3. Tarantulas with a Heart?
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118 3 Tarantulas with a Heart? If it wasn’t for the persecution, I’m not at all certain that I would have become a socialist at that time. vera figner, Student Years The lack of a final conclusive explanation is not only the consequence of Dostoevsky’s choice as an artist, but a consequence of the fact that he knew he really did not know. When it came to Nechaev, Dostoevsky’s notes go only so far in penetrating the mystery before trailing off into a series of unanswered questions. His point of departure, however, is telling: “it [‘it’ is unspecified] began with Nechaev making a blunder, for he was acting in part from the heart—if such a tarantula has a heart.”1 There is scarcely a more astonishing assertion, despite its qualification , in the Notebooks, and it is one that seems to contradict the entire tendency of Demons, which arguably boasts the largest cast of despicable characters in all of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre (hence the title). The members of the younger generation and especially its central characters, Stavrogin, Peter Verkhovensky, and Liza Tushin, are to all appearances heartless. But Stepan Verkhovensky and his son Peter converge, as their only point of agreement, upon the opposite conclusion. This point of agreement is, incidentally, one of the few indicative statements in the novel that speaks to causality, that attempts to explain the phenomenon that Dostoevsky intends to dissect: Russian radicalism of the late 1860s. Tarantulas with a Heart? 119 At the beginning of the novel, when word reaches their provincial town that Peter had been involved in the composition of seditious tracts and had fled to Geneva (the hub of Russian revolutionary émigrés), Stepan Trofimovich, representing the liberal “men of the ’40s,” is characteristically philosophical about his son’s political shenanigans: “And you know, it all comes from that same half-bakedness, from sentimentality [vse ot toi zhe nedosizhennosti, sentimental’nosti]. They’re fascinated not by realism, but by the sensitive, ideal aspect of socialism, its religious tinge, so to speak, its poetry . . . to someone else’s tune, of course.”2 Much later in the novel and quite independently of his father, Peter makes the same assertion when he describes the “forces” that he taps in order to draw people into revolutionary conspiracy. After uniforms (“there’s nothing stronger than a uniform”) the next force, naturally, is sentimentality. “You know, with us, socialism spreads mostly through sentimentality. But the trouble is with these biting lieutenants; you get burned every so often.”3 In other words, once inflamed, those volatile emotions may be difficult for even (someone who fancies himself) a master manipulator like Peter to predict or control. Peter’s assessment is born out when G v ultimately confirms that “sentimental, tender, and kindly Erkel was perhaps the most unfeeling of the murderers who gathered against Shatov, and having no personal hatred, could be present at his murder without batting an eye.”4 First, we must grant that Dostoevsky presents both Stepan and Peter Verkhovensky as (uncharacteristically) completely sincere in their conclusions. Second, we must note the difference in perspectives of father and son. Stepan Trofimovich is a chaise-longue philosopher whose characterization of the radical generation applies most readily to his own. Peter, on the other hand, speaks from the perspective of a revolutionary agitator and organizer whose business is to get people to do things. Lastly, we must account for the particularity of the word “sentimentality” (sentimental’nost’), as opposed to sensitivity (chuvst­ vi­ tel’nost’) or sympathy (sochuvstvie) and its ideological connotations in 1860s Russia. Sentimentality is without doubt a pillar in the characterization of the older generation, and sentimentalizing (sentimen­ tal’nichan’e) is what they do. Peter Verkhovensky’s accusation that his father is Varvara Petrovna’s “sentimental clown” (ty pri nei senti­ mental’nyim shutom) rings true as a pithy distillation of Dostoev­ sky’s own characterization.5 Stepan Trofimovich and the other representative of the “Men of the Forties,” the famous writer Karmazinov (named 120 Part Two: Apparitional Terrorism in Demons after the Father of Russian Sentimentalism, Nikolai Karamzin, and modeled on Ivan Turgenev) are notorious for high-flown expressions of sentiment undercut by base (in)action. Affected feeling without effective love and sympathy, most vividly illustrated by Stepan Trofimovich’s virtual abandonment of his son, is a central component of both men’s characterization, as is feeling as a form of egoistic indulgence and selfdisplay . As Carol Apollonio perceptively observed...



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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