"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Unhappy Weakness For Russian Literature

He would sit like a post for six hours at a stretch, perspiring and straining his utmost to keep awake and smile. On reaching home he would groan…over their benefactor’s unhappy weakness for Russian literature (370-71).

Usually in our world things come to nothing, but this will end in something; it’s bound to, it’s bound to! (219).

The subject…who could make it out? It was a sort of description of certain impressions and reminiscences. But of what? And about what? Though the leading intellectuals of the province did their utmost during the first half of the reading, they could make nothing of it, and they listened to the second part simply out of politeness (486).

Maybe you can see where this is leading…. C.S.Lewis remarked that the plots of some stories in abstract “would be completely worthless—not only worthless as a representation of the book in question, but worthless in itself; dull beyond bearing; unreadable” (Lewis 41). Very likely someone will add that some stories themselves are dull beyond bearing. Though I want to agree, something makes me hesitantly demur in the case of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed. Although the 700 hundred pages seem to go (in the words of one song) “on and on, forever,” there are occasional passages of gripping intensity.

But the merit of Dostoevsky's book would be small indeed if plot and narrative were the only criteria to judge it by. No, if it has merit it lies in other areas, particularly in its prophetic analysis of Communism and Nihilism. I am no philosopher so probably much of Dostoevsky’s exploration of the rising ideological trends in Russia at the end of the 19th century passed well above my head. Yet even admitting this there were some passages so plain they could not be missed.

Communism is scoffed at today and terms like McCarthyism applied to the occasional warning against it, yet Communism was (and still is) a huge disaster for humanity. Being already a fan of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and through him knowing the inhuman practical reality of that ideology, I was fascinated to discover Dostoevsky, almost 50 years before the revolution in Russia, wrote a novel with the aim of exposing Communism in its infancy.

In the person of Pyotr Stepanovitch all the revolting aspects of nihilistic Communism are embodied. In a frantic, feverish speech (why do all Dostoevsky characters make long feverish speeches?) Pyotr Stepanovitch outlines his goals:

Everyone belongs to all and all to everyone. All are slaves and equal in their slavery…to begin with, the level of education, science, and talents is lowered. A high level of education and science is only possible for great intellects and they are not wanted. The great intellects have always seized the power and been despots. Great intellects cannot help being despots and they’ve always done more harm than good. They will be banished or put to death. Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes put out, Shakespeare will be stoned—that’s Shigalovism. Slaves are bound to be equal. There has never been either freedom or equality without despotism, but in the herd there is bound to be equality, and that’s Shigalovism! Ha ha ha! Do you think it strange? (424-25).

With a shockingly modern parallel in American society’s moral uncertainty and upheaval, one of Pyotr Stepanovitch’s co-conspirators confesses at the end of the book that,

it was with the idea of systematically destroying society and all principles; with the idea of nonplussing everyone…and then, when society was tottering, sick and out of joint, cynical and skeptical, though filled with an intense eagerness for self-preservation and for some guiding idea, suddenly to seize it in their hands, raising the standard of revolt (680).

With profound insight Dostoevsky has the social engineer Shigalov declare:

I am perplexed by my own data and my conclusion is a direct contradiction of the original idea with which I started. Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism (409).

Dostoevsky, Feodor. The Possessed. The Modern Library Inc. Random House, 1963.

Lewis, C.S. An Experiment In Criticism. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge. Canto ed. 2006.

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