Ideas and the Novel: Dostoevsky’s ‘The Possessed’

Mary McCarthy

You could say that Crime and Punishment was a novel about the difference between theory and practice. Well, if you were a philistine, you could. The Possessed, too, deals with ideas and their execution. It does so on a wider scale, yet without any such reassuring conclusion. In the earlier book, there was just one theory, Raskolnikov’s, which he fails to prove, owing to his own half-heartedness in applying it – an indication of a possible weakness in the theory itself. In The Possessed, there is a whole band of theorists, each possessed by a doctrinaire idea, and a whole innocent Russian town to practise on. But in the outcome there is no divergence between idea and reality: in most cases theory and practice have fused, which is what makes the novel so frightening. The exception is the superannuated old liberal, Stepan Trofimovich, an idealist in his writings and something more abject in his daily conduct, who naturally holds no terrors for his fellow citizens.

It is possible to see Crime and Punishment as a prophecy of The Possessed. There is the seed of a terrorist in Raskolnikov, which cannot come to fruit since he lacks a prime essential: organisation. He is isolated, and his having a devoted mother and sister who bring out the ‘good’ in him makes him feel all the more cut off. He appears to believe in socialism, yet his only friend, the former student Razumikhin, is a conservative and disquietingly thick with functionaries of the law. A minor figure, Lebeziatnikov, is lumped together with Raskolnikov by a spiteful person as one of a pair of ‘notorious infidels, agitators and atheists’. Lebeziatnikov, who keeps talking about a commune and regards Sonia’s being forced into prostitution as ‘a vigorous protest against the organisation of society’, is certainly a socialist, but Raskolnikov, who has no time for idiots, consistently gives him a very wide berth. He is reserved, proud and unsociable, and despite his boldness in theory, never had any plan to commit more than a single murder (the second was unplanned and regretted), obviously not a chain of crimes. A final liability is the difficulty he has in making up his mind.

In The Possessed, all these deficiencies are made up. There is determination in Pyotr Verkhovensky, an organising gift, complete absence of scruple. He thinks large, in sweeping arcs, not one faltering step at a time. He is highly sociable, almost convivial, has no pride; when we first meet him, he is described as ‘an ordinary young man, very lively and free in his manners but nothing special in him’. He is constantly paying visits in the town’s highest circles, but he has other calls to make too. At the direction of a mysterious ‘Committee’ somewhere abroad, he has set up a ‘quintet’ of inconspicuous citizens, each and all inhabited by ideas. These obscure men are chords he knows how to strike at the right moment in a revolutionary overture of his own authorship. The ideas that possess them can be turned to his purposes regardless of intellectual sympathy or pooling for a common aim. Making up the ‘quintet’ are five one-track minds bent on different versions of revolutionary doctrine, but for the purpose their divergences do not matter, any more than those between the first violin and the kettle-drum. The important thing is that each instrument know its cue. And they can function as instruments in Pyotr Verkhovensky’s diabolical concert because each has merged with an idea: they are ideas, so to speak, without ties to anything material, which might serve as a deterrent. Self-persuaded, they need no persuasion. As incarnate ideas, they have lost the power of thought, which may seem paradoxical till you reflect on it. These ordinary men, including fathers of families, have turned into syllogisms, and a syllogism cannot think but can merely go from A to B to C by a rigid track of inference.

The devils of the Russian title are not the quintet, nor Kirilov, nor the young ensign, Erkel. The devils are the ideas in possession of them that have made them into automata. The only demon is Verkhovensky, who believes in nothing, has no ideas or principles. If he is an Idea, which I wonder about, it is an idea without specific content – a principle devoted (but not dedicated) to destruction. Dedication is not his style.

He is aware of a lack in himself, which is why he turns to Stavrogin. The nucleus needs a centre, and he himself cannot be that, for he is not within but without – a manipulator and strategist. The Byronic figure of the young nobleman appeals to him. His remarkable mask-like beauty, as of Death-in-Life, almost casts him for the central role in Pyotr Stepanovich’s Apocalypse. Or, to put it in more practical terms, from what Pyotr has heard of his exploits in the town he perceives that he can find a use for him: Stavrogin may be able to supply the charisma that is wanting, the seductive spark of the inhuman. Pyotr himself is inhuman enough, but on a lower level of being, as he is aware. He is infernal but cold, sharp, precise, business-like. The very fact that he is greedy to make use of Stavrogin, once the possibility has occurred to him, is typical of the economics of his mind. ‘You will be the leader, I will be your secretary,’ he tells him at one point, showing as concise a grasp as Stalin’s of where the levers of power in revolutionary politics lie. And later, in great excitement: ‘You are the leader, you are the sun and I am your worm.’ It is no shock to see him fawning, but his excited state would be quite out of character if he were not carried away by the vision of what he can do with Stavrogin.

Verkhovensky can find a use for everything – not just the enigmatic vagaries of Stavrogin, but every failing, every tic, in the community. These are handles he can coolly pull to initiate action, and the ideas of the quintet, which resemble tics, are among the handles he has practised with. There is the theory of Shigalyov, a man with long ears like a donkey’s and a philosophy of despair to match: his final gloomy solution of the social question is ‘the division of mankind into two unequal parts. One-tenth enjoys absolute liberty and unbounded power over the other nine-tenths.’ There is the thought of the miserly Liputin, a domestic despot and Fourierist who believes in the ‘social harmony’ and gloats at night over visions of a future phalanstery: he has come to the conclusion that, as the necessary massacre of 100 million persons would take no less than thirty to fifty years to achieve, maybe emigration is the answer.

These two are adherents of Verkhovensky’s quintet, but he has many other instruments in the town, sometimes unknown to themselves – for example, the provincial governor’s wife, Yulia Mikhailovna, who has become so enamoured of the new ideas she imbibes from him that she has virtually converted her salon into a revolutionary cell, arousing jealousy in the other ladies. There is Kirilov, a disciple of Feuerbach and believer in a new man-god, who has resolved to commit suicide in order to free other men from the superstitious fear of death. This could not suit Pyotr’s hand better, since Kirilov gladly agrees to donate his suicide to the cause, leaving the time of it for Pyotr to fix. It will be timed just right to cover the murder of the brooding Slavophil Shatov, who has broken with the ‘Society’ and whose execution as a spy has been voted by the quintet.

Fedka, the convict, no social idealist, is another of Pyotr’s agents. His need of a passport enrolls him initially, and a gift of money assures his following through. With Stavrogin’s tacit consent, he will murder a drunkard posing as an army captain, who has got tired of distributing leaflets for the cause, and the fellow’s demented crippled sister, whom Stavrogin has secretly married. Even before this, Fedka will undertake another commission: to rob and desecrate an especially venerated icon, with a confederate – no ordinary criminal but a quintet member, who will commit the ultimate blasphemy of placing a live mouse in it. Coming on top of other indignities, this outrage leads to the district governor’s having a nervous breakdown and leaving town for Switzerland. But before his nervous illness is recognised and he is deprived of his functions, this mild bureaucrat has had some striking factory-workers flogged – an error the town will pay dear for.

The fever of organisation is such that there is no act that does not lead to something else. Sometimes the hand of Verkhovensky is discernible; sometimes not. The vanity of the writer Karmazinov leads him to pronounce an absurd farewell to his public, entitled ‘Merci’, at the benefit fête for the governesses of the province, and this oration is a contributing cause of the general disorderly uproar that evening, which leads to fires being set. We know that Pyotr did not suggest the topic of the oration – indeed, having been shown the text, he remembers the title as ‘Bonjour.’ Yet we feel that he was somehow behind the governesses’ fête – did he slyly urge the charitable idea on Yulia Mikhailovna? – and behind the invitation to Karmazinov, who has already demonstrated what a fool he will be on the platform by his excited, approving interest in the manifestos that are circulating through the town. And who was the guiding spirit in the benefit committee’s decision – catastrophic – not to serve a buffet lunch and champagne to ticket-holders?

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