Dostoevsky’s The Possessed - A Climax

In Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, the son of the Stavrogin serf Shatov grapples with his faith and lingering feelings of devotion to the Stavrogin Scion, Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch, atheist and philosopher (and possibly socialist).

Shatov says:

“I reduce God to the attribute of nationality?” cried Shatov. “On the contrary, I raise the people to God. And has it ever been otherwise? The people is the body of God. Every people is only a people so long as it has its own god and excludes all other gods on earth irreconcilably; so long as it believes that by its god it will conquer and drive out of the world all other gods. Such, from the beginning of time, has been the belief of all great nations, all, anyway, who have been specially remarkable, all who have been leaders of humanity. There is no going against facts. The Jews lived only to await the coming of the true God and left the world the true God. The Greeks deified nature and bequeathed the world their religion, that is, philosophy and art. Rome deified the people in the State, and bequeathed the idea of the State to the nations. France throughout her long history was only the incarnation and development of the Roman god, and if they have at last flung their Roman god into the abyss and plunged into atheism, which, for the time being, they call socialism, it is solely because socialism is, anyway, healthier than Roman Catholicism. If a great people does not believe that the truth is only to be found in itself alone (in itself alone and in it exclusively); if it does not believe that it alone is fit and destined to raise up and save all the rest by its truth, it would at once sink into being ethnographical material, and not a great people.”

Funnily enough, Shatov is repeating what Nikolay had taught him years ago, although his words are tinged with more ardour, as Nikolay points out. Nikolay has gone on to newer ideas.

Meditating on the words of Shatov-Nikolay and the context in which it is uttered - in the midst of social upheaval and the personal search for release - is bound to prove edifying, if only because it lays bare the innermost contradictions at the level of our principled thought.

There is a coiled serpent hidden in the brush as well. It hides and bides its time, waiting to strike - and at the same moment, strip all dignity and worth from the human form, as a tribute to some Great and Perfect Idea.

For readers of The Possessed, one knows what a bind Shatov has already brought himself to. He is caught in the web of a large, revolutionary spider, "Nechayev's Spider", I call it, and the revolutionary spider cannot countenance a rival God, a rival truth.

Frederick Yann Yorck

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