Those Demons Among Us

I have been re-reading Dostoevsky’s Demons, in the excellent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. As someone who shares with Stephan Trofimovich the sad condition of being past my prime, I was struck by a series of comments made by his long-time friend and supporter Vavara Petrovna. In the context of the novel, Varvara Petrovna has become close friends with the wife of the governor of the province and has joined her in befriending a group of young people who are among those Dostoevsky regards as “Demons,” a group of nihilists who are bent on destroying the status quo and revolutionizing Russia in the name of…..What? No one knows for sure. (One is put in mind of Steve Bannon who prides himself on his affinity for Lenin’s nihilism, though Bannon can hardly pass for a young man.)

In any event, Varvara Petrovna, despite her fondness for him, has come to the point where she feels as though Stepan Trofimovich has had his day, because his form of liberalism is too tame for the young. She will continue to support him, but she has become convinced that he is as stale as old toast. This conclusion stems from her recent intercourse with the rebels and their determination to introduce “new ideas” into the conversation, making the old ways passé. In attacking Stepan Trofimovich’s  self-esteem, not to mention his entire sense of self, Varvara Petrovna has this to say in trying to convince him that her way is the best way to present himself in reading a paper at an upcoming event which is sure to attract the best and brightest of the town’s most attractive residents — including, of course, the young people she is so enamored with:

“I’ve defended you with all my strength as far as I could. And why must you so necessarily show yourself as ridiculous and dull? On the contrary, come on the stage with a venerable smile, as the representative of a past age, and tell three anecdotes, with all your wittiness, as only you sometimes know how to do. So you’re an old man, so you belong to a bygone age, so you’ve fallen behind them, finally; but you can confess all that with a smile in your preface, and everyone will see that you are a dear, kind, witty relic. . . . In short, a man of the old stamp, and sufficiently advanced to be able to set a right value on all the scandalousness of certain notions you used to follow. Do give me that pleasure, I beg you.”

Stepan Trofimovich is devastated, and I along with him, because this notion that the old folks have had their say, and their day, is so hurtful — and  so commonplace, though Varvara Petrovna’s insensitive manner of speaking to her old friend is unnecessarily cruel.

We also know not what to do with our elders and are convinced that we have nothing to learn from them. The thought that they might have learned something along the way to old age is foreign to the younger generation who have always wanted to wash their hands of the elders and find their own way. To be sure, this goes back to the beginning of time, but it has become increasingly nasty in recent years — beginning with the notion, popular in the 1960s, that anyone older than 30 is irrelevant, and finding its fruition in our cult of the child in which we have made deities of our children and the pages of the AARP magazine are full of advice on how to remain young.

It’s one thing for the young to want to find their own way. As parents we see our children straining against the reins that we hold in our hands — or used to at any rate — and that is a good thing. The young need to learn how to grow old. But this seems no longer to be the case. The young want to remain young (and they do) and the old want to return to their youth (which they can’t). And we all listen carefully to the young, even the smallest child, expecting pearls of wisdom every time they open their mouths. No one seems to know how to grow old gracefully. Like Varvara Petrovna, the elders of our tribe in their worship of the young and their supposedly “new ideas” turn their backs on the lessons they themselves have learned and close their eyes and ears to the wisdom that might issue forth from grizzled faces and gray heads — their own among them.

We are convinced as a culture that newer is better and progress is always forward and never a danger. We also worship the young with undeserved adoration and look in the wrong places for guidance — just as we have disdain for history and regard it as “yesterday’s news” while we read the latest news bite on the internet to find out what is on the cutting edge and therefore true.

All I can say for certain is that I wish I knew forty years ago what I know today; even though I am still in the dark about a great many things I see a little ray of light every now and again and it keeps me going. I certainly do not expect profound insights from children. Humor, yes. Wisdom, almost never. Poor Stepan Trofimovich. I feel for him!

Renegade Cop

You have probably read or heard about the ex-cop Christopher Dorner who killed three people on his way to a mountain cabin where he was surrounded, killed a deputy sheriff, and then apparently shot himself before the cabin burned to the ground. All reports indicate that the man had anger issues and his dismissal from the LAPD was apparently the last straw that turned him against the very laws he had supported for years. He has become something of a cult hero, as we learn from articles like the following:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Dozens of protesters rallied outside Los Angeles police headquarters Saturday in support of Christopher Dorner, the former LAPD officer and suspected killer of four who died after a shootout and fire this week at a mountain cabin following one of the biggest manhunts in recent memory. . . .

The 33-year-old has already inspired a burgeoning subculture of followers. While most don’t condone killing, they see him as an outlaw hero who raged against powerful forces of authority, and some even question whether he really died.

There’s already a song about him! We really are desperate for heroes so the fact that a man like Dorner would emerge from this terrible incident as an “outlaw hero” is not all that surprising, I suppose. For one thing, we all feel oppressed from time to time by those in authority who would insist that we do things their way. As Dostoevsky would have it, we all, perhaps, want to “assert our independence, to go against social conventions, against the despotism of relatives and family.” It is a natural, human impulse to want to resist those who would thwart our will: just ask any mother of an adolescent child. But as we grow older we are supposed to become accustomed to authority, learn to accommodate ourselves to others, and recognize laws and constraints as necessary for us to get along with one another. Or perhaps we do not grow up! It does seem at times that this culture worships youth and does everything in its power to hang on to youth well into old age. Just take a peek at the AARP magazine sometime and check out the ads that promote products that promise to help people look and feel younger!

We find men of all ages in locker rooms across the country slapping each other on the backs, snapping towels, and telling dirty jokes — just like high school. College is regarded by the majority of its students as a time to have fun, not to grow into responsible, well-informed adults. Immediate gratification is the order of the day. Postponing gratification is the sign of maturity. And we can see from the level at which the commercials on TV are directed that marketers clearly think they are selling their products to eighth graders. Perhaps they are.

In any event, when a cult forms around a man who went berserk and shot three innocent people in imitation of Rambo (as he himself is reported to have said), then we need to stop and wonder where we have come in our resistance to legitimate authority and adulation of those who openly flaunt it at the expense of innocent lives. There was something clearly wrong in the workings of Dorner’s mind that led him on his rampage. But there might also be something wrong in the workings of the minds of those who would place him on a pedestal and think that this man was in any way admirable. We really do need to be careful whom we revere as heroes. I seriously doubt that the man could walk on water, feed the multitudes with a few loaves and a couple of fish, or emerge alive from a cabin engulfed in flames and surrounded by law enforcers.