“My friends, all of you, everyone: long live the Great Idea! The eternal, infinite Idea! Every man, whoever he is, must bow down before the Great Idea.” (III, 7.3)
This poor fellow, Stepan Trofimovich, died three days later.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Great Idea is some kind of return to the principles of Russian Orthodox monasticism. I do not think that he is quite there yet in Devils, but the cloud of concepts is forming. This man is dying in the company of a young woman who is an itinerant Bible peddler. He is trapped by his fever in a village of lakeshore fishermen who make their living gouging travelers waiting for the ferry – they have cast down their nets and become fishers of men!
Michael Katz tells me in the introduction that Devils came out of a proto-novel to be titled Atheism. The deathbed conversion of this rationalist character – he is some kind of Turgenev-style Superfluous Man – is one remnant of that idea. Other characters embody different ideologies; I can imagine how some of them were at one point meant to be varieties of atheism, although that notion recedes in the novel Dostoevsky actually wrote.
For example, there are the Chernyshevskians, rationalists who were out to replace the useless reformers of Turgenev’s generation by establishing bookbinding cooperatives and so on.
A book lay open on the table. It was the novel What is to be Done?... Oh, how that book tormented him! (II, 4.2)
Stepan Trofimovich is studying Chernyshevsky in order to defeat his followers’ arguments. His son, a psychotic revolutionary nihilist, offers to “’bring [him] something even better,’” which could mean anything. Could mean, literally, nothing.
The overflow of ideas, of points of view, is, for good readers of Dostoevsky, one of the great strengths of Devils, but presents a real intellectual difficulty. It would take a lot of work to chase them all down, sort, and absorb them. Many later writers and critics happily ignore the competing ideas, pulling out the ones they like. Neither William Faulkner nor the French existentialists had much to do with Dostoevsky’s religious ideas, and they got plenty out of him. László Krasznahorkai engages with Dostoevsky’s religious side. I don’t understand it there, either.
Since it is such a strength of Dostoevsky to allow so many voices and perspectives, even ones he loathes, it was a surprise to see how vicious the famous caricature of Ivan Turgenev is. Sure, he goes after Turgenev’s cosmopolitanism, his ameliorism, sure, sure, but also – this is what shocked me – his prose!
There was always a gorse bush around somewhere (it had to be a gorse or some other plant one needed a botanical dictionary to identify). And there was always some violet tint in the sky, which, of course, no mortal had ever seen before; that is, everyone had seen it, but on one knew how to appreciate it, while “I,” he said, “looked at it and describe it for you fools, as if it were the most ordinary thing.” The tree under which the fascinating couple sat had always to be of some orange hue. (III, 1.3)
Dostoevsky is attacking Turgenev for paying attention to literary art. This is going to be trouble for me, however inventive his man-sized love spiders.
There is a landscape late in Devils, a rarity in Dostoevsky:
The old, black road, rutted by wheels and bordered by willows, extended before him like an endless thread; to the right lay a bare field where the grain had long since been harvested; to the left – bushes and a wood beyond. And in the distance – in the distance lay the scarcely visible line of the railway running off at a slant, with smoke rising from a train; but no sound could be heard. (III, 7.1)
There is not much beauty in Dostoevsky’s Russia. Not much of anything beyond the constant stream of speech, howls, whimpers, and hysterical laughter. “’Oh, what a torrent of other people’s words!’” a character shouts (II, 5.3), in what turns out to be another dig at Chernyshevsky (“You’ve even got as far as the new order? You poor creature! God help you!”). Strictly speaking no more words than in any other novel of the same length, yet that is what I come to the book to see, that torrent of half understood words, all somehow made Dostoevsky’s own.