Dostoevsky’s View of Evil
by Richard Pevear
This is an abridgement of the introduction to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Dostoevsky’s novel, Demons — a prophetic work, given the author’s recognition of the demonic forces that were gaining strength in 19th century Russia.
Dostoevsky called the novel Demons precisely because the demons in it do not appear, and the reader might otherwise overlook them. The demons are visible only in distortions of the human image, the human countenance, and their force is measurable only by the degree of the distortion.
What this means for an understanding of demonic possession in the novel may be elucidated by a passage from The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov are talking about the murder of their father. Alyosha suddenly turns to his brother and says: “It was not you who killed father… You’ve accused yourself and confessed to yourself that you and you alone are the murderer. But it was not you who killed him, you are mistaken, the murderer was not you, do you hear, it was not you! God has sent me to tell you that.” In fact, Ivan was their father’s murderer, if only in an “intellectual” sense. But Alyosha is talking about something else. He seems to mean that the evil in Ivan is not him, is not identical with him, is not his essence. Ivan is in danger of taking it for his essence, of “damning” himself and losing himself entirely. He is on the verge of madness. Alyosha’s message is truly meant to save him. The world of Demons — the provincial town with its society, its administration, its older and younger generations, its club members and revolutionaries — is in a condition similar to Ivan’s. The title is perhaps Dostoevsky’s message to us that “It is not them.”
text box In Demons Dostoevsky inscribes the fundamental freedom of Judeo-Christian revelation — the freedom to turn from evil, the freedom to repent. His vision is not Manichaean; he does not see evil as co-eternal with good. Evil cannot be the essence of any living person. The “possessed” can at any moment be rid of their demons, which are wicked but also false. The devil is a liar and the father of lies. And the lie here is the same as in the beginning: “you will be like God…” It is what we have referred to as autonomy. The assertion of human autonomy is finally a revolt against God; it is also the final lie, the mystification behind all the demystifying critiques of modern times. It was in this light that Dostoevsky saw not only the political movements of his day, but the ideas that nourished them — ideas that came a bit late to Russia, but developed there at an accelerated pace. That acceleration makes itself felt very strongly in Demons.
One of the novel’s epigrams is taken from Luke’s account of the Gerasene demoniac (Luke8:26-39). Dostoevsky’s selection of verses emphasizes two things: the self-destruction of the swine, and the healing of the man. This, highly abbreviated, is the plot of Demons. In a letter to his friend Apollon Maikov, written when the design of the novel had finally become clear to him, Dostoevsky referred to the same passage from Luke in explaining his conception:
The facts have shown us that the illness that seized civilized Russians was much stronger than we ourselves imagined, and that the matter did not end with Belinsky, Kraevsky, etc. But what occurred here is what is witnessed to by the evangelist Luke. Exactly the same thing happened with us: the demons came out of the Russian man and entered into a herd of swine, i.e. into the Nechaevs [Russian terrorists]…
This same comparison is made near the end of the novel by Stepan Trofimovich, with small but significant changes:
…you see, it’s exactly like our Russia… But a great will and a great thought will descend to her from on high, as upon that insane demoniac, and out will come all these demons, all the uncleanness, all the abomination that is festering on the surface… and they will beg of themselves to enter into text box swine. And perhaps they already have! It is us, us and them, and Petrusha… and I, perhaps, first, at the head, and we will rush, insane and raging, from the cliff down into the sea, and all be drowned, and good riddance to us, because that’s the most we’re fit for. But the sick man will be healed and sit “at the feet of Jesus”…
The polemical, accusatory tone of the letter has given way to self-accusation and confession. The two impulses are always there in Dostoevsky; the former tends to predominate in his journalism, the latter in his artistic works. The penetration of his vision is linked to personal experience, to his recognition in himself of the forces at play in the world. The artists struggle for adequate formal expression is at the same time a process of awakening. The “healing” of the sick man is, however, barely adumbrated in the novel; the intensity of the demonic paroxysm all but overshadows it; yet awakening does come in extremis to Stepan Trofimovich. On the other hand, the Nechaevs of the novel, Petrusha Verkhovensky and the rest, turn out in both comparisons to be, not demons, not demoniacs, but the herd of swine.
The demons, then, are ideas, that legion of isms that came to Russia from the West: idealism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarianism, positivism, socialism, anarchism, nihilism, and, underlying them all, atheism, to which the Slavophils opposed their notions of the Russian earth, the Russian God, the Russian Christ, the “light from the East,” and so on. In his journalism and letters, Dostoevsky often wielded these notions himself. In Demons, however, they are given to Shatov. And, as Ren Girard has observed, “the character of Shatov destroys the hypothesis of a simply reactionary Dostoevsky… Shatov is Dostoevsky meditating on his own ideological development, on his own powerlessness to escape negative modes of thinking. And it is in this meditation itself that Dostoevsky goes beyond Slavophil ideology.”
Is it not an exaggeration, even a sort of mystification, to give the status of “demons” to mere ideas? But, in the first place, there are no mere ideas in Dostoevsky, there are what Mikhail Bakhtin, in his Problems in Dostoevsky’s Poetics, calls “voice-ideas,” “voice-viewpoints,”"idea-images,” “idea-forces,” “idea-heroes.” There is no neutral, impersonal truth. “It is not the idea itself that is the ‘hero of Dostoevsky’s works’… but rather the person born of that idea.”Bakhtin pretends to a scientific analysis and therefore avoids evaluation of the “ideological content” of Dostoevsky’s works, but implicit at least in his analysis is the possibility of an evil or alien idea coming to inhabit a person, misleading him, perverting him ontologically, driving him to crime or insanity. Dostoevsky portrays this phenomenon time and again. It even becomes a topic of discussion between two experts, Ivan Fyodorovich and the devil in The Brothers Karamazov. We see it in almost all the characters of Demons.
“It was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you,” Pyotr Verkhovensky says to Kirillov. Later Kirillov notes, “Stavrogin was also eaten by an idea.” At one point Shatov cries out: “Kirillov! If… if you could renounce your terrible fantasies and drop your atheistic ravings… oh, what a man you’d be, Kirillov!” These unguarded observations imply that the person is not one with the idea; there is play here, a loose fit, a mismatch. Marya Shatov is a normal girl who has been invaded by a “voice-idea” totally alien to her, which leaves her quite suddenly once she has given birth. Stepan Trofimovich confesses in the end, after the book-hawker reads the Sermon on the Mount to him: “My friend, I’ve been lying all my life. Even when I was telling the truth.”
The person born of the idea may be distorted and even destroyed by it. But to make such a judgment, one must have some way of measuring the distortion, some image of the undistorted person. And, again, if Dostoevsky is to be true to his poetics, this cannot be an abstract idea or principle. Bakhtin acknowledges the existence of this “measure” in a passage that is rather obliquely worded, but is crucial for an understanding of his own concept of”polyphony,” not to mention Dostoevsky’s novel:
…what unfolds before Dostoevsky is not a world of objects, illuminated and ordered by his monologic thought, but a world of consciousnesses mutually illuminating one another… Among them Dostoevsky seeks the highest and most authoritative orientation, and he perceives it not as his own true thought, but as another authentic human being and his discourse. The image of the ideal human being or the image of Christ represents for him the resolution of ideological quests. This image or this highest voice must crown the world of voices, must organize and subdue it. Precisely the image of a human being and his voice, a voice not the author’s own, was the ultimate artistic criterion for Dostoevsky: not fidelity to his own convictions and not fidelity to convictions themselves taken abstractly, but precisely a fidelity to the authoritative image of a human being.
The openness of Dostoevsky’s novels is an openness to this image; his polyphony has no other aim than the silent indication of its presence. Ideas that deface or distort this “authoritative image of a human being” in a person are indeed acting like demons, and are them.
In the second place, judging by their own consistency and the results of their realization in the world, these are ideas of a peculiar sort. They behave strangely. Their chief peculiarity is summed up by Shigalyov, the leading theoretician in Demons, commenting on his own system: “My conclusion directly contradicts the original idea I start from. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution to the social formula, there is no other.” Here we have the voice of the demonic idea in its pure state. Shigalyov is a doggedly honest man. He admits the contradiction in his thinking, but asserts that there can be no other solution. He is a man blinded by his own lucidity, in Ren Girard’s terms. It is a lucidity produced by elimination; there is an absence at the center of his thought, a golfo mistico through which the demons enter, turning his idea into its opposite. And it is not just any idea, but the one dearest to us all — the idea of freedom.
Dostoevsky was accused in his own time, and is often accused in ours, of producing only caricatures of revolutionaries in Demons. Readers of the tracts written by Bakunin and Nechaev will recognize the voice of Shigalyov, as will readers of the works of Lenin. Shigalyov’s words are a paradigm of the operation of demonic ideas. As for the realization of these ideas in the world, historical examples are to be found everywhere, perhaps most appallingly in the sixty million victims of such ideas in Shigalyov’s own country. “It was only towards the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy,” Czeslaw Milosz wrote in the opening sentence of the Captive Mind. Books written by Shigalyovs, of course.
The opposite of blind lucidity was Dostoevsky’s clear-sightedness about the historical situation of his time and its implications. Writing to his publisher some years after completing Demons, he spoke of the “blasphemy” he was then representing in “The Grand Inquisitor” as the seed of the idea of destruction in our time, in Russia, in the milieu of the young people who have lost touch with reality,” and he defined this blasphemy as the “denial not of God, but of the meaning of His creation. The whole of socialism emerged and began with the denial of the meaning of historical reality and went on to a program of destruction and anarchism.” In another letter from the same time, he wrote: “The scientific and philosophical refutation of the existence of God has already been abandoned, present-day practical socialists are not occupied with it at all (as they were for the whole past century and the first half of the present one), instead they deny with all their might God’s creation, God’s world, and its meaning. Herein this alone does modern civilization find nonsense.”
The “seed of the idea of destruction” is the revolt against God; but that is over and done with, it is already forgotten, no one is concerned with it anymore. What follows is man’s replacement of God and the correction of His creation. This amounts to a declaration of the absurdity and meaninglessness of history, of historical reality as the unfolding of God’s will in time, but also as the lived life of mankind — that is, to a separation from the historical body of mankind. Reality itself, physical reality, begins to drain out of this radical “idea,” leaving only the drab abstraction of materialism.
This Dostoevsky felt and realized, and it is one reason why his heroes, when they begin to save themselves, kiss the earth and “water it with their tears.” The third stage of the revolt in the name of unlimited freedom is destruction and anarchism, represented in the novel by Pyotr Verkhovensky. This whole “development” is a continuous fall, and its thrust is towards sheer fantasy, which our century has witnessed in its bloodiest and most senseless forms. Dostoevsky explored, tested, represented these three stages with extraordinary prescience in Demons.
Everything is inverted here: freedom ends in despotism, adoration turns to hatred, lucidity increases blindness, the first real act of the liberator of mankind — Nechaev or Verkhovensky– is the murder of his human brother. Seeking the greatest good, we do the greatest evil. The demons parody God’s world and invert its ends, playing for its loss. And the source of all these inversions, the primordial parody, is the replacement of the “authoritative image of a human being” by the would-be autonomous human will. Demons are unoriginal. They cannot come up with anything new or real. Their lies are copied from sacred truths. They introduce a dreadful buffoonery into the world.
The Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of
Demons is published by Vintage, as are their translations of
The Brothers Karamazov,
Crime and Punishment,
Notes from the Underground, and Gogol’s
The Dead Souls. Their most recent Dostoevsky translation is
The Eternal Husband and Other Stories (Bantam, 1997).
Reprinted from In Communion issue 12 / Pascha / April 1998. Copyright by Richard Pevear.