Dostoevsky On Torture


A few years back, Common Dreams printed an insightful piece on Laura Bush's favorite book and its relation to torture. The First Lady and former librarian has famously claimed in several interviews over the last 8 years that The Brothers Karamazov - Dostoevsky's monolithic tome in which he "eloquently condemns the use of torture" - is her favorite book. Tony Kushner already grappled with this contradiction in an eerie one-act, "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," in which Laura Bush reads The Brothers Karamazov to a cluster of dead Iraqi children assembled before her as if at the library's 11 a.m. story hour. You can read that piece at The Nation, where it first appeared. I highly recommend it. (I've been holding out hope that Kushner's lack of new work for the stage is indication that he's expanding this one into an epic that captures dramatically the spiritual death of the Bush era the way Angels In America captures mourning-in-america under Reagan, but we can only wait and see). Here's a chunk from the Common Dreams piece:Here is how Dostoyevsky, sent to prison in 1849 for taking part in revolutionary action against the martinet Emperor Nicholas I, describes to his brother Mikhail the mock execution he had to endure on November 16 of that year: “They snapped swords over our heads, and they made us put on the white shirts worn by persons condemned to death. Thereupon we were bound in threes to stakes, to suffer execution. Being the third in the row, I concluded I had only a few minutes of life before me. I thought of you and your dear ones and I contrived to kiss Plestcheiev and Dourov, who were next to me, and to bid them farewell. Suddenly the troops beat a tattoo, we were unbound, brought back upon the scaffold, and informed that his Majesty had spared us our lives.” “One of the prisoners, Grigoryev, went mad as soon as he was untied, and never regained his sanity,” notes a translator’s preface to Dostoevsky’s other great novel, Crime and Punishment.Dostoyevsky’s horror at torture -- which, for him, clearly was not just the product of his imagination -- is suggested by the words of the intellectual Ivan Karamazov to his saintly brother Alyosha:“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature -- that baby beating its breast, for instance -- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.‘No, I wouldn't consent,’ said Alyosha softly.”In light of the Yoo memo released last night, Dostoevsky's words resonate. Especially considering that Dostoevsky - himself a victim of state-sanctioned torture - conjures the image of a "tiny creature" being tortured, a scenario which John Yoo thinks would be justifiable if the president deemed it necessary:No further comment.

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