In the world of fictional drama, terrorists are useful and popular – useful to writers who want to propel their plots, and popular with viewers and readers who find subversives so compelling. They’re intelligent, driven characters, they’re prepared to kill or be killed and they think that moral good can be achieved by immoral acts. They constitute fertile ground.
Sometimes we have a tendency to think of terrorism as something particular to our age, perhaps in a way that previous eras appear to have been defined by war. And yet the precursors of modern-day terrorists – anarchists and nihilists – were dramatized in literary fiction before either of the world wars ever happened. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons (1871) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), masterpieces of the early modern novel, are both concerned with underground revolutionaries. The insights of these authors make interesting reading for anyone who has struggled to comprehend random atrocities and the mindset behind them.
It should be said that these novels are quite contrasting in certain respects. Demons is feverishly intense, veering between nightmare and hilarity, while the The Secret Agent is much more sober and sombre in tone. The cast of Demons is larger and the story much longer (at least three times the length) than Conrad’s more centralized narrative. But what’s common to both novels is a withering verdict on those who seek a shortcut to societal change through violence.
Psychopaths, misfits, dropouts, wastrels and lost souls: such are what one encounters among Dostoevsky and Conrad’s revolutionaries. No good proceeds from their activities. Demons and The Secret Agent are both tragedies with a good many of their central characters dead by the end. Despair and suicide are common denominators, as are the deaths of vulnerable, innocent people. (Demons and The Secret Agent each contain a cognitively impaired character who suffers the misfortune to get involved with the wrong sort.)
Dostoevsky was a profoundly religious writer who believed in the innate goodness of every human being. When people do evil it is not because they are evil but because they have fallen under the influence of evil or falsehood. They have turned from the truth
Set in a provincial Russian town, Demons tells the story of the mayhem wreaked on civic life by the return of various émigrés from the west. They have brought back revolutionary notions from abroad – ideas opposed to everything Russian and holy. It is these ideas that are the demons of the title. The book’s epigraph is taken from the gospel story about the Gadarene swine: “Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.” (Luke 8:33) Towards the conclusion of the novel, the father of the psychopath responsible for the recent trouble says, “These demons who come out of a sick man and enter into swine – it’s all the sores, all the miasmas, all the uncleanness, all the big and little demons accumulated in our great and dear sick man, in our Russia for centuries… it’s us… we will rush, insane and raging, from the cliff down into the sea, and all will be drowned… but the sick man will be healed and sit at the feet of Jesus.” (P. 655, Vintage Classics, trans. Pevear & Volokhonsky, 1994) Thus chaos is understood as catharsis.
Dostoevsky was a profoundly religious writer who believed in the innate goodness of every human being. When people do evil it is not because they are evil but because they have fallen under the influence of evil or falsehood. They have turned from the truth: that is why they behave as they do. Dostoevsky’s depiction of possession in Demons is a study in misplaced faith.
At the heart of it is a young man, Nikolai Stavrogin, who has chosen prior to the main action of the story, to use his life as an experiment to establish that good and evil are no more than prejudices. To this end he has lived a life of moral squalor abroad, taken it to hideous extremes (raping a young girl and driving her to suicide), and then attempted to balance his wrongdoing with a grotesque burden (marrying a physically disabled woman who suffers from a psychiatric condition). Ultimately it is more than his spirit can withstand, and the Nietzschean Übermensch remains unrealized.
Stavrogin’s counterpart is Pyotor Verkhovensky, the liar, madman and psychopath under whose design most of the events in the novel unfold. Unlike Stavrogin (a genuinely tragic character), he suffers no compunction for his actions: he murders two people himself and causes the deaths of three others. He flees at the end without a care in the world for those whom he has roped into his ghastly, senseless enterprise.
Pyotor Verkhovensky is a lethal fantasist. His only emotional connection with anyone else is with Stavrogin but even that is only because he sees this Byronic figure as useful in spearheading his revolution. Verkhovensky is convinced that the murderous havoc he seeks to unleash in this small town can in time be replicated throughout Russia, leading to an overturning of the ‘despotic’ social order. That such an overturning would cost millions of lives is a price worth paying, as he explains in a meeting with his revolutionaries:
‘A hundred million heads, they shout… but why be afraid… if despotism in some hundred years will eat up not a hundred million but five hundred million heads? I fully agree that babbling liberally and eloquently is extremely pleasant while acting is a bit rough…’ (P.408, ibid.)
The ‘acting’ turns out to be ‘a bit rough’ on everyone except Verkhovensky. His ability to manipulate, to harness others to the lie to which he himself is so in thrall, is masterful and chilling.
Among the lost souls in Verkhovensky’s sphere of influence is the engineer, Alexei Kirillov, who has agreed to kill himself for the cause. His reasons for doing so have more to do with his own mental disorder than his belief in Verkhovensky, however.
‘God is the pain of the fear of death,’ this mystic-gone-wrong tells the narrator. ‘He who overcomes pain and fear will himself become God. Then there will be a new life, a new man, everything new… Then history will be divided into two parts: from the gorilla to the destruction of God, and from the destruction of God to… the physical changing of the earth and man.’ (P.115, ibid.)
After some prompting later in the story, Kirillov fulfils his vow, taking on himself responsibility for the murder of a defector, a crime committed by Verkhovensky and his sorry henchmen. The vision of needless violence, causing nothing but suffering for innocents, is achieved with stirring pathos by Dostoevsky. Indeed, the murderers are almost as pitiful as the victim – Ivan Shatov, a man who flirted with revolutionary politics before recanting. The men whom Verkhovensky conned and frightened into committing his murder are immediately appalled by their own actions.
‘Virginsky started quivering all over, clasped his hands and cried ruefully at the top of his voice: “This is not it, this is not it! This is not it at all!” He might have added something more… but Lyamshim did not let him finish: suddenly, and with all his might, he clasped him and squeezed him from behind and let out some sort of incredible shriek.’ (pp. 604, 605, ibid.)
These poor men are dupes, hoodwinked into something terrible, the reality of which they could not appreciate until finally confronted with it. They have failed to see the truth of their situation until too late. The violence of the nihilists is useless and empty; it achieves nothing beyond its own obscenity.