13 September 2010

Nihilism in Dostoevsky's Devils

Nihilism is significant issue in Dostoevsky's Devils.  It infects characters, especially younger characters, to a greater or lesser degree.  It is captured in the character of Kirillov, a civil engineer and eventual suicide.  He thinks his suicide is meaningful - indeed, the only meaningful suicide up to this point in histoy.  What it represents is the physical manifestation of his own philosophy.

Kirillov comes to represent an excellent culmination of nihilistic thought and being. As an atheist, he does not believe in the actuality of God, though it may be reasoned that the idea of god is a very real thing for him. Indeed, the idea of god is so lofty, so different in kind from man that it will take a sort of "new man" to become in actuality what God is as an idea. This "new man" will not "care whether he lives or dies" and will "[conquer] fear and pain" as he "become[s] God." According to Kirillov's theory, this "new man" will usher in a whole new world; he will be his own revelation. All of this seems far too lofty and important, too meaningful for a nihilist to handle intellectually while maintaining his philosophical position. This is where Kirillov's theory takes a bizarre, yet in my opinion functional turn (121).

Kirillov concludes that the only thing he "can do to demonstrate in the highest degree [his] own independence and [his] terrifying new freedom" is to kill himself (694). For him, this is no idle threat or intellectual exercise; he really and truly means to do it. The need to negate one's self is, according to his own theory, the obligation of a "new man" and the pathway to opening a new world. What I find so consistent in how Kirillov wraps up his theory is that it plants him firmly in the same spot where his intellectual roots - nihilism - are. The word nihil, in Latin, literally means nothing. The flourishes about God, god, and "new men" are more romanticism than philosophy, more a peek at the human need of (and, I would argue, the natural necessity for) something more, something greater than itself. Since his atheism forces him to reject God, Kirillov must put a man - himself - in the place of God. Kirillov's nihilism, in turn, deals with the man. In the end, Kirillov's nihilism makes him the embodiment of nothing.

Work Cited
Dostoevsky, Fyodor.  Devils.  Trans. Michael R. Katz.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.  Print.

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