There is what I can only describe as a flutter of emotion each time I sit down and read a novel by Dostoevsky; he is, for an atheistic existentialist like myself, perhaps the closest thing to holy that I may ever come to understand. In both ‘The Idiot’ and, this, my latest read, ‘Demons’, that flutter was longer in coming, but something of the intensity remained despite the delay, or maybe because of it.
I think of Dostoevsky’s style as ‘the rigmarole’, a word that frequently recurs in the english translations and which I have a particular fondness for. The rigmarole (most notable in ‘Notes from Underground’ and ‘Demons’) is a tendency to give robust emphasis to dialogue and imbue it with a heightened inhibition whereby the characters themselves wrestle with meanings seemingly unsolicited by the author and the demands of conventional structure. This sort of meandering prose is such a beautiful thing to read no matter how dark and petty the topic being worked out, perhaps because the mere act of exploration that takes place in these oral walkabouts are rooted in our everyday fumbling for meaning.
I have written before about how my aesthetic requires a certain nonchalance, and in this respect Dostoevsky is the exemplar: the flutter I feel comes out of nowhere, it is the way the simplest phrases strike me simply because I have become caught up in the rigmarole of the character, of the act of losing myself as the character loses him/herself until every sentence becomes something uncalculated and real. Hemingway once mentioned his distaste for Dostoevsky in ‘A Moving Feast’ citing that he was a terrible (technical) writer and yet somehow his novels affected him emotionally… I understand this sentiment as indicative of Dostoevsky’s ability to disrupt the expectations of conventions and the allure of effort. There are those sorts of artworks whose emotional payoffs are served on a platter, most high-concept, genre-laden art projects suffer from this visible effort, or gimmick. The art of nonchalance (Castiglione’s Sprezzaturra) sidesteps this trap: one makes something effective in its goal while hiding all impression of effort. The benefit of this strategy is that the conventional approach to appreciating the artwork is destabilized, and emphasis inevitably directed towards the content rather then the style. Because of this the effect comes almost out of nowhere, much the way Hemingway had been emotionally hijacked by Dostoevsky’s style. The rigmarole disrupts the analytical expectations and allows the emotional payoff to develop naturally from the recognition one has of either the expressed feelings of the characters or of the way they go about emoting them. Dostoevsky’s approach is a weird admixture of heightened style in that so rarely do people actually speak as they do in Dostoevsky’s novels and yet it as if they are speaking such familiar ideas that register in our psyches as perhaps the things we think but rarely say. Some of the joy of reading Dostoevsky is the confirmation that at least one other person in the universe understands what seemed until then inarticulately known.
Part of what is inarticulately known I tried to channel into the present playlist compiled in ‘the spirit’ of ‘Demons’. The underlying message of Dostoevsky’s ‘Demons’ could be summed up thus: ideology is the path to despair. As the translator, Richard Pevear, notes in his introduction, the eponymous demons of the novel are not likely the anarchical conspirators at the center of the narrative but rather the ideas that enflame them, the allure of materialism and nihilism as the end sum of uninhibited and fanatic reasoning. The warning of this novel-pamphlet is very close to my heart, the philosophic underpinning of The Pagan Agenda is anti-fanaticism - against the demonic pull of ideas Dostoevsky so superbly describes. The spirit of ‘Demons’ I choose to explore was the rat pack nihilism at the heart of the work, this somewhat sad and comical possession of ideas that took hold of the group of conspirators who plot the impending resurrection of their slumbering Mother Russia. I think of it as a nasty little playlist with a sinister grin which mirrors the woodblock figures that adorn the cover of my copy of the book (shown above). To keep pace with one of the darkest chapters I have ever read, Kirilov making good on his promise, I chose Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’, easily the darkest song I know of.
[A final note regarding ‘Demons’: depending on your edition you may or may not have the chapter called ‘At Tikhon’s’ set as an appendix rather than in its proper position (part II, chap 9). Pevear makes mention in the introduction of my edition that the editor refused to publish it, I suspect because of its dark subject matter, but that Dostoevsky intended to have some form of it in the novel and what remains is considered only a draft. Some draft! It is quite possibly the best chapter of the whole book, the keystone to understanding the motivations of Stavorgin, and the essential link to the opus that was to follow in ‘Karamazov Brothers’. I forget where exactly it is mentioned, if in the podcasts I was listening to or in the introduction, but a interesting crossover takes place between the fictional worlds of ‘Demons’ and ‘Karamazov Brothers’ in that Stavorgin inevitably becomes the demon of Ivan, and the way one comes to understand this is perhaps best elucidated in this regrettably misplaced chapter.]
01 The Passenger - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
02 Cold-blooded Old Times - Smog
03 The Night - Frankie Valli
04 Mountain -Talkdemonic
05 Harrowdown Hill - Thom Yorke
06 Born Under Punches - Talking Heads
07 So Long - Woody Guthrie
08 Dress Rehearsal Rag - Leonard Cohen