Saturday, May 15, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Who is your devil?

And now back to The Brothers Karamazov. When last we left poor Ivan, he was down with an attack of "brain fever." I highly recommend this as an ailment with which to afflict your characters, since it gives you license to do pretty much anything with the narrative. In BK, it lets Ivan have a long philosophical conversation with the devil himself.

Ivan's devil is quite an interesting figure. He's not scary, at least not at first glance, so much as persistently annoying. That's because he's a kind of "leftover" of history, which the nation, and Ivan, would very much like to bury:

This was a person or, more accurately speaking, a Russian gentleman of a particular kind, no longer young, qui faisait la cinquantaine, as the French say, with rather long, still thick, dark hair, slightly streaked with gray and a small pointed beard. He was wearing a brownish reefer jacket, rather shabby, evidently made by a good tailor though, and of a fashion at least three years old, that had been discarded by smart and well-to-do people for the last two years. His linen and his long scarf-like neck-tie were all such as are worn by people who aim at being stylish, but on closer inspection his linen was not over-clean and his wide scarf was very threadbare. The visitor's check trousers were of excellent cut, but were too light in color and too tight for the present fashion. His soft fluffy white hat was out of keeping with the season.

In brief there was every appearance of gentility on straitened means. It looked as though the gentleman belonged to that class of idle landowners who used to flourish in the times of serfdom. He had unmistakably been, at some time, in good and fashionable society, had once had good connections, had possibly preserved them indeed, but, after a gay youth, becoming gradually impoverished on the abolition of serfdom, he had sunk into the position of a poor relation of the best class, wandering from one good old friend to another and received by them for his companionable and accommodating disposition and as being, after all, a gentleman who could be asked to sit down with any one, though, of course, not in a place of honor. Such gentlemen of accommodating temper and dependent position, who can tell a story, take a hand at cards, and who have a distinct aversion for any duties that may be forced upon them, are usually solitary creatures, either bachelors or widowers. Sometimes they have children, but if so, the children are always being brought up at a distance, at some aunt's, to whom these gentlemen never allude in good society, seeming ashamed of the relationship. They gradually lose sight of their children altogether, though at intervals they receive a birthday or Christmas letter from them and sometimes even answer it.

The countenance of the unexpected visitor was not so much good-natured, as accommodating and ready to assume any amiable expression as occasion might arise. He had no watch, but he had a tortoise-shell lorgnette on a black ribbon. On the middle finger of his right hand was a massive gold ring with a cheap opal stone in it.

In the course of his conversation with Ivan, we find out that the devil's musings on the existence of God, the problem of evil, and so forth are all Ivan's own ideas, which he explored earlier and discarded. He even brings up "The Grand Inquisitor." So he's very much a writer's devil--imagine having all your old short stories read back to you by a smarmy guy in too-tight pants, sitting on your sofa.

In other words, this devil is memory itself: a blend of national memory and Ivan's own rejected past. Now we can start to see why this guy really is scary, his lorgnette much worse than leathery wings. Like a certain kind of relative, you simply can't get rid of him. The harder you try, the more insistently present he becomes. And he pushes every button you have: the guilt, the responsibility, the sense that he and you are really the same deep down. What on earth can you do with a guy like this? What can you do with the past?

So the writing exercise I propose for this week is to come up with an original devil. Let's not go for the obvious ones, like Sarah Palin or Dick Cheney or James Dobson et al. Who can get so deeply into your system that he or she is literally impossible to dismiss?

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