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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.
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.
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.
Like many people, you may have resolved this New Year to read more in 2021 and spend less time on your screens. And now you may be wondering how to find the time to do it, especially in lockdown conditions, with different time constraints and anxieties pressing on us.
One solution is to go with shorter bursts of reading. Our Summer 2020 pop-up project, Ten-Minute Book Club, was a selection of ten excerpts from free literary texts, drawn from a wide range of writing in English globally.
Based on our larger project, LitHits, each week the book club presented a 10-minute excerpt framed by an introduction from an expert in the field and suggestions for free further reading.
We found that the top two things people responded to were the core idea of brevity – one of the most common terms in tweets about the project was “short” – and the quality and diversity of the literature. Our analytics showed that readers dipped in and out of the project over the 10-week span rather than regularly following along. One possible reason for this is that finding regular time for reading literature is not easy, especially right now.
Perhaps surprisingly, then, this article contains no advice about time management or habit-building. Instead, our five tips for reading are about fragments: literature interrupted.
This is nothing new. It is sometimes easy to forget that the 19th-century novel developed by the likes of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, which appear so dauntingly thick in book form, were first read in magazine instalments featuring a chapter or two at a time. Brevity was a significant part of their original appeal.
1. Don’t start from zero
Begin positively by noticing how much you are already reading in your life without even thinking about it. Even if you have not opened a book in over a year, remember that we are in an age of hyper-literacy and our days are saturated with words. You can harness this.
You probably flex your reading muscles all day long without giving yourself credit for it. Recognising that is a step towards choosing different content, if that’s what you want, or simply considering how you engage with the texts you already read (even if they’re often 280 characters or fewer).
2. Quality, not quantity
Prioritise the quality of the attention you are paying to words. Reading well is the practice of noticing carefully and with an informed perspective – it’s not so much what you read as how you do it.
Throw away your inner “reading activity tracker” and enjoy curious and provocative engagements with whatever you’re reading, without worrying about racking up the literary miles. This will also dispel that sense of guilt about not reading “enough” that can make reading seem like yet another chore, akin to “not getting enough exercise”.
In his introduction to Sudden Fiction International (1989), an anthology of very short stories or “flash fiction”, American novelist Charles Baxter made the point that the duration of our attention is not as important as its quality: “No-one ever said that sonnets or haikus were evidence of short attention spans.”
3. Lose track of time
As well as not keeping a count of books read, try to note how different the time spent reading feels. Many people assume that reading takes time, the very thing most of us lack. Yet there is another, more subtle temporal element to reading that has more to do with the cognitive experience of the text itself.
Centuries can flash by in seconds and moments can roll out over aeons. Jia Tolentino captures this brilliantly in her characterisation of reading the work of Margaret Atwood: “nothing was really happening, but I was riveted, and fearful, as if someone were showing me footage of a car crash one frame at a time”.
4. Be opportunistic
You can find pleasure in a few snatched moments of reading, and these are just as worthwhile for the immersive experience they bring through the encounter with language, images, and ideas. There is no ideal environment or place to read – just do it wherever you can and whenever you have some spare moments.
5. Connect and take control
Choose what you read and find ways to try texts out for yourself to help your search, rather than relying on recommendation sites. Such sites are usually not as objective as they claim. For instance Goodreads, the social site where people can compile books they’ve read or would like to read, as well as find recommendations, is owned by book-selling behemoth Amazon.
Recognise, too, the difference between buying a book and reading more. In her 2019 book, What We Talk about When We Talk about Books, Leah Price emphasises that every reader finds the text through their own journey, in the conversations, forums and different devices that could have brought them to it.
Rita Felski too, in Uses of Literature, talks about the ways that texts need to connect with us, and “make friends” – surviving history necessarily because they make connections with people again and again.
So, will you be reading more in 2021? Reader, you already are.
William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, two of the most important writers of literature, are surrounded by a halo of mystery related to authorship.
In the case of Shakespeare, the question of whether he is the true author of his plays has circulated for some time. In the case of Cervantes, mysteries about authorship tend to concern who wrote the sequel to the first part of Don Quixote, one of the earliest modern novels.
Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote in 1605. In 1614, an unofficial sequel by the pseudonymous Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda was published. In response, a year later, Cervantes published his sequel to Don Quixote, denouncing Avellaneda’s version in the prologue. Since then, Avellaneda’s identity has become the greatest mystery in Spanish literature.
Cervantes, Shakespeare and education
Both Cervantes and Shakespeare lived and died at around the same time. Shakespeare was born into a wealthy, rural family and Cervantes had humbler origins, yet both had a passion for the theatre and wrote plays.
In both cases, we hardly know anything about their childhoods and education (although it is known that neither went to university).
Great authors lend themselves to speculation. Shakespeare’s lack of education is one of the main arguments against the idea that he wrote his works, which have been attributed to 80 different authors. While Cervantes’ authorship tends not to be under the same scrutiny, questions about who exactly Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda was, remain.
Cervantes’ own educational background, however, suggests that it is possible to write to a high standard without academic training. If this could be true for the Spanish writer, why not for Shakespeare too?
A very large number of authors have also been proposed as candidates for the authorship of Avellaneda’s sequel to Don Quixote.
Social and cultural prejudices have been important in both cases. Shakespeare’s works show a detailed knowledge of the highest social classes, which is why it is thought that they should have been composed by some illustrious person of the time, such as Sir Francis Bacon.
However, Cervantes also had knowledge of the higher social classes and did not belong to them. Some researchers have even proposed that Avellaneda could have been Lope de Vega, the most prominent Spanish playwright at the time, since it is more attractive to imagine Cervantes confronted with a great author than with a mediocre person.
In both cases, figures who died well before both Shakespeare and Cervantes have been proposed as authors: Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the author of Shakespeare’s plays, and the Spanish writer Pedro Liñán de Riaza as Avellaneda, the unconvincing argument being that their works were left incomplete and were finished by other writers.
That said, it’s important to look at other plausible explanations. At the time of the publication of the first part of Don Quixote, there were no copyright laws protecting writers from continuations or plagiarism of works, which explains how Avellaneda’s version came to be.
Similar confusion has been caused in Shakespeare’s case. The Taming of the Shrew had an earlier anonymous version titled: The Taming of a Shrew, seemingly supporting theories that Shakespeare’s version was co-authored, or written by someone else entirely.
These days, however, following a theory put forward by Shakespearean scholar Peter Alexander in 1926, it is generally accepted that The Taming of A Shrew was simply an attempt to record the live production version of the play from memory.
In the case of Cervantes, I think I have cleared the mystery: we already know what Cervantes thought about Avellaneda’s identity, which should put an end to absurd speculation.
Cervantes and issues of authorship
As one popular theory goes, Avellaneda’s sequel to Don Quixote should be read as an embittered response to Cervantes’ parody of two real people: Lope de Vega and Jerónimo de Pasamonte. Pasamonte was a soldier from the region of Aragon who took part – as did Cervantes – in the battle of Lepanto (1571). Cervantes is said to have behaved heroically in the battle since, despite being ill, he insisted on fighting and was wounded several times.
Shortly afterwards, in 1574, Pasamonte was taken prisoner and spent 18 years in captivity. Upon his release, he returned to Spain and finished his autobiography, Life and Works.
When writing about the capture in 1573 of La Goleta (where there was in fact no actual battle), Pasamonte claimed to have acted as heroically as Cervantes at the battle of Lepanto.
After seeing how Pasamonte had usurped his heroic deeds in his autobiography, Cervantes satirised it in the first part of Don Quixote. Cervantes turned Jerónimo de Pasamonte into Ginés de Pasamonte, a galley slave, who is presented as a liar, a cheat, a coward and a thief, and is gravely insulted by characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
The revenge of Pasamonte
As I have probed in my book, “The two second parts of Don Quixote”, Pasamonte sought to take revenge on Cervantes, writing a sequel to Don Quixote with the intention of robbing Cervantes of his earnings from the second part. In order not to be linked to Cervantes’ galley slave, he then signed it under a pseudonym.
To get revenge on Avellaneda, Cervantes imitated his imitator and created a masterly scene, making the literary representation of Avellaneda (personified in a character known as Jerónimo) recognise his Don Quixote as the true one.
As attractive as speculation about Shakespeare and Cervantes’ authorship may be, looking closer at their lives shows just how irrelevant class, education and conspiracy theories are in terms of explaining their genius.
Imagine a world where we knew the name of Homer, but the poetry of The Odyssey was lost to us. That was the world of the early Italian Renaissance during the second half of the 15th century.
Many people knew the names of some early poets of Italian literature – those who were active during the 13th century. But they could not read their poems because they had not been printed and were not circulating in manuscripts.
Then, in around 1477 the de facto sovereign of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici – “the Magnificent” – commissioned the creation of an anthology of rare early Italian poetry to be sent to Federico d’Aragona, son of the king of Naples.
The luxurious manuscript became one of Federico’s most prized possessions. It was exhibited to and coveted by patricians and intellectuals for half a century – until its disappearance in the early 16th century.
But it did not disappear completely. The interest aroused by this manuscript generated a paper trail of letters, partial copies and other materials which I, along with other researchers, have managed to piece together. These documents allow us to reconstruct not only the trajectory of the manuscript through different courts in Europe, but – crucially – what works it may have contained.
Who were the vernacular poets?
Vernacular literature – that is, literature written in the language normally spoken by the people – only had a marginal role during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. The “real” culture was Latin. This meant that interest in the early poets who wrote in the Italian vernacular was limited – until the flourishing of the Italian language in the age of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
There are a few, I feel, who have understood the excellence of the vernacular: these include Guido, Lapo … and Cino, from Pistoia, whom I place unworthily here at the end, moved by a consideration that is far from unworthy.
Guido Cavalcanti was another love poet. He and Dante were best friends and Dante regarded Cavalcanti as an authority on poetry. Cavalcanti is mentioned in Dante’s early poetry collection, the Vita nova.
The whole work is addressed to Cavalcanti and Dante even implies that he is writing in Italian because of him. But despite Dante’s popularity, even the Vita nova was hard to get hold of before 1576 when it was printed for the first time.
Guittone d’Arezzo was another highly regarded poet. He started as a love poet before becoming the most important author (before Dante) writing on moral and political themes.
The Raccolta Aragonese
The collection of Tuscan poetry sent to Federico d’Aragona by Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1477 contained Dante’s Vita nova, as well as rare poems recovered from ancient manuscripts by Cino, Guittone, Cavalcanti and many others. The collection was opened by a letter signed by Lorenzo himself.
The manuscript was later named after its owner and became the Raccolta Aragonese (“the Aragon collection”). It became one of Federico’s most prized possessions and the object of widespread interest and curiosity.
Federico took it with him when he travelled to Rome at the end of 1492 to swear allegiance to the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. During this trip, he showed it to the scholar Paolo Cortesi, who immediately wrote to Piero de’ Medici – the son of the recently deceased Lorenzo the Magnificent. In this letter, Cortesi recounts that he had been shown a manuscript with poems by early vernacular poets, chiefly Cino and Guittone. The excitement is palpable: Cortesi is able to read poems by these authors whose names he had only ever heard mentioned before.
Such was the interest in these lost poets that partial copies of the Raccolta started to circulate. The first one was probably made by someone in Federico’s inner circle before he became King of Naples in 1496. News about his collection of rare early Italian poems was spreading.
The widow queen and the duchess
Federico was the last sovereign of his dynasty. He lost his throne when Louis XII of France invaded Italy. When he left Naples in the summer of 1501, Federico took the books of the royal library with him. He later had to sell part of them to sustain himself and his followers during his exile in France. But the Raccolta Aragonese was not sold and after his death in 1504 it was passed on to his widow, Isabella del Balzo.
The widow queen then lent the collection to Isabella d’Este, the Duchess of Mantua, in northern Italy, in 1512. She kept it for two months and, even though in her letters she promised not to leave it in other people’s hands, it is likely that she commissioned a complete copy which led to further partial copies being made.
Even though the transmission of these copies was in manuscript form – and so not widespread – several Renaissance intellectuals managed to read these “lost” works and were influenced by them in their attempts to reconstruct the history of Italian literature.
The real game-changer came in 1527 when a printed collection of vernacular poetry finally took the works of masters like Cino, Guittone and Cavalcanti to a much wider audience. This is when they stopped being obscure and arcane authors and finally took their place in the canon of Italian literature.
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