Dostoevsky, the Metropolis
& Cultural Nihilism
Western Civilisation is sick. It lacks confidence in itself. It has begun to deny that its existence has any meaning, "Culture" has become no more than a tourist attraction: a poison chalice and the subject of pretty picture postcards. If Spengler, in his historical masterpiece Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1923) is to be believed, this descent is indicative of a natural cycle of civilizational birth, maturity and decay:
I see in you all the characteristic stigma of decay. I can prove to you that your great wealth and your great poverty, your capitalism and your socialism, your wars and your revolutions, your atheism and your pessimism and your cynicism, your immorality, your broken-down marriages, your birth control, that is bleeding you from the bottom and killing you off at the top in your brains―I can prove to you that those were characteristic marks of the dying ages of ancient States―Alexandria and Greece and neurotic Rome.
Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return.
But the West is unique in one important respect: while it spiritually decays it shows every sign of continuing to provide the world with most of the important technological innovations it needs. Materially, we are better off today than we have ever been, though it may be the beginning of the end, of even our wealth.
But where does this growing pessimism come from? Suicides have become more commonplace in our cities, along with homelessness, drug abuse and psychological disorders of one form or another. The social media contagion of Transgender-ism is one example of many. The Industrial Revolution that occurred during the period from around 1760 to about 1840 brought in its wake the New Man: a proletariat and capitalist class both cut off from their roots in the soil of the land. It installed a new principle if a man is rich he shall be all-powerful. Money was then the new god and financial success in the world became the measure of a man's total worth.
And we cannot claim to understand our age if we do not understand something about its hallmark: the Metropolis (World City):
where the sun beats
through a broken veil,
over side-walk rivers
overflowing with the blood
of so many busy faces,
traced with the genealogies
of centuries, moving this way
and that, at peak-hour,
on terminals and stations.
From the four corners
tribes are gathered,
their wisdom, lost,
subsumed, each dazzling collage
to the melting pot.
Walled against the stars,
inside epithelial dimensions
of cyberspace, soap operas
and broadsheets. Illuminated
by the phantasmagoria
of a neon cabaret, night after night
and day after day, dancing on heat
to the beat of a dog-eat-dog
magnetism, consuming (1).
This brings me to the relevance of Dostoevsky's writing, who was above all a city writer, whose importance increases along with the continuing urbanisation of the Western world. Dostoevsky was a master exposer of nihilistic psychology, that today runs rampant through our age, which I would call The Great Age of Nihilism.
Suicides are almost unknown in the animal world and are very rare in unsophisticated human societies. What Durkheim in Le Suicide:ﾉtude de sociologie (1897), called suicide a l'anomie, suicide caused by a sense of loneliness and uselessness, is uniquely found within the Metropolis, whose promises are seldom kept.
Many great writers of the past two centuries wrote against the Metropolis generally with a feeling of impotence, T.S. Elliot for example:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet (2)
Dostoevsky belongs to this tradition of realists, along with Poe, Baudelaire, T.S. Elliot, Dickens and Dreiser. Where Dostoevsky excels is in his understanding of the psychology of the Metropolis. For them, its spiritual poverty was something more dreadful than the physical deprivation of the homeless, the drug-addicted and the poor. As a novelist, Dostoevsky was able to explore the whole phenomenon. Unlike most big-city novelists he did not fall into the trap of seeing in the doctrines of totalitarianism the ultimate solution to the misery of modern life. On the contrary, he came to understand that these were the nihilistic products of what Spengler called “second religiousness:”
Its source is the naive belief that arises, unremarked but spontaneously, among the masses that there is some sort of mystic constitution of actuality (as to which formal proofs are presently regarded as tiresome word jugglery), and an equally naive heart need reverently responding to the myth by means of a cult.
Indeed, what is Transgender ideology? What is Marxism? What are the Doctrines of Equity (Wokism) but cults that have a complete disregard for science, biology, the laws and lessons of history, and advocates for the primacy of feelings over facts? This is Nihilism: a retreat from rationality, from logic – from life. In the modern world, these represent a reaction to the modern world. At the same time, they are the products of the world they oppose and not solutions.
The Nihilists in Dostoevsky's novels are full of aimless energy and lacking in spiritual values. Dostoevsky identifies two kinds of spiritual decay: the degenerating, subservient living conditions of the working classes and the festering comfortably numb "ennui" of the urban elites. Of all the world cities, London, during Dostoevsky's time was seen as incorporating the most degenerate features of urban material and spiritual deprivation. In his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863) he writes:
Beneath the crushing burden of the facts the masses lose their spirit...half a million workers with their women and children flood into the city on Saturday nights crowding into certain parts of town and celebrating the Sabbath till five in the morning, swishing, gorging and getting drunk enough to last a week. They spend a week's savings earned by the bitter labour of the damned. Everyone is drunk, but joyless, heavily and silently drunk...It is not even a crowd you see there, but the systematic, obedient, officially encouraged obliteration of consciousness.
This misery is, physical and spiritual, the realities that Dostoevsky explores in his novels. The contradictions in the values of the Metropolis - which is still the case today - is that while society propagates materialism it has failed to produce even the most elementary spiritual satisfaction to the people who produced the wealth, rich and workers alike. The misery of what Spengler called the "Fellaheen" is tangible everywhere from the factories to the Academy:
Fellaheen: This is Spengler's term for the rootless inhabitants of the world city, where intellect rules at the expense of wisdom, and a sense of connection with the land and the cosmos has been lost. There has been much talk recently of somewhere men and anywhere men, but I prefer the term nowhere men for the latter, these are the Fellaheen, conceiving of themselves as citizens of the world, but in fact belonging nowhere (Quadrant: Blithe Spirit: The Primitive in the Progressive. 20th May 2020).
As I have mentioned, there are two kinds of urban misery with which Dostoevsky deals: one is the human denigration of the workers (of all classes) the other, is the boredom and resentment of the urban elites. These aspects of the Metropolis are better understood by Dostoevsky than any comparable novelist or writer. Today, the financial (debt-ridden) and spiritual poverty of the worker is equal to that of the urban (guilt-ridden) elites, who both, beneath their virtue signals and crocodile tears, display the same hypocrisies and the same vices: apathy, cynicism, arrogance, decadence and dishonesty. Increasing expectations from less work, total egoism (look at me! Look at me! The world owes me a living!), and above all, desperate boredom, are now enshrined in Australia and elsewhere in the Western World, as national prejudices: the products of urban inheritance and a sign of nihilist decay.
Why should people work hard when society gives them no values to work for? The only dispute today is how material goods and wealth are distributed, in the service of which Marxism has permeated every aspect of society. Abolish capitalism, trumpet the lefty elites from the safety of their gated communities, investment portfolios, tenures, and government-approved, pseudo-radical arts projects. But abolishing capitalism (which in reality is free market economies) has not and would not, as history has revealed, time after time, lead humanity a little closer to the equity of Utopia, but to a succession of brutal dictatorships, that have all risen to power at the expense of the free-market on the back of financial and corporate power, what Spengler called "the rule of the Caesars and the end of democracy." In other words, totalitarianism.
Dostoevsky understood all this. Man creates his universe by his culture and through his history is responsible for the world in which he lives. If our society is exhausted and pessimistic the process must be taking place within ourselves. The rogue's gallery of characters in Dostoevsky's novels is becoming increasingly like ourselves. Dostoevsky's character, Dolgoruky, in The Adolescent (1875) makes Gold his master and the Count de Rothschild his hero. In the beginning, the elites of the Metropolis emulate the qualities of the Rothschilds: cunning, deceit and money. In his cruel parody of Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) in which an adolescent makes Napoleon his hero, Dostoevsky reveals the early ideological nature of the modern age, that under the shibboleths of freedom, men died for and in the cause and service of money.
The French fought in World War One with arms supplied by German and other arms manufacturers. The depth of this corruption was laid bare in the form of primary source documentation in the works of the late Emeritus Professor Anthony Sutton in a series of books, three of the best known being Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler (1976). Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution (1974) and Military Aid to the Soviet Union (1973). In a world where the adolescent makes Rothschild his hero, how can this be otherwise?
However, this early priority within the ranks of the workers and the elites is today in dispute and decline. Today, most adolescents make pop stars and revolutionaries their heroes. However, a decline in the respect for the value of money has not led to the creation of any new values. All we see is an increase in cynicism, and thanks to the rise of Marxist postmodernism, the distrust in any values whatsoever, again, in other words, nihilism. This is what distinguishes most modern "socialists" from those of the past, for whom the promise of a new Jerusalem, was the carrot on a stick. But today, there is no longer any carrot - only the stick!
and following behind,
the spectre of freedom beat down
like the sun upon their backs,
as apparatchiks goaded with
manacles, manifestos and maps.
Till boredom and hunger gnawed
through the pages of the Party Line,
and each people, in turn, turned
from their shadows to face the sun,
looking West towards the glitter
of these all-consuming places,
where greed and ignorance erode
and entertainment fills the empty spaces(3).
Eaten away by nihilistic pessimism, they can only sneer at the old system of which they themselves are typical products. There is no gaiety in socialist circles these days because hardly any socialists believe that international socialism will make for a truly happier and healthier world. In his novels, Dostoevsky writes of such people as men "possessed" by their ideas. Unhappy and embittered they offer no hope for mankind. It is a short step from Dolgoruky in The Adolescent to Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment (1866). Svidrigailov is a total nihilist. For him, nothing has any real value. All that can be done in life is to ensure that one doesn't have time to spare to be aware of boredom. Svidrigailov is capable of cruel deeds and magnanimous ones, but they are all the same to him. He can only react to the sensations of the given moment and is moved neither by values nor desires but by impulses and “feelings.” When his self-seeking can offer him nothing more, he kills himself, telling the witness of his suicide that he is "going to America." Svidrigailov is one of the most chilling figures of the nihilist in fiction and is becoming less and less an exception to the rule. Once just the product of the elite, his kind is today fast becoming the norm.
Without responsibility to society people degenerate; they crave new entertainment at all costs, particularly in the form of the news or social media, action-packed thrillers, pornography or sports. In other words, an increase in the importance of "the spectator" indicates precisely that fatal tendency towards a kind of sadism. Violence can be simulated in fictional films and sports. The characters in Dostoevsky's novels crave a spectacle, and ever striving for a fresh sensation, are decadent in just this way.
In The Devils (1871) Dostoevsky explores Nihilism as a political phenomenon in the form of the urban terrorist. The Nihilism of the intellectual, the exploitation of the Metropolis and its masses for the sake of an "idea" is an important feature of the Russian and French Revolutions. Even the German Revolution of 1933. Babeuf wrote in his notorious Manifesto of Equals (1870):
The French Revolution is the forerunner of another revolution much greater, very much more solemn, which will be the last. What must we have more than equality of rights? We must have not only that equality transcribed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but we must have it in our midst...we will consent to anything for that. Perish if necessary all the arts, provided that real equality is left to us.
Perhaps this attitude is best summed up in Anarchist Prince Pete Kropotkin's famous dictum that "a pair of boots is more important than all your Madonnas and all your refined talk about Shakespeare." This is yet another indication of how the nihilist's understanding of the world is limited to a materialist dimension.
It was the arrest of Nechayev, a young follower of the Anarchist Bakunin on a charge of murder in 1871, which provided Dostoevsky with the raw material that he needed for The Devils Nechayev had been involved in the murder of one of the members of the anarchist group of which he was a member; the group was part of Bakunin's World Revolutionary Movement founded in Geneva. In The Devils, Dostoevsky lifts the curtain on an imaginary group of anarchic-nihilist plotters, who are not as they claim inspired by altruistic men, but by bored members of the elite and disgruntled students. Filled with envy and malice against the world. They are the waifs of urban society of the “no justice no peace” brigades.
The group's figurehead is a character called Prince Stavrogin, son of the local governor. Denigration is Stavrogin's speciality. A true anarchist and a true nihilist, he mocks everything that contains a notion of the sacred, since it is precisely this he lacks. Like a child who feels left out of some activity and takes their revenge by being "naughty" in order to attract attention. He commits outrages against propriety for no other reason than to draw attention to himself and force the world to conform to his image of it. This is nihilism, and today's modern youth are infested with it.
One of the conspirators describes the political program of one of the other members of the group in these terms:
Every member of our society spies on others and is obligated to inform against them. Everyone belongs to all the others and all belong to everyone. All are slaves and equal in slavery...in extreme cases slander and murder, but above all equality.
This statement is even more relevant than when it was written. The pursuit of equity in place of merit, for example, and the informer mentality that permeates much of the Woke and mainstream media. The conspirator continues:
To begin with, the level of education, science and accomplishment has in the past been open in the past only to men only of the highest abilities...Under our system Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes gouged out and a Shakespeare will be stoned...Slaves must be equal, without despotism there has never been any equality, but in a herd there is bound to be equality...Listen, I've summed them all up. The teacher who laughs with children at their God is one of us; the barrister who defends educated murder is one of us; schoolboys who kill a peasant for the sake of a thrill are ours; a public prosecutor who trembles in court because he is not sufficiently progressive; administrators, authors, artists, oh there are lots of us.
In his Diary of a Writer (1877), Dostoevsky described socialism as “the summit of egoism, the summit of inhumanity, of economic absurdity, the supreme annihilation of human freedom.” These prophetic words were written long before the Bolshevist coup d'etat in 1917, and the bloody Marxist regimes that followed, responsible for killing more people in the space of half a century, than the cumulative body count of all the despotic regimes in human history. What a pity more people did not heed Dostoevsky's warning.
Dostoevsky correctly identifies the rise of the Metropolis and the advent of nihilism. In Crime and Punishment (1866) Raskolnikov's squalid urban digs are the stewing pot for his theories which eventually lead to the futile murder of an old woman and her daughter. Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov are within us. We are part of the rogue's gallery of Dostoevsky's novels. But let us not be the worst part. Let us not allow ourselves to be tempted by the blandishments of the counter-culture. Some may remember the dream of 1968. The slogan I' Imagination au pauvoir came to nothing because the movement was without a spiritual foundation. Like the revolutionaries of The Devils, the students of 1968 and their “Woke” descendants can offer no real alternative to the system they once denounced, and in an ironic twist of fate, are today a toxic and integral part of that system.
1/ From my poem: Ecumenopolis.
2/ From T.S. Elliot's: The Wasteland.
3/ From my poem: Shadows.
© Eugene Alexander Donnini 2023