November 29, 2017

The Missing Chapter — Ending a Russian November With Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed”

By Stuart Mitchner

I was still in my teens when I read Dostoevsky for the first time. Going from Holden Caulfield in New York to a Russian student plotting an act of murder in St. Petersburg seemed like growing up. Crime and Punishment was electric, fascinating, a new world.

I was 20 when I read The Possessed, older but not much wiser. I was out of my depth, unprepared for the upgrade from a philosophical axe murderer named Raskolnikov to a charismatic child molestor named Stavrogin. It would have helped if I’d been able to read the chapter in which Stavrogin describes his crime, but it was considered too shocking to print in 1872 no matter how often Dostoevsky tried to tone it down. Finally, after more than 50 years, I’ve been able to read “Stavrogin’s Confession” in the Barnes and Noble edition of The Possessed published in 2005, except it’s still not in its rightful place at the end of Part II but exiled to the back of the book as an appendix. In her introduction, Elizabeth Dalton refers to it as “this terrible story,” a “small, cruel masterpiece” that is “excruciating to read.” I agree, though I found it both disturbing and fascinating rather than “excruciating.” I’ve read it twice and I’ll read it again. It’s the high point of the novel, the one indispensable passage, and it isn’t in the novel.

Transcending the Boundaries

After the missing chapter turned up in Dostoevsky’s papers in 1921, it was translated into English and published a year later by Virginia Woolf and S.S. Koteliansky for the Hogarth Press. Albert Camus made powerful use of it in 1959 when he adapted The Possessed for the theatre. In effect, two of the most important writers of the 1900s were responsible for reviving material the author considered essential to the understanding of his novel and its central character. Dostoevsky’s biographer Joseph Frank says that without the chapter “there is no doubt the book ends somewhat lamely: the reader does not know either that Stavrogin has made a sacrilegious, proto-Neitzchean attempt to transcend the boundaries of good and evil or that his conscience has driven him to the point of madness.” Nevertheless, Frank calls the novel “perhaps Dostoevsky’s most dazzling creation.”

“Stavrogin is Everything”

In his foreword to the American edition of The Possessed: A Play in Three Parts (Knopf 1960), Albert Camus claims that he “grew up” with the novel and “took sustenance from it.” Besides being “one of the four or five works” he ranks “above all others,” it’s “a prophetic book … not only because it prefigures our nihilism, but also because its protagonists are torn or dead souls unable to love and suffering from that inability, wanting to believe and yet unable to do so — like those who people our society and our spiritual world today.” He ends with reference to “the spiritual adventure and death of Stavrogin, a contemporary hero.” It’s interesting that Camus, who considers suicide “the only one really serious philosophical problem,” neglects to mention that the hero takes his own life.

In his notes, Dostoevsky writes, “Stavrogin is everything. I have taken him from my heart.” Titling an early chapter “Prince Harry. Matchmaking,” he provides Stavrogin with a Shakespearean entrance. The “strange rumors” of his “riotous living with a sort of frenzy” and “savage recklessness” in St. Petersburg that distress his mother are interpreted by a friend as “the first riotous effervescence of a too richly endowed nature, like that of Prince Harry, who caroused with Falstaff, Poins, and Mrs. Quickly.” Pleased to have her son’s notoriety given literary stature, Stavrogin’s mother reads Henry IV “with great attention,” only to learn soon after that her son has been “involved in two duels almost at once, was entirely to blame for both of them, had killed one of his adversaries on the spot and had maimed the other.” And there’s more to come — as Dostoevsky puts it,  “the wild beast showed his claws” a few months later.

At 25, the beast is fabulously handsome and women are “wild about him,” though “sharply divided into two parties, one of which adored him while the other half regarded him with a hatred that was almost blood-thirsty: but both were crazy about him.” While some “were particularly fascinated by the idea that he had perhaps a fateful secret hidden in his soul,” others “were positively delighted at the fact that he was a murderer.” Although “one would have thought that he must be a paragon of beauty, yet at the same time there seemed something repellent about him.”

André Gide considered Stavrogin “the strangest and perhaps most terrifying of Dostoevsky’s creations.” Writing in 1924, he adds that in spite of “the horror Dostoevsky professed for anarchy, the whole of The Possessed prophesies the revolution of which Russia is at present in the throes.” Some 75 years later, André Glucksmann goes so far as to compare Stavrogin to Osama bin Laden while placing the novel’s “nihilistic terrorism” at the root of September 11, in that “everything is permissible, whether because God exists and I am his representative, or because God does not exist and I take his place.”

Stavrogin’s Confession

Reading the missing chapter brought back the rush of first discovering Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment. Both Raskolnikov and Stavrogin are on “a spiritual adventure” where “everything is permissible.” But, as Stavrogin tells Tikhon, the monk to whom he reads his confession, the rule of his life is “that there is neither good nor evil.”

While Stavrogin’s crime involves nothing like the killing of two women with an axe, the narrative of his movements, the fateful steps, the process, the interior architecture, resemble elements of the earlier novel: the dust-hazed St. Petersburg atmosphere, the light, the sounds of workmen elsewhere in the building where the encounter takes place.

In this case, the victim is not an objectionable old lady but a 12-year-old girl, and the moral terror isn’t so much inspired by what the “killer” does as by what he allows to happen. Depending on which translation you read, one of the most disturbing things about the incident is the way the child becomes complicit. In the version included with the edition of The Possessed introduced by Elizabeth Dalton, when Stavrogin kisses the girl’s hand and takes her on his knee, she suddenly pulls away and smiles “as if ashamed,” then flings her arms around his neck and begins kissing him “passionately,” her face expressing “perfect ecstasy …. When all was over, she was confused.” In the version of the scene included with the more recent translation of the novel (retitled Demons) by Richard Peavear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Stavrogin kisses not only her hands but “her face and her feet.” And “when he kissed her feet she recoiled all over and smiled as if in shame.”

Even with the ambiguities inherent in translation, there’s no way of knowing what Dostoevsky specifically intended since he was editing the scene in an effort to make it printable. In any case, the power of the chapter defies paraphrasing. Stavrogin knows “that all that happened must have seemed to her, in the end, infinitely horrible.” The aftermath, as related by Dalton, is that following “several days of despair and illness, she hangs herself, while he awaits, fully aware, in the next room.”

For all its vivid wide-ranging Shakespearean complexity as Dostoevsky’s most politically prophetic work touching on issues that came to fruition with the Russian revolution and that can actually be seen to prefigure agents like those at work in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, not to mention Stavrogin’s relevance to the current media frenzy about sexual molestation, The Possessed has been violated, its darkest, most Dostoevskian scene consigned to an appendix.

“A Gruesome Charade”

My post-adolescent relationship with Dostoevsky, and everything implied by that adjective “Dostoevskian,” was heightened by the real-life story of the reprieve he received a minute away from death by a firing squad. In a letter to his brother Mikhail dated later the same day, December 22, 1849, he describes how “they read us all our death sentence” and “attired us for execution …. They were calling three names at a time. I was in the second group and so I had no more than one minute to live …. Then they sounded retreat. Those who were tied to the post were led back, and they announced that His Imperial Majesty was granting us life.”

It was only after reading Joseph Frank’s biography that I learned that the whole scene was a “gruesome charade.” Dostoevsky was 28 at the time, and his actual punishment would be four years hard labor in Siberia. The playthings-for-the-gods aspect of the bogus execution diminished the existential glamour that the legend had had for me. Such a travesty feels very 21st-century, as in “fake news.” Others knew of the death sentence as they watched the prisoners carted off to the site of the execution; that’s why Dostoevsky’s main concern in the letter to his brother was to assure him the news was a lie: no one had truly been condemned to die, the authorities were only making a point, exacting a moral lesson. No wonder gambling with life and death is called Russian roulette.

The newspaper image used for the cover of the Barnes and Noble edition of The Possessed is titled Conspiracy in Russia: A Nihilist Meeting Surprised. The scene could just as easily be taking place in 1917 as in 1872 when the novel was published. Dostoevsky might have been at such a meeting when he was in his twenties, but as Constance Garnett explains in her preface to Crime and Punishment, he was “neither by temperament nor conviction a revolutionist.”