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Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994. 

The Lamp Has A Blog Now

And they've invited me to contribute a monthly post. I'm extremely flattered, and a bit intimidated, as it puts me alongside Peter Hitchens and probably some other people who are better writers than I am. 

My first post appeared yesterday. It's called "Being Honour Bred," a phrase from a Yeats poem which mentions people who lie without shame. It's a pretty grumpy post, which was not really the way I wanted to start out, but the poem has been very much on my mind. The next post should appear in late December and will be about Christmas.

Peter Hitchens's first post is here, and it's a jewel.

Why We're Divided (2) + The Lamp

By an appropriate coincidence, on the same day that I did that last post the new issue of The Lamp arrived. It includes an essay of mine which discusses the development of the counter-culture of the 1960s toward the current culture war, and the post reiterates a point made in that piece: 

The essential feature of the youth rebellion of the Sixties is that it arrived at the point at which the simultaneous decline of Christian culture and the rise of secular materialism produced a mass movement which was in fact a new ersatz cultus, the Great Awakening of a religion of human liberation. It has attracted converts ever since and gone a great way toward converting the culture of which it is an antagonist, recapitulating the conversion of the Greek and Roman world to Christianity. It is for many a feverishly impassioned faith. Like the Church it looks with fervent longing for a world to come. If it stops short of explicit utopianism, it nevertheless postulates an “arc of history” which is an asymptotic approach to utopia.

My title for the piece was "What Happened in the 1960s?" The editor(s) changed it to "What The Culture War Really Is," which I didn't quarrel with. ("Ersatz cultus" also is the editor's phrase, not mine--I just said "religion.") 

It was originally a chapter in the book for which I'm currently trying to find a publisher. My initial intention and ambition for the book was that it would be a combination of personal and cultural history, part autobiographical narrative and part discursive reflection and/or analysis of the times. Reactions from the people who read it either suggested or stated outright that I hadn't really unified those two aspects, and I think they were right. And among other things the book was way too long, and so I removed a lot of the discursive impersonal stuff, like the chapter which became the essay on the Sixties.

What's left is basically a memoir, and I think there's an oversupply of memoirs these days, so I'm not very optimistic about getting it published. Yesterday I ran across this rather wonderful quote from Wittgenstein's introduction to one of his own books:

I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

That's something like the way I feel. I don't think I can rewrite the book as it now stands in such a way that it would be greatly improved, though I have not stopped fiddling with details, and will soon try sending this new version to a publisher. 

Though I had excised that one chapter, I thought it was worth preserving. I cut it down from its original 7,000 or so words (by removing personal stuff) to 4,000. Almost exactly 4,000, in fact, which I know because I aimed for that in order to get it down to the maximum word count for First Things, thinking it might be something that would interest them. Well, it didn't. Nor did it interest several other conservative/Catholic publications to which I submitted it, so I put it on this site for a while. Perhaps you read it. 

Then Robert Gotcher told me about a new Catholic magazine called The Lamp. It looked interesting, and they were (are) considering unsolicited work, so I sent the piece to them, and somewhat to my surprise they accepted it. At that point I took it down here.

The Lamp is an interesting publication, describing itself as "A Catholic Journal Of Literature, Science, The Fine Arts, Etc." It's eclectic to say the least. I'm tempted to add "to a fault," and very handsomely produced. It is, however, a bit pricey at $60 for a print subscription, $45 for digital. You can read their editorial statement here. And here is a list of the issues. I'm pretty sure that you can read them online if you register first. It will offer to link your registration to your subscriber account, but you can close that tab, go back to the issues page, and view the articles. I think.

TheLamp-Issue-07-cover-imageCover image from the current issue. I think it's great.

Why We're Divided

The end of the Cold War three decades ago followed by the terror attacks in 2001 should have ushered in an era of consensus and low-intensity politics in the United States. That was the expectation at the time—but it turned out to be wrong. Over the past few decades Americans have turned on themselves, dividing into hostile tribes and parties with little common ground to hold the national enterprise together. As a result, as many now agree, the United States finds itself more polarized and divided over politics than at any time since the 1850s. But today, in contrast to the slavery issue of the 1850s or the Great Depression of the 1930s, there is no single crisis or line of conflict to account for the situation. We live in a time of general peace and relative prosperity and do not face any single challenge comparable to slavery or mass unemployment. America is coming apart, but no one can quite explain why.

That's James Pierson writing in a recent issue of The New Criterion (you can read the piece here, I think). With all respect to Mr. Pierson, who is far more qualified than I to discuss political and economic history, I believe I can explain why. The details are very many and sometimes contain contradictory and ambiguous evidence, but I think I've grasped the big picture, the essence of the conflict.

You can state the basic nature of the European aspect of World War II in Europe straightforwardly: Germany was an aggressive, repressive, and violent state that set out to conquer others, which then defended themselves. Even as a summary this leaves out a lot, starting with all the reasons why Hitler had come to power in the first place, the various ideas and obsessions that came together in National Socialism, the history of relations between the powers, and so on and so on, eventually for many volumes. But the simple statement is true.

Similarly, the essence of the current conflict can be stated like this: within Euro-American civilization a new religion has appeared, and has gained many powerful adherents who seek to impose it on the entire society, and are resisted by those who have not accepted it.

Obviously that doesn't begin to cover the subject. First of all one might discuss the sense in which "religion" is the right word for this new movement, and whether "pseudo-" or "crypto-" should be prefixed to it. And then one wants, of course, to describe the new religion, to understand it, to consider the ways in which the existing order produced the conditions for it, the ways in which it seeks to achieve its aims, to trace the history of its development and of the conflict between it and the society which gave birth to it.

And so on and so on. But if you don't see that one essential point--that this new movement is for all practical purposes a religion in the sense of providing a meaning and a mission for human life, and that it seeks to impose itself on everyone, you're missing the biggest part of the big picture.

I know I'm far from the only one making this basic point, or a similar one. But many of those who get it seem to me to stop short of what I'm saying. They note that politics has taken on a religious fervor and centrality for many people, and that is certainly true. But I think it's more than that: for the new religion, there is no distinction between religion and politics. Even that is too limiting a way to put it, because it treats religion and politics as separate things, which the new religion does not. Politics is its practice in exactly, not just analogously, the same way that prayer and church attendance are the practice of Christianity.

The fact that the new religion doesn't have a name and doesn't demand an explicit profession of faith makes its religious nature easier to miss, and also makes it easier to embrace. Nor does it see itself as "a religion" among others, but rather as the self-evidently true and good--which means that opposition to it can only constitute a choice of the false and evil. This likewise makes it easier to embrace, and also accounts for its almost perfect moral self-confidence.

The immediately apparent historical analogies are the establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the conquest of much of the Mediterranean world by Islam. I think the latter is really more comparable, for the same reason that I used the words "establishment" and "conquest"--the conversion of the Empire to Christianity was not primarily or initially by force, but the replacement of Christianity by Islam in much of the Mediterranean world was (though there was more to the story than that of course). And although the new religion does not (as yet) use physical force, it does use whatever means of informal and legal compulsion it can.

The course of the actual campaign of this attempted conquest is murky, as is generally the case. Relatively few people are firmly and consciously on one side or the other. Most people are down-to-earth and pragmatic and don't generally think too much about consciously-held abstract principle. Many who casually support it don't really grasp its totalitarian implications, or draw back from its more radical doctrines, such as the denial of sex.

Is this a fire that will burn itself out fairly quickly? Or is it the beginning of a long age of domination by a fundamental falsehood? Is that even possible for any great length of time? I don't know. I take a little comfort in considering how long Hitler's thousand years lasted. And totalitarian communism didn't do all that much better. Unlike fascism, though, communism didn't die. It has too much in common with the new religion (and both have more in common with fascism than they can admit). Many millions of people get misty-eyed when they sing "Imagine," which means they have accepted some of the doctrines of the new faith, whether or not they realize it.

Two Smart People Discuss the Disintegration of Culture

I'm trying very hard, and so far successfully, to stifle my impulse to talk about the political crisis of the United States. The crisis is far from abating. It's quieter now that the frenzy surrounding Trump has ceased, but the basic situation hasn't changed, and I'm trying not to spend too much time fretting about the likely outcomes, which seem to me to range from not good to very bad. (All right, I'll go this far: I think the most likely is a continued decline toward a situation like that which has often existed in Latin American countries: a corrupt pseudo-republican government, a small class of very wealthy and powerful people, and a great many poor and almost-poor people.)

The civilizational crisis that underlies the political crisis, though, still engages my attention and still seems worth commenting on as part of my effort to grasp it. A British novelist named Paul Kingsnorth has emerged as an articulate and perceptive voice on that subject. This video is an hour of his conversation with a Canadian artist/thinker name Jonathan Pageau, previously unknown to me. It's very much worth watching as a sort of overview. The most interesting part to me begins a little less than halfway through; the first 25 minutes or so are introductory. I don't entirely agree with him about the importance of climate change, but that's relatively unimportant--I certainly agree that our culture's relationship to the created order is pretty sick. 

Rod Dreher has quoted and written about Kingsnorth frequently, and today is another instance. I have not yet read the First Things and other links in that piece, but as this post has been sitting half-finished for over a week and I'm ready to be done with it, I'm going to go ahead and say that they're most likely very much worth reading. 

St. Ogg's in Our Time

(This is not especially appropriate for Easter Monday--well, it's not appropriate at all, but it's not exactly inappropriate either. But I wrote it a day or two before Palm Sunday, then decided it should wait till after Holy Week. So....)

And the present time was like the level plain where men lose their belief in volcanoes and earthquakes, thinking to-morrow will be as yesterday, and the giant forces that used to shake the earth are forever laid to sleep. 

That's part of a long description of St. Ogg's, the fictional town (named for a fictional saint) in which George Eliot sets The Mill on the Floss. It's an old town where things change slowly. That may seem the opposite of the constantly and wildly changing environment we live in. Our cultural atmosphere is full of rage, much of it associated with rapid changes that are pushed vigorously by some and resisted just as vigorously by others. Doomsayers of many persuasions are constantly telling us that the end is near. And so on.

Yet it strikes me that we are in some sense like the inhabitants of St. Ogg's. Most of our frenzy takes place against an assumed background of something like our current level of wealth and technology. I won't bother theorizing the many ways in which that could come to an end, but while many people are busy doing that, too few seem to appreciate that in the light of human history it is a very, very unusual--no, a unique--situation. Perhaps it will turn out to be a fluke, and a hundred years from now things will be back to normal, meaning that for most people most of the time the effort to get enough food to preserve life is their most important concern.

Now and then, listening to certain political views, it strikes me how thoroughly out of touch with fundamental reality they are. Self-styled revolutionaries assume that material plenty and personal freedom are the natural state of things, and all the questions are about how to rearrange them. All the material wealth and comfort are just there, as if they had just happened naturally. And the whole technological, financial, and political infrastructure of our lives has no connection to the civilization which produced it, but rather is like the land, a naturally-occurring phenomenon which will always be there and is ours to do with as suits us.

That all this could be quite fragile in physical terms is recognized by at least some environmentalists. That it is equally, if not more, fragile in cultural and political terms seems to be noticed only by certain conservatives. "Activists" openly preach racial division and resentment. Right and left increasingly speak of subjugating or eliminating the other as the only possible resolution of their conflict. The notion of "elimination" is at this point only political, not physical, but what happens if the political effort fails? 

Does it cross anyone's mind that the fact that we can turn on a tap and instantly get clean water, preheated to bath temperature if we wish, is connected with the culture in which such luxury became normal and available to almost everyone? That it is the product of centuries of thought and labor? That it continues to exist because millions of people do complex work in complex coordination with others?

The assumption that these things are just there is so strong that people freely sow the wind, because they don't really believe in the whirlwind. Worse, they're so far removed from reality that they no longer even see, much less understand, the connection between sowing and reaping. Or even have any real grasp of the words themselves. What do they even mean to people who have no conception of any way of life outside the modern city? Food comes from the grocery store. Obviously.

Now Is the Acceptable Time

I've forgotten how I wound up reading something at onepeterfive.com earlier today. It's not a site I normally visit. What I've seen and heard of it indicates that it focuses very much on the crisis of the Church, and I decided a few years ago that I just wasn't going to pay much attention to that anymore. I can say that it was a rational decision based on the fact that there's nothing I can do about this or that bad thing coming out of the Vatican or the USCCB. But the strongest reason was more elemental: I was sick of it.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I read this piece by Hilary White, which discusses our response not so much to the crisis of the Church as to that of the world. You don't have to go quite as far as she does in believing that the pandemic is being manipulated. I mean, you don't have to agree that the manipulation is as extensive and focused as it is, but I don't think there's any question that the situation has been successfully manipulated for purposes which were not in the general interest. I am not suggesting that the disease is not real and really dangerous, only that it has been exploited. 

No, you don't have to go very far at all in doom-and-gloom and paranoia to see that there is something really bad going on in the world, and that Christians in particular may in the not-too-distant future have a really bad time of it. At the very least, we're going to be marginalized and despised by the people who hold most of the power and influence, and by those who support them.

I've never been one to engage in end-of-the-world speculation. Every period in history has been more or less disastrous. And I don't like the kind of paranoia that sees the active hand of Satan in every bad idea or trend. I don't look for signs of the end, or of the Antichrist. Nevertheless, whether or not the prophesied individual by that name is among us or soon to be among us, there is such a thing, a vaguer thing, as the spirit of Antichrist. And it's here, right now. It is the spirit that teaches that there is no God, that any "salvation" available to us is of this world only, and that we can achieve it by our own efforts. I think it's fair to say that that spirit is more widespread and powerful than it ever has been, for the very straightforward reason that over the past century and a half or so we have in fact done astonishing things to improve the material lot of mankind, things never before seen in human history. To many, the attainment of some sort of earthly paradise seems possible, maybe even imminent: if only those who refuse to join in the effort would cooperate.

What to do? Well, these words from Hilary White's piece seem to be where we should start. They're especially appropriate for Lent.

The last year – with much of our time spent restricted in space and greatly reduced in powers – has taught us, perhaps, to look to the interior for the things we really can affect to the good [emphasis in the original]. We still have the power to create a change in ourselves. I want the world to be different, but I’m lazy and selfish and I want other people to make it better so I can have an easier time. I don’t want to change myself to want material security less. I don’t want to increase my courage or my trust in God. That’s all difficult work that requires efforts that won’t produce immediate material results – or any material results at all. But these are the concerns of children, and of people who are determined to stay children forever.

What if, letting go of that hope that someone else will fix things to make it so I don’t have to change myself, I did the much, much harder thing and made the effort to change myself?


The Last Christian Generation?

Rod Dreher had a post a month or two back in which he discussed the possibility that we are in a situation comparable to that of the Romans we call "pagans," those who continued to Rome's ancient objects and forms of worhip, when Christianity became the Empire's dominant religion. You can read the post here. It draws on a book which goes into that Roman transition in great detail.

That historical parallel is interesting and surely must have some validity. But what's been preoccupying me lately is just these words: "the last Christian generation." I'm so literal-minded that talk of generations always bothers me: we can speak of the generations of a family, because by definition children are preceded by parents and grandparents in strict order, however long the intervals between them may be. But the idea is only loosely applicable to societies. We don't see a million births in a single year, followed by twenty barren years, followed by a year in which all the twenty-year-olds bear children, and so on. There can't really be a last generation of anything in a society taken as a whole. There is only a waning and waxing of numbers, as more and more children grow up and leave one way and take up another. I know, there is some utility in speaking of, say, the young people of a certain age at a certain time as a generation. But I always want to carp at it a little.

It's precisely the specific and definite use of the word that I keep thinking about--the drying up of Christianity in individual families. I've seen it happen; we all have, I assume. There are a husband and wife who are practicing Christians. Maybe they're very devout. maybe they're fairly casual, but they do consciously think of themselves as Christians, go to church at least frequently, and make at least some effort to pass the faith along to their children.

Then the children leave, either in anger and bitterness or by casual drift, dropping any practice and any explicitly Christian thinking. Maybe they become "spiritual but not religious," maybe they don't even give any thought to that sort of thing. Still, some degree of Christian consciousness remains, some awareness of Christian things, some notion of what Christianity teaches. To that extent they're still part of a Christian culture.

But when they have children of their own, this consciousness, this awareness, does not pass to them. They know no more of Christianity than an American child in 1960 was likely to know of Hinduism. Moreover, they may have been educated, formally and informally, to associate the term "Christian" with sanctimony, eccentricity or outright madness, bigotry, perversion, and so forth. And to regard the history of Christian civilization as chiefly occupied in the burning of witches and heretics, and the enslavement and slaughter of other, superior peoples.

Within their own families, the grandparents in that progression are literally the last Christian generation. And this is not a thing that might happen: it is happening now. Probably we all know of instances. Christian thinkers have seen this coming for a century and a half or so, but it's one thing to hear about a drought, another to see the crops withering before your eyes.

We may already have arrived at a point where our culture is dominated by people who are at the stage of that third generation, or further. (It's arguable that the word "may" there is not accurate, but I'll let that go for now.) At that point the broader conventional use of "generation" becomes applicable. It's a discouraging thought, but appropriate for consideration as we move into Lent. There doesn't seem to be a great deal of a practical nature that we can do about this, which should give our prayers more urgency.

1024px-Cracked_earth_after_prolonged_drought._2020(Source: Wikimedia Commons)