The Grand Inquisitor
The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“But here, too, it’s impossible to do without a preface, a literary preface, that is—pah!”
“and what sort of writer am I!
You see, my action takes place in the
sixteenth century, and back then—by the way, you must have learned this in school—
back then it was customary in poetic works to bring higher powers down to earth.
need to mention Dante.
In France, court clerks, as well as monks in the monasteries,
gave whole performances in which they brought the Madonna, angels, saints, Christ, and
God himself on stage.
At the time it was all done quite artlessly.
In Victor Hugo’s
Dame de Paris
, in the Paris of Louis XI, to honor the birth of the French dauphin, an
edifying performance is given free of charge for the people in the city hall, entitled
de la trés sainte et gracieuse Vierge Marie
, in which she herself appears in
person and pronounces her
. With us in Moscow, in pre-Petrine antiquity,
much the same kind of dramatic performances, especially from the Old Testament, were
given from time to time; but, besides dramatic performances, there were many stories and
‘verses’ floating around the world in which saints, angels, and all the powers of heaven
took part as needed. In our monasteries such poems were translated, recopied, even
composed—and when?—under the Tartars.
There is, for example, one little monastery
poem (from the Greek, of course):
The Mother of God Visits the Torments
, with scenes of
a boldness not inferior to Dante’s. The Mother of God visits hell and the Archangel
Michael guides her through ‘the torments.’
She sees sinners and their sufferings. Among
them, by the way, there is a most amusing class of sinners in a burning lake: some of
them sink so far down into the take that they can no longer come up again, and
God forgets’—an expression of extraordinary depth and force. And so the Mother of
God, shocked and weeping, falls before the throne of God and asks pardon for everyone
in hell, everyone she has seen there, without distinction. Her conversation with God is
immensely interesting. She pleads, she won’t go away, and when God points out to her
the nail-pierced hands and feet of her Son and asks:
‘How can I forgive his tormentors?’
she bids all the saints, all the martyrs, all the angels and archangels to fall down together
with her and plead for the pardon of all without discrimination.
In the end she extorts
from God a cessation of torments every year, from Holy Friday to Pentecost, and the
sinners in hell at once thank the Lord and cry out to him:
‘Just art thou, O Lord, who hast
Well, my little poem would have been of the same kind if it had appeared
He comes onstage in it; actually, he says nothing in the poem, he just appears
and passes on.
Fifteen centuries have gone by since he gave the promise to come in his
Kingdom, fifteen centuries since his prophet wrote: