I rarely meet people who share my bittersweet obsession with both Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. So when I do, the elation is boundless. That's what made me gasp as I was looking through the contents of The Demonic: Literature and Experience, newly published by Routledge. The author, Ewan Fernie, is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham) in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The content of the book fully lives up to the enthralling chapter titles, like "Luther: man between God and the Devil", "Demonic Macbeth", "Dostoevsky's Demons", "Nietzsche: a demon that laughs", "Christ the possessor", to name but a few. Fernie's analyses of Angelo from Measure for Measure, Stavrogin from Dostoevsky's Demons, Poor Tom from King Lear, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Milton's Satan are mind-blowingly insightful.
Fernie argues that we all have a demon living inside us as part of our nature. Through his remarkably deep analysis of literary characters and historical figures we witness the revelation of our inner negativity. As Jonathan Dollimore observes in the Foreword, Fernie does not favour and speak from the viewpoint of any particular religion and this makes his arguments in the book unbiased and comprehensive.
The chapter on Angelo is thought-provoking as the author engages in an analysis of the character on the personal and universal levels. His own identification with Angelo, whilst at first sight strange, stands true for all of us as long as desire and desire to possess the desired are universal human attributes.
...it's Shakespeare's intimate portrayal of Angelo's tragedy of desire which has the power to get under my skin and disturb my moral self-conceit. It's Angelo whom I recognise.
It's true he starts out from somewhere beyond sympathy (but isn't that somewhere we all have stood?).
As opposed to the wide-held views on Duke Vincentio as a godly prototype in the play, Fernie sees him as a moral charlatan who seeks self-appreciation by deprecating Angelo and others. He is, Fernie asserts, the true violator of a nun as he proposes to Isabella in the end. As repeatedly throughout the book, here too, Fernie is very persuasive.
The two chapters on Dostoevsky - "Dostoevsky's Demons" and "The Master of Petersburg", are a terrific analysis of the maddening depth of Dostoevsky. With one only drawback - I could not get enough of it. Fernie should expand on his Dostoevskian explorations to come up with a complete book of its own!
Fernie's interpretation of Macbeth as the very Devil in the play is an interesting argument, whilst his search for the demonic in Love's Labour's Lost as a source for Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus is enlightening. The author's intimate speculations on Mann, Luther, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche as demonic personalities are expressed with intriguing revelation.
As the word "experience" in the title of the book expresses, Fernie's The Demonic: Literature and Experience exposes the intimate relation of literature to our lives as a genuine experience. Treating the demonic as a universal part of human nature, the author argues that the evil and the negativity is not opposed to the good and the divinity but is merged with it. The demonic in us accounts for our lives as much as our reason and objectivity.
Fernie is a scholar whose high personal credentials of intellect and insight seize your mind and shuffle it through the pages of his book with persistent astuteness.