The Roots and Rhetoric of the Criminal Anti-Mind: Verxovenskij in Dostoevskij’s Besy

Shoshana Milgram Knapp, Virginia Polytechnic and State University

Approximately midway through Dostoevskij’s Besy (Part 2, Chapter 8), the villainous Verxovenskij expounds and exposes his nihilistic agenda. His audience, Stavrogin, is shocked: “I’m listening to you for the first time, and listening in amazement.” Verxovenskij’s ostensible convictions conceal his actual intentions, and, in the hearing of the man whose charisma he intends to harness and exploit, he names his targets and his goals (among them, to “level the mountains,” “destroy desire,” “declare destruction,” and “stifle genius”). “I’m not contradicting myself,” he explains. “I’m only contradicting the philanthropists and Shigaliovism, not myself. I’m a crook, not a socialist.”

In what sense is he accurate in describing himself as a crook? To define his nature and strategy, I propose to examine his rhetoric in the light of two literary texts Dostoevkij knew—and one modern, extra-literary text that identifies Verxovenskij’s implicit premises.

Verxovenskij’s cynicism, his attack on honor and ability, his determination to seek out the worst in humanity at large, his enthusiasm for corruption—all are reminiscent of Spiegelberg in Schiller’s Die Rauber (1781), “Satan’s scout,” for whom goodness itself is the primary enemy.

In his hostility to knowledge (“Enough of science!”), his thirst for destruction, he is a demonic parody of Enjolras in Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862). As an anti-Enjolras, he treats science, light, and truth as the fundamental enemies.

And viewed from the standpoint of psychologist Stanton Samenow (author of Inside the Criminal Mind, 1984, and co-author of a three-volume work on The Criminal Personality, 1976), Verxovenskij fits the profile of the criminal. A criminal’s thought process (by contrast with the thinking of a responsible person) typically displays a number of significant qualities—in addition to the overarching belief that the criminal is entitled to possess whatever he or she wants and to break any and all laws. The criminal, in pursuit of goals, disdains systematic steps and consistent dedication, trying instead to gain a result without effort; the process of work is devoid of meaning, hence unacceptable. And the criminal, psychologically, is constantly in danger of experiencing a kind of “zero-state,” a feeling of worthlessness and impotence. Verxovenskij reveals his criminal thinking not only in his schemes, but in his anti-effort premise and in his desperate admission that, without Stavrogin, he is nothing, “a zero,” a lost soul who turns his own mind not only against his victims, society, and the law, but against life and the mind itself.