Thursday, August 10, 2006

Dostoevsky in Manhattan

I am currently deep into Dostoevsky's The Possessed (also translated as The Devils and Demons). I had bought the book last year but have managed to get around to reading it only now. It is more than 700 pages long so it requires more than usual level of commitment and intellectual energy to finish it in one go. Looks like I will finally be able to finish it. I am already more than half way through. Will write about it once it is over.

Actually I got interested in reading it after reading some interesting articles about Dostoevsky linking him to the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism. Specially this article by the literary critic James Wood in the guardian. Dostoevsky is certainly the master psychologist revealing how resentment, and other "modern emotions" of envy, rage and impotent hatred manifest themselves in nihilistic violence. And it is indeed intriguing to see people like Mohammed Atta as modern day Underground Men. Here's another review by Wood of a recently published novel of John Updike called Terrorist. Wood says:

The academic and journalistic analysis of terrorism is usually too indulgent of rationality or too indulgent of irrationality: either the terrorist's motives are robustly explicable (the existence of a Jewish state, the American occupation of the lands of the desired Caliphate) or sensationally inexplicable ("but why this young woman with everything to live for set out one morning to commit her dreadful deed will never be properly understood. ..."). Such work tends to founder precisely on the unimaginable--on the margin of irrational rationality that seems to lurk in the decision to blow up oneself and many others.

It is quite true in fact. You can't dismiss the religious terrorism as a result of stupid intellectual confusion. They do make some rational sense in the mind of their perpetrators and not in the straightforwad causal sense. Dostoesvky and Conrad (whose Secret Agent I have not read) do seem to understand how that rationalization takes place in the minds of those people rather well.

Another book that had created some news some time back was Dostoevsky in Manhattan written by a french philosopher Andrea Glucksmann. I don't think there is an English version of the book yet. There is an interesting interview with the author though. Link here. He says:
Actually, the beautiful thing about Stavrogin is that you don’t really know him. You don’t know if he believes in God or not. In the end, what surprised me was to find that he is a little like bin Laden; he might be very cynical, or fanatical, nobody really knows.

The inner nature of this nihilistic terrorism is that everything is permissible, whether because God exists and I am his representative, or because God does not exist and I take his place. That is what I find so impressive about Dostoevsky: he is a secret, a riddle.
I am still in the middle of the book but I don't think I would agree with this Bin Laden comparison. In a way Bin Laden is a revolutionary too, fighting for an ideal, and willing to go to any lengths for that absolute ideal but still it just doesn't feel right.

Anyway, here is another article by Slavoj Zizek in which he says that Dostoevsky might be right in his diagnosis of nihilism but his prescription of countering with a dose of Christianism just won't work today. He says:
FOR centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?


km said...

I am not so sure how (or why) atheism will lead us to peace, but one thing I know - everyone should read Dostoevsky, at least once, in their lifetime.

Have you read his "Poor People"?

Alok said...

Yeah I have read it... It is quite good.

About atheism, if you see atheism as a philosophy of doubt and unbelief, it can certainly work as a bulwark against religious mania.

Of course it is simplistic to assume that if all those terrorists had read Russell or some book on logic and science they wouldn't have blown themselves and this is where the great insight of dostoevsky comes. He shows how incapable rationality is of fulfulling man's psychological needs, specially in modern societies, and where this strange pull towards blind irrational belief comes from.

I don't really agree with his worldview and I generally have this tussle going on whenever I read him but I find few other writers more compelling and more prophetic.

km said...


If you have not already read it, may I also recommend Tolstoy's "Hadji Murad"?

In all fairness to religious believers, scientists who did read Russell and books on logic did go on to create the atom bomb. They may not have blown themselves up, but they certainly killed thousands in Japan.

Truth be told, I find very little difference between believers and atheists. Both of them use exactly the same point of reference to define their identity and life's philosophy.

Alok said...

No, haven't read Hadji Murad yet. Have heard of it, will check out soon. Russian literature remains high on my to-read agenda of the year...

DS said...

If you haven't read The Brothers Karamazov by pure accident, I strongly recommend. Suppose the theme of religion is widely covered in this book. I'd say it's the main book by Dostoevsky on religion.

The Demons I'd put on the 3rd place in my Dostoevsky Rating. The 1st is The Idiot and the 2nd is Brothers Karamazov. All these books are full of marginal passion ;)

Alok said...

Thanks. I have read Karamazov. The Idiot is the only major Dostoevsky novel I haven't read so far.

I would also rate Possessed (Demons) lower than Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov but it is still a great book. I like Notes from Underground a lot too. It is another short masterpiece.

Andrew said...

I think regarding Dostoevsky & the versions of reality dished out by the political establishments of the day, one can't avoid The Grand Inquisitor episode as key, with its exposition of a kind of satanic conspiracy. When the last US Presideential election was fought between two Skull & Bones members, Dostoevsky's vision is shown to be perhspas much more fact than fiction.

theternalone said...

This is quite intriguing, I must say--and I am hardly one to argue against Dostoevsky being brilliant, he was one of the prime causes of profound change in my life, though I have only read a handful of works (Brothers K, Crime and Punishment, Note from Underground, and a collection or two of short stories)--but on the subject of atheism as some form of skepticism I'm not so sure I agree. Agnosticism is far more a bulwark against religious mania than atheism, which has a tendency to turn into a religion or ideology of something else instead of what it replaces; e.g. the Soviet Union's replacement, at least officially, of Christianity with an ideological doctrine of "science" and propaganda. On that note too, Solzhenitsyn cannot be ignored. No more can Kierkegaard, who's philosophy is permeated unavoidably with doubt and the consistent questioning of the established church.