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Dostoevsky on the Demonic Decimation of a Shareable World

One way of thinking of the modern demonic is that it is marked by an otherness viewed not as a threatening outside, but a shocking inside contributing to the doubling of a self that cannot find ballast and thereby becomes capable of intentional forms of evil far beyond the circumscription of the human flesh and psyche.

Given this definition, my proposal is that the literary figure who is most penetrating and expansive on the topic is Fyodor Dostoevsky. There are other writers with plausible claims to this mantle, perhaps one of the French trio of André Gide, Georges Bataille, and Jean Genet, maybe even William Golding who unerringly exposes our collective illusions regarding sympathy and fraternity throughout his oeuvre and not simply in Lord of the Flies. Needless to say, under scrutiny the bona fides of Golding as the connoisseur of the modern demonic do not hold up. As a writer Golding is more focused on the return of the repressed than on the endlessly spiraling reflection that is the ground of acts of evil for evil sake that is the essential mark of the modern demonic. Although the claim of each of these French authors is more serious, can any of these French authors really mount a serious challenge to Dostoevsky’s fundamental priority when it comes to the depth of intuition into how a new form of demon or monster is produced in and by modernity, match his level of insight into the thought patterns of those who have gone outside what have been regarded as the operative constraints on human evil, rival his deployment of Christian resources in his figuration of the modern demonic, and rise to the level of horror he has for an occurrence which for him is an event that is nothing short of a catastrophe?

Undoubtedly, part of the reason why none of these authors rise to the level of the Russian novelist is the sway of the rhetoric of transgression put in play by Baudelaire and Rimbaud who are caught up in shocking the middle class (épater la bourgeoisie). To the extent to which each of our 20th century French authors belongs to this French tradition of naughtiness at the nth power, there is at the very least the appearance of a fundamental lack of seriousness. Of course, all three are beholden to the writing of the Marquis de Sade whom they elevate to the status of great writer and thinker, while, on the one hand, showing far greater restraint in terms of the graphic nature of the atrocity (Bataille less than the other two) that expresses the sovereignty of exceptional selves who posture that they owe nothing to human nature and its vulnerabilities and affections and, on the other, far less obsession in demarcating the grammar and vocabulary of violation that marks a change in the order of a subject’s fundamental perception of and orientation towards reality. Another and related part of the reason is that it is hard to find in any of the three a reckoning regarding an antinomian form of behavior that follows from this mentality. In this sense, one could consider the novels of Camus, for example, The Stranger and The Fall, as a French rebuff to the to the shallowness of the French recommenders of such a mentality, even if Camus agrees with them that modern culture has moved beyond the biblical God who has been a net force of dehumanization in a complex, confusing, and suffering world. No more than Dostoevsky does Camus, the internal émigré in French letters, relent on the reality of goodness. He does, however, deflate expectations, and unlike the Christian Dostoevsky is skeptical that reality allows a hyperbolic goodness to match hyperbolic evil. However much he differs tonally from Voltaire, in the last instance Camus very much inhabits the “till your garden” kind of outlook on human life that Voltaire made popular in Candide. The good, if it exists at all, is just about always local. For sure it is always partial.

Naming Demons and Monsters

Although naming the new form of demon and monster, who turns out to be us, is not the only major contribution made by Dostoevsky to our self-understanding—one would also have to mention his studied attempt to represent the saint—undoubtedly, it represents one of them and, moreover, is the one which has had the most literary and psychological appeal. I have given some indication above of its literary appeal, but, arguably, the psychological appeal is wider. It is Dostoevsky who in a real sense first exposes the cracks and clefts in hyper-reflective personalities for whom there is no inalienable otherness worthy of their regard and with respect to whom the mandate not to inflict harm does not apply. That in B movies and on TV such characters routinely show up serves to flatter Dostoevsky’s genius rather than qualify his achievement. The vocabulary and grammar of the new kind of demon or new kind of monster is first laid out in Notes from the Underground in which the hyperconscious protagonist, who lives in a cellar, renders the chaos of a psyche frenetically looking for anything to latch on to that might provide a measure of identity and a modicum of self-worth. It is no accident that the protagonist is without a name. Living only in the razor’s edge of the present and in a place that is no place because it is outside the bounds of family, the underground man finds himself without a usable past and without a patrimony that would help to provide some parameters with regard to the identity so vehemently (we feel inclined to say “so crazily”) sought. Wide and spiraling orbits of reflection on reflection do not allow for relations with others, who are taken to be either hostile or obstacles to the expression of the protagonist’s will to domination. Outside time, patrimony and recognition, but also outside a relation to the God who in Christianity is the giver of one’s name, the underground man is frustrated in his pursuit of a name deemed to be elixir and panacea.

The crux is that this triply alienated man cannot receive the gift of the name. He does more than insist that the name has to be supplied by himself. He is a fury of self-creation outside the economies of family, friends, and God and the mercy of time that supply the contexts for the naming that is the blessing. In his addled attempts to name himself, he can only present extreme options, for example, great man or louse, God or dog and do so in such wild oscillation that the reader begins to participate in the dizziness of the protagonist and experiences not a little of the decimation of a shareable world in which love and joy mix with hate and pain. The underground man is—to use Elias Canetti’s phrase—a head without a world, a constant vortex of looping cognition bereft of a natural outlet in action. The oscillation between extreme possibilities, which are the only possibles outside of the nexus in which one receives oneself as a gift, proves to be an unbearable burden. The oscillation has to come to a halt. Yet it can only be halted by an act of self-determination in which the subject hysterically insists that he is not an insect, while also pleading his case that he is not mediocre. The latter turns out to be the constitutive fear. He has suffered too much for him to accept being assigned to the middle, for example, to be an apparatchik in the Russian bureaucracy which he both unconsciously aspires to and as a conscious matter of principle despises. Such a mind becomes “philosophical,” which for Dostoevsky means irrational in a destructive rather than constructive way (Christianity is an example of the latter) and dangerously assertive: the will to destroy the world and pull down everyone by sneer, caricature, and exposé is matched only by the desire to have the peace beyond the inflamed nothing that one feels oneself to be. In Notes from the Underground Dostoevsky informs us that at some point the sneering will not be enough and that out of the psychic vortex destructive schemes will be hatched and innocent bystanders harmed. This early text of Dostoevsky contains a very simple advisory regarding this kind of character: Achtung!

Notes from the Underground is a novel that consistently refuses to be a novel. This despite its second part which tells the story of the attempts of the underground man to form a relationship with another outsider, the prostitute/Madonna Liza who plies her trade in order to support her destitute family. The interior monologue of the first part of the book, in which we are allowed a look at the processing of a mind that is all loop and circle, simply overwhelms the second part of the book and encourages us to think that the story is little more than a narrative coda to the sketching of a monster who refuses to feel and resolutely denies the claims of any human being on him. If the narrative supplement entertains the possibility of the mutual recognition of outsiders whom the system essentially extrudes, thereby indicating transformation as a possibility, it cannot be said that Dostoevsky depicts the prospect with anything like conviction. Limits are set by the level of alienation and the corresponding level of will to power exhibited by the underground man. This ensures that if the underground man relates to anyone who belongs to and in the human world, while a positive outcome is logically possible, a negative outcome is to be expected. Beyond a certain point the only available vocabulary of the alienated man lies in an exposure of the fragile psyche of another and making deeper another’s self-loathing. For the one who is psychically rent the only community is the community of the damned, thus a non-community in which monsters feed on human beings who are not yet monsters. The underground man has the ability to maim another with a set of insights that are half-truths, which from the point of view of a compassionate Christian understanding of the self that values freedom more than necessity and the future more than the past are nothing but demonically crippling lies.

Crime and Punishment is a novel in which the ever-circling, ever-contradicting mind lurches into action only to wreak havoc on a human and social world made up of outsiders as well as insiders, and complexly marked by veniality, desire for social and economic success, but also honesty and empathy as well, of course, the Christian virtues of faith, humility, and the capacity to love. The novel’s protagonist Raskolnikov sets himself the test of proving that he has gone beyond all forms of morality by killing two pawnbrokers for precisely no reason, even if once the deed is done Raskolnikov provides any number of reasons to justify it including the general disagreeableness of the two sisters and their exploitation of the poor. The fact that the killing is entirely arbitrary makes this crime different from that of the common garden-variety murderer who kills for some reason, however slender and unpersuasive that reason might be. Dostoevsky is fully aware that the etymological root of the name of the protagonist is “raskol” means “divided.” Similar to the unnamed protagonist in Notes from the Underground, who lives in a cellar, Raskolnikov “lives” in an attic, which like a cellar is outside the space of familiar as well as familial communication. And though Raskolnikov has a name, he has no patrimony. Yet in his case his name is less the name of a person than a symptom of the pathology of the continual internal struggle between self-magnification and self-loathing.

Now, it would be easy to parse the internal contradiction both experienced and exhibited by Ralskolnikov in terms of Nietzsche who felt such as an affinity for Dostoevsky. Specifically, it would be easy to think of Raskolnikov as someone with the ambition to be a “superman” (Übermensch) required to go beyond good and evil, although sometimes held back by moral scruples.

As seductively intelligent as this Nietzsche reading appears to be, in the first of his major novels Dostoevsky gives us good reasons to refuse it. First, there is nothing aesthetic about Raskolnikov. He is completely broken and cleft. He no more resonates with the Übermensch than he does with Aristotle’s magnanimous man, whom Nietzsche routinely lifts up as an analogue. The register in Dostoevsky regarding the newly shaped human being is psycho-pathological, the register in Nietzsche fundamentally aesthetic. The superman is beyond good and evil only to the extent that he is a work of art; the underground man is about a failure to realize humanity. Nietzsche, who called Dostoevsky a great psychologist, is less a psychologist than a moralist arguing for and illustrating a new being that would improve on the Christian and the bourgeois who are the objects of his scorn. Nietzsche never gets inside individual minds, but is satisfied in genealogical construction, specifically tracing back Christian and liberal ideas to frustrated desire. And Nietzsche’s superman is a model of integration from whom arises spontaneous judgment rather than a thinking, and thinking upon thinking, that cannot be short-circuited. Second, unlike Nietzsche, the horizon of Dostoevsky’s psychological analysis is Christianity. Dostoevsky’s psychological analyses are nourished and constrained by his understanding sinners and good people and especially by his understanding of the limits to both, the sinner moving towards the condition of the demon, the good person moving towards the condition of the saint. There are no demons and saints in Nietzsche; in Dostoevsky’s novels demons (or demonically shaped humans) and saints are everywhere. Dostoevsky’s treatment of demons and saints not only are two of the main themes in his work, their polarity could be thought to provide the limits to the Russian writer’s dramatic sense of human existence and freedom whose low and high far exceed what secular writers think them to be.

Within the Christian frame Dostoevsky’s instinct is not to give up on someone who might be too early or too late to be fully human. Thus, even with regard to these misshapen individuals who are hardly more than their pathological symptoms Dostoevsky allows in principle that transformation is possible. And in a reprise of the unsatisfactory underground man-prostitute relation, in Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky entertains the prospect that Raskolnikov can be made human in and through his relation with Sonya who like Mary Magdalene is a prostitute and who judges no one while being judged by all. Dostoevsky’s level of success with regard to depicting a real conversion in Raskolnikov has been questioned since the time of the publication of this text. And it has been questioned for good reason. Success with respect to depicting someone whose fractured psyche brings him beyond the human tends to undercut the believability of such a character undergoing a radical conversion such that genuine guilt and remorse becomes actual and real relations with others opens up. This is by no means to suggest that Dostoevsky is not being sincere in his depiction of Raskolnikov’s transformation near the end of the novel. It is simply the recognition by the book’s readers that it is vastly more difficult to transform monsters and demons than to transform humans.

Murder is the supreme test of whether the fractured self has truly gone beyond good evil. The more pointless the better. Were murder to have a point, this would simply downgrade it to being part of the broad human vocabulary of good and evil, a breadth that Dostoevsky would have recognized, for example, in the dramas of Shakespeare. Almost as good a test as murder for determining and recognizing one’s status as beyond the human is suicide, from which instinctually human beings are repelled. In The Brothers Karamazov the bastard Karamazov, Smerdyakov, commits suicide as a proof of his ability to hold human existence in contempt. In his own mind his “No!” to existence does not arise from the contingencies of unhappiness or guilt, but rather from the principle of negation that ironically suggests that he has in fact a single belief, which turns out also to be a singular belief: this is precisely the belief in nothing. My almost namesake, Kirillov, in Demons (also translated as The Possessed) provides another example of suicide intended to solve the riddle of existence by a gesture believed to demonstrate that one is sovereign over it. The fragile Kirillov returns the gift of existence. Yet, as is the case with Smerdyakov, compromising features attend Kirillov’s grand finale. One such feature is that Kirillov seems to be no more than an echo of the ideology of stronger monsters. As in Paradise Lost a demonic hierarchy seems to ape the angelic hierarchy, and like the nephew in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters Kirillov is a very low order demon whose original humanity has not been completely burnt off. Another feature that undermines the status of Kirillov as a first rate monster is the fiasco of his initial abortive attempt at suicide. The transhuman integrity of the final and successful act is compromised by the inability to rule out shame as a motivation and thus a ground. Humans exhibit shame; monsters do not. Thus, Kirillov’s liminal character: he is best thought of as being a disposable transition between human and monster. Of course, Demons is the text of a multiplicity of monsters: not only Kirillov, but Stavrogin, Shigalyov, and a number of others. In a certain sense the monsters and demons are legion. Here the ambiguity in the English translation of Dostoevsky’s text comes in. Is the Russian term bésy best translated as “demons,” which suggests fully formed devils even if synthetic in kind, or rather does it suggest humans who are demonically possessed, plausibly by degenerate ideology of contempt of the given and a glorification of self-making? The answer is far from clear: in Demons Kirvillov would suggest the latter, while Stavrogin would suggest the former. If demonically possessed, then following the New Testament there can be an exorcism. Needless to say, for Dostoevsky Christ provides the template for the exorcism that separates out the demonic from the sensate and psychic being. The invasive demonic is one of the two aspects of the divided individual, the other being the host humanity now made inoperative. It would seem that the love of Christ only has power of transformation over the possessed, if not in principle then in fact. In principle, the love that is Christ also has power over the human who is synthetically constituted as a demon. One has room for hope of conversion. Yet the realist in Dostoevsky thinks that the odds are against it.

Figuration of the Demonic

So far we have explored Dostoevsky’s elaboration of the demonic as the hyperconscious human too internally divided to remain human. As yet, we have not touched on the Christian figural resources that Dostoevsky deployed throughout his work to serve both the purpose of naming and resistance. Since there is not in Demons the kind of biblical counterpoint of the good that there is to a narrow extent in Crime and Punishment and to a much larger extent in The Brothers Karamazov, Demons is not particularly useful in terms of figuration of the newly emerged demonic that is expressed in the cold crimes of murder, suicide, and insurrection. Dostoevsky on psychological grounds, which overlap significantly with the gift of perception regarding good and evil he feels proper to the saint, judges insurrection to be illegitimate, despite (ultimately because of) the fact that he once associated with revolutionary groups that resulted with him been sent to prison in Siberia. It was during his four year stint in the Gulag (1860-1864), where he also faced the firing squad, that Dostoevsky continually found the Russian translation of the New Testament to provide consolation for what had befallen him and inspiration regarding the kind of self that is truly human and the kind of society that remains genuinely communal. Subsequently Dostoevsky identified Christ as the way and the truth, and hardly shying away from hyperbole in his Notebooks went so far as to say that if truth and Christ came to be seen as clashing, then we should chose Christ. Dostoevsky acknowledged with Tolstoy that Christ was a great teacher, but did so without ever conceding to his literary rival that he was only a teacher. For Dostoevsky, Christ was besides the real force of redemption in human life whereby human beings are empowered to participate in the heaven promised us. In addition, it was precisely those aspects of the New Testament that Tolstoy found easy to cast aside, the appearance of angels, demonic possession, and the apocalyptic battle between Christ, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, and the anti-Christ as the master of simulacra, that captured Dostoevsky’s imagination and made their way into his novels.

Dostoevsky was not the only Russian thinker who found himself gripped by the book of Revelation. So also was Vladimir Solovyov, whose “Tale of the Anti-Christ” seems to be embedded in Dostoevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” in book 5 of The Brothers Karamazov. The multivalent symbolic structural opposition between God and what is not-God, which seemed to unmask the logic of totalitarianism as a kind of political apocalypse, had the capacity to be read forward as well as backward. Thus, at least ex post facto the “Legend” could be considered to be a prophecy of the 1917 Revolution. The reiteration of the anti-Christ theme in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which had the 1917 revolution in view, served to put an exclamation point on the diagnostic and predictive capacity of this elemental apocalyptic contrast. In The Brother’s Karamazov, however, the book of Revelation is not the only biblical subtext. Present also are the great temptation scenes recorded in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 in which Christ refuses Satan’s offer of worldly rather than spiritual power.

Just as important to our demonic theme, however, are the two scenes in The Brothers Karamazov that centrally concern Ivan. The first and most explicit recall of the appearance of the demonic spirit of temptation is the great scene in book 9 in which a hallucinating Ivan does not know whether the one with whom he is conversing is a real “spiritual” entity (albeit of a colossally negative kind) genuinely independent of him or whether the figure is simply the emergence into light of the dark side of his fractured self. Here the basic figure is Mephistopheles, the tempter of Faust, who gets updated as a threadbare Russian gentleman and comically set up as a sponge. With respect to this particular devil, who may or may not be Ivan, Dostoevsky uses comedy to make the incredibly serious point that bonhomie, good manners, knowingness, and cynicism are diabolic instruments that serve the great lie of political and social power. Mephistopheles, of course, is a lower order version of Satan, the arch-tempter.

Although Mephistopheles provides the basic template for the demon who appears to Ivan, arguably, he is overlaid by another even lower order of demon, that is, Belial, the demon of high-flown rhetoric and unctuous flattery. In any event, the demon who presents himself is comfortable, self-conscious, and assured that creation is nothing. Even if this is not quite the case, this sneering demon is convinced that one who is supposed to be beyond good and evil is more or less obliged to negate the world, which Dostoevsky makes plain, in the characters of Zosima and Alyosha, is both the gift of creation and the platform of the redemption and sanctification of the human and natural worlds. Nihilation or annihilation is the demonic creed, regarding which Dostoevsky keeps the reader in perpetual suspension as to whether Ivan has signed on. The effect of the appearance of the Mephistopheles figure to Ivan in Book 9 is devastating in its consequences: it punctures Ivan’s self-interpretation who, if he is between the old pieties and new certainties, is certainly a person of moral passion, honesty, and integrity. In a sense, it is the first two qualities that are fundamentally questioned, since Ivan’s falling apart can be regarded as bringing to light the lack of unity of self that up to the point of his hallucinating was merely disguised. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this nihilistic creed in Dostoevsky’s work as a whole. It is a feature of many of the major characters in Demons and perhaps epitomized above all by the figure of Stavrogin, who among his litany of crimes is his manipulating Kirillov into taking his own life. Nor should one underestimate its value as a theme in subsequent Russian literature in which in the form of poshlost, which carries the meaning of fatuousness and emptiness, is made thematic by Chekov in The Inspector General and is a leitmotif throughout the novels of Nabokov who also happens to provide a learned exegesis of this really untranslatable Russian term.

The other major recall of a demonic figure in Dostoevsky’s work is more implicit than explicit. It occurs in the Rebellion chapter in book 5 of The Brothers Karamazov. Prior to Dostoevsky, notwithstanding Milton’s Lucifer and Satan, it is Prometheus, the culture hero, who is the main critic of God’s permission of injustice in the world. In his epoch-making poem, Prometheus (1776), Goethe established this Greek mythological character as the default hero who on behalf of a suffering humanity protests against the tyrannical and/or indifferent biblical God. Marx’s invocation of Prometheus’s declaration “I hate all gods” can plausibly be traced back to this tradition-setting poem. Of course, in English Romanticism it is Shelley who provides the richest and most contemporary rendering of this figure. No less than in Goethe, in Shelley Prometheus is a figure of the artist of genius. Both Goethe and Shelley want to enjoy the moral high ground vis-à-vis what they both take to be a Christianity that is senescent at best and vilely anti-human at worst. The hold of traditional Christianity is sufficiently weak in both cases for them to deny demonic status to this figure. If there is a demon, then, for Goethe and Shelley we would do better to take a close look at the biblical God. Rather, Prometheus, as the ultra-sensitive culture hero, is daimonic, that is, a semi-divine being who mediates the divine to the human and the human to the divine. This figure is profoundly ethical, while not given to accepting divine commands. This figure is also profoundly insightful regarding human nature and human desire and extravagantly gifted with language.

Such is the evolution of Ivan’s character in The Brothers Karamazov that it gives the distinct impression that Ivan begins the novel as Prometheus and ends as Mephistopheles albeit with a blush of Belial. In the chapter Rebellion the rent and tormented Ivan indulges in grandstanding on behalf of suffering innocents and in a defiant gesture gives the biblical God “back his ticket.” The world is the world of chance and injustice and, intolerably, the Christian God does not come to the rescue of the innocent nor engage in the transformation of the social world under the banner of justice. At this point Ivan is very much the one who occupies the same moral high ground as Prometheus does. Moreover, it seems as if Ivan is an original. The indictment of God is so grand, the language so grandiloquent that one might not notice that Ivan, educated in Europe, borrows significantly from Voltaire, whom Dostoevsky demonstrates later in a fabulous deconstruction as he comes trippingly on the tongue of the adolescent Koyla. As the narrative of the murder of Fyodor Karamazov develops, and specifically when the question of whodunit gives way to Ivan questioning his own complicity in parricide, a palpably disintegrating Ivan takes on a more devilish hue, but one redolent of a much lower order demon than the one who he is the father of lies.

At the very least, then, over the course of five books, that is, Book 5 to Book 9, Ivan is exposed not as the speaker of the hard truths, but an agent of the lie once buried within him and now disclosed. This itself could be regarded as the process of apocalyptic unveiling in which is shown that the would-be daimon was all along either a demon who did not know it or one deranged by demonic possession. To be sure the unveiling in the case of Ivan comes across as far more hypothetical than in the case of the legion of human demons or the demonically possessed in Demons. At the very least the question of the salvation of Ivan is not dismissed by Dostoevsky who uses Alyosha Karamazov as his mouthpiece for its possibility. It is also true whoever or whatever Ivan is, that relative to Smerdyakov, who is, arguably, the most unlovable figure in Dostoevsky’s canon of many unlovable figures, there remain discernible residues of humanity. Dostoevsky does not permit the reader to render anything like a categorical verdict when it comes to a character who is still an unfinished product. Moreover, Dostoevsky deliberately leaves the fate of Ivan undecided in the novel. There may be a way back for Ivan and from Alyosha’s point of view the salvation of Ivan is as much an imperative as seeding a Christian view in the children. In contrast, from his initial appearance in the novel, despite laying out his awful situation as a child, Dostoevsky does not really ask the reader to have empathy for Smerdyakov. Indeed, he allows Alyosha Karamazov, who is the hope of the new Christian Russia yet to be born, to behave in a conspicuously unsympathetic way towards him. It seems as if understood that when Smerdyakov comes into the reader’s field, he is frozen in a demonic pose of wishing evil on each and all and for himself the questionable peace of nothing.


Even if I believe that this tracking of devils and the possessed across the pages of a great psychologist is pulling at a particular thread woven into his novels, I understand the resistance to a reading that both illustrates and elevates the demonic charge by underscoring what might be called Dostoevsky’s pneumapathology of modernity. Nonetheless, it will not do to point to Dostoevsky’s rejection of the noxious monk Ferapont’s tendency to see devils everywhere. Not only, with Zosima as a measure, does this defame a world which, in Dostoevsky’s Christian view, is originally beautiful as well as good—and thus eschatologically beautiful and good—it underscores the brilliance of Dostoevsky’s insight that the devils and the possessed (really those that have become disincarnate and who have embraced it) are closer to us than we are to ourselves. The fractured disincarnate mind is, according to Dostoevsky, a modern invention. The disincarnate or excarnate subject is a mother lode of maliciously focused harm on human beings constructed as if they belong to a different species. Dostoevsky scares us with these desperate angels who exhibit an almost insatiable hunger for definition and who show themselves capable of installing a program for the violation of individual human beings and their communities. He thinks that these “mind demons” are far scarier than sinners who operate in terms of lust. Despite the sometime grandeur of Ivan, The Brothers Karamazov forces on the reader a preference for the disordered Dmitri, who is covered Christianly by the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Even more startlingly, the classic among the four classical texts written by Dostoevsky invites the reader to consider a preference of the ignoble Fyodor Karamazov over the apparently very noble Ivan. Fyodor is a nakedly repulsive character, so much so that the reader feels ambivalent about his death and at least part of him wants to applaud. He is corrupt to the point that he is a threshold figure: he is the point of exhaustion of the human capacity for evil and the beginning of a form of the demon who as an embodied lie enacts a refusal of God and the gift of creation. With regard to Fyodor there is no need to demand a halt to cogitation, since he never begins. To the degree to which Fyodor is the world without mind he balances the mind without a world that is Ivan, but also Smerdyakov, Raskolnikov, and Stavrogin. To the degree to which he can be figured in terms of the Christian symbolic and narrative resources to name the forces that obstruct God and erect themselves in his place, he recalls “old Nick.” Lecher and leach, as a demon he finds his place by recalling at once the legion of demons and their inescapable hierarchy. As flesh he is lowest in the ladder of demons, in whose stilted hierarchy disincarnate consciousness is what is to be admired and emulated. As he recalls the pre-Christian Satyr, we are not asked to be really afraid of him. In contrast, Dostoevsky consistently asks us to be appalled by those humans who through an excess of consciousness have become transhuman. It is they who will destroy the world; it is they who will reverse engineer the world back into the nothingness from which it came; it is they who will return the gift to God with alleluias of satisfaction, even if they are not around to enjoy the infernal banquet.

This essay continues an earlier three-part installment by Cyril O’Regan on the monstrous in modernity.


A Revisionist Account of Natural Law and Natural Right

Featured Image: Edvard Munch, Self Portrait in Hell, 1903; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is The Anatomy of Misremembering: Von Balthasar's Response to Philosophical Modernity. Volume 1: Hegel.