Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994. 

I Judge This Book By the Cover

I was in my local independent bookstore one day last week. I don't go there very often, even though I am happy they've survived and even prospered (though book sales are not their only revenue), and I want them to continue to do so. There just aren't many current books that I have much interest in, so I don't go unless I have some specific reason. I had been there several weeks earlier for some Christmas shopping (which proved to be futile), and discovered that they had a copy of Alfred Corn's new translation of Rilke's Duino Elegies.

I was surprised to see it, as the store's poetry section is very small and not very interesting. And I've been wanting to read this translation, but was in a hurry and there was a long line at the cash register, so I didn't buy it at the time. Figuring, correctly, that it would probably still be there after Christmas, I went back to get it.

I could not miss the many copies of this book, very prominently displayed:


The idea that these two very successful, very rich, very honored, very influential and in Obama's case directly powerful, men are in any conceivable sense "renegades" is just too much. That the title was chosen, and approved if not proposed by the two, reveals the way left-liberal America still sees itself, in spite of its commanding cultural position, as a band of plucky rebels challenging a repressive establishment. I guess that still generates a lot of energy.

A few years ago there was a TV commercial, for what I don't know, which involved an older white man, a stereotypical old-school corporate executive, bragging about getting some sort of special deal (sorry, I really don't have any idea what it was about). He says to a subordinate "It's my way of sticking it to the man." 

"But sir," says the subordinate. "You are the man." Exactly.

Good Omens (TV series)

For many years I've heard the novels of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett recommended, often very highly and sometimes from people whom I know personally and who generally have pretty good literary judgment. I thought I might check them out sooner or later, but they weren't a high priority and I still haven't read anything by either of them. This 2019 TV series, based on a book which they co-authored, seemed like a chance to see what the praise was all about. Pratchett died in 2015, and the series seems to have been entirely under the control of Gaiman, as both writer and producer. 

The premise is that an angel and a demon who have been on the Earth beat since the Creation (the date of which, we are told, Bishop Usher was actually right about) have become more or less friends and rather comfortable with their 21st century simulated-human existence. The End Times have come, the anti-Christ is to be born. and the final war between heaven and hell is to commence. The pair have important roles to play in all this, but there's a problem: they don't want the world to end. They are pretty content with the way things are. So they set about trying to sabotage the apocalypse, and the whole thing becomes farce in the classic sense: "situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, ridiculous, absurd, and improbable." (Wikipedia) Right off the bat, for instance, they lose track of the anti-Christ, and waste a lot of time trying to steer the development of the wrong child. 

The series did not make reading either of its authors seem more urgent to me, and since Gaiman was apparently in control the blame can't be laid on insensitive TV producers. It's clever, but not that clever; funny, but not that funny. It leans too heavily on hackneyed conceptions of angels, demons, heaven, hell, and God. The last of these, for instance, is heard only as a voiceover (by Frances McDormand) and is the sort of limited wisecracking hardly-God-at-all construct which has been around at least since George Burns did the number in Oh, God back in the '70s. The angel (played by Michael Sheen) is an effete and timid fussbudget, apparently homosexual. The demon (David Tennant) is rich, witty, and glamorous, though most of the other demons are a really nasty lot. The angels are different but not really much nicer, slick inhabitants of a sort of empty white and glass space suggestive of a corporate office, behaving accordingly. Gabriel is played by Jon Hamm, who apparently had a key role in Mad Men, which I have not seen, but I suppose the association added flavor to the role for those who have seen it. 

The whole "isn't religion silly" vein of humor is pretty well played out at this point--"religion" here meaning mainly Christianity, or rather a pop-secular parody of it. People have been doing it for quite some time now, and there's no longer much adventure to be had in satirizing something that was already a parody. With "religion" now generally and openly despised by our most dominant and influential cultural forces, this kind of thing begins to seem like a big exercise in missing the point.

All that said, I did enjoy it, and would sort of half-recommend it. It's very elaborately and effectively produced, and there are a good many funny moments. The cast in general seems to be having a lot of fun, especially David Tennant. And I had fun identifying some of the actors playing characters very far removed from their usual roles. My wife heard a lot of "I know that face/voice, I just can't place it" from me. Anna Maxwell Martin is Beelzebub. Nina Sosanya, whose face and voice if not name will be familiar to people like me who watch a lot of British crime dramas, plays a nun (actually a satanic nun, Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl). Miranda Richardson is Madame Tracy, a middle-aged (at least) woman who combines the occupations of prostitute and medium-for-hire. Mirielle Enos, the troubled detective (aren't they all?) of the American version of The Killing is War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The one that took me the longest time to get was an actor whose face I recognized but couldn't place until four episodes or so in: he is Michael McKean, who plays Chuck, the older brother of Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. He plays one of the last Witchfinders, and gets special credit for being a rare American actor who does a believable British accent. 

Here's the trailer:

Having watched the trailer again, I'll add that there is a definite philosophical or theological kinship here with Wim Winders's Wings of Desire. Worlds apart aesthetically, though.