Demons – Final Thoughts

[This post also marks my completion of Volume 4 (of 5) of Frank’s biography.  Of course, volume 5 appears longer than volumes 1 and 2 combined, so who knows when/if I’ll finish?]

“Now read me another passage. . . . About the pigs,” [Stepan] said suddenly.

“What?” asked Sofya Matveyevna [a villager whose hose the now insane Stepan has stumbled upon], very much alarmed. “About the pigs . . . that’s there too . . . ces cochons. I remember the devils entered into swine and they all were drowned. You must read me that; I’ll tell you why afterwards. I want to remember it word for word. I want it word for word.”

Sofya Matveyevna knew the gospel well and at once found the passage in St. Luke which I have chosen as the motto of my record [the story that follows is the epigraph of the book]. I quote it here again:

“’And there was there one herd of many swine feeding on the mountain; and they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them. And he suffered them.  ‘Then went the devils out of the man and entered into the swine; and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked. ‘When they that fed them saw what was done, they fled, and went and told it in the city and in the country. ‘Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind; and they were afraid.’”

“My friend,” said Stepan Trofimovitch in great excitement “savez-vous, that wonderful and . . . extraordinary passage has been a stumbling-block to me all my life . . . dans ce livre …. so much so that I remembered those verses from childhood. Now an idea has occurred to me; une comparaison. A great number of ideas keep coming into my mind now. You see, that’s exactly like our Russia, those devils that come out of the sick man and enter into the swine. They are all the sores, all the foul contagions, all the impurities, all the devils great and small that have multiplied in that great invalid, our beloved Russia, in the course of ages and ages. Oui, cette Russie que j’aimais tou jours. But a great idea and a great Will will encompass it from on high, as with that lunatic possessed of devils . . . and all those devils will come forth, all the impurity, all the rottenness that was putrefying on the surface . . . and they will beg of themselves to enter into swine; and indeed maybe they have entered into them already! They are we, we and those . . . and Petrusha and les autres avec lui . . . and I perhaps at the head of them, and we shall cast ourselves down, possessed and raving, from the rocks into the sea, and we shall all be drowned— and a good thing too, for that is all we are fit for. But the sick man will be healed and ‘will sit at the feet of Jesus,’ and all will look upon him with astonishment. . . . My dear, vous comprendrez apres, but now it excites me very much. . . . Vous comprendrez apres. Nous comprendrons ensemble.”

He sank into delirium and at last lost consciousness [from an online translation so I didn’t have to type it].

All of the greatest books I have read have seemed essentially un-translatable.  No so much that it would be hard to take them from their native language to another (though that’s probably true too), but more that it is difficult to take them from their native medium, which never feels exactly like “the novel”, but feels more like “this novel” and convey them into another medium (a summary or reaction like this one, or a movie, mini-series, etc.).  So my attempt to describe my experiences reading this book will be necessarily limited in success.  Demons is definitely sui generis.  And to answer a question asked earlier – I think it really does hold together, it’s just difficult to give voice to all the various ways in which that’s true.

The most common feeling I had while reading Demons was a sense of impending disaster.  The work is bookended by scenes from the unrealized relationship of Stepan Trifimovich, the “old guard” center-left liberal failed academic, whose Russian is peppered with Franch, and who makes literary allusions he knows his interlocutors won’t understand, and Varvara Stavrogin, the haughty but sympathetic rural aristocrat, mother of Nikolai and caretaker of Darya.  Near the start, the description of the intellectual conversations had at this house “in the old days” (before the liberation of the serfs) stands as an overture for the main action of the narrative – Liputin would suggest radical solutions; Shatov would reject those as un-Russian and athiestic; the conversation would dissolve.  It’s clear from the start that Stepan’s intellectual “project,” such as it is, is unstable and doomed to failure.    But what will take its place?

At an allegorical level, the failed marriage of Russian aristocracy and continental liberal intellectualism thus gives rise to a nasty kind of radicalism.  This dynamic recurs throughout the narrative, in different registers and keys.  Several alternative strains of such radicalism are presented: Pyotr Trofimovich’s manic by-any-means-necessary ramblings (unstable and doomed to failure in a remarkably similar way as his father’s, though the actual tenets of their beliefs are clearly different), Kirillov’s nihilistic variant of the Feuerbachian “religion of humanity,” Shatov’s and populism-cum-traditionalist orthodoxy.  Not surprisingly, Frank’s reading of Demons centers mostly around discovering the historical analogues for each of these characters, and making a judgment as to whether D’s polemical intent gets the better of his ability to tell a good story (he concludes that it doesn’t, but I again think he’s somehow missed the point).

Binding the whole tale together is Nikolai Stavrogin.  It’s difficult to classify him allegorically, which may be the point.  On one level, he is the idle rich kid, seeking immediate entertainment and pleasure wherever it presents itself to him – he grabs a general by the nose and bites the governor’s ear, marries the crippled Marya Lebyadkin more or less out of amusement, sleeps with Shatov’s wife, has had a 12-year-old “kept woman” in his Petersburg apartment, and goes along with revolutionary activity, to a point, just because he can, and implicitly asks Fedya to murder the Lebyadkins.  Though all of this looks merely hedonistic at first blush, each of these actions bring out a sort of moral absolutism Stavrogin seems to feel obligated towards – he engages in a duel with the nose-grabbed general’s son and refuses to try to wound his opponent, he delivers money to the Lebyadkins so his “wife” can live decently (though she doesn’t, because of her brother), he endures a forceful slap from Shatov in front of the assembled cast of the novel and does not hit back, about the 12-year-old, he confesses to Tikhon, the monk (in a suppressed chapter), he eventually lets Shatov know that there are plans to kill him, and encourages him to flee town, and after Fedya murders the Lebyadkins, Stavrogin enters a downward spiral that ends in his suicide.

Using Stavrogin as an example, we can see that beyond the allegory, there is a vivid cast of characters with often quite convincing contradictory aspects.  One of the things that is always the most confusing, but also most rewarding, about D’s characterization, is that he will house divergent strands of personality within the same person.  These contradictions are rarely realized by the characters themselves, or even by the narrator – they’re brought out in conversation and through action.  We will see one aspect of a person when he talks to one person, another when he talks with another.  The plot will be driven by the tensions highlighted therein.

So at both the personal and the political level, this novel is dialectical.  The ideological allegory develops right alongside the psychological drama – sometimes ideology trumps psychology, sometimes it is the opposite.  By the end of the story, Nikolai Stavrogin’s personal life has unraveled, as has Pyotr Trofimovich’s revolutionary dalliance.  The former hangs himself; the latter escapes and presumably continues his dalliances elsewhere.  Without being too pretentious – you could say that the narrative weaves together a Marxist materialism (after all, the troubles in the book don’t really start until the factory workers begin protesting over cholera in their ranks) and a Weberian status-driven idealism.  Neither is suggested as dominant – both are co-productive.

So to review – a village marked by social stratification has its problems.  Two of its upper class sons (Pyotr and Nikolai) appear on the scene, breaking the status quo ante, and all variety of problems ensue.  But beyond these central characters, this is a whole host of secondary ones, who serve to fill out this portrait of rural dysfunction.  There is the governor and his wife, the pawnbroker Lyamshin, Virginsky and his wife, even the quite-memorable high-school student revolutionaries.  All of them, indeed the whole town itself, is stirred up by the irresponsible ideas and personalities of these two would-be revolutionary princes.

But the feel of this book is more complex than just “two bad people arrive in the town and destroy its peace.”  What I take from the concluding lines of the book’s assurance that Stavrogin was not insane, is an authorial suggestion that the forces unleashed in Part Three were not merely the result of any particular deviant personalities, but were somehow inherent in the situation.  In their introduction, Pevear and Volkolonsky suggest that the “demons” of the title are the ideologies that infect the different characters.  That even seems too simple – as if the point of the book were just a sort of positivistic exercise in seeing the problems of the pseudo-questions and pseudo-answers asked and answered by wrong headed aristocrats.  No – there is something more.

The final “literary fete” functions as a microcosm of the overall social-political dynamic at work here.  The plan is for Stefan Trifimovich to glorify the human spirit, then Karmazinov to read a stirringly allusive paean to Russia and nature, and then for a visiting academic to illustrate what is to be done to bring peace and equality to the people.  One senses from the start that such a plan is ridiculous, but the real clincher is a totally non-allegorical accident of pure comic genius: the drunken Lebyadkin stumbles on to the stage before any of them, and begins reading a poem he has composed just a few minutes prior, as he’s been up all night spending his sister’s most recent alimony payments on vodka.  The crowd is riled, Lebyadkin is pushed off stage, and as the rest of the event unfolds, everything is infected by the initial absurdity of a massive drunken man shouting incoherencies.  Everything is inhabited by disruptive demons, even the “organized” chaos of the would-be revolution and its “literary fete.”

D. is illustrating an elaborate (and elaborately dysfunctional) social-political-psychological system.  But what are the demons?  I think they’re the forces that bind all the characters together, the particularly problematic forces of attraction and repulsion that make the different people’s contradictory traits merge and resolve.  I guess I’m thinking something along the lines of Sartre’s quip that “hell is other people.”  Not in some existentialist way necessarily, just that all of these people, placed all together in one place, means chaos.  There is a chicken-and-egg problem though – is it their interpersonal situation that gave rise to their individual brokenness, or is it their individual brokenness that drives the interpersonal chaos?  I think it’s both, which is why I think this book achieves a level of realism in spite of its absurd comedy.  And even though Frank sees each character as an exemplar of a certain type of 19th century Russian intellectual, there is something more universal here in the different character types, and something more universal expressed in the social situation into which D places them.  In other words, they speak to a broader truth – that the forces that hold society together can, quite often, be just as quickly flipped to tear it apart as the “demons” coalesce around certain axes, and then fling themselves off the cliff as the fires in town burn out, the murdered bodies are autopsied and the police discover the persons responsible.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Demons – Final Thoughts

  1. Lichanos says:

    “… D’s characterization, is that he will house divergent strands of personality within the same person.”
    Excellent point, and I find it VERY confusing. I’m not sure if that’s his art, or a lack thereof.

    Regarding the nature of the demons, if you have ever been associated with people who are serious about political ideology, it would not seem farfetched or simplistic to say that those ARE the demons. Where would a nihilist come from? What would make him bend reason to such bizarre and horrible ends? Why would it seem attractive to a radical-chic dimwit like the Governor’s wife?

    Believe me, it’s pretty weird.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *