...the mildness to which men ... had yielded was only half of the intoxication of beauty, while the other half ... was of such surpassing and terrible cruelty—the most cruel of men delights himself with a flower—that beauty ... failed quickly of its effect...
Jeremy Davies is made of ink, but don’t dip a feather in him. It tickles. He once painted a fingernail black and no one really noticed. He was disappointed. He’s also an editor, a religious atheist, a liker of strong coffees, a Shakespeare-lover, a political anarchist and someone who rarely has a pen when he needs one. He has been a PhD candidate, a personal trainer, a life model, a bouncer, an infantry soldier and someone who rarely had a pen when he needed one. He has had words published in a variety of places, in a variety of publications, in a variety of forms, in a variety of moments: Canada, Wet Ink, SMS and twelve minutes past three in the afternoon being some of these. His first novel, 'Missing Presumed Undead', will be re-published by Satalyte Publishing in February 2014. A second is on its way.
The quality and mastery of Dostoevsky’s vision, and his use of character and plot and pacing, are all on display in this marvelous work. It’s true that perhaps it doesn’t hold together as strongly as some of his other works; but it’s not true that this is a poor example of his work. In some ways, it exceeds all of them, particularly through voice and narrative instability.
There perhaps is some reticence to include it amongst the ‘greats’ due to politics and religion, both then and now. Dostoevsky, the author, is something that always seems to outstrip the pigeon-holer: even Dostoevsky, the man...
A genuine review of this book would be at least another book, and I would prefer to be reading more and writing other things… While I love Dostoevsky independently (as did the Frenchman of whom I shall now speak), my motivation to read this book now was to prepare myself to read Camus’ ‘The Possessed’, the play he wrote based on the novel, as part of my 2013 centenary celebration of the Frenchman (yes, I know he was born in Algeria...). So I will start with some general points and then discuss the book in terms of how it relates to Camus and his thinking.
Dostoevsky, through the character of his narrator, Mr G—v, is exploring a world in change: there are ‘new ideas’ everywhere. This was a liminial phase in Europe and western Asia that both men were living in, the real and the fictional. Politics was on the move, class structures were under assault, what to believe in was being problemised. (It’s still going on now, but in different ways and, mostly, less overtly violently on a grand scale.) Man, woman; master, serf; science, religion; and more so, on a larger scale, how we go about believing in things and what effects these changes (or lack-of-changes) would have on people and social life itself and on being moral. Many opinions get expressed in this novel, many of which could easily slip into contemporary discourse without much of a hitch (just add some pop culture references…) Particularly:
Half-science is a despot such has never been known before. A despot that has its own priests and slaves, a despot before whom everyone prostates himself with love and superstitious dread, such as has been quite inconceivable until now, before whom science itself trembles and surrenders in a shameful way.
And the terrible villain himself:
"On the other hand, the docility of schoolboys and fools has reached the highest pitch; the schoolmasters are full of bile; everywhere we see vanity reaching inordinate proportions; enormous bestial appetites … Do you realize how many converts we will make by trite and ready-made ideas?"
Mr G—v, our very all-too-well-informed-of-events narrator, certainly leans toward a rather traditional line, and his summings up, particularly the ones that he demands are the most true, are often a little fishy in terms of their reliability. As with any narrator, any time he or she is not directly present in events, even if they discuss which character informed them etc etc, there is room for playful doubt for the reader, and I would urge any reader to take this into account, as I'm sure would the author.
That the villains of the piece get their come-uppance we are fore-told by the narrator early on, but not the depths and nature of the villainy: Dostoevsky makes use of prolepsis on numerous occasions to lead us along. There is quite a body count: it would have to be the most violent of his novels I know of, and he handles violence interestingly, both in a visceral sense and a psychological.
As for Camus and Absurdism: there are two exchanges I wish to mention specifically, and both involve the moral suicide-intendee, Kirilov. Now, Camus’ first major work of Philosophy, [b:The Myth of Sisyphus|91950|The Myth of Sisyphus|Albert Camus|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347654509s/91950.jpg|21816839], has a famous first line:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.
Is life worth living: why/why not? Or, put earlier: To be or not to be?
Kirilov is planning to kill himself; why he is waiting, I shall not reveal for spoiler reasons, but he is fully and completely intending to do so. ‘Everyone who desires supreme freedom must dare to kill himself’ he tells our narrator in the first exchange I wish to talk about. When he’s discussing suicide as an option and they talk about pain, Kirilov brings up the example of a massive, huge stone, suspending in the air above your head, and makes the point that while you could be intellectually sure that releasing that stone on yourself would make death instantaneous and painless by such a large weight, you would still fear the pain that you know wouldn’t happen. And he likens this to the nature of God, or, if your prefer to be more contemporary, Grand Narrative Meaning of your choice (insert this wherever you see God too, if you like).
"He doesn’t exist, but He is. There’s no pain in a stone, but there’s pain in the fear of a stone."
God is there, like the stone, the maker of death and all things, he hangs over us (like Meursault’s sun on the beach in [b:The Outsider|15686|The Outsider|Albert Camus|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1356107957s/15686.jpg|3324344] too…). But He also isn’t there, not in any sensible way, in any sort of intellectual manner.
Much later, when speaking to Peter Verkhovensky, there is a further exchange relating to this problem:
"God is necessary, and so must exist." [Kirilov]
"Well, that’s all right then." [Peter V]
"But I know he doesn’t exist and can’t exist."
"That’s more likely."
"But don’t you understand that a man with two such ideas cannot go on living?"
Camus’ chief contribution to literature and ideas can be summed up as his effort to save Kirilov; to answer his question. Living with this Kirilovic tension is what his Absurd Hero does: not denying one in favour of the other, but charting the contradiction of being human. I am very much looking forward to now reading how Camus uses his own ideas to play with these dramatic features in 'The Possessed'.
There are other echoes of this tension even in the relationship between the socialist plotters and the nature of the existence of the Central Committee. The 'group of five' often worry that it doesn't exist, that it's 'mythical'. And I haven’t even touched on the fascinating moral drama of Stavrogin, or the rises and falls of the elder Verkhovensky, or Shatov’s bizarre role and metamorphosis, or many other things…
And ensure that you obtain an edition that includes Stavrogin’s Confession, which was suppressed at the time (you'll see why...). It really fills out the character of Stavrogin psychologically. In it, I found such a beautiful line that could have been written just for me. You know those lovely moments... Stavrogin asks the priest, Tikhon, if he has a problem with his atheism.
"On the contrary," Tikhon replied with unconcealed gaiety and good humour, "complete atheism is much more acceptable than worldy indifference."
I could almost believe in God if every priest I met was written by Dostoevsky. I’m pretty sure Camus would agree.