Upon my life, the tracks have vanished,
We’ve lost our way, what shall we do?
It must be a demon’s leading us
This way and that around the fields.
Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is 700 page pamphlet detailing the rise of the Russian proletariat and presaging the revolution of 1917. It’s about nihilism, anarchy, and atheism. It is a complicated novel detailing Russian society as it descends into chaos, anarchy, and madness. The demons referred to are actually ideas, emanating from the west, that infect the characters minds and causes them to take extreme actions such as suicide, murder and arson. The action takes place in a fictitious small town in provincial Russia but is based on a true story that Dostoevsky took from the newspapers.
Pesky Dostoevsky. Every time I say I am not going to read another 700 page book I get pulled back in! I say pamphlet because that is how it is described in the critical literature. Only thing is, last time I checked, there are not that many 700 page pamphlets lying around. A few manifestos, no pamphlets.
I had to read 500 pages before I got to the part that inspired me to read this behemoth in the first place. The part that Camus refers to in his Myth of Sisyphus. “If there is no God life is meaningless. And without meaning, men and women will go stark, raving mad.” Camus described the novel’s importance this way: “The Possessed is one of the four or five works that I rank above all others. In more ways than one, I can say that it has enriched and shaped me.”
According to Camus all of Dostoevsky’s characters ask themselves about the meaning of life. Kirlov feels that God is necessary and that He must exist, but he knows that He cannot exist. “Why do you not realize that this is sufficient reason for killing oneself?” he asks. “If God does not exist, I am God.”
The book title was originally translated as, The Possessed. This is not the title Dostoevsky originally had in mind. The Russian title, Besy, does not refer to the possessed but rather to the possessors. Therefore the new title, Demons, refers to some of the characters in the book (from the foreword by Richard Pevar) and is more in line with Dostoevsky’s thinking.
All the characters have three names and each name has three syllables and each time a character is mentioned or introduced all three names are used except when they aren’t and then they are referred to by their nick names or their shortened names which we the reader have not been given fair warning and have absolutely no idea who the author is referring to. I had to take to underlining each character’s name each time they made an appearance and by page 500 or so I finally figured out who was who. I must say, the last 200 pages were page turners and my eyes were so glued to each page I couldn’t look away. The novel had to be good or I would not have stuck with it to the end. I did and I am glad I did.
There is a missing chapter in the book which was censored by the Russian authorities when it was first published due to it’s salacious nature. I almost didn’t read it as it was included in the appendix and I didn’t realize how important it was. It is absolutely key to understanding the central character Stavrogin. It is called at At Tikhon’s and in it Stavrogin confesses to a horrible crime.
One of the most important takeaways from the novel for me were the revolutionary ideas of the intellectual of the revolutionary group, Shigalyev: “My conclusion stands in direct contradiction to the idea from which I started. Proceeding from unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism. Ninety percent of society is to be enslaved to the remaining ten percent. Equality of the herd is to be enforced by police state tactics, state terrorism, and destruction of intellectual, artistic, and cultural life. It is estimated that about a hundred million people will be needed to be killed on the way to the goal.” This is oddly prophetic of what actually occurred in Russia under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.
I see strains of some of these ideas in modern day writers such as George Orwell who admonished us that if we want you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. These currents have resurfaced again today in American politics and it is pretty frightening.
Like Camus, I can say that this novel has enriched and shaped me.