“‘In our day,’ I said, ‘what’s retrograde is believing in God; but I am the devil, it’s all right to believe in me.”

The Brothers Karamazov
Book XI, Chapters 8-9
by Dennis Abrams

“The Third and Last Meeting with Smerdyakov” “he was only half way there when a sharp, dry wind arose; the same as early that morning, and fine, thick, dry snow began pouring down.” Ivan’s physical suffering. The drunk peasant, “Ah, Vanka’s gone to Peterburg/An I’ll not wait for him!” Lurching into Ivan the peasant is shoved away, and falls unconscious onto the frozen ground, and is left there by Ivan, “He’ll freeze!” Smerdyakov’s illness. His physical appearance, “His face was changed, he had become very thin and yellow. His eyes were sunken, his lower eyelids had turned blue.” Smerdyakov wants to be left alone. Smerdyakov questions Ivan on his own physical condition, “And why have your eyes become yellow? The whites are quite yellow. Are you suffering greatly or what?” Smerdyakov assures Ivan he has nothing to worry about at Dmitri’s trial the next day. “You don’t un-der-stand?…Why would an intelligent man want to put on such an act?” Smerdyakov tells Ivan go “Go home, it was not you that killed him.” Ivan is afraid that Smerdyakov is just a dream, “a ghost sitting there in front of me.” “There’s no ghost, sir, besides the two of us, sir, and some third one. No doubt he’s here now, that third one, between the two of us…That third person is God, sir, is providence itself sir, it’s right here with us now, sir…only don’t look for it, you won’t find it.” Smerdyakov pulls the 3000 roubles out of his stocking, frightening Ivan, and then hiding it again under a copy of The Homilies of Our Father among the Saints. Smerdyakov confess to killing Fyodor, “Just only with you, sir; together with you, sir, and Dmitri Fyodorovich is as innocent as could be, sir.” Smerdyakov tells Ivan that he had faked his fit, but had a real one the day after the murder. The money was never under the mattress– Smerdyakov had convinced Fyodor to hide it behind the icons. Smerdyakov was confident of Ivan’s consent. Ivan tells Smerdyakov he tell all in court the next day; Smerdyakov assures him that “you will not go, sir.” Smerdyakov gives Ivan back the 3000 roubles, “I’ve got no use at all for it, sir,” and that his dream of beginning life again in Moscow is over. Smerdyakov points out why Ivan won’t go to court — he’s too intelligent, he loves money, he loves respect, he’s too proud, he loves women’s charms, “and most of all you love living in peaceful prosperity, without bowing to anyone…You’re like Fyodor Pavlovich most of all, it’s you of all his children who came out resembling him most, having the same soul as him, sir.” Smerdyakov says farewell, Ivan walks back out into the snow, “as if a sort of joy now descended into his soul.” The decision has been made. The peasant is still there, freezing to death in the snow — Ivan carries him to safety. Ivan decides to wait until the next day to go the prosecutor and returns to his room where he sat for a long time, his eyes focused on one spot, “Apparently something there, some object, irritated him, troubled him, tormented him.” “The Devil. Ivan Fyodorvich’s Nightmare” “I am not a doctor, but nevertheless the moment has come when it is decidedly necessary for me to explain to the reader at least something of the nature of Ivan Fyodorivich’s illness.” On the brink of brain fever. A visit to the doctor. Ivan’s staring, “Someone suddenly turned out to be sitting there, though God knows how he had got in, because he had not been in the room when Ivan Fyodorovich came back from seeing Smerdyakov.” A seedy looking Russian gentleman, who, nevertheless, “…could even be invited to sit at the table in any company, though, of course, in a humble place.” He reminds Ivan that he had neglected to ask Smerdyakov about Katerina Ivanovna’s visit. “What good is faith by force? Besides, proofs are no help to faith, especially material proofs.” Ivan tells himself (and the devil) that he is delirious. “Not for a single moment do I take you for the real truth…You are a lie, you are my illness, you are a ghost.” The devil knows about Ivan’s decision to testify in court. The devil can’t imagine how he was once an angel. “Because, like you, I myself suffer from the fantastic, and that’s why I love your earthly reason…My dream is to become incarnate, but so that it’s final, irrevocable, in some fat, two-hundred-and-fifty pound merchant’s wife, and to believe everything she believes. My ideal is to go into a church and light a candle with a pure heart — by God, it’s true. That would put an end to my sufferings.” The devil’s rheumatism. Is he a dream? a nightmare? A hallucination? “Lies. Your goal is precisely to convince me that you are in yourself and are not in my nightmare, and so now you yourself assert that you’re a dream.” The devil catches a cold. Touching one’s finger to a frozen axe. Noses. Hoff’s extract of malt. The need for criticism and negativity. “Without criticism, there would be nothing but ‘Hosannah,’ But ‘Hosannah’ alone is not enough for life…” The devil can’t or won’t say whetehr there’s a god. The legend of the man forced to walk in darkness a quadrillion kilometers. Does Ivan believe? “But for a thousandth part you do believe. Homeopathic doses are perhaps the strongest. Admit that you do believe, let’s way for a ten-thousandth part…” The need to do good deeds. The reward of tempting the pure. Noses out of joint. Jesuit casuistry. The devil’s jokes. Ivan’s romantic streak, “How could such a banal devil come to such a great man?” The devil hears the shouting of “hossanah’ when Jesus ascended into heaven; his desire to join the chorus. His purpose: ‘to destroy thousands so that one may be saved. For instance, how many souls had to be destroyed, and honest reputations put to shame, in order to get just one righteous Job, with hwhom they baited me so wickedly in olden times!” The devil as lackey. The devil throws Ivan’s ideas from the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor back at him. Luther and the thrown glass. Alyosha knocking at the window, “The knocking continued. Ivan wanted to rush to the window; but something seemed suddenly to bind his legs and arms. he was straining as hard as he could to break his bonds, but in vain..At last the bonds broke…” The devil is gone, the glass is still on the table. Alyosha has news: “Smerdyakov hanged himself an hour ago.”

In many ways, I think that these two chapters must constitute the “climax” or at least, the philosophical and dramatic peak of the book, and I was pretty well amazed. I’ve got some terrific excerpts from Robin Miller and Colin Wilson below to look at these two chapters in depth, but one thing I’d like to point out. It seems to me that in the devil’s story of the legend of the man walking a quadrillion kilometers, his statement of finally arriving at paradise, “he exclaimed that for those two seconds it would be worth walking not just a quadrillion kilometers, but a quadrillion quadrillion, even raised to the quadrillionth power!” is very much like Dostoevsky’s description of the rapture he felt just prior to his first seizure, “for just those few seconds of bliss a man would give ten years or even the whole of his life!”


From Robin Feuer Miller, continuing where left off, discussing the frame within Chapter 8 — Ivan’s third visit:

“The frame tale concerns a drunken peasant who is singing an uncannily apt ditty, ‘Ach, Vanka’s gone to Peterburg,/I won’t wait till he comes back.’ Ivan feels an automatic hatred for this peasant, who lurches against him. As the peasant falls to the ground, Ivan thinks to himself, ‘He will freeze.’ At this point, Ivan, the passionate theoretical opponent of any system built on unjustified suffering, is in fact, ready, even eager, to let a fellow human being die. At the end of the chapter, however, Ivan’s second meeting with the peasant serves as a concrete indicator of the change that, however tentatively, has inexorably begun to take place within him. He leaves Smerdyakov putting an end to the ‘wavering that had so tortured him of late.’ This time it is Ivan who lurches against the peasant, who is still lying unconscious on the snowy earth. Ivan raises him and saves his life.

Yet these preliminary indications of a spiritual conversion do not yet take firm root. Again Ivan falls victim to that dreaded wavering; again, fatally, he puts off going to the prosecutor. ‘Everything together tomorrow.’ His joy vanishes, he enters his room; his eyes fix on one point, and Ivan begins his nightmare encounter with the devil. But the drunken peasant, like all the vital symbols in the novel, exhibits both a positive and negative valence. He has simultaneously served to indicate not only the measure of Ivan’s spiritual regeneration but the tenacity of his moral despair.

Within the perimeters of this frame tale Ivan has his final and decisive interview with Smerdyakov, where again the heat of hell prevails. Both men have changed physically for the worse in the last month: both are ill, with sunken faces and jaundiced eyes. A month earlier a fully recovered Smerdyakov had been spouting Western views and reading a French phrase book. Now, he is reading The Sayings of the Holy Father Isaac the Syrian. (Terras and others have noted that many of Zosima’s teachings are based on this text. Thus its association here with Smerdyakov suggests many rich ambiguities.)

When the demonic Smerdyakov again uncannily repeats Alyosha’s words, ‘you did not murder him,’ they carry a completely different import, just as did his repetition of Alyosha’s words in the second interview. Alyosha was assuring Ivan of his innocence. Smerdyakov’s words connote his guilt. They imply that because Ivan did not carry out the actual deed, he is safe. The knife cuts both ways. The phrase ‘you did not murder him’ functions as both an assurance of innocence and an accusation of guilt, depending on the speaker.

Moments later Smerdyakov at last makes his overt accusation. ‘You are the real murderer, I was only your instrument.’ Smerdyakov thus neatly combines his roles of devil and lackey: he plants the idea of murder in Ivan’s mind, then he carries it out. Smerdyakov assumes, like the devil in the next chapter, the status of a phantom. Ironically, it is Smerdyakov, in his reply to Ivan who, as he did earlier, brings in God: ‘There’s no phantom here, but only us two and one other…That third is God himself, sir, Providence, sir.’

What is the significance of Smerdyakov’s affirmation of God’s presence? On the one hand it serves to enhance the morality play atmosphere of this chapter and the next, in which the forces of evil and good compete for the precious treasure of Ivan’s soul. The invocation of God’s presence also hints to us that Smerdyakov himself has changed, that even if he has not repented of his crime, he has fallen into irrevocable and loathsome despair. Smerdyakov’s words — ‘He is the third besides us now. Only don’t look for him, you won’t find him’ — chillingly recall those of Ivan when he had told the story of Mary’s wanderings through hell. He had described the sinners at the bottom of a burning lake: ‘Some of them sink to the bottom of the lake so that they can’t swim out, and ‘these God forgets’ — an expression of extraordinary depth and force.’ Smerdyakov finds himself similarly alone.

Yet even as we see Smerdyakov’s desperate isolation, Ivan continues to see him as a phantom-devil. When Smerdyakov fumbles in his stocking to pull out the 3,000 rubles, Ivan seems to fear a more unearthly disclosure — perhaps, as Terras suggests, a cloven hoof. He draws back his fingers from the money, “as though from contact with a loathsome reptile.’ Ivan, despite his encroaching illness, handles himself with surprising grace during this interview. He manages, in a sense, to do the right thing. His words suggest that a godly firmness of purpose has seized him, and that the tormenting wavering to which he has been subject has ceased. ‘God sees,…perhaps I, too, was guilty…I will give evidence against myself tomorrow, at the trial…But we’ll make our appearance together.’ Ivan seems to have come to terms with the terrible question of his own guilt.

Once he leaves Smerdyakov, however, despite his sensations of joy and resolution, despite his newfound compassion for the drunken peasant, the ‘centre cannot hold’; he puts off action until the morning, and his gladness and self-satisfaction ‘passed in one instant.’ Yet even at this dark moment, the narrator-chronicler slyly insinuates a ray of hope for Ivan: all his joy does not pass away, only ‘almost all.’ That little onion, that ‘almost,’ speaks volumes.

Although it quickly began to provoke outrage among some of his readers, Dostoevsky was extremely proud of chapter 9, ‘The devil; Ivan Fyodorovich’s nightmare.’ A month before his death Dostoevsky wrote to a doctor friend, ‘Because of that chapter in The Karamazovs (about the hallucination),…some have already tried to brand me a reactionary…a man who has written himself out of his mind.’ He then revealed that he intended to give a ‘critical analysis’ of the chapter in a future number of the Diary. Unfortunately, death intervened, and we are left with one riddle that Dostoevsky had in fact intended to answer for us.

We do now, however, that Dostoevsky had consulted with doctors, ‘several of them,’ about how to depict the nightmares and hallucinations to which someone with Ivan’s symptoms of illness would be subject. I have already quoted part of his letter to Lyubimov, written upon sending off the last five chapters of Book XI. In that letter Dostoevsky goes on to describe the immense pleasure he experienced in writing this controversial chapter: ‘But why am I telling you all this? You will judge for yourself when you read it…You must, however, forgive me my devil. It is only a minor devil and not Satan with his ‘singed wings’…Although I myself think that chapter 9 could have been omitted, for some reason or other I greatly enjoyedwriting it and I don’t at all wish to disavow it.’

These comments offer, to paraphrase Madame Khokhlakova, a gold mine of insights. Besides claiming, through his queries of doctors, an authenticity for Ivan’s symptoms, Dostoevsky also conveys in this letter an ambivalence identical to that of the chapter itself. Ivan cannot decide whether the apparition is real or not. Dostoevsky, likewise, does not take a firm position on the matter. Moreover, he urges Lyubimov — an important reader to say the last — to judge for himself. Finally, even as Dostoevsky reveals his great pleasure in writing this chapter, he admits that it could have been omitted. This is a curious, even baffling observation, for perhaps no chapter in the novel shows us so much about Ivan. As a chapter, it is comparable in its shock value and revelatory nature to Stavrogin’s confession in Demons (a chapter that was, in fact, omitted by the censor, and that Dostoevsky, when he later had an opportunity to do so, chose not to restore).

Ivan sits looking persistently at an object on the sofa. He sees a man, “a Russian gentleman of a particular kind,’ who has pathetic pretensions to fashion and gives off ‘every appearance of gentility on straitened means’ — ‘a toady.’ Dostoevsky indulges in comic allegory here, for this devil, though in reduced circumstances, is widely received and is ‘a gentleman who could be asked to sit down with anyone, though, of course, not in a place of honor.’

As the devil and Ivan resume their conversation ‘from last time,’ it becomes clear that Ivan is intent on convincing himself that the devil is a hallucination. It’s I, I myself speaking, not you.’ But he also admits his doubt. ‘Only I don’t know whether I was dreaming last time or whether I really saw you.’ The tension in Ivan reigns throughout the chapter. But the devil has a strategy of his own with which he seeks to manipulate Ivan.

Thus the reader must answer at least three difficult questions. Is the devil a hallucination or not? Is the devil’s strategy to reawaken faith in Ivan or to squelch it forever? Is the devil here as an agent of evil or is he somehow functioning as a way station on Ivan’s path to eventual regeneration? Each of these que4stions stands, of course, at the gateway to many others. And if Dostoevsky did not presume to answer them for Lyubimov and his other readers, I certainly shall not. Nevertheless, he does ask them. The greatest aesthetic and moral pleasure consists in answering such questions for themselves. Much has already been written on this chapter; I shall simply highlight for a first-time reader some of the moments that seem to express most fully the complexity of Ivan’s encounter with his devil.

Ivan proposes to convince himself that the devil is a hallucination by proving that he is ‘incapable of saying anything new.’ ‘You are myself, myself, only with a different mug. You just way what I am thinking.’ the devil replied by mocking that earthly Euclidean geometry of justice that Ivan had claimed to prefer to the non-Euclidean one. “You see, like you, I suffer from the fantastic and so I love the realism of earth. Here, with you…all is formulated and geometrical, while we have nothing but our indeterminate equations!’ By seeming to be on his side, the devil mocks the profound meaning of Ivan’s earlier, agonized rebellion against God’s universe. But even as he ridicules and rehashes Ivan’s old idea, the devil startles him with something new, thus forcing Ivan to believe, albeit momentarily, in the devil’s own existence. He parodies and rephrases an aphorism from Terence that Ivan had never thought of before. As soon as the devil gains this seeming victory, he leads Ivan in the opposite direction, assuring him that even though he is capable of ‘original’ ideas, ‘I am only your nightmare, nothing more.’

The wavering that has been a hallmark of Ivan’s condition throughout reaches its apotheosis here. ‘You are lying, your aim is to convince me you exist apart and not in my nightmare, and now you are asserting you are a dream.’ Not unexpectedly, we learn that the devil has adopted a ‘special method’ for dealing with Ivan. Just as Ivan had earlier refused to accept the imposition of a non-Euclidean geometry of justice as an answer to earthly suffering, so too does the devil refuse to use non-Euclidean geometry. He describes his travels through space and time in a woefully inadequate and humorous Euclidean terms. Moreover, since he was not dressed properly for such a flight, he has caught a cold.

The devil comically sounds in another key Dostoevsky’s own ideas about the importance of man’s freedom to choose between good and evil. ‘I was predestined ‘to deny’ and yet I am genuinely good-hearted…Well, they’ve chosen their scapegoat, they’ve made me write the column of criticism and so life was made possible.’ The devil in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor offers men miracle, mystery, and authority — all in earthly form. Ivan’s devil, though comic, is far more insidious; he claims that he himself is the reason life is possible at all. ‘We understand that comedy…No, live, I am told, for there’d be nothing without you. There would be no events and there must be events.’

But in the midst of the devil’s seeming embrace of the virtues of realism and predictable Euclidean geometry, he slyly reinjects, through his plagiarism of a parable invented by Ivan himself, an affirmation of the non-Euclidean, even the authentically miraculous. He tells ‘the legend about Paradise’: the story of the doubting philosopher who, after his death, was sentenced to walk ‘a quadrillion kilometers in the dark,’ at which point ‘the gates of heaven’ would open and he would be forgiven. The philosopher refuses to go and lies down across the road for ‘almost’ a thousand years. ‘And then he got up and went on.’ Ivan, operating within the framework of Euclidean geometry, laughingly protests that his lying or walking makes no difference, for the walk itself would take a billion years. The devil replies, ‘Much more than that…But he got there long ago and that’s where the story begins.’

Ironically, this parable works to reawaken Ivan’s faith, yet he also remembers that the story was his own and could not have been invented by the devil. The devil’s plagiarism thus supports Ivan’s notion of him as a hallucination. The irony thus intensifies, for we see Ivan caught in the mysterious act of unconsciously plagiarizing himself; he draws upon something within himself that had remained hidden but had surfaced, as Zosima would say, at the needed time. The devil’s role in this process is obscure, but whether he is real or hallucinatory, he seems to be working to reawaken Ivan’s faith.

Ivan cries out that he has not the hundredth part of a grain of faith in him. At this point the devil suddenly reveals his ‘special method’: he is a practitioner of homeopathy, the medical science of effecting cures through applying like to like. He duplicates Ivan’s doubts and administers a subtle cure for them. ‘But you have the thousandth of a grain. Homeopathic doses perhaps are the strongest. Confess that you have faith even to the ten-thousandth of a grain.’ Then, rapidly contradicting himself, as he had a few moments earlier with the quotation from Terence, the devil suddenly asserts that he told the anecdote about the philosopher in order to ‘destroy your faith.’ Again, Ivan accuses him of lying.

In reply, the devil at last reveals his own system of geometry, his own arithmetic; not surprisingly, it too partakes of the seed imagery that so pervades this novel. ‘I shall sow in you only a tiny grain of faith and it will grow into an oak tree — and such an oak tree that sitting on it, you will long to enter the ranks of the ‘hermit monks.’ The devil reveals the value placed on causing even one such saint to fall: ‘One such soul, you know, is sometimes worth a whole constellation. We have our arithmetic, you know.’ Dostoevsky has thus, through his devil, effected a heady mixing of metaphors — the already familiar metaphors about plagiarism, mathematical certainty, and seeds all fuse together in the devil’s words. Dostoevsky has let the devil bring to bear his own most precious bag of tricks, all in the effort to drag Ivan toward a renewal of faith.

As Ivan’s descent into brain fever becomes more inexorable, he finds himself locked in yet another struggle to define the nature of evil. At least in his ‘rebellion’ and The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor the physiognomy of evil was recognizable. Now Ivan finds himself encountering a devil who, though evil, claims to be ultimately on the side of good. ‘Mephistopheles declared to Faust that he desired evil, but did only good. Well, he can say what he likes, it’s quite the opposite with me.’ Like the Grand Inquisitor, the devil even cries out that he has a dream of reconciliation with God. ‘I, too, shall walk my quadrillion.’ the devil rambles on, punctuating his desire for reunification with God with his opposing desire to bring about the appearance of the man-god, a figure who, throughout Dostoevsky’s canon, has always represented the antithesis of God.

The devil’s words become more diffuse and hysterical; Ivan begins to tremble all over, and, replicating Luther with his inkstand, he thinks to throw a glass at the devil. The interview suddenly ends with the sound of knocking at the window. As Ivan manages at least to leap up to open his door, he notices that the glass remains on the table and the room is empty. The mood of the fantastic prevails, for a moment, with perfect balance. Ivan, Alyosha, and we, the readers, will all have to exit from it eventually and opt for the prevalence of the real or the marvelous. But in the moments before that necessary exit, the rare and authentic presence of the fantastic hovers in the room and perhaps even in our minds.”


From Colin Wilson’s The Outsider

“We now come to Ivan’s ‘vision,’ one of the most important sections in the book.

For some reason, critics who have acclaimed the Grand Inquisitor section as ‘the concentrated essence of Dostoevsky’ have paid no attention to Ivan’s scene with the Devil, although it is obviously intended to supplement the earlier chapter. Actually, as I hope to show, Ivan’s ‘vision’ is the climax of the book. It is not only a summery of the Outsider’s dialectic, there are seeds of the development of a whole field of modern literature. [MY NOTE: Not unlike Zosima’s ‘seeds?’]

Ivan is sick. The narrator tells us he is on the eve of a brainstorm. This is the point to which unending thinking has brought him. After a last interview with Smerdyakov (his ‘ape’ — a reminder of his baser part), in which he wrings a confession of the murder from his half-brother, he goes back to his empty room. And now occurs the scene towards which the Outsider’s destiny has already tended. The room is no longer empty. There is Another.

The Devil is a seedy would-be gentleman, wearing a reefer jacket and check trousers. Dostoevsky’s portrait of him is as circumstantial as a description by Balzac of some small tradesman. This is a very human devil. Ivan had told Alyosha in the Pro and Contra section:

‘I think if the Devil doesn’t exist, and man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.’

Here he is: all too human; something of a buffoon, like Ivan’s dead father; something of the ape, like Smerdyakov. Is he real? And here is Dostoevsky’s point: He is as real as anything in the world of unrealities. Ivan believes he is unreal and tells him so: the Devil laughs and admits it. All is unreal. Being? What is it? Perception. What you see exists for you. If I am a delusion of your mind, you are also a delusion of mine, the Devil tells him. Each man exists in a solipsist universe in which he treats his delusions as reality. Exploding logic; reason, tired of proceeding forward, tries to erupt out of the page. You, the reader holding this book — one level of reality; Ivan, another — less real; the Devil another — less real still; but all is relative. Are you reading for amusement? No? You have some serious interest in reading? You don’t mind reading of Ivan’s confusion between real and unreal, but when you put down this book, what then? You must take up your own life. Real or unreal? The intellect pretends to be sincere, pretends to question everything, but the arm-chair you are sitting in, the chest of drawers, the fire, you don’t question their existence, nor the work you must do tomorrow and the day after. The intellect can go off on quixotic voyages, but you, the being, the personality, have to go forward along your destiny, what Minkowski would call your ‘geodesic.’

This uncoils from Ivan’s interview with the Devil; it is always latent in it. It will always be there until human beings have attained ultimate reality and can read The Brothers Karamazov from an ultimately real arm-char which is just what it appears to be, facing their lives with an ultimate knowledge of who they are, what life is, what death is, where they come from and where they are going. Then then can know that Ivan’s Devil was unreal, but then, The Brothers Karamazov is only a book, and Dostoevsky was only a man, and for unreality there is not much to choose between them. Behind Ivan there is a universe of chaos, cinders. Ivan accuses the Devil of re-hashing the ideas from his student ideas; but what does that matter? It may be one more evidence of the Devil’s unreality, but does it prove the ideas unreal? Are the ideas realler than Ivan? Plato would say yes; Kierkegaard and the modern Existentialists, no. This too lies latent in the situation between Ivan and the Devil.

And these ‘ideas’ of Ivan’s, as soon as we touch them it sets the whole merry-go-round off again. As a student, Ivan had argued that good and evil have no relation to the soul. They are only two poles in life, two lumberjacks at either end of a double-handed saw. Or compare evil to the clapper of a bell; remove it and the bell is silent, unmanifest. Good and evil, what are they? the devil asks. When man is uncivilized, his good and evil are completely arbitrary; his gods are immoral and his devils are only graveyard bogies. As he learns to use his reason, he sorts out good from evil. But where does it end? Only in the Outsider’s ‘Truth, what do they mean by it?’ He does not reason himself towards God, or towards becoming a god himself, but only into the position of Burridan’s ass, starving between two equal loads of hay. The notions of good and evil evaporate. He finds himself — in his room, staring at the wall; and if Another exists, then he is like this one, a shabby vulgarian in check trousers. This is the end of the great God Reason, when it goes far enough; eternity, a dusty room with cobwebs, the Devil, a human being, and Heaven, perhaps, as in Rupert Brooke’s sonnet, where:

‘An idle wind blew round an empty throne
And stirred the heavy curtains on the walls…’

And belief? It is not that Ivan does not want to believe. Spiritual starvation has made him sick and afraid of his own existence.

‘Will the veiled sister pray
For the children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray?’

If he can recover from this ‘terrifying insight’ and find belief, he may become more passionately religious than Alyosha; he will believe with the unwavering certainty of one who has been lost for a long time and is determined never to be lost again.

But we are not to know what happened, because Dostoevsky never finished the story. There are hints in the Devil chapter. There is the story of the free-thinker, who believed there was no life after death, and when he died, was indignant to find he was wrong. As a punishment for his unbelief he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion miles. He lay down and refused to move, and a thousand years went by before he grew tired of lying down, and set out to walk the quadrillion miles. And when he had finished (and here Ivan interrupts to ask where he got the billion years to do it in? The devil explains that our earth has lived and died a thousand times — Zarathustra’s Eternal Recurrence) — when he had finished, and was admitted into heaven at least, he cried immediately that two seconds in heaven were worth walking for a million times as long…

Here, Ivan interrupts with a shout, ‘You are repeating a story I made up when I was a student.’ The Devil has proved again that he is a figment of Ivan’s imagination. So!

But consider the story itself. Its content is the same as Nietzsche’s vision on the hilltop: reconcilation, a Vision of pure Being that makes up for all the apparent terrors and miseries of living. The unbeliever walks for a quadrillion miles, yet one moment of reality makes up for it. It is like Steppanwolf’s idea that he might one day look back on himself from his ultimate goal ‘to which the difficult path seems to be taking him,’ and smile with a ‘mixture of joy and pity,’ or even to realize, like Meursault that ‘he had been happy and was happy still.’ It is an idea, this, that turns up repeatedly in world religions; that life is such a tissue of delusions that man can ever have the remotest idea of who he is or what he is doing, but that the dream can break suddenly, and the resulting glimpse is sudden complete understanding. The Bhagavad Gita expresses it:

‘Even if you are the most sinful of sinners, this insight will carry you like a raft above all your sins.’

Chuang Tzu says:

“Whilst they dream, they do not know that they are dreaming. Some will even interpret the dream they are dreaming (i.e., Hegel and the systematizing philosophers) and only when they wake do they know it was a dream. By and by comes the great awakening, and then we find out that this life is really a great dream…”

“Ivan is…a man who is not contented with ordinary speeds. He feels great spiritual power in himself. Like Raskolnikov, he does not feel that he has been born to be a nonentity. Dostoevsky tells us that ‘he began very early — almost in his infancy — to show a brilliant and unusual aptitude for learning.’ Naturally, he feels that his way must be the way of intellect. And what is the business of intellect? It is to synthesize unendingly. The Outsider naturally sees most men as failures; in fact, he may find that every man who has ever lived had been a failure. So the Ivan-type applies his intellectual powers to the question: How must I live my life so as not to have to consider myself a failure? And with a standard so high, the problem must gnaw at him day and night, make leisure impossible, shatter his nerves with an unending sense of tension, urgency, like the laceration of a spur being driven into the mind. He gropes for standards. He realizes intuitively ‘If I can say: That man was a failure, then I must have an idea of what success means.’

And the trouble has begun. If he had time to sit in a quiet spot, under pleasant circumstances, he might get to grips with it. But our life as human beings in a modern society seldom allows us those circumstances. it is a repetition of Van Gogh’s problem, the day by day struggle for intensity that disappears overnight, all interrupted by human trivialities and endless pettinesses. When Dostoevsky made Ivan on the eve of a brainstorm see the Devil, he was only symbolizing what can happen to such an Outsider. Ivan is aiming at complete synthesis, to see the world as a whole. Blake calls it ‘fourfold vision’ in one of his poems:

‘Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
It is fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And two fold always. May God us keep
From single vision and Newton’s sleep.’

Ivan’s Devil is an embodiment of the last line, ‘single vision and Newton’s sleep.’ he is a sort of version of Roquentin’s Nausea, William James’s ‘stubborn unreduceable fact,’ brute reality that negates spirit or, worse than that, embodies delusion. It is this Devil who drove Van Gogh insane, who stayed at T.H. Lawrence’s elbow whispering self-distrust; no nightmare monster of evil with three faces…but a breaker of wings, poisoner of the Will to live.”

Questions for the group: Is the devil a hallucination or not? Is his goal to reawaken faith in Ivan or to squelch it forever? Is he an agent of evil or “is he somehow functioning as a way station on Ivan’s path to eventual spiritual regeneration?” If the devil’s dream is to “become incarnate, but so that it’s final, irrevocable, in some fat, two-hundred-and-fifty pound merchant’s wife and to believe everything she believes. My ideal is go to into a church and light a candle with a pure heart — by God, it’s true,” is that Ivan’s dream as well? Is it his way to stop existing as an Outsider and to fall into an easier life?

And since the post grew to be so very long, tomorrow’s reading will be short and sweet:

Monday’s Reading:

Book XI, Chapter 10



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One Response to “‘In our day,’ I said, ‘what’s retrograde is believing in God; but I am the devil, it’s all right to believe in me.”

  1. Minnikin says:

    Since this section reveals Ivan’s effective collapse into madness, the ‘devil’ must surely be treated as a hallucination: the ‘inner demon’ – a dialogue within himself, the idea of a ‘religious faith’ providing a spanner in the works of a logical mind that demands a rational explanation for everything that happens in the universe….this religious alternative allows doubt to creep into the doubter’s mind.

    Ivan, the rational sceptic (for which doubt plays an essential part) seems [ to me] more human, more real, more true, than the rather trite alternative of an easier life of going ‘into a church and light a candle with a pure heart’ .. and yet, it is the torment and suffering endured by Ivan because of his religious fear/hallucination and/or the murder of his father, which in the end, drives him into madness (where he will remain the ultimate outsider).

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