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Monday, January 28, 2008

Discussion: The Kiss in The Grand Inquisitor

This dicussion whooshed up in an email from Victoria, a Venezualan going to school in France. She wrote a question about Brothers Karamazov, while following the 2006 series of the Phil 7 - Existentialism class we are now following again this semester. So if you haven't read The Grand Inquisitor section of that novel yet, you may want to wait and come back to this very interesting discussion item!

Here's the start she wrote, more in comments:
"I haven't heard the whole podcast yet and I don't even know when the podcast was recorded, so I'm probably not saying something new, but, doesn't the kiss that Jesus gives to the Grand Inquisitor is somehow a reference to the Kiss that Judas gave to Jesus in the Gospels before turning him in? I know it's silly, but I thought that might be a clue and I thought it was weird that no one suggested during the lecture."


Karl Tyson said...

I wrote back the following reaction:

The Kiss is clearly significant, but it is not clear why. In the class, as I'm sure you noticed, Dreyfus basically threw up his hands on what it might mean.

If the Kiss is a Judas kiss, how does the significance of Judas kissing his about-to-be-betrayed spiritual master, Jesus, map to the returned Jesus kissing his about-to-burn-him splintered-off but nominal follower, the Inquisitor? What does the kiss in this context say? It seems if anything the active role should be reversed - the Inquisitor should have kissed the returned Jesus, thus saying "I am about to betray you and complete the transformation of your individualist spirituality into my worldly pragmatism."

Dreyfus said, the returned Jesus kisses the Inquisitor in a funny way, in effect saying "you're right - your way is better - kill me if you have to." That is very odd indeed, and a better explanation could surely be found, but what? (I will be very interested to see if Dreyfus has a different interpretation this time around!)

My take is this: Jesus is simply kissing the Inquisitor to say "you are forgiven for what you are about to do - you and everyone else, forever." In this sense it is (a) true to the gospel story - as in when Jesus says from the cross "forgive them - they know not what they do," and (b) corresponds nicely to two other significant interactions - the kiss that Alyosha gives Ivan after the whole tavern conversation, apparently saying "what you say may be right, but I can't participate in it with you, and further I think you will suffer more for it." Also, when Zossimo kneels before Dmitri, he also seems to be saying "You are the one who will suffer."

But I am not completely happy with the simple "I forgive you" meaning of the kiss.

Karl Tyson said...

Then Victoria wrote:

You're right, it seems that if Dostoivesky is trying make a point here he would have made the Grand Inquisitor kiss Jesus. To be honest, I really didn't develop any theories, I just thought it was a good hint since Judas Kiss is such a well-known moment of the Passion of Christ and there were so many resemblances between both situations.

Now, the only plausible explanation that comes to my mind is this: The poem of the Grand Inquisitor is being told by Ivan, who's trying to undermine Jesus or to show that christianity makes impossible demands on humankind and it puts men in the painful situation of living torned apart between their earthly desires and needs and the higher demands of the spiritual life. His way to do this is to put Jesus through a Trial; the whole poem, it seems to me, is a trial, where the Inquisitor is the prosecutor. We know the charges and we also know the penalty, but what we don't know is whether Jesus accepts his guilt or not. He doesn't answer to the accusations of the Inquisitor, he just kisses him. I think that the kiss might be a way for Ivan to suggest that Jesus recognizes that the Inquisitor is right and that he's indeed guilty of betraying somehow the humanity by tormenting it with freedom. And what's interesting is the great irony of the situation. Both times he was betrayed for earthly goods: Judas sold him for 20 coins of silver, the Grand Inquisitor will burn him with the approval of the people because they are all too attached to "bread", as Professor Dreyfus puts it. Furthermore, the awful thing is that the first time Jesus was condamned he was charged with blasphemy, he was going against the religion and the customs of the moment, and now, he's being accused and punished again for blasphemy by the institution that was supposed to protect and communicate his teaching. The point is that it doesn't matter the time or the place, Jesus will always be a blasphemy, he will always be misunderstood and judged in any society, because his true is just too alien to human nature.

However, I don't think this explanation is incompatible with the compassion and forgiveness explanation. I think the kiss is also a expression of christs profound love, agape love, which for us is completely incomprehensible and that's why it has such a deep impact in the Inquistor's heart, who decides finally to forgive him and to let him go. I think the Grand Inquisitor know this, I mean, he knows that the "betrayal" of christ is just the result of his infinite love and there's where it lies the tragedy of the situation, that we're not capable of understanding this love. I think also that he's honest in his intentions and that he does love humankind, and that it must be a burden for him to carry on with his duties as a member of the church, deceiving and indulging man's low instincts and hiding the true message of the gospels. I think he must be deeply troubled, and that he must have some regrets, and so does Ivan who, in my opinion, inspite of all his witticism and intricated arguments would like also to have some faith.

And I think you're defenitly right when you interpret Alyosha's kiss a sign of compassion. He feels what's in store for his brother, as Zosima does. Jesus kiss would be also a recognition of the pain that the Inquisitor has put himself through.

That's pretty much it. I know it's far-fetched, but I think that there are too many similarities and that it's unlikely that it's just a coincidence.

Karl Tyson said...

I'm convinced.

Thanks Victoria - you rock.

Ulysses46 said...

I agree the kiss is a manifestation of divine love setting an example for mankind. It is indeed bizarre and inexplicable but that's all part of the mystery isn't it?

Karl Tyson said...

I came back to this amazing conversation many many years later.

As I read my own responses and then Victoria's developed thought, I remembered how full of myself I was back then, and how unsure later, and now.

She did rock - she nailed it. I wish we could have continued the exchange.