (MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Nov./Dec. 1995) MHT-18.1.3