Dostoevsky warned of the strain of nihilism that infects Donald Trump and his movement

A Trump supporter climbs scaffolding in an effort to breach the U.S. Capitol.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

Nihilism was notably cited during U.S. Senate deliberations after rioting Trump supporters had been cleared from the Capitol.

“Don’t let nihilists become your drug dealers,” exhorted Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. “There are some who want to burn it all down. … Don’t let them be your prophets.”

How else to describe the incendiary rhetoric and grievances that Donald Trump has peddled since November? What else to call the denial of the electorate’s will and his deep disdain for American institutions and traditions?

In 2016, I wrote about how Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky had, in his work, explored what happens to society when people who rise to power lack any semblance of ideological or moral convictions and view society as bereft of meaning. I saw eerie similarities with Trump’s actions and rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Fast-forward four years, and I believe the warnings of Dostoevsky – particularly in his most most political novel, “Demons,” published in 1872 – hold truer than ever.

Although set in a sleepy provincial Russian town, “Demons” serves as a broader allegory for how thirst for power in some people, combined with the indifference and disavowal of responsibility by others, amount to a devastating nihilism that consumes society, fostering chaos and costing lives.

Power for power’s sake

Before “Demons,” Dostoevsky had been writing a novel about faith, “The Life of a Great Sinner.”

But then a disturbing public trial spurred him in a more overtly political direction. A young student had been murdered by members of a revolutionary group, The Organization of the People’s Vengeance, at the behest of their leader, Sergei Nechaev.

Dostoevsky was appalled that politics could be dehumanizing to the point of murder. His focus turned not only to moral questions but also to political demagoguery, which, he argued, if left unchecked, could result in devastating loss of life.

Sporting a beard, Dostoyevsky stares solemnly into the camera.
A portrait of Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky from around the time he wrote ‘Demons.’
adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

The result was “Demons.” It featured two protagonists: Pyotr Verkhovensky, a former student with no political convictions beyond a lust for power, and Nikolai Stavrogin, a man so morally numb and emotionally detached that he is incapable of purposeful action and stands idly by as violence engulfs his society.

Through these two figures, Dostoevsky tells a broader story about the many flavors of nihilism. Pyotr infiltrates the town’s local social circles, recruits a group of disciples to a revolutionary group and spins lies to band them together so they may do his bidding. Pretending to lead a broad movement of international socialism, Pyotr manipulates those around him into committing violent acts and insurrection against the local government. As a result, one woman is crushed by a mob, a mother and her baby die from chaos and neglect and a fire breaks out that kills multiple others.

Different townspeople espouse multiple and contradictory ideologies; none translates into purposeful action. Instead, they merely leave characters whiplashed and susceptible to being instrumentalized by Pyotor, the master manipulator.

The allure of feeling something

But Pyotr would not prevail without the nihilism of Stavrogin, a local nobleman.

Many townspeople see him as a leader with a strong moral compass. Throughout the novel, Pyotr seeks to loop Stavrogin into his quest for power by either doing him favors that corrupt him or hinting that he will install him as dictator once he successfully carries out a revolution.

On some level, Stavrogin knows better: He should be protecting the town and its people. He ultimately fails to do so, out of sheer despondence and because of the emotional appeal of chaos and violence have for him; they seem to jolt him out of the ennui he often appears to feel.

When given the chance to restrain and turn in to the authorities the escaped convict who perpetrates most of the violence in town, Stavrogin captures him only to eventually let him go. “Steal more, kill more,” he says to a criminal who has already admitted to killing and stealing. Later, when the political climate gets so heated that it seems an insurrection is imminent, he flees town.

A page covered in Dostoevsky's handwritten script, doodles and drawings.
A page from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s manuscript for ‘Demons.’
Heritage Images via Getty Images

In surrendering his responsibility to serve as a moral guardian, Stavrogin becomes complicit in Pyotr’s schemes. He ultimately kills himself – perhaps, in part, out of guilt for his passivity and moral indifference.

Among the two men, Pyotr is the authoritarian figure. And he cleverly insists that members of the revolutionary group break the law together, cementing a loyal brotherhood of criminality.

By contrast, Stavrogin is the novel’s empty center, idly standing by while Pyotr incites violence.

He doesn’t help Pyotr. But he doesn’t stop him, either.

From nihilism to annihilation

A range of nihilistic justifications – each successively hollower than the rest – seems to have shaped the violence at the U.S. Capitol.

The homegrown American insurrection lacked any sort of ideological foundation. Most ideas fueling it are negations of persons or facts. The immediate rallying cry of the insurrection was the falsehood that the election was stolen. Beyond denying the will of over 80 million people who voted for Joe Biden, this lie also qualifies not as an ideology, but as an absolute denial of truth.

Other ideas fomenting the insurrection – such as “America first” or “MAGA” and even white supremacy itself – are quintessentially founded on the denial of others, whether they are immigrants, foreign nationals or persons of color.

From what we have learned since, some of Trump’s supporters were even imploring him to “cross the Rubicon,” a reference to Julius Caesar’s initiation of the civil war that eventually transformed Rome into a dictatorial empire, expressing a longing to smash American systems and eviscerate the republic.

The only real purpose that seems to have brought the group together was devotion to Donald Trump, who strikes me as the arch-nihilist in all this, the Pyotr Verkhovensky of this American tragedy. Then there are the other public figures who should have known better, who might have helped stop it all, but couldn’t and didn’t. Some, like Stavrogin, excused themselves and were silent for far too long, as the lie about the election grew bigger and bigger. And others seemed to outright encourage the lie through formalized objections in Congress last week.

Playacting at revolution at the behest of a man seeking to cling to power, the rioters ultimately only managed only to vandalize the building, though they left five people dead in their wake.

Nonetheless, to act violently on the basis of such fictions – and to transgress against the humanity of others for nothing at all – is perhaps the most nihilistic act of them all.The Conversation

Ani Kokobobo, Associate Professor of Russian Literature, University of Kansas

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is an anti-stream of consciousness novel

Statue of James Joyce reading at his grave in Zurich, Switzerland.

John Scholar, University of Reading

This year marks 80 years since the death of the great Irish writer James Joyce (1882-1941). His most famous novel, Ulysses (1922), is one of those books, like Moby Dick or Infinite Jest, that more people begin than finish. The tome is widely believed to be a stream of consciousness novel and you could certainly be forgiven for thinking that if, like many, you only made it 100 pages or so in.

I often advise against starting at the beginning of the novel. In the case of Ulysses, you are thrown headfirst into the difficult stream of consciousness of Stephen Dedalus, a precocious 22-year-old writer. The fourth chapter, instead, is a much more accessible opening. It too offers a stream of consciousness but an easier sort belonging to the novel’s other main character, Leopold Bloom, a hapless but loveable 38-year-old advertising canvasser. On the day the novel is set, 16 June 1904, Stephen and Bloom strike up an unlikely friendship in Dublin. To read Bloom’s thoughts is to be taken into a stream of sensations, trivia, and wonder.

However, venture further and you’ll discover that Ulysses morphs, becoming instead a great anti-stream of consciousness novel.

Bergson’s stream of consciousness

For French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), our stream of consciousness is our continuous sense of time, in which past, present and future merge. It is the fluid life at the heart of our identity. According to Bergson, these streams are at the centre of every object and every person.

Black and white photograph of Henri Bergson.
Philosopher Henri Bergson.
Library of Congress/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Bergson believed we can either “analyse” or “intuit” things or people. When we “analyse” something, we remain outside its stream. We superimpose on its fluid life our own static symbols, like language. Using words means “we do not see the actual things themselves” just “the labels attached to them”.

Another example is numbers. We impose minutes and hours on fluid life. For instance, you can “analyse” a day, breaking it into 24 hours. But to “intuit” it, to see it from within the stream, is to see that time is not so rigid or easily quantifiable – it moves slower when you’re bored or faster when you’re having fun.

In our workaday lives, “analysis” is a necessary shortcut. We need words and numbers, labels and time, to get things done. Artists, according to Bergson, however, have the gift of intuition.

Read more:
A philosophical idea that can help us understand why time is moving slowly during the pandemic

For example, authors’ imaginative use of language makes words a gateway to the streams at the heart of life, rather than distracting labels imposed upon it. Borrowing such ideas, literary critics posited that the stream of consciousness novelist is one who can “intuit” the stream of consciousness of characters and so become them.

Joyce tries for a moment, becomes his characters but soon gets bored with Stephen and Bloom’s streams of consciousness. By the seventh chapter, he begins a long firework display of other styles. Here on, Stephen and Bloom’s streams of consciousness are elbowed out of the way by newspaper headlines, expressionist drama and even romantic fiction. Or they’re shushed by a scientific manual or an encyclopedia of English prose styles.

Joyce fails to find the stream

So Ulysses is a much less consistent stream of consciousness novel than many. But it’s also an anti-stream of consciousness novel as Joyce comically demonstrates his and his characters’ failure to intuit streams.

Joyce enjoys showing us that people are mechanically absent-minded, often because language itself is a mechanism which gets in the way of our efforts to intuit fluid reality.

Painting of James Joyce holding a cigarette while leaning against a table.
James Joyce, like his characters, fails to enter the streams of conscious.
National Portrait Gallery, London, CC BY-NC

For example, Stephen, though a creative writer, isn’t at all intuitive. All he can see is the labels attached to things, albeit highly literary labels. When he sees a dog on the beach, his love of words conjures a horse, a hare, a calf, a bear, a wolf, a leopard, a panther and a stag. He can’t focus on the dog.

Bloom’s mechanical behaviour is less literary (words) and more scientific (numbers). True, he is better at intuiting his cat than Stephen is the dog: “Wonder what I look like to her?” he muses, trying to intuit himself into her stream of consciousness. But soon his mind turns to numbers: “Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.” Here he reverts to analysis as he strains to make sense of their difference in height using his human scale, not the cat’s.

Just as Joyce’s characters can’t intuit streams of consciousness, nor can he. He knows that static literary words can’t account for the fluidity of our interiors. Every time he reaches for a new style, in each new chapter, he acknowledges these failures and moves on with glee to the next.

A stream of consciousness does dominate the last chapter. Here we tune into Bloom’s wife Molly’s stream and hear about her afternoon of sex with a colleague. Is this the stream we have been waiting for? Yes and no.

Molly’s thoughts do flow through past, present and future, uninterrupted and unpunctuated. But the Molly we get to know, while charismatic, is something of a static symbol herself, the stock character of the sexually frustrated wife. As we reflect on 80 years since Joyce’s death, Ulysses reminds us that consciousness will always elude the novel but, really, that’s where the fun lies.The Conversation

John Scholar, Lecturer in the Department of English Literature, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How an obscure 1909 novella that foretold the internet can guide us through the latest lockdown

Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Dan Taylor, The Open University

For most people the latest national lockdown means uncertainty: precarious jobs and incomes, concerns about the safety of loved ones, and – for many parents – the difficulty of combining work with childcare. It also sends us back to a peculiarly confined world unimaginable one year ago – one in which we have come to rely heavily on the internet for work, shopping, leisure and communication with our family and friends. A world where contact with others could have lethal consequences and where venturing outside our homes has become, in some cases, against the law and subject to serious penalties.

How can literature guide us in this strange new world? E.M. Forster’s short story The Machine Stops (1909) presents an uncannily similar world to our own.

Cover of paperback novel The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster
Dystopian fantasy.

It is set in an unspecified future, where Earth has become inhospitable. Human beings live deep beneath the surface in cramped hexagonal chambers. Each person lives alone, yet on the face of it few are unhappy.

A vast, global Machine connects everyone through video communication – a little like Zoom or WhatsApp which have become so important during lockdown. Each day passes from one virtual meeting or lecture to another, the passage of time indicated only by the dimming of artificial light. People can also mute themselves if they wish (they seem to be untroubled by the “you’re still muted” problem).

An Alexa-like monitor supplies everything they might require at the push of a button:

There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button … (t)here was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature, and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

The narrative follows the encounter of Vashti and Kuno, a mother and son who live on opposite sides of the world, and their uncomfortable attempt to meet in person at Kuno’s request. Kuno is worried about their helpless reliance on this machine. Some have even come to worship it, lovingly poring the pages of the one book still in circulation, the Book of the Machine, which provides an instantaneous answer to any question (sound familiar?)

For many, like Vashti, leaving home is a terrifying experience. Compared to the Machine’s soothing comforts, sunlight appals. Nature is misshapen. Skin-to-skin contact is shocking and sinister. Vashti swallows mood-numbing medication, (a “tabloid”) to cope with the stress of direct experience. Then one day, Kuno asks: what if the Machine stops?

Venturing outside

Bored and disenchanted, Kuno decides to find an exit. In a gesture of romantic if doomed defiance – anticipating that of Bernard Marx and Winston Smith in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four – he briefly makes it outside to the surface of the Earth, with its still-beautiful forests, mountains, sunsets, seas – and people. This direct encounter with nature electrifies him.

Large green field with path running through it in Glastonbury, UK
The Machine Stops is a reminder of the value of finding a point of escape and enjoyment of the natural world.
Marco Fine/Shutterstock

It is not easy. In a move not unlike dragging yourself out of the house to start a new lockdown exercise regime, he first clambers out of his cosy room but is soon overcome with exhaustion. But he keeps going. Slowly, he climbs up level after level of identical pods, never encountering another person nor meeting any opposition from the Machine (for who would want to leave?)

Finally, he reaches a disused lift shaft to the surface. Outside, he collapses into a grassy hollow, blinded by sunlight for the first time. He discovers there are others out there, the “Homeless”, people who want to think, feel and find meaning in their lives by their own design, without surrendering their freedom to the Machine.

Sensing an escapee, the tentacles of the Machine grab Kuno and pull him back under. But he is transformed. He persuades Vashti to leave her pod and travel around the world to meet him, in person at last, to tell her all about it. Later, when the Machine unexpectedly breaks down, plunging the world into chaos, Kuno and Vashti reunite one last time. If there is hope, Kuno says, it lies in leaving the Machine behind.

The Machine Stops is a reminder of the value of finding a point of escape and enjoyment of the natural world during the tough months ahead. For Kuno, life under the Machine has “robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation”.

As we look ahead to a time after COVID-19, The Machine Stops asks us to think about how we recover the qualities that make us human. It also asks us to think about the political consequences of long-term reliance on a handful of unaccountable internet platforms, without leaving our homes or interacting with people who might differ in their outlooks to us.

When we cede control in exchange for convenience, cosy echo chambers and comfortingly familiar illusions, bad things follow.

After the pandemic

Let’s not overstate all the similarities. Forster’s is a world without work, whereas our machines seem to have us working all hours. Everyone has adequate shelter and food. The problem lies less with the Machine than the masses, willingly distracted by an artificial shadowplay of disinformation and instant gratification.

But these strange and unsettling visions ask of us one thing: what kind of world might we want to live in after the COVID-19 era?

How might we eventually overcome the (understandable) fear of touch? How might we cherish and protect our endangered natural world? How, despite the growing ubiquity of AI and automation, might we bring under control the internet monopolies that attempt to meet our every need and desire and restore the civic, communal and embodied life that preceded it?

One thing is clear: only us human beings, with our messy emotions and complexity, can do that dreaming and that rebuilding together, democratically.The Conversation

Dan Taylor, Lecturer in Social and Political Thought, The Open University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.