Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Photios Kontoglou on Fyodor Dostoevsky

By Dr. Constantine Cavarnos

Having high esteem for the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), particularly impressed by his work The Brothers Karamazov, and knowing that I was like-minded, he invited me to join him one afternoon, together with his wife and daughter, Mrs. Despina Martinou, at a cinema on Stadiou Street, where this work was being shown. I gladly accepted the invitation, even though I was even less of a movie-goer than Kontoglou. After the show, he took us for a treat at a nearby shop where pastry was served. There we discussed our impressions about the film.

Both he and I were especially interested in "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" contained in The Brothers Karamazov. We were in accord with the opinion of the emigre Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, that "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor is the high point of Dostoevsky's work and the crown of his dialectic" (See Berdyaev's Dostoievsky, trans. by Donald Attwater, ch. VIII). I had read this story as part of the reading that had been assigned by one of my teachers at Harvard, Professor Julius S. Bixler, in a course in Philosophy of Religion. The story made a great impression on me, as it had on Kontoglou when he read a French translation of the novel in the early forties. Seeing this film was expected to make this story and other parts of Dostoevsky's magnum opus more vivid for us. But to our disappointment, what interested us most, "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," had been left out.

Subsequently, Kontoglou wrote a paraphrase of the "Legend" accompanied by comments. This was published posthumously in the religious newspaper Orthodoxos Typos in four installments (February 10, March 1, April 10 and May 1, 1970). An oral version of it, recited by Kontoglou, is preserved at the Convent of the Annunciation on the island of Oinoussai, near Chios. I heard it when I visited the Convent with my mother around 1980. It had been recorded by the Abbess, Maria Myrtidiotissa Pateras; and she gave us the wonderful opportunity of hearing it.

In the serial that I just mentioned, titled "The Grand Inquisitor" (Ho Megas Hieroexetastes), Kontoglou says:

In the "Grand Inquisitor" Dostoevsky opposes Christ to His false representative on earth, to the the Jesuit Inquisitor, a dreadful monster who burned the "heretics" in the name of Christ, something unbelievable and incomprehensible. It is frightful to think what the devil can do in order to defame Christ!

...Christ does not utter a word from his mouth in order to reply to the questions of the Inquisitor, and for this reason he himself answers the questions which he asks. In other words, all that the Inquisitor says is an oppressive monologue that comes from the mouth of a creature that you think came up from Hell.

The Inquisitor condemns certain "heretics" to death by fire, and after their execution at the great square of a certain Spanish city he returns to his cell which was in the building of the "Holy Tribunal", satisfied that he did his duty, according to the system which he served with a horrible fanaticism. His system was a Christianity not as it was taught by Christ, but a completely deformed and unrecognizable Christianity, to the point of resembling the religion of Antichrist. And this was done in order that people might be able to accept it, because the things that Christ asks of his followers are, according to the Grand Inquisitor and his likes, absolute and impracticable, superhuman and inhuman. In other words, the Christianity of the Grand Inquisitor became a system like the other human systems, a secular power which holds its followers under its authority, and which governs them, judges and sentences them the way political authority does.... Whatever it does, it says that it does in the name of Christ, whereas it does it in the name of satan. For this reason the Inquisitor continuously refers to the devil with reverence, and calls the devil "He", "The Great and Wise Spirit", "The Wise and Mighty Spirit"....

This story is presented by Dostoevsky as a literary work of Ivan Karamazov, who was one of the sons of old Karamazov, educated in European philosophy. Ivan reads it to his younger brother Alyosha, who had become a monk, a disciple of an elderly confessor, a "Starets", as Russians call such persons (Orthodox Typos, Feb. 10, 1970).

In the same article Kontoglou calls Dostoevsky "the most profound and apocalyptic Russian writer." Although "a philosophic spirit," says Kontoglou, "Dostoevsky writes here as an Orthodox Christian, who knows well Who the true Christ is and what His teaching is."

During the conversation I had with Kontoglou after we saw the film, he observed:

Dostoevsky has a depth which Westerners do not have. Western writers are usually superficial, they stay on the surface.

Kontoglou speaks of Dostoevsky in his books Mystical Garden (1944, p. 93) and Fount of Life (1951, p. 52), and in several articles. In "It is Time" (Einai Kairos), he attributes to Dostoevsky this observation:

An Orthodox heart can understand things which cannot be understood by those who do not have as their spiritual ancestors the Byzantines" (Eleutheria, May 9, 1954).

In another article, "The Hellenic Spirit," he wrote that Dostoevsky was nourished spiritually by the Greek Fathers, and in his works, "like a river which emerges again unexpectedly to the surface, the Hellenic spirit leaps 'like a spring of water that gushes up into everlasting life,' and the West is astonished" (Eleutheria, Aug. 29, 1954).

Meetings With Kontoglou by Constantine Cavarnos (Institute For Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Belmont, MA, 1992) pp. 162-165.