Or How Stavrogin Foreshadows Bill Compton
I consider myself something of an armchair pundit on the subject of Dostoyevsky (no don’t run, this is easy I promise!) I’ve written a book on him that even gets a mention on Slideshare. I don’t call myself an expert, because while I was writing the book, I neither read his work in Russian, nor was his life, my life’s work. I intended to make this great writer’s rather intimidating work accessible. Whatever you think, he is funnier, cleverer and (I think) a lot easier than people fear. Agreed there is a tendency for the pages of Russian novels, particularly Dostoyevsky’s, to entail, scenes that go something like “Let’s all have a cup of tea.”
“Agreed, I’ll get the samovar on.”
“What shall we talk about?
“How about the nature of evil?” …… twenty pages later, the nature of evil nailed, Dostoyevsky gets back to the story, but it is in his characters that the archetypes form.
Columbo and Porfiry
I usually recommend Crime and Punishment or House of the Dead as an introduction to D’s work. House of the Dead is the description of his own gaol time in Siberia, it is horrible, funny and sad, although strangely life affirming. He survived, he changed, he moved on and he was particularly funny on the petty short tempers of convicts. Crime and Punishment is probably his most famous novel, it recounts the story of the arrogant student, Raskolnikov, who decides he has the right to murder two women who are money lender. In his opinion, these women are the scum of the earth, so he offs them with an axe. The novel follows Raskolnikov through the crime to his punishment and, for some of that time, he is pursued by a detective called Porfiry Petrovich, who has a habit approaching Raskolnikov with charm and interest, but who, before he leaves the room, comes back with “Just one more thing….” Who’s that like? We have the formula, we know who committed the murder, the detective seems friendly, and slightly distracted and comes back with awkward questions. The more I investigated Dostoyevsky, the more I became convinced that Porfiry and Columbo were linked and it turns out that this was the case, check out this article.
The Grand Inquisitor and Modern Heretics
The Brothers Karamazov is not a book I recommend for beginners, although it is hailed as the greatest novel ever written, by some, and the greatest Christian novel, it is certainly great, but it is quite a task to read at a sitting. However, in it is this treasure of a story The Grand Inquisitor – the original “What would Jesus do?” It suggests that Jesus returned to the steps of the cathedral in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He is arrested, and there follows a debate about the nature of faith (no samovar this time). The Inquisitor asks Jesus why he did not offer certainty, why he demanded faith. The story is a rerun of the Biblical temptations, just show ‘em a miracle, tell ‘em who you are, and they will believe, peace on earth, human obedience, end of story. I spent the ‘90s watching the X-Files, it was a good marker in the day: get the kids to bed quick, watch the X-Files; even now my daughter shivers at the sound of the music, because as she went to sleep she knew we were watching something scary. In Talitha Cumi, cancer man, the shrivelled blue eyed Jesuit type of the US government, played by William B Davis, questions Jeremiah Smith, an alien with resurrection powers, played by Roy Thinnes whose career was kind of resurrected for the series, in a bit of inter- textual referencing. Somewhere out there, is an interview with Chris Carter conceding to the relationship between that scene and The Grand Inquisitor, if anyone finds it – let me know, I’ve got it on video somewhere, but there may be a link. In an echo of that certainty versus individual heresy, Herrick of Being Human is making a good impression as a successor Inquisitor, determined to infect the world with his own version of certainty.
And the point of all this? While students whinge about having to read, or dismiss the huge culture that bring the archetypes and characters they do like, those oldies, like Shakespeare, the Brontes and Dostoyevsky, weren’t half bad at creating the first types, perhaps, because all they did was look around. However, Dostoyevsky’s take on the man with the dark secret as represented by Stavrogin in The Devils, a political thriller, sometimes called The Possessed which starts with the murder of a student found stuck under the ice, which, come to think of it, is how the latest X-Files movie starts, features Stavrogin a man with a dark secret, haunted by what he has done and eventually doomed by it. What vampire hasn’t been there?
Stavrogin’s secret is published in the last chapter, left out of the original, as it was considered too offensive because it concerns Stavrogin’s seduction of a 12 year old girl, who subsequently hangs herself. He carries this secret with him, looking for God, in the hope that God exists and that He will punish him, but Stavrogin’s search reveals nothing but the need for faith, and that is not enough.
Like Stavrogin, these godless men, are almost universally dark and smouldering. The fashion then was for social realism, so these men were the vampires of their day, men who corrupt with sex but seek to overcome their lesser selves by finding redemption in a woman. Twilight, is a teenage lover, longing for sex but trying to be a gentleman girls flock to the film seeking a role model for their boyfriends, the boys, sigh with mockery, in the full knowledge that this is too much to ask. Bill Compton in True Blood, tries to combine southern honour with the desire for blood, and Mitchell in Being Human, fails miserably to resist the hunger.
Stavrogin the Social Realist Vampire
Why the sudden fascination with vampires? They are a modern myth, and have had had their say in literature and media for as long as pen and film have met, but recent schedules list, True Blood, Being Human, Twilight, Vampire Diaries, Moonlight – and yet more to come no doubt. Perhaps the vampire is the logical extension of Stavrogin, a man who could not find a god to forgive him or punish him for his sin. A man who is doomed to live for ever in a world where God does not exist, so everything is permitted (The Brothers Karamazov, said by Ivan — somewhere). Perhaps only the individual is the arbiter now, between good and evil, everything is relative, god or no god, individuals seem to be on their own and absolutes don’t seem to apply, because absolutes lead to fundamentalism. The vampire is a metaphor for human beings, who try to achieve an individual morality, in the face of their own demons, rather than imposing them on someone else or appealing to a greater power that wishes only to dominate the world. How long this genre will last, remains to be seen, the audience is a fickle mistress, it is both voracious and easily bored, but Dostoyevsky wanted to write a novel (The Devils, 1872) that would be talked about a hundred years from writing – he got that right!