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The Archbishop on Dostoevsky's 'Devils'.

Thursday 1st June 2006

An article for The Reader magazine's Summer 2006 issue, on Dostoevsky's novel 'Devils'.

A novel dealing with terrorism, suicide and child abuse sounds uncomfortably contemporary; and so it is. But it is sobering to realise that one of Europe's foremost novelists should have been reflecting on these things as long ago as 1871. Fyodor Dostoevsky was already a major figure in the Russian cultural scene when he published Devils, the third of the four great novels of his maturity. By this time, he had returned to Christian faith and practice, and saw himself as called to defend this faith in his writing. But this did not mean that he wrote improving stories on religious subjects. His way of defending Christianity was to try and show how it could cope with the most horrific and extreme of human situations. He never gives easy answers, but expects his readers to face the worst the world can offer so that the scale of God's grace becomes even more astonishing.

By 1871, he was regarded with some suspicion by many who had been friends and admirers in his earlier days. He had dramatically rejected the political radicalism of his youth - though what replaced it was in many ways even more radical. And the publication of Devils fulfilled the worst fears of his former allies. It is a merciless expose of certain aspects of the Russian revolutionary movements of the mid 19th century, and of the various kinds of revolutionary and terrorist psychology. We meet people who are simply confused, who want a better world and who love the ordinary folk of Russia but who have no basis for their commitments and can be exploited by others. We meet the administrative fanatic who is ready to kill huge numbers of the population in order to organise a supposedly fair world and make sure that the right people stay in charge. We meet the lonely visionary who concludes that the only way of showing that he is really free and Godlike is to commit suicide.

But the two central characters in the revolutionary circle are the most disturbing of all. Pyotr Verkhovensky is a brilliant manipulator, whose only real interest is in controlling others. We never learn what he really believes, and in a sense it doesn't matter. He understands group psychology perfectly; he carefully plans the murder of one member of the group, involving all the others so as to bind them closer together (Dostoevsky based this on a real incident of the time). He shows different faces to different people, he makes himself popular with fashionable progressive circles in the town, and at the end simply walks away from all the consequences of what he has done.

But he has one weak spot. He is obsessed with the man who, he believes, has the capacity to be a real leader, Nikolai Stavrogin. Stavrogin attracts all sorts of projections: he is intelligent, wildly independent, mysterious and charismatic, a 'messianic' figure. All around him are people who are fascinated by him and would do anything for him. But increasingly we see that there is nothing behind the façade. He is a desperately empty person, paralysed by his own sense of meaninglessness. He cannot take on any role in Pyotr's conspiracy, nor can he consummate any real relationship. His life has been a series of arbitrary experiments in extreme behaviour to try and force himself to feel that there is a real self there; and it has all failed. He is one of Dostoevsky's most frightening characters.

These two diabolical characters don't come from nowhere. Their parents also figure in the book. Pyotr's father is a vain and silly old man, who loves to think of himself as a daring revolutionary writer; Nikolai's mother is an equally silly woman, caught up in a whole complex of self-deceit. For years she has looked after Pyotr's father (they are both widowed), as if there is a sort of imitation marriage between them, one without either sex or love. The message is clear: the demonic evil of the two younger men comes from this sterile, fantasy-ridden atmosphere, full of large talk about change and progress, but with absolutely no spiritual or moral substance. One generation's flabby fashions become destructive horrors in the next generation. You can see why Dostoevsky's novel was so unpopular with progressives in Russia at the time.

Can there be redemption for people like these, people whose emptiness invites the devil in? Pyotr, as we have seen, walks offstage at the end, unscathed and unchanged; he is the most literally diabolical character because we cannot imagine him developing, acquiring ordinary human emotions. Nikolai is more complex. In the original draft of the novel, Dostoevsky wrote a chapter, which he was never allowed to publish because it was thought too shocking; it was only printed in 1921. It shows Nikolai going to visit a retired bishop in a monastery to try and confess to him and find a way out of his private hell. It turns out that what he has to confess is that he has, some time before, seduced a small child, who later committed suicide. The story is told with almost unbearable realism, and makes very painful reading indeed.

What should he do? Should he make a great public confession? The bishop asks whether he is humble enough to accept not only the hatred and the pity but also the mockery that will result from his publishing of his record of all this; and whether he can follow through the consequences and live a truly repentant life. Stavrogin finally leaves in anger; the bishop warns him that he will now find some new atrocity to get involved in, so as to blot out the memory of the story he has just told and to put off confessing it. For a moment a door has opened, but Stavrogin cannot - will not - do anything to accept the possibility of forgiveness.

It is hard now to imagine how people could understand Stavrogin without reading this chapter, because only here do we see the depth of his despair and self-loathing. But after this, it is no surprise that he becomes more and more frozen and dead, and that he finally kills himself.

The surprise is that the one character who does find a kind of redemption is Pyotr's father, Stepan. Shocked and disoriented by the violence that has erupted around him, finally recognising that his situation is without love or honesty, he takes to the road, not knowing what will happen or where he wants to go. Sick and exhausted and beginning to wander in his mind, he meets a travelling Bible-seller, a poor and unassuming woman who doesn't know what he's talking about most of the time, but only knows that she has to tell him what he needs to know. She reads the gospel to him, the story from St Luke of the demoniac possessed by the legion of devils. Through all Stepan's confusion and weakness, he recognises that he has heard something that could change everything. He dies saying that God is necessary after all - because only God can be loved eternally and unconditionally.

It is a bleak and difficult novel - though also a very funny one at times, as Dostoevsky's blackest humour is allowed full rein. What makes it so well worth reading now is its unsparing vision of what destructive forces come into the world when there is a vacuum of spiritual understanding. The end of faith doesn't lead to a calm agnosticism, but to a terrible world where you have no means of knowing truth from lies or even life from death. It tells us that terrorism is a spiritual problem before it is a political one; whatever clothes it dresses up in, religious or national or ideological, what it feeds on is spiritual emptiness. It tells us that liberalism is not enough; there must be a vital and positive commitment to freedom and to mutual responsibility - Dostoevsky's most central insight is about the way we are all responsible for all others. And it tells us that human beings need something to love that is eternal and unchanging; only the utterly consistent love of God can draw out of us the love we are capable of at our most free and creative.

Dostoevsky doesn't produce a bit of easy propaganda but a whole world of complicated interactions designed to show how in the Russia of his day the Christian faith offered the only real hope of change that was free of fantasy and violence and one or another sort of denial of humanity. It is not an argument for God and Christ - that isn't how novels work, and you can appreciate the novel without having to say yes to the vision. But if you want to see how the faith can illuminate some of the most dreadful places in modern experience and the modern psyche, this is one of the greatest resources you could have.

© Rowan Williams 2006

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