Dostoevsky on Dark Charisma

In his work Dostoevsky and the Metaphysics of Crime, sociologist Dr. Vladislav Arkadyevich Bachinin analyzes the human personality and the dark side of its spiritual potential through the prism of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work Demons. Translated by Mark Hackard.

The metaphysical “I” is capable of bringing the personality far beyond the limits of those possibilities that the “lower-lying” hypostases of the human ego – vital, social, and spiritual – posess. There exist personalities whose metaphysical “I” possesses strength substantially superior to similar capabilities within the majority of ordinary men. This higher gift, or charisma, by the force of its ambivalence, carries within itself either colossal constructive potential or tremendous destructive energy. In the first case, charisma is manifested as a radiant talent of divine election, as creative genius, and in the second as the dark imprint of an evil genius and a demonic ability to commit unthinkable crimes and destruction.

The theme of twilight charisma and the fate of extraordinary individuals – who are under the patronage of the spirit of evil – comprises one of the ongoing plots of world religious and artistic-philosophical thought. It has always been fascinated by why extraordinary personal talent is capable of taking on the dark tones of devotion to immoral and criminal ends, and for what reasons the activity of a charismatic personality attains the likeness of a wreath of acts of villainy, one following after the other.

The problem of dark charisma has long been viewed in connection with the traditional mythologem of Antichrist, about whom there have formed two types of conceptions. In one case these are the traditions speaking on the future arrival of a man acting through the incitement of the devil. Ancient prophecies long ago warned that he will pose as Christ, being His antipode, His terrible caricature, incarnate evil masked as good. Being a monstrous hypocrite, rejecting the Commandments of God and all moral principles, he will come to rule in a world where

Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God. (2 Tim. 3, 2-4)

Aside from this mythical model of a future world-usurper, there arose conceptions in which Antichrist was identified with real historical persons – emperors, conquerors, great statesmen. In their personalities there was seemingly concentrated an energy of universal evil capable of producing a powerful destructive effect. Overshadowed by dark charisma, these men, despite attempts to play the role of benefactor to their peoples, predominantly sowed fear and hatred.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the problems of dark charisma occupied a notable place in the work of Friederich Nietzsche. The philosopher undertook an attempt to create an “ideal type” of charismatic personality, a certain philosophical model that went against the traditional Christian conceptions of morality, humaneness, and justice.

Nietzsche initially endowed his imagined superman with a dark charisma, seeing therein a higher sign of distinction from ordinary people who held to commonly accepted moral norms in their behavior.

The prophet Zarathustra, created through the fantasy of the poet and thinker, stood as a “fifth evangelist” telling of the future coming of the new superman, around whom he fashioned an aura from prophecies, symbols, and metaphors, thereby forming the necessary charisma.


But we will return to Dostoevsky. The small excursion we undertook allows us to approach the most mysterious of his characters – Nikolai Stavrogin – from the position of metaphysical sociology. This is possible for the reason that the concept of charisma, despite its colossal metaphysical content and its successful study in the nineteenth century by Max Weber, carries within itself significant heuristic potential.

Stavrogin: A Charismatic Personality

The personality of Stavrogin, who distinguishes himself with “an unusual capacity for crime,” is enshrouded in a half-darkness of mystery. Hardly is light shed on individual episodes of his past and present life.

As a rule this extraordinary figure produced a stunning impression on all whom he encountered. The reason for such an effect was that Stavrogin stood as an example of the excess giftedness of human nature. Within him was present tremendous strength that didn’t find application for good. His titanism of spirit, estranged from harmony and not recognizing a “golden medium,” demanded immeasurability and recognized the force of the non-normative and all-permissiveness as its native medium. It is not accidental that Pyotr Verkhovensky chose namely Stavrogin for the role of a future Antichrist, the dark genius of the human race.

Stavrogin and Verkhovensky. Painting by M.V. Dobuzhinsky.

Stavrogin and Verkhovensky. Painting by M.V. Dobuzhinsky.

A notable particularity of Stavrogin that hindered him from following after Verkhovensky was his inner division. Not by accident did Dostoevsky accord him a name deriving from the Greek word stavros – cross. He was constantly pulled in various directions, as in crucifixion, opposing aspirations that made him, for example, implant the idea of God in Shatov’s heart, and in the mind of Kirillov the idea of struggle against Him at the very same time. Simultaneously he managed to be sincere in both cases, not dissembling before one or the other. This quality of his allowed Vyacheslav Ivanov to say that Stavrogin, being a traitor to God, was also unfaithful to Satan.

Already during the period of preparation for writing Demons, Dostoevsky delineated the presence of demonic characteristics in Stavrogin, assuming that the future hero would be “captivating as a demon.” This entailed his overshadowing by a charisma of election, hardly of the good kind.

Throughout the novel, an abode of spiritual darkness is in store for Stavrogin’s ego. Because of certain mysterious reasons unclear to those around him as well as Stavrogin himself, he is deprived of the capability for love, creativity, and compassion.

The demonic element manifested in Stavrogin as a spirit of measureless pride. This first among the seven deadly sins made him abuse freedom, reject authority and the commonly-held hierarchy of values, and flout the difference between the high and the low.

Much of what people considered base, shameful, and criminal at times began to attract him with overpowering force, as a man attracted to the abyss. The abyss begets the desire to gaze into it to experience the mixed sensation of horror and pleasure. An inner demon made Stavrogin search out a certain pleasure in the all too clear recognition of his shame and debasement that came after sin or a crime. And Stavrogin almost never demonstrated resistance to the call of his dark tempter, as if he was conscious of himself dwelling in the service of a demon.

During his meeting with Elder Tikhon, Stavrogin asked whether one could believe in a demon while not believing in God at all. Tikhon quietly answered him, “Oh, very much so, all the time.” By this answer the elder strengthened Stavrogin’s own similar suppositions.

Man of Lawlessness

Vyacheslav Ivanov called Stavrogin a “negative Russian Faust.” The additional term “negative” meant that within Stavrogin love for life had been extinguished, and with it the lofty aspirations of the soul, which had saved Goethe’s Faust and, consequently, his soul from hell.

At the same time Stavrogin is greater and incomparably “more demonic” than Faust, since he goes much further than the latter in his transgression and his immorality and negation. Asociality in its darkest manifestations literally enraptures him and at times makes him draw near to a fateful line so that, having seen a multitude of men beyond the other side, he would dive head-first across it.

If Faust did not resolve to violate higher moral absolutes and never reached the final “nothing” in his skepticism, Stavrogin is a man of lawlessness and chaos, not only drawing toward the very edge of an abyss of total negation that opens before him, but venturing to test himself with a hopeless leap into it.

By all appearances Stavrogin could in all seriousness announce, as Faust, that “two souls live in my great soul.” The presence of both, the day-soul and the night-soul, he sensed quite palpably. At times his night-soul attained visible forms, and it was then he would see alongside himself something malicious and mocking in various faces and characters. His evaluation of this visions is noteworthy:

It is I myself in various forms, and nothing more.

Ponderings on the uniqueness of Stavrogin’s nature led Sergei Bulgakov to the idea of the similarity between the internal world of the hero of Demons and the content of the young Pablo Picasso’s Cubist canvasses. Visiting a 1914 exposition of artwork at the Shchukin Gallery, Bulgakov admitted that in examining Picasso’s paintings, he was thinking much about Dostoevsky. Before his eyes he saw the image of the murky “underground,” a spectacle of the disintegration of the human spirit, an atmosphere of darkness and torment. It was there that the philosopher surmised that if Stavrogin had painted, then his hand would generate similar images resembling Picasso’s works, for Dostoevsky’s character saw the metaphysical world with approximately the same interior vision.

Manifesting the demonic: Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Manifesting the demonic: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

The style of the artist is unenlightened, nocturnal, and demonic. From his paintings there emanates a mystical force of diabolic spirituality, and they produce the impression of some manner of “black icons” singed by an infernal flame. The viewer is seized with an atmosphere of cryptic eeriness, while the consciousness is beclouded with the suffocation of the grave. Peering into the beyond-world of the metaphysics of evil, Picasso discovered that behind the material trappings of human bodies hide demonic essences permeated with “malice and geometry.” And Bulgakov asks, “What kind of hell must the artist himself carry in his soul?” His hand, intoxicated with venom, creates the sensation of a ubiquitous presence of the spirit of evil. Thus, apparently, was reality presented to Stavrogin, that “medium of black grace” possessed by the forces of darkness, sin, and crime.

The dark charisma that overshadowed Stavrogin’s spirit deprived him of the capability for feeling God’s presence in the world. The “twilight of the idols” was approaching, and the darkness that began to slowly spread across the horizon over the Slavic and European worlds promised much for charismatic personalities like Stavrogin. But Dostoevsky hastened to hang his citizen of the Uri Canton. And perhaps he subsequently regretted that he had rushed with this act of just retribution: in the social-historical plan, the prospects for the figure of demonic man proved all too favorable.