American Inquisitions 

Fyodor Dostoevsky published the first installment of The Brothers Karamazov in February, 1879. The novel was the culmination of a decade of ideological strife, during which Dostoevsky had noted a steady slide toward populism. Socialism, the passion of Dostoevsky’s youth, was an enthusiasm still on the march. The author of The Brothers Karamazov was a devout Orthodox Christian and a conservative, a reactionary perhaps. He poured the expansive politics of his era into The Brothers Karamazov and especially into a phantasmagoric chapter — often read on its own — titled “The Grand Inquisitor.” For the past one hundred and forty years, this text has been mined for clues to modern politics. In the verdict of Lionel Trilling, “it can be said almost categorically that no other work of literature has made so strong an impression on the modern conscious- ness.” Modern consciousness was never more receptive to “The Grand Inquisitor” than in the 1930s and 1940s, when Dostoevsky was typically read as a prophet of totalitarianism.  Dostoevsky had foreseen this interpretation. In a letter written while he was completing The Brothers Karamazov, he worried about a regime that would provide “one’s daily bread, the Tower of Babel (i.e. the future reign of Socialism), and complete enslavement of freedom of conscience.” Enter the Grand Inquisitor. In the novel he directs the Inquisition in sixteenth-century Spain, having co-opted Christian mercy and replaced it with a cynical recipe for social control. According to Dostoevsky’s great biographer Joseph Frank, the Grand Inquisitor “has debased the authentic forms of miracles, mystery, and authority into magic, mystification, and tyranny.” His church enjoys absolute power. It traffics in mystification and magic. It caters cunningly to people’s spiritual needs and efficiently to their physical needs. For those who rebel against this domination masquerading as religion, there is the

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