“Every extremely shameful, immeasurably humiliating, mean, and, above all, ridiculous position I have happened to get into in my life has always aroused in me, along with boundless wrath, an unbelievable pleasure.” – Nikolai Stavrogin, in Demons (692)
I gave precisely zero thought to the presidential election when creating the syllabus for my course on Imperial Russia this year. Instead, knowing that I would be teaching an overload in addition to a heavy administrative burden this fall, I kept my course structured mostly the same way. That placed my unit on “Modernity, Terrorism, and Revolution” not in a sunny, hopeful, pre-graduation April but in the darkening days of November. Students spend three of the four weeks of this unit doing one thing: reading Dostoevskii’s brilliant and frightening novel Demons.
In the last weekend of October, as the twenty-six young men and women enrolled in my class were reading part one, our small campus was shaken by the suicide, through asphyxiation, of a junior at the school. When I walked into my classroom on Tuesday, many of my students were shaken. So was I. I did not know the victim, but a student in my Cold War seminar (which meets just before Imperial Russia) let me know in a halting voice that he had been among those who had found his friend’s body in a wooded park high above campus. Blog readers familiar with Demons know that it includes three of the most horrifying suicides in world literature. First comes the hanging in a decrepit chicken coop of Matryosha, a pre-adolescent girl raped by the protagonist Nikolai Stavrogin. Second, there is the gunshot to the head of Kirillov, whose final moments are filled with such shockingly raving terror that I can remember the chair I was in when I read it for the first time. Finally, there is the calmly premeditated suicide of Stavrogin, who takes the time to soap the rope of his noose to ensure his self-destruction. None of these scenes appear in part one, but I felt compelled to offer a “trigger warning,” my first. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something like: “This book contains explicit scenes of suicide. If you can’t read them right now, I understand. But if you can, you should, because one of the things that both great literature and a college education are supposed to do is to engage you with the big issues of life. Dostoevskii in particular insists that you do this. This course is intended to matter to you.”
So we were already on edge when the election dawned. “It was a peculiar time; something new was beginning, quite unlike the former tranquility, something quite strange, but felt everywhere.” (26) On election day itself, when part two was supposed to be finished, we spent time making sure that everyone knew who all these crazy Russian characters were, what they were doing on certain dark and stormy nights, and what those long-winded philosophical and revolutionary speeches were all about. On Thursday, when no reading was due by the students, I had planned to give my core lecture of the unit on the birth of modern terrorism in Russia, presenting them with Claudia Verhoeven’s stimulating ideas from The Odd Man Karakozov in the context of their earlier readings from Isaiah Berlin and their continuing exploration of Demons.
Thursday, November 10, was obviously a challenging day to teach. Before I had even put my books down in my first class (the Cold War seminar), students were lobbing me questions, most of them on the theme: “what does this election mean?” These were hard questions. I don’t like prognosticating, and I don’t like being partisan in the classroom, so I answered as best I could. But the hardest questions came at the end, in a discussion of command and control of nuclear weapons in the 1980s that included the concerns of experts at the time that the safeguards in the launch process to hinder accidental or unauthorized launches were insufficient. In November 2016, students asked a more pressing question: what are the checks upon a commander-in-chief making a bad decision? Neither they nor I were much soothed by the answer.
But my most intensive exploration of Trump’s victory came in the lecture for the Imperial Russia class, in which his name was never spoken. Indeed, the only Americans to appear were Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth, in cameo appearances. Verhoeven usefully highlights the difference between the old tradition of political assassination and the new form of modern terrorism by juxtaposing the first words out of Booth’s mouth with Karakozov’s first words in April, 1866, a year after Lincoln’s death. Booth, famously and legibly, cried – “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants!”) Alexander approached Karakozov after the scrum surrounding the terrorist attempt subsided and asked for similar legibility: “what do you want?” Much less dramatically but much more importantly, Karakozov replied: “nothing.”
Karakozov’s answer brings us to the heart of Demons and, perhaps, to one of the many explanations for Trump’s victory – nihilism. I am of course not the first to suggest this. A quick google search of “Trump nihilism” brings up “about 217,000 results.” Following the time-honored method of sampling only the first page of these hits shows a lack of agreement about what nihilism might mean in today’s context. Some argue for a type of what we might call “Joker nihilism,” a desire, in the words of Michael Caine’s Alfred, “to watch the world burn.” Others prefer to think of Trump’s nihilist appeal being rooted in the chance for his supporters to “scream into the darkness.” Others still see in Trump’s indifference to policy matters a sort of “policy nihilism” that amounts to a prelude to fascism.
There’s nothing wrong with these quick takes on nihilism, I suppose, though I think it is serious mistake on both historical and political grounds to equate Trump with fascism. Dostoevskii’s approach to nihilism is much deeper and more complex. He begins and ends the book by reminding his readers of the story in the Gospel of Luke in which demons possessing an unfortunate Gerasene beg Jesus to allow them to enter a herd of swine, which they do, leading the equally unfortunate pigs to rush off a cliff into a lake and drown. The demons are the pernicious ideas that infected Russia after the abandonment of God, and both the biblical tale and the novel have a certain kind of happy ending: these ideas, and their carriers, are doomed to self-destruction. Could Dostoevskii hope for the self-destruction of nihilism, atheism, and socialism? Can we hope that the demons of racism and sexism, thrust from our own plagued national body into the open, will also throw themselves into a steep, watery grave?
In principle, there is reason for optimism, as nihilist moments are short-lived. But Dostoevskii spends no time on this new future, and today we are just at the beginning of the fever. His focus – and ours – is on the unhinging of society, an unhinging that relies not on the strength of powerful ideas but on the surprising fragility of bonds that had until recently seemed unbreakable. A tweak of a nose here, a bitten governor there, and scandal, above all scandal, and it dissolves into absurd and savage chaos at a disastrous and hilarious literary “fete,” with drunken ne’er-do-wells hooting at a ridiculous “quadrille of literature” while the desperate middle class, having “pawned everything” (466) in order to sell their daughters on the local marriage market, uselessly peddle their wares. The demons are small in number, but the potential hosts are everywhere. The fete disbands with the news that a fire is ravaging homes on the other side of the tracks, across the river.
“At the fire itself there was a crowd of spectators who had come running from every end of town. Some helped to put it out, others gazed like admirers. A big fire at night always produces a stirring and exhilarating impression, fireworks are based on that, but there the fire is disposed along graceful, regular lines and, with all its safety, produces a playful and light impression, as after a glass of champagne. A real fire is another matter: here horror and, after all, some sense of personal danger, as it were – combined with the well-known exhilarating impression of a fire at night – produce in the spectator (not, of course, in the burnt-out inhabitant) a sort of brain concussion and a challenge, as it were, to his own destructive instincts, which, alas! lie hidden in every soul, even that of the most humble and familial titular councillor… This gloomy sensation is almost always intoxicating.” (514)
I find myself thinking this week not about the demons. They are far too well known. What more do we need to know about racism and sexism in our wracked, possessed country? The swine are also familiar, with their piggy Ryanesque cynicism and Gingrichian conspiracy. Least of all am I interested in Trump. Stavrogin admits in his confession that “what poured out of me was only negation, with no magnaminity and no force. Or not even negation. Everything is always shallow and listless.” (676) And Stavrogin is twice as interesting as Trump. Instead, I wonder about the crowd of spectators, a crowd to which I belong, reflected for now only in the dim reflection of the flames. So many of us are there, some helping to put out the fire, others gazing like admirers, all of us suffering “a sort of brain concussion,” with our destructive instincts tugged at by the flames.
This fascination with the flames does not necessarily make a spectator a swine. Nor does firefighting make a spectator a holy exorcist. Actions and attitudes shift in unpredictable ways as the conflagration burns out. In Demons, the crowd stops gaping when one of the swine appears in their midst, and they turn savagely on her, beating her into the muck. Their shame, which had turned briefly into an “unbelievable pleasure” reverted back to a “boundless wrath.” Before long, it settles back into humiliation, a shame bearable only by forgetting the “burnt-out inhabitants.” The “familial titular councillors” in Dostoevskii’s town marvelled after the fact that they too had been caught up in the craziness. (463) They shake their heads, they apologize, and they try to get on with their provincial lives.
The lecture ended not with my thoughts on our own American nihilistic moment, but with a preview of part three, which my students are reading this weekend, with its disastrous fete, its nighttime fire, and its murders and suicides. The swine are destroyed, but so too are a holy fool, a wife-ex-machina, and a new infant. Nihilists and terrorists may have targets, but they don’t mind burning out innocent inhabitants. When the class came to an end, I exited behind a Pakistani woman teasing her Bulgarian friend for wearing a backwards baseball cap: “You’re wearing it that way so you look American and no one beats you.” “That’s only half-funny,” I said softly behind them. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “I can’t get away with it,” nodding her head at her friend’s cap as she walked forward, forcing the best smile she could manage.