“Man has done nothing but invent God, so as to live without killing himself; in that lies the whole of world history up to now.”

Demons
Part Three, Chapter Six, Sections 1-3
by Dennis Abrams

“A Toilsome Night” “Virginsky, in the course of the day, employed two hours in running around to see all our people and tell them that Shatov was certainly not going to denounce them, because his wife had come back to him and a child had been born, and ‘knowing the human heart,’ it was impossible to suppose he could be dangerous at that moment. Virginsky finds no one home except Erkel and Lyamshin. Lyamshin, sick in bed, is too scared to listen. “It was a very dark place, at the end of the huge Stavrogin park.” Darkness; Pyotr, Liputin and Erkel’s lanterns. “A rather ridiculous sort of grotto,” three ponds. “It was hard to suppose that a noise, a cry, or even a shot could reach the inhabitants of the abandoned Stavrogin house. Twenty minutes past six, all involved, with the exception of Erkel who is bringing Shatov, have gathered. Pyotr’s belief that the others “want to talk.” Virginsky addresses the group, telling them about the arrival of Shatov’s wife and the birth of his son, “Knowing the human heart…we can be sure that he won’t denounces us now…because he’s in happiness…” Pyotr shoots down the idea, “Besides, I don’t see any happiness in the fact that his wife has come to him, after three years, to give birth to a Stavrogin child,” adding that he has seen the denunciation.” Virginsky continues his protest, saying that there should be a trial, and Shatov should be made to repent and give his word of honor, and be let go. Pyotr rejects the idea “To risk the common cause on a word of honor — is the height of stupidity!”, and warns of the danger of doing so. Shigalyov has “decided that the intended murder is not only a waste of precious time that could be employed in a more immediate and essential way, but represents, moreover, that pernicious deviation from the normal path which has always done most harm to the cause and has obviated its success for decades…” and walks away, not concerned that he may have to “pay for it” later, “you won’t gain anything for yourself by shooting me: you will kill me, but sooner or later you will still arrive at my system.” Liputin meets Erkel and Shatov at the grotto, the others run in, Shatov is knocked to the ground, Pyotr springs forward with his revolver, “Shatov suddenly cried out a brief and desperate cry; but he was not to cry out again: Pyotr Stepanovich accurately and firmly put the revolver right to his forehead, hard point-blank and — pulled the trigger.” Pyotr searches Shatov’s pockets, finds worthless scraps of paper and “an old foreign tavern bill which, God knows why, had survived in his pocket for two years.” Stones are tied to Shatov’s body at the feet and neck. Virginsky started quivering all over and cried out ruefully, “This is not it, this is not it! No, this is not it at all!” Lyamshin breaks down and starts crying out “with some sort of animal voice,” and throws himself around Virginsky — he gets a handkerchief stuffed in his mouth and is tied up. Pyotr’s surprise at his behavior, “I had quite a different idea of him.” Shatov’s body is dumped into the third pond. Pyotr bucks up his troops, In the meantime your whole step is towards getting everything destroyed: both the state and its morality. We alone will remain, having destined ourselves beforehand…There are thousands of Shatovs ahead of us…I’m now going to Kirillov, and by morning there will be a document in which he, on dying, by way of an explanation to the government, will take everything upon himself…” Paired off, people leave the grotto. Liputin gets Pyotr to come close to admitting that there’s is the only five man cell. Pyotr returns to hims place, packs his bag and moves out, taking his belongings to Erkel’s place, which was near the station. “The state of Pyotr Stepanovich’s mind was terrible,” a mixture of discontents (he was unable to learn anything about Stavrogin,” plus, “he had, it seems — for I cannot confirm it with certainty — received during the day…secret notification of a certain danger awaiting him in the hear future.” The narrator is convinced that Pyotr had two or three other fivesomes. The narrator flashes forward: Three days after Pyotr’s departure for Petersburg, an order is issued for his immediate arrest. “The order arrived just in time to increase the staggering, almost mystical sense of fear that took possession of our authorities and our hitherto stubbornly frivolous society on the discovery of the mysterious and highly portentous murder of the student Shatov…” Pyotr enters Kirillov’s room, his “gift” of three extra hours. Boiled chicken with rice. Pyotr eats. Kirillov states he doesn’t care what’s in the note — Pyotr says it will say that Kirillov and Shatov distributed the tracts with the help of Fedka. Kirillov tells Pyotr that Shatov’s wife is looking for him. Kirillov realizes that Shatov has been killed. “You did it because he spat in your face in Geneva!” “For that, and for other things.” Kirillov points his revolver at Pyotr; Pyotr aims his revolver at Kirillov. “I won’t write that I killed Shatov and…I won’t write anything now. There won’t be any document.” Pyotr: “…Only I won’t still leave without the result, I’ll still see at least how you blow your head off…I won’t leave before I’ve blown your brains out with this revolver, like that scoundrel Shatov’s, if you turn coward and put off your intention, devil take you!” Pyotr’s desire to see Kirillov’s blood is “not out of malice,” but Kirillov now knows too much and if he should decide to go to morrow with a denunciation, “No, sir, you committed yourself, you gave your word, you took the money.” Kirillov: “I won’t put it off; I want to kill myself precisely now: men are all scoundrels!…There has not been a decent man anywhere.” When he kills himself, Kirillov will become God. Kirillov: “God id necessary, and therefore must exist…But I know that he does not and cannot exist…Don’t you understand that a man with these two thoughts cannot go on living?” Did Stavrogin believe or didn’t he? Kirillov’s tone of superiority and even undisguised contempt towards Pyotr. Kirillov: “If there is God, then the will is all his, and I cannot get out of his will. If not, the will is all mine, and it is my duty to proclaim self-will…It is my duty to shoot myself because the fullest point of my self-will is — for me to kill myself.” Pyotr offers Kirillov a deal — to show self-will, he can kill someone else for Pyotr, and then the two could come to terms. “To kill someone else would be the lowest point of my self-will, and there’s the whole of you in that. I am not you: I want the highest point, and will kill myself.” Jesus, the highest on all the earth, found a world without pity, and lived and died for a lie. Pyotr cannot decide if Kirillov will go through with it or not. Kirillov: “To recognize that there is no God, and not to recognize at the same time that you have become God, is an absurdity…” The attribute of Kirillov’s divinity is self-will, “I kill myself to show my insubordination and my new fearsome freedom.” Kirillov writes out the document, “I want a face at the top with its tongue sticking out,” and is undecided how to sign it. Kirillov runs into the other room with his revolver, Pyotr is uncertain whether he plans to kill himself or try to escape and shoot him, works his way into the other room, finds Kirillov ‘hiding’ in a corner next to the wall. Pyotr approaches and touches him, Kirillov bites him hard on the little finger of his left hand, strikes as hard as he can three times into Kirillov’s head, breaks free, hears Kirillov shout “Now, now, now, now,” ten times or more and then “there suddenly came a loud shot.” Pyotr is in agony from the bite, Kirillov is dead on the floor, “The shot had gone into the right temple, and the bullet had come out higher up on the left side, piercing the skull. Splinters of blood and brains could be seen.” Pyotr leaves and goes to the train station accompanied by Erkel — Pyotr leaves Erkel in charge; Erkel tells Pyotr the others could not be trusted. Erkel’s sadness at being abandoned by Pyotr, “Something else was beginning to scratch at his poor little heart, something he himself did not yet understand, something connected with the previous evening.”

I could probably speak personally about this section for days, but, for now, I’m going to give you the thoughts of others. First George Steiner:

“The thirty-six hours remaining before Pyotr’s departure witness the murder of Shatov, the suicide of Kirillov, the birth of Stavrogin’s son, Lyamshin’s access of folly, and the disintegration of the revolutionary group. This section of The Possessed contains some of Dostoevsky’s highest achievements: the two encounters between Pyotr and Kirillov culminating in the latter’s nightmarish death, Shatov’s reunion with Marya and the rewawakening of their love after the birth of her child, the actual assassination in the nocturnal park, and Pyotr’s hypocritical farewell to the most pathetic of the murders, young Erkel.

[But for now] I want to draw attention mainly to the feat of dramatic control and temporal organization which allows Dostoevsky to conduct his plot without causing confusion or disbelief. Lacking the traditional mirror for man which the rhythm of the seasons and the coordinates of normal life provide in the Tolstoyan epic, Dostoevsky makes a virtue of disorder. The frenzied happenings in the novel trace onto the surface of reality the patterns of chaos in the mind. In Yeats’ term ‘the centre cannot hold’ and the Dostoevskyan plot incarnates the forms of experience when ‘mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’ [MY NOTE: I DID NOT READ THIS SECTION BEFORE REFERENCING YEATS IN AN EARLIER POST. I SWEAR!] The failure of tragedy took place, as Fergusson notes in his Idea of a Theater. when it became increasingly difficult for ‘artists, or anyone else, to make sense out of the human life they could actually see around them.’ Dostoevsky made of this difficulty a new focus of understanding. If there is no sense in experience, then that style of art which conveys the tragedy of disorder and of the absurd will come nearest to realism. to reject coincidences and extremes of tone would be to read into life a kind of harmony and respect for the probable which it simply does not have. Hence Dostoevsky unworriedly accumulates the unlikely on the fantastic. It is bizarre that Marya should return and bear Stavrogin’s son on the eve of Shatov’s death, it is implausible that none of Pyotr’s terrified accomplices should have betrayed himself or his secret, or that Kirillov should not warn Shatov that there is something afoot. It is nearly incredible that Virginsky and his wife — it is she who delivers Marya’s child — do not stop the crime once they both realize that Pyotr is lying about Shatov’s alleged treason. Finally, it is difficult to believe in Kirillov’s suicide after his experience of ‘illumination’ and after Pyotr has told him of the intended murder.

but we do accept all these things as we accept the Ghost in Hamlet, the binding force of prophecy in Oedipus, Macbeth, and Phedre, and the series of interlocking accidents and chance revelations in Hedda Gabler. For as Aristotle, Huizinga, and Freud have said (in very diverse contexts), the drama is related to the notion of games. Like a game it sets its own rules, and the determining canon is internal coherence. The validity of the rules can only be tested in the playing. Moreover, games and dramas are arbitrary delimitations of experience, and in so far as they delimit they conventionalize and stylize reality. Dostoevsky believed that his ‘true, deep realism’ would, by virtue of contraction and intensification, portray the authentic meaning and temper of a historical era in which he saw the coming of the apocalypse.

Dryly, Dostoevsky records the chronology of pandemonium: Shatov is murdered at about seven o’clock, Pyotr arrives at Kirillov’s at about one in the morning and his host kills himself at around two thirty; at five fifty Pyotr and Erkel arrive at the station; ten minutes later the nihilist enters a first-class compartment. It has been, in the words of the novelist, ‘a busy night.’ Possibly things could have happened at such a pace; probably not. But no matter; the sense of fatality and forward motion is maintained to the last — the train pulls out and gathers speed.”

It is, I think this sense that the “style of art which conveys the tragedy of disorder and of the absurd will come nearest to realism,” that gives Dostoevsky, despite his very deep and underlying 19th century Russian and religious base, his peculiar, appealing, and somewhat disorienting sense of modernism.

And this as well from Steiner:

“In Dostoevsky’s novels we cannot separate ‘the tragic’ from ‘the fantastic.’ Indeed, the tragic ritual is presented and lifted above the current flatness of experience by means of the fantastic. There are moments in which we can clearly make out how the tragic agon penetrates and ultimately transforms the gestures of melodrama. But even transformed, the latter have been no less of an essential medium to Dostoevsky than the established myths were to Greek dramatists or the opera seria was to the young Mozart.

The episode of the death of Kirillov in [Demons] illustrates in perfect detail how Gothic fantasy and the machinery of horror lead us into the tragic effect. The presuppositions are blatant melodrama: Pyotr must see to it that Kirillov commits suicide after signing a paper charging himself with Shatov’s murder. But the engineer, who moves between states of metaphysical ecstasy and raw contempt, may not go through with it. Both Mephistopheles and his equivocating Faust are armed. Pyotr is too astute not to realize that if he goads Kirillov too far, their devil’s bargain will collapse. After a passionate dialogue, Kirillov yields to the temptation of despair. He takes his revolver and rushes into the next room, shutting the door. What ensues is strictly comparable — in terms of literary technique — to the climactic moments in the House of Usher or the frenzied death of the hero in Balzac’s Peau de chagrin. After ten minutes of tortured expectancy, Pyotr seizes a dying candle:

‘He did not hear the slightest sound. He suddenly opened the door and lifted up the candle: something uttered a roar and rushed at him. He slammed the door with all his might and pressed his weight against it; but all sounds dies away and again there was deathlike stillness.’

Pyotr reckons he will have to shoot it out with the reluctant metaphysician and flings the door open, revolver in hand. A horrible sight greets him. Kirillov is standing against the wall, motionless, unnaturally pale. With blind fury Pyotr longs to scorch the man’s face and make sure that he is alive:

‘Then something happened so hideous and so soon over that Pyotr Stepanovich could never afterwards recover a coherent impression of it. He had hardly touched Kirillov when the latter bent down quickly and with his head knocked the candle out of Pyotr Stepanovich’s hand; the candlestick fell with a clang on the ground and the candle went out. At the same moment he was conscious of a fearful pain in the little finger of his left hand. He cried out, and all that he could remember was that, beside himself, he hit out with all his might and struck three blows with the revolver on the head of Kirillov, who had bent down to him and had bitten his finger. At last he tore away his finger and rushed headlong to get out of the house, feeling his way in the dark. He was pursued by terrible shouts from the room.

“Directly, directly, directly, directly.” Ten times. But he still ran on, and was running into the porch when he suddenly heard a loud shot.’

The motif of the bite is a curious one. It was probably derived from David Copperfield, and we find it in the early sketches for the figure of Razumihin in Crime and Punishment. It appears three times in [Demons]: Stavrogin bites the Governor’s ear; we are told of a young officer who bit his superior; and we see Pyotr being bitten by Kirillov. The latter instance is one of peculiar horror. The engineer seems to be drained of human consciousness. The part of reasons is frozen to the thought of self-destruction. Death, in the form of an animal which ‘roars’ and uses its savage teeth, is master of him. When the human voice erupts, it is with a single cry ten times repeated. Kirillov’s insane ‘directly’ i s a counterpart to Lear’s five-fold repetition of ‘never.’ In the case of Lear, a man’s spirit refuses annihilation and clings to a single word as to the gates of life; in the other, it is shown embracing darkness. Kirillov kills himself in abject despair, because he could not kill himself in an affirmation of freedom. Both cries moves us unutterably though arising out of circumstances which are wholly fantastic.

Pyotr crawls back and finds ‘splashes of blood and brains’ on the floor. The guttering candle, the dead engineer, Pyotr with his bleeding finger and inhuman visage — we have here as set a piece of melodrama as Fagin’s appearance at the window or the awesome scene of torture in Conrad’s Nostromo. But the conventions do not blunt or deflect the tragic purpose; they serve it. The episode confirms a distinction proposed in Aristotle’s Poetics: ‘Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of tragedy.’ The Dostoevskyan novel is a ‘novel of terror’; but it expounds the term in the sense in which Joyce defined it in A Portrait of the Artist:

‘Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.’

And finally, on a more personal note, I’d like to mention the passing of one of my most favorite authors, British travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century. Period. Start with A Time of Gifts, the first volume (Between Time and the Woods and the Water is the second; the final, long-awaited volume is rumored to be coming out late this year), that trace the teenage Fermor’s travels on foot through a pre-World War II Europe, starting off at the Hook of Holland and ending in Constantinople — a combination of travelogue, history, and… — I guarantee you’ll become a Fermor admirer as well.

————–

Monday’s Reading:

Part Three, Chapter Seven, Section One

Enjoy.

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2 Responses to “Man has done nothing but invent God, so as to live without killing himself; in that lies the whole of world history up to now.”

  1. Catherine says:

    Thanks for the additional non-Dostoyevsky book recommendation. Fermor sounds like an author worth pursuing.

  2. artmama says:

    I was riveted by this section and its non-stop carnage. What really gripped me was the tension between Pyotr and Kirillov during their final discussion of Kirillov’s planned suicide. Kirillov seems to be expressing that of all the reasons for a man to shoot himself, genius and the awareness of life’s extreme contradiction seems to be the big one. But most of all I appreciate this passage:

    Kirillov: “You are a scoundrel and a false mind. But I am the same as you are, and I will shoot myself, while you remain alive.”

    Pyotr: “That is, you mean to say I’m so base as to want to remain alive.”
    Pyotr: “You seem to be boasting to me about shooting yourself?”

    Kirillov: “I’ve always been surprised that everyone remains alive.”

    Kirillow says this after not hearing Pyotr’s remark about boasting. I have always loved this sentiment. How do we all remain alive? Carnage seems like it should always overtake reason.

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