The Devil. Ivan Fyodorvich’s Nightmare

by Andrea Elizabeth

I haven’t read all of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, but I thought of it during this conversation with the devil,

“I myself suffer from the fantastic, and that is why I love your earthly realism. Here you have it all outlined, here you have the formula, here you have geometry, and with us it’s all indeterminate equations! I walk about here and dream. I love to dream. Besides, on earth I become superstitious -don’t laugh, please: that is precisely what I like, that I become superstitious. […] My dream is to become incarnate, but so that it’s final, irrevocable, in some fat, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound merchant’s wife, and to believe everything she believes. My ideal is to go into a church and light a candle with a pure heart – by God, it’s true. That would put an end to my sufferings. (p.639)

He then goes into some of the funniest narratives in the whole book, and they are told by the devil. I read recently in a helpful post translated by Felix Culpa that Russians are too down in the dumps about their sins, they revel in it, so maybe that’s why any humor, dreams, and fantasy are attributed to the devil by Dostoevsky? I am currently pondering this question.

“Up to his neck in philosophy again!” Ivan snarled hatefully.

“God preserve me from that, but one can’t help complaining sometimes. I am a slandered man. Even you tell me I’m stupid every other minute. It shows how young you are. My friend, the point is not just intelligence! I have a naturally kind and cheerful heart, ‘and various little vaudevilles, I, too…’ You seem to take me decidedly for some gray-haired Khlestakov, and yet my fate is far more serious. By some pre-temporal assignment, which I have never been able to figure out, I am appointed ‘to negate,’ whereas I am sincerely kind and totally unable to negate. No, they say, go and negate, without negation there will be no criticism, and what sort of journal has no ‘criticism section’? Without criticism, there would be nothing but ‘Hosannah.’ But ‘Hosannah’ alone is not enough for life, it is necessary that this ‘Hosannah’ pass through the crucible of doubt, and so on, in the same vein. I don’t meddle with any of that, by the way, I didn’t create it, and I can’t answer for it. So they chose themselves a scapegoat, they made me write for the criticism section, and like came about. We understand this comedy: I, for instance, demand simply and directly that I be destroyed. No, they say, live, because without you there would be nothing. If everything on earth were sensible, nothing would happen. Without you there would be no events, and there must be events. And so I serve grudgingly, for the sake of events, and I do the unreasonable on orders. People take this whole comedy for something serious, despite all their undeniable intelligence. That is their tragedy. Well, they suffer, of course, but… still they live, they live really, not in fantasy: for suffering is life. Without suffering, what pleasure would be in it – everything would turn into an endless prayer service: holy, but a bit dull. And me? I suffer, and still I do not live. I am an x in an indeterminate equation. I am some sort of ghost of life who has lost all ends and beginnings, and I’ve finally even forgotten what to call myself. You’re laughing … no, you’re not laughing, you’re angry again. You’re eternally angry, you want reason only, but I will repeat to you once more that I would give all of that life beyond the stars, all ranks and honors, only to be incarnated in the soul of a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound merchant’s wife and light candles to God.” (p. 641, 2)

Now criticism and even events besides prayer are being attributed to the devil. Strangely though, rationality is not. He further develops what I suppose is Dostoevsky’s view of an apokastasis, after a toll-house type penance in which an atheist eventually decides to walk “a quadrillion kilometers” in order to be admitted into Paradise (p. 644) . Then the devil himself almost repents,

And I swear by all that is holy, I wanted to join the chorus and shout “Hosannah’ with everyone else. It was right on my lips, it was already bursting from my breast … you know, I’m very sensitive and artistically susceptible. But common sense – oh, it’s the most unfortunate quality of my nature – kept me within due bounds even then, and I missed the moment! For what – I thought at that same moment – what will happen after my ‘Hosanna’? Everything in the world will immediately be extinguished and no events will occur. And so, solely because of my official duty and my social position I was forced to quash the good moment in myself and stay with my nasty tricks. (p. 647)

I can’t help but think that Dostoevsky is likening himself to the devil in creating these very “eventful” novels. Is he debating keeping silent and sticking with 24-hour “Hosannahs”? I am currently theorizing that perhaps silence is like monastic celibacy – it is given to some, but not to others. Perhaps some must speak to attain silence.