Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets
Briunt Norton

Thursday, August 27, 2009

DEMONS by Dostoevsky

I had planned to start this site off by writing about ‘Demons’ by Dostoevsky. I read it and greatly enjoyed it. It was well plotted for a rambling nineteenth serialized novel. It swarms with well drawn characters and many compelling situations. And it had lofty themes. When I finished I felt I had a good grasp of it. Then I started to write about it. I wrote about different aspects and characters. But I ended up feeling that all my writing was about aspects and corners and I had failed to capture the strong character of the novel. So I kept putting off the launch of the site as I wrote more and felt more and more frustrated. Then I just decided to put together the best I had as well as I could. When I had done that I let it sit a couple of days and then read it. I was not happy with what I had written. It felt like it was all awkward seams stretched over scarring and pimples. I decided I would be sorry if I posted what I had. So I decided to let it sit some more, wait for more insight on how to best present it and move on to some shorter works by James Joyce. I feel a need to lay out a quick sketch of why I think ‘Demons’ is significant and enormously relevant in times full of change and of great transition.
I want to present something that might induce more people to read this great work. And I will begin with a brief description.
Dostoevsky’s Demons is the story of a group of young Russians in the 1870s planning and executing a rebellion in a small provincial capital. They call themselves a fivesome which is the basic organizational unit in the secret society planning the revolt. They disseminate political tracts, which from the evidence within this book, was a brazen and effective political tactic of that time and place. They have also commissioned an escaped prisoner to commit random acts of violence. As things progress, the leader from outside the fivesome, Pyotr Verkhonensky, decides to bind the group closer together and increase his control over them. Pyotr says that a member has betrayed their plans to the governor and decides that they will execute him for this crime against the revolution. This murder so stresses the rebels that the fivesome disintegrates. The authorities, who have been baffled about all of the events, slowly come to an understanding of what has happened.
Nikolai Stavrogin is one of Dotoevsky’s more complex and interesting characters. He is believed by many to be the leader of the secret revolutionary society. His mother is the widow of a general and the richest land owner in the province. He is flawed but larger than life; a mysterious and compelling figure. Women want his love and want to mother him. Men want his approval (seldom given) and they endlessly project their feelings and beliefs onto him. He spent a couple of his early years after college in drunken dissipation in Moscow and St. Petersburg. While there he spent most of his time with the the lowest class of society: with the poor, the insane and drunkards. He moves from there to Europe where he mixes with Russian expatriates in France, Switzerland and Germany. In Europe he spends his time with the wealthy and educated. He is up on all the newest trends of the intellectuals but he is also a gentleman of the old school who duels and deflowers virgins.
The main force, planner and agitator for the revolution is Pyotr Verkhovensky who generally tries to stay behind the scenes. He has been abandoned by his father and has done a good job of self-creation by becoming a modest middle class intellectual type. He wants Stavrogin to be seen as the leader. He feels that people will be more likely to follow Stavrogin whose large personality draws people to him. And maybe he hopes to escape some blame in case of failure. He weasels his way into the circle of the wife of the provincial governor and uses his influence with her to lower the values and standards of the upper class of the province’s society. His understanding of the upper classes and the basic psychology of socialists and atheists is summed up by his assertion that,. “I can get them to go through fire, if I just yell at them they’re not liberal enough . . .”
Shigalov has thought and written along the lines of Fourier about the new society that the revolution will create. He describes his system thus: “ . . . I am suggesting my own system of world organization. . . I get entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my own solution of the social formula, there can be no other.”
The narrative plot of Demons is a rebellion against the czarist government and one of the main subplots is rebellion against God or atheism. Most of the characters I’ve mentioned so far are atheists. And they are not atheists of the ‘No I don’t believe there is a God, would you like to get together for dinner on Tuesday” variety. They are more of the ‘Of course there is no God, but if there was I still wouldn’t believe just to teach that megalomaniac a lesson’ variety. They are pathologically atheistic. All of the members revolutionary society are atheists. It is never a matter of rational argument or discussion. It is just what everybody thinks and to not go along would be to subject oneself to the ridicule a peer group uses to enforce conformity. And you would never get anywhere in the world of socialists and revolutionaries without submitting completely to peer pressure.
Kirilov went too far with atheism even for this group. Rather than the revolt against the czar he makes revolt against God the center of his life. And he thereby makes himself only slightly useful in the earthly revolution. He is angry and frustrated that God has limited his freedom by making the time of his death a random event. But it is more than that. Possibly he’s insane since he feels he can become God by committing suicide. His singular devotion to this idee fixe causes him to resemble a paranoid monomaniac. This dialog between him and Pyotr Verkhovensky takes place: “Pyotr V. says, “’If you shoot yourself you’ll become God. Is that right?’
“‘Yes, I will become God.’ [Kirilov answers] . . .Kirilov says, “If there is a God, then the will is all his, and I cannot get out of his will. If not, the will is all mine, and it is my duty to proclaim self-will.”. . . ’It is my duty to shoot myself because the fullest point of my self-will is -- for me to kill myself.’
“‘But you’re not the only one to kill yourself, there are lots of suicides.’ [replies Pyotr Verkhovensky]
“‘For reasons. But without any reason, only for self will-- only I.’
… . . ..
“‘It is my duty to proclaim unbelief . . . .’”
Stavrogin is the most clearly and completely drawn character in the book He is full of contradiction. He is a duel fighting, skirt chasing rich kid who is recognized by most as the leader of a revolutionary secret society. He steals a trinket just to see a child be punished for the theft, rapes the child and then plans to publicly confess to enjoy the thrill of the humiliation. He is not purely evil since he does experience guilt for his disgusting actions. And this is one of the reasons why women are so drawn to him. He is able to project himself as the kind of ‘bad boy’ women are often fascinated by. And he causes many women to feel challenged to reform him.
More than any other character Stavrogin walks on the razor’s edge between good and evil. He has at times steeped himself in especially noxious evil. Evil that is like the mommy-naughty child-spank-me hypnotic sexual role game Rousseau plays endlessly. And the ego won’t let go of it. It can’t just be a sinner but demands to be THE SINNER TO OUT SIN ALL SINNERS. Tikhon, the holy man, understands this and does not empower it with argument: he just offers a simple yet difficult solution, which, if embraced, strips the muscle from the pathological ego. And Tikhon understands what a complete game it is because he sees that all sins are infinitely evil since their very nature is the denial of God. He is as much a sinner as Stavrogin but his salvation comes from not having Stavrogin’s need to keep playing the ‘I’m naughtier than you game.’
There is so much here: good and evil, revolution with power struggles and in fighting, a genuine holy man and devout atheists. There are a couple of love stories. And there is redemption. Or at least a map to redemption.
Thi is what I've been able to get together so far. I plan to add more about God, socialism and revolution as it comes together.

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