I recently finished reading Demons by Dostoevsky [warning: there are some significant spoilers ahead]. It is perhaps the darkest of all the novels of a writer who, in any of his writings, could certainly never be accused of shirking from the depravity of which the human heart is capable. Nearly everyone in the story comes to a bad end in one way or another, except for two of the least sympathetic characters in the entire novel: the main villain, Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, who gets off scot-free, and his vain and completely ridiculous father, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, who nevertheless dies as a homeless wanderer in a roadside cottage.
The novel (as with all of Dostoevsky’s fiction) is largely about the ideas that take hold of people, and the very real — and often devastating — effects that their ideas have, both in their own lives and on the world around them. “It was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you,” says Pyotr Stepanovich to another character. And of course half a century after Dostoevsky wrote the novel, the idea which ate most of its characters — the idea of the Revolution, which is nothing other than Antichristianity — finally ate Russia too.
The ideas which we allow into our hearts have immense power. It is easy to consider them more or less harmless, perhaps even to treat them as games to distract us from the banality of our everyday lives. But they are by no means harmless, and philosophy is not at all a game. As Czeslaw Milosz wrote, quoted in the forward to the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of Demons:
It was only towards the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.
One of the chief values in reading Dostoevsky is his profound — one might even go so far as to say prophetic — insight, not only into ideas, but above all into the human heart. Even Nietzsche, despite all his deep opposition to much that Dostoevsky held in reverence, once said that it was only Dostoevsky who had ever taught him anything about psychology. Because in Dostoevsky’s novels the main thing is never the ideas, but always the persons; in this lies Dostoevsky’s greatness as a profoundly spiritual writer, rather than a mere reactionary ideologue or even a literary giant. As Pevear points out in his forward to the novel: “The person born of the idea may be distorted and even destroyed by it. But to make such a judgment, one must have some way of measuring the distortion, some image of the undistorted person.”
And in this can be seen Dostoevsky’s true vision of freedom. In a novel about revolutionaries fighting under the banner of liberty, he instead reveals the inner bonds by which each character is held (the title is frequently, though erroneously, translated into English as “The Possessed”). Every person in the novel suffers, unquestionably suffers. Yet the real nature of their suffering has nothing whatsoever to do with the unmet demands of socialism or with their deprivation of the rights of man. Were the revolutionaries to win every political victory (as indeed they did in reality, fifty years later), their bonds would remain unbroken. True freedom is spiritual, and can never be found on the political plane.
But the greatest value, the clearest insight, and the highest idea in Dostoevsky’s writing is unquestionably his vision of Christ. It is this vision that allows him to “have some way of measuring the distortion, some image of the undistorted person.” And indeed the remarkable profundity of Dostoevsky’s vision, both of Christ and of humanity, is such that his characters, when they come to Christ, are by no means submerged in a faceless divinity, but rather become even more uniquely and fully themselves. Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment does not become Myshkin at the beginning of The Idiot.
Throughout Demons, Stepan Trofimovich is portrayed as shallow, vain, and above all absurd. The reader is introduced to him at the beginning of the novel, and continues until the denouement with a decidedly pathetic impression of the man. That is indeed quite the essence of his character: he is pathetic. And, unsurprisingly, throughout the course of the novel (indeed, throughout the course of his entire life), Stepan Trofimovich remains, despite all his deepest desires, totally irrelevant to the liberalism and “progress” of which he is so enamored. Yet despite this lifetime of perpetual irrelevance, in the end out of all the characters it is he who is saved, it is his soul that finds freedom. He finds it by dying of a fever in a roadside cottage, through the kindness of a simple peasant woman who reads to him from the Gospel.
It doesn’t really matter that it is even in a fit of totally ridiculous vanity that he sets off on foot while ill to go die in that roadside cottage. Because there, lying half delirious and all but proposing marriage to the peasant woman he has literally just met, his soul finally encounters something greater than its own vanity. He hears the Sermon on the Mount, and becomes very quiet. After a few moments he suddenly says: “My friend, I’ve been lying all my life. Even when I was telling the truth.”
Sometimes truth has very little to do with the facts. We can know all about the facts, we can believe them, we can speak them, we can wield them like weapons, and yet without even realizing it we can be the most frightful of liars. The Truth is not a collection of facts, not even of the most important and necessary of facts. The Truth is a Person, and until we meet Him, even the truth is only part of our lie.
But once we do see Him, or even catch a glimpse of Him, that lie begins to show its ugliness. Stepan Trofimovich’s vision of Christ in the Gospel, though only a brief and feverish glimpse of the Truth of all things, allows him to see for the first time the petty bonds in which he has imprisoned himself all his life long. All his former great ideas collapse in the face of what he calls the Great Idea, the Idea that there exists in this world Someone immeasurably greater than himself. I cannot do justice to Dostoevsky’s portrayal of his deathbed conversion, to its beauty or to its authenticity.
It is perhaps this same authenticity of his characters that gives such power to Dostoevsky’s work. They are authentic because he, in his own words, has taken them from his heart. And as unpleasant as it may be for us to admit, if we are honest we too can see these same characters in our own hearts. We all have the vain and ridiculous Stepan Trofimovich within ourselves, and we have his violent and nihilistic son Pyotr within us as well. We are all both Shatov and Kirillov. We all have both Myshkin and Rogozhin, Aglaya and Nastasya Filippovna in our souls. We are all some combination of Alyosha, Ivan and Dmitri (and even Fyodor Karamazov as well).
Because the spiritual bondage in which Dostoevsky’s characters suffer is the same bondage in which we also suffer. We also tell ourselves the same empty lies. We also look in the same mistaken places for happiness, joy and freedom. But like them, we too all have the chance to meet and to love Jesus Christ. And though like them we must look with brutal honesty at our own failures and our own weaknesses, for us as for them this alone is not enough. Stavrogin saw his sins, but he still hung himself like Judas. Dostoevsky unquestionably has the power to show us our own darkness, but even more than that, he has the gift of showing us the beauty of Christ. And it is only in that beauty that we can ever hope to find freedom.