Theater of Cruelty

The pull towards evil

The Summer of the Grand Inquisitor. About the fascination of evil
Forfatter: Helmut Lethen
Forlag: Rowohlt Verlag (Hamburg)
MODERNITY / The West, with its colonial history, fell into violence, perfidiously masquerading as humanism. Here about Dostoevsky.


It is an ambitious and particularly multifaceted project that the 83-year-old German professor Helmut Lethen has embarked on in the book The Summer of the Greatßinkvisitors. About the fascination of evil. But when, as a well-read Germanist, you have written numerous books on politics and literature throughout your life, this is ultimately perhaps the most natural thing to do: He seeks the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's book The Brothers Karamasov – then he spans a long arc via myriads of references to the book, presented in literature throughout the ages, including Lethen's own.

Based on the legend, it is about the pull towards evil. Dostoevsky tells the story over thirty pages: In the 16th century, the Messiah briefly returns to earth. He wanders around Seville while the fires of heresy throughout the country burn merrily to the glory of God. Jesus is recognised, he conjures up some miracles on his way and runs into a cardinal – the Grand Inquisitor – in the crowd. This is an old man of nearly ninety years, tall, straight-backed, with a furrowed face and deep sunken eyes which may occasionally twinkle. The Grand Inquisitor has Jesus arrested, and no one protests. The son of God—the greatest heretic of them all—will burn at the stake. The cardinal bursts into anger: What does he mean by coming here and disturbing the peace again? He who once preached that man should choose freely between good and evil! The church has rejected this indefensible heresy – instead it has seized power by all means. Bread for everyone in exchange for obedience, that's how it should be. The monologue ends. A taciturn Jesus rises and quietly kisses the Grand Inquisitor on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips. That is the only answer Jesus, who loves his enemies, gives this devil.

A gloomy modernity

Lethen seizes the temptation that has been too many writers to interpret a gloomy modernity out of Dostoevsky's 1880 story, a fantasy of happiness through violence. The sociologist Max Weaver refers to the grand inquisitor and uses him to evaluate the policy of responsibility rather than "emotional daydreaming". Round fin de siècle serving this cardinal to esotericists and participants in black masses as a cult figure. This creature breaks free from the template and in the inter-war period finds a response both with cool intellectuals and with fiery Satanists. Many avant-gardists emphasize the liberal system's "misunderstood celebration of freedoms" and side with the grand inquisitor with his mockery of the utopia of individual free will.

Bread for everyone in exchange for obedience, that's how it should be.

That the legend was quickly linked to the Moscow trials in the 1930s was obvious. "When everything came to an end, the confession of terror had become the basis for a doctrine of salvation", writes Lethen. And just as understandable, he believes, is the reference to today's discourse around so-called Russia-understanders. The French star philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty pointed out in the same line of thought that the West, with its colonial history, likewise succumbed to violence, which was perfidiously masked as humanism. One is led to reflect on the West's criticism of itself. This has naturally been to the great delight of autocrats, the enemies of liberalism and the very latest Grand Inquisitor of today, Vladimir Putin.

Elizabeth Bunch As Aglaya Yepanchin And Jeffrey Bean About Prince Myshkin In A Scene From The Alley Theatre's Production Of
Subject To Fits: A Response To Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

First Mysjkin

With all the author's literary digressions, Lethen nevertheless never succumbs to the temptation to get directly involved in current political events. He leaves developing the associations to us, the readers.

This opens up many questions: Why is the theme of the good – the Jesus of legend – given so little space? Why is the theme so minimized in all the subsequent literature? Is the good perhaps less marketable than the bad, or does it need less research? Where is the answer to why the good scores the maximum on the universal value scale and yet receives so little attention?

Lethen searches the matter and devotes considerable comment space to a figure who probably has more than epileptic seizures in common with his creator: fyrst Myshkin from Dostoevsky's novel Idiots. The prince tumbles about helplessly among intriguers and criminals on St. Petersburg's dock. A "fool without ambition" However, this also leads to him breaking ranks within a hierarchy where difference lacks regulations. Myshkin does things apparently for no reason and laughs a lot. A perfect anti-hero. Lethen asks: "How can it be that out of this slapstick-the creature crystallizes into a Christ-gestalt, something Dostoevsky obviously had in mind when he created the figure?' One who lets himself be moved by Christian charity. An answer takes shape throughout the book's 800 pages. As indistinct as Myshkin's personality appears, he is just as sharply opposed to a society where man is only a commodity: where predatory capitalism follows a single law – that of supply and demand. Even St. Petersburg's aristocracy finds the prince mysterious, attractive, a Don Quixote, or in short: fascinating. Lethen concludes: "The jester tears off the mask of a Russian society marked by doom."

"The confession of terror had become the basis for a doctrine of salvation."

Myshkin ends up in misery, without belonging anywhere, with the doctor's diagnosis – "an idiot". What remains is the belief in Christ as the ideal of humanity, which was trampled away in the Roman Church of the Grand Inquisitor. And here we are back at the legend. Because what does the grand inquisitor do? He lets go Jesus out of prison with the words: "Go away and never come back!" He obviously realizes that without good, evil no longer has any room to play.

Lethen concludes with a tribute: "In his novels, Dostoevsky has created a realm filled with the polytheism of imagination. The fascination with monotheistic evil, which clings to political, military or religious structures, is exhausted.”

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

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