Fictional Parallels?

As a young man in the 1840s Fyodor Dostoevsky was intimately involved in the Petraschesky circle, a secret society of liberal utopians dreaming of a general uprising that would revolutionize Russia for the better, as they saw it. Along with several other members of the group, he was caught, tried and condemned to death by a firing squad. At the last minute — the last second by some accounts — he was spared and sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia. This provided him with the experience he turned into his novel The House of The Dead and also provided background for the epilogue of Crime and Punishment. It left Dostoevsky permanently scarred, a compulsive gambler, and an epileptic to boot. And it started a revolution in his thinking that apparently turned him from a young idealistic nihilist into a reactionary conservative loyal to the Czar who had saved his life — though he later insisted he remained after many years “an old ‘Nechaevist’ myself.”

In any event, in 1869, he read about the brutal beating and murder of a young student who had sworn allegiance to, and later attempted to leave, a revolutionary group led by the young Sergei Nechaev. It provided Dostoevsky with the material he was determined to turn into a brief tract attacking the nihilists and the revolutionary movement in general. After years of reflection the result was instead his major novel Demons (also titled The Possessed or The Devils, the Russian word suggests all of these possibilities); it became a substantial novel that was more didactic than many of his major works but with many literary qualities that saved it from being simply a prolonged attack on a political group the author was no longer in sympathy with.

In that novel he created the character of the young Pyotr Verkhovensky (called “Nechaev” in the early drafts of the novel) who leads a small, zealous group of nihilists in the direction of revolution. Many of the incidents described in the novel were culled from the newspapers at the time and reflect the atrocities that were being committed on the eve of the Russian revolution that was to erupt with violence in 1917. In his novel, after the murder of the young student — as recreated by Dostoevsky from the events that stirred his creative juices, — one of the young men who devotedly followed Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky reveals to the police the events surrounding several killings and the violent events that led to that horrible murder of the student. In his confession he repeats the platitudes that Verkhovensky put in his mouth and which almost certainly are echoes of the basic nihilistic notions that inspired Sergei Nechaev. To the police who questioned why so many murders, scandals, and abominations had been perpetrated, the young man replied:

“. . .all was for the systematic shaking of the foundations, for the systematic corrupting of society and all principles; in order to dishearten everyone and make a hash of everything, and society being thus loosened, ailing and limp, cynical and unbelieving, but with an infinite yearning for some guiding hands, raising the banner of rebellion, and supported by the whole network of [nihilists], which would have been active all the while, recruiting and searching for practically all the means and all the weak spots that could be seized upon.”

This brings the novel to its unsettling conclusion, but it raises some interesting questions for us in this country in the glow of the recent political triumph of a demagogue who admires the Russians and many of whose activities have disturbing parallels with the events in Dostoevsky’s novel. Not that our fearless leader can be seen to resemble Sergei Nechaev as he lacks the imagination and the intelligence and, so far as we know, is not a sadistic murderer. But he is a bully and is easily led by a stronger personality. And there is a man who lurks in the shadows of his inner circles, the avowed follower of Lenin (a Nihilist with a capital “N”), who appears to have some of the qualities that were apparent in that young man and in Dostoevsky’s character modeled after him.

This may be a stretch, but it does give us pause and requires that we pay close attention to what is going on with an administration that seems to have declared war on social programs and regulatory agencies that have evolved over the years to protect American citizens from the abuses of the wealthy and the power-brokers who would just as soon see America made great again by “shaking its foundations” and transforming it into an imitation of the Russia that its leader seems to admire, an autocratic government without checks and balances and with no concern whatever for the ordinary citizen who struggles to keep his head above the waters of discontent. Would this indeed be a country “ailing, limp, cynical and unbelieving, but with a yearning for some guiding hands”? Let’s hope not. After all, that is merely a fiction.

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I had coffee with my friend Lloyd the other day and among other things we discussed Goethe’s Faust. We have discussed that book many times over the years as it is one of Lloyd’s favorites — he read it in German, which he taught at the university. I read it in English, and I have taught the first part a number of times in my honors classes: it is also one of my favorite books of all times.  Lloyd is convinced that Faust loved Gretchen while I am convinced he is incapable of love — in the modern parlance he is incapable of “commitment.” He is a narcissist. But we struggled to figure out the second part, which has baffled critics over the years. Goethe spent his entire life writing that book and I daresay he never figured out the second part, either! I do not think Faust is a thoroughly evil man (though Lloyd disagrees with me here as well). He attempts to improve his world and throughout he manages to exhibit a fairly lively conscience; in the first part of the poem Mephistopheles has to drag him away from Gretchen’s prison cell just prior to her execution. He feels terrible about what he has done to her — as well he should.

Mephistopheles, on the other hand, is without feelings: he has no conscience at all. He is the cold intellectual that Goethe holds up for our examination as a paradigm of the thoroughly evil person. He is without compassion and fellow-feeling. He simply calculates and acts accordingly. I find the same insight in Dostoevsky: the man who lacks compassion and fellow-feeling, who has no conscience is not a man you want to approach. Dostoevsky knew several of that type while he was a political prisoner in Siberia and he knew whereof he spoke. Shakespeare tells us that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” but then Hamlet says that “being a coward” means “doing the right thing.” It leads us away from those actions that would ultimately destroy us. Dostoevsky’s character in Crime and Punishment commits a dreadful crime and in the end he can’t live with his conscience.

But what does this have to do with us? Plenty! In the recent past we have witnessed a country run by men who seem to be lacking in compassion and fellow-feeling. Hannah Arendt describes at great length the psychology of Adolf Eichmann who was a man determined to get the Jews to the gas chambers on time. He was a bureaucrat who worried only about the efficiency of the killing machine. He never lost a moment’s sleep over the thought that he was sending men, women, and children to a grisly death. And the men who commanded him and followed his orders were evil in this same way: they were cold and calculating. Joseph Stalin was cast in the same mold. And history has shown us others of that type — even in the bosom of the Catholic Church, in the form of Torquemada who sent “infidels” to a screaming death in the auto-da-fes in Spain.

And if we are willing to look closer to home we might see these types sitting in a comfortable room somewhere in Washington, D.C. (or North Dakota) ordering drones into crowded city centers in Pakistan to target al-Qaeda leaders. They remain aloof because they don’t actually see the faces of those people thousands of miles away and they brush aside the uncomfortable facts that a mere 2 % of the reported 4500 targets are actually militant leaders and that 881 of those people were almost certainly innocent civilians, 176 of them children. (One suspects that these numbers are on the low side.) By remaining aloof and apart I imagine that those who direct the drones can sleep well at night, because their conscience never enters the picture: they are not killing people, they are killing the “enemy”  — while seeming to play a video game.