By Paul Newall (2005)
In his The Possessed (also known as Demons) and other works, Dostoevsky employed an advocatus diaboli device familiar to and used by the Schoolmen and the Church whereby he offered and defended in detail those notions he wished to subsequently challenge, taking care to develop them to their strongest possible form before attempting to show why they are flawed. This is rarely moreso than in the case of the character of Kirilov (or Kirillov).
In an early chapter, during the first description of his thinking (entitled "Another man’s sins" for a good reason), Kirilov explained some of his ideas and received the retort:
If it is all the same whether to live or not to live, everyone will kill himself and that’s perhaps the only change that will come about.
The scorn of the narrator here is a marker intended to caution us against a simplistic disregard. Kirilov replied:
It makes no difference. Deception will be killed. Everyone who desires supreme freedom must dare to kill himself. He who dares to kill himself has learnt the secret of the deception.
The deception discussed here is quite subtle and is explained in response to the narrator’s remark that people love their lives because they are afraid of death. Instead, said Kirilov, life is fearful and unhappy – precisely because it seems to have no meaning - until men become afraid of death and transfer their fear to it, rendering life something to be loved. He did not find this impressive because he wanted to learn whether life can be loved on its own terms, given its apparent absurdity. This is the question that Camus wrestled with, asking if we could conclude anything from the seeming meaninglessness of life. It may be that the fear Kirilov spoke of comes of the silence that answers our attempts to find meaning.
Later on, in the chapter "A very busy night", Kirilov expanded on his thinking in syllogistic form when talking with Verkhovensky:
God is necessary, and so must exist.
But I know that He doesn’t exist and can’t exist.
But don’t you understand that a man with two such ideas cannot go on living?
(Verkhovensky’s comments have been removed.)
In order to explain why he concludes as he does, Kirilov set out come of the consequences of these premises:
Is there no man on this planet who, having finished with God and believing in his own will, will have enough courage to express his self-will in its most important point? […] All man did was to invent God so as to live without killing himself. That’s the essence of universal history till now. I am the only man in universal history who for the first time refused to invent God. […] To realize that there is no god and not to realize at the same instant that you have become god yourself – is an absurdity, for else you would certainly kill yourself. If you do realize it, you are a king and will never kill yourself, but will live in the greatest glory. But he who is first to realize it is bound to kill himself, for otherwise who will begin and prove it? […] I am still only a god against my will, and I am unhappy because I am bound to express my self-will. […] Fear is the curse of mankind. But I shall proclaim my self-will. I am bound to believe that I do not believe. I shall begin and end, and open the door.
These comments are replete with religious imagery. The general case of the problem that Kirilov was discussing is that of meaning: it does not appear that any meaning exists for our lives (or that is not defeated by the fact of death), but we apparently require that meaning to cope; as a result, mankind has invented meaning – not once, but very many times – in order to avoid the dilemma that meaning is needed but can never be found.
If we take the problem in its most general form, it goes back at least to Ecclesiastes:
Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.
For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.
Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. (II, v15-17)
It seems that all significance is stripped from life by the fact of death. Camus’s attempted solution was to rebel against this thinking and say that we should live in spite of the absence of meaning, refusing to allow this argument to have any power over us. This does not answer the problem so much as advise going on regardless. Others have since insisted that we can give our own meaning to our actions, but this is not the meaning Dostoevsky was considering nor is it clear how it can survive the challenge of Ecclesiastes. Kirilov’s point, instead, was that inventing God had permitted people to dodge the issue entirely by creating a constrast between death (to be feared) and life (to therefore be loved). In order to reject the dilemma, however, someone would first have to show that it could have no dominion over man. The extent of the freedom thus granted could never be clear until someone expressed it fully by choosing to reject it.
In many ways, Stavrogin is the most fascinating character of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre and one who shows by his actions in The Possessed the thinking that Kirilov tried to explain. He, too, found life without meaning and refused to invent a fiction to save it – eventually killing himself quietly and without fuss. While he lived, he frequently sought out ridiculous situations in which he acted in such a manner as to confound expectation and cause trouble for himself, because this was the only way he could feel alive after his rejection of the power of the dilemma. Kirilov, of course, had figured this out, and had Verkhovensky spell-bound when he explained:
Stavrogin, too, was eaten up by an idea. […] If Stavrogin believes in God, then he doesn’t believe that he believes. And if he doesn’t believe, then he doesn’t believe that he doesn’t believe.
When he eventually hung himself, Stavrogin left a note saying "no one is to blame, I did it myself."