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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Olga Volkova

Besy: The Demonic Godgame

In his recent article for The Cambridge Companion to the Classic Russian Novel, Gary Saul Morson defines the peculiar relationship in which the nineteenth-century Russian novel stood in the ideological debates of the time. Despite their apparent dissimilitude, the great Russian writers were alike in their attempt to dissociate themselves from the “progressive” radical intelligentsia. As a result, their novels became what Morson calls “negatively philosophical,” i.e. “directed against the faith in abstract ideas and ideology so common among the intelligentsia in pre-revolutionary Russia” (151). Naturally, the authors’ success would have been precluded had they not opted to win the battle of ideas by placing their emphasis on the primacy and superiority of real-life experience. This approach required a fundamental re-orientation in the matters of narrative technique towards unconventional plots that would reflect the complexity and variety of life itself. Morson elaborates on two artistic solutions discovered by the Russian writers, both of which indeed place creative process in proximity to reality. These are, first, “creating by potential,” a form of composition in which the writer literally does not know what is going to happen, and secondly, “sideshadowing,” or conveying the sense that time is open and that each moment contains real alternatives (163-4). I believe, however, that in Besy or The Devils, probably his most polemic novel, Dostoevsky kills ideas not by dashing them to pieces against reality but rather by employing a quintessential literary device.

Apart from its final shape, The Devils’ origin as well as its evolution firmly places it within the post-reform ideological battles. Inspired by the famous Nechaev affair, Dostoevsky conceived the work as a novel-pamphlet, the mode that he thought would best allow him to polemicize with Turgenev on the subject of the generational conflict that the latter developed in his Fathers and Sons. Unable, though, to overcome the limits of this less-demanding genre, the writer added the flesh of an earlier literary project onto the historical and ideological skeleton. The child of this coition grew into what Joseph Frank calls “fantastic realism,” the form that leaves the novelist ample space for “the imaginary amplification of the real” (437). Frank justly notes that this form became the right tool to “cut more deeply into the problems of Russian life than… [any] superficially verisimilar” accounts would (452). I should add that Dostoevsky’s choice also allows him to intertwine the multiple layers of the historical, the ideological, the psychological, and the imaginary, constructing the matrix for a godgame, the means that he then turns into his chief weapon against ideas.           

The term godgame and the technique it stands for “officially” entered the literary and critical repertoire only in the twentieth century with the prose of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Luis Borges, and John Fowles, who coined the term. Yet, as Robert Rawdon Wilson’s study indicates, various writers have used it for centuries, Cervantes in Don Quixote being the most famous example. Wilson defines godgame as an instructional snare set for a player by a superior agency:

A godgame occurs in literature when one or more characters creates an illusion, a mazelike sequence of false accounts, that entraps another character. The entrapped character finds himself entangled in the threads of (from his point of view) an incomprehensible strategy plotted by another character who (thus) takes the role both of a game-master, since he invents rules for the other character to follow, and of a god as        well. In the latter sense, the master of the game is godlike in that he exercises power, holds an advantageous position, will probably be beyond detection (even understanding) and may even be, so far as the entrapped character is concerned, invisible. (6-7) 

Building on Wilson’s argument, Tison Pugh clarifies that the purpose of this elaborate plotting is “to force the player to confront the mystery of existence and thus to realize deep questions about life and living” (527). Borrowing the ideas of the modern master John Fowles, Pugh suggests that a godgame exposes human illusions about the non-existent categories of absolute knowledge and absolute power. I believe that in The Devils Dostoevsky entraps both his characters and his readers in the godgame precisely to expose the erroneous nature of trust in ideological narratives. The “minor” character Shatov, unjustly mistreated by the critics, is a perfect pawn both in the hands of other characters and in the hands of the author. Therefore, I will rely on him to provide me with the thread through the labyrinth of Dostoevsky’s “negatively philosophical” novel.

In the scholarship, the tendency prevails to see Shatov reductively, either as a costar (with Kirillov) in the dramatic skit on the relations between Westernizer and Slavophile ideologies or, worse, as a mouthpiece for Dostoevsky’s own views. In either case, he is taken as a surrogate for an idea, nicely fitting Bakhtinian understanding of  a monologistic work, in which “all confirmed ideas are merged in the unity of the author’s seeing and representing consciousness; the unconfirmed ideas are distributed among the heroes... as socially typical or individually characteristic” (82).

The impulse to replace Shatov with a single ideology, to classify him, is part of the larger reaction of the reader to stabilize the unstable novel. Playing along the readers’ expectations, the text itself seems to encode this reaction. The character is introduced to us as:

одно из тех идеальных русских существ, которых вдруг поразит какая-нибудь сильная идея и тут же разом точно придавит их собою, иногда даже навеки. Справиться с нею они никогда не в силах, а уверуют страстно, и вот вся жизнь их проходит потом как бы в последних корчах под свалившимся на них и на половину совсем уж раздавивших их камнем. (27)

(He was one of those idealistic beings common in Russia, who are suddenly struck by some overmastering idea which seems, as it were, to crush them at once, and sometimes for ever. They are never equal to coping with it, but put passionate faith in it, and their whole life passes afterwards, as it were, in the last agonies under the weight of the stone that has fallen upon them and half crushed them.)

At this point in the novel, the readers are not equipped to locate themselves within its voices and discourses. They cannot interpret the evasive narrator and, therefore, have to take his evaluation as the best possible one. Nor are the readers attuned enough to appreciate the irony of the fact that “Наружностью Шатов вполне соответствовал своим убеждениям” (In appearance Shatov was in complete harmony with his convictions) (27). Not to keep us guessing as to the exact nature of these convictions, or the idea that has “overmastered” him, the narrator helpfully offers us Stepan Verkhovensky’s opinion that “Шатов верует насильно, как московский славянофил” (Shatov believes 'on principle,' like a Moscow Slavophil) (33). Despite the line connecting Shatov to Slavophile ideology being transient, some readers (even Frank and Leatherbarrow) do not hesitate to re-draw it with a thick black marker. And here once again, they do nothing that the novel itself does not sanction, for in the same chapter, Shatov bursts into a prolonged monologue that recycles the main tenets of Slavophile ideology succinctly and precisely. He passionately condemns Belinsky and other Westernizers for diverting their attention from Russia, focusing it instead on “французских социальных букашек” (French Socialist maggots; translation mine), and artificially re-inventing the Russian people. The consequence of this substitution of the foreign and the abstract for the native and the real, he continues, is that they are growing ashamed of their own roots and, finally, turning into “или гнусные атеисты, или равнодушная, развратная дрянь” (either beastly atheists or indifferent, dissolute trash) (34; translation mine).

This diatribe is informed by the ideas of two prominent Slavophiles, Ivan Kireevsky and Alexei Khomiakov. As part of their reaction to the ugly rationalist face of Enlightenment modernity, they criticized contemporary Russian socio-political reality, specifically the gap between the narod (people) and the Europeanized educated elite, the imitative nature of Russian culture, and the country’s moral vices (see Kamensky 278). Analyzing the reasons behind this state of things, Kireevsky relies on the antithesis between Russia and the West, concluding that the destiny of Western European peoples is determined by what he calls Latin Christianity and rationalism, and that the path of the Orthodox Slavs is inseparable from Eastern Christianity (Kamensky 35). Khomiakov, next in the development of Slavophile thought, added to it the concept of sobornost’, free unity and conciliarity (Walicki 9). The Orthodox Church, the only repository of sobornost’, is for him “a living organism of truth and love” (Walicki 9). Both Kireevsky and Khomiakov agreed that in order to overcome contemporary socio-political and cultural hurdles, the Russian nation had to revert to its natural course, which had been precluded by Peter’s reforms and which remained latent in the people, uncorrupted by this Westernization.

The historical/ideological reader of Shatov will find particularly gratifying – and will not be mistaken – his often quoted monologue, in which he rebels against social engineering as a way of creating national cohesion. As an alternative to science and reason, Shatov puts forth the idea of the teleological development of each nation towards its own unique God. The dissolution of religious borders leads, he believes after Kireevsky and Khomiakov, to the dissolution of national ones and, consequently, to moral collapse. Building on Khomiakov’s idea of the Russian God, he culminates, in his response to Stavrogin, with the statement that “Единый народ-“богоносец” -- это русский народ” (Only one nation is 'god-bearing,' that's the Russian people). So far, it seems that a reading of Shatov informed by the knowledge of a specific ideological platform might in fact orient the reader to the “truth” about him and his function in the novel as a means of representing an idea, perhaps both socially typical and individually characteristic.

But this reductive, monologistic view, shared by the readers caught in Dostoevsky’s ideological snare, is adjusted if we examine another historical piece woven into Shatov’s texture. Stephen Carter points out that the character’s thoughts on the function of each nation are an almost verbatim reproduction of a quote from the article “Russia and Europe” by N. Ya. Danilyevsky, “a former Petrashevets, who had renounced his former radical views in favor of a kind of Russian Messianism” (168). Shatov, we are told by the narrator, underwent his own conversion from radicalism to his kind of Messianism under the influence of Stavrogin. Any further consideration of Shatov’s biography within a historic-ideological plane places him closer to pochvennichestvo, i.e. native-soil conservatism, a less Messianic worldview, articulated by Grigoriev, the young editors of Moskvitianin, Strakhov and Dostoevsky himself.

The Slavophiles were a group of rich landowners privileging communal, feudal economic relations. Consequently, their national concerns were centered solely on the cultural and moral bond between aristocrats and peasants. Beginning with the editors of Moskvitianin of the 50s-60s, this notion gave way to a more open and democratic conception of nationality. The newer conservative intelligentsia continued to locate the national essence (dusha) in the Russian people, but it tried to dissociate itself from any class affiliations. In doing so, it gave serious reconsideration to the metaphor Russia and the West. From the moment of its inception, this metaphor signified “the separation of the educated, westernized classes from the uneducated, traditionalist peasantry, or the mind from the body of Russia; [and] the tension between the ideas of Muscovite and Petrine Russia” (Dowler 74). Drawing the border between Slavophiles and pochvenniki, Wayne Dowler points out that the latter “insisted on the primacy of life and experience over theory and abstraction” (76). Pochvenniki, he continues, were first and foremost relativists, who promoted diversity and expunged theory, which they thought “ignored dissenting opinions, reducing everything to the monotony of its own narrow vision” (77). Unlike the Slavophiles, the younger generation of conservatives believed in organic historical development, treating each stage of national history, including the radical developments, as an expression of the inherent genius of this nation, and therefore a necessary part of the whole. Consequently, they did not view Peter’s reforms as unquestionably evil, acknowledging rather their positive function of awakening Russia to its universality, while at the same time criticizing their all-too-Western form.

Playing with the reader’s expectations, the novel seems to privilege pochvennichestvo over other ideologies. Derek Offord, for example, notes that it does so through Stepan Verkhovensky’s final journey towards the speaking Spasov (Savior) monastery, which offers some “positive evidence of the possible reconciliation” (94). Indeed, his leaving of the town in order to shed the deistic beliefs through merging with the dusha of the people – something Stepan Trofimovich has so far done only theoretically – can be seen as a move towards his redemption. More generally, then, his journey towards the true Russian God could signify the possibility for reconciliation between liberal and conservative thought on the “native soil,” reinforcing the idea of Russia’s organic historical development. After all, the novel begins with Stepan Trofimovich, depicting him as the father, literal and ideological, of Peter and the radical intelligentsia he represents. Not unfounded, Offord’s optimism in connection with Stepan Trofimovich is, I believe, somewhat excessive. Some highly serious overtones of his fête speech aside, Stepan Trofimovich is heavily showered with irony throughout the novel, and even his “conversion” is tinged with doubt:

В самом  ли деле он уверовал, или величественная церемония совершенного таинства потрясла его и возбудила художественную восприимчивость его натуры, но он твердо и, говорят, с большим чувством произнес несколько слов прямо в разрез многому из его прежних убеждений. (505)

(Whether he was really converted, or whether the stately ceremony of the administration of the sacrament had impressed him and stirred the artistic responsiveness of his temperament or not, he firmly and, I am told, with great feeling uttered some words which were in flat contradiction with many of his former convictions.)

Shatov’s overall position in the novel is less prominent; nevertheless, as a means of validating pochvennichestvo before Stepan Verkhovensky’s final act, he is less ambiguous. A former serf who received Western education, he is the epitome of the new intellectual “из сердца народного” (straight from the heart of the people) (202). He is recommended to Liza as someone to undertake her (or perhaps Dostoevsky’s own) ambitious project of compiling a digest/anthology of “духовной, нравственной, внутренней русской жизни” (the spiritual, moral, inner life of Russia) (104). Before making his way to his “родное гнездо” (native place) literally and figuratively, he travels to Geneva, the headquarters of the radical intelligentsia in exile, with which for some time he associates himself. Shatov’s evolution is reflective of a range of socio-political attitudes from radicalism to pochvennichestvo through Slavophilism. In a way, then, it is also representative of the organic path the Russian thought itself underwent on its way to “native soil.” Dostoevsky goes on to move Shatov toward life, beyond theory and abstraction, even in their applied form. The devil’s vaudeville, staged on the pages of the novel by Peter Verkhovensky and eventually sliding out of his control to run amok, completely subverts love and dissolves deeply human family ties. Stepan Trofimovich, the hapless victim of his unloving son, re-channels the feelings, which he has finally managed to muster for his offspring, towards God, stating that “бог уже потому мне необходим, что это единственное существо, которое можно вечно любить...” (God is necessary to me, if only because He is the only being whom one can love eternally) (505). Shatov’s swan song, on the other hand, is his immediate enthrallment with the child born by his returned wife. Stavrogin’s son, whom he plans to adopt, inspires him to put an end “сo старым бредом, с позором и мертвечиной!” (to all the old madness, shame, and deadness) and to “трудиться и на новую дорогу втроем” (work hard and begin a new life, the three of us) (453). His wonder about the birth of a new life, the narrator tells us, seems to be pouring directly from his soul, bypassing his mind: “Было двое, и вдруг третий человек, новый дух, цельный, законченный, как не бывает от рук человеческих; новая мысль и новая любовь, даже страшно... И нет ничего выше на свете!” (There were two and now there's a third human being, a new spirit, finished and complete, unlike the handiwork of man; a new thought and a new love . . . it's positively frightening. . . . And there's nothing grander in the world) (452).

Unlike Stepan Trofimovich, Shatov (and hence, a monologistic reader would expect, the values he embodies) is established by the narrator as the novel’s single moral anchor. It is done primarily through his opposition to the collective play staged in The Devils by most of the other characters. By play I understand, after Johan Huizinga,

a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world. (13)

At the center of the novel’s play, which promotes and sustains social distribution, is self-image. Malcolm Jones points out that “all of Dostoevsky’s principal characters project an image (in some cases more than one image) of themselves which they (and the readers) are capable of recognizing as being in some sense false, untrue or incomplete” (101). Hence the novel proceeds by coercing its characters into obvious play-acting, in which each participant, both actor and spectator, is aware of this multi-layered theatricality and is utterly absorbed in it. Social decorum dictates the rules of the play, demanding that the images they create should “conform to the overall image of respectability prevalent in the group and… [be] not incompatible with each other” (Jones 101). The nuances of this conformity/nonconformity create the dynamic theater of the novel. Surrounded by secrecy, this social grouping demands that gossip and scandal should become the predominant method of inquiry into its anatomy. This method, Jones writes, is “an unconscious communal attempt… to peel off the layers of heteroglossia (other people’s discourse, the stories they tell about each other and about themselves…) and discover the answer to an underlying mystery” (100).

Once again playing on the reader’s expectations, the novel establishes Shatov’s position in relation to its theater as unique. Several times in the course of The Devils, the narrator emphasizes his awkwardness, both physical and social. During the first crowd scene, for example, when Stepan Trofimovich stretches his hand to greet him, Shatov, “посмотрев на нас обоих внимательно, поворотил в угол, уселся там и даже не кивнул нам головой” (after looking attentively at us both, turned away into a corner, and sat down there without even nodding to us) (121). Shatov’s refusal to maintain social veneer at all times is different from other characters’ conformist non-conformity. Peter Verkhovensky’s imposing, and disturbing, manner of sitting with his legs up, for example, is a constructive element in his role as a representative of radical intelligentsia, who, like Marx, not only want to understand the world but also change it. His posture is somewhere on the border between the collective play, in which Peter is one of the actors, and his own game, in which he is god. Stavrogin’s more obviously provocative gestures – such as pulling a respected elder by his nose, biting the governor’s ear, and kissing another man’s wife in public – are still contained, as we shall see shortly, within a certain role, despite their seemingly chaotic nature. Shatov, on the other hand, does not fit into any social scenarios. His position in the novel’s theater is limited to that of a spectator, capable of assessing the play on critical terms. His awkwardness and, more importantly, his famous slap of Stavrogin, which explodes (“и вдруг... И вдруг”) one of the novel’s biggest theatrical events, are a means of breaking down the layers of social veneer in order to penetrate an underlying core. Once again, the narrator’s seemingly inappropriate remark that the fist of the rebel was “большой, веский, костлявый, с рыжим пухом и с веснушками” (big, heavy, bony... covered with red hairs and freckles) should make the reader question the seriousness of the revolt (164). At the same time, the novel’s scandal and gossip are so appalling that we can excuse ourselves for privileging Shatov as a moral alternative.

Shatov appears to encode an opposing attitude not only to the collective ways of discovering the “truth” but also to the individual ones. And here Bakhtinian theory of character’s self-consciousness in a polyphonic novel is a more apt tool. In order for a character to disclose himself, writes Bakhtin, there should exist  

an extremely complex and subtle atmosphere that would force him to reveal and explain himself dialogically, to catch aspects of himself in others’ consciousnesses, to build loopholes for himself, prolonging and thereby laying bare his own final word as it interacts with other consciousnesses. (54) 

The novel continues to privilege Shatov’s “final word” in the process of his reflecting and annihilating certain aspects of other characters. He categorically dissociates himself from Varvara Petrovna. And the reader favors this move as he/she compares it with the ill-starred choice of his sister Dasha. Clinging to the landowner-peasant dichotomy and patriarchy as a foundation of social and individual life, she idolizes the aristocrat Stavrogin, the path leading to her annihilation and dead-end. Another alternative for a woman, namely radical feminism, is also questioned by The Devils through the collision between the consciousnesses of Shatov and his wife. Cursing her husband, her future child, and herself, she is first introduced as a cynical, almost farcical, character. Shatov in a way becomes a midwife during her labors to the discovery of love and motherhood, thus, once again, seemingly endorsing the novel’s teleological direction away from ideas and towards life, or towards pochvennichestvo.

The two previously mentioned examples illustrate Bakhtin’s ideas indirectly. They add to the portrayal of Shatov, but only in the eyes of the reader. Speaking about dialogical space, however, the critic refers to the character’s inner world that evolves through collisions with others as a self-sufficient entity, not a didactic tool in the hands of a teleologically bound, overarching authorial conscience. I have already outlined Shatov’s evolution from the historical/ideological perspective (using a monological frame), unrelated to his active interaction with the consciousnesses of others. Now I will assess it from the latter perspective, which undermines not only Shatov’s privileged position in the novel but also clarifies Bakhtinian perspective itself in its relation to The Devils. Shatov’s juxtaposition with Peter Vekhovensky and Stavrogin are the natural point of departure. 

An outsider in the communal theater of the novel, Shatov also openly proclaims himself a critic of Peter Verkhovensky’s game, presenting an alternative to other characters that either father Peter’s ideas, embrace them, or are simply seduced by their carrier. The socially awkward Shatov has the courage to throw Verkhovensky out of his house, calling him “шпион и подлец” (a spy and a scoundrel) in public (318). Once again, Shatov’s position recommends him to the reader as the novel’s moral mainstay. In the Bakhtinian sense, Shatov’s denial of Peter and his values is important as a step in his own evolution away from radical views and toward the Russian god. The reader then is allowed a glimpse into the characters’ and, more generally, the ideologies’ dialogic negotiating of their relationship with one another. At this point, the narrative evades a monologic approach, continuing to do so as it goes on to make the viability of Shatov’s newly-found convictions problematic. Paradoxically, they become the indirect cause of his death, trapping Shatov in Verkhovensky’s game. As a means of compromising Shatov in the eyes of the governor, Peter uses Shatov’s own letter written to indicate his breakup with Verkhovensky’s radical cell. Worse still, Peter claims that “Сам русский бог [ему] помогает” (The Russian God Himself seems helping [him]) to bring Shatov to his destruction (295; emphasis mine). Finally, the novel itself seems to be pushing Shatov in this direction by allowing his newly found “великая радость” (great joy), the new-born, to overwhelm him, to dull his customary caution, making him an easy prey for the blood-thirsty Verkhovensky’s gang (452). At this point of the Dostoevsky’s godgame, the readers realize that instead of a labyrinth with pochvennichestvo as the center, they might be walking through a centerless maze.

More revealing is Shatov’s interaction with Stavrogin. Immensely intricate, it, I believe, requires prior consideration of the latter character, the most evasive in the novel. His slippery nature, as least in part, can be explained by his path to The Devils, which, unlike that of other major characters, was not through the ideological/political pamphlet. Stavrogin, a purely literary creation without any ties to some historical prototype, traveled to The Devils via an earlier novel that Dostoevsky conflated with the pamphlet during the writing process. The character is, then, the more fantastic part of the novel’s fantastic realism. In the earlier materials, Stavrogin, named the Prince at this stage, is a thematic and compositional center. Transplanted into The Devils, he maintains this centrality. “He is the hero,” wrote Dostoevsky, “All the rest moves around him, like a kaleidoscope… Everything is contained in the character of Stavrogin. Stavrogin is everything ” (qtd. in Leatherbarrow 42). He is the novel’s centripetal force that determines the loci of all others.

Mysterious, demonic, sublime, and seductive, Stavrogin is a major vehicle of bafflement and frustration for his readers. My own interpretation of him approximates that of W. J. Leatherbarrow, who recognizes Stavrogin as an artificial character, “an ectoplasm summoned up from the European literary tradition and trailing clouds of literary allusions” (44). According to Leatherbarrow, Stavrogin’s texture weaves in the elements of an English Gothic tale hero, and a bored Byronic nobleman, including its Russian derivatives Eugene Onegin and Pechorin that Dostoevsky inherited as part of his own literary tradition. Each of these comparisons opens up certain sides of Stavrogin, simultaneously indicating a feebleness of the novel’s foundation. I will follow just one literary parallel, the one with Pechorin, which I believe is particularly productive.               

To say that Stavrogin is a version of Pechorin, though, is to say nothing. Lermontov’s hero is also highly complicated. For Leatherbarrow, the affinity between the two lies in Stavrogin’s “lukewarm malice, his stuttering gestures of will, his arching emptiness, [and] his indifference and loss of all convictions” (50). I will pursue another parallel that Leatherbarrow does not include, their talent at acting and directing. The interpretation of Pechorin put forth by William Mills Todd is illuminating. This scholar convincingly argues that the Caucasus in A Hero of Our Time is an amphitheatre for Pechorin, who, having figured out all possible social scenarios – as we have seen from the definition of play, the rules of social playing limit their number – reenacts them out of boredom for his own amusement. The novel then becomes a play written by Pechorin for Pechorin. The social world of Dostoevsky’s work is also an intricate network of roles and players, with Stavrogin being the cleverer one. The chapter “At Tikhon’s,” excised by a censor, depicts him at his “best,” a careful and highly calculating manipulator. In the surviving part of the novel, Stavrogin outdoes his Romantic predecessor by preaching Westernism to Kirillov, while simultaneously promoting Slavophile ideals to Shatov. His marriage as well as his public gestures of pulling an elder by his nose and biting the governor’s ear are, according to Shatov, his way of reaching a pitch of genius through a combination of “позор и бессмыслица” (shame and senselessness) (202). For the less perceptive, these are hardly more than empty signifiers, begging to be filled. Therefore, they keep the township puzzled and gossip circulating. The public kissing of Liputin’s wife, an act equally devoid of meaning, even inspires a new social scenario.               

By the time the novel begins, Stavrogin’s artistic potency is almost exhausted, and creating and reenacting scenarios is mainly part of his past. Nevertheless, he still has such a firm grasp on the characters’ imagination that they continue to be preoccupied with the exegeses of his former work. And unlike most of the critics who deconstruct Stavrogin to “an empty, disappearing center,” the novel’s interpreters tend to be procreative (Matlaw 40). For them, he remains the materialization of their fantasies, dreams, and aspirations. He is the seed for desirable qualities, which they admire, worship, and judge themselves against. For Maria Lebiadkina Stavrogin is a falcon, for Liza some Byronic type, for Dasha a call to sacrifice her life, and so on. Varvara Petrovna and Stepan Trofimovich also commit Tatiana Larina’s sin of “reading literary stereotypes as the equivalent of reality,” although to a lesser extent (Todd 131). Shatov and Kirillov identify Stavrogin with the ideologies he once poured on them. A “character of superior cunning… and skillful entrapping strategies,” Peter Verkhovensky, attracted to Stavrogin’s beauty and charisma, is going to use them as part of his own game (Wilson 6). For Stavrogin, he prepares the role of Ivan-Tzarevich-the-imposter, a kind of mystic coating for his unappealing nihilist pill. Nevertheless, he too proclaims Stavrogin his “идол” (idol) (323). While playing his own game, Peter is also being played, and he is an aware and willing pawn. Thus, having performed the role of Pechorin, multiplying himself into different personas, Stavrogin is transformed into a passive participant in the scenarios generated by others; scenarios inspired by folklore, literature, religion, ideologies, and even aesthetics and history. This process is strangely evocative of the idol creation in the Book of Job. Like Stavrogin’s, the Biblical “friends” mold their god out of the stiff material of “prophetic insight,” theological platitudes, and the authority of tradition (Cooper 237-8). Thus, wittingly or unwittingly, Stavrogin entraps his “satellites,” to borrow Jostein Boertnes’s term, sanctioning the reading of the entire novel as one “about idolatry, i.e., about the creation of idols” (Boertnes 60). And as though to prove Boertnes right, Dostoevsky not only carefully analyzes the mechanism behind idolatry but also gives his characters a chance to renounce their idol. Once again the Jobean motif of questioning the god is useful for the author.               

The degrees and outcomes of the contact with the divine differ in each case. Maria Lebiadkina’s is only a semblance of one. Having invested Stavrogin with the meaning of a “князь” (count) and a “сокол” (falcon), she simply flips the folklore imagery, re-inventing him as a “самозванец” (imposter) and a “филин” (owl). Liza’s encounter is deeply tragic. As she looks into Stavrogin, she beholds “the vacuum left by a totally free will that has tired of its freedom and consumed itself” (Leatherbarrow 43). She recoils, herself empty and spent. Kirillov’s questioning is tragicomic. Even exhausted, Stavrogin is still capable of turning Kirillov’s thought inside out by simple rhetoric.               

Shatov’s case stands apart in this series. It is not accidental that most readers remember him primarily as Stavrogin’s interlocutor (his historical self is a memorable victim of Verkhovensky’s murder). His famous treatise on the Russian God is a product of their dialogue that seems to be one of those crucial moments that, in Bakhtinian terms, brings together two consciousnesses, two different worldviews. From the point of view of Shatov’s ideological evolution, which I have outlined earlier, their interaction reaches beyond the layer of rhetorical veneer, extending Stavrogin into the Bakhtinian “ideal authoritative image of another human being,” necessary for Shatov to articulate his ideas dialogically (Bakhtin 98). Once again, though, behind the seriousness of this interaction is the irony that Shatov is dialoguing with “an ectoplasm summoned up from the European literary tradition,” an ectoplasm that goes on to perpetuate itself in and by the languages of folklore, religion, ideologies, and so on. And its playground is the novel that also proceeds by multiplying and confusing historical, ideological, and literary layers, deleting any borders between the episode with Dmitry-the-impostor, Slavophilism and native soil conservatism, the story of Job, or the tale about Ivan-Tzarevich. Despite this equality, I am uncomfortable, however, in considering Stavrogin’s discourses as an extreme case of Bakhtinian pluralism. Their variety does not have the semantic richness of Yahweh’s answer. For each of them, including the child conceived by Stavrogin and adopted by Shatov as his own son, turns out to be non-viable. Moreover, each dooms its host even if it evolves into something host-friendly, like for example native soil conservatism. Harriet Murav is correct: “Stavrogin’s mysterious power and beauty… ultimately destroy [both physically and ideologically] nearly every character who encounters him” (109). If we recall that Stavrogin is conceived by Dostoevsky as the novel’s center, the authorial opinion on the equality of discourses, ideas, and narratives at large becomes transparent.              

The optimism and propriety of a Bakhtinian approach is further questioned if we juxtapose the Stavrogin/Shatov meeting scene with the excised chapter “At Tikhon’s.” The meeting itself is entirely devoted to ideological issues. But while questioning his “солнце” (sun), Shatov is not so much trying to propel himself on his evolutionary path as to resurrect his fallen idol, to make Stavrogin “поднятьзнамя” (to raise… the flag) (193, 201). He asks him a series of challenging questions that appear to cut right through Stavrogin’s psyche. He confidently assumes that behind his idol’s “брезгливою светскою улыбкой” (disdainful, worldly smile), there is a “человеческий голос” (human voice; translation mine), which once articulated the idea that changed Shatov’s life (193, 195). By reaching this voice, he is hoping to shed the empty layers of discourse and reach some territory where the ideological and the moral are inseparable. But even though Shatovs “Целуйте землю, облейте слезами, просите прощения!” (Kiss the earth, water it with your tears, pray for forgiveness) sounds victoriously, he fails once again (203).               

A genuine Bakhtinian encounter, or any communicative act, Jean-François Lyotard tells us, depends on the interlocutors’ playing one and the same language game, legitimized by the contract that prescribes uniform rules for all parties involved. As we have seen, Shatov has internalized Stavrogin’s ideological language, which has then bound him in the Slavophile scenario. At this point, he is trapped, and his superior morality and sober judgment in the matters of social theater are of little help for him. To put it in Wilson’s words, “when a lusory attitude has taken over, the mind might be said to have shaped itself parasitically upon the body of the rules” (6). At this moment, to make his idol stand by and for his ideas, Shatov simply reminds him of these rules and of the contract itself. He recites Slavophile tenets, asks tough moral questions, and entreats Stavrogin to kiss the earth. Like the earlier slap, for Shatov, all of these are an expression of betrayal:  

Я за ваше падение... за ложь. Я не для того подходил, чтобы вас наказать; когда я подходил, я не знал, что ударю... Я за то, что вы так много значили в моей     жизни... Я...” (191).

(Because of your fall . . . your lie. I didn't go up to you to punish you ... I didn't know when I went up to you that I should strike you ... I did it because you meant so much to me in my life ...        I .... )

Having perfected himself in codes and scenarios, Stavrogin, however, fills Shatov’s signifier with a different signified. If we follow him to Tikhon’s, we learn that as a moral check, the slap, for example, was a failure. In fact, it gave Stavrogin a rare pleasure, the ultimate degree of ecstasy from the acute awareness of his own misery (“U Tikhona” 14). Likewise, we find a wide gap between the meaning of Shatov’s questions and Stavrogin’s response to them.

Earlier the novel voiced the danger of constructing ideas – the species within a larger genus of discourses – and allowing them to take complete control of human lives by worshiping them. “At Tikhon’s,” I believe, adds another pessimistic overtone. It questions the possibility of communication outside these discourses. To formulate these problems, the novel has constructed a truly “demonic” labyrinth for the reader that “deforms ordinary experience, reverses expectations, or even inverts the normal patterns of thinking” (Wilson 13). To simultaneously erect and destroy this labyrinth, the author proceeds by sewing and patching up different scenarios out of literary stereotypes, historical anecdotes, and ideologies. He makes his readers try them on. First satisfied, they then infallibly find themselves naked. In the process, they become progressively aware of the artificiality of the grand narratives they have inherited.



Works cited

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Cooper, Alan. “The Sense of the Book of Job.” Prooftexts 17(1997): 227-44.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich. Sobranie Sochineniǐ. 30 vols. Leningrad: Nauka, 1974.

---. The Possessed. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Limited Editions Club, 1959.

Dowler, Wayne. Dostoevsky, Grigor’ev, and Native Soil Conservatism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. 

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years 1865-1871. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1950.

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Leatherbarrow, W. J. Introduction. Dostoevsky’s The Devils: A Critical Companion. Ed. W. J.Leatherbarrow. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1999. 3-55.

Matlaw, Ralph. “The Chronicle of the Possessed: Character and Function.” Dostoevsky Studies 5 (1984): 37-47.

Morson, Gary Saul. “Philosophy in the Nineteenth-Century Novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Classic Russian Novel. Ed. Malcolm Jones and Robin Miller.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 150-70.

Murav, Harriet. Holy Foolishness: Dostoevsky’s Novels and the Poetics of Cultural Critique. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992.

Offord, Derek. “The Devils in the Context of Contemporary Russian Thought and Politics.” Dostoevsky’s The Devils: A Critical Companion. Ed. W. J. Leatherbarrow. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1999. 63-96.

Pugh, Tison. “Gawain and the Godgames.” Christianity and Literature 51.4 (2002): 525-51.

Todd, William Mills. Fiction and Society in the Age of Pushkin: Ideology, Institutions, and  Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

Walicki, Andrzej. Russian Social Thought: An Introduction to the Intellectual History of  Nineteenth-Century Russia. Stanford: The Russian Review, 1977.

Wilson, Robert Rawdon. “Godgames and Labyrinths: The Logic of Entrapment.” Mosaic 15.4 (1982): 1-22.

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