An “Empty Self” in Dostoyevsky
October 14, 2011
To J.P. Moreland’s blog readers who are not familiar with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s writings, I want to introduce one of his major characters in the Devils. His name is Nikolai Stavrogin and I think it’s important and worthwhile to share his story because he holds up for us “the mirror of evil,” (quoted from Eleonore Stump’s beautiful essay “The Mirror of Evil”) showing us ourselves and our world, full of evil and suffering.
Stavrogin’s story, though, is not significant just because of the evil it shows us, so vividly; but more importantly because there are, in it, instances of grace, when possibilities of reconciliation and consolation are open to us, and we are invited to enter in and partake, freely; to find rest for our souls. In this sense “the mirror of evil becomes translucent and we can see through it to the goodness of God.”
So, I want to say, Stavrogin’s story is significant and worth knowing because it can help us come away with a clearer understanding of and an urgent and steady yearning for goodness and consolation. Throughout the story, in focusing on Stavrogin--ourselves and our world, we can, like the psalmist beseech God, “O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror...” Then, when we see through the evil to the goodness of God, like the psalmist, we can sing,” Like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me.”
To introduce Stavrogin then, we should begin by pointing out that he is an “empty self.” He lives to satisfy his desire for pleasure. There comes a time in his life, however, when pleasure can no longer sustain him. He becomes detached and indifferent towards life. His lethargic existence, far from compelling him to find meaning and purpose in life, generates in him a feeling of stagnation, boredom and despair, so intense that he simply “wanted to put powder under the four corners of the earth and blow it all up, but it didn’t seem worth the effort” (Devils, p.705).
But Stavrogin cannot continue to live like this. He cannot bear to see the evil in himself. A part of him wants escape, a way out. Otherwise, he says, “I shall perish in my viciousness.” There is, deeply buried in him, a longing for mercy and consolation.
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