“…nothing is more unbearable when a man is unhappy than for a hundred friends to come right then and point out to him how stupid he’s been.”

Demons
Part Two, Chapter Nine
by Dennis Abrams

“Stepan Trofimovich Perquisitioned” The narrator receives a summons from Stepan’s servant Nastasya, “her master had been ‘perquisitioned,’…by officers, who had come and taken papers, and a soldier had tied them into a bundle and ‘carted them away in a wheelbarrow.’ It was wild news.” Stepan’s surprising state: ‘upset and greatly agitated, but at the same time with an unquestionably triumphant air.” Seeing the narrator, Stepan hastens to put on his waistcoat and frock coat. It was Blum who had gone to Stepan’s, and asked to “have a glance” at his books and manuscripts. “Of the books, he took foreign editions of Herzen, a bound volume of The Bell. four copies of my poem…Then papers and letters [and some of my historical, critical, and political sketches.]” The narrator’s shock: “Oh God, how could all this have happened!…Stepan Trofimovich, this is a dream, what you’re telling me!” Stepan thinks he’s outwitted them. Stepan’s upset: “oughtn’t I to lie down and put some vinegar to my head, what do you think?” The new icon lamp, ordered after his home had been searched. Stepan’s fear of being taken away — what should he bring? The thirty-five roubles slipped through the tear in his waistcoat pocket. The narrator: “I hung my head at such madness.” Regular procedures were not followed. Was there a telegram for Petersburg? Is Stepan a member of a secret society, “…that depends…” “‘In our country they can take you, put you in a kibitka, and march you off to Siberia for good, or else forget you in some dungeon…,’ And he suddenly burst into hot, hot tears. Tears simply poured out of him. He covered his eyes with his red foulard and sobbed, sobbed for a good five minutes, convulsively. I cringed all over. This was the man who for twenty years had been prophesying to us, our preacher, mentor, patriarch…and now suddenly he was sobbing, sobbing like a naughty little boy waiting for a birching from the teacher who had just gone to fetch the rod.” The two tracts. Was Stepan being confused with his son? Stepan says he’s not afraid of Siberia, he’s afraid of disgrace. Stepan’s fear of flogging. Stepan refuses to let Varvara, who worshiped him for twenty-two years, know what happened, for ‘she will suspect me all her life.’ Stepan decides to go straight to Lembke, “I am a citizen and a human being, not a chip of wood, I have rights, I want my rights…For twenty years I never demanded my rights, in all my life I’ve criminally forgotten them…but now I will demand them.” The narrator decides to accompany Stepan, but …on the way, an adventure occurred which gave Stepan Trofimovich and even greater shock and finally determined his course…”

Interesting…I had to go back to remind myself that Blum is Lembke’s “aide” for want of a better word. What’s his game? Why is he going after Stepan? Is Stepan’s reaction what you’d think it would be?

I want to go back, if I might, to “At Tikhon’s, for Joseph Frank’s take, which I find highly persuasive:

“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. This would have dramatized all the horror and abomination of the ‘idol’ that Peter Verkhovensky was worshiping. After a sleepless night spent in warding off hallucinations, Stavrogin would visit Tikhon, and then the secret of his past, repeatedly hinted at up to this point, was to be finally disclosed. Like Onegin and Pechorin, Stavrogin is a victim of the famous mal de siecle, the all engulfing ennui that haunts the literature of the first half of the nineteenth century and is invariably depicted as resulting from the loss of religious faith. Baudelaire, its greatest poet, called ennui the deadliest of the vices:

‘Without great gestures or loud cries/It would gladly turn earth into a wasteland/And swallow the world in a yawn.’

Ennui is a prominent symptom of that ‘romantic agony’ whose dossier has been so industriously compiled by Mario Praz and whose usual result is some form of moral perversion. Dostoevsky had depicted it as such in Prince Valkovsky (The Insulted and Injured), in the sudden appearance of Cleopatra in Notes from Underground and in Svidrigailov (Crime and Punishment). With Stavrogin, it has led to the abominable violation of little Matryosha and his unspeakably vile passivity as she takes her life.

Such is the result of Stavrogin’s attempt to pass beyond the limits of morality, to put into practice, with the maniacal determination of Dostoevsky’s negative heroes, the conviction that there are no moral boundaries of any kind. ‘I formulated for the first time in my life what appeared to be the role of my life,’ Stavrogin tells himself, ‘namely, that I neither know nor feel good and evil and that I have not only lost any sense of it, but that there is neither good nor evil (which pleased me), and that it just a prejudice.’ For Stavrogin, these were ‘old familiar thoughts’ that he was at last putting clearly to himself for the first time. Like Raskolnikov’s crime, Stavrogin’s revolting escapades had been a great moral-philosophical experiment. This is why Dostoevsky had taken such pains from the start to dissociate his conduct from any kind of banal and self-indulgent debauchery.

Yet Stavrogin’s ambition to transcend the human, to arrogate for himself supreme power over life and death, nonetheless runs aground on the hidden reef of conscience. No matter what he may think, Stavrogin cannot entirely eliminate his feeling for the difference between good and evil. This irrepressible sentiment breaks forth from his subconscious — usually, though not invariably, the guardian of morality for Dostoevsky — in Stavrogin’s famous dream of ‘the Golden Age,’ inspired by Claude Lorrain’s painting Acis and Galatea. Stavrogin saw in his mind’s eye:

‘A corner of the Greek archipelago; blue, caressing waves, islands,…a magic vista in the distance, a spellbinding sunset…Here was the cradle of European civilization, here were the first scenes from mythology, man’s paradise on earth. Here a beautiful race of men had lived. They rose and went to sleep happy and innocent..The most incredible dream that has ever been dreamed, but to which all mankind has devoted all its power during the whole of its existence, for which it has died on the cross and for which its prophets have been killed, without which nations will not live and cannot even die.’

This vision of a primeval earthly paradise of happiness and innocence fills Stavrogin’s heart with overflowing joy. ‘I woke and opened my eyes, for the first time in my life literally wet with tears…A feeling of happiness, hitherto never known to me, pierced my heart till it ached.’ But then a tiny red spider, associated in Stavrogin’s subconscious with Matryosha’s death, replaced this blissful vision of Eden. He sees the little girl, in his mind’s eyes, standing on the threshold of his room and threatening him with her tiny fist. ‘Pity for her stabbed me,’ he writes, ‘a maddening pity, and I would have given my body to be torn into pieces if that would have erased what happened.’ Stavrogin finds this lacerating reminder of his own evil unbearable, but he willfully refuses to suppress the recollection, and this insupportable need to expiate his crime, which nothing he knows or believes in can help to absolve, is gradually driving him mad.

Stavrogin’s confession thus reveals the source of his inner torment, but this torment has never been sufficient to overcome the supreme egoism and self-will that originally motivated his actions. Even his confession, as Tikhon senses, is only another and more extreme form of the ‘moral sensuality’ that has marked all his previous attempts at self-mastery. ‘This document,’ says Tikhon of the manuscript, ‘is born of a heart wounded unto death…But it is as though you were already hating and despising in advance all those who read what you have written, and challenging them to an encounter.’ Tikhon discerns that Stavrogin by himself can never achieve the true humility of genuine repentance; his need for suffering and martyrdom can thus lead only to more and more disastrous provocations. Hence Tikhon argues that Stavrogin submit his will completely to the secret control of a saintly staretsand thus discipline himself, by a total surrender to another, as the first step along the path to the acceptance of Christ and the hope of forgiveness. But Stavrogin, irritably breaking an ivory crucifix he has been fingering during the interview [not in our version!] rejects this final admonition and goes to his self-destruction.”

The Weekend’s Reading:

Part Two, Chapter Ten

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

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4 Responses to “…nothing is more unbearable when a man is unhappy than for a hundred friends to come right then and point out to him how stupid he’s been.”

  1. Lynn Rios says:

    The struggle of faith revealed in these passages is powerful and I believe many readers identify with it. The idea of receiving forgiveness though undeserved is a hard one to grasp, but when one does, they can view the world from an entirely different perspective. There are many places in the world today where Christians are persecuted and even put to death for their faith. Yet they confront their own martyrdom with great peace and even joy.

    • Lynn: I think Dostoevsky is a writer you’d most definitely appreciate — his beliefs and the way that he communicates them is right up your alley. We’ll be starting in on his masterpiece, “The Brothers Karamazov” in three to four weeks. You should join in…your perspective would be very much appreciated.

      Dennis

  2. Greg says:

    Dennis, this is quite deep. But then again the struggle with good and evil and what constitutes either is God who clearly is good and shows us right from wrong. If there were no good there can be no evil because there is nothing to measure them from each other. Stavrogin’s issue is his feigning maddens which is a cover for his ulterior motives he set in place. When he says he feels neither good nor evil it is a ruse because he in fact knows evil very well. However this is as I said deep. Thanks

    • True, I think to a certain extent. But I think that Stavrogin believes that he has moved beyond both good and evil, but his “humanity” as you will, his conscience, keeps emerging (his kindness to Marya, his dream of Matryosha, etc. I’m not sure that it’s a ruse as much as a self-deception.

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