Friday, July 25, 2014

Be warned, Russia! Possessed and bedeviled by Dostoyevsky

I finished Dostoyevsky's The Devils/The Possessed last weekend. Many readers think of this novel as being an over-the-top madhouse of a book, and see the violent shenanigans of the radicals as a horrific portrait of the revolutionary spirit. There are murders, there is arson, there are deaths and social disruption, religious icons are defaced, blasphemies are declared, etc. On the whole, pretty tame by my standards with the exception of the child abuse (see below). Anyone who's read Shakespeare will have seen worse. So while I was disappointed that the book never broke through into the promised wild storm of madness, I still call it a fine work. I will also say in passing that in terms of form and technique, The Devils reminds me of Dickens' Bleak House more than anything else.

The Possessed/The Devils is a complex work with many (often conflicting) threads running through it, a comic novel with sections of tragedy and some brilliant set pieces. In some ways it’s like all of Dostoyevsky’s other novels (the characters tend to be frantic sorts, shouting and fighting and dashing from place to place), but in other ways it is unlike any of Dostoyevsky’s other novels (The Devils is tightly controlled and well knit together, and even at his most discursive, Dostoyevsky keeps everything moving forward and connected; hence the Bleak House comparison). The Devils is a carefully constructed novel: it’s complex, very long, and the tone—while generally comic—spans a wide emotional range, just like real life (there are the usual jokes about drunken peasants and silly aristocrats, but there is also the tale of the thirteen year old girl who is raped by a general’s son and then hangs herself in shame). So this book is many things (while remaining unified), because Dostoyevsky is many things as a novelist. I will now provide some examples.

Dostoyevsky deliberately composed a polemical novel. The Devils was written in part because Dostoyevsky had been accused of avoiding any meaningful engagement in his novels with the important social issues of the day. The inspiration for the story came in the form of a news item Dostoyevsky read (he was mad for crime stories in the papers), about a revolutionary group murdering one of its own members. The Devils is a continuation of the literary conversation begun by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons, and Dostoyevsky references that novel as well as the works of Herzen, Fourier, Chernyshevsky and (amusingly) himself (several times characters use the "two plus two is four" construction that Dostoyevsky mocked in Notes From the Underground). One character, an aging writer named Karmazinov, is a mean-spirited parody of Ivan Turgenev. Likely there are other parodied authors, but I'm not familiar enough with Russian liberal literature from 1840-60 to pick them out. ("My friend, I'm doing this all for the sake of the great idea. I've stood still for twenty-five years and now, suddenly, I'm on the move--I don't know where to, but I'm certainly on my way!") There is a lot of discussion in The Devils of politics. Dostoyevsky's Russians take politics personally:
He did not stand to lose very much by the proclamation and was perfectly capable of understanding its humanitarian aspect--and almost capable of understanding its advantages to the country's economy--but somehow he took the emancipation of the serfs as a direct, personal slight. This was something unconscious, but the less he could explain it, the more it tormented him[...]At the same time, however, he violently disapproved of Russia's past and viewed most Russian traditions as fit for a pigsty[...]The thought that in the days of the ancient Kingdom of Muscovy the tsar could, if he so decided, inflict corporal punishment upon a Russian nobleman, made him almost weep with shame.
Artemy Gaganov, weeping above with shame over Russian customs, will later become involved in a duel, which barbaric ritual he takes with all seriousness in a hysterically comic scene. There are a lot of comic scenes in this novel, because Dostoyevsky can be funny:
"You know how my kind lives: they give us either a handful of hay or a prod with the pitchfork. Last Friday I stuffed myself to the gills with meat pie, but the next day I didn't have a thing in my mouth and the day after I fasted and the one after that I skipped my meals. But I had plenty of water from the river, so maybe I'm breeding carp in my belly. So I wonder whether you wouldn't be so generous, sir. And besides, I have a lady friend waiting for me not too far from here, but she won't receive me unless I present myself with a few rubles."


"Last year I was almost caught handing counterfeit fifty-ruble notes made in France to Korovayev, but thank God, Korovayev drowned in a pond while he was drunk, just in time, and they couldn't pin anything on me. Then here, in Virginsky's house, I championed the freedom of the socialist wife."


"I propose we take a vote on whether Shigalov's despair has a bearing upon the state of our common cause and whether we should devote ten evenings listening to him or not," an officer said cheerfully.
Dostoyevsky can be serious. The character of Kirilov is possibly a version of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's Rakhmetov, a sort of socialist uberman. Kirilov, an atheist like most of the other revolutionaries, has decided that since there is no God, this absent place in the universe must be filled by himself. Kirilov, then, is God. We are all God in Kirilov's philosophy. The only way to prove that he is God is for Kirilov to demonstrate his free will. The only way for God to demonstrate free will is to destroy himself. Therefore, Kirilov has decided to shoot himself, to prove that he is God. This, I think, is the central argument of The Devils: that when a Russian turns away from the Orthodox Church, and declares that man is equivalent to God, he will only be able to destroy himself. Kirilov is presented sympathetically--as a madman, sure, but Dostoyevsky allows the madman his dignity and does not laugh at the madness, because this--to the author--is the serious business of the novel. Without her faith, Russia will only kill herself. Be warned, Russia! The suicide motif is very important in The Possessed. Pay attention, readers!

Dostoyevsky doesn't just fix his eye on the revolutionaries; he has plenty of scorn for the Russian establishment:
"I'm convinced that we shouldn't just dismiss the opinions of the young. People simply brand them as Communists, but I think we must treat them with understanding and appreciation. Lately I've been reading everything--the newspapers, all the proclamations of communes, and all about the natural sciences. I subscribe to everything. For we must understand, mustn't we, the society in which we live and with whom we have to deal. One cannot live all one's life shut up in an ivory tower of one's own fantasy. I thought a lot about it and decided to be nice to the young people and thus prevent them from going over the brink. Believe me, only we who belong to the best society can keep them from plunging into the abyss into which they are being pushed by these silly, intolerant old men.[...]I'm organizing a day-long entertainment to be paid for by subscription, the proceeds going to needy governesses from our province. They are scattered all over Russia and there are six of them in this district alone. In addition, there are two women telegraphists, two university students, and many others who would like to follow a career but can't afford the training. The lot of the Russian woman is terrible, my dear! In this strange country of ours, everything is possible and I think we can guide this great public cause along the proper path only by kindness and the direct participation of all society.[...]So let us close ranks and grow stronger. In short, I will start with a literary matinee followed by a light lunch; then there will be an intermission, and later in the evening a ball."
Mrs. von Lembke, above, is the wife of the provincial governor. Her literary ball in the name of needy governesses--the sort of political action a Mrs. von Lembke can understand--goes quite awry at the hands of these young people she means to keep from going over the brink. They are quite successful in pulling her (and the governor) over that brink.

Dostoyevsky offers a variety of life philosophies:
"After all, I say to myself, it's better to bow to a jackboot than to a peasant's clog."


When the party passed the inn on its way to the bridge, someone suddenly announced that the body of a man who had shot himself had been discovered that day in a room there and that the police were about to arrive to investigate the death. Immediately someone suggested that we stop and have a look at the suicide. The suggestion met with general approval--the ladies had never seen a suicide before. I remember one of them saying, "I'm so bored with everything that I can't afford to be too fussy about entertainment--anything will do as long as it's amusing."


Verhovensky: "Shall I tell you what Karmazinov told me? He said that, essentially, our teaching is the denial of honor and that the easiest way to attract the Russian man is to promise him the right of dishonor."

Stavrogin: "Excellent words, golden words! He hits the nail right on the head. The right of dishonor. They'll all come rushing to us and there'll be none left on the other side."
Dostoyevsky can be deeply human. He is best at this when he writes about faith. There is a long scene where one of the radical antiheroes, Nikolai Stavrogin, makes a long confession of his past crimes to a retired bishop. It's a remarkable, moving set piece that prefigures the "Grand Inquisitor" scene from The Brothers Karamazov. Is Stavrogin a demon, or has he been possessed? We don't know, but he is evil walking the face of the earth. The bishop wishes to forgive Stavrogin, but Stavrogin does not, in the end, want forgiveness. He wants to out himself, to publicly declare his sins, and then force himself upon high society and scorn them for accepting him as he is. He despises himself and everything around him, hating the world that allows him to live in it. And yet, through the eyes of the bishop--who Stavrogin mocks and disrespects--we see Stavrogin as wounded, sick and pathetic. A remarkable performance on the part of Dostoyevsky. This is some book.

I read (and quoted heavily from) Andrew R. MacAndrew's excellent 1962 translation, titled The Possessed.


  1. Again, you offer cogent arguments about why I need to add yet another book to my list of overlooked books. Related to that issue is this: even literature teachers (and retired teachers) cannot possibly read all the good books in the world. We all end up like Burgess Meredith's character in a famous Twilight Zone episode: So many books but no ability to read them. Sad . . . sad . . . sad . . .

    1. I try not to think about all the great books I'll never read. I try not to think about how there are so many great books already written that there's little point in my writing books. I just keep reading, and keep writing.

      I remember that when I was young, I thought the Western Canon was pretty small. Read Dickens, Shakespeare, Dickenson, Bulfinch, Yeats, Mann, Flaubert, Dante, and about 100 other books, and one was pretty much full up on the great works of Europe. Throw in some books by non-Europeans, and there you were: exquisitely well read. I was so dumb. I really believed that, and there were moments of despair when I began to see how wrong I was. The older I get, the more I see that the world is immense, and varied, and mostly unknowable and that's fine. The world gets larger, I get smaller and there are forever new treasures to discover. I'm okay with that.

  2. On the other hand, anyone I meet who, although his real interest is medicine or rock criticism or our current Golden Age of television, has read Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. and 100 other books is someone who I will call "well read," even if he does not return the favor when he learns that I have never seen Breaking Bad or The Wire.

    I take the comparison to Bleak House as a strong one. "[C]arefully constructed" - no kidding! I will have to see for myself.

  3. First of all, thank you very much for that fascinating post on a quite fascinating novel. I’m sorry I am coming to this post so late.
    Dostoyevky is a novelist who has fascinated and intrigued me for more years than I care to remember, and, despite so many years’ acquaintance, I find it difficult to say anything at all definite about his novels. I can’t think of any other novelist whose works remain, despite his reputation as a didactic writer, so open to interpretation, so very resistant to the very concept of a “final word”. Perhaps this is what Dostoyevsky intended: Shigalyov envisages a future in which, for the good of humanity, humanity must be deprived of the freedom to make any meaningful choice; the Grand Inquisitor is already creating such a society; and this very idea - a “final word” that will answer everything for once and all and thus make the very concept of choice meaningless - was anathema to Dostoyevsky. And so, in his novels too, I think, he left everything open. He developed an extraordinary narrative method, with the story told by a patchwork of narrative voices which may or may not be reliable. Often (I don’t have the book with me right now to offer examples), events are described along the lines of “It is said that …” or “it appears that…” or “it could be that…”. And sometimes, as in that extraordinary scene of Kirillov’s suicide, the narrative voice becomes omniscient, penetrating to areas where no human narrator has access; yet, even when the narrative voice does become omniscient, what it presents is more puzzling than ever.

    I do wonder about Stavrogin’s Confession: should we treat this as an integral part of the novel? The novel was initially published in serialised form, and Dostoyevsky wrote the subsequent chapters of this novel knowing that this Confession would not be part of the whole. Had it been otherwise, he may well have written the rest of the novel in a different way. I find particularly curious that even when told that this chapter could not be published (a possibility that he must have foreseen), he didn’t, from what I can figure out, seem particularly perturbed by it. When I last read this novel, I omitted this chapter, and read it as a sort of appendix after I had finished.

    Given all the vagaries involved in the narrative, I couldn’t help wondering to what extent we are supposed to take at face value the contents of this confession. Stavrogin’s crime is about as hideous as any private individual can commit, and yet, his narration is curiously detached: he says nothing of what, if anything, he felt when committing these acts of utter depravity. He narrates everything in a sort of passive manner - as if merely reporting on matters in which he was not an active participant. The whole tone of the narrative, utterly lacking in even the slightest hint of self-justification, is designed to invoke repulsion. This is clearly the response he expects from Tikhon, and is greatly put out when Tikhon refuses to respond in this manner, and questions instead the motives not for the acts described in the confession, but for the “confession” itself. I must admit I am still not entirely sure what to make of all this.

    I was intrigued by your description of this novel as carefully constructed: it merely goes to show how widely perceptions can differ, as my impression was quite the opposite. Indeed, it seemed to me the very antithesis of “Bleak House” in this respect. But, as I say, there is no novelist quite so open-ended as Dostoyevsky, and I may well be revising my opinion on this on my next reading.

    This, for what it’s worth, is what I thought of this novel when I last read it some three years ago:
    These reflections are but provisional: I’m sure I’ll think very differently when I next return to it.