Monday, September 29, 2014

The First Totalitarian-The Grand Inquisitor

In addition to looking for the first psychopath, I have been looking for the first totalitarian in literature. I have found two candidates, one I think better than the other. I'll take this in two parts. First, the Grand Inquisitor.

For whatever reason, Russian writers understood and anticipated totalitarianism where others did not. For example, in The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) wrote a parable called "The Grand Inquisitor." The story--the teller calls it "a poem"--is told by Ivan, a doubter, to his brother Alyosha, a novice monk. It involves the return of Jesus Christ to earth in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and of His arrest and appearance before the Grand Inquisitor. Much of Ivan's parable is in the words of the Inquisitor, described as "an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes from which a light like a fiery spark gleams." (1) I will offer some quotes as he speaks to a silent Christ:

". . . the weak are dear to us . . . . They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look upon us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them--so awful will it seem to them to be free."

"For these pitiful creatures are concerned . . . to find something that all would believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man . . . ."

"And so it will be to the end of the world, even when gods disappear from the earth; they will fall down before idols just the same."

"I tell you that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone to whom he can hand over quickly that gift of freedom with which the unhappy creature was born."

"We took Rome and the sword of Caesar from him [Satan] and proclaimed ourselves rulers of the earth . . . . [Our work] will long await completion and the earth has much to suffer yet; but we will triumph and will be Caesars, and then we will plan the universal happiness of man."

" . . . the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of man. Mankind as a whole has always striven to organize a universal state."

"Oh, centuries of the confusion of free thought, of [man's] science and cannibalism are yet to pass, for having begun to build their tower of Babel without us, they will end with cannibalism."

"Oh, we will persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us."

"Freedom, free thought and science, will lead them into such straits and bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, while others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another . . . ."

Finally, two quotes from Ivan Karamazov rather than from his Inquisitor:

"I tell you frankly that I firmly believe that there has always been such a single man at the head of the movement."

And:

"Haven't I told you, all I want is to live on to thirty, and then--dash the cup to the ground!" (2)

Here, then, is an anticipation (rather than prediction) of totalitarianism: the "single man at the head of the movement"; the desire among man to "hand over quickly" his "gift of freedom"; "the craving for universal unity" and "community of worship"; the striving for "a universal state"; Caesarism (a concept that reappeared in the work of Oswald Spengler); elitism and the making of plans for "universal happiness"; and so on.

There are predictions here as well:

First: ". . . even when gods disappear from the earth; they will fall down before idols just the same," in other words, because men need to believe in something greater than the loathed and loathsome self, they will choose a belief in anything, even if it means slavery, destruction, and death.

Second: ". . . having begun to build their tower of Babel without us, they will end with cannibalism." We haven't yet begun eating each other (although we have begun, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, eating out our substance, each of all the others), but we have forever been killing each other, and today, we use each other for various horrors such as scientific experimentation and even as a source of heat, as I noted a few months ago. More to the point, we have begun eating each other in our fantasy, in Soylent Green (1973) and in every zombie movie since Night of the Living Dead (1968). Hold onto that thought.

Third: "Freedom, free thought and science, will lead them into such straits and bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, while others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another . . . ." Science was supposed to make us free, happy, comfortable, and prosperous. Instead it has been a source of disillusionment, disappointment, and even nightmare. In any case, Scientism, though it has supplanted belief in God, has nothing more to offer humanity when it comes to solving mysteries and I think a good deal less.

I think the Grand Inquisitor is a good candidate for the first totalitarian in literature. However, he is a character not in a novel but in a story told in a novel. Maybe you would call him a meta-character. Nonetheless, he presaged the arrival of twentieth-century totalitarians in all their thoughts and beliefs.

To be continued . . . 

Notes
(1) Much has been written about the eyes of Adolf Hitler, including this:
A young military adjutant who saw his F├╝hrer just before Hitler killed himself in 1945 was deeply shocked by the appearance of a "sick, almost senile old man." But the eyes were still effective: "Only in his eyes was there an indescribable flickering brightness. . . ." From The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler by Robert G.L. Waite (1977).
(2) As I was reading "The Grand Inquisitor," I couldn't help but think of Logan's Run (1976), a story of dystopia. Then came Ivan Karamazov's expressed desire to live to thirty, "then--dash the cup to the ground!" A well-known public figure recently spoke of his own desire to "dash the cup to the ground," but he gave himself seventy-five rather than thirty years. My question: Why wait? And two certainties: If he lives that long, he will be like Logan and change his mind; and, he wants to decide not only when he himself dies, but also when the rest of us die. In other words, he is an elitist, believing he knows better than we how we should live our lives. He is also a totalitarian monster, cut from the same cloth as the Grand Inquisitor and all his real-life acolytes of the twentieth and now twenty-first century.

A portrait of Juan Pardo de Tavera, Grand Inquisitor of Spain, 1539-1545, by El Greco. I don't know that this was the Grand Inquisitor that Ivan Karamazov described, but the painting fits the description pretty well. Juan Pardo de Tavera was seventy-three when he died in 1545 rather than near ninety. As a side note, El Greco is known for his elongated figures and faces. Rather than see that as an influence of Eastern art--El Greco was Greek after all--or as a certain way of looking at the human figure or human person, like Giacometti of the twentieth century, worshippers at the altar of Science believe it can all be explained by the artist's supposed defective vision.

Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

2 comments:

  1. "Rather than see that as an influence of Eastern art..., worshippers at the altar of Science believe it can all be explained by the artist's supposed defective vision."

    I don't think that's logical. If el Greco's eyesight made him see real people as elongated, surely he would paint them as he saw them and they would be in normal proportions on the canvas. If he had such a defect of vision, an elongated figure on the canvas would appear even more elongated to him because his eyes would impose more distortion on what was already distorted,.

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  2. Roger,

    I agree with you that it doesn't make any sense. It's like saying Pablo Picasso had defective vision because he painted people's faces like masks, or like a series of faceted planes, or like he could see both sides of their faces at the same time while looking at their profiles. But we have to remember that these hypotheses are put forth by people who believe that all questions are answerable by science and that all disciplines should be surrendered to scientists.

    Thanks for writing.
    TH

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