Daily Archives: September 2, 2019

Demons: Read from June 10 to September 2, 2019

I actually finished the novel almost a month ago but I’ve been holding off writing a review of it because I needed time to think about what my problem is with it, especially since this is considered one of his great masterpieces and that not liking it felt sacrilegious.

The truth is that I just don’t think this is a very good novel and I’m a little ashamed that I feel that way. I even spoke to the person who recommended me this novel – a brilliant Literature Professor of mine – and we talked at length about it, but my mind didn’t change during our conversation.

Here’s the problem: the novel is structurally a mess. Now I want to be clear that I don’t mean that because the first hundred or so pages are … well, let’s just say slow going and the plot doesn’t move forward at all. Though I was not interested in the opening sections of the book, I just assumed they were character development needed to understand the later events of the story. And to a degree that is correct, but the real problem is the narrator. To often we’re told by our narrator that he will get back to certain details that he’s leaving out for the time being, but he never does go back to them. In fact, almost whenever something interesting seems like it might happen, it’s dropped and we move on. 

The main issue with the narrator other than his never picking up the threads he drops, is that he’s not the right person to narrate this story. He’s basically a useless character who, had he been an unreliable narrator might have been something (though I don’t see what the point of that would have been either), but he also doesn’t add anything to the story – and at times he’s privy to information he could never have known. I get the sense that Dostoevsky thought the narrator would be a good idea at first then wrote himself into a whole and wound up being stuck with him.

And that gets to another point of the novel: focus. Dostoevsky’s novels and stories often read like fever dreams, where Sisyphus’ stone is getting away from him and he’s running behind to catch up to something that is desperately inevitable. This novel, though it does read as if it were written in a fevered state, only feels muddled and confused. And perhaps that’s what he wanted to evoke since many of the characters lives are muddled and confused, but there is nothing really to snap any of these events into focus. We get a lot of description and cryptic explanations, some of which are explained, some aren’t and we, the reader, are left feeling lost in a sea of doubt.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky explains how we must be empathetic to all people because we can never know what they are going through and that to judge is God’s right alone, and so I tried to take that to heart with the characters in this novel, but that proved to be impossible because I never got the sense even Dostoevsky liked these people. Most of them were hurtful, cruel, or, as in the case with Stepan Trofimovich, a buffoon – though, he and Kirillov were the only characters I really liked. I really wished that Stepan had been the central character of the novel to hold it all together since his journey is the most interesting.

And so at the end of the novel what was the point of it all? A town is thrown into chaos because of a possible revolutionary uprising? That desperate people resorted to murder? Well, when I put it like that then it sounds interesting, yet he managed to make that as uninteresting as possible. There is no life in this novel and as much as I hate to say it I agree with Tolstoy that all of Dostoevsky’s characters are (at least in this one novel) all just Dostoevsky speaking – the characters all sound like each other, all act like each other, and though sometimes they may say something remarkable, there is no real substance here.

I suppose this was his attempt to write a satire, and though I don’t expect him to have a sense of humor about any of this – though there are one or two quite funny moments – he fails to get us to care about any of these people. Part of the problem is the novel is staged like a play – there are almost no physical descriptions of setting and so we wind up imagining people talking in dark, empty rooms most of the time. There is no life surrounding these lifeless characters and for a reader it’s impossible to empathize with anyone here, with the possible exception of Kirillov and Stepan. 

I honestly think this novel could have used an editor – in fact considering how some version retain the Tikhon scene, wile others drop it as an appendix, I get the feeling even Dostoevsky wasn’t sure what to really do with this novel. It feels like a draft for something interesting, but in its current state it feels rushed, uninspired, and poorly constructed. And yet because he’s otherwise such a great writer, it’s still not a bad book – it’s just mediocre, and it’s only that good because Dostoevsky was a great writer – a lesser writer would have botched this up even more.

I so wanted to love this novel because Dostoevsky is one of my favorites, but this is a tough slog with almost no reward for the effort.

There came a Day – at Summer’s full

Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 17th century, Unknown
Background Image: Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 17th century, Unknown

I’m reminded of Dante’s love for Beatrice whom, though she married another man, he loved her his entire life, even long after she died. Only in poetry is he able to be with her in heaven when she takes over for Virgil and guides him through Paradise (Divine Comedy) as well as when they were both only 9 years old and met her (in real life) and Love spoke to him (La Vita Nuova).

Emily would have been familiar with Dante, and though I don’t know if she ever read La Vita Nuova (The New Life), there does seem to be a parallel to the revelation Dante felt when he first saw Beatrice and the spirit of life spoke to him saying “Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me” with Emily’s experience of catching a glimpse of “that New Marriage”. Unlike Dante, however, Emily’s revelation seems to be directed not at an individual, but rather to “Love” itself, as if she had fallen in love with “Love”. And, like Dante who would only ever to be with Beatrice in poetry (and in death), Emily recognizes that her and Love are “Bound to opposing Lands”, at least for the time being, and that she won’t find Love’s embrace until she too is “Deposed – at length – [in] the Grave”.

Emily seems to have worked on the poem quite a lot; there are multiple copies of it, each with unique revisions, such as the word “Resurrections” being switched to from “Revelations” as well version C of the poem which she uses her signature dash more frequently than in version D. The more fragmented form of version C does have the affect of being almost breathless, as if Emily is trying to capture the revelation she feels at being in love with “Love” and, at least for a moment, was aware of her soul’s place in the infinity of the universe, as if she glimpsed an infinite love and she desperately tries to recreate that sensation in her poem.

Emily describes in the first stanza how on the longest day of the year – the summer “Solstice” – she experiences an event she thought was reserved only for the holiest of people: “the Saints”. Up till this point she had considered herself to be quite ordinary and that the love shown to “Saints” was not the same love she would ever experience, as if God had degrees of love depending on who you were. Dante also refers to the position on the sun when he writes “nine times already since my birth had the heaven of light returned to the selfsame point almost” as if that particular day was the most important day of the year – in fact of his life – and that the importance of that day would be like a “Solstice” that is never ending in which the sun remains forever at its peak. In other words, the events of this day would be momentous and would forever cast its light on both their lives until the day they die. Perhaps this is why Emily suggested using the word “Revelations” rather than “Resurrections” since what was revealed to her in the light of the longest day would shape her from that day on, yet she is also resurrected in that she is reborn on this day and that she will leave her old life behind.

The second stanza is interesting in that she describes how everything else was quite regular and ordinary. But just as the sleeper whose dreams are full of thunderstorms and marvels, to the observer nothing out of the ordinary seems to be taking place, there is no thunderstorm outside of the sleeper’s dream. Thus “The Sun” goes round as normal, and “The Flowers” sway in the breeze just as they always have, and her “Soul” remains in her body just like normal – in other words, she hasn’t died, but she has experienced something only she (and her “Soul”) is aware of.

And what it is that Emily experiences is described in the third stanza as being “The Wardrobe – of Our Lord” which she means as “Love” itself. This could be read a few ways, most obvious being that perhaps she has discovered Christ and Christ’s love for her and all humanity and that for a moment she shares in this divinely inspired beauty as she walks among the flowers as the sun travels overhead in the second stanza. But she is experiencing something more than a religious, Christian epiphany, she is experiencing “Love” itself, a love that cares for everything from the “Flowers” in the breeze, to “the Saints” and everything in between. She’s experiencing the Platonic form of “Love”. This is why, perhaps, she describes “speech” and the “word” as being profane because if a Platonic Form could be described with language then it wouldn’t actually be the true Form because a “word” is just a “symbol”, it is not the true thing itself. All Emily can say is that she feels it, she knows it is surrounding her the way the light from the summer sun shines on all living things and makes the grow and gives them life. Thus “Love” has been revealed to her and she is, for a moment, like “the Saints” who are resurrected into heaven and like Dante who, upon seeing Beatrice for the first time, though they were both only 9 years old, he experienced an event that would shine on him his entire life.

And though “speech” does not profane this moment (just as Dante does not speak to Beatrice on their first meeting), she is still able to “commune” with this love for a “time”, yet she is also aware that this moment will pass just as Christ’s disciples knew during the last supper that the end was near. This image recalls the “solstice” as once the sun reaches its zenith it will begin its long climb back towards the horizon and will not spend so long in the sky warming the world below until next year. The poem even becomes somewhat frantic as she divides up the fifth stanza with 8 dashes (the most in any stanza), as if she is clinging to what has been revealed to her but it is slipping away so quickly – “The hours slid fast” – that she’s trying to capture and hold onto whatever snatches she can in her poem but “Love” is sailing past her in the other direction. Emily often uses a boat metaphor to describe the voyage of life, such as in “On this wondrous sea – sailing silently“, yet unlike that poem which the pilot guides her to the next life, she is heading in the other direction which is the voyage of our mortal lives.

In the sixth stanza the moment has passed and “time had failed”; the sun has moved onto the horizon and the revelation that was revealed to her is no longer something she can experience first-hand. And since there were no words to describe the experience, the moment has passed by silently – in fact even the exact moment was so brief that it would be impossible to measure the exact moment it occurred since the sun never stops its journey thought the sky, it only travels through the zenith on its never ending journey, there is no exact ‘there’ there, just as there is no way to point to a Platonic Form as say “there it is!” However, the sensation remains inside her, the way the memory of Christ on the cross is depicted on the crucifix when Christ was both mortal and divine, when he was both dead and alive. One could not point to the exact moment when a person passes from one existence to the next, we only know that it does happen, just like the sun passes through its zenith.

When Emily does know, however, is that she too will make the same journey as Christ, she too will pass her zenith and “time” will fail her and she will be able to experience that pure form of Love for eternity in the next life, just as Dante believed he would when Beatrice guided him through Paradise. Yet all she can do for now is try to put her revelation down into a poem and as best she can use language to describe the indescribable, to capture a moment in time that no clock could ever measure because it does not exist in any one point in time, but rather exists outside of time, in a place where “time” fails: eternity and eternal “Love”.