2. “The Only Possible Explanation of All These Wonders”
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110 2 “The Only Possible Explanation of All These Wonders” If Dostoevsky’s aspiration, as author, is to “clarify possibility,” his narrator G v’s much more modest ambition is “to describe the recent and very strange events that took place in our town.”1 Between these two purposes lies a hazard that Demons repeatedly exposes: explanation. Particularly in those cases where there is “only one possible” explanation or where “everything” is explained, we can be sure that there isn’t only and not everything is.2 As a typical feature of his poetics and a practical means of prepping his reader to read him, Dostoevsky often presents in microcosm (or as metaphor) what he dramatizes through the broadest level of the novel’s plot. At the beginning of the novel we are confronted with an enigma: Nikolai Stavrogin, the unnaturally handsome aristocratic scion of General Stavrogin and his indomitable widow, Varvara Stavrogin, causes consternation with a series of outrageous antics. He pulls the elder Gaganov humiliatingly by the nose, he smooches the pretty and very married Madame Liputin, and he bites the ear of “dear, mild Ivan Osipovich.”3 “The Only Possible Explanation of All These Wonders” 111 From the outset, the narrator and his fellow townspeople are at a loss, not only to explain, but even to find words for Stavrogin’s “impossibly brazen acts.” “The main thing lay in their being so unheard-of, so utterly unlike anything else, so different from what is usually done.”4 Since Stavrogin’s behavior falls completely outside the bounds, the townspeople latch onto comically quaint epithets for Stavrogin (“pernicious ruffian” [vrednyi buian], “big-city swashbuckler” [stolichnyi breter]) that inevitably miss the mark. Just as society has no ready label, it has no ready recourse against behavior that it perceives as a menace and an affront: “perhaps some law may perhaps be found even for Mr. Stavrogin ,” huffs public opinion, but that law is lacking, among other reasons, for lack of words.5 After his most grievous outrage, Stavrogin is arrested, only to conveniently manifest the unmistakable signs of brain fever. Within a single paragraph the narrator thrice effuses that “finally everything was explained!” and that the actions of a sick man constituted “the only possible explanation of all these wonders.”6 This explanation, according to the narrator, was “the elephant that everyone had failed to notice” largely because “they were inclined to expect such acts from Nikolai Vsevolodovich even when sane.”7 This explanation, in fact, directly contradicts the conclusion that it seeks to justify. “The only possible explanation” is in fact a cover for the utter lack of such. Stavrogin may have been 1) sane but capable of outrageous acts; 2) sick with brain fever; 3) both (in succession); or 4) something else altogether. The novel ends by reopening the question upon Stavrogin’s suicide and then closing it just as definitively upon reaching the opposite conclusion: “Our medical men, after the autopsy, completely and emphatically ruled out insanity.”8 One historical analogy and one homology within the novel present themselves. Stavrogin’s “unheard of” acts take place three years prior to the contemporary events of the novel set in 1869, so that they coincide with Dmitry Karakozov’s equally “unheard of” attempted regicide in 1866. As Verhoeven has shown, Russian society struggled to make sense of Karakozov’s act, and Karakozov’s legal defense (as well as his unsuccessful bid for the tsar’s clemency) was that the cause of his unprecedented crime lay in his morbid condition (i.e., temporary insanity). The court, however, rejected Karakozov’s insanity plea and deemed that “the determination and consistency with which his criminal plan was conceived . . . exclude all possibility of ascribing his activities to an 112 Part Two: Apparitional Terrorism in Demons abnormal state of mental capacities.”9 In 1866 Raskolnikov and, as a revisitation , Stavrogin circa 1866 (and ultimately Ivan Karamazov circa 1866) literally embodied Raskolnikov’s unresolved question: what is the relationship between psychic illness and moral illness, between madness and an idea? Dostoevsky’s notebooks also reveal that as of 1870–71, he had no overarching term for the tactics that he imagined Nechaev embracing (the closest would be “pokushenie,” “attempt”), and tsaricide—whether singular or serial—was still conceived only in terms of Karakozov. In other words, “terrorism” was not yet available to designate the practice that Dostoevsky had in mind. So for example, under the heading “What Nechaev Wanted (from the author)” in his notebooks...


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Subject Headings

  • Russian literature -- Political aspects.
  • Terrorism -- Russia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Terrorism in literature.
  • Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, 1818-1881 -- Assassination.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 1821-1881 -- Political and social views.
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