“It’s all arson! It’s nihilism! If anything’s ablaze, it’s nihilism!…The fire is in people’s minds not on the rooftops…”

Demons
Part Three, Chapter Two, Section Four; Chapter Three, Sections One – Three
by Dennis Abrams

“The End of the Fete” “The fire frightened our public from across the river precisely because the arson was so obvious.” It is ‘now’ known that the fire was the work of three Shpigulin man, and “Fedka the convict undoubtedly participated in the arson.” The fire spread quickly, due to a strong wind, and the large number of wooden buildings. (“incidentally, the fire should be reckoned as having been set at two points: the third was caught and extinguished almost the moment it flared up — of that later.”) The exaggerated newspaper accounts, “no more (and perhaps less) than a quarter of the whole of Zarechye burned down.” The narrator at the fire. The reaction of the populace. The stirring and exhilarating impression formed by fires at night, yet “A real fire is another matter: here horror and, after all, some sense of personal danger as it were…produce in the spectator…a sort of brain concussion and a challenge, as it were, to his own destructive instincts which, alas! lie hidden in every soul…” Stepan after observing a different fire, “I really do knot know whether it is possible to watch a fire without a certain pleasure.” Lembke at the fire: “It’s all arson! It’s nihilism! If anything’s ablaze, it’s nihilism…The fire is in people’s minds, not on the rooftops…” Seeing a forgotten old woman, Lembke, temporarily without his police protection, runs in to save her, and is struck when a broken board fell from the roof, “It did not kill him, it merely grazed his neck as it fell, but the career of Andrei Antonovich was over…” A strange fact had been discovered: a new house, half burned, inside three dead bodies, stabbed to death that night and robbed: “I was told at once that the captain had been found with his throat cut, on the bench, dressed, and that he had probably been dead drunk when he was killed, so that he had not even felt it, and that he had bled ‘like a bull’; and that his sister Marya Timofeevna had been ‘stuck all over’ with a knife, and was lying on the floor of the doorway, so that had probably been awake and had struggled and fougbt with the murderer. The housekeeper, who probably also woke up, had her head completely smashed in.” The captain’s wallet is gone, Marya Timofeevna’s trunk was untouched. If the fire hadn’t been discovered early, the house would have burned to the ground, “and it would have been difficult to learn the truth from charred corpses.” “There’s something behind this fire,” voices came from the crowd. Had Stavrogin ‘lured’ Lizaveta, and had he had his wife killed so that he could marry her? The narrator sees three ‘buffet’ mugs from the ball.

“A Finished Romance” “From the big reception room at Skvoreshniki (the same one in which the last meeting between Varvara Petrovna and Stepan Trofimovich had taken place), the fire was in full view. Dawn, Liza alone, looking out the window at the dying glow of the flames, wearing the same dress as the night before “but rumpled now, hastily and carelessly put on.” Blushing, she wraps a shawl around her. Stavrogin comes in. “By the calender it ought to have been light an hour ago, and it’s still like night,” she said with vexation.” Liza informs Stavrogin that “We won’t be together long…You remember how yesterday, as I came in, I introduced myself as a dead person?” Lizaveta’s broken language. “‘Liza,’ he exclaimed, ‘I swear I love you more now than yesterday when you came in.'” “What a strange confession!…You’re taking revenge on me for yesterday’s fantasy…’ he muttered, grinning spitefully.” Stavrogin: ‘Then why did you give me…’so much happiness?'” Is Lizaveta concerned about the world’s opinion? Stavrogin: “…This ‘happiness’ you’re now talking about so frenziedly has cost me…everything.'” Did Stavrogin pay with his own or someone else’s life?” Stavrogin agrees that he knew the day before that Lizaveta would leave him. Lizaveta cannot endure Stavrogin’s magnanimous attitude. Lizaveta: “And the main thing is that you yourself can tell it off on your own fingers and understand it better than anyone in the world and were counting on it. I am a young lady, my heart was brought up in the opera, it started there, that’s the whole answer.” Two days earlier, Lizaveta had guessed that Stavrogin had run away from her because of his marriage. Pyotr had explained to her that, “he absolutely wanted it to be the three of us together.” Liza continues, “I take it all upon myself. I’m bad. I’m capricious…Well, enough, enough. I’m not capable of anything, you’re not capable of anything; two flicks on on each side, and let that be a comfort to us. At least our pride doesn’t suffer.” “Why did you ruin yourself in such an ugly and stupid way, and what is to be done now? Listen, I’ve already told you: I’ve traded my life for a single hour, and I’m at peace. Trade yours the same way…” Since Switzerland, Lizaveta had thought that there is something “horrible, dirty, and bloody on [Stavrogin’s] soul, at the same time something that makes [him] look ridiculous,” and she begs him not to reveal it to her. Lizaveta: “It has always seemed to me that you would bring me to some place where there lives a huge, evil spider, as big as a man, and we would spend our whole life there looking at him and being afraid.” Lizaveta urges Stavrogin to go to Dashenka. Pyotr appears, begs a word with Stavrogin. “If you hear anything now, Liza, know this, I am guilty.” Pyotr tells Stavrogin, “I mean, if you already know…then, of course, none of is guilty of anything…” It’s a bad thing that the three were killed and not burned. Pyotr proclaims his innocence although the thought had occurred to him; he had given Lebyadkin two hundred and thirty roubles of his own money to go to Petersburg with, (Pyotr comes close to Stavrogin who hits him on the arm), Lebyadkin was supposed to leave before the fete but Liputin stepped in with the poem and took most of his money, Fedka learned about the money, and “decided to make use of it.” The fire was not Pyotr’s plan either, “I’ve had this little idea of a fire ripening in me for a long time…but I was keeping it for that precious moment when we all rise up…No, this democratic scum with its fivesomes is a poor support; what we need is one splendid, monumental…Anyhow, though it’s being shouted in all trumpets that Stavrogin needed to burn his wife, and that’s why the town got burned down, still…” Because Fedka panicked, the bodies did not burn at all. Who is threatening who? Mavriky Nikolaevich had been waiting outside Stavrogin’s house all night in the rain, “in his greatcoat, soaked through…” Pyotr learns that Lizaveta will leave Stavrogin. Pyotr asks why, now that he’s free, Stavrogin doesn’t marry Lizaveta. “‘And you think she won’t guess about those corpses?’ Stavrogin narrowed his eyes somehow peculiarly.” Pyotr insists it won’t matter, “She’ll just stash those little corpses away so as to needle you later on, say in the second of your marriage.” Stavrogin admits that Lizaveta knows that he doesn’t love her at all, “which, of course, she’s always known.” Pyotr admits he knew that, and brought Lizaveta to Stavrogin for his amusement. Stavrogin says he killed his wife. Liza enters, “Find out what? Who has been murdered?” Lizaveta is told about the murders, “‘A brutal case, a strange case, Lizaveta Nikolaevna, a most stupid case of robbery,’ Pyotr Stepanovich began rattling at once…” Lizaveta begs to find out if Stavrogin is guilty or innocent. “‘I didn’t kill them and was against it, but I knew they would be killed, and I didn’t stop the killers. Leave me Liza,’ Stavrogin uttered, and he turned and went into the drawing room.” Pyotr turns on Stavrogin, “But I’ll bump you off all the same, even if you’re not afraid of me!” “He snatched out the revolver again; Stavrogin gave him a serious look. ‘Go ahead, kill me,’ he said softly, almost peaceably.” Pyotr is a clown. Pyotr rushes to catch up with Lizaveta, who is planning on walking the two miles to see the corpses. Lizaveta learns that Mavriky Nikolaevich is waiting for her. Mavriky’s lack of prejudices. Lizaveta, running through the muddy field, trips and falls, Mavriky runs to her, tears streaming down his face. Lizaveta asks to be slapped and killed in the field like a dog, Mavriky refuses to judge her, “No one can be your judge now…God forgive you, and least of all will I be your judge.” Lizaveta and Mavriky walking arm in arm, “A fine drizzle pervaded all the surroundings, absorbing every sheen and every shade, and turning everything into one smoky, leaden, indifferent mass. It had long been day, yet it seemed that dawn had still to come.” Stepan, dressed in ‘traveling fashion’ steps out of the haze, and is “bidding the world farewell…” Lizaveta asks Stepan about the murder victims, “Those people! I saw the glow of their deeds all night. They couldn’t have ended otherwise…I’m running from a delirium, from a feverish dream, running to seek Russia…” Lizaveta makes the sign of the cross over Stepan. Lizaveta and Mavriky appear at the site of the murder, the narrator is still there. Lizaveta tearing through the crowd, drawing attention to herself, someone yelled, “that’s Stavrogin’s woman!” Another yells “They don’t just kill, they also come and look!” “Suddenly I saw someone’s hand, above her head, from behind, raised and lowered; Liza fell.” Mavriky seized, Lizaveta takes another blow and is taken away, “still alive, and perhaps still conscious.”

Um…wow. This whole section has been…nightmarish. It all makes sense, it’s all been prepared for (I think…anyone disagree?), and yet it’s powerful and painful beyond belief. It all seems, as this description seems to indicate, “A fine drizzle pervaded all the surroundings, absorbing every sheen and every shade, and turning everything into one smoky, leaden indifferent mass. it had long been day, yet it seemed that dawn had still not come.” like a scene out of Hell. (And again, the motif of the spider as god/malignant force/something…) As I think I’ve mentioned, I’ve only read Demons once, years ago, and I’m finding it most impressive.

Continuing George Steiner’s analysis of the last sixty hours of the book:

“As the flames die down, Lebyadkin, his sister Marya, and their old servant are found murdered (murder once again the conveyor of the tragic vision). There is every indication that at least one of the fires has been set to cover the crime. Using the flames as a beacon, at the center of his space of action, Dostoevsky takes us to one of the windows of Stavrogin’s house, Skvoreshniki. It is dawn and Liza is watching the fading glow. Stavrogin joins her. We are told only that some of the hooks on her dress are undone, but the whole night is in that detail. Dostoevsky’s imagination is significantly chaste; like D.H. Lawrence, he saw erotic experience too intensely, too integrally not to realize that means more stringent than a portrayal of the thing itself must be used to invoke its meanings. It is when realism becomes brute depiction, as in much of Zola, that the direct representation of the erotic once again assumes important. The result is an impoverishment of technique and sensibility.

The night has been disastrous. It has revealed to Liza Stavrogin’s crippling inhumanity. Dostoevsky does not communicate the precise nature of the sexual failure, but the impact of utter sterility is dramatically conveyed. This impact does violence to Liza, she confuses the motives which made her leap into Stavrogin’s carriage the day before. She mocks his present gentleness, his intimations of decorous rapture: ‘And this is Stavrogin, ‘the vampire Stavrogin,’ as you are called…’ this taunt is double-edged; Liza has been bled of the will to live. But she has penetrated also to the core of Stavrogin. She knows that there is some appalling and yet ridiculous secret staining and corroding his mind:

‘I’ve always fancied that you would take me to some place where there was a huge wicked spider, big as a man, and we should spend our lives looking at it and being afraid of it. That’s how our love would spend itself.’

The dialogue is composed in semi-tones and fragments. But a great shrillness hangs in the air.

Pyotr Verkhovensky enters and Stavrogin says: ‘If you hear anything directly, Liza, let me tell you I am to blame for it.’ Pyotr seeks to refute Stavrogin’s assumption of guilt. He launches into a monologue in which lies, dangerous half-truths, and a malignant foresight are inextricably confounded. It is he who has ‘unwittingly’ set the scene for the murders. But the fires are premature. Could some of his minions have taken matters into their own clumsy hands? And out tumbles one of Pyotr’s hidden dogmas:

‘No, this democratic rabble with its cells of five members is a poor foundation; what we want is one magnificent, despotic will, like an idol, resting on something fundamental and external.’

Pyotr is endeavoring now to prevent that idol from self-destruction. Stavrogin cannot be allowed to take the murder upon himself, yet he must share the guilt. Thus he and Pyotr shall be entangled even more closely. The priest remains essential to his god (has he not created him?), but that god must endure in outward intactness. The nihilist’s strategy toward Stavrogin is developed in one of the most astounding monologues in the novel, a tour de force of divided intent and duplicity of meaning. Pyotr shifts, through modulations of rhetoric, from the moral to the legal realities of innocence:

‘A stupid rumour is soon set going. But you really have nothing to be afraid of. From the legal point of view you are all right, and with your conscience also. For you didn’t want it done, did you? there’s no clue, nothing but the coincidence…But I am glad anyway, that you are so calm…for though you are not in any way to blame, even in thought, but all the same…And you must admit that all this settles your difficulties capitally: you are suddenly free and a widower and can marry a charming girl this minute with a lot of money, who is already yours, into the bargain. See what can be done by crude, simple coincidence — eh?’

‘Are you threatening me, you fool?’

The agony in Stavrogin’s question stems not from fear of blackmail; the threat lies in Pyotr’s power to destroy the remnants of Stavrogin’s self-awareness. The man is threatening to reshape the god after his own vile image. Stavrogin’s fear of encroaching darkness — the metaphor of madness — is beautifully countered by Pyotr’s rapid answer: ‘You are the light and the son…’

I would like to quote at greater length, but the essential point can, I think, be clearly made. The dialogue here operates through the same modes as in poetic drama. The ‘stichomythia’ of Greek tragedy, the dialectic in the Phaedo, the Shakespearean soliloquy, the tirade of the Neo-classical theatre, are consummate strategies of rhetoric, dramatizations of discourse in which one cannot separate actual forms of expression from the entirety of meaning. Tragic drama is perhaps the most lasting and comprehensive statement of all human affairs yet achieved by essentially verbal means. The modes of rhetoric which it employs are conditioned by the idea and material circumstances of the theatre. But this may be translated into settings that are not dramatic in the technical or physical sense. This happens in oratory, in the Platonic dialogues, in the dramatic poem. Dostoevsky translated the languages and grammars of drama into prose fiction. This is what we mean when we speak of Dostoevskyan tragedy.

Stavrogin tells Pyotr that ‘Liza guessed somehow during the night that I don’t love her…which knew all along indeed.’ The little Iago regards it all as ‘horribly shabby.’

‘Stavrogin suddenly laughed. ‘I am laughing at my money,’ he explained at once.’

The phrase places the two men with cruel precision. Pyotr is Stavrogin’s sordid familiar; he ‘apes’ Stavrogin so as to sully or destroy the latter’s image of himself (we may think of the role of the baboon in Picasso’s famous series of drawings of artists and models). Pyotr pretends to have known all along that the night was a ‘complete fiasco.’ It delights him. His sadism — the sadism of the watcher — dwells on Liza’s humiliation. Stavrogin’s apparent impotence will make him more vulnerable to abjection. But Verkhovensky has underestimated the sheer weariness of his god. Stavrogin tells Liza the truth: ‘I did not kill them, and I was against it, but I knew they were going to be killed and I did not stop the murderers.’ His assumption of indirect guilt — a motif explored more fully in The Brothers Karamazov — enrages Pyotr. He turns against his idol ‘muttering incoherently…and foaming at the mouth.’ He draws a revolver, but cannot kill his ‘prince.’ Out of his frenzy bursts a hidden truth, ‘I am a buffoon, but I don’t want you, my better half, to be one! Do you understand me?’ Stavrogin does, perhaps alone of all the characters. Pytor’s tragedy is that of any priest who has erected a deity in his own image, and it is a stroke of dramatic irony that Stavrogin should dismiss him with the words, ‘Go to the devil now…Go to hell. Go to hell.’ Instead the buffoon avenges himself on Liza. She is rescued by his taunts by Mavriky Micolaevich, her faithful admirer who has waited out the night in Stavrogin’s garden. She goes with him to the scene of the murder.

They arrive when a large crowd is milling about and when suppositions about Stavrogin’s role in the crime are at their fiercest. The scene is based on an actual mob demonstration — the first organized strike in modern Russian history. Liza is struck down and killed. The narrator comments that it ‘all happened entirely accidentally through the action of men moved by ill feeling yet scarcely conscious of what they were doing — drunk and irresponsible.’ But the vagueness of it merely strengthens our impression that Liza has sought death in a ritual act of expiation. She dies near the smouldering flames in which three other human beings have been sacrificed to Stavrogin’s inhumanity.”

My apologies if this post is too long, but there was a lot to cover. And I think that Steiner’s analysis of the scenes we read over the weekend is pretty much spot on.

Monday’s Reading:

Part Three, Chapter Four, Section One

Enjoy.

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2 Responses to “It’s all arson! It’s nihilism! If anything’s ablaze, it’s nihilism!…The fire is in people’s minds not on the rooftops…”

  1. Catherine says:

    Powerful and overwhelming. Thanks for your summary and thoughts — helps me to sort out what the author is trying to convey and helps to explain the mob scene which seemed quite confusing. I’m wondering what surprises are in the final chapters.

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