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On Creatives and Creative Process

#dostoevsky #creativity #demons #rene-girard #tolstoy

The following is an excerpt from my August 2022 letter

Writing is, in a very real sense, a meditation: a messy practice mostly unseen. Although we read, rather enamored I may add, the works of titanic thinkers, poets, and novelist we only, fortunately for us, see the end products of their creative cycle. What we do not see, as any entrepreneur or athlete may nod in agreement, is the process leading up to that end.

Let us be more concrete.

I became rather intrigued when made aware that Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, had a rather peculiar process in which he envisioned and produced his various works: The Brother’s Karamazov, Demons, and Crime and Punishment to name a few. Dostoevsky was apparently a trained draughtsman leading to several detailed doodles sprawled across his notebooks of faces, gothic cathedrals, and scribbled calligraphy in 360° of orientation. This chaos of Dostoevsky’s internals in itself fascinated me and probing further into his process revealed to me the all-consuming portrait and frenzy of a creative mind like his. To understand this, it is worth delving into one of his works, Demons in some detail (in specific the Peaver and Volokhonsky translation).

An journal page taken from Dostoevsky notebook containing sprawling calligraphy and doodles of faces and cathedrals

Figure 1. Supposedly pages from Dostoevsky’s notebooks; Above: a page created during the writing of Crime and Punishment (Source)

To provide some background beforehand, Demons itself began as a novel-pamphlet from the seed of a curious event that Dostoevsky’s brother-in-law had informed him: the murder of a man, Ivan Ivanov, by a group of nihilists for which he formerly associated but had since changed conviction towards. This event presented to Dostoevsky, according to Peaver, real performance of the sentiment arising in the “new” Russia circa 1870. That spirit was the conflict between what Dostoevsky considered to be the “new Russian man” and the nihilism of his day. The novel was Dostoevsky’s attempt to “say everything” about the materialist ideology he saw growing about Russia and became, in part, a satirical commentary viewing the possession of human beings by ideas and ideology generally - our “demons” if you will.

The fascinating in its own right, however, is the process leading up to its publication:

In July, another creative upheaval occurred; Dostoevsky threw out all he had written and started over from page one.

‘A genuine inspiration has visited me’, he wrote to a friend in October… [that inspiration being] the tragic character Nikolai Stavrogin, the strongest of Dostoevsky’s ‘strong personalities’. His emergence from Life of a Great Sinner, and from Dostoevsky’s memories of his ‘Mephistopheles,’ Nikolai Speshnyov, entailed a total reordering of the novel and deepening of its motifs…

Stavrogin is everything Dostoevsky wrote in a note dated August 16, 1870.

Once the true protagonist appeared, the materials of the novel began to compose themselves around him. The result, neither pamphlet nor religious poem but a blending and recasting of both, cost him another two years of work. This groping procedure, one displeased critic called it, may seem surprising in so great a novelist, the assumption being that a good writer knows what he wants to write before he sets about writing it. In fact the opposite is true as Rene Girard has said:

‘This work is a means of knowledge, an instrument of exploration; it is thus always beyond the creator himself; it is in advance of his intelligence and his faith’.

The novelist’s “operational formalism”, as Girard calls it, is a search for the form that will reveal meaning, a testing of truth by artistic embodiment. The form achieved grants the artist, and thus the reader, a knowledge of the world which is also self-knowledge, for the penetration of reality goes both ways… No other means of knowledge works quite this way. And it is remarkable that Dostoevsky, constantly risking formal chaos, should arrive at such a formal unity as we find in Demons.

R. Peaver, Demons (1994), Forward pp. xi-xii, emphasis added

Now, I must apologize at length here for failing to resist the indulgence of a short tangent. Peaver not only provides a small vision into the method of Dostoevsky which we shall discuss but also elevates some commentary by Rene Girard relevant to the subject at hand. Girard’s philosophy explored this theme of possession in-depth, albeit with more formalism. Girard considered the role of ideas (“mimetics” more broadly in his work), and the mechanisms by which primitive and contemporary societies “managed” the downstream consequences of their conflicting nature with the establishment of myth, the sacred, and the scapegoating mechanism (1).

In a contemporary context, what is intriguing to me as we hold Dostoevsky’s novel in hand, is the growing penetration of Girard ideas themselves into mainstream consciousness with the recent publication Wanting by Luke Burgis. I cannot speak intelligently on the book’s contents as I have not read it, but my understanding is that it is considered to be a more “accessible” companion to Girard’s philosophy that has grown immensely in popularity. The point of consideration here is that there may be potential consequences in the virulence of Girard’s ideas in and of themselves. Girard to his credit does warn us about the possibility of this in the same way that Dostoevsky attempts to in Demons. According to Girard, the mechanism of scapegoating, driven by the possession of a collective by their “Demons”, an “ism” for example (2), only seems to function when that collective is not conscious of the animus itself.

“I also know that it was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you…”

F. Dostoevsky, Demons (1871)

Unfortunately, I am none the wiser as to the downstream effects of growth in consciousness of Girard’s ideas. It makes me wonder whether the scapegoating mechanism has always functioned in the shadows of social activity but through internet native communications is now becoming more visible. If one humbles oneself to those cleaving words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn it is not difficult to see how the vindictiveness of human nature could be amplified in the high visibility of internet media:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.

A. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago Vol. 1 (1973)

But let us turn our attention back to this “operational formalism” which Girard describes Dostoevsky’s process with. Apparent in Peaver’s notes is Dostoevsky’s seeming willingness, as a writer, to risk catastrophe time and time again in the interest to “say everything”. To come about a character, Stavrogin in this case, which “is everything”. With respect to the method by which Dostoevsky achieves this, I’m reminded of a stylistic commentary about another of Dostoevsky’s novels The Gambler (Garnett translation). The Gambler gives an account of the dramatic sequence of events that occurred in the fictional town of Roulettenburg and the main character Alexey Ivanovitch’s intense addiction to gambling.

What intrigued me about Garnett’s stylistic interpretation of The Gambler was a note about the anticipatory tempo of the novel. Garnett supposes that even Dostoevsky is seemingly “unaware” of what will happen next. This is what the translator describes to the reader as a similar sensation or high alertness felt in anticipation of the roulette ball waiting to fall with each subsequent plot event that unfolds. All of this leads one to wonder if Girard’s presumption of Dostoevsky’s writing, and perhaps more broadly the aim of creative works, is correct. Writing is, “An instrument of exploration; it is thus always beyond the creator himself; it is in advance of his intelligence and his faith”. If this is true, there is something in the role of the creator that necessitates examination.

I had the privilege once of observing a water-colourist painting at a café in an activity that she would later describe to me as being called “photo art journaling”. What struck me, in fascination, about this activity was how she embedded short snippets of the “happenings” around her, including a description of the conversation I was having with an individual moments before.

An example of photo art journaling presenting a two page spread with various clipped images and water color drawings within of a person’s face, water lilly flowers and small text printed on the page as well

Figure 2. An example of art journaling. Source

Now for me (the unordained in arcane methods of visual art) this medium revealed volumes in the way in which creatives function. Like Dostoevsky’s Demons, original ideas do not seem to be conceived from within, but rather are synthesized from the environments outside of the individual. This is nothing groundbreaking as you may recall from a previous letter I wrote on this topic:

If the greatest artists that history has known “steal”, then they have always “stolen” first from nature and then from each other. This may be why so many intricate and important innovations are [biomimetic] in design (they are inspired by and possess an analog to natural designs).

What eluded me at the time, it seems, is what now appears rather obvious. The role of the creative is as a composer, so to speak, of the raw materials rather than being the raw materials themself. That is: the artist is a synthesizer, a chemist, an alchemist of sorts, and not, as it were, the quarry from which the elements that form the work are excavated.

But how could you live and not have a story to tell?

F. Dostoevsky, Unknown

If we are to take this with a certain level of seriousness, Girard’s framework of “instrument of exploration” and “testing of truth by artistic embodiment” in hand, it remains to be a question as to whether the proper mode of writing should be entirely for oneself. This is, of course, a vain act. It is more so in direct conflict with the commonality of mindfulness toward the reader and designing with the audience in mind for articulation.

“Vanity of vanities,” says Solomon —“vanity of vanities —all is vanity… I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit

L. Tolstoy, A Confession (1882), p. 24

Yet, despite the faculties of reason pointing to us that perhaps, “all is vanity” or to, as Vavara Petrovna in Demons, “nonsense, all nonsense”, there remains irrespective of the medium at hand, a peculiar drive to “say everything” as Dostoevsky. To find Stavrogin as it were. It is within that drive that a perplexity jumps out to me. That there must be a certain faith within the creative that everything can indeed be said . That truth, the sweet, and sublime can be captured, or better “tested” as Girard, at once if only for a gleaming moment:

And I said to myself quietly, Should I have lived long enough, To see the sunset and leaves fall, I have seen all that was to be seen.

Now, for the readers with dread towards matters of the existential, I provide here a kindly signpost to conclude this reading as what precedes is rather reckless gamble on the progress made thus far.

This element of faith, it seems to me, is examined rigorously in Tolstoy’s intimate essay entitled A Confession, a recounting of Tolstoy’s late-life grappling with intense depression, suicide, and personal meaning at the peak of his fame. Tolstoy’s confession reveals, in a personal account, the draperies of faith which fueled him and the subsequent withering of those springs as a source of personal meaning throughout his life. Beginning with the belief in the perfectibility of himself, followed by the duty of an “author’s creed” to teach humanity through poetry and writing, in the years at which Tolstoy summited the tremendous undertaking of notoriety, he begins descending into a troubled state of emptiness within:

At first it seemed to me that these were aimless and irrelevant questions. I thought that it was all well known, and that if I should ever wish to deal with the solution it would not cost me much effort; just at present I had no time for it, but when I wanted to I should be able to find the answer. The questions however began to repeat themselves frequently, and to demand replies more and more insistently…

Then occurred what happens to everyone sickening with a mortal internal disease. At first trivial signs of indisposition appear to which the sick man pays no attention; then these signs reappear more and more often and merge into one uninterrupted period of suffering. The suffering increases, and before the sick man can look round, what he took for a mere indisposition has already become more important to him than anything else in the world — it is death!

L. Tolstoy, A Confession (1882), p. 11

This emptiness drives Tolstoy further into a spiral of despair:

‘But perhaps I have overlooked something, or misunderstood something?’ said I to myself several times. ‘It cannot be that this condition of despair is natural to man!’ And I sought for an explanation of these problems in all the branches of knowledge acquired by men. I sought painfully and long, not from idle curiosity or listlessly, but painfully and persistently day and night — sought as a perishing man seeks for safety — and I found nothing.

I sought in all the sciences, but, far from finding what I wanted, became convinced that all who like myself had sought in knowledge for the meaning of life had found nothing.

L. Tolstoy, A Confession (1882), p. 17

What follows through to the conclusion of this autobiographical encounter is Tolstoy’s negotiation with and eventual reprise to a sort of spiritual faith. This is not without first confusing the reader with protest toward the conduct and contradictory being of organized religions of his time. However, it is the afterword of A Confession that an allegory of sorts is presented which draws my attention to perhaps the more subtle and subdued understanding that Tolstoy is inching towards. Tolstoy writes himself that the dream, “expressed in condensed form all that I had experienced and described” (A Confession, 1882). This is after leaving us with the concluding thoughts in his last chapter:

That there is truth in the teaching is to me indubitable, but it is also certain that there is falsehood in it, and I must find what is true and what is false, and must disentangle the one from the other. I am setting to work upon this task.

L. Tolstoy, A Confession (1882), p. 58

Now I feel obliged to reference the dream below in length for consideration:

Now a few days ago, when revising [this manuscript] and returning to the line of thought and to the feelings I had when I was living through it all, I had a dream. This dream expressed in condensed form all that I had experienced and described… the dream was this:

I saw that I was lying on a bed. I was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable: I was lying on my back. But I began to consider how, and on what, I was lying — a question which had not till then occurred to me. And observing my bed, I saw I was lying on plaited string supports attached to its sides: my feet were resting on one such support, my calves on another, and my legs felt uncomfortable. I seemed to know that those supports were movable, and with a movement of my foot I pushed away the furthest of them at my feet —it seemed to me that it would be more comfortable so.

But I pushed it away too far and wished to reach it again with my foot, and that movement caused the next support under my calves to slip away also, so that my legs hung in the air. I made a movement with my whole body to adjust myself, fully convinced that I could do so at once; but the movement caused the other supports under me to slip and to become entangled, and I saw that matters were going quite wrong: the whole of the lower part of my body slipped and hung down, though my feet did not reach the ground. I was holding on only by the upper part of my back, and not only did it become uncomfortable but I was even frightened. And then only did I ask myself about something that had not before occurred to me. I asked myself: Where am I and what am I lying on? and I began to look around and first of all to look down in the direction which my body was hanging and whither I felt I must soon fall.

I looked down and did not believe my eyes. I was not only at a height comparable to the height of the highest towers or mountains, but at a height such as I could never have imagined. I could not even make out whether I saw anything there below, in that bottomless abyss over which I was hanging and whither I was being drawn. My heart contracted, and I experienced horror. To look thither was terrible. If I looked thither I felt that I should at once slip from the last support and perish. And I did not look. But not to look was still worse, for I thought of what would happen to me directly I fell from the last support. And I felt that from fear I was losing my last supports, and that my back was slowly slipping lower and lower. Another moment and I should drop off. And then it occurred to me that this cannot be real. It is a dream. Wake up! I try to arouse myself but cannot do so. What am I to do? What am I to do? I ask myself, and look upwards.

Above, there is also an infinite space. I look into the immensity of sky and try to forget about the immensity below, and I really do forget it. The immensity below repels and frightens me; the immensity above attracts and strengthens me. I am still supported above the abyss by the last supports that have not yet slipped from under me; I know that I am hanging, but I look only upwards and my fear passes. As happens in dreams, a voice says: “Notice this, this is it!” And I look more and more into the infinite above me and feel that I am becoming calm. I remember all that has happened, and remember how it all happened; how I moved my legs, how I hung down, how frightened I was, and how I was saved from fear by looking upwards. And I ask myself: Well, and now am I not hanging just the same? And I do not so much look round as experience with my whole body the point of support on which I am held. I see that I no longer hang as if about to fall, but am firmly held. I ask myself how I am held: I feel about, look round, and see that under me, under the middle of my body, there is one support, and that when I look upwards I lie on it in the position of securest balance, and that it alone gave me support before. And then, as happens in dreams, I imagined the mechanism by means of which I was held; a very natural, intelligible, and sure means, though to one awake that mechanism has no sense.

I was even surprised in my dream that I had not understood it sooner. It appeared that at my head there was a pillar, and the security of that slender pillar was undoubted though there was nothing to support it. From the pillar a loop hung very ingeniously and yet simply, and if one lay with the middle of one’s body in that loop and looked up, there could be no question of falling. This was all clear to me, and I was glad and tranquil. And it seemed as if someone said to me: “See that you remember.”

And I awoke.

L. Tolstoy, A Confession (1882), Afterward

There is something within the recounting of Tolstoy’s dream in addition to his concluding thoughts that later nudged me towards the foregoing.

One should take care not to lose faith that they can handle the undertaking of their own existence and personal significance; And that, this is a necessary supersession for the faculties of reason which enables reason in itself to function.

To put this in a different matter of speaking relevant to the topic at hand: in order to find out if indeed as a creative one can “say everything”, there is a necessary act of faith and an act of gamble to discover for oneself; This is the impetus that pulls one through the journey of a work itself. It is the demon, if we are to heed Dostoevsky, which possesses the creator to venture into relationship with the work.


  1. See La Violence et la Sacre, Rene Girard (1972)
  2. See Wikipedia: isms, capitalism, socialism, communism, et cetera