Dostoyevsky’s Devils

I have come back to Dostoyevsky’s novel The Devils (referenced in a recent post). It is a work of great artistry. One of the more striking passages occurs when the young nihilist Kirilov proclaims that human history will be divided into two parts, “from the gorilla to the annihilation of God, and from the annihilation of man….” At which point the narrator interjects: “to the gorilla.” The Russian author was not only perceptive about the philosophical flaws of utopian socialism, he also understood the wayward and capricious psychology which underlies such intellectual choices.

It is interesting that not all conservative writers have professed unqualified admiration for Dostoyevsky. I think of the contrarian Hungarian historian, John Lukacs, who says of his experiences during the Second World War:

Unlike the Germans, the Russians seemed to me to be a people utterly without pride. At their worst, the Germans were shameless; among the Russians one could occasionally sense the shamefulness of the brute. They were probably less inhuman than the Germans at their worst, but their humanity ap­peared only on a few unex­pected occasions, somewhat like the sentimentality of a suspicious peasant. In 1945 I lost whatever respect I had for the self-professed Christianity of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; among the Russians I found not only the Catholic convert Chaadayev but agnostics such as Turgenev or Chekhov infi­nitely more humane and Christian than these great bearded fake puritans belong­ing to the Russia that pro­duced Rasputin (Confessions of an Original Sinner, 1990).

One of my favorite writers, Maurice Baring, was among the first Westerners to champion Dostoyevsky nearly a century ago. Since then the Russian novelist’s fame has never diminished. Yet I recall that the cultural commentator Jacques Barzun shared Lukacs’ preference for Turgenev and Henri de Lubac voices some caution in his otherwise positive appreciation of Dostoyevsky (The Drama of Atheist Humanism).

It may be observed that none of Dostoyevsky’s characters seem to have jobs or responsibilities. They spend all their time in interminable and anguished discussions. While obviously this is an exaggeration done for literary effect, it does seem to abstract from a real problem of the Russian (and European) intelligentsia of the period. These people had more time on their hands than was good for them. The result was that fashionable drawing room radicalism gradually degenerated into acts of violence and destruction. In this respect the author was prophetic about the state of Russian society in the decades prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.

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