A disillusioned romantic in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or offers this parable:

In a theater, it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He told them again, and they became still more hilarious. This is the way, I suppose, that the world will be destroyed—amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it is all a joke.

That’s just how it is in Dostoevsky’s Demons, in which a band of young nihilists and socialists unleashes murder, riot, and arson in a provincial Russian town. Despite their ugly pranks, scandalous libertinism, and incendiary radicalism, they are until the apocalyptic denouement indulged and flattered by their elders: liberal elites who suppose that proximity to the “new ideas” will get them noticed in the highest social circles of progressivist Petersburg. This suicidal clownishness is characteristic of late modernity since the French Revolution, an epoch in which convulsions of ideological insanity have periodically torn apart physical and political bodies across the globe. The United States has long avoided such fits, but it seems our hour has come round at last. At its sesquicentennial, Dostoevsky’s novel is as fresh and urgent as it was in 1871.

Demons is a theater of societal decay. On the way to visit a notorious “holy fool,” some bored young ladies and gentlemen and their entourage of buffoonish low officials and petty clerks stop their horses at a hotel to gape at the corpse of a nineteen-year-old village boy who has shot himself. A jokester filches grapes from the dead boy’s plate; a lady insists that “there’s no need to be punctilious about entertainment, as long as it’s diverting.” (I quote from the 1994 Knopf translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.) Sent to town to buy items for his sister’s trousseau with money saved up for decades and entrusted to him with “exhortations, prayers, and crosses,” the boy had blown it all on gambling, Gypsies, cigars, and Château d’Yquem. In this he imitates the immediately preceding generations of educated and influential Russians, who have self-indulgently squandered the moral and spiritual inheritance of more than two millennia. As one reveler unpopularly observes, it’s “as if we’d jumped off our roots.”

Demons is a deeply, mordantly funny book.

At the merchant’s home where the holy fool resides, the group sits with a crowd of kneeling petitioners behind a railing, watching the great man with “lorgnettes, pince-nez, and even opera glasses” as he dines. Puffy and sallow, with narrow little eyes and a twisted mouth, the man is attended by scurrying servants and a monk who exists solely to collect donations in a tin cup. The “blessed man and prophet” eats potatoes and ignores his guests, except to issue arbitrary and humiliating orders. An exceedingly wealthy merchant is forced to drink a thick syrup of sugar and tea and is later awarded a gold florin. A widow who seeks advice about how to deal with “cannibals”—her children sue her, drag her into a fire with a rope, and place a dead cat in her trunk—is sent “Out, out!” with four loaves of sugar, one of which is snatched back at the last second. When the great man shrieks “F— you, f— you!” at one provocateuse who importunes him to “ ‘utter’ something for me,” her companions shriek with glee.

This grotesque little dictator is not the only contemptible person to whom fools bow down in Demons. The horseback ironists love the inside joke and delight in the pornography of spiritual decadence; one of their more pedestrian followers disgraces a Christian woman by slipping dirty photographs into the Gospels she is selling. But the joke is on them, and ultimately on us. The holy fool is a not-so-funny anticipation of monstrous tyrants raised up in years to come by the very elites that despise him and his deluded followers. The “Homeric laughter” with which the revelers depart is not that of the merry Olympians, but the ghoulish and hysterical mirth of the doomed suitors of Penelope: would-be kings maddened to tears by some avenging god.

Demons is a deeply, mordantly funny book. In Merci, a public farewell to literature by the famous writer Karmazinov, a pea of ice reminds the author of a tear “that rolled from your eye as we sat beneath the emerald tree and you exclaimed joyfully ‘There is no crime!’ ‘Yes,’ I said through my tears, ‘but, if so, there are also no righteous men.’ We wept and parted forever.” When a socialist has an extramarital affair “on principle,” her cuckolded husband tells her, “My friend, up to now I have only loved you, but now I respect you.” Respect is otherwise scarce in their circle. In Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, the character of Bazarov explains that nihilists “confine ourselves to abuse” and otherwise undertake nothing; Karmazinov—Dostoevsky’s wicked caricature of Turgenev—observes that the revolutionary idea consists fundamentally in “an open right to dishonor.” Demons’ famous central chapter, “With Our People,” describes a meeting of furious socialists and confused sympathizers, like the innocent, avuncular army officer who would definitely inform on men who rob and murder, unless they did so for political purposes. The intense rivalry between a glum schoolboy (“There’s no such thing as moral or immoral!”) and the major’s bullying niece, a university student (“I knew that, mister high-school student, way before you were taught such things”), captures the peculiar attraction of radical intellectual reductivism to “the type of noble amour-propre crushed to the point of bile.”

Dostoevsky announces his satirical intentions on the first page of Demons, where he compares the self-perception of the fifty-something liberal idealist Stepan Verkhovensky—a romantic dreamer, failed professor, and sincere poseur who passionately inhabits the “civic role” of a persecuted intellectual giant racked with grief over social ills—to that of Gulliver on his return to London from the land of the Lilliputians. Thinking he is still surrounded by homunculi, Swift’s hero warns people to get out of his way lest he crush them, earning him laughter, abuse, and whips from passing coachmen. Lapsing constantly into French and given to parroting German philosophy (“I believe in God, mais distinguons, I believe as in a being who is conscious of himself in me”), Stepan regards himself as a “standing reproach” to his backwards fatherland—although, as the narrator wryly observes, he “would often recline.”

But Stepan is not wholly to blame for his shortcomings. His wounded pride, not to mention his gambling and drinking, are nourished by his longtime patron, Varvara Stavrogin. A wealthy landowner whose progressive ideas include living with her young ward and former serf Darya “on the most noble footing,” Varvara treats Stepan as her creation, and even devises a “costume” for him that suits her fantasy of being attended by an esteemed scholar and poet of the most liberal and open mind. But their relationship is fraught; he bridles at his servitude, while she cannot forgive his studied poses and mocking arrogance.

Matters come to a head after Varvara separately informs Stepan and Darya that they must marry, a deal worked out to cover her son’s sins (a rumored relationship with Darya) and Stepan’s (he’s sold off assets held in trust for his son in order to pay off gambling losses). This unstable mixture of pride and humiliation, love and hatred, is fertile soil for noxious growths. Small wonder that the most vicious and destructive characters in the novel are Stepan’s son Pyotr (hereafter “Verkhovensky”), abandoned by his father as a little child and raised by distant aunts, and Varvara’s son Nikolai (hereafter “Stavrogin”), tutored for years by Stepan. (The boy’s twisted sentimental education included being regularly awakened at night so that his teacher might “pour out his injured feeling in tears” before him.)

“Everything,” the narrator observes, “burst like an iridescent soap bubble.”

An early episode in Demons warns of trouble in a way that cuts close to the bone today. Vaguely remembered as an “exiled martyr” when radical ideas flood Petersburg shortly before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, a “resurrected” Stepan sets out for the capital to “join the movement and show his powers,” and Varvara to “remind the world of herself.” Varvara holds evenings and is astonished to see literary celebrities shamefully flattering the “new rabble,” who wish to abolish inheritance, the family, children, and priests. People flock to her when she announces her intention of publishing a magazine, yet they also denounce her as a capitalist and exploiter of labor. Stepan concedes in a public speech that “fatherland” is a useless and comical word and that religion is harmful, but his heartfelt assertion that boots are nevertheless “lower than Pushkin” is hissed so mercilessly that he bursts into tears. A newspaper finally exposes Varvara for not throwing out an old general who tells an insulting but famous young man that he is “a brat and an atheist”; an illustrated magazine subsequently caricatures her, Stepan, and the general as retrograde cronies. Having been canceled for failing to stand against reactionary oppression, Varvara is informed of a decision made by some complete strangers: after founding her magazine, she is to turn it and the capital over to them in exchange for a sixth of the yearly profits. “Everything,” the narrator observes, “burst like an iridescent soap bubble.”

No one understands late-modern liberal oligarchs and their nihilistic children better than Dostoevsky. Turgenev attempted to do so in Fathers and Sons, a fine little European novel that portrays the old liberals and young radicals of the early 1860s as exhausted, ineffective opponents. In that book, Pavel Petrovich defends personal dignity, individual rights, duties, faith, and the painter Raphael. He challenges his nephew’s friend Bazarov to a duel, but his shot goes wide. For his part, the young nihilist only wounds Pavel and dies of an infection from dissecting a corpse not forty pages later. Although Stepan justly complains that “Bazarov is some sort of false character, who doesn’t exist at all,” Dostoevsky metafictionally acknowledges his debt to Turgenev in amusing ways. Told that the radicals are “a force,” Pavel dismisses them as a mere “four men and a half”; Dostoevsky’s Verkhovensky makes a revolutionary cell of “just three men and a half.” But in depth of understanding and literary power, Demons devours Fathers and Sons.

Dostoevsky grasped what is painfully obvious today: as authority collapses, institutions implode, and intellectual and moral anarchy predominates, the liberal elite is apt to combine with revolutionary ideologues to unleash destructive forces that neither group can control. The public lives of Varvara, her rival Yulia von Lembke (the unfortunate governor’s fatuous wife), and Karmazinov are indeed bubbles: shimmering films inflated by ambition and sustained by the tension of enclosing volumes of nothingness. These climbers and strivers fawn over “progressive young men” because they fear intellectual exile and crave advancement: knowledge of the new ideas, Varvara complains, puts Yulia “a hundred miles ahead of me”—in the direction of Petersburg.

And what men they fawn over! Verkhovensky, who secretly admits to being “a crook, not a socialist,” nevertheless endorses lopping off “a hundred million heads,” an eerily accurate prophecy of the total number done in by political repression in the Communist regimes of the twentieth century. Verkhovensky regards mass murder as a necessary prelude to the “final solution” of the social formula advanced by the gloomy theoretician Shigalyov—admittedly “somewhat fanatic in his love of mankind”—in which one-tenth of mankind enjoys personal freedom and unlimited rights over the remaining nine-tenths. Shigalyov’s arresting articulation of the practical consequences of revolutionary theory is unsurpassed in concision and accuracy: “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.” As Solzhenitsyn observed, many greeted the twentieth century as one “of elevated reason, in no way imagining the cannibalistic horrors that it would bring. Only Dostoevsky, it seems, foresaw the coming of totalitarianism.”

Verkhovensky’s fantastic dream of tyranny is the apotheosis of the social game, which he plays more coldly and cleverly than the oligarchs, and for bigger stakes. Allowing everyone wrongly to infer that he is intimately connected with some mysterious center of worldwide revolution, he bullies his “fivesome” of reluctant conspirators into committing murder while he adopts in drawing rooms and clubs the persona of a giftless muddle-head too stupid to pose a serious threat to the established order. Masterfully using vanity, shame, and fear to advance his objectives, he punches down at his foot-soldiers while puffing up Yulia and Varvara, all the while intending to demonstrate his power by betraying and destroying everyone.

Here comedy and pathos reach a pitch unsurpassed in any other modern novel.

All bubbles burst spectacularly at a charitable literary matinee and evening ball hosted by Yulia to advance “universal human goals” (the education of governesses) but engineered by Verkhovensky for maximum embarrassment and chaos. The “goal and crown of her politics,” Yulia’s fête is open to all comers. Even the town’s poorest officials pawn their possessions to purchase tickets and dress their daughters “like real marquises.” But agitators and drunken rabble are smuggled in to abuse the speakers and to whip up indignation at the absence of the expected buffet and champagne. Preceded by a surprise reading of some nasty doggerel about the governesses (“You teach our snot-nosed children French,” etc.), Karmazinov, the jewel in Yulia’s crown, is jeered as he recites Merci. He’s followed by Stepan, who bursts into tears after feverishly proclaiming to “you short ones”—the Lilliputians of progressivism—that Shakespeare and Raphael are “higher than the emancipation of the serfs.” A maniacal fist-pounding little Lenin type finally unleashes pandemonium when he runs out to the platform to denounce the incomparable corruption and despotism of Russia. Yulia is abused and insulted at that evening’s crude “quadrille of literature,” a drunken and disorderly affair; some of Verkhovensky’s men simultaneously incite factory workers to burn down the modest wooden houses of Zarechye, home to more than half of those at the ball, so that they might cover up a triple murder. Here comedy and pathos reach a pitch unsurpassed in any other modern novel.

Like characters in a Kafka story, the oligarchs and conspirators of Demons tremble before distant centers of authority and power from which they expect to receive some final judgment. The filaments of imagination that bind them to these mysterious centers are vanishingly thin, spun from their own slavish instincts and fantastic desires—that is, from nothing—but strong enough to make them feel “caught like flies in the web of a huge spider.” That spider is Verkhovensky, who is everywhere and nowhere in Demons (Joyce Carol Oates aptly compares him to the chaos-dealing Dionysus of Euripides’ Bacchae), and who vanishes into thin air on the Petersburg train once his bloody work is done. A “wise serpent” whose tongue the narrator imagines to be “unusually long and thin, terribly red, and with an extremely sharp, constantly and involuntarily wriggling tip,” Verkhovensky has “dropped from the moon.” Dostoevsky makes him both a fully realized human character and the embodiment of a mythical specter—one that haunts us to this day and that cannot be exorcised, as Marx observed in the Communist Manifesto, by any holy alliance of earthly powers.

Dostoevsky explores the general insanity that ensues when a gifted and captivating personality says to God “Thou art not.”

But the “worm” Verkhovensky is merely the imitator of another wise serpent, his “main half”: the Siegfried of his Russian Götterdämmerung fantasy, the “sun” he needs and envies and plans to eclipse. Dostoevsky wrote in a note to himself that “Stavrogin is everything.” As Vyacheslav Ivanov makes clear in his brilliant book Freedom and the Tragic Life: A Study in Dostoevsky (Noonday Press, 1959), this must be understood not just socially and psychologically, but religiously and metaphysically. Stavrogin is the most charismatic and complete of Dostoevsky’s Antichrists. His name comes from stauros, the Ancient Greek word for “cross.” But the image of the cross is inverted in him, as when his follower Shatov rebukes him for “boldly fly[ing] down headfirst” into the abyss of sensuality. He appears to his followers in the guise of a savior, a man-god who could achieve by towering will what the Christian God-man could not by incarnational love. “Only love can say ‘Thou art,’ ” Ivanov writes; in Demons, Dostoevsky explores the general insanity and destruction that ensues when a gifted and captivating personality says to God “Thou art not.”

Stavrogin has charisma. People are drawn into his orbit like planets forming around a star. This is partly due to behavior that embodies the nihilistic ideal of sheer antinomian willfulness. Rumors of his scandalous love affairs (he is very handsome), and of duels in which he has killed and crippled his opponents, cause the ladies to lose their minds in adoration or hatred. Stepan compares such behavior to the youthful indiscretions of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal. But the circle that forms around Stavrogin in Petersburg five years before the main events of the novel knows of more serious expressions of the “right to dishonor.” There he seems to live by the words of Philip Roth in Sabbath’s Theater: “For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can’t beat the nasty side of existence.” He slums in “a most terrible Sodom,” stealing, brawling, and carousing with his Falstaff, Lebyadkin—a transient and a drunk whose lame and half-mad sister Marya he secretly marries on a bet for wine. He also rapes a young girl, driving her to suicide. Such deeds arouse in him both “boundless wrath” and “unbelievable pleasure.”

Yet Stavrogin’s original gravitational attraction sprang as much from noble passion as outrageous license, as when he accidentally shook Marya’s innocent heart by throwing a clerk who was mistreating her out a second-story window. His earliest and most dedicated followers were Darya’s brother Shatov (also Varvara’s former serf) and the engineer Kirillov. Both traveled to America to work as laborers, and so experience “the condition of man in his hardest social position.” To these ardent and big-hearted men, Stavrogin seemed to promise new births of goodness and happiness: for Shatov, the moral and spiritual regeneration of the Russian nation; for Kirillov, the disappearance of time in human experience through its willful, proto-Nietzschean transformation into eternity.

But it is an astronomical fact that the biggest and brightest stars burn out most quickly. Upon returning from Petersburg, Stavrogin drags one old gentleman by the nose and bites the ear of another, the provincial governor. He then falls into “brain fever” and spends two months in bed. Just before his breakdown, his face looks like “a mask”; home from abroad four years later, he resembles “an inanimate wax figure,” like some pagan totem. By the time the narrator’s chronicle begins in earnest, evil—or rather, an abysmal indifference to both evil and good—has consumed his living core.

Dostoevsky lets us see Stavrogin’s collapse through the eyes of love and faith. Shatov, who publicly slaps Stavrogin “for your fall . . . for the lie,” tells him that “there was a teacher uttering immense words, and there was a disciple who rose from the dead. I am that disciple and you are the teacher.” Marya (Mary), a virgin who “lived like the birds of the air” in Petersburg (cf. Matthew 6:26) and who kisses and waters the earth with her tears when she prays, is similarly aroused. An embodiment of mythical mother Russia, she awaits Stavrogin, Ivanov writes, as “the God-bearing hero in whose person . . . [she] expects to behold the Prince of Glory.” Appalled by the contrast between her former “bright falcon” and the “barn owl” who turns up after five years, Marya dismisses him with a curse, “Griska Otropev, anathema!”—referring to a defrocked monk who pretended to be the lawful heir to the Russian throne. All that remains of Stavrogin’s unfulfilled promise are mocking echoes in the mouths of base men. The murderous criminal Fedka, a Christian, compares him to the “True One”; Lebyadkin waits for his “Benefactor” as for “the sun”; Verkhovensky calls him an “idol” and proposes to use him precisely as an impostor, bringing him forth after widespread revolutionary conflagration as the legendary Russian hero Ivan the Tsarevich.

The first epigraph of Demons is Pushkin’s poem “Demons,” in which a sleigh-driver, his master, and their frenzied horses lose their way in a nighttime blizzard that rages and shrieks around them like a horde of malevolent spirits. The second is Luke 8:32–36, where Jesus encounters a wild, naked man of the Gadarenes and commands the demons that possess him—their name “is Legion, for they are many”—to leave. They enter a herd of swine, which then rush into the Sea of Galilee and drown. The people find the man sitting at Jesus’s feet “clothed and in his right mind”; in fear and awe, they tell how he has been healed.

Dostoevsky’s characters, too, squirm with wild thoughts and uncontrollable passions. But what are the novel’s demons—the ones that drive an entire town to madness and finally lure the troika of Russia itself onto the frozen wastelands of communism? Pevear helpfully suggests that they “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.” Fervently embraced as creeds and dogmas of a secular religion—“half-science,” as Shatov remarks, “a despot with its own priests and slaves”— such ideas promote violent lunacy, like that of the soldier who chops up icons, keeps wax church candles burning before some bibles of materialism, and savagely bites his commanding officer. The language of ideological despotism spreads like a mimetic contagion through Verkhovensky to Yulia, Varvara, and even the narrator, a decent young gentleman of “classical upbringing.”

But Dostoevsky’s novel is haunted by other demons besides prefabricated isms. Here, too, Stavrogin is everything. The only demons identified by name in the book are pride and irony. Both are said to afflict Stavrogin, and both are reflected in his detachment from his own deeds and thoughts.

When Shatov—“a magnanimous, all-forgiving champion of the feminine soul in its sin and humiliation,” as Ivanov writes—asks “Is it true that the Marquis de Sade could take lessons from you? Is it true that you lured and corrupted children?” Stavrogin replies “I did speak those words, but it was not I who offended children.” In four years at a German university, Stavrogin absorbed more than just the teachings of Karl Marx; his bad faith is nourished by the proud philosophies from which those teachings sprang. He effectively identifies himself with the pure I of the absolute idealism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (a German Jacobin)—with the sheer potentiality of freedom, rather than any actual free choices and deeds. Transcending all concrete reality, his metaphysical self observes his empirical self from a great distance, like a man looking at the moon through a telescope. The being of this abstract self can be expressed only hypothetically, in the subjunctive and optative moods; on the verge of committing a “boundless outrage,” Stavrogin affirms that he could stop at any point—but in fact he does not. His schizophrenia exemplifies the poisonous phenomenon of late-modern irony.

Little wonder that he tells Stavrogin to visit the retired bishop Tikhon. He has changed gods.

Stavrogin does not live and die by ideas; rather, he entertains them, and they him. The ideas that “crushed” Shatov and “ate” Kirillov are mostly those of Hegel, somehow mingled in their minds with the Apocalypse of John—a text whose importance Stavrogin seems to have impressed on both men. Hegel claimed that history is a rational and providential process, driven by Geist or Spirit, that moves ineluctably toward the goal of human freedom. This myth, a philosophical version of divine history and Christian apocalypticism, paved the way for Marx’s materialistic recapitulation and revolutionary intensification of the same. It also absolved from moral condemnation “world-historical” individuals, agents of history who bring into being new modes and orders of human existence. Shatov’s reservations about Stavrogin’s low character were doubtless mitigated by the consideration that a national savior cannot be fairly judged by the standards of his day.

Crushed by Stavrogin “but not crushed to death,” Shatov is left writhing in spiritual agony. Yet in the end he breaks free of his former master. While spilling his heart and “dancing naked” before Stavrogin, Shatov remarks that he could not tear himself away “from what I had grown fast to since childhood, to which I had given all the raptures of my hopes and the tears of my hatred . . . . It is hard to change gods.” But the point is that he does dance, like the mad Gadarene who danced in his chains before Jesus. He spews his demons from his mouth in a last outpouring of love and hatred. Little wonder that he tells Stavrogin to visit the retired bishop Tikhon. He has changed gods.

While Shatov placed his faith in Stavrogin, Kirillov—whose name derives from the Ancient Greek kurios, “lord” or “master”—places it in the courage of his own convictions. He believes that “there will be entire freedom when it makes no difference whether one lives or does not live.” He who overcomes his fear of the “other world” and of the pain of death “will himself be God.” Then all will be new: “Man will be God and will change physically. And the world will change, and deeds will change, and thoughts, and all feelings.” Even time will cease; “it will die out in the mind.” The “whole salvation for everyone is to prove this thought to them all,” which Kirillov intends to achieve by committing suicide.

Kirillov’s monomania is Christian eschatology refracted through the prism of German idealism. When individual self-consciousness appears in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, it effectively takes itself to be God. It is certain that it alone is essential and independent, and that all else, including the body to which it is attached, is inessential. It seeks to confirm this certainty by staking its life in mortal combat with another, equally certain self. Kirillov takes this idea to its logical conclusion: only in dying by my own hand can I truly prove my independence of everyone and everything else. Through suicide “without any reason, simply for self-will,” the man-god will triumph over the God-man. But Kirillov’s suicide is not without reason. Like the proletarian revolution, it is intended to give birth to a “new man” and so bring happiness to all mankind. In fact, his miserable death proves nothing apart from the identity of socialism and nihilism.

Kirillov’s tragedy is that he already experiences the unity of eternity and time and the eternal harmony that is the promise of Christianity, and that he hopes to achieve for all human beings through his suicide. He loves children, delights in sticky green leaves, and prays his thanks “to everything,” because “everything is good.” “Man is unhappy,” he tells Stavrogin, “because he doesn’t know he’s happy, only because of that.” Stavrogin jokes that “since you don’t know yet that you believe in God, you don’t believe,” but what he intends as mockery is exactly right. Kirillov does not change gods, although he should have.

Stavrogin finally squirms no less than Shatov. The chapter “At Tikhon’s,” which was suppressed when Demons was first published, describes a failed exorcism. Stavrogin comes to Tikhon “looking as if he had resolved upon something extraordinary and unquestionable but at the same time almost impossible for him.” Tikhon’s enigmatic gaze almost makes him jump, and, although he is mostly angry and irritable, “wild and incoherent” revelations and astonishing confessions spill from him in spasms of unaccustomed sincerity.

But Stavrogin is too ironic to despair and too prideful to be saved. He ends his life hanging from a rope in an attic, near a note bearing only the proud words “Blame no one; it was I.” In this he follows Kirillov, who agrees to take the blame for Shatov’s murder because “it makes no difference,” and who, as Verkhovensky dictates his suicide note, shakes “as if with a fever,” dissolves in laughter, and proposes to draw a face at the top of the note “with its tongue sticking out.” As insensate and immovable in his last minutes as “stone or wax,” Kirillov savagely bites Verkhovensky’s finger just before he shoots himself. His apotheosis as man-god is complete: he has become Stavrogin.

Yet in the epigraph from Luke, the formerly mad Gadarene sits healed at Jesus’s feet. To whom do these words of salvation refer?

Two characters in Demons are spiritually healed on the threshold of death. One is Shatov, who is filled with tender forgiveness and joy when his wife, an ill-tempered socialist who left him long ago, returns to give birth to Stavrogin’s child. He rejoices at “the mystery of the appearance of a new being” and experiences unconditional love as the greatest of all goods. Shatov tells his wife, another Marya who curses Stavrogin, that “I preach God,” and he tells himself that “We’re all guilty, we’re all guilty, and . . . if only we were all convinced of it!”

Je prêcherai l’Évangile,” he tells her, “I shall preach the Gospel.”

The other healed one is Stepan. After standing up at Yulia’s fête to declare his fealty to beauty, he sets forth over the fields with a suitcase, umbrella, and cane, like some Quixote or comic Lear. His feverish “peregrination” turns into a pilgrimage when he falls in with the Gospel seller whose Bibles were salted with pornography. “Je prêcherai l’Évangile,” he tells her, “I shall preach the Gospel.” She nurses him in his sickness and reads to him the words of the Amen in the Apocalypse and, at his request, the story of the Gadarene swine. It’s “exactly like our Russia,” he observes, “all the sores, all the miasmas, all the uncleanness, all the big and little demons accumulated in our great and dear sick man, in our Russia, for centuries, for centuries!” Having once said that God “is conscious of himself in me,” Stepan finally becomes conscious of himself in God. He receives the Holy Sacrament and dies peacefully after declaring that love “is higher than being, love is the crown of being,” and that God is necessary for him “if only because he is the one being who can be loved eternally.”

Dostoevsky makes it possible to infer everything he wants to communicate in Demons, but it must all be dug out. Those who are patient enough to do so—and the present essay has only turned the surface of this deep and rich book—can expect to be rewarded with despair. For what else can one feel as the old liberal elites hoist the banner of today’s young nihilists and socialists—a sordid band of intellectual hacks, political opportunists, virtue signalers, swindlers, sociopaths, and true believers who seem to have stepped directly from the novel’s pages? Dostoevsky uniquely deduced the political horrors of the twentieth century from the ideological viruses of the nineteenth. He also has his finger on the pulse of our own epoch, and the prognosis is grim. The demons must run their course: we are headed off a cliff, and there is nothing to be done about it. Yet he leaves us with the consolation that despair is possible only for those who are capable of love, which is all that is left after the bloody, inevitable catharsis—but which is more than enough to begin anew, if only because it must be.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 7, on page 4
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