The epigraph to “The Devil” quotes Matthew v. 28-30 regarding lusting after a woman (who is not your wife): “And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish and not thy whole body go to hell.” Now, regarding lust, cutting off a hand is not necessarily going to do it. Balls, yes. And then there is the clitoridectomy. In reading Tolstoy’s later, short works, I don’t believe that any of his new preoccupations are illuminated (and people could argue differently, because he changed so much in his later years as a person), but they are gorgeous studies on moral and/or personal dilemmas that disappear the differences in culture, class, religion and time. We all struggle, more or less, with how to control our thoughts, our bodies, our actions, our lives, and fail at least some of the time, if not more. We all struggle to be the person we hope to be, and struggle to create a world, or life, we want to live in.
Eugene Irtenev comes home to take over the family estate, which his father has left in economic peril. In the very beginning, we see the refreshing hand of the author, straight out telling us something important. It is an aside, and it is narratively speaking, an unpopular way of addressing the reader:
It is generally supposed that Conservatives are usually old people, and that those in favour of change are the young. This is not quite correct. Usually Conservatives are young people: those who want to live but who do not think about how to live, and have not time to think, and therefore take a model for themselves a way of life that they have seen.
I like this. It reminds me of the saying, “You show your real politics when it comes to real estate and schools (for your children).” In other words, saying things and doing things, being “free” when young, voting left, growing your hair long, cursing, getting that tattoo, mean very little if you buy a house in the all white suburbs where the “schools” are really great (little racial diversity and most importantly, NO poor people). In other words, hypocrisy abounds in the liberal classes (and in all other classes, too, of course…)
In “The Devil”, the main protagonist Eugene is twenty-six, strong, healthy and smart. He has much to do to save the estate from ruins and does it. But he no longer has access to the women that he had, as a nobleman, access to in St. Petersburg. Tolstoy writes; “He only turned to this, however, in so far as was necessary for physical health and to have his mind free.” Now, here is where the author’s intentions start giving way to some strange points of view that we can almost be sure Tolstoy is not intentionally championing. It is only one of the many reasons he is still so fascinating to read: his works took on their own life and while not misunderstood necessarily, became very much their own force with the Russian people, and most likely something very different from what he intended (which I’ll expand on when discussing Cormac McCarthy, maybe, another time.) So, having sex makes you healthy. If you’re not getting laid, your mind is not “free.” This is presented as a given and I like that.
In a very brief elaboration to this subject, we hear that he had a mistress in Petersburg, a seamstress, but that “she got spoilt and he made other arrangements.” The absolutely clinical tone brings many things to mind. Basically, he has no feelings for the women he fucks. And being spoilt—I believe (maybe wrongly) that that means pregnant. Clearly, for the child, for HIS child, too, he has no feelings whatsoever. Obviously there are many contemporary movements discussing sex without emotion, rightly so (I was just listening to Juliana Hatfield sing “It’s just lust, and I don’t even like you very much”), but the issue of nobleman and seamstress color his behavior for the worse. (Having no emotion for offspring is another matter.) It is seen that he has no emotion because he is the rich “bad” person who has a sense of entitlement of screwing lower class women, without any obligation to them. And to this extent, we are set up to believe the woman to be a victim of, if nothing else, her low class.
Eugene knows that he must be discreet in the country, and anyone who spends anytime in the country know that everyone knows your business (unlike cities where anonymity rules). But he can’t help himself and sets out to find a “healthy,” “clean” woman, whose husband “is away.” The animalness of this is so intense. The animal desires of Eugene, how he wants her clean and healthy, like a horse. You think he’ll check her teeth, like a slave girl—clearly, the freed serfs who made up the peasants in late 19th century Russia weren’t so different from slaves. (To delve further into the idea that things were very complicated between slaves and their masters in at least parts of the world, read “The End of Blackness” by Debra Dickerson.)
He finds an employee, who is a pimp of sorts. Enter Stepanida. Not much is said about her in the beginning, but Eugene gets his “freedom of mind” and enjoys his intercourse with her and all is well for awhile. Later, he courts and falls in love with Liza, a suitable woman for his class (although Tolstoy makes it clear he married for love and not money, which greatly irritates his mother and is an interesting aside in the story), and he marries and for awhile, forgets all about Stepanida. It is of no small point that when his wife becomes pregnant, he starts thinking about Stepanida. To this day, a man is 10 times more likely to commit adultery when his wife is pregnant. I find that not surprising.
So Eugene becomes haunted by Stepanida: “Above all he felt that he was conquered, that he was not master of his own will but that there was another power moving him.” This lack of control is the crux of his problem—he cannot shut off his mind. His desire for her becomes unbearable. He tries to get her expelled from the village. After much mental suffering by Eugene, Liza gives birth (after a miscarriage earlier) and everything is better with Eugene (sexual access to his wife?). In fact, “Of the torments of his temptation and struggle he had forgotten even to think….It seemed to him something like an attack of insanity he had undergone.”
But his calm feeling does not last. And when his desire comes back, and when his mind cannot stop thinking of Stepanida, he thinks; “I thought I had taken her, but it was she who took me; took me and does not let me go.” He vacillates about what to do or what he should have done.” I ought to have lived with her,” he thinks, quite boldly. And then later: “she is—a devil. Simply a devil.”
Tolstoy was unsure of how to end this story: there are two endings. In the first one, and the one I favor, he shoots himself in the head and dies.
Here’s a quote from David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College, which in light of his suicide, takes on a more intense meaning:
Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
Whether or not the outside forces battling with one’s self-control are the Devil himself in the shape of a woman, or the Devil taking hold of someone by filling his heart with lust, or the more secular idea of lust and self-torture/guilt as things in and of themselves, seems moot. I hang out a lot at Susie Bright’s wonderful blog and read with great interest the movements of open marriages. I admire people who attempt such a thing as much as I admire those who attempt monogamy. But in truth, I speak to the average American, the person who tries to stay faithful to his/her spouse, or at least not hurt them. And I write these thoughts to contemplate not just the torturous feelings of lust that, if acted upon, would hurt one’s spouse, but also other tortuous feelings that plague us during our short time on this earth. The feelings of not being loved, the feelings of general despair or specific despair (heroin addicts come to mind), unbearable rage and physical pain. Basically I make this point: all of us suffer. To what extent that suffering is or is not a result of our free will almost seems irrelevant. How to transcend it? To wait for it to pass? How to, to quote Wallace again, say to yourself, “this is water, this is water” (here, water is meant as “life” and he meant, in my opinion, how to constantly remember that our daily life is actually a grand gift and miracle). How to not let pain get the best of us?
Which brings me to Give Sorrow Words: Maryse Holder’s Letters from Mexico. It is the 1970s, Holder is a super-liberal, highly educated woman living the dream, of sorts, that feminism helped usher in. But she is also a deeply complicated woman, one haunted by her escape of Nazi Europe as a young girl and one with a facial scar that left her feeling not beautiful. So what does she do? She goes to Mexico and relishes in getting high and drunk, and dancing, and dancing some more with great heart, and having sex with all sorts of significantly younger Mexican men who don’t treat her very nicely, for the most part. What does this have to do with “The Devil”? As Holder herself writes, “My cunt rather than my head is the intelligent agent.” Indeed, she ends up with her head bashed in on some backstreet in Mexico from letting her cunt rule her. Now, on the surface, these words seem the opposite of what Wallace says. But my point is that whether we can’t control our minds or our bodies, we can’t control ourselves—be it thoughts or actions—and this is usually part of what we all see as our demise. Perhaps there are people out there who don’t think of all of us as participants of our own demise, or people who don’t think that we all suffer demise, and to them I say, wonderful. And when I say that we participate in our own demise, I don’t actually mean that in some horrible, pessimistic way. I mean to say, that that is part of human nature.
In the introduction to these elaborate, often funny, disturbing, erotically obsessed letters, Kate Millet writes, “These pages are the account of a woman on her way to death, a death not only imposed but sought after.” I am not so sure I agree with Millet entirely, in that we all end up in the same place, but some of us get their faster and live harder, for sure. In fact, I would say that Holder’s choice to live a very risky, sex-upped life isn’t really a choice for her, or it did not feel that way to Holder. Hence, the “sought after” rubs me the wrong way. Holder sought sex, not death, (although I am not totally opposed to Freud connecting the two). Lots of it. With really hot Mexican guys. This doesn’t mean she wasn’t aware of the risks, nor does it mean it brought her happiness: indeed she is often tortured by their treatment of her. And yet, she goes on doing the same thing, over and over again. Like a heroin addict. Like being obsessed with a peasant woman or being tortured with incredible sadness day in and day out. The mind, the body, everything succumbs to the obsession, whatever that may be.
What is interesting for me to juxtapose are class, gender, ethnicity (peasants were not really the same as Russian nobles) and the emotion, or lack there of, during the sex act in Holder’s letters and Tolstoy’s “The Devil”. Holder objectifies her lovers, even fetishizes them, not unlike Eugene’s desire for a “healthy…clean” girl. She says, “I am now hooked on Mexican looks…I can’t bear anything but dark skin, straight full dark hair and actually, shortness.” But she also is not beyond lamenting “I am never humanized through friendliness, intelligence, hours of athletics, daily contact, whatever. But they love their women—this is not such a racist country.” Contrast that with this:
Got royally, horribly laid by a kitchen helper, plugged me with his monstrous prick three times, the last nearly rape. Boasted about his sexual sophistication, which consisted of knowing fifteen different positions from which to plunge into my hole. Three times in a row, much come each time, huge ass. Awful. I am certainly pregnant now and will give birth to three bulge-ass kitchen assistants….
She wants their love sometimes, but other times, she just fucks and doesn’t actually care much for who she fucks at all and is not above degrading them. In fact, throughout the letters, one cannot help but see her love of Mexican men part of her desire to be the intellectual superior, the superior in general, but it doesn’t actually work out that way. At all. Much like Eugene saying, “I thought it was I who had taken her, but it was she who had taken me.”
Which brings me back to Stepanida, Eugene’s lover before he married. Again, one would think that Tolstoy would try to make her a devil, considering his religious beliefs toward the end of his life. But the devil is really inside of Eugene, or so I read it so. The devil is lust, not the woman herself. And Stepanida misses her lover when Eugene stops fucking her and tries to get him back in her own way, and enjoys other lovers as well. She also enjoys the little bit of money she makes, but as she says to Eugene, when he questions her about what her husband thinks: “I bet he goes on the spree there. Why shouldn’t I?” And so, instead of coming off like a victim, she comes off as a happy, sexual woman, with a good marriage and some lovers, too.
What strikes me is that a moral tale from a deeply religious man who supposedly espouses fidelity in marriage, creates such empathetic characters whose repressed desires are their torment, who suffer from the shackles of class and society (here we see the seeds of communism). What I come away with from Tolstoy is his great empathy for the human condition, for all of our troubles and in particular, for our sexual needs. This is not to say that his idolization of the peasants did not have a dark side. When idolizing any “other” we also objectify and take away their humanness, by making them super-human. But isn’t that better than animalizing, or outright degrading? Yes. Is it reactionary? Yes. But the character of Stepanida comes off as more complex than a devil, or, for that matter, than many of his idolized male peasant characters. Unwittingly, perhaps some combination of his negative feelings regarding lust and his idolizing feelings toward peasants blends to make an actual human being.
And religion—far from the many horrible things it can be (anti-choice freaks, hate-filled ethnic and religious identity reasoning)—is also a framework in which to understand our hearts’ troubles. After reading Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy in particular, I now read Catholicism less as a belief system, which it certainly is, but as something that believes in us, a structure of sorts—and, as in the case of McCarthy, one with laws explained as well by physics—that exists, largely but not exclusively, outside of our free will.
And so whether you shoot yourself in the head, your heart, your groin, whether you suffer from original sin, lust, or possession by a devil, or from a secular, overwhelming depression, this suffering is essentially what makes us human, equal only to our most human ability to show compassion in light of others’ serious problems.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.