I Judge This Book By the Cover
Jumping Into the Deep End

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. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

It looks like I bought the Robert Maguire translation (2008, Penguin) right around seven years ago LOL to match your previous post. About time I got to reading it darnit!! I've only read Karamazov (3 times) and C&P (2 times). One day I will expand my horizons.

You definitely should. Of the three I think I'd say Brothers K is the best, but that's kind of arbitrary.

I read Demons for the third time last year. The previous times I had read the P-V translation, but this time I tried a new translation by Roger Cockrell, this one titled Devils. I liked the translation well enough, but the notes were somewhat lacking compared to P-V.

Speaking of new translations, the recent one by Oliver Ready of Crime and Punishment is excellent. For me it seemed to flow better than P-V -- some of the sentences and paragraphs were grammatically less jarring and "jagged." Iirc, Ready says in the intro that he strove to craft his version to read like good mid-2oth C. English prose -- not overly contemporary, so as to maintain historical distance, but contemporary enough for the 21st C. reader to connect with.

I'm convinced that F.D. had the problems with human freedom vis a vis "liberal" political freedom pegged somehow, but I've yet to see a contemporary writer tackle that aspect of Dostoevsky in any depth. I'd love to see someone like Deneen or Esolen take that on. Of course a Catholic writer of that sort would have to bracket F.D.'s strong anti-Roman leanings. And I wonder if his understanding of human freedom seems profound precisely because it's rooted in Eastern Christianity rather than in the Augustinian West. So from that angle a Catholic analyst of F.D. would seem to have to bracket his own Augustinianism in a sense.

By the way just yesterday I came across these three recent pieces on Dostoevsky that look worthwhile. Two of them deal specifically with Demons. Haven't read them yet but here are the links:




Thanks, I'll take a look at those. The New Criterion has a big symposium on the future of "common-good conservatism" which is pretty interesting so far. I've only read three of the ten (!) entries. It pits a representative of "Conservatism, Inc," Kim R. Holmes, formerly of the Heritage Foundation, against several others. So far I'd say he's getting much the worst of it. Basically he's trying to defend Republican/conservative orthodoxy and as one of the respondents says rather harshly, he's "yesterday's man, preaching yesterday's conservatism." Unfortunately only the first two pieces are online for non-subscribers but I think you can register and get access without subscribing. This link goes to the Holmes piece, and from it you can go forward to the responses.


"I'm convinced that F.D. had the problems with human freedom vis a vis "liberal" political freedom pegged somehow...."

I'm slightly skeptical of that, because I don't discern anything that systematic in the novels. Though certainly the novels contain a lot of insight, especially into bad applications of the concept of freedom--Kirillov for instance! I think I'm probably like a lot of Catholic readers in that his anti-Romanism seems like such a caricature that I don't take it very seriously in a factual or systematic sense. I'm similarly a little...skeptical, bordering on dismissive, of his Russian-Orthodox sense of mystical national mission, as visible in, for instance, Shatov.

But then I'm not very educated theologically and am not sure what "Augustinianism" means in this context.

"I don't discern anything that systematic in the novels."

Agreed. I think it's a more philosophical/theological, "abstract" understanding than it is anything systematic, which is partly why I find it difficult to pin down.

'not sure what "Augustinianism" means in this context.'

Eastern Christianity has a different view of sin and the Fall that St. Augustine did, and that gives it a rather different notion of human freedom from that held in the West. Being an Orthodox Dostoevsky may have been working either consciously or unconsciously from Eastern non-Augustinian presuppositions about freedom.

The reason I mentioned the New Criterion symposium, btw, is that it deals (necessarily) with the whole question of 'human freedom vis a vis "liberal" political freedom.'

I read the first of the articles you linked to, and it encouraged my suspicion that so many of Dostoevsky's characters seem just barely sane because he himself often was. The account of his address at the Pushkin memorial...?!?! This is...well, if not just plain nuts, then sort of nutty:

"At last it may be that Russia pronounces the final Word of the great general harmony, of the final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ!"

This kind of bug seems to bite a lot of Russian Christians. Solzhenitsyn shows a streak of it sometimes.

Yes, it's the same sort of thing that appears among Protestants in both the Christian Reconstruction movement, and among those dispensationalists who believe that the U.S. has some role or other in the fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Something similar exists within Catholic integralism, but in that case it's not tied up with a specific nationalism.

I tend to view it as a type of triumphalism, but a somewhat benign one: "There may not be a Christian revival, but if there is it will start with us!" (Lists reasons.)

By the way, I read about half of the recent book on Dostoevsky and C&P, The Sinner and the Saint, but gave up on it. I was already familiar with the biographical information, and the story about the actual French murders that FD based his book on is very interesting, but the author in telling his story completely omits any discussion of Dostoevsky's philosophical or religious attitudes As such the portrait he paints of FD is shallow and not well-rounded.

How do you write a biographical work about a writer who is widely known to have had deep philosophical and religious commitments and hardly mention them, even in passing? It would be like writing a book about Flannery O'Connor and not mentioning her commitment to Catholicism. Makes no sense to me.

Something I was reading not long ago remarked on a tendency of contemporary biographers to accumulate mundane detail and miss bigger concerns. That would be a somewhat understandable miscalculation. But why would you write a book that focuses on a deeply philosophical work and not discuss the author's philosophy? Odd.

Right, Russian nationalist messianism is pretty much exactly mirrored by the American version. It's one of those things that supports Auden's observation about the similarities. But what a difference in style!

Some American Catholics have tied in to some degree with Protestant America-idolizers. And there's a kind of pan-Europe similar thing in, for instance, Hilaire Belloc's "The faith is Europe, and Europe is the faith." But in general the great claim of Catholic triumphalism is to be superior to nations and nationalisms, and ordained to rule them. Though various nations have tried to identify themselves as the means by which that will happen. The nationalist impulse was probably hampered by post-Roman Empire Italy being definitely among the weaker horses in those contests. :-)

As a pantheist lapsed Catholic friend of mine is fond of saying, the universe is playful. :)

Those other two pieces on Dostoevsky are excellent, too. I was struck by this from the first one:

"Yet, in Dostoevsky’s works, the negation of atheism and all its works seems to this reader more powerful, more convincing, than the positive affirmation of the Christian alternative."

I felt the same, definitely with Demons, maybe less so with BK.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)