DEMONIC MULTITUDES: DOSTOYEVSKY READS THE BIBLE
DEMONIC MULTITUDES: DOSTOYEVSKY READS THE BIBLE
The multitude has a dark side. The well known New Testament parable of the Gerasene Demoniac, recounted with variations by Mark, Luke, and Matthew, throws some light on the demonic face of the multitude. Jesus comes across a man possessed by devils and asks him his name, since a name is required for exorcism. The demoniac responds enigmatically, “my name is Legion; for we are many.” The devils ask Jesus to send them from the man into a nearby herd of pigs. The pigs, now possessed, rush off a cliff and drown in the water below in an act of mass suicide. The man, now free of the devils, sits gratefully at the feet of Jesus.
One of the troubling and curious aspects of this parable is the grammatical confusion of singular and plural subjects. The demoniac is at once both “I” and “we.” There is a multitude in there. Perhaps this confusion between the singular and the plural subject is itself a demonic attribute. The threat is emphasized by the demoniac’s name, Legion. The Latin word legio was widely used in Aramaic and Greek to mean a great number but the term also referred, as it continues today in modern languages, to the Roman military unit of about six thousand men. Why is Legion the demoniac’s name? because he has such powerful destructive force? Because the multitude inside him can act together? Perhaps the real threat of this demonic multitude is more metaphysical: since it is at once singular and plural, it destroys numerical distinction itself. Think of the great lengths to which theologians have gone to prove there are not many gods but one. Linguists similarly have long been troubled by nouns that have indeterminate number, at once singular and plural, such as deer and sheep. The threat to political order is perhaps even more clear: political thoughts since the time of the ancients has been based on the distinctions among the one, the few, and the many. The demonic multitude violates all such distinctions. It is both one and many. The indefinite number of the multitude threatens all these principles of order. Such trickery is the devil’s work.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky grapples with the torment caused by these demonic multitudes in his great 1873 novel, The Devils. Dostoyevsky’s Russia is infested with dark, dangerous forces. The serfs have been liberated, the traditional social order is callapsing, and foreign influences are leading toward moral and social catastrophe. Good Russians are acting as if they have been possessed-but what or who possesses them? Who are Dostoyevsky’s devils? The novel is set in a calm Russian village where we find the widower Stepan Verkhovensky spending his twilight years courting the affections of the widow Varvara Stavrogina, the wealthiest woman in town. Verkhovensky’s son Peter, recently returns from years of traveling in the capitals of Europe, charms the young women in town. Perhaps he could fall in love with a respectable young woman in the village, and the social order could be reproduced as it had been for all eternity. As the novel develops, however, we learn that beneath the timeless rituals of Russian village life is breeding an ultrasecret pseudorevolutionary political organization, which is bent on mindless destruction and includes members of some of the village’s best families, with Peter Verkhovensky himself its egotistical leader. The mysterious group’s activities lead to a series of catastrophic events. Everyone in the village seems to be unknowingly manipulated or influenced by the sinister plot in some way. By the end of the novel, however, all the members of the clandestine conspiracy have either committed suicide, been killed by their own comrades, or are safely away in prison or exile. Stepan Verkhovensky reflects in the final pages of the novel on the biblical parable of the Geraene Demoniac. It is exactly like our Russia, he exclaims, which has been infected by devils for centuries! Perhaps we are the pigs who have been possessed by the devils and we will thus now rush over the cliff to drown in the water so that Russia can be saved at the feet of Jesus!
Stepan Verkhovensky (and Dostoyevsky himself) tries to soothe his fears with a naïve view of the exorcism of demonic multitudes and the Christian redemption of Russia. Once he casts the political conspiracy, and especially its scheming leader as demonic, then he can isolate it from the real, eternal, redeemable essence of Russia. That may be a consoling conception, but what he refuses to see is that the real demonic force is Russian multitude itself. The liberation of the serfs and the radical movements of the 1860s set in motion a wave of agitation that threatened the old order and would in the coming years bring it tumbling down completely. What is so fearsome about the multitude is its indefinite number, at the same time many and one. If there were only one unified conspiracy against the old social order, like Dostoyevsky imagines, then it could be known, confronted and defeated. Or if instead there were many separate, isolated social threats, they too could be managed. The multitude, however, is legion; it is composed of innumerable elements that remain different, one from the other, and yet communicate, collaborate, and act in common. Now that is really demonic!