Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A Novel in Three Parts

by fyodor dostoevsky
translated by richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky
vintage, 776 pages, $27

According to the Talmud, the demons are more numerous than we are. “They stand over us like mounds of earth surrounding a pit.” Rav Huna teaches that “each and every one of us has a thousand demons to his left and ten thousand to his right.” Abba Binyamin tells us that “if the eye had the power to see, no creature would be able to withstand the demons.” Fourteen centuries before Lovecraft, the Talmudists knew that what we see is only the tiniest portion of what’s really there, and the rest is monsters. Our ordinary world, the one in which we work and fall in love and watch TV—it’s thinner than paper, and the demons pour through it in hordes. This planet isn’t our home; it’s a hive. And though seeing the demons is fatal, the rabbis tell you how it may be done. Scatter a circle of fine black ashes around your bed at night, and in the morning, you will see their footprints, their claws like a rooster’s, their terrible number. What they don’t tell you is how you will ever sleep comfortably again.

Later, Christians gave names and ranks to the demons; they made catalogues. In Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, we meet beings such as Adramelech, “great chancellor of the underworld, steward of the wardrobe of the sovereign of the demons, president of the high council of the devils,” and Behemoth, a “heavy and stupid demon” who serves as “butler and high cupbearer” in hell. Demons, these taxonomies suggest, are not simply anarchy and adversity; they are legible to the classifying powers of human reason. They are bureaucratic beings whose natural environment is the database—even if Adramelech wears the head of a donkey and a peacock’s tail. (In fact, there’s something distinctly computational about all these chimeras, a mathematical recombination of elements, all mad permutations indexed in the logical architecture of hell.) The demons of the Talmud are far more protean: a nameless, numberless swarm. The scholars don’t even necessarily agree that these demons have minds or wills like ours, nor that they actively desire to do evil. Demons are not quite alive. They’re something like viruses, working their automatic evil—like sandstorms in their torrential, inorganic malice. As a Jew, I’m agnostic when it comes to the organized and intentional devils of Christianity. But Rav Huna’s demons are real.

A demon is invisible and ­immaterial but produces visible effects. Rabbi Yosef bar Hama teaches that demons wear out the clothes of the sages and tire their knees, even though the ­sages don’t labor in the fields. These are small demons. ­Descartes gave us a much larger one, capable of producing all visible effects. Today, we could say that the internet is a vast demon squatting over our world. It’s an invisible system, made of cables and server farms that most people never see, immaterial flashes of ­electricity—but it structures and organizes basically everything around us. Police in Los Angeles have started playing music on their phones when they get into altercations with the public. That way, any embarrassing footage will automatically be removed from social media for copyright infringement. The real world contorts itself according to strange laws; a demon is at work. Young people use makeup to contour their features. On the street they look ridiculous, but that isn’t the point. The screen of a phone flattens everything, even your face; it’s a trompe-l’œil; it’s for the selfies. A demon is here.

Demons change the way you act, or the way you look, or the way you speak. A demon possesses you: It speaks its own words out of your mouth.

As far as I know, there’s one absolutely incontrovertible record of a demonic possession from the last century. We know it happened; we have the whole thing on film. We’re in Paris in the 1960s. In the footage, we see a young woman and an older man sitting across from each other on a train. The man is Francis Jeanson, the left-wing activist and philosopher; the woman is one of his former students. She tells him that she admires the Cultural Revolution in China and wants to provoke ­something similar in France. Like Mao, she wants to shut down the universities: “What disgusts me is teaching. It’s always a question of class. Culture is class culture.” Jeanson agrees but wonders how she’s going to go about closing the universities all by herself. She taps against the window. “With bombs.”

“Once we kill students and teachers,” she explains, “they’ll stop going.” She delivers this line without any furtive glancing about; she doesn’t seem to realize she’s being filmed. Jeanson reacts with polite horror, but his student presses the point. During the Algerian war of independence, Jeanson set up a covert support network for freedom fighters in metropolitan France—people who had set off bombs. Now he’s against violence? Not quite. “What’s the point of killing people,” he says, “if you don’t know what you’ll do next?” During the Algerian War, Jeanson was part of a movement, a people fighting for definite aims. They wanted independence. His student isn’t moved: “I, too, want mine.” Jeanson doesn’t convince her to abandon terrorism. He never could. Even those words, I want my independence, are not her own; he isn’t really having a conversation with the person sitting across from him on the train. Something else has possessed this woman. Something is wearing her as a mask.

Fine: This footage is part of a film, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 La ­Chinoise—if you want to be pedantic, a work of fiction. Still, a demon really was at work. The film concerns a group of young Maoist students and their turn to violence. Godard’s characters smoke cigarettes and deliver short lectures to one another and act out geopolitical dioramas. It’s all very stylized, and they’re all unbearably sexy. When I first saw it as a teenager, I decided that I desperately wanted a brilliant and cruel Marxist-Leninist girlfriend who would betray me in an instant for the cause. (As I later learned, this is one of those desires that’s best left unmet.) These characters are intensely charismatic. They are also possessed.

In the very first scene, two hands grasp each other against a white wall, and two voices say together: “We are the words of others.” The words of Mao and Lenin, obviously. But also, the words of Godard. His students seem to be intermittently aware that they’re characters in a film: “Are the words I’ve just said, so awkwardly and blindly, part of a greater play continuing through me?” It’s never entirely clear which parts are supposed to be real. In the scene on the train, Francis Jeanson plays himself. He really did assist FLN fighters during the war, and the actress sitting in front of him really was a left-wing activist, who really did study philosophy under him at Nanterre. Her dialogue wasn’t scripted. Jeanson improvised, but the actress also wore a radio earpiece—through which ­Godard, the director-demon, whispered lines for her to repeat. These were not words printed on a page, visible to anyone, to be internalized by the actor, chewed over, digested, and then spoken again. The person was being spoken through.

La Chinoise is a loose adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1871 novel Besy, variously translated Demons, Devils, or The Possessed. None of these names are precise. Besy in Russian refers to the kind of demons you find in the Talmud: nameless and teeming, malice on the land. Adramelech and his colleagues would be demony. The novel is about a revolutionary cell of utopian socialists in nineteenth-century Russia, a sordid crowd of weirdos and suicides, infinitely less attractive than Godard’s pouting French teens. Under the manic leadership of one Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, they bustle about, they make their spittle-flecked proclamations, they have their small romantic intrigues, and then, at the climax of the novel, they collectively murder one of their own. This was Verkhovensky’s plan all along: to bind his little group together in an unspeakable crime, and thus bring them under his thrall.

For a while, Demons was shunted into the second rank of Dostoevsky’s novels. A big swamp of a book, too long by far, it has heaps of gaudy melodrama, schemes that never go anywhere, a duel that doesn’t result in anything, too much satire that is ­incomprehensible to anyone reading today, too much hysterical dialogue in which people turn blue or purple or deathly white while saying things like “Wha-a-at? Ah, the devil take him! A slander, madam! Damn it all!” It’s a mess—a glorious mess, but a mess. Lately—and especially as we approach its 150th birthday—the novel has developed a new readership among the right, who take it as a Rosetta Stone. This book, the line goes, shows what the left are ­really like; this is what they’ve always been. All their high ­theorizing about a better, fairer society only ends in murder, a body thrown into an ornamental pond, a gulag in the hidden wastes. Verkhovensky and his gang are the same as Antifa, or Black Lives Matter, or the French Maoists of the 1960s. Their nature doesn’t change, and they are demons.

Usually, I tend to dismiss this kind of flat, political reading of literature, but here it’s not so easy. Dostoevsky saw the novel in the same terms. In his letters, he described it as a “novel-­pamphlet,” a weapon:

What I’m writing is a more tendentious piece, I want to speak out rather more forcefully. Here the nihilists and the Westerners will begin howling about me that I’m a retrograde! Well, to hell with them, but I’ll say everything to the last word!

My edition of this pointed little pamphlet is more than seven hundred pages long. It’s possible that ­Dostoevsky was one of those writers who misreads his own work.

One of the most notable things about the novel’s cast of nihilists is that it’s never really explained why they want to tear everything down. They make arguments for their nihilism, but the arguments are existential, not political. One revolutionary, Kirillov, has decided to kill himself for no reason—because “there will be entire freedom when it makes no difference whether one lives or does not live.” By shooting himself, he will demonstrate that his aimless self-will is stronger than everything in the universe, even the fear of death. He will become the only god in a godless world. It’s an almost beautiful argument, but it doesn’t have much to do with factories or surplus-value or the struggle of class against class. Another revolutionary, Shigalyov, has constructed the perfect society in “a fat notebook, filled with extremely small writing,” which he keeps with him at all times: “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.” In his utopia, nine-tenths of humanity must “lose their person and turn into something like a herd”—or maybe we should just kill them. Before long, he’s discussing exactly how long it would take, in practical terms, to chop off one hundred million heads. A morose thought: “Under the most favourable circumstances it would take fifty, or, say, thirty years to finish such a slaughter . . .”

It’s not as if Dostoevsky was ­unaware of the actual injustices in ­society—his first book, Poor Folk, written while he was still a liberal, was a classic social novel, a sympathetic slog through the misery of the impoverished. But the nihilists in Demons aren’t moved by such stuff. They seem to be outraged simply because they are young, God is dead, and strange ideas are flitting about in the night.

Nobody wants to be behind the times, to think old thoughts, or cherish old things. This is how Varvara Petrovna—­a formidable local landowner, a middle-aged general’s widow, hardly part of any revolutionary class—can suddenly start talking giddily about “new ideas” and “the new order,” and declaring that “no one nowadays admires the Madonna anymore or wastes time over it, except for inveterate old men. This has been proved.” Not politics—fashion. The invisible force that changes your clothes and changes your mind. In fact, not one of these people actually believes a word they’re saying. Even Shigalyov, who dreamed of slicing off one hundred million heads, gets cold feet as soon as an actual murder is countenanced—he decides that “this entire affair, from beginning to end, literally contradicts my programme.”

As for Verkhovensky, the ringleader—he’s based on a real person: ­Sergey Nechayev, a student revolutionary who, in 1869, arranged the murder of one of his comrades. The real-life Nechayev was not popular. He was expelled from the First International, and Engels once wrote that he “is either a Russian agent provocateur or anyhow acted as if he were.” But Lenin was a devotee, and it’s not hard to see why. Nechayev’s ­Catechism of a Revolutionist is a kind of masterpiece, infinitely hard and bleak, right from its opening lines:

The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. . . . For him, there exists only one pleasure, one consolation, one reward, one satisfaction—the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim—merciless ­destruction.

Verkhovensky is simply not the same. “To my own surprise,” ­Dostoevsky told his publisher, he emerged as “a half-comic character.” Verkhovensky blusters and prevaricates; he has far more emotions and attachments than he’d ever admit. Even at his most conniving, he seems lost. He’s looking for a father, a master-­signifier. He thinks he’s found one in the enigmatic aristocrat Nikolai ­Stavrogin, and grovels before him: “You are a leader, you are a sun, and I am your worm. . . . Without you I’m a fly, an idea in a bottle.” Stavrogin turns him down. Verkhovensky is a follower pretending to lead, and, as he admits, “a crook, not a socialist.” The real Nechayev was, fortunately, a wholly singular human being, but Verkhovensky is a much more familiar type. Demons isn’t the nightmare of vicious ideologues taking over the world. It depicts a far subtler horror: an ideology that is everywhere, but that nobody really believes.

You don’t need to look hard to see the same thing happening today. A few years ago, large sectors of the American left coalesced around the slogan “abolish ICE.” As it happens, I think abolishing ICE is a pretty good idea. I’ve seen how the U.S. border works. There must be something suspicious about my passport, because every time I fly to America I get hauled into the sad little room at the airport where the undesirables wait. Lino floors and buzzing computers, children trying not to cry as they’re processed for deportation, old men gasping on oxygen tubes, and everywhere the smirk of petty authorities. (I always get out fine, of course—I’m from Europe.) In London, I live in one of the most racially diverse boroughs in the country; it’s also a frequent target for immigration raids. Something in me rebels instinctually at the thought of people being torn from their homes and friends, simply for not having the right documents. So, yes—get rid of it. The problem is that few of the people who chanted “abolish ICE” seem to agree. The slogan wasn’t a policy; it was a demon. Its object wasn’t ­actually to change anything, but to speak itself through people’s mouths. Ever since the 2020 election—ever since ­abolishing ICE became an actual possibility—all the major figures who chanted that slogan have fallen mysteriously silent. According to the ­Talmud, demons resemble human beings in three ways. They eat like us, they seek to multiply themselves like us, and, like us, they die.

But if I’ve chosen an example from the left here, it’s absolutely not because that’s where all the demons have their nests. (I understand that right now, the fashionable idea in right-wing circles is traditionalism, the return to an ancient way of life based in mythic precepts. The people who espouse this idea tend to do so by posting lots of memes about it on social media. See the demon flicker, its mindless hunger in their eyes . . . ) There’s a strange phenomenon where people who’ve been cast out of left-wing milieux tend to start shifting rightwards; it’s happened to people I know. But why? Yes, your old comrades turned out to be a group of denunciatory sadists—but why would that also mean that the free market is the most efficient way of allocating scarce resources? It’s because even for intellectuals (maybe especially for intellectuals), opinions aren’t really the result of a careful examination of the facts, or even a question of personal conscience. Instead, they’re mostly determined by whatever other opinions are floating around in your vicinity. Wherever you are, there’s a demon at your hand. The reason I’ve used an example from the left is simply that I’m on the left myself, and this demon is my own.

Look at the demons in the New Testament. What do they say? Ordinary people might scoff at Jesus, but the demon in the synagogue at Capernaum cries out: “I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God.” When he heals the masses, their demons chorus: “Thou art Christ the Son of God.” ­Legion, the demon that is many, grovels and worships at his feet: “What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?” How do you identify the demon-possessed? If the Gospels are to be believed, the best way is to see if they loudly proclaim the divinity of Christ. There is a lesson here: The demon you need to watch out for is never your enemy. Your demon is always something you agree with.

This is what Godard sees in La Chinoise. The film is not an anti­communist screed. ­Godard is a Maoist himself. When his deranged students rail against U.S. imperialism and proclaim the coming revolution, he’s in complete ideological sympathy—but he can still recognize them as demonic. Dostoevsky, working from the right, does the same thing. The man Verkhovensky and his clique end up murdering is called Ivan Shatov, and he’s a pretty familiar figure: the repentant revolutionary. A liberated serf, Shatov followed Dostoevsky’s own path. First, he was a socialist and an atheist, then he “leaped to the opposite extreme,” to mystic nationalism, to Holy Russia, the last God-bearing nation on earth. But when Stavrogin asks whether he himself actually believes in God, all he can do is babble: “I believe in Russia, I believe in her Orthodoxy . . . I believe in the body of Christ . . . I believe that the new coming will take place in Russia . . . I believe . . .” Yes, but God, what about God? All he can manage is a hope: “I . . . I will believe in God.”

He’s reciting Dostoevsky’s whole creed, down to the letter, but he wears it like a suit of new and ill-fitting clothes. It is a pose, a contagion, a way of distinguishing himself from his former comrades. His words come from somewhere else; something is speaking through him. (Within the novel, it turns out his sentiments are all quoted verbatim from Stavrogin himself, who doesn’t believe a word of them either.) Shatov is no different from the nihilists who kill him. Just like them, he’s a product of his age. And like ours, it’s a shallow, stupid age that swallows up all the sincere beliefs of the past—Marxism, Christianity—and turns them into empty poses. He is lost, even after his turn to the church. His god is just another demon.

Is an exorcism possible? Would we even want it? It’s very easy to say that we should stop letting outside forces shape our opinions, cast out the ­demons, simply be sincere and think for ourselves—but what would that look like? As Adorno and ­Horkheimer saw, anything “cleansed of demons . . . takes on, in its gleaming naturalness, the numinous character which former ages attributed to demons.” How different is “think for yourself” from “abolish ICE”?

If we’re talking about the things that speak through us, then language itself is something like a demon. There is no private language; every word you speak has a history that began long before you were born, breeding itself in a million other mouths: “We are the words of others.” Wouldn’t thinking entirely for yourself mean thinking without words?

Godard has an image. The film’s version of Shatov isn’t murdered, only expelled from the group when he refuses to endorse terrorism. When we see him again, he’s at his breakfast table, reading L’Humanité and espousing some very staid, non-Maoist, no-longer-sexy ideas: “The only people to talk about the price of a fridge, of work rates or bathrooms, and not just general philosophy . . . it was the delegates of the French Communist Party.” Radicals of the era loathed the Communist party. They thought it had abandoned the revolution for merely improving the lives of the working class. Godard hated the PCF too; in 1970’s Le Vent d’Est he called them “enemies who pose as Marxists.” Enemy or not, Godard’s newspaper-reader has decided to stop letting others speak through him. He tells the “story of the Egyptian children”: Convinced that theirs was the language of the gods, the ancient Egyptians walled up some newborns in a house to see whether they would spontaneously start speaking. When they came back fifteen years later, the children were bleating at one another like sheep. “They hadn’t noticed the house was next to a sheep-pen. For us, Marxism-Leninism was a lot like the sheep.” He has cast out the demons. He is interested in indoor plumbing and fridges—not discourse, not theory, not demonic incantations, but real political work.

Dostoevsky likewise has an idea of what thought without demons might look like, but his is gloomier: It looks like an epileptic fit. Late in the novel, he has one of his characters try to describe one of these fits, that pure, wordless, incommunicable, totally unmediated rush of experience:

There are seconds, they come only five or six at a time, and you suddenly feel the presence of eternal harmony, fully achieved. . . . The feeling is clear and indisputable. As if you suddenly sense the whole of nature and suddenly say: yes, this is true. God, when he was creating the world, said at the end of each day of creation: “Yes, this is true, this is good.” This . . . this is not tenderheartedness, but simply joy. You don’t forgive anything, because there’s no longer anything to forgive. You don’t really love—oh, what is here is higher than love!

Dostoevsky himself suffered from epilepsy, and this account is drawn from his own experience. He likes epileptics; he seems to think there’s real value in these flashes. There’s a reason he lends his condition to the Christ-like Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. But in Demons, these deeply religious words are not spoken by Shatov, the man who believes in Russia and her Orthodoxy—instead, they’re given to Kirillov, the man who wants to kill himself for no reason. Unlike Shatov, Kirillov is utterly sincere, possibly the only truly sincere person in the novel. All ­Shatov can do, when faced with an actual mystical experience, is quail: “Watch out, Kirillov, it’s the falling sickness!”

You can read this episode as ­Dostoevsky giving Kirillov some of the contradictions that constitute depth. Usually Kirillov is an atheist and a nihilist, bent on suicide, but during his seizures he sees something greater, brighter, a glimpse of the man he could have been. I’m not so sure. Maybe the holy rapture and the will to self-annihilation are really the same thing. In his private ecstasies, Kirillov is free from demons: other thoughts, other fashions, the words of others and the swarm of other ideas. But Dostoevsky is far too great a writer to subject his most consummate atheist to the indignity of a final conversion. Kirillov has liberated himself from every other will in the universe—­including God’s. He has nothing to forgive, and nothing to love. The only Creator he sees in these visions is himself: “If there is no God, then I am God.” And for the man free of demons and free of everything else, there’s nothing left to do but die. In the end, Kirillov makes good on his ambition. But nobody believes his suicide note, and his death achieves nothing at all.

Sam Kriss writes from London.