The complexity of human psychology is often portrayed most richly not in psychoanalytic texts but in literature. Russian literature in particular offers a treasure trove of works populated by characters whose internal landscapes unfold in the most compelling and nuanced ways. A Russian novel that stands out for its description of the lived experiences of a paranoid and sadistic man whose primitive worldview is dominated by egregious kinds of splitting is Fyodor Sologub_s The Petty Demon (1905).

The novel_s anti-hero, Peredonov, is a provincial schoolteacher in search of meaning and is the embodiment of cruelty and perversity borne from a deep sense of loneliness and aimlessness. The extent of the vileness and vulgarity exhibited by not only Peredonov but also many of the novel's characters borders on the unfathomable and thus evokes a sense of absurdity. Peredonov, the most abominable character in the novel, spits in his mistress's face, throws coffee drudges and wipes his muddy boots on the wall, delights in the beating of children, and slings caustic remarks at everyone he encounters (unless he is trying to gain their favor and protection).

Sologub_s creation of a morally bankrupt and inherently meaningless world serves as a warning to the depraved among and within us. However, what underlies his depiction of utter chaos and wickedness is the implication that there could be--and need be--a world of moral order and purity. Ironically, through his portrayal of such extreme baseness and futility, Sologub highlights the need for the very opposite, setting up a world of vulgarity as a rallying cry for its destruction, which parallels the extremity and splitting within the text. By virtue of its polar opposition to the exaggerated evil of Peredonov_s world, the possibility of a Garden of Eden, of a time of moral purity either to return to or to create anew, lurks behind the vileness. In other words, the absurd world devoid of morality and true meaning rests on the yearning for a world of moral purity and ultimate meaning.

The Petty Demon is not only a compelling portrait of a man who organizes his existence through cruelty and perversion but also a poignant reminder of the pitfalls of conceptualizing meaning as totalizing. When confronted in the therapeutic encounter by what we experience as vile and immoral in others and in ourselves, we feel a powerful desire to get rid of it, but this desire rests on the assumption that it need not exist. Most of us would agree that the Garden of Eden, the individual totally devoid of depravity, is an impossibility. What Sologub helps us see is that our unconscious desires for such purity and totalizing meaning often lie hidden beneath the surface of our criticisms, outrage, and judgment.

Shlomit Gorin, MA
Impulse Managing Editor