“Without you I’m a fly, an idea in a bottle, Columbus without America.”

Part Two, Chapter Seven, Section 2; Part Two, Chapter Eight
by Dennis Abrams

“With Our People” Verkhovensky’s casual sprawl;. Stavrogin’s polite bows. “Tea for Stavrogin” Are name-days old hat? The girl student and the high-school boy argue about nothing at all. “‘Your thought is dirty and immoral, and indicates the utter insignificance of your development. I beg you not to advert to me again,’ the girl student rattled out.” Where did the ‘prejudices’ regarding family rights and duties arise? The major advises his nice to simmer down, “You are a young lady, you should behave modestly, and it’s as if you’re sitting on pins,” and reminds her that he carried her around when she was an infant. “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. And allow me to remark that you dare not use a familiar tone with me, unless its from civil feeling, and that I forbid it once and for all.” The major comments that he’s all in favor of liberalism and modernism and intelligent conversation, but “mind you — from men…I assure you that this whole woman question was invented for them by men, out of foolishness, and it has blown up in their faces — thank God I’m not married!” The girl student misquotes the Bible: “I precisely told you just now that we were all taught by the catechesis; ‘If you honor your father and your parents, you’ll live a long life and be granted wealth.'” The major’s belief in God is stronger at night, “In the morning I’d get distracted of course, and faith would seem to disappear again, and generally I’ve noticed that faith always disappears somewhat during the day.” “There’s no such thing as moral or immoral!” The lame teacher cunningly asks whether “we here and now constitute some sort oaf meeting, or are [we] a gathering of ordinary mortals who have come as guests?” All eyes turn to Verkhovensky and Stavrogin. Madame Virginsky suggests the question be brought to a vote: “Are we a meeting, or not?” Lyamshin is asked to play the piano so outsiders can’t hear the vote, “let them hear from the street that we’re having a party and music.” Are voting for or against it being a meeting? It is finally decided that it is a meeting, that Virginsky is the first president. All eyes again turn to Stavrogin and Verkhovensky. Pyotr asks for cognac. The girl student jumps up to discuss the sufferings of the “unfortunate students.” Shigalyov asks for and receives the floor. Pyotr interrupts, asking Arina Prokhorovna for scissors to cut his nails, “‘it’s three days now I’ve been meaning to cut them,’ he uttered, serenely studying his long and none-too-clean nails.” Pytor’s method. Shigalyov begins to discuss his proposed system of world organization, but realizes it will take at least ten evenings, and the system is not finished. Shigalyov’s despair. Is Shigalyov’s despair a personal question or does it concern the common cause? Shigalyov’s proposal in a nutshell: mankind should be divided into two unequal parts. “One tenth is granted freedom of person and unlimited rights over the remaining nine tenths. These must lose their person and turn into something like a herd, and in unlimited obedience, through a series of regenerations, attain to primeval innocence, something like the primeval paradise — though, by the way, they will have to work.” Is he serious? Does he want to turn nine tenths of the population into slaves? “‘What I propose is not vileness but paradise, earthly paradise, and there can be no other on earth,’ Shigalyov concluded imperiously. Lyamshin counter proposes that the nine tenths of the population simply be blown sky-high, “and leave just a bunch of learned people who would then start living happily in an educated way.” Is Lyamshin a buffoon or a useful buffoon? Proposals as aesthetic pastimes. The lame man: “Now it is being suggested to us, through various strewn-about leaflets of foreign manufacture, that we close ranks and start groups with the sole purpose of universal destruction, under the pretext that however you try to cure the world, you’re not going to cure it, but by radically lopping off a hundred million heads, thereby relieving ourselves, we can more assuredly jump over the little ditch.” Who and how many will need to be killed? Pyotr observes that lame man might end up by having his tongue cut out. The lame man observes that “since under the most favorable circumstances it would take fifty, or, say, thirty years to finish such a slaughter, because they’re not sheep, they may not just let themselves be slaughtered,” that it might be better to “move somewhere beyond the peaceful seas to some peaceful islands and there serenely close your eyes,” and that such propaganda will only provoke emigration. How will Pyotr, “the agenf of a hundred million heads,” respond?” Pyotr ‘indifferently observes that despite the problems the lame man foresees, that “there are still more and more soldiers coming to the common cause every day…a new religious is on its way to replace the old one,” and since he won’t be needed anyway, the lame man might as well emigrate to Dresden. The lame man hesitates, Pyotr presses his advantage, “What, you mean you’d really join a fivesome if I offered it?” Did Pyotr disclose himself too much? Pyotr presses him, noting that although a hundred million heads might disappear under the revolution, “despotism in some hundred years will eat up not a hundred but five hundred million heads.” On what authority does Pyotr ask such questions? Pyotr “with a feigned look of alarm” announces he’s gone too far, that he’s not recruiting anybody, no one has the right to say he’s recruiting, and they were simply talking about opinions. As a test, Pyotr poses the following question: “If any of us knew of a planned political murder, would he go inform, foreseeing all the consequences, or would he stay home and await events?” Everyone has the same answer, “There are no informers here,” Shatov, his face pale and spiteful, leaves the room. The participants wonder: is Shatov an informer? Stavrogin leaves without answering the question, as does Pyotr, as does Kirillov. Stavrogin, at Kirillov’s urging promises to meet with Pyotr.

“Ivan the Tsarevich” Pyotr, Stavrogin and Kirillov meet at Kirillov’s. Lebyadkin’s letter — Pyotr assures the other that Lebyadkin will go Lembke the next day. What is to be done? Pyotr needs money from Stavrogin, a minimum of 1500, which which Lebyadkin will be packed off to St. Petersburg, and, if Stavrogin wishes, Marya Timofeevna as well. “I have no need to send Marya Timofeevna away. Stavrogin says there will be no money, that Pyotr has sufficient funds, money from his father, from Stavrogin’s mother, “I don’t, finally, to pay for other people…” Stavrogin reminds Pyotr that he won’t let him have Shatov, and in addition, “…what you’re driving at is that by giving fifteen hundred to Lebyadkin, I would thus be giving Fedka an occasion for putting a knife into him. I know you’ve got the notion that I’d like my wife killed at the same time. By binding me with a crime you think, of course, you’ll be getting power over me, right? What do you want that power for? Why the devil do you need me?” Fedka appears, just brought by Kirillov. “‘You stashed him away here so he could listen to our bargaining, or even see the money in hour hands, right?’ asked Stavrogin, and without waiting for a replay, he walked out of the house. Pyotr catches up with him at the gate, ‘nearly crazy,” and seizes him by the elbow. “Fury came over him: seizing Verkhovensky by the hair with his left hand, he flung him down on the ground with all his might and went through the gate.” Pyotr catches up with him again, begs him to make peace, and offers to bring him Lizaveta Nikolaevna the next day, “Tell me what you want and I’ll do it Listen, I’ll give you Shatov, do you want that?…You’ve run up a big account, let’s make peace.” Like Fedka, Pyotr has a knife stashed in his boot. What the devil does Pyotr need Stavrogin for? “We’re going to stir up trouble…We’ll stir up such trouble that everything will go off its foundations. Karmazinov is right that there’s nothing to cling to. Karmazinov is very intelligent. Just another ten crews like that all over Russia, and I’m uncatchable.” Are the two of them enough? Is Pyotr in a fever, is he raving? Shigalyovism: He’s got each member of society watching the others and obliged to inform. Each belongs to all, and all to each. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery…Higher abilities have always seized power and become despots…Slaves must be equal: there has never yet been either freedom or equality without despotism, but within a herd there must be equality, and this is Shigalyovism!” Stavrogin wonders if Pyotr is drunk. “Listen, Stavrogin, to level the mountains is a good idea, not a ridiculous one…Only one thing is lacking in the world: obedience…We’ll extinguish desire: we’ll get drinking, gossip, denunciation going: we’ll get unheard-of depravity going; we’ll stifle every genius in infancy. Everything reduced to a common denominator, complete equality…” The need for a convulsion every thirty years, “and they all suddenly start devouring each other, up to a certain point, simply so as not to be bored…Desire and suffering are for us; and for the slaves — Shigalyovism.” Pyotr and Stavrogin will be excluded — should the whole world be handed over to the Pope? Pyotr raves (or rants) about Stavrogin’s beauty. “Do you know that you are beautiful! the most precious thing in you is that you sometimes doesn’t know it. Oh, I’ve studied you!…I love beauty. I am a nihilist, but I love beauty. Do nihilists not love beauty? They just don’t love idols, but I love an idol! You are my idol! You are a leader, you are a sun, and I am your worm…” Pyotr kisses Stavrogin’s hand, a chill runs down Stavrogin’s spine. “It’s you I need, you, without you, I am a zero. Without you I’m a fly, an idea in a bottle, Columbus without America.” The two will penetrate the people: The lawyer who defends a murderer saying he’s more developed than his victim is theirs; “Schoolboys who kill a peasant just to see how it feels are ours.” One or two generations of depravity are needed, “an unheard-of, mean little depravity, that turns men into vile, cowardly, cruel self-loving slime — that’s what’s needed!…I’m a crook, not a socialist.” We’ll proclaim destruction…We’ll get legends going…” Stavrogin will be brought out as Ivan the Tsarevich, an imposter. He will be a lever, to raise up the earth. “And the earth will groan a great groan: ‘A new, just law is coming,’ and the sea will boil up and the whole showhouse will collapse, and then we’ll see how to build up an edifice of stone. For the first time! We will do the building, we, we alone!…There’s no one else in the world like you! I’ve been inventing you since abroad; inventing you as I looked at you. If I hadn’t been looking at you from a corner, nothing would have come into my head!” Stavrogin has three days to decide.

Wow. That was pretty damn amazing. From the mostly comic scene at the Virginsky’s to…Pyotr’s dream of destruction, his plans for Stavrogin…astonishing.

1. The utter seriousness, complete humorlessness of the girl-student at the Virginsky’s — I had thought she was a purely 20th century type.

2. The ludicrousness of the meeting itself, from the vote as to whether or not it was a meeting at all, to the pointless discussions, to Pyotr’s fingernail cutting, to Pyotr’s manipulation of everyone there…brilliant.

3. Shigalyov’s 90/10 plan immediately made me think of H.G. Wells’ “Time Machine” and that division in society…

4, Shigalyov’s concept of the every-thirty-year convulsion, reminded me of Mao and is his ongoing revolutions, the Cultural Revolution…

4=5. Pyotr’s vision of a society, drinking, gossip, continual denunciation and spying on everyone, did bring to mind Stalinist Russia.

And finally (sorry this is a long post, but no way around it), this from Joseph Frank:

“Starting as the personal foible of a few foolish people, the corruption becomes a demoralization in the most literal sense. Dostoevsky introduces a whole series of incidents to illustrate it, ranging from a breakdown of standards of personal conduct and social propriety to disrespect for the dead and the desecration of a sacred icon. Just as with his general influence on society as a whole, the result of his pressure on the quintet is a collapse of their own moral-political standards and the approval of a wanton murder. There is a clear structural parallel between Stavrogin’s round of visits in the first half of this section and Pyotr’s calls in the second half on all the pawns he is engaged in maneuvering. Dostoevsky intended to bring these parallel sequences together by the two chapters of self-revelation that would conclude Part II: Verkhovensky’s mad hymn to universal destruction, inspired by Stavrogin, and then a disclosure of the moral bankruptcy and despair of Verkhovensky’s ‘idol’ as he makes his confession to Tikhon.

From his first appearance in the novel, Pyotr Verkhovensky is depicted as the genius of duplicity. He is Stavrogin’s demonism incarnated as a political will-to-power. ‘I invented you abroad,’ he cries furiously to Stavrogin. ‘I invented it all, looking at you. If I hadn’t watched you from my corner, nothing of alal this would have entered my head.’ What Pyotr has invented, under the spell of Stavrogin, is the plan to consecrate him as Ivan the Tsarevich — to use the very force he wishes to destroy, the faith of the Russian people in a just and righteous God-anointed ruler, as a means for their own destruction. This mask is ‘beautiful,’ as Pyotr exclaims ecstatically while gazing at Stavrogin, but, as already noted, it is the beauty of the demonic. ‘You are my idol!’ Pyotr passionately proclaims to Stavrogin. Pyotr’s plan, however, implicitly contains its own negation, for it reveals the impotence of his godless and amoral principles to establish any basis for human life. Falsehood and idolatry must speak deceptively in the name of truth and God, thus confessing their own bankruptcy.”

And again, Stavrogin and masks…

Following Verkhovensky’s ‘confession’ to the false god Stavrogin, Dostoevsky had planned to portray Stavrogin’s confession to the true God in the person of his servitor, Tikhon. Unfortunately, Dostoevsky was unable to keep with this plan when the book was published in its final book form (it had been serialized earlier) due to issues with his publisher. I think, though, that it’s important in this case to read this section, despite the fact that it was not included in the final published version. So…

Monday’s Reading:

Appendix One, “At Tikhon’s,” Section 1 (If you are using a different translation which doesn’t include this chapter, we’ll be reading this Mon-Wed; Thursday’s reading will be the ‘official’ re-written version of Chapter Nine.


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