The Tree is Known by its Fruits: The Word Made Flesh in Dostoevskij’s The Devils

Jacqueline A. Zubeck, Manhattan College

My paper is a portion of a larger work devoted to Fyodor Dostoevskij’s fiction, considered in relation to Mixail Baxtin’s prosaic ethics and “polyphonic” characterization and related to the philosophy and aesthetics of Eastern Orthodox Christian iconography. Included is a discussion of the obraz (image or icon or ideal image) and its counter-principle bezobrazie – literally “without image,” but related more to a deformed or monstrous incarnation (a la Robert Louis Jackson). It is my contention that Dostoevskij’s The Devils and Baxtin’s ethics dovetail, in the sense that the fiction provides an illustration of Baxtin’s own nuanced discussion of ethical responsibility or “answerability,” (otvetstvennost’) and conversely, how a debilitating moral entropy might reveal itself in individual characters. In this paper, I focus on the character of Petr Verxovenskij and his effect on the conspirators, who come together to murder Ivan Šatov, the character who embraces what I call an “iconographic standard” in the novel. Verxovenskij, the mastermind of the operation, demonstrates the psychological brilliance of the bezobraznik in his quest to dominate his followers, knowing those truths which will allow him to assert his tainted authority. At the same time, Verxovenskij denies his own identity and appears in various guises: a clown, a procurer, an anonymous “inspector general” come from abroad to investigate the revolutionary potential of this group of five.  He seeks everywhere to erase his own tracks, even as he dominates a large cast of characters. 

During the murder scene of the novel, various bezobraznye images emerge, associated with the conspirators’ loss of individual freedom and the capacity to act according to individual perception and will. The conspirators proceed to the killing of Šatov, despite the fact that, even according to their criminal logic, it is unnecessary: Šatov presents no danger to them and is clearly in no frame of mind to “denounce” them to the authorities. Yet, they are unable to respond appropriately to their own perceptions, and find that they are fettered to Verxovenskij and can only surrender to his will. Morally shackled, their actions are no longer characterized by the “actualization of a decision” [Baxtin, Toward a Philosophy of the Act 28] because they can no longer make an answerable choice. They are, in Baxtin’s words, “predetermined, bygone, and finished,” that is, “essentially, not living” [Act 9]. Human identity, for both Baxtin and Dostoevskij, is inextricably bound with the notion of free will and the conscious exercise of an internal freedom, but these characters have turned over their free will to their bezobraznyj mentor and in so doing, become monstrous or dehumanized themselves. This dehumanization is made evident in the imagery of that section of the novel which provides various examples of how one might gradually lose or surrender the ability to make a choice, and so become disfigured or grotesque.