The Magazine

Dostoevsky's Demons

Joseph Frank finishes his biographical masterpiece.

May 20, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 35 • By RENE GIRARD
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No one, it seems, bothered with the original sources before Joseph Frank--who has come up with a letter to Anna mailed from Germany, where his physician had sent the novelist "to take the waters." Dostoevsky does more than politely insist he misses his wife; he mentions an erotic dream he had about her and refers to a prior letter from Anna in which she mentioned "some indecent thoughts" that she had about her husband.

Sexy letters between the Dostoevskys, seven years after their marriage! Who could have imagined it? Frank quotes this precious correspondence without even alluding to the myths crashing to the ground all around him. But it is a massive joke on the postmodern sex police and their hostile profiling of the novelist whose understanding of human motivation in such books as "Notes from Underground," "The Gambler," "Demons," and "The Eternal Husband"--to say nothing of "Crime and Punishment," "The Idiot," and "The Brothers Karamazov"--is almost incomprehensibly far beyond their simple and easy explanations.

So what is it that Dostoevsky saw? The novel most immediately relevant to our contemporary scene may be "Demons," in which he captures the essence of nihilistic eruptions. The Dostoevsky who wrote "Demons" was very different from the young novelist whose first novel, "Poor Folk," had been praised thirty years before by the famous critic V.G. Belinsky as a model of politically engaged fiction. Belinsky was a romantic liberal, of course, and so was his protege Dostoevsky: Like most educated Russians, they were ashamed of their country's backwardness, and they looked to Europe for models of westernization, especially England and France.

It's fascinating to observe that in nineteenth-century Russia--just as in France before the Revolution--the aristocrats and the intellectual classes were fashionably estranged from their own religious and cultural traditions (in Russia, this included the Russian language, which was replaced with French even inside the family). In his eagerness to demonstrate that he was a sincere liberal, the young Dostoevsky did so well that he had himself arrested and sentenced to what turned out to be a mock execution, although he didn't know that until the last second. He was sent to Siberia where he spent four years in a penal colony and then four more years in the Russian army. The experience changed Dostoevsky, and he rejected all radical chic to espouse the religious, social, and political attitudes of the so-called slavophiles, the generally despised defenders of Russian tradition. In this Dostoevskian conservatism, however, the influence of the French socialists and their utopian Christianity remains visible.

AT FIRST, this great political and spiritual revolution had no noticeable effect on the novelist's fiction, which remained maudlin and sentimental until, in 1864, he published his first masterpiece, "Notes from Underground." In this short novel, an abominably wretched character--who is also a thoroughly "modern" and "liberated" individual, the prototype of the twentieth-century anti-hero--recounts his grotesque adventures. The underground man spends most of his time alone in his apartment, getting drunk on the idea of his freedom; he sees limitless possibilities ahead and his ambition soars vertiginously. When he rejoins his fellow men, however, his exaltation turns to ashes and he becomes "an acutely conscious mouse" incapable of the great deeds contemplated in his solitary dreams.

This story gives concrete content to Dostoevsky's belief that the abandonment of Christianity drives modern man into a hell of his own making. Instead of the heavenly self-worship he anticipates, the anti-hero becomes full of self-doubt when he rejoins the world. His uncertainty compels him to enslave himself to those who seem to embody the mastery to which he aspires. The underground man compulsively bows to all those who offend, disdain, and ignore him. The modern attempt at self-worship generates its opposite, self-enslavement.

The underground man forgets his timidity only with people manifestly weaker: a poor prostitute, for instance, who is ready to love him in a disinterested fashion. Instead of joining with her, he sordidly avenges on her pathetic weakness the rebuffs and humiliations suffered at the hands of more intimidating others. The famous "love-hate relationship" in Dostoevsky is the foremost underground passion, a form of envy so extreme that it turns to idolatry. The social and political significance of the story is underlined by its setting in St. Petersburg, the new city built by Peter the Great, the tsar who tried to westernize Russia. The anti-hero is one of his thousands of civil servants who compete for insignificant rewards, fantastically magnified by the rivalrous equality of all.