Catherine Brown

D.H. Lawrence and Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor’s Christ

February 2017


This is the text of a lecture that I gave to the D.H. Lawrence Society at Moorgreen near Eastwood, UK, on 11th January 2017. It was subsequently developed into this article published in The Journal of D.H. Lawrence Studies.


I would like to start with an email that Dave Brock wrote to me on Sunday. He said he was pleased that I was going to be talking about Dostoevsky, and recounted a particularly intense experience he had had of reading Crime and Punishment when he was young. I was reminded of the young Jessie Chambers, who read The Brothers Karamazov for solace after Lawrence abandoned her. ‘It was then that I happened to find The Brothers Karamazov in our library […] Dostoevsky’s masterpiece gripped my attention […] mercifully shutting out my own disaster. […] It had placed a distance between me and the catastrophe of life. I left it refreshed in spirit.’ Dave then concluded his email to me by saying: ‘I love the things Lawrence says about this Russian great.’


Now, since as I’m sure you know Lawrence’s comments on Dostoevsky were almost exlcusively and polemically negative from 1909 to the end of his life, this sentiment may seem paradoxical. Yet that paradox lies at the heart of this talk. Lawrence’s repudiations of Dostoevsky, even insofar as they involve misreading, serve to illuminate both.


And there is an important sense in which Dostoevsky is a predecessor to Lawrence.

Peter Kaye, in his study of Dostoevsky’s influence on British modernism, claims that:

‘as a novelist Lawrence traveled a distinctively Dostoevskian path after the publication of Sons and Lovers, which moved him away from the English tradition of the novel as biography, the story of individual lives largely immune from metaphysical debate and cultural crisis. In a manner worthy of Dostoevsky, he sought to combine the particular with the universal, the concrete with the abstract’. He also might have added, he saught to make ‘philosophy and fiction’ ‘come together again, in the novel’, as Lawrence argued for in ‘The Future of the Novel’ in 1923.


Gilbert Phelps thought that ‘Dostoevsky contributed powerfully to the processes which led to the emergence of a new type of fiction corresponding more closely to the complexity and fluidity of contemporary experience.’ George Panichas has identified similar characterisation in Dostoevsky and Lawrence, and has even paired characters: Ivan and Gerald, Svigrigailov and Loerke, and the Underground Man and Hermione.


Henry Miller, to whom Lawrence was exceeded in importance only by Dostoevsky, argued that ‘Of all his forerunners, Jesus included, it was with Dostoevsky that he had the most difficulty.’ I would disagree – Jesus was the greater rival. But, as we shall see, the two rivals were not unconnected.


Let us start at the end, of both their lives, and work backwards and outwards from there. About one third of the way through the novel that so comforted Jessie Chambers, two of the three legitimate Karamazov brothers are discussing God and the ethical nature of the universe – a typical conversation in a Russian and especially a Dostoevskian novel, assording to Virginia Woolf in her 1925 essay ‘The Russian Point of View’. Alyosha, a novice monk, turns the conversation to Christ, to which Ivan responds with an imaginative account of Christ returning for a visit, between his resurrection and his second coming, to sixteenth century Seville, ‘in the most terrible time of the Inquisition, when fires were lighted every day to the glory of God and “in the splendid auto da fé the wicked heretics were burnt.”’ By the way, I’m quoting from Lawrence’s friend Constance Garnett in her translation of 1912, which is the one that Lawrence read three times. The people recognise and worship Christ, and he performs one miracle, of raising a child from the dead. But the Grand Inquisitor, rather than worshipping him, has him arrested. He visits him in prison, and tells him at length why he is going to, ‘condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics’ – for the same reason that he had the day before burned ‘almost a hundred heretics’ – because the Church’s autocratic rule relieves the spiritually-weak masses of the overwhelming burden of ‘freedom of faith’ which Christ would otherwise impose on them. ‘Nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom.’


The Cardinal illustrates his point by referring to Christ’s three temptations in the wilderness. When Christ declined to turn stones into bread, He was declining to maintain his rule by feeding the people. In refusing to fling Himself from a cliff, or to make the nations worship Him, Christ refused miracle and mystery as a means to enforce his authority, and in so doing failed to unify the people. Unity in worship is, the Cardinal maintains, a fundamental human need, which the Church provides by deceiving the masses. His utilitarian and self-sacrificial conclusion is that the church leaders accept the burden of freedom in order to remove it from others, if necessary by burning free-thinkers: ‘There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil.’


Since the Cardinal argues that Christ would have done better to succumb to Satan’s temptations, his principles are, by his own admission, Satanic. He says that for the eight preceding centuries the leaders of the Catholic Church have actually worshipped Satan rather than Christ. The distinction is also that between the secular and the divine. The Cardinal calls Satan ‘the spirit of the earth’, and Ivan agrees with Alyosha’s supposition that the Cardinal does not in fact believe in God.


Fewer than four months after the end of this novel’s serialization, Dostoevsky had died. The other three novels in this projected tetralogy were never written.


Fast forward forty years, and Lawrence was dying. His long-standing friend Koteliansky decided to translate this chapter of the novel for stand-alone publication. He knew that he couldn’t rival Garnett or Louise and Aylmer Maude as a translator of Russian, even when collaborating with the likes Lawrence, Middleton Murry, or Leonard and Virginia Woolf. So rather than competing on his fellow translators’ territory, he and the Hogarth Press first tried publishing lesser-known writers, such as Lawrence’s admired Rozonov (whom he admired for not resembling Dostoevsky), and then moved on to publishing minor works, extracts, and biographical material, by and about the three big Russians in England at that time: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. The chapter as co-translated by Kot was by the way far inferior to Constance Garnett’s, but Kot asked Lawrence for an Introduction, which is the reason that we remember this publication. Lawrence died before it was published.


His response to Ivan’s story can be summarised as three points.


First, he identifies Dostoevsky with Ivan and Ivan with the Grand Inquisitor. When Christ’s only response to the Inquisitor’s death sentence is to silently kiss him on the lips, and Alyosha’s only response to Ivan’s narrative is silently to kiss him on the lips, Lawrence characterises these as acts of acquiesence.


Second, he sees all five as being right. Whereas on earlier readings of the novel he had found the story ‘just a piece of showing-off: a display of cynical-satanical pose which was simply irritating’, now, ‘under that, I hear the final and unanserable criticism of Christ. And it is a deadly, devastating summing-up, unanswerable because borne out by the long experience of humanity. It is reality versus illusion, and the illusion was Jesus’s, while time itself retorts with the reality.’ When ‘once recognised it will change the course of history’, this truth about humanitiy that the Grand Inquisitor voices.


Third, he thinks that they are only half right. Dostoevsky, being self-divided, has perverted an accurate perception, which Lawrence takes it on himself to correct. He says that someone with the insight into human nature that is what Lawrence calls ‘the spirit of all great government’, would not be the character Dostoevsky makes him: ‘Where Dostoevsky is perverse is in his making the old, old wise governor of men a Grand Inquisitor.’ ‘The Spanish Inquisition actually was diabolic. It could not have produced a Grand Inquisitor who put Dostoevsky’s sad questions to Jesus. And the man who put those sad questions to Jesus culd not possibly have been a Spanish Inquisitor. He could not possibly have burnt a hundred people in an auto da fé. He would have been too wise and far-seeing. […] The man who feels a certain tenderness for mankind in its weakness or limitation is not therefore diabolic.’


Here Lawrence makes the opposite and counterpart objection to the story to Alyosha, who disputes with Ivan that someone with the Inquisitor’s views could in fact be self-sacrificial and loving, as Ivan claims him to be. Since his point is a defence of Christ from the argument of the Inquisitor, it follows that Lawence in putting the objection the other way round is criticising Christ. And indeed, this Introduction is the last step in Lawrence’s long career of criticising and correcting Him, though he does so here on different grounds to those on which he does so elsewhere, including in his own Christ-returning-to earth in the flesh story, doubtless encouraged and provoked by this one, of just over two years before, ‘The Escaped Cock’. To this we shall return.


In his Introduction, Lawrence once more and for the last time expresses his distrust of egalitarian, democratic social systems, and his interest in strong, enlightened leaders.


This was after quite a respite from doing so. Lawrence’s so-called leadership novels are from the earlier twenties. Lady Chatterley’s Lover of 1926-28 repudiates aristocracy both in the figure both of Sir Clifford and in the acquired status of his wife, which is a barrier to her love. Admittedly, it is not this kind of aristocracy that Lawrence had in mind when he supported it. But its satire generates an anti-hierarchical spirit in the novel.


In its first draft, Parkin ends as the secretary of the Communist group in his Sheffield factory. In the second draft, Parkin decides to leave Sheffield to set himself up on a farm. And in the final version, Mellors has started working on a farm, with the plan that once they are divorced they will marry and live together on a farm of their own. His concluding vision is one of equality, anarchy, and a kind of literal commune-ism, in which the masses of men wear scarlet trousers. This vision has no reference to authority.


During the last summer that he spent working on this novel, in 1927, he was also writing Sketches of Etruscan Places, which contrasts the bullying, authoritarian Romans (and Fascists) to the pacific Etruscans, and is provoked to the lament about subsequent history: ‘Why has mankind had such a craving to be imposed upon! Why this lust after imposing creeds, imposing deeds, imposing buildings, imposing language, […]?’


Immediately before, in May 1927, he had finished ‘The Escaped Cock’, which also refutes aristocratic and authoritarian values. The risen Christ is an individualist, whose ambition is to make his way through the world living as fully as possible. So far from being either an administrator or a subject of an authoritarian system, he repudiates all society, breaking even his bond with the Priestess of Isis at the point when they could form the social unit that is a nuclear family. Such a rootless cosmpolitan is a trouble-maker in any strictly-ordered ordered society. And the risen Christ would take it severely amiss were a Pontius Pilate to reimprison him, even if reminded that Christ had preached that all men should render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar’s. He would not, therefore, silently kiss his Roman Inquisitor on the lips. Indeed, he would make sure that he didn’t get into this situation in the first place. He has had more than enough of being tortured to death for doing what he believes in.


And yet, five weeks before his death, in the moments of writing this Introduction, Lawrence swung back towards an aristocratic and authoritarian social vision. And this does not have the excuse of being one of the pansies, or pensées, which are ‘true while they are true and irrelevant when the mood and circustance changes.’ This is not only prose but nonfiction, and as Lawrence also writes in the foreword to Pansies, ‘There is a didactic element about prose thoughts which makes them repellent, slightly bullying.’


Very many other things were going on in Lawrence’s soul in those last months, but for Kot he produced a piece that was sombre, and in its exasperated way submissive to what it describes as reality. He says that in his last few readings of the story he ‘each time found it more depressing because, alas, more drearily true to life […] my heart sinks right through my shoes.’


More than on previous occasions, Lawrence’s expression of his pro-aristocratic views is in explicit interaction with his view of Communism, which he had criticised consistently over his career, with the exception of his flirtation with Parkin’s flirtation with it in the first Lady Chatterley.


But to understand this we have to rewind to 1880, when The Brothers Karamazov was published. A year later, Tsar Alexandr II, the ‘Liberator’ because he had emancipated the serfs two decades before, was assassinated by members of an anarchist group, Narodnaia Volya, the People’s Will. A significant proportion of young intellectuals, particularly of the raznochintsy people between social classes, like Dostoevsky, supported some form of anarchism, nihilism, or socialism. On the other hand, Marxism itself was only just beginning to reach Russia. Plekhanov gave his famous speech defending Chernyshevsky in 1876, but he only became a Marxist on emigration to Switzerland in 1880. The first Communist international, founded in 1864 did not involve Russia. The secound, founded 1881, did, but not centrally. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which was to split into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1903, wasn’t founded until 1898.


So at the time that Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov, the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was almost – though not as – hard to predict as the 1948 triumph of Zionism was in 1876, when George Eliot finished Daniel Deronda, which contains this prediction.


And yet, the Grand Inquisitor does predict an atheist, anticlerical revolution, and not only that, but its eventual fall.

Though I do think that his prediction of its replacement by an autocratic theocricy was, whatever one may think about Putin’s Russia, not accurate. Contemporary Russians do not see Putin as a godlike figure with miraculous powers whom they are glad to worship, but as a competent ruler, and better than any of the currently available alteratives.


Dostoevsky’s prediction, and Lawrence’s response to it, center on the issue of bread – the object of Satan’s first temptation. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he, Christ, refused to turn stones into bread on two grounds:‘What is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread?’ and ‘man lives not by bread alone’, which is Christ’s explicit response to Satan. Implicit in the Grand Inquisitor’s argument is that the second response is beside the point, since if Christ had turned stones into bread, the bread would have been the bread of heaven as well as physical bread, which he could have given to the people, thus filling their stomachs and satisfying their need for miracle, mystery, and somebody to worship in unison. Christ refused this (the Inquisitor conveniently passes over such miracles as the feeding of the five thousand, and indeed the rising of the child from the dead, which he had performed just before he had arrested him).


The Inquisitor goes on: ‘Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? ‘Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!’ that’s what they’ll write on the banner, which they will raise against Thee, and with which they will destroy Thy temple.’

This is a clear reference to events which were happening in Dostoevsky’s and Ivan’s time – the promulgation of atheist, anarchist thought which promoted physical provision for the masses at the expense of any other moral imperative. The denial of the existence of sin is the theory eventually passed on by Ivan to Smerdyakov, with the result of patricide, as it is also the basis on which Raskolnikov murders two women in Crime and Punishment. According to the Inquisitor, these people will raise a tower of Babel, which like the original will not be finished. This I think is a prediction of the future from not only the Inquisitor’s but Dostoevsky’s time, of the Revolution which never fully accomplished Communism. The prediction’s felicity lies in the fact that the word bread appeared in the Bolshevik Revolutionary slogan: mir, zemlya, kheb. Peace, as in withdrawal from the First World War; Land, as in its democratic redistribution; and Bread, pure and simple.


But, the Inquisitor continues, ‘they will come back to us after a thousand years of agony with their tower. They will seek us again, hidden underground in the catacombs, for we shall be again persecuted and tortured’ – a clear prediction of an atheist Revolution. ‘They will find us and cry to us ‘Feed us, for those who have promised us fire from heaven haven’t given it!’ And then we shall finish building their tower, for he finishes the building who feeds them.’


So, only a theocricy, as loosely-defined, can supply the needs of all people. A few ‘tens of thousands’ are willing to follow Christ for the sake of the bread of heaven alone, but the ‘millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly’ must also be fed. The bread which the church will give to the people will of course be simply bread, as made by the masses, but the point is that it is given back to them, as though by miracle; at this point the Inquisitor has what is in fact a Marxian analysis.


The people will not at one level be deceived, but they will nonetheless be satisfied in their desire to worship: ‘They will see that we do not change the stones to bread, but in truth they will be more thankful for taking it from our hands than for the bread itself! For they will remember only too well that in old days, without our help, even the bread they made turned to stones in their hands, while since they have come back to us, the very stones have turned to bread in their hands.’


Lawrence echoes much of this argument. He expands the concept of bread to money and other material goods, as befits the update to his more economically-complex time and country. He seems to reject capitalism as a form of distribution, arguing that the people ‘is too weak, or vicious or something, to be able to’ share it out, so, ‘He has to hand the common bread over to some absolute authority, Tsar or Lenin, to be shared out. And yet the mass of men are incapable of looking on bread as a mere means of sustenance, by which man sustains himself for the purpose of true living, true life being the ‘heavenly bread’. It seems a strange thing that men, the mass of men cannot understand that life is the great reality, that true living fills us with vivid life, ‘the heavenly bread’, and earthly bread merely supports this.’


To accept this is to demonstrate love for all mankind, such as Christ demanded.

‘If a love of mankind entails accepting the bitter limitation of the mass of men, their inability to distinguish between money and life, then accept the limitation, and have done with it.’ ‘And is that serving the devil? It is certainly not serving the spirit of annihilation and not-being.’


Like the Grand Inquisitor does in prediction, Lawrence does as a comment on the present, criticise Communism for failing to provide what the people will think of as the bread of heaven. Lawrence goes even further, with his knowledge of collectivisation-induced famine, to say: ‘Lenin, surely a pure soul, rose to great power simply to give men – what? The earthly bread. And what was the result? Not only did they lose the heavenly bread, but even the earthly bread disappeared out of wheat-producing Russia.’


He criticises contemporary Christian Socialists for thinking similarly, and concentrating on people’s physical goods. ‘And all the Socialists and the generous thinkers of today, what are they striving for? The same: to share out more evenly the earthly bread. Even they, who are practising Christians par excellence, cannot properly choose between the heavenly and earthly bread. For the poor, they choose the earlthy bread: and once more the heavenly bread is lost’


He then asks: ‘What then is the heavenly bread? Every generation must answer for itself. But the heavenly bread is life, is living. Whatever makes life vivid and delightful is the heavenly bread. And the earthly bread must come as a by-product of the heavenly bread.’


Here we see Lawrence twisting the Inquisitor’s ideas into his own. The Inquistor’s vision is entirely cynical; he sees the masses’ need for miracle as a weakness that must be pandered to by mendacity. But here Lawrence moves towards giving the masses something actual.


He accuses Christ of ‘trying to [..] supplant physical emotions by moral emotions. So that earthly bread became, in a sense, immoral, as it is to many refined people today. The Inquisitor sees that this is a mistake. The earthly bread must in itself be the miracle, and be bound up with the miracle. And here, surely, he is right.’


Again, this is Lawrence’s point, not the Inquisitor’s. And of course what Christ actually said, as the Inquisitor quotes, ‘man cannot live by bread alone.’ He was perfectly happy for men to eat; indeed he wanted them to be fed. But by making this point, Lawrence expresses a central and consistent part of his whole philosophy: the sense that the spiritual and the physical are interconnected – this is his spiritually-orientated monism, if you will.


This leads into his interpretation of what it is to make physical bread:‘Since man began to think and to feel vividly, seed-time and harvest have been the two great sacred periods of miracle, re-birth and rejoicing.’ ‘For it is the earthly bread as a miracle, a yearly miracle. All the old religions saw it: the Catholic still sees it, by the Mediterranean. And this is not weakness. This is truth. The rapture of the Easter kiss, in old Russia, is intimately bound up with the sharing of the seed’ ‘They eat dead bread, now’ the Bolsheviks. What follows reprises the opening of The Rainbow

‘the reaping and the harvest are another contact, with earth and sun, a rich touch of the cosmos, a living stream of activity, and then the contaact with harvesters, and the joy of harvest home. All this is life, life, it is the heavenly bread which we eat in the course of getting our earthly bread.’


But then he returns to his original argument and contradicts the preceding, since his description of the Easter kiss in ‘old Russia’ has nothing to do with existence of the Tsar: ‘Men bow down to the lord of bread, first and foremost. For, by knowing the difference between earthly and heavenly bread, he is able calmly to distribute the earthly bread, and to give it, for the commanalty, the heavenly taste which they can never give it. That is why, in a democracy, the earthly read loses its taste, the salt loses its savour, and there is no one to bow down to.’


So there are several problems in Lawrence’s argument – both as an interpretation of Dostoevsky and of Christ, and on its own terms.


To start with his self-contradiction: he says on the one hand that only the elect ‘are capable of abstaining from the absolute demand for bread, for miracle, mystery, and authority’. But also that: ‘the Inquisitor says that it is a weakness in men, that they must have miracle, mystery and authority. But is it? Are they not bound up in our emotions, always and forever, these three elements […] If Jesus cast aside miracle in the Temptation, still there is miracle again in the Gospels.’


Indeed, and so this contradiction in Christ’s behaviour becomes a contradiction in his argument.


Another source of contradiction, as so often with Lawrence, is the lack of distinction between the literal and metaphoric. When he contrasts the living bread made by tsarist Russian peasants with the dead bread eaten by Bolsheviks, he is arguing away the distinction between bread of earth and bread of heaven. But the metaphorical bread, of both earth and heaven, that is material wealth, is cynically bestowed. So it would seem that he envisages a rule in which this conflation is deliberately and cynically made for the masses, who are no longer capable of making and breaking their own bread in a religious spirit.


This argument contradicts much of what he has argued for elsewhere.


Consider again ‘The Escaped Cock’. In this story the risen Christ’s rejection of his own former, preaching, self-sacrificial self was in part a critique by Lawrence of all of these things in himself. Whereas in his Introduction, he is not only preaching, but rejecting one of the central arguments of his previous preaching: that man must give up demanding ever higher wages to buy pianos for their parlours and so on, but must seek the bread of heaven.


Let us return to Mellors writes at the end of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: ‘If you could only tell them that living and spending aren’t the same thing! But it’s no good. If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend, they could manage very happily on twenty-five shillings. If the men wore scarlet trousers, as I said, they wouldn’t think so much of money: if they could dance and hop and skip, and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash.’ He finishes his letter ‘a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart-.’ But within the letter he has passed through a note of despair: ‘you can’t do it. They’re all one-track minds nowadays’


Three years later he insists on this point.


I am reminded of Lawrence’s criticism of Conrad’s Under Western Eyes,

which is widely understood to parody Dostoevsky:

‘I can’t forgive Conrad for being so sad and giving in’


Well, here he is sad and does give in.


The kind of world that the Inquisitor envisions is a cross between the dystopias of Brave New World, with its superficial happiness for all but the ruling class, and, at least as an intermediary step to that point, Fahrenheit 451, with its police state to suppress all those who step out of mindlessness.


Part of the motivation for Lawrence’s compromise seems to lie in his sense that the Russian revolution, with its extremism, could have been averted if, amongst other things, people like Dostoevsky had not been so perverse as to identify this compromise with the devil.


He writes: ‘Money is not life, says Jesus, therefore you can ignore it and leave it to the devil. Money is not life, it is true. But ignoring money and leaving it to the devil means handing over the great mass of men to the devil: for the mass of men cannot distinguish between money and life.’


This perspective is apparent in his anti-Bolshevik poem of late 1928 or early 29, Now It’s Happened, where the ‘It’ is the Russian revolution.


Its six stanzas first argue that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Vronsky could have saved Russia had they defied Christian society rather than capitulating under its force:


‘if a pair

of rebels like Anna and Vronsky

had blasted the sickly air

of Dostoevsky and Tchekov,

and spy-government everywhere.’


Its fourth stanza asserts:


‘Dostoevsky, the Judas,

with his sham christianity

epileptically ruined

the last bit of sanity

left in the hefty bodies

of the Russian nobility.


So our goody-good men betray us

and our sainty-saints let us down,

and a sickly people will slay us

if we touch the sob-stuff crown

of such martyrs; while Marxian tenets

naturally take hold of the town.


Too much of the humble Willy wet-leg

and the holy can’t-help-it touch,

till you’ve ruined a nation’s fibre

and they loathe all feeling as such,

and want to be cold and devilish hard

like machines — and you can’t wonder much.’


Of course, Lawrence is ignoring, or denying, the sense in which Leninism was a religion, and the fact that he and later Stalin were reverenced godlike figures, for miracles such as electrification, and winning the Civil and Second World Wars.


Also, in his argument about the Grand Conspirator, Lawrence is making a capitulation of a kind he had never made before, to Christ himself. One of his frequent criticisms of Christ had been that he required everyone to love everyone. Lawrence rejected this demand, both because he did not find everybody lovable, and because he condemned the moral desideratum to feel an emotion – which if enforced by the mental will could, he said, produce ghastly and counter-productive results. Here, however, he adduces this desideratum as support for his position on the Inquisitor.


He not only identifies Ivan with the Inquisitor, but describes him as:

‘the thinking mind of the human being in rebellion, thinking the whole thing out to the bitter end. […] He is also, of course, Dostoevsky himself, in his thoughtful, as apart from his passional and inspirational self. Dostoevsky half hated Ivan. Yet after all, Ivan is the greatest of the three brothers, privotal. The passionate Dmitri and the inspired Alyosha are, at last, only offsets to Ivan.’


And so, he here elevates reason above both sexual and religious passion, in contrast not only to what he has argued for most of his life before, but what he has argued in his criticisms of Dostoevsky from 1909 onwards.


In his letter to JMM and KM of 17th February 1916, in which he provides Murry with some ‘notes’ on Dostoevsky that might be of use for his book on the author, he writes:

‘The whole point of Dostoevsky lies in the fact of his fixed will that the individual ego, the achieved I, the conscious entity, shall be infinite, God-like, and absolved from all relation i.e. free.’


And yet both in 1916 and in 1930 he is, I consider, misreading Dostoevsky. The basis of his 1930 argument is that Dostoevsky with at least part of himself agrees with Ivan, who fully agrees with his Grand Inquisitor. But of course none of these is true.


To start with Ivan, before he tells Alyosha his story, he has been expressing distress at the fact that the world is one in which children are tortured, and indeed torture exists at all. He claims nescience: ‘I recognise in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is.’ He gives no sign that he thinks that any kind of social organisation, such as that of his Inquisitor, could improve it.


So his story appears as a therapeutic exercise of his imagination, which he is provoked to tell by Alyosha’s repetition of the thesis of Christ’s atonement, which he rejects. He calls it ‘a ridiculous thing.’ He gives the Russian literary antecedents for writing a secular story featuring Christ, thus displaying literary self-consciousness. Afterwards he tells his dismayed brother ‘Why, it’s all nonsense, Alyosha. It’s only a senseless poem of a senseless student, who could never write two lines of verse. Why do you take it so seriously? Surely you don’t suppose I am going straight off to the Jesuits, to join the men who are corecting His work? Good Lord, it’s no business of mine. I told you, all I want is to live on to thirty, and then…dash the cup to the ground!’


Of course, we do not need to take him at his word here. Ivan is presented throughout the novel very much as someone whom one must not take at his word, but that applies to his story too. He is a rounded character, as EM Forster, who popularised the concept, praised all of Dostoevsky’s characters for being.


And self-division is something that Lawrence, in his criticism of Dostoevsky, does not allow, although he makes it central to his description of Dostoevsky himself.


In the Introduction he writes: ‘As always in Dostoevsky, the amazing perspicacity is mixed with ugly perversity. Nothing is pure. His wild love for Jesus is mixed with perverse and poisonous hate of Jesus: his moral hostility to the devil is mixed with sercret worship of the devil. Dostoevsky is always perverse, always impure, always an evil thinker and a marvellous seer.’


On this Lawrence is consistent over time. On March 24th 1915 he wrote to Ottoline Morrell, in what is possibly his most famous comment on Dostoevsky:

‘I have been reading Dostoievsky’s Idiot. I don’t like Dostoievsky. He is again like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and, in order to belong to the light, professing love, all love. But his nose is sharp with hate, his running is shadowy and rat-like, he is a will fixed and gripped like a trap. He is not nice.’


Though a couple of weeks later he added to similar comments:

‘But he is a great man and I have the greatest admiration for him. I even feel a sort of subterranean love for him.’


The same charge is reiterated in ‘The Spirit of Place’, the first essay in Studies of Classic American Literature, which manifests Lawrence’s turn to American literature and to a certain extent away from Russian literature.


In his tendancy to read Dostoevsky’s characters as self-consistent, he agrees with what Bakhtin was writing at the same time. In 1923 he wrote his book on Problems of Dostoevsky’s Works (although he was not popularised in English until the 1970s), extolling of Dostoevsky as an innovative novelistic practitioner of Heteroglossia (разноречие) Polyglossia (многоязычие), Polyphonia (полифония), and Co-being (событие). He argues that Dostoevsky presents non-coinciding consciousnesses, including that of the author, in interaction with each other – not that he presents consciousnesses internally split.


Lawrence of course differs on the author, whom he considers to be split between his characters. In the notes that Lawrence wrote to Mansfield and Murry in 1916, he identified three types of desire in Dostoevsky. I quote:

‘[Dostoevsky’s] desire to achieve the sensual, all-devouring consummation comes out in Dmitri Karamazov, and Rogozhin, and, not so clearly, in Stavrogin.

His desire for the spiritual, turn-the-other-cheek consummation, comes out in the Idiot himself, in Alyosha, partly in Stavrogin.

There is the third type, which represents pure unemotional will: this is the third Karamazov brother [Ivan]’


As Peter Kaye has argued, in fact, ‘The three types of desire that Lawrence identifies as predominantly unmixed and isolated can be found in varying proportions in virtually all of D’s major characters.’


A cognate point is that Ivan, for all and with all his self-division, is himself undermined within the novel.

He ends up having a conversation with the devil, and going mad. As Kaye says, ‘the comic low style of their dialogue mocks the somber formality of Ivan’s earlier narration.’

And his Grand Inquisitor story is not only part of Dostoevsky’s ongoing, and it has to be said patriotically-blinkered hostility towards Roman Catholicism, but part of Ivan’s satire on Catholicism, which endorses the torture that he immediately before this story said proved that something is fundamentally wrong with the world.


Thus Lawrence is not doing with Ivan what he does with other Dostoevsky characters – understanding them with reference to their endings in their novels.


In Feb 1916 he for the first of several times expressed his idea that The Idiot is ‘far better than Possessed, also Karamazov.’ He explained that in Prince Myshkin,

‘The Christian ecstasy leads to imbecility’.

‘Myshkin […] will react upon the achieved consciousness or personality or ego of every one he meets, […] reduce further and further back, till himself is a babbling idiot, a vessel full of disintegrated parts, […] This is real death.’


Rather as Marxist critics such as Lukacs praised Tolstoy for revealing the contradictions of life under Tsarism despite his own reactionary politics (something that they did not see fit to recognise in Dostoevsky, hence his disparagement by the early Soviet state), Lawrence grudgingly praises Dostoevsky for acknowleding the truth about people like Myshkin, and Father Zossima:

‘Zossima is pure Christian, selfless, universal in the social whole. Dead, he stinks.’


As I say, he does not apply this logic to Ivan.


Murry, in his Nietzsche-influenced 1916 book on Dostoevsky, echoes Lawrence and Bakhtin in finding them to be unitary, going sofar as to say that they are not humans but superhumans, and even symbols. He is like Lawrence in his sense that Dostoevsky is in all of his ‘heroes’, by which he means his major male characters. But unlike Lawrence and like Bakhtin, he makes no distinction between them, with reference to their endings within their novels. They are all approaching heights of consciousness and wholeness, and suffer the endless terror of experiencing the timeless world in the temporal one.

It is then a detail whether or not they are actually good. He finds the real hero of Crime and Punishment to be Svidrigailov, who in self-consistency achieves what Raskolnikov cannot.


For what it’s worth, it seems to me that Bakhtin, Lawence and Murry are all wrong. It seems to me that none of Dostoevsky’s major characters are him, in any sense other than that entailed by him creating them – but that the novel, the implied author, and Dostoevsky himself, favoured one or the other. If Alyosha ends The Brothers Karamazov being hurrahed by the little children, and Prince Myshkin ends The Idiot in a post-traumatic coma in a Swiss sanitorium, that, their novels imply, is to the respective glory of of Alyosha’s society and the disgrace of Prince Myshkin’s.


By contrast in Lawrence’s novels, there is very often one character who is not only approved of more than the others, but who strongly ressembles Lawrence in his idiosyncratic desiderata, however mutually contradictory these may be. This is what Kaye means in saying that ‘L’s heroes are self-sufficient, and find their own heaven. Dostoevsky’s characters don’t’.


I found it interesting in the recent TLS review of three books about Lawrence that Seamus Perry dismissed Lawrence’s apparent heteroglossia in his novels as superficial – what matter that Ursula contradicts Birkin if the weight of the novel is behind Birkin? He found true heteroglossia only in his much shorter short stories – though not, one can assume, ‘The Man Who Died’.


And because of this diffrence between Lawrence and Dostoevsky – that Dostoevsky is none of his characters – that I think Lawrence is further off the mark in his analysis of Dostoevsky than he is in his similar analysis of self-division in Tolstoy

In his essay ‘The Novel’, of June 1925, he says that Tolstoi the whole man was undermined by Tolstoi the thinker. ‘the author may have a didactic ‘purpose’ up his sleeve. Indeed most great novelists have, as Tolstoi had his Christan-socialism’ ‘Vronsky sinned, did he? But also the sinning was a consummation devoutly to be wished. The novel makes that obvious: in spite of old Leo Tolstoi.’


For Lawrence, in Tolstoi the division is straightforwardly between the lusty man-alive, and the late Tolstoi, religious-ascetic condemner of this man. And Lawrence approved of the fact that the first existed; he did not, understandably, discern an equivalent Dostoevsky, whose sensualists are joyless and tormented. Hence his cheerfully polemic response in a letter of May 1909 to Blanche Jennings, to J.M. Robertson’s and Jennings’s opinion that Crime and Punishment was ‘the finest book written’, he called this novel ‘a tract, a treatise, a pamphlet compared with Tolstoi’s Anna Karénina or War and Peace’.


Rather, he sees all of Dostoevsky’s characters as being self-conscious, and self-consciousness in art as in life is something he persistently attacks. In his ‘Introduction to Verga’s Mastro-don Gesualdo’ 1923 he presents Verga and D as antitheses in this respect.


And in this he agrees with Bakhtin, who wrote: ‘Everything that usually makes up who a character is becomes in D an object of self-consciousness on the part of the charcter ‘At a time when the self-consciousness of a character was usually seen merely as an element of his reality, as merely one of the features of his integrated image, here, on the contrary, all of reality ecomes an element of the character’s self-consciousness.’


And yet, what neither Lawrence nor Bakhtin recognise is that the character whom each of Dostoevsky’s novels favours is always the least self-conscious; indeed, I would argue, not self-conscious at all. It is this lack of self-consciousness that is one of the things that makes Prince Mishkin the eponymous Idiot.


I would add that there are a few further features that make Dostoevsky strange and antipathetic to Lawrence:


One is his interest in extreme psychological states – such as that of the Underground Man, Rogozhin, and Raskolnikov. This is one of the things that Lawrence is pointing towards when he calls Dostoevsky mad: In a Letter to Violet Hunt (13 December) of 1910 he writes ‘Mr Hueffer accuses me of Dostoieffskyism – it is an accusation, for all the dear crank Russian’s stuff is as insane as it can be. […] I thought these Holroyd folk were nicely levelled down.’ In other words, his characters are saner and more composed than Dostoevsky’s, and this is true.


And we can extend the generalisation that Dostoevsky deals with exceptions and extremes whereas Lawrence deals with norms. Dostoevsky is concerned with families gone wrong to the point of child abuse and sexual slavery. Lawrence is concerned with couples who go wrong only to the extent of violating each others’ souls. Gerald’s end is a sensational exception.


When Dostoevsky deals with sex it is in terms of what even today would be considered scandalous; the sex in Lawrence’s characters engage is what most people, today would call normal, and so on.


In other words, Lawrence, in a slightly prudish way, finds Dostoevsky a bit much. He wrote to Ottoline on 1 Feb 1916, about The Possessed: ‘It seems so sensational, and such a degrading of the pure mind, somhow. It seems as though the pure mind, the true reason, which surely is noble, were made trampled and filthy under the hoofs of scret, perverse, undirect sensuality’


He particularly dislikes the way that he mixes high and low, in what Shakespeare would have called ‘gallimaufry’. Kaye thinks that ‘Lawrence could not tolerate the sacrileges and travesties that pervade Dostoevsky’s novels, because, in his view, the sancutary of the novel was too sacred a place to allow for such constant mockery and scandal. D may have written about Lawrencean subjects, but his rival ultimately juded him as a heretic in the temple of art’. And there is something in this.


And yet, there are coincidences and similarities between them:


Friends and enemies of both could see them.


The Trespasser was reviewed in The Athenaieum with Garnett’s Bros Kaz.

The reviewer prasied Lawrence in terms of Dostoevsky’s ‘psychological intensity’ and ‘poetic realism of a Dostoevskian order.’

Murry said that The Man Who Died was as great as The Grand Inquisitor.

Galsworthy and Henry Miller likened them.


And one can see why.

They were both déclassé outsiders to high society


Theirs were treated as wild, untamed voices, with a tendancy to sexual scandal


They were treated as not-artists


They had a sense of living in decayed civilizations heading towards destruction


They were national essentialists


And they were both evidently ‘Christ-haunted’, as Murry called Lawrence


This made it all the more important to get away from the influence of Dostoevsky and the Russian Craze more broadly.


In conclusion – as Peter Kaye writes: ‘His assaults blur, but cannot mask, his affinity with the passionate visionary who evoked a ‘subterranean love’ and a reluctant ‘great admiration’’


And as Gilbert Phelps writes: ‘what is certain is that L’s critical writings on the Russians take one into the very quick of his thinking. The issues they raised were the ones which most fundamentally concerned him.’








Dr. Catherine Brown


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Aiello, Lucia, After Reception Theory: Fedor Dostoevskii and Britain 1869-1935 (London, Legenda, 2013)


Bakhtin, Mikhail, 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. by Emerson (Manchester: Manchester University Press)


Bloshteyn, Maria, The Making of a Counter-Cultural Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (Toronto, London: University of Toronto Press, 2007)


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and Unwin, 1954)


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Essays, Gemini Books. Patterns of Literary Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,



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Dostoevskii, Fedor. Записки из подполья in Федор Михайлович Достоевский: Собрание сочинении в семи томах, vii: 324-422. Print.

Diment, Galya, A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury: The Life and Times of Samuel Koteliansky (Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011)


Fusso, Susanne, Discovering Sexuality in Dostoevsky (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2006)


Gordon, David J., D.H. Lawrence as a Literary Critic (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966)


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University Press, 1999)


Leatherbarrow, W.J., Dostoevskii and Britain (Berg: Oxford, Providence, 1995)


Leatherbarrow, W.J., The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2002)


Morris, Pam, The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov

(London: Arnold, 2002)


Murry, John Middleton, Fyodor Dostoevsky : A Critical Study (London: M. Secker, 1916)


Murry, John Middleton, Reminiscences of D.H. Lawrence (The Life and Letters Series No.

74; London, Jonathan Cape, 1936)


Panichas, George, ‘F.M. Dostoevskii and D.H. Lawrence: their vision of evil’, Dostoevskii

and Britain, ed W.J. Leatherbarrow (Oxford: Berg, 1995), 249-276


Phelps, Gilbert, The Russian Novel in English Fiction (London: Hutchinson, 1956)


Sandoz, Ellis, Political Apocalypse: A Study of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor (Wilmington: Isi Books, 2000)


Steiner, George. 1967. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (London: Penguin)


Williams, Rowan, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2009)


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Zytaruk, George J., D.H. Lawrence’s Response to Russian Literature, Studies in English Literature, LXIX (The Hague: Mouton & Co. N.V., 1971)




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Catherine Brown