Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: The Grand Inquisitor

This week we arrive at a major milestone in this many-mile long book: the story-within-a-story called "The Grand Inquisitor." It's often taught in high schools and colleges as a stand-alone piece, and even people who haven't read BK have read, or somehow know, the GI.

I've read it a bunch of times now, and it still blows me away every time. Maybe it's just because I'm a lifelong secular humanist / atheist, who occasionally dabbles in Northern California Buddhism. Maybe people who've grown up with religion find the issues here old hat, or else beside the point. It is the same old stuff--the problem of evil and suffering, how we can have free will if there's a God, how Jesus's teachings get twisted by those who teach them. Of course it's also an extended fusillade at the Catholic church, which tends to present a big target in all centuries; and a warning about totalitarianism, which in this case comes cloaked in religion. The Grand Inquisitor's vision looks a lot like the Fox News Channel to me, but never mind.

Anyway, there's no point in my trying to summarize the piece here. I really think you should just go read it. It's only about twenty pages. If you read nothing else in BK, you can do this. I can wait.

[elevator music plays]

I tell you, it just knocks me out, even though it's not a story at all, but a philosophical tract the form of a monologue. One guy (GI) talking to another guy (Jesus), who doesn't even talk back. The occasional interruptions by the storyteller (Ivan) and his listener (Alyosha) are mainly points of clarification; they offer a less clunky way for Dostoevsky to make the GI's philosophy clearer to us, without having him rant on even further.

So how about that Jesus, huh? He actually wants to make things hard for his followers. He doesn't make it easy to believe in him. He refuses to perform the miracles that would convince people to follow him on the spot. They must choose him of their own free will, and deal with the fact that he probably won't show his face to them--unambiguously, anyway--in their lifetime. The GI, meanwhile, just wants to help people who are suffering from this uncertainty. By taking people's free will from them, he gives them what they really want: security and community, which comes through a confirmed belief in miracles. And yet the GI suffers, too. Unlike stock villains, he doesn't enjoy his power in the slightest. He knows he's doing evil, and he suffers--because he wants people to be happy, and not suffer as he does. It's just not easy for anybody in this world, not even the devil. And yet we're still supposed to have faith. That is faith, apparently, this suffering.

All well and fine. But what is the lesson for fiction writers here? Am I suggesting we all write a "poem" (as Ivan calls his story) like this and plunk it down in the middle of our novels or medium-to-long stories? I say yes! I am a big fan of the story-within-a-story, especially if it's self-contained, difficult, and from another time and place than the larger story, with other rules.* I love the unexpectedness of such things, the plunge down the rabbit hole, after which we climb back out and continue on our path through the larger fictional world--only slightly dizzy, and wondering exactly what just happened.

But how to you keep the s-w-a-s from being a mere "lump" that the reader trips over? Especially if it's almost pure research or philosophy, rather than an actual story? A few tips from Dostoevsky:

1) Have a character tell the story, and have that character be mysterious and maybe a little bit unhinged.

2) Make the story a different kind of story than you'd expect that character to tell (as Alyosha points out, Ivan, who has a big problem with God, has ended up praising Jesus in the GI).

3) Make the story slam the outer action to a halt. This sounds counter-intuitive; but the fact that Alyosha has just come from a round of visits to various frantic people, and is desperate to go and see his mentor on his deathbed, raises the stakes of Ivan's story. The story has to be good, and important, for Alyosha to stop and listen to it.

4) Allow interruptions by the "outer" characters. If you are presenting a big block of information (or philosophy), it helps to break it up and offer other characters' takes on the story. We do learn more about Alyosha and Ivan through their little exchanges in the midst of all this heavy stuff. Alyosha's frightened but interested; Ivan, while tormented by these ideas, laughs and is gentle with his brother.

5) Have good, fully developed characters within the story, not stock or purely allegorical figures. In this case, Jesus is still a bit of a cipher. But the suffering Grand Inquisitor towers as high as any of the Karamazov brothers, or Milton's Satan. He is one for the ages.

*Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin is a great example, which comes to mind 'cos I just finished it.

No comments: