Girard on Dostoyevsky’s Vision in The Possessed

“In his later years Dostoyevsky’s vision reveals even more clearly the profound significance of novelistic works. It provides a coherent interpretation of the very strict analogies and of the radical difference between Christianity and imitative desire. To express this supreme truth which is illustrated implicity or explicitly by all novelistic works of genius, we will borrow an abstract formula from Louis Ferrero’s Désespoirs: “Passion is the change of address of a force awakened by Christianity and oriented toward God.”

Denial of God does not eliminate transcendency but diverts it from the au-delà to the en deça [nb: A translation of these terms is “beyond” and “this side of”, indicating a spiritual dichotomy derived from one’s orientation towards belief in God. As I understand it.] The imitation of Christ becomes the imitation of one’s neighbor. The surge of pride breaks against the humanity of the mediator, and the result of this conflict is hatred. Max Scheler did not understand the imitative nature of desire and for this reason never succeeded in distinguishing ressentiment from Christian religious feeling. He did not dare to put the two phenomena side by side in order to distinguish them more clearly and thus remained within the Nietzschean confusion which he was trying to dispel.

The Dostoyevskian insight into internal mediation is best seen in the crucial character of Stavrogin, who is the mediator of all the characters in The Possessed. We should not hesitate to recognize in him an image of Antichrist.

To understand Stavrogin we must look on him as a model and consider his relations with his “disciples.” If we are to grasp his importance we must not isolate him from his fictional context, and above all we must not allow ourselves, like the possessed, to become fascinated with is “satanic grandeur”.

The possessed get their ideas and desires from Stavrogin; he becomes, as it were, their idol. Each feels for him the mixture of reverence and hatred which characterizes internal mediatioin. Each is shattered against the icy wall of his indifference. The unfortunate Gaganov fights a duel with Stavrogin; neither insults nor bullets can touch the demigod. The universe of the possessed is the reverse image of the Christian universe. The positive mediation of the saint is replaced by the negative mediation of the anguish and hate. Shatov reminds Stavrogin that “there was a master who announced great things and a disciple who was raised from the dead.” Kirillov, Shatov, Lebiadkine, and all the women in The Possessed succumb to Stavrogin’s strange power and reveal to him in almost identical terms the part he plays in their existence. Stavrogin is their “light,” they wait for him as for the “sun”; before him they feel they are “before the Almighty”; they speak to him as “to God himself”; Shatov says to him, “You know I shall kiss your foot-prints when you leave. I cannot tear you from my heart, Nicolai Stavrogin.”

Stavrogin is atonished that Shatov looks on him as “a kind of star” beside which he himself would be “only an insect.” Everyone wants to place a banner in the hands of Stavrogin. Finally Verhovenski himself, the coldest character of The Possessed, the most secretive, and, one would think, the most “automonous,” throws himself at the feet of his idol, kisses his hand, babbles deliriously, and finally suggests he is “the Tsarevitch Ivan,” the savior of revolutionary Russia, who will rise from the chaos and as an all-powerful dictator will re-establish order.

Stavrogin, you are beautiful! exclaims Piotr Stepanovitch as if in ecstasy. . . . You are my idol! You offend no one yet everyone hates you; you treat people as though they were your equals, but they are nevertheless afraid of you. . . . You are the leader, you are the sun, and I am only a worm.

The lame Maria Timofeievna feels frenzied fear and rapture in Stavrogin’s presence: “May I kneel before you?” she humbly asks him. But the spell is soon broken; only Maria is able to unmask the impostor, for she alone is free from pride. Stavrogin provides a veritable allegory of internal mediation.

Hate is the reverse image of divine love. We have already seen the eternal husband and the curious impertinent offer the beloved as a sacrifice to the monstrous divinity. The characters in The Possessed offer themselves as sacrifice and offer to Stavrogin everything that is most precious to them. Deviated transcendency is a caricature of vertical transcendency. There is not one element of this distorted mysticism which does not have its luminous counterpart in Christian truth.

The false prophets proclaim that in tomorrow’s world men will be gods for each other. This ambiguous message is always carried by the most blind of Dostoyevsky’s characters. The wretched creatures rejoice in the thought of a great fraternity. They do not perceive the irony of their own formula; they think they are heralding paradise but they are talking about hell, a hell into which they themselves are already sinking.

To praise or to deplore the progress of “materialism” is equally foreign to Dostoyevskian thought. There is nothing less “materialistic” than triangular desire. The passion that drives men to seize or gain more possessions is not materialistic; it is the triumph of the mediator, the god with the human face. In this world of demoniacal spirituality only a Myshkin has the right to call himself a “materialist.” Men boast of having discarded their old superstitions but they are gradually sinking into an underworld ruled by illusions which become increasingly obvious. But as the gods are pulled down from heaven the sacred flows over the earth; it separates the individual from all earhtly goods; it creates a gulf between him and the world of ici-bas far grater than that which used to separate him from the au-delà. The earth’s surface where Others live becomes an inaccessible paradise.

The problem of divinity no longer occurs at this low level. The need for transcendency is “satisfied” by mediation. Religious debates remain academic, especially perhaps when they separate the debaters into two rival camps, each of which passionately defends its position and condemns the other. It matters little whether the underground man believes in or denies the existence of God; however violently he argues for or against God, it is only his lips which speak. For the sacred to have concrete significance, the underground man must first return to the earth’s surface. Thus, in Dostoyevsky, the return to mother earth is the first and necessary stage on the road to salvation. When the hero emerges victorious from the underground he embraces the earth from which he sprang. ~ Deceit, Desire and the Novel, pp 59 – 61

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