Total Depravity

In a deleted chapter of Dostoevsky’s Demons he describes a visit between Nicolai Stavrogin and Tikhon, a holy man. Pevear and Volokhonsky include it as an appendix to their  700 page translation of that remarkable novel. In that missing chapter Nicolai hands to Tikhon a 30 page epistle, a confession, he wrote to help him clarify in his own mind the sort of person he is and the kinds of things that give him pleasure. He is a sensualist, as Dostoevsky would describe him, a man dedicated to getting as much pleasure as he can, perverse pleasure, from his own suffering and the suffering of those around him. He is, in a word, a masochist and a sadist — a man with a dark soul. In his confession he recounts a series of truly disturbing incidents he brought about when he was at the height of his search for pleasure.

At the time he was renting three separate apartments to which he brought various partners for sex and whatever else might delight him. At one of those places his apartment faced onto the landlady’s apartment and he spent a good deal of time watching what was going on in her rooms and became strangely attracted to the lady’s fourteen year old daughter, Matryosha. The landlady beat the girl on a regular basis, frequently for no reason whatever and often with Nicolai watching. And she seemed to enjoy the fact that Nicolai was watching as she did so. At one point Nicolai lost his penknife and mentioned it to the landlady who immediately reasoned that her daughter must have stolen it as the three of them were the only ones home at the time. She took a switch and was determined to beat the poor girl when Nicolai spotted the knife on his bed. He pocketed the knife and said nothing and then watched as the woman beat the girl until welts appeared and the girl whimpered pathetically. He then smiled, locked his door and went elsewhere, throwing his knife away as he went. Nicolai later seduced the girl after which she hanged herself.

Now, for whatever reason, Dostoevsky chose not to include this chapter in the final version of the book. Like many such stories it is quite possible it came from an incident related in the papers that the novelist read daily and from which he took many of the episodes in his numerous novels. In any event, whether this incident is pure fiction or is based on actual events I would argue that what Nicolai did was wrong. I would be judgmental, if you will, and I would hasten to condemn his actions and those of anyone else who repeated such actions or others even somewhat similar. What the man did was cruel and sadistic, depraved. He was wrong.

I think I could provide reasons, if required, for making this judgment, reasons involving the inflicting of pain on innocent persons, the rape of a young girl, the violation of the ethical principles of honesty and respect for persons. In any event, I don’t regard my judgment as simply my personal opinion. It’s not just a gut-reaction, though there is that. In ethics, moreover, there are many such situations in which a moral judgment seems to be sound and capable of defense. In that regard, ethical judgments are not altogether different from the judgments we make about ordinary things and events every day. They can be supported and verified by means of persuasive arguments and the eliciting of known facts or accepted truths about the world.  We make a mistake when we lump all ethical judgments together and dismiss them as mere opinions or ask “who’s to say?”

The same reasoning applies in the case of judgments about ethical values such as generosity and compassion, courage, and honesty. We judge these things to be good just as we would judge the actions of Nicolai to be wrong (to put it mildly). Values are present in our world, as I have noted many (too many?) times. And so also are the opposite, dis-values, if you will, as exhibited in the chapter that Dostoevsky wisely chose to erase from his novel. They surround the events and objects that are part of our shared world and they provide the grounds for making judgments about those events or objects, judgments that can be well-reasoned or wrong-headed. We can never be certain, but we certainly can, and we do, make ethical judgments.

In sum, though at times times strong feelings may be involved, the notion that ethics is based on the subject’s feelings and opinions alone is simplistic and ignores the fact that many such judgments are based on factual information and ethical principles that we all take for granted and which make civilization possible. If there were no such principles we would be in a state of nature in which, as Thomas Hobbes would have it, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This would be a world, I imagine, in which no one would bother to notice, much less comment upon, the sorts of things people like Nicolai Stavrogin choose to do to himself or to others. Is it possible that this is what we are coming to? I sometimes wonder.


10 thoughts on “Total Depravity

  1. Movies are often shown on long-distance bus rides here in Ecuador. The drivers or the company seem to select the most-brutal ones, and like the other passengers, it’s almost impossible NOT to look up/watch… I think of the young ones, so impressionable, and think about how watching violence desensitizes those who watch.. After a while it seems normal, and it’s never normal and never right.

  2. I just finished reading “The Possessed,” and found it so powerful I’m reading it again. Your analysis was interesting, thank you. But I do have to point out a few things: 1) Stavrogin had two apartments, in which he entertained two women for sexual purposes, one an employer and one her servant; 2) The girl he seduced/raped and drove to suicide was 11; and 3) The suppressed chapters appears in many editions now as an appendix, but even more directly, as part of the text in the place Dostoyevsky intended (Chapter 9, Book II), in the 1962 edition translated by Andrew MacAndrew.

    • Thanks for the amplification. It is a remarkable piece of work. Have you read “Crime and Punishment”? Next to “The Brothers Karamazov” it may be his best work.

      • Yes, it is remarkable. I did read “Crime and Punishment” and “Brothers Karamazov,” though many years ago — and it may be time for another look. Also on my list, which I’ve never read at all, is “The Idiot.” My husband (a Russia scholar) speaks of it often — and its relationship to Dickens. But I guess the reason I connected so much with “The Possessed” is that, like a lot of women, I “fell in love” with Stavrogin. Dostoyevsky apparently said he was “dark and evil, and a tragic figure,” not like Pyotr, who is just plain manipulative and rotten. Lot of critics (not only women 🙂 have said Stavrogin is one of the most-enigmatic and fascinating characters in literature, and I would agree.

      • He is wonderfully crafted. Another such type is Svidrigialov in “Crime and Punishment.” Dostoevsky was drawn to the type, probably because he was a bit that way himself!

      • Hm… not sure. Historians seem to constantly be arguing about that about Dostoyevsky. :But as a writer I can tell you that I often write about people and situations that are very far from myself. I can’t remember about Svidrigialov; was he described as handsome? Cause I think the physical description of Stagrovin, as well as his elegance and sensitivity (when he has it) is what gets women. Of course, he treats one woman terribly, but is gracious with Liza, even though he can’t love her. One of my old boyfriends. had a bit of that.

      • Dostoevsky’s experience in Siberia left him emotionally damaged and he drew on this in writing his major works. Needless to say, he is one of my two or three favorite writers! Svidrigialov was Roskalnikov’s sister’s employer who fell madly in love with her despite the fact that he was married to someone else! I assume he was handsome. It was suggested that he had raped a young girl at some point. Dostoevskjy seldom spells this sort of thing out, as you know, and leaves it to our imagination.

      • Was away at the theater all afternoon, so answering now. Have to re-read “Crime and Punishment,” for sure. I mentioned Stavrogin’s good looks because the book describes them in detail and then refers to them several times. His relationships with women were sure complex! At first I didn’t find him real because of the complexity but later he haunted me. Dostoyesky excelled at characterization — as well as at so much else.

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