“If you found out that you believe in God, you would believe; but since you don’t know yet that you believe in God, you don’t believe.”

Part Two, Chapter One, Sections 4-5
by Dennis Abrams

“Night” continued. Nikolai Vsevolodovich (Stavrogin) alone. Pyotr would have been surprised at his calm. Varvara Petrovna visits her son, but find him sitting at his desk asleep, “His face was pale and stern, but as if quite frozen, motionless; his eyebrows were slightly knitted and frowning; he decidedly resembled an inanimate wax figure.” Woken later by his valet, Stavrogin gets dressed, collects the letter he has hidden under a paperweight under his desk, gets an umbrella “The rain being exceedingly heavy, the mud in our streets is intolerable,” and sneaks out of the house accompanied by the valet, is reassured that the door leading out to a deserted lane won’t creak (it had just been oiled the day before), and “went off down the lane, sinking several inches into the mud at every step.” Finally coming out onto a paved road, approaches the locked gate of Filippov’s dark old house. Shatov lets him in, and he walks past him to Kirillov’s wing without saying a word. In Kirillov’s room, the old woman and the baby. The baby cries upon seeing Stavrogin. Tea is offered. The letter from Gaganov. Insults, “your beaten mug.” Preparations for a possible duel. Pistols at twelve paces. Kirillov will be Stavrogin’s second. Kirillov’s guns, “The poor, almost destitute Kirillov — who, incidentally, never noticed his destitution — was no obviously boasting as he displayed the treasures of his weaponry, no doubt acquired at great sacrifice.” A brief discussion: “‘You’re still of the same mind?’ Stavrogin asked…’The same,’ Kirillov answered curtly, ‘When?’ Nikolai Vsevolodovich asked even more cautiously…’That’s not up to me, as you know; when they say,’ he muttered.” A three minute silence. “‘I, of course, understand shooting oneself,” Nikolai Vsevolodovich began again..One blow in the temple, and there will be nothing. What do I care then about people and how they’ll be spitting on me for a thousand years, right?” Stopping time and eternity, “When all mankind attains happiness, time will be no more, because there’s no need.” Kirillov’s happiness. Looking at a leaf. “Man is unhappy because he doesn’t know he’s happy, only because of that. It’s everything, everything! Whoever learns will at once immediately become happy, that same moment. This mother-in-law will die, and the girl will remain — everything is good. I discovered suddenly.” Kirillov discovered he was happy, “Last week, on Tuesday, no, Wednesday, because it was Wednesday by then, in the night.” “He who realizes that all are good, will end the world.” “He who taught it was crucified.” “He will come, and his name is the man-god.” “The God-man?” “The man-god — that’s the whole difference.” Kirillov’s icon lamp, the spider crawling on the wall. “I bet when I come the next time you’ll already believe in God.”

1. I had forgotten that Gaganov is the son of THE Gaganov whose nose Stavrogin had so publicly pulled at the club in Part One.

2. The spider crawling — As I recall in Ingmar Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly,” Harriet Andersson’s character sees God in a spider.

3. And finally, Joseph Frank has an excellent look at the discussion between Kirillov and Stavrogin:

“The action in the first four chapters of Part II, which concentrates on Stavrogin as he makes a round of visits to Kirillov, Shatov, and the Lebyadkins, indirectly illuminates both his historical-symbolic significance and the tragedy of his yearning for an unattainable absolution through humility. The first two figures each represent an aspect of himself that he has discarded but that has now become transformed into one or another ideological ‘devil’ permanently obsessing his spiritual disciples. In the case of Kirillov, this devil is the temptation to self-deification logically deriving from the aesthetic humanism of Feuerbach. ‘The necessary turning point of history,’ Feuerbach had written in his Essence of Christianity, ‘will be the moment when man becomes aware of and admits that his consciousness of God is nothing but the consciousness of man as species…Homo homini Deus est — this is the great practical principle — this is the axis on which evolves the history of the world.’ There is a transparent echo of these famous words in the scene between Kirillov and the narrator in Part I, when Kirillov remarks that history will be divided into two parts, ‘from the gorilla to the annihilation of God, and from the annihilation of man [‘To the gorilla?’ ironically interjects the narrator)…to the transformation of the earth and of man physically. Man will be God and be transformed physically.’

Kirillov is one of Dostoevsky’s most remarkable creations, and like Raskolnikov, displays Dostoevsky’s intimate understanding of the moral passion inspiring many of the radical intelligentsia whose concrete politics he abhorred. Kirillov is a secular saint whose whole being is consumed by a need for self-sacrifice. Determined to take his own life for the great glory of mankind, whom he wishes to free from the pain and fear of death, Kirillov has agreed to do so at the moment that would most aid ‘the cause,’ (major plot point given away here)…God, Kirillov believes, is nothing but the projected image of this pain and fear, and he wishes to commit suicide solely to express the highest capacity of humankind’s self-will — solely to free humanity from a God who is nothing but such a fear. Kirillov is convinced that such a suicide will initiate the era of the Man-god predicted by Feuerbach, and his death will thus be a martyrdom for humankind, but a martyrdom that reverses the significance of that of Christ. Rather than testifying to the reality and existence of God and a superterrestrial world, it will mark their final elimination from human consciousness.

With a daring that has given rise to a great deal of confusion, Dostoevsky does not hesitate to endow Kirillov with many of the attributes of Prince Myshkin — his love for children, his ecstatic affirmation of life, his eschatological apprehension of the end of time. The symbolism of the book requires Stavrogin always to inspire a deformed and distorted image of the truth — but one that resembles what it imitates as closely and uncannily as Stavrogin’s ‘mask’ resembles healthy human beauty. Hence Dostoevsky gives Kirillov the ‘mask’ of Myshkin’s apocalyptic intuitions and feelings, while revealing the monstrosities that result when such religious emotions, divorced from a faith in Christ, are turned into secular and subjective ideas.

Kirillov’s deification of man leads to his own self-destruction as well as that of all humankind (‘it will be the same to live or not to live’); his conviction that the Kingdom of God already exists, if people will only realize it, deludes him into denying the existence of evil (‘everything is good’), and he sees no difference between worshiping ‘a spider crawling along a wall’ and a sacred icon. Stavrogin’s demonism is refracted in Kirillov through a religious sensibility haunted, like Ippolit Terentyev, by the loss of Christ; and Kirillov’s apocalyptic yearning makes him oblivious of, and personally immune to, the horrible consequences of his own doctrines. Stavrogin, though, has lived through other experiences, and he indicates the most important of them in his question: ‘if anyone insults and outrages [a] a little girl, is that good?’ Throughout this scene he regards Kirillov ‘with a disdainful compassion,’ though, as Dostoevsky adds carefully, ‘there [was] no mockery in his eyes.’

The Weekend’s Reading:

Part Two, Chapter One, Sections 6-7; Chapter Two, Sections 1-2

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

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3 Responses to “If you found out that you believe in God, you would believe; but since you don’t know yet that you believe in God, you don’t believe.”

  1. Catherine says:

    I’m still with you but can never think of any good comments. Mostly I wish I had a cheat sheet of the characters (maybe I need to find a Cliff Notes or the like) to help keep the relationships straight.

    Also an administrative type question: is there a way to subscribe to all the comments? I follow you primarily through email and would love to receive the comments through email also.

    Thanks again, Dennis, for the valuable literary service!

    • Catherine: I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re still with us — hope you’re enjoying it! A couple of things: 1. Don’t think your comments have to be earthshattering — you can just comment on a phrase or idea you liked, mention if a discussion doesn’t make sense, who knows what kind of conversation you’ll trigger on the thread? I’ll try to find out if you can subscribe to comments — I’d think if you subscribe to the blog itself that the comments would be part of that, but I’ll check. And just for you, in Tusday’s post, I’ll write up a list of characters and try to give a brief synopsis of what we know about them so far and their relationship to the other characters — would that help?


      • Catherine says:

        Dennis, the character list with info would be great! As for the comments, when you post a comment you can be notified of additional comments to that post, but I’ve seen nothing about being notified of ALL comments, regardless of whether you’ve personally commented. Thanks for your reply. –Catherine

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