Demons I: Fanatical and Fatuous

I am 3/4 through Dostoyevsky’s Demons, in the recent P&V translation, and the action has certainly picked up!  At first, the book was tough going with its large cast of characters, the nicknames, the relationships between them that are hidden, and the strange mix, typical of Dostoyevsky, of parody, satire, melodrama, and biting criticism.  (I agree completely with Frank’s remark in the introduction that Dostoyevsky’s qualities as a satirist and humorist are vastly underrated.)  I had to make a crib sheet to keep the people straight, and it was often difficult to understand what was happening on a page, even though I read carefully.  Sort of like reading an old and decorous novel about sexual seduction and moving over the ‘good part’ without realizing that the characters actually are having sex…but this isn’t about sex, for the most part.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for extreme rhetoric (see links below), from the religious or political standpoint, and crackpot intellectual systems.  The section in Part II, With Our People, an ironic ‘our’, describes a meeting of  local poseurs, provocateurs, agitators, and intellectual wannabees spouting political rhetoric.  There is a heated discussion of whether or not it will be necessary to chop off the heads of one million souls, and whose heads will go flying.  And there are hilarious and idiotic exchanges among students whose heads are filled with slogans and left-wing catch phrases.  At one point, a stuffy respectable gentleman remonstrates with a young student-girl hothead, saying:

But I’m your uncle!  I used to tote you around in my arms when you were still an infant!

The Generation Gap in miniscule.  She replies:

What do I care what you used to tote around.  I didn’t ask you to tote me around, which means, mister impolite officer, that you got pleasure from it.

I sense a delicious parody here of the intellectual obsession with Utilitarian theories, which Dostoyevsky loathed:  people are motivated to avoid pain and seek pleasure, simple as that.  No sense in pointing out your former selfless and dutiful familial activities:  you did it for your own pleasure!

The chilling talk of mass murder might have seemed simply absurd in the 1860s, before Stalin, Lenin, and Hitler, not to mention Pol Pot.  And speaking of Pol Pot, the modern master of barracks communism, as Marx derisively characterized the ravings of the great nihilist,  Nechaev, the trial transcript of Pot’s Russian ancestor was grist for Dostoyevsky’s mill.  (Dostoyevsky was writing in the realist tradition, after all!)  I’ve found very little about Mr. (Nilhil) Nechaev in English, other than the catechism (see link), from which I offer these tidbits:

  • The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order.
  • Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution. For him, there exists only one pleasure, on consolation, one reward, one satisfaction – the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim – merciless destruction. Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution.
  • The nature of the true revolutionary excludes all sentimentality, romanticism, infatuation, and exaltation. All private hatred and revenge must also be excluded. Revolutionary passion, practiced at every moment of the day until it becomes a habit, is to be employed with cold calculation. At all times, and in all places, the revolutionary must obey not his personal impulses, but only those which serve the cause of the revolution.

And then, at the fete, there is the fatuous Mr. Karmazinov, a lampoon of Ivan Turgenev, the Euro-centered literary master with whom Dostoyevsky had a difficult, and largely hostile relationship.  (Ivan and Flaubert were great friends.) His speech bidding farewell to his readers, none of which is in the audience, is a scornful burlesque of intellectual self-satisfaction and pompousness.  Perhaps it is unfair to Turgenev, but it would not be so funny if it weren’t.  No doubt, he would love it if his fans would beg him, on their knees of course, not to leave Russia for retirement in Germany.  So much for westward-leaning intellectuals who see Russia’s future in Europe.

After his final words, and merci, Karmazinov is called back on stage to loud applause, and the governor’s radical-chic wife hands him a bouquet of roses.

“Laurels!” Karmazinov said with a subtle and somewhat caustic grin.  “I am moved, of course, and accept this wreath, prepared beforehand but as yet unwithered, with lively emotion:  but I assure you, mesdames, I have suddenly become so much of a realist that I consider laurels in our age rather more fitting in the hands of skillful cook than in mine…”

Shouts from the crowd reply:

“Except that cooks are more useful!”  and
“I’ll add three more roubles for a cook”
“So would I.”
“So would I.”
“But do they really have no buffet here…?”

He, he! Oh, that Fyodor, he’s a card!

Some links to over the top talk:

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3 Responses to Demons I: Fanatical and Fatuous

  1. Grace says:

    “Demons” is one of my favorite books of all time.

    Stavrogin strikes me as the 19th century version of an internet troll.

  2. I read the translation by Robert Maguire recently. ( http://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/dostoyevskys-demons/)

    As with virtually all Dostoyevskky, there was much I didn’t really understand, and also much I felt was weak. And yet, it was tremendous. I find myself shaking my head in some passages and thinking “this won’t do”, and the very next page there’s something that transfixes me, that pins me back in my seat. The first third of it is very funny (as you say, Dostoyevsky was a wonderful comic writer), but by the last third, we are in the realms of pure nightmare.

    Dostoyevsky gives me the impression that he was making it up as he was going along. and while many of the shortcomings (at least, what I see as shortcomings) may be put down to this, the geratness is in no small measure due to this also. There is a sense of instability, a sense that anything may happen, a sense, indeed, that the author himself doesn’t know what may transpire next. the finsl third of this novel, especially, seems to me extraordinary.

    The chapter uyou mention, “With Our People”, really is very prescient, isn’t it? Having overdosed on teh writings of Vasily Grossman earlier this year, this chapter, especially, seems very prophetic.

  3. Lichanos says:

    Prophetic, yes indeed.

    I found the first third the hardest part to read, frequently losing the thread, but I read it over several months.

    Making it up as he goes along? The intro to my edition said that he originally planned on a ‘pamphlet novel,’ a response to the Nechaev trial and other events, but his conception of it kept growing and changing – maybe that’s the reason it seems that way to you.

    I’m planning on a concluding post soon.

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