Demons is a mid-career novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, documenting a political intrigue that anticapted the rise of Stalinism in Russia. He considered it a "novel-pamphlet" and published it serially. It is a tremendously humorous book, while maintaining a serious inquiry into the birth of idea-demons that plagued the nihilists of late 19th-century Russia. Inspired by European ideas and the bohemianism of the west, it questions how much responsibility the predecessors to the youths-in-question hold in the fate of Russia.
Based on the true story of a murdered student named Ivan Ivanov (the Shatov character in the novel), whom he thought to be the "new Russian man," the story concerns itself with the politcal ring-leader Pyotor Stepanovich, son of Stepan Trofimovich, a fey, aging intellectual who taught the children that grow up to be nihilists. This sets the scene for a conflict of generations, the psychology of offence & tradition, and the hilarious lampooning of everything that was going wrong in Russia at the time.
Recently released in 1994, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's expert translation changes the misinterpreted title of The Possesed and provides a throughly comprehensible, engaging read. I recommend it to all.
Spoilers may or may not follow, as everything there is to know is revealed very early on in the novel. The joy of Dostoevsky lies in experiencing his philosophical inquiries and psychological make-ups, as well as the absurd situation comedies illustrated within.
Of All Possible Worlds:
Notes From Beyond Space and Time in Demons
What is "the goal to everything" in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons? Two characters offer their informed, impassioned viewpoints and arguments, forming a model basis to their vision of Russian reality, a reality deeply intertwined with religious underpinnings and the search for happiness in a cruel world. Alexei Nilych Kirillov pursues happiness through becoming the "God-man," conjecturing suicide as the mode of transport to get there. Ivan Palovich Shatov sees the route as lying through a marriage of church and state. Two views that at first may appear contradictory, but overlap, resonating with each other catastrophically, they source from the man who (according to Dostoevsky) "is everything" in the novel, Nikolai Vsevoolodovich Stavrogin.
Kirillov decisively kills himself "judiciously," by his own definition requiring a need to "think a lot." This judiciousness is at the heart of the "everything" he is attempting to express, for to "judge except by himself... there will be entire freedom when it makes no difference whether one lives or does not live. That is the goal to everything." And if it makes no difference to live or to die, then no one will want to live because if the religious beliefs of Christianity are true, the kingdom of heaven will await them in death and as the popular t-shirt remarks, if you think living with Jesus is good now, wait until the second time around. Why wait, when one can live with God? Kirillov feels that in our current incarnation we are "afraid of death because" we love life. Experientially, existentially it is all we can feel and touch, and so we love it—prefer it to the irresolute promise of heaven. But though "nature tells us" that life is good & loveable, in reality "life is pain, life is fear, and man is unhappy." Man continues to love life, but because this life is all so much pain and fear, the difference becomes confused; the love attaches itself to the pain and fear. Kirillov, however, sees a future in which "there will be a new man, happy and proud." Men will not care whether they live or die, they will overcome the "pain and fear," "will himself be God."
In the grand tradition of Dostoevsky's psychosocial inquiries, he directs Kirillov to test his hypothesis upon himself, by committing suicide. In order to have enough willpower to commit the act, he has to care either way about life or death, he must be more inclined towards death, so it follows that he is not this "new man." But he is not to blame for the conflict within his argument, as all great philosophical questions are stricken with paradox and those with the courage to confront paradox are to be commended. And though I am trying to restrict my self at this time to talking strictly of Kirillov's ideas and death, I must wander back to the source of these idea-demons, Stavrogin. For it is he, according to Shatov, that poured "poison into the heart of this unfortunate man, this maniac, Kirillov." Stavrogin "drove his reason to frenzy." Because there are only two suicides within Demons, both Stavrogin and Kirillov's, it is important to consider them comparatively. Is it Stavrogin who is this "new man?" Or is the new man, he who does not care about life or death and thus chooses not to live, even possible? The choice of this "new man" would have to exist prior to existence, whereas God asks of the unborn: You, this is the world filled with stuff, do you care? And if this person cares, they go into the world, and if it were a wrong decision perhaps they would choose death—but it would be in preference that they made that decision, not a lack of caring, a state of nihilism. To truly not care, the choice must be given before birth. But if we take Kirillov's conjectures as a possible outcome, and my scenario also as true, then if Kirillov were to become God, it would be he asking the unborn whether they want to confront the world or not.
Philosophical questioning can be considered as existing "outside space and time"—like a conception of Gods and demons, perhaps even confirming Kirillov's suggestion of becoming the God-man through suicide, extending to Stavrogin's own suicide, and Shatov's death all as a predetermined forward trajectory toward time immaterial: immortality. Shatov holds Nikolai Vsevoolodovich accountable for things he said, taught in the past. Shatov's "examination will end forever and (Stavrogin) will never be reminded of it" (italics added). It will never end because these three characters are already dead in non-linear universe, and somehow they know it already. I'm overreaching here, though, losing track of what specifically I've set out to speak of. But if indeed this questioning is outside of space and time, I have already presented all of my arguments, stretched out to infinity and back again. However, the process of this writing is linear, and I must realign myself to the linear-reality of the reader.
Shatov's argument at first appears mildly distanced from that of Kirillov's, and yet it is sourced from the youthful convictions of Stavrogin, thus sharing a common point of origin. Shatov raises the concept of a nation up to God. In his evaluation of the whole of human history he notes that "not one nation has ever set itself up on the principles of science and reason" in totality. In Russia, on the eve of a socialist revolution, an "atheistic order... intends to set itself up on the principles of science and reason exclusively." He believes it thus ceases to be a nation. For "nations are formed and moved by another ruling a dominating force, whose origin is unknown and inexplicable. This force is the force of the unquenchable desire to get to the end, while at the same time denying the end. It is the force of a ceaseless and tireless confirmation of its own being and a denial of death." Notice the similarities here to Kirillov's personal argument, here presented as belonging to the nation. The microuniverse is in parallel with the macro. As above, so below. "The aim of all movements of nations, of every nation and in every period of its existence, is solely the seeking for God, its own God, entirely its own, and faith in him as the only true one. God is the synthetic person of the whole nation, taken from its beginning and to its end."
Shatov has this vision of the nation-state-god-head, and believes in it as an ideal as well as a truth. But a conflict inside of him complicates the issues, that being that he "will believe in God." He does not yet quite. He believes in "Russia" and "her Orthodoxy" and if through his philosophical conjecturing he equates the two, then in turn he will believe in God, for his conversation is outside time and space and he the future is the present even so. Within a more material timeframe, Shatov knows that he is "a man without talent" and can only give his "blood and nothing more, like any other man without talent." He is willing to die for his country, his beliefs, and his impending belief in God. It is unfortunate then that he must die in the name of a cause he does not agree with, murdered by the atheism he struggles to avoid.
I have always been fascinated with the concept of waveforms. Sound, tides, light—they all move in waves, at different frequencies, different vibrations. I am an over-extender of ideas, this I admit, but sometimes I find it so productive to think of ideas, people, characters, and thoughts as waveforms. When one adds to waves together, they can cancel out each other, or additively become one single wave. Kirillov's notion of suicide as a means to become God when merged with Shatov's argument for the equation of nationhood and godliness represents the whole arc of "the goal to everything" in Demons. For if we look at the acts of these young rebels, these revolutionaries and what they actually want to do with Russia we see the blending of both Shatov and Kirillov's arguments: By metaphorically forcing Russia to "commit suicide," it can become the one true God. But the fact that these socialists are by definition atheists, the waveform becomes mutated and only ruin remains. In actuality, all of this idle (yet fervent) philosophizing equates to nothing. There is no salvation. There is no God-man at the end of the tunnel, there is only death, blood, and sadness—misunderstanding and a lack of faith that leads to ruin. In the end, even Stavrogin cannot live with himself, without love or God. And all of Pyotor Stepanovich's scheming for the destruction of Russia is idle, benign. There is nowhere to go from here. This moment lasts forever, regardless of the passage of history or the passing of lives. It is all toil.