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!