Dostoevsky’s “Demons” remains relevant more than a century after it was written as it invites readers to a melancholy symphony of self-reflection. The novel’s flailing revolutionaries are not caricatures of archaic belief systems but embody the very structure of human conflict.
Dark, funny, and frenetic, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons is a startlingly accurate portrayal of possession by ideology. Its biting prose tears into the many ‘isms’ that haunt the modern world. Yet while the novel is often billed as a work of political prophecy, politics may be the least interesting thing about it. Dostoevsky only intended to make Demons a short broadside against nihilism, but the plot ran away from him. The improvised masterpiece that emerged from three years of painful composition is as profound as it is unsettling.
Demons took shape in response to a murder that shocked Russia in 1869. The novel centers on a gang of conspirators who scapegoat one of their own, killing him in cold blood. No summary can convey the confused context, which teems with agitated would-be radicals of every persuasion. Stepan Trofimovich, the old liberal, spends his days in sentimental reveries over the brotherhood of man, shedding tears over bottles of wine. Meanwhile, his cynically rebellious son Pyotr spreads rumors from the comfort of the governor’s mansion. Unnamed students preach revolution and bearded men shout nonsense. Even the town aristocrats are intent on standing “on the right side of history,’” right next to the anarchists. Preening and posturing, they vie for preeminence in their denouncements of the old order, even as they enjoy the rents of a feudal inheritance. The only thing uniting these characters is their outsized self-importance.
Much of the ideological content of Demons will be unfamiliar to the Western reader. Shatov, the resident Slavophile, champions a return to Russian tradition, bustling about town in ethnic dress. The plot unravels in the shadow of the abolition of serfdom, which lends credence to strange political and social programs. Still, many characters defy categorization. When Kirillov justifies suicide by declaring, “There is no God—I am God,” it is not at all clear that he is mad. As with much of Dostoevsky’s work, the most lucid voices in Demons teeter on the edge of sanity. The polyphony that results from their never-ending dialog is a brilliant muddle.
Demons’ radicals search for justice amid the open scars of oppression and backwardness in tsarist Russia. Imminent revolution cannot be dismissed out of hand. Yet, try as they might, each rebel is doomed to repeat the transgressions of their opponents. It is telling that Dostoevsky chooses the novel’s foremost philosopher, Shigalyov, to articulate the paradox as he proclaims: “my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea I start from. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.” The same dark irony lies at the heart of the ideologies that have divided modern societies in the 150 years since Demons was written.
Shigalyovism first resurfaced in the Soviet plan to achieve a stateless utopia by building a totalitarian state. It would be an error to suppose, however, that communism is exceptional in this regard, for the political programs now inspiring rabid support in America follow the same pattern. The Woke crowd seeks to abolish racism through the reintroduction of racial discrimination, neoconservatives preach peace via drone strike, and progressives proclaim anti-fascism while cheering censorship by the most influential corporations on the planet. This is to say nothing of President Trump’s promise to defend the constitution with executive orders. Shigalyov has company.
That is why it would be a mistake to read Demons as a political text. If it were merely political, it would have nothing to say about an America that its author could not imagine. As it is, Dostoevsky’s flailing revolutionaries are not caricatures of archaic belief systems—they embody the very structure of human conflict. Like boxers in a ring, his rebels mirror their tyrants, ducking and weaving as they fight over the same prize. René Girard, an especially perceptive reader of Dostoevsky, goes so far as to call such rivals “doubles.”
Each double is convinced of the uniqueness of his cause, yet differences fade under a flurry of symmetrical blows. Both sides remain blind to this similarity as their struggle intensifies. The confusion soon becomes insurmountable. When each attacks in order to end violence, who is in the right? The earnest desire to see justice done only results in chaos.
By the end, no one can distinguish between what Abraham Lincoln calls “the better angels of our nature,” and their opposites. As uncertainty deepens, tribes form around shared visions of truth. Common ground erodes and discourse splinters into so many echo chambers: the possessed, talking to themselves. It is remarkable that Dostoevsky was able to uncover the dynamic that created fake news so long ago. He also understood its dangers. Social order is predicated on a shared belief about the legitimate use of force, yet agreement is elusive in a world of Shigalyovs.
Today, the process is well under way. Summer’s riots revealed that Americans ascribe to competing accounts of justified violence. January 6th only proved that this confusion is bipartisan. Notions of legitimacy are at the very heart of controversies swirling around democratic institutions. Though no mob stormed the Capitol before, recent presidential elections have elicited reciprocal claims of fraud from Democrats and Republicans alike. Each new site of conflict is an opportunity for doubles to multiply in a grotesque torrent of incivility. Soon, there may be no authority left for anyone to fight over.
Though little in Demons is straightforward, Dostoevsky is clear about the ultimate source of this metaphysical confusion in his letters. He writes of, “the young people who have lost touch with reality,” through the “denial not of God, but of the meaning of His creation.” By the 1870s it was already common for intellectuals to see the rejection of all the traditions and truths of previous generations as a form of duty, a necessary precondition for the creation of a truly rational order. This impulse found expression on both sides of the European continent—it shines through in the words of the abbé Sieyès, who instructed the assembly of the French Revolution, “to act just like men just emerging from the state of nature and coming together for the purposes of signing a social contract.” The only way to transcend the catastrophes of history, on this account, is to stand outside of its bequest, the institutions that so often serve as instruments of oppression. Yet after years of terror and the guillotine, the abbé gave up on the Republic to embrace Napoleon, nationalism, and war.
The denial of the meaning of creation does not leave man with a blank slate on which to construct an ideal society. It creates a gaping wound, one that Dostoevsky’s translator Richard Pevear calls a golfo mistico. This is where the demons of political ideology enter to turn the righteous pursuit of justice into an engine of oppression. Moreover, there is little indication that the wound has healed. The hero of modern literature is no longer the rebel, for there is no authoritative tradition left to rebel against. Instead, as the literary critic Alfred Kazin argues, it is the stranger, the wholly autonomous individual who must somehow create a moral order anew.
This latest iteration of the hero’s journey epitomizes the double bind—two contradictory commands, which amount to a command to do the impossible. Demons captures this predicament in the figure of Nikolai Stavrogin, around whom the novel’s peripheral characters frantically orbit. Stavrogin ranks among the most willful and charismatic names in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre; great expectations follow his every move. No amount of talent, however, can break the spell. After fulfilling his duty and rejecting the aristocratic mores of his day, Stavrogin spends his days searching for something, anything, to take their place. A religious commitment to autonomy binds him ever-closer to the fashionable ideas of his time.
Dostoevsky was no stranger to this trap. In his youth, he fell under the sway of a charismatic radical, and his debut, Poor Folk, is regarded as somewhat of a liberal screed. Some consider it Russia’s first “social novel.” Demons thus bears the marks of its author’s run-in with the revolutionary fervor of a troubled century. As Mr. Pevear notes, it is an unplanned exploration, a “testing of truth by artistic embodiment.” Dostoevsky’s biting satire cannot cover up the fact that he, too, once numbered among the possessed.
Perhaps that is why this novel remains relevant more than a century after it was written. Demons invites readers to a melancholy symphony of self-reflection. It would be a mistake to conclude that Dostoevsky has the solution to any of the issues facing an increasingly divided West. Yet as his furious dialogues reveal the true shape of the spirit of the times, it becomes that much easier to cast it out.
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The featured image is “The Desperate Man” (c. 1843) by Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.