“A high road is something very very long, which one sees no end to — like human life, like the human dream.”

Demons
Part Three, Chapter Seven, Section One
by Dennis Abrams

“The Last Peregrination of Stepan Trofimovich” “I am convinced that Stepan Trofimovich was very much afraid as he felt the time of his insane undertaking draw near.” “Oh, he could have accept Varvara Petrovna’s luxurious conditions and remained with her bounties…But he had not accepted her bounties and had not remained. And now he himself was leaving her and raising the ‘banner of a great idea’ and going to die for it on the high road!” Why did he runaway and not take a carriage? Was it “that the thought of traveling by post in a carriage…must have appeared too simple and prosaic to him; pilgrimage, on the other hand, even with an umbrella, was much more beautiful and vengefully amorous.” Or, was he “afraid to hire a carriage because Varvara Petrovna might get wind of it and hold him back by force,” and because he didn’t know where he was going anyway? Better the high road, “There is an idea in the high road; and what sort of idea is there in traveling by post?” Drizzling rain, a chill, his umbrella. Would he be robbed by Fedka and his confederates? A cart comes abreast of him, driven by a peasant in the driver’s seat, with a woman “sitting on a tightly stuffed sack,” with a red cow plodding behind. A conversation between the ‘wench,’ “about twenty-seven, sturdy, black-browed, and ruddy, with kindly smiling red lips, behind which her even, white teeth flashed,” and the peasant “a strapping man of about forty, with a broad, sensible face and a full, reddish beard.” Their lack of understanding of Stepan: Was he a foreigner? A military type? Stepan’s uncertainty of where he was going to go; accepting a ride to Khatov (the village, not the man). A discussion: Will Stepan go on to Spasov? Will he do a one week walk? Will he take the steamer-boat? The trio arrive at the village, Stepan is convinced to enter a guesthouse, “an extremely pleasant sensation of warmth, after three hours of dampness on the road, suddenly spread through his body. Stepan is offered “those well-known peasant pancakes, thin, half wheat, with hot fresh butter poured over them — most delicious pancakes.” Stepan’s delight. A request for vodka. “Ask a peasant to do something for you, and, if he can and wants to, he will serve you diligently and cordially; but ask him to fetch a little vodka — and his usual calm cordiality suddenly transforms into a sort of hasty, joyful obligingness, almost a family solicitude for you.” Stepan’s surprise at how much vodka five kopecks buys. Stepan offers the ‘wench’ some vodka, “My knowledge of how to handle the people is perfect, perfect, I always told them so.” The female bookseller, offering him the Gospel for 35 kopecks a volume. “It flitted through him at that moment that he had not read the Gospel for at least thirty years, and had merely recalled a bit of it perhaps seven years ago only from reading Renan’s book, La Vie de Jesus. Anisim Ivanov, a former household serf of Gaganov, arrives and recognizes Stepan; Stepan tries to brush him off. Will Stepan be going to Fyodor Matveevich’s? The samovar arrives. Peasants crowd the room, wondering who he is, Found walking down the road, says he’s a teacher, dressed like a foreigner, reasons like a a little child, answers nonsensically, as if he’d run away from somebody, and he’s got money!” Should the police be called? Anisim settles them down. Stepan notices the nobility and independence of the bookseller, a thirty-four year old widow. The peasants gather again, discussing amongst themselves the best way for Stepan to travel on. Stepan’s reluctance to go. Learning that the bookseller needs to travel to Spasov, Stepan Trofimovich offers to take her their by carriage.

From Joseph Frank:

“Both the killing of Shatov and the suicide of Kirillov exhibit the same pattern of reversion and regression to the inhuman. The hapless conspirators are far from sharing Peter’s insouciance about human life, and as the murder takes place, Lyamshin and Virginsky are overtaken by a panic return to animality. ‘Lyamshin gave vent to a scream more animal than human, he went on shrieking without a pause, his mouth wide open and his eyes staring out of his head…Virginsky was so scared that he too screamed out like a madman, and with a ferocity, a vindictiveness that one could not have expected of Virginsky.’ Nor is Kirillov’s eerie death the triumphant assertion of a total self=-will; it is, rather, the demented act of a crazed and terrified subhuman creature. The annihilation of God, far from leading to a mastery over the pain and fear of death, brings on the animal frenzy with which Kirillov sinks his teeth into Peter’s hand. Like Raskolnikov’s crime, Kirillov’s suicide is the self-negation and self-refutation of his own grandiose ideas.

If some characters may be said to sink below themselves by reverting to the level of animality, Stepan Trofimovich surprises the narrator by rising above himself and finally overcoming his eternal hesitations.l His touchingly aimless peregrinations, which Dostoevsky had so much looked forward to composing, plunge him into entirely new circumstances. Nothing is finer, in this book so filled with remarkable pages, than the bewildered contact between the sheltered, pampered ‘liberal,’ who has spent his life uttering fine phrases and deprecatory remarks about the Russian people, and the dumbfounded peasants whom he finally encounters. There is mutual incomprehension on both sides, as each observes the strange ways of the other with astonishment. Above all, the inspired meeting with the ex-nurse distributing copies of the New Testament allows Dostoevsky to introduce his religious thematic in the midst of Stepan Trofimovich’s perplexities.”

Does that sound “right” to you? Or perhaps this from Colin Wilson:

“In Devils, Stavrogin is the criminal sensualist who cannot conceive eternity, except in terms of his own dreary, imprisoned existence. Kirillov, the suicide maniac, also kills himself, but it is Kirilov who has seen the way out of the nightmare of unreality. It is in Kirillov that Dostoevsky embodies the highest vision of the novel. Kirillov is to kill himself when [Pyotr] gives the order, but he has already decided to die. His reason is Outsider-logic. If god exists, than everything is his Will. If he doesn’t, then Kirillov himself is God and must show his Will by the Ultimate Unreversible definitive act — to kill himself.

‘Because all will has become mine. Is there no man on this planet who, having finished with God, and believing in his own will, will have enough courage to express his self-will in its most important point? It’s like a beggar who has inherited a fortune and is afraid of it…’

Kirillov has finished with God because he cannot believe in an external principle that is more important than his own subjectively known reality. Kirillov reason: ‘If God exists, he must be an external reality, like the Old Testament Jehovah.’ His Existentialist logic disposes of such a God. It is the opposite of Lawrence’s Bedouin, who ‘could not look for God within him; he was too certain he was in God” but, unfortunately, Kirillov does not believe in ‘God within him’ either.

But the decision that life was valueless compared with his own Will gives Kirillov the insight he needed. Without realizing it, he has attained the ideal non-attachment that is the religious ideal. Being willing to give up his life at any moment, he has voided it of the pettiness that ties most men to their delusions. He has destroyed the ‘thought-riddled nature’. He asks Stavrogin:

‘Ever seen a leaf — a leaf from a tree?’
‘Yes.’
‘I saw one recently — a yellow one, a little green, wilted at the edges. Blown by the wind. When I was a little boy, I used to shut my eyes in winter and imagine a green leaf, with veins on it, and the sun shining…’
‘What’s this — an allegory?’
‘No; why? Not an allegory — a leaf, just a leaf. A leaf is good. Everything’s good.’
‘Everything?’
“Everything. Man’s unhappy because he doesn’t know he’s happy…he who finds out will become happy at once, instantly…’
‘And what about the man who dies of hunger, and the man who insults and rapes a little girl. Is that good too?’
‘Yes, it is. And the man who blows his brains out for the child, that’s good too. Everything’s good…’
‘When did you find out you were so happy’
‘I was walking about the room. I stopped the clock…It was twenty-three minutes to three.’

Dostoevsky was haunted by that passage from ‘Revelation’:

‘And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea…lifted up his hand and sware…that there should be time no longer, but the mystery of God should be finished…’

Possibly Dostoevsky’s knowledge of ‘Moments of timelessness’ came only in the strange insights before his epileptic seizures: this is how he describes one in The Idiot:

‘The next moment, something seemed to explode in front of him; a wonderful inner light illumined his soul. This lasted perhaps half a second, yet he distinctly remembered hearing the beginning of a cry, the strange dreadful wail that escaped him without his volition…Then he was unconscious…’

The moment of ‘inner light’ is Nietzsche’s moment of ‘pure Will, free of the perplexities of intellect…’ His willingness to die to express the absolute supremacy of the Will is the supreme act of renunciation. St. John of the Cross writes of it:

‘And therefore, the soul that sets its affections upon created beings…will in no way be able to attain union with the infinite being of God: for that which is not can have no communion with that which is.’

Without religion, without even belief in God, Kirillov has achieved the saint’s vision. His perfect non-attachment has made him into a visionary. He lives all the time in the insight that Meursault (Camus, The Stranger), achieved only on the eve of his execution: ‘I had been happy and I was happy still.’

Dostoevsky did not stop to argue or explain his point; he dramatized it…

…Kirillov is to write a suicide note, confessing to having murdered Shatov. Again the scene reaches a dramatic tension that cannot be paralleled in modern literature, apart from the murder scene in Crime and Punishment. At first [Pyotr] is convinced that Kirillov won’t do it; he encourages him to talk about his reasons for committing suicide; his cunning is rewarded and Kirillov shoots himself through the head. [Pyotr] hurried off, a handkerchief bound around his hand where Kirillov had tried to bit off the top of his finger, and catches an early train out of the town. He leaves behind him a blazing town, three murdered bodies and a suicide; and the death-toll is not yet complete. That is the last we see of ‘the tiger cub’. He is not important; he is only the Iago of the story. He is no Outsider. The most important figure in the book lies dead in a shuttered room, the revolver still in his hand, to be found by Shatov’s wife the next morning when she goes to his room seeking her husband…”

Which of the views of Shatov’s murder and Kirillov’s suicide to you find most convincing? Is Shatov the moral center of the book? Is Kirillov?

As for me, personally, I respond on an emotional level to Wilson’s case for Kirillov’s “quest for freedom,” but…is he ignoring the ugliness of Kirillov’s last minutes before killing himself? Or, is Frank putting too much emphasis on it?

Tuesday’s Reading:

Part Three, Chapter Seven, Section Two

Enjoy.

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