Idols and Icons: Comic Transformation in Dostoevsky's The Possessed
Dennis Patrick Slattery, Southern Methodist University
Dostoevsky is certainly a novelist of contraries, contradictions, inverse and
often perverse doublings. Through such fictional strategies, Dostoevsky's
thematic concerns, which surface through the poetic fissures of these doublings,
seem inexhaustible, especially in his work, The Possessed.
Written in 1869, the novel has been variously read as a treatise on education, on confession, and on the process of individual purgation and destruction. Furthermore, the epigram from the Gospel of Luke describing the demon's exorcism from a man in the agony of possession attests to one of the novel's central concerns. I would like to expand several of these themes by suggesting at the outset that
The Possessed may be understood as a successful attempt to reaffirm the relationship between comedy and sacrality. While Viacheslav Ivanov has observed that "the peculiar quality of Dostoevsky's apologetic lies in its characteristic urge...to arrive through Christ at the certainty of God's existence," (1) Robert Louis Jackson has written that in the character of Stepan Verkhovenskij Dostoevsky expresses "a transition from aesthetic idealism of the 1840s, with its faith in the beautiful and sublime, to a faith in the Christian ideal." (2) Writing of the contrary side to such a positive conclusion, Rene Girard rightly, I believe, suggests that in
The Possessed Dostoevsky rises to the level of an epic of metaphysical sickness." (3)
Certainly in its broadest outlines. The Possessed is a novel overrun with men who are arrested by a single idea—destroying the sacred image of the icon and placing in its stead an idol, the prince of darkness, Nikolaj Stavrogin. (4) Those who support—indeed idolize him—are creators of a world both inverted and literalized. (5) Petr Verkhovenskij, for example, is a reversed image of St. Peter; he idolizes the inverted Christian ideal in Prince Stavrogin. Of course the demonic parody would be incomplete without the figure of Judas the betrayer, who in the character of Ivan Shatov, denies
the prince of darkness and chooses Instead to support the virtues of family and community. He is able to rebel against sin because the image of the icon, offered through the presence of his wife Maria and her new-born infant (6) is still deeply entrenched in the communal life of the Russian folk. (7)
The iconic image appears at various times in the novel in somewhat distorted or violated forms; at other times it is either stolen or broken. But the constant in the icon's presence is that it is strongly associated with the Earth, which appears within the action of the novel as muddy, messy, and clinging to individuals, while covering others who seem always to be falling and kissing the Earth. Ivanov, in fact, points to the Earth's importance when he writes of
Crime and Punishment that "the hero...is guilty in the sight of Earth, and receives absolution through his expiation made unto Earth." (8)
Violated icons and muddy Earth are two of the central images which pervade the world of
The Possessed. They are, I believe, the fundamental images of redemption in a world threatened by the demonic ambitions of the iconoclasts, free thinkers, and young anarchists— victims of progressive European education. (9) Dostoevsky's frequent use of the muddy Earth and of iconic figures of the Madonna suggests a mode of poetic expression which may be called iconographic, for he wishes to raise up the icon in the community to counteract the liberal, more secular images of idolatry those who are possessed by their own grand idea they wish to promote. (10) Their efforts, however, will eventually end in despair, ennui, and the suicide of their idol, while the iconic signs will preserve hope and the possibility of salvation; those attributes of a comic disposition— endurance, belief, and the promise of salvation—will prevail. Of course this same struggle between icons and idols is a key motif in Dostoevsky's other major fiction, including
A Raw Youth and The Brothers Karamazov.
The muddied Earth and those figures who serve as images of the violated icon, specifically the icon of the Madonna, are set off against the one titanic idol of Petr Verkhovenskij's demonic or possessed imagination: Nikolaj Stavrogin. (11) On the contrary, the most prominent iconic figures in the novel are the idiot woman, Maria Lebjadkin, Shatov's wife Marie, who will give birth to Stavrogin's child, and, most importantly, the gospel saleswoman, Sofja, who both guards and dis-
seminates the word of Scripture. Like Sonja (Crime and Punishment) she is the voice of Scripture. Her actions of charity embody the word of Scripture. In such a position, Sofja is iconic, for she signifies in deed the word of Scripture—to be responsible for others.
In addition, while the icon is a stabilizing presence in the novel, it is not separated from the comic, the carnivalistic, or the topsy-turvydom of much of the work's action, including the
Fete. For the Fete is only a concentration of the cacophony and inversions taking place throughout the action; it is also a manifestation of comedy with its inversions, levellings, tomfoolery, reversed doublings of characters and events. Bakhtin's description of carnival is analogous to my understanding of comedy here, with its emphasis on uniting the sacred and the profane, the lofty with the lowly, the wise with the stupid, youth with age, top with bottom, birth with death, and suffering with laughter. (12) In addition, we see the inclusion of paradoxical doubles wherein leading characters have one or more mock doubles who parody them. Icons are desecrated, idols extolled; the heroes (even the idea of the heroic itself) are debased, the possessed elevated. Roger Anderson traces a similar movement in
The Brothers Karamazov when he reveals how carnival disrupts, intrudes into the community beneficially; it makes available a special form of energy and creativity social rules can't provide. (13) The most important images in such a mixed world, though, are the images of the sacred icon and those of the secular idol.
At this point I might do well to offer a more fully defined description of the icon's importance in orthodox Russian life. The word icon derives from the Greek
eikōn, meaning image or portrait. The Russian word is
obraz. As a theological image, the icon "corresponds as well to the word of Scripture," (14) according to the Russian theologian Leonid Ouspensky. There is also an inextricable bond between the image of the icon and the sacred word of Scripture. For as the icon is an image of the divine word, Scripture gives us words of the divine image. In its aesthetic properties, then, the icon fuses image to word, Scripture to image, and, finally, man to salvation. Although many saints are often subjects for iconographic paintings, the two essential images in Russian Orthodoxy are those of Christ and the virgin Mary.
I should mention two important points here regarding the nature of the iconic image, both of which bear on the action and resolution of
The Possessed. First, as Ouspensky writes, the Christian life is based on two essential realities: the sacrifice of Christ, and the need to participate in this reality; second, the goal of this sacrifice, the transfiguration of man and the entire visible world. Thus, as icons guide our attention to the past, to the reality in the history of Christ's sacrifice, they also guide our attention to the future, to an eschatology which sees man transformed. Therefore, as icons reveal the divine incarnation in Christ, they promise incarnate man divine transformation. Icons may be understood then, as historical-teleological images of hope for man which embrace all of the temporal order. The icon, Ouspensky suggests, "transmits visually the realization of the patristic formula: God became man so that man may become God." (15)
The icon, as a "theology in image" (Theology of the Icon, p. 165), and parallel to a theology in words, expresses, through beauty, the reality of the God-man as well as the possibility of man becoming God. Within this discussion of the icon, we might remember Kirillov's attempt to enact this latter action, not through the icon but through the idol of Stavrogin. (16) Aesthetically a true icon "expresses spiritual rather than physical beauty" which is quite the reverse of the idol. By spiritual beauty is meant the beauty of holiness. (17) As such, the icon represents "the meeting of God with man, grace with nature, and eternity with temporality." (18) The icon is thus a form of revelation and knowledge of God; it is a visual testimony to two realities: of God and the world, of grace and nature (Iconography, p. 60).
Without moving too far afield of my present concern, I would however, mention that a semiotic understanding of the iconic sign is not foreign to the theological description of the icon offered above. For example, Umberto Eco illustrates that iconic signs are "culturally coded without being arbitrary; it is more than a word or image which has some similarity to its referent." (19) He continues by making an important distinction in the relation of icon to its referent that is helpful for understanding the icon theologically, namely, that "the iconic relation shows a relationship between image and its
content, not image and its object" (A Theory of Semiotics, p. 192). The iconic sign may be recognized more or less easily depending on the codes attached to
them, for codes reveal the pertinent features of the content (A Theory of Semiotics, p. 206). (20) Dostoevsky's use of the icon in
The Possessed and in his other major fiction may be understood both theologically and semiotically as a way of maintaining certain conventions and beliefs shared by the entire community.
The manner in which Dostoevsky answers the threat of the demonic rush toward anarchy and idolatry is subtle but consistent; his method is a continual poetic effort to wed word and image. His orthodox poetic theology never wanders far from the image of woman and Earth as the guardians of hope for transformation. The first of these figures is Maria Lebjatkina, one of several abused or distorted iconic figures. Early in the novel Shatov and the narrator visit the rooms where Maria lives with her brother, a drunken officer of the military, now retired. The two men are at first astonished at the filth and squalor of the apartment; the walls are smoke-grimed, the wallpaper filthy and tattered, in fact, "everything was in disorder, wet and filthy; a huge soaking rag lay in the middle of the floor in the first room, and a battered old shoe lay beside it in the wet." (21) As if to counteract the squalor around her, Maria uses powder and rouge excessively, paints her lips, blackens her eyebrows— all cosmetic decorations to hide or to transform her emaciated face. And, as the habit of using powder and rouge is an old Russian custom which women today still follow, Maria might be understood as a representative of tradition, of the people's heritage. (22)
Yet in spite of her excessive decor, what remains most remarkable for the narrator are her eyes. The description calls to the imagination the presence of Russian icons, and Dostoevsky would certainly seem to be playing on our familiarity with the iconic image when he describes Maria and the light which surrounds her. For by the dim light of a thin candle in an iron candlestick the narrator sees in the face of this exhausted woman "soft, gentle grey eyes (which) were remarkable even now. There was something dreamy and sincere in her gentle, almost joyful expression. This gentle serene joy, which was reflected in her smile (The Possessed, p. 119) astonishes the narrator. His own heart is filled not with revulsion at the setting, but with pity mixed with adoration. He is transformed by her features. Moreover, Maria sits and dreams, in a timeless reverie, of her non-existent son. She is here the Madonna without her child.
Later, the other characters discover that she is the wife of Stavrogin who married her in a gratuitous gesture some years earlier. Fittingly then, Maria is she who exposes the idol Stavrogin as an usurper. But she is also important for two other reasons: as a figure of an emaciated icon, she dreams of a son whom we know from Stavrogin's account of her virginity, that she never really had. And yet, curiously, she weeps for the son's return, while, not surprisingly, she has no desire for her husband. Yearning for the child, she fantasizes that she took the infant to the woods without christening him. The child she dreams about has not been blessed. The dreaming woman yearns for an unblessed son who does not exist. The image of Madonna and child is incomplete, fragmented, confused; yet it endures and grows stronger as the action of the novel unfolds.
The second reason for Maria's importance rests not only in how she appears (image) but in what she says. Maria's words guide us to the relationship between Earth and icon. When she is asked about God while staying at a convent for several weeks, Maria answers without thought: "'I think,' said I, 'that God and Nature are just the same thing'" (The Possessed, p. 122). And shortly after, as the dreamy Madonna leaves the convent, a woman doing penance at the church stops and asks her: "'What is the mother of God?' Maria responds: 'the great mother, the hope of the human race'" (The Possessed, p. 123). By the great mother Maria signifies both virgin and Earth, the sacred mother and the mythic mother, (23) the one born without stain, and the soil. With this answer Maria engages in that familiar gesture of those suffering characters who seek contrition, repentance and forgiveness by bowing down, kissing the Earth, and watering it with their tears. It is the fullest act of humility and contrition and expresses perhaps, the most intense belief in redemption. This action of watering the Earth by those women who seek redemption, or who keep the hope of redemption alive in the Russian community, reinforces the image of the wet, muddy Earth, the ground to which all must return from their prideful attempts to destroy the conventional quality of the icon which is shared both culturally and spiritually by the people, and to place instead in the imagination of the community the literal, idolatrous image of Stavrogin. The real danger inherent in idolatry, according to Owen Barfield, is that it can empty the spirit of an individual or even an entire culture. (24)
I would at this juncture pass by several icons which are battered or stolen at the hands of Petr Verkhovenskij and his disciples, in order to concentrate on two other central iconic figures: Marie Shatov and her child, and the image of the gospel saleswoman, Sofja. Before doing so, however, I should clarify further this fundamental distinction between iconography and idolatry, for while I would suggest that the former implicates the comic interplay of man and divinity, the latter leads to tragedy. The idol is an image which ends in itself. It points to nothing beyond its own one-dimensional reality. An idol signifies nothing but its own image, and so must be worshipped with a promise of nothing beyond itself. An idol seems to be full of empty promises, so that paying it homage leaves one, eventually, beyond desire, in a state of ennui. It reveals no mystery, no sanctity, no transcendence; its persuasive force must begin and end in itself. No other world but the existing material reality in the present is implied in the idol. To borrow from a semiotic understanding of icon for a moment, I would suggest that an iconic relation involves one between image and its object (A Theory of Semiotics, p. 199). Such a preoccupation with the thing or object itself is what Barfield terms idolatry. Contrary to the icon, which brings together both history and teleology, the idol remains arrested in the present. Its fullest expression may be in the figure of Dis, who, frozen in one spot, and eating men alive continually, weeps at the sense of losing transcendence for eternity. Such is Dante's depiction of despair in
Inferno. Such is the nature of Nikolaj Stavrogin for his followers. He is a creation of the present moment, not an image growing out of a heritage or a tradition by means of certain established conventions, both theological and aesthetic. Far from enhancing visions of other worlds, the idol closes one's breadth of vision and limits perception to the image only. In Stavrogin's case, the end of this kind of bifurcated existence is a mixture of violence and boredom. The idol promotes both, and leads with all too frightening frequency, to murder of self or others. (25)
By contrast, the icon engages the past and offers hope in the future; it is transformative, the effects of which we witness when Marie Shatov returns to her husband to give birth to her son; at such a moment the power of the iconic dimension of Madonna and child is felt by practically the entire town. Equally important to understanding the icon, then, is its communal force, for it includes, as an iconic sign, conventions, codes
already established and once again made active in the community. For the birth of the infant is not just the recreation of life, but a rebirth of mystery itself which enchants all who rush to secure the new born's survival. The birth of man and mystery is described by the narrator as sacramental in its effects; it transforms the midwife's attitude; it promotes the greatest outpouring of charity and generosity in Kirillov, who becomes like a generous child himself; it fills Shatov with complete joy even though he knows it is not his son. The explanation of the birth by Arina Prokhorovna, the young midwife—"'It's simply a further development of the organism, and there's nothing else in it, no mystery'" (The Possessed, p. 510)—only sharpens Shatov's sense of its ineffable design: "'The mysterious coming of a new creature, a great and inexplicable mystery; and what a pity it is, Arina Prokhorovna, that you don't understand it" (The Possessed, p. 510). The mystery of the new born brings with it a rapture which transfigures both Marie and Shatov. This event, the birth of a child shared by the entire community, is the antithesis of the death of young Matresha, who is sexually abused by Stavrogin and then hangs herself in despair--a death in solitude amidst the squalor of shame and remorse. The force of the idol would deny forgiveness of self or others. Dostoevsky describes the birth of Marie's child in a lyrical passage:
"Everything seemed transformed. Shatov cried like a boy, then talked of God knows what, wildly, crazily with inspiration, kissed her hands; she listened, entranced, perhaps not understanding him, but caressingly ruffling his hair with her weak hand, smoothing it and admiring it. He talked of how they would now begin a new life, for good, of the existence of God, of the goodness of all men...She took out the child again to gaze at it rapturously" (513) .
As he experiences the mother with her son, Shatov is filled with hope. For him the child signifies goodness once again entering the world. The child allows the code of Christianity once again to live in Shatov. Marie and her child signify the complete icon of Madonna and child; their combined images transform him. Through the mystery of birth, Shatov begins to believe, as once he had, in salvation and in the goodness of creation. His transformation is a comic action, for it brings into play those qualities of goodness, unity, joy.
merriment, cohesion, love, endurance, charity, all of which promote a bond among men.
The birth of Marie's child is the single most important event in the novel and signals a turn from the infernal, dark regions of anarchy to the epic and finally lyric state of community. For, shortly after the birth of the boy, Dostoevsky focuses on the odyssey of Stepan Verkhovenskij, a liberal thinker whom many blame as the one who fathered the demons of idolatry. It is then, his transformation which is most essential if the community is to regain its sacred heritage in the Earth. (26)
Stepan sets out across the countryside, after the carnival of the Fete, in order to rediscover the Russian people, their habits, codes and beliefs. Behind him he leaves the comfort of Varvara Stavrogina's protection. Here the "son" (though Stepan is in his fifties) breaks from the mother and returns to the Great Mother—the Earth. On the road Stepan begins to be affected by such an intimate contact with the Earth. The land infects him like an ether: "logical reasoning or even distinct consciousness was unbearable to him at this moment... He did not even notice either how he threw his bag over his shoulder, nor how much more comfortably he walked with it so" (The Possessed, p. 553). His entire attitude and posture exhibit a playfulness and a meandering action of both discovery and recovery.
Soon he meets a peasant couple who offer him a ride in their cart. He accepts their invitation, but continues to walk beside them: "'How wonderful it is,' he thought to himself, 'that I've been walking so long beside that cow, and it never entered my head to ask them for a lift. This 'real life' has something very original about it'" (The Possessed, p. 547). In the figure of the peasant woman is the other side of Russia which the men of intellect and abstraction have either missed or chosen to ignore. She is the life of Russia, the Madonna of the people, robust, enduring, sturdy, with even, white teeth, rosy cheeks, and a warm smile (The Possessed, p. 556). Earth, mother, the Russian folk, the figure of the Madonna, all conspire together in Stepan's imagination as he journeys with them to a small village. Increasingly feverish, however, Stepan stops with the couple at an inn where they have reserved lodging for the night. A growing dependency on the Russian couple casts Stepan more clearly in the role of a child. His child-like disposition reminds one of that other pilgrim, Dante,
who in Paradiso seems to grow younger until finally he is reborn into the concentric design of the three circles with the image of man at the center. In a similar transformation, Stepan's journey prepares him for the iconic sign of the gospel saleswoman who weds image with word to illustrate the role of the icon. What is first redeemed in Stepan is a sense of wonder at the ordinary. This may be the first authentic step toward his re-education. Icons open one to wonder, to adoration, to marvelling at the commonplace; wonder is part of the comic disposition, for it opens up possibilities and allows one to hope for them. In fact, the imaginative dynamics of Stepan's transformation includes a process of defamiliarization. What was for him ordinary and invisible becomes now, through the peasants and the gospel saleswoman, extraordinary and visible. His habitual attitudes and beliefs are shaken; he sees the world now by means first of the Earth, then the common folk, then by means of Scripture. He becomes aware of the value of conventions which serve him, on his deathbed, as the media of conversion.
The three enter a cottage owned by a Russian family. Stepan's joining the peasant couple brings together the family:
It was a light and fairly clean peasant's cottage, with three windows and two rooms...a cottage at which people who knew the place were accustomed to stop on their way through the village (The Possessed, p. 548).
After seating himself in the corner of the room, Stepan smells from the kitchen the aroma of fresh pancakes cooking:
The delicious fragrance of hot pancakes with which the woman of the house was busy at the stove tickled his nostrils. With a childlike smile he leaned towards the woman and asked for a serving with tea (The Possessed, p. 549).
The charity shown him by the peasants confirms Dostoevsky's belief that it is the Russian folk and not the intelligentsia who live out the belief that each is responsible for all, as Father Zosima reminds Alesha Karamazov. Sacrifice is the wellspring of charity.
After this communion of pancakes, Stepan is approached
by the gospel saleswoman who wishes to sell him the holy book: "He saw a lady, une dame, et elle en avait l'air, somewhat over 30, very modest in appearance, dressed not like a peasant, in a dark gown with a grey shawl on her shoulders. There was something very kindly in her face which attracted Stepan Trofimovich immediately" (The Possessed, p. 550). Her name, Sofja Matveevna, dramatizes further her role as a source of divine wisdom. In addition, at this point in the narrative, several variations of the mother-son relation are played out simultaneously and, undoubtedly, by design: 1. the relation of Mary-Christ in the Gospels; 2. the relation of Sofja to the Gospels themselves, for she is the guardian and the protectress of Christ's words and actions; 3. the relation of Sofja as a nurse to the invalid Stepan who becomes increasingly feverish and who is to exclaim shortly: "'Blessed is he to whom God always sends a woman!..'" (The Possessed, p. 556); 4. the continuation of the relationship between Varvara Stavrogina and Stepan, the wayward youth whose mother is soon to follow him, to find her fatigued but happy friend on his deathbed.
When Varvara Stavrogina finds Stepan, she is dismayed by the medley of images his room contains. What she does not understand is that the room in the cottage represents the community of Russia herself. The walls of the room "were covered with old and tattered yellow paper, and had horrible lithographs of mythological subjects on the walls; in the corner facing the door there was a long row of painted icons and several sets of brass ones. The whole room, with its strangely ill-assorted furniture, was an unattractive mixture of the town element and peasant traditions" (The Possessed, p. 557) . The room is like a carnival; it is a comic place, for comedy is inclusive rather than exclusive of the world. Comedy embraces the world's diversity; its range of human action is greater, broader, and allows room for the loftiest and lowliest of humanity; it takes in the present and tradition. Situated within the common and ordinary, comedy's movement is toward integration and unity; it preserves the integrity of difference.
Amidst this array of mythic images and sacred icons, Stepan confesses to Sofja, whom he refers to as "'my savior.'" Sofja reads him the story in Luke of the swine who receive the devils of the sick man, that figure who contains "all the sores, the foul contagions, all the impurities, all the devils great and small that have multiplied in that great invalid, our beloved Russia'"
(The Possessed, p. 563). The invalid is not Stepan, however, but Maria Lebjatkina, the wounded woman who bears her rouge and her brother's beatings with equal serenity. The gospel saleswoman, uniting the image of mother Russia with the word of Christ, is the ground of wisdom. Dostoevsky uses the image to seal together the tradition of the Russian people with the eschatological reality of redemption. Sofja, like all of Dostoevsky's feminine images of the icon, unites the word of the Gospel to the tradition of the people. Her reading of the word, as Sonja reads to Raskolnikov, reveals another voice of the icon. (27) Here is the original sense of icon, meaning "to happen, to become true" (Meaning of Icons, p. 57). Her salvific effect on Stepan confirms Karl Stern's belief that "Sofja (wisdom) is the she-soul of Eastern Christendom... and that woman, in her being, is deeply committed to
bios, to nature itself." (28)
As an image of the Earth, whose son is man, Sofja is that maternal presence who reads the words of the Gospel to Stepan, gives birth to them again, and bears them into the world. (29) She serves as the bearer of the Son, as midwife between God and world, and assists in the recreation of beatitude, mystery, and redemption. The words of the Gospels are images, then, ways of seeing, as the image of the icon is a word, a linguistic sign, for it too speaks a language, a way of knowing. Icons are then image-words, Scripture in image. I believe this realization Dostoevsky wishes us to recognize in these last scenes of the novel. As the Earth is the reservoir of the past, so does the word point one toward the eschaton. Image and word, Earth and redemption—these are the unities which allow a people to continue to endure and to hope. It is a condition which I refer to as comic.
At novel's end comedy and tragedy reveal their respective consequences: the swine have been purged, the group of anarchists destroyed at their own hands, and Stavrogin is dead, having performed the action that goes beyond desire—suicide. This last gesture shows the consequences of a preoccupation with image as idol, which seeks nothing but its own fulfillment. Here is the root of tragic action.
Comic action, however, especially Christian comedy, resides in that fuller acceptance of human life which acknowledges and worships the eternal through what is incarnate in the temporal. In such a comic vision, human
embodiment maintains and preserves a dimension of sacrality outside itself; tragedy, on the other hand, ends in itself. The icon reveals the body transformed, redeemed, and so fills the spectator who gazes on it with a feeling of hope and promise. Ulanov has suggested not only that "the terms of Christian comedy must include hope," but that "irony is the logical tone of Christian comedy." (30) The Christian comic imagination can embrace the world of swine, mud, disease, man's finitude, his mortal frame (the scatological), and yet add communion, resurrection, transfiguration, and redemption (the eschatological), for its sign is the icon, an image which is both temporal and eternal; it illustrates a proportional relation that balances the present moment with future promise. The icon is part of a cultural context with a tradition; as such it reveals an analogy between God and man. In this spirit, the Christian comic vision suggests that at the heart of all human action is a sense of play. (31) Dostoevsky's world, inhabited as it is by icons and idols, reveals in their conflict a theological imagination which is rooted in the Earth as well as Eternity. Such a double vision illustrates his intentions as a Christian comic writer.