Dostoyevsky Explains Trump’s Base

Proud Boys at Play

I have read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground several times over the last fifty years. At the same time, nothing has puzzled me so much in the last five years as the rise of Donald Trump and the persistence of the scraggly individuals that are referred to as his “base.” (An appropriate term, especially when used adjectivally.)

This time, on re-reading, something clicked. Dostoyevsky’s narrator was the archetypal Trumpite:

Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.

The Underground Man is a spiteful creature who enjoys sticking his tongue out. And who better to nominate as your enemy than the Coastal Elites, the “Libtards,” who have the nerve to ignore or flout you.

You will ask why did I worry myself with such antics: answer, because it was very dull to sit with one’s hands folded, and so one began cutting capers. That is really it. Observe yourselves more carefully, gentlemen, then you will understand that it is so. I invented adventures for myself and made up a life, so as at least to live in some way. How many times it has happened to me–well, for instance, to take offence simply on purpose, for nothing; and one knows oneself, of course, that one is offended at nothing; that one is putting it on, but yet one brings oneself at last to the point of being really offended

He talks of others erecting a kind of Crystal Palace based on mathematical certainties, such as two plus two making four.

[M[an everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests, and sometimes one POSITIVELY OUGHT (that is my idea). One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy–is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply INDEPENDENT choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.

Here it all is. Sit down and read Part I of Notes from the Underground, and you will begin to understand why sick, poor, ignorant people will fight the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, and college education. They had best be careful, because they can easily fall off the edge of the Flat Earth of their ideology and into the void.

Dostoyevsky Describes Trump Voters

The Supporters of Trump: A Great Mystery?

I am re-reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky translation of Fyodor Dostoeyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Suddenly, I saw the following passage, which predicted the emergence of Trump and his supporters:

Man really is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is, he’s by no means stupid, but he’s so ungrateful that it would be hard to find the likes of him. I, for example, would not be the least bit surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman of ignoble, or, better, of retrograde and jeering physiognomy, should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: “Well, gentlemen, why don’t we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil and living once more according to our own stupid will!” That would still be nothing, but what is offensive is that he’d be sure to find followers: that’s how man is arranged. And all this for the emptiest of reasons, which would seem not even worth mentioning: namely, that man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere liked to act as he wants, and not at all as reason and profit dictate; and one sometimes even positively must (this is my [i.e. Dostoyevsky’s] idea now).


Filling In the Gaps

No One Considers This To Be One of Faulkner’s Best

If one has read a whole lot of books, as I have, one eventually gets to the point of filling in the minor works that are not highly regarded by the critics. In William Faulkner’s case, that includes his first two novels, Soldiers’ Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927). It was only when he began setting his stories in his mythical Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner’s reputation began its steady ascent. And even then, he was not frequently read until he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 that Americans decided to start reading his work. Since that point, his work has remained in print.

What is to be gained from reading an author’s minor works, especially at the beginning of his career? I enjoyed Soldiers’ Pay only because I love Faulkner. I better understand the steps he took to be able to write The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom! Absalom! (1936), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down Moses (1942).

I will continue to “fill in the gaps” in my reading of Faulkner’s work. In the next year or so, I plan to read Mosquitoes, Pylon (1935), and A Fable (1954). At the same time, I’ll re-read one of the great novels just to remind myself what I am trying to do.

William Faulkner

I am doing the same thing with the opus of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but in a slightly different way. I am midway through Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of the writer and am reading or re-reading his work in tandem with the biography. I am about to re-read Notes from the Underground (1864).


Time Off in Siberia

Tsarist Prisoners in Siberia

I have a particular love for Russian prison literature. For the third time, I am reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead. By no means is it anywhere near the greatest of Dostoyevsky’s novels, but the subject has always fascinated me.

After the October Revolution, and especially during Josef Stalin’s reign, the literature of the GULAGs became a standard literary genre. I love Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s massive The GULAG Archipelago as well as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle. Also well worth reading is Varlam Shalamov’s grim Kolyma Tales.

It is a common misconception that Dostoyevsky’s book is not a novel but just a thinly fictionalized account of his own four years in Omsk. At the time he wrote it, he was trying to reestablish his literary reputation after four years in prison and subsequent time with the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion in Semipalatinsk. He was worried that if he wrote a book that was less than uplifting, he would once again be regarded as a political prisoner and suffer excessive censorship.

While it is anything but pollyanna-ish, The House of the Dead provided a rare look at the Tsar’s prison colonies on the other side of the Ural Mountains.

An Impassioned Plea for Freedom

Gulag Prisoners in Siberia

Gulag Prisoners in Siberia

Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky could hardly believe his eyes. He had spent four years in a Siberian prison camp and six years in the Russian military in Siberia. His first published works after returning to St. Petersburg were comedies: Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. Now he wrote two short pieces for publication about his experience in the camp. The first was approved by the Tsarist censors; the second, rejected—because it was thought that Dostoyevsky was saying that life in the Gulags was actually quite appealing.

That could not be allowed to stand. Dostoyevsky immediately penned a supplement to that piece, which included the following:

What is bread? They [the convicts] eat bread to live, but they have no life! The genuine, the real, the most important is lacking, and the convict knows he will never have it; or he will have it, if you like, but when? … It’s as if the promise is made only as a joke.

Try an experiment and build a palace. Fit it out with marble, pictures, gold, birds of paradise, hanging gardens, all sorts of things…. And step inside. Well, it may be that you would never wish to leave. Perhaps, in actual fact, you would never leave. Everything is there! “Let well enough alone!” But suddenly—a trifle! Your castle is surrounded by walls, and you are told: “Everything is yours! Enjoy yourself! Only, don’t take a step outside!” And believe me, in that instant you will wish to quit your paradise and step over the wall. Even more! All this luxury, all this plenitude, will only sharpen your suffering. You will even feel insulted as a result of all this luxury…. Yes, only one thing is missing: a bit of liberty! a bit of liberty and a bit of freedom!

This impassioned plea is perhaps the germ of Dostoyevsky’s great works which were to follow: Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov.

The Incident in Semenovsky Square

A Christmas Present from Tsar Nicholas I

A Christmas Present from Tsar Nicholas I

On the mrning of December 22, 1849, a number of prisoners were taken in closed carriages from their prison cells to St. Petersburg’s Semenovsky Square where there was a firing squad waiting for them. They were dressed in long white peasant blouses and nightcaps. Asked to bare their heads to receive their sentences: In every case, the verdict was “The Field Criminal Court has condemned all to death sentence before a firing squad, and on December 19 His Majesty the Emperor personally wrote, ‘Confirmed.’” As the first three were tied to stakes, the prisoners found out that Tsar Nicholas I had commuted all their sentences to prison terms in Siberia.

The most prominent of the prisoners was a young writer named Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, who described what he felt twenty years later in the words of the main character of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin:

It seemed to him that, in those five minutes, he was going to lead such a great number of lives that there was no place to think of the last moment. So that he divided up the time that still remained for him to live:two minutes to say good-bye to his companions; two minutes for inward meditation one last time; and the remainder to look around him one final time. He remembered perfectly having fulfilled those dispositions just as he had calculated. He was going to die at twenty-seven [Dostoyevsky has just turned twenty-eight in 1849], full of health and vigor. He recalled that, at the moment of saying good-bye, he asked one of his companions a rather indifferent question, and he took a keen interest in the reply. After saying good-bye, he began the period of two minutes reserved for inward meditation. He knew in advance what he would think about: he wished to focus his intention firmly, and as clearly and rapidly as possible, on what was going to happen: right now, he was existing and living; in three minutes, something would occur; someone or something, but who, where? He thought to resolve these uncertainties during these two final minutes. Nearby rose a church whose golden cupola sparkled under a brilliant sun. He recalled having looked at that cupola and the rays it reflected with a terrible obstinacy; he could not take his eyes away; those rays seemed to him to be that new nature that was to be his own, and he imagined that in three minutes he would become part of them…. His uncertainty and his repulsion before the unknown, which was going to overtake him immediately, was terrible.

After spending four years at the forced labor camp of Omsk in Siberia, Dostoyevsky was released and—for the second part of his sentence—inducted into the army and made to serve as a private in the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion. For a period of almost ten years, he was forbidden to publish any of his writings.

Before he was sentenced for belonging to the Petrashevsky Circle of suspected dissidents, Dostoyevsky had written a number of works which are not often read today. I read most of them and liked them, but they were nothing compared to novels like Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), The Devils (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) that were to follow his return to civilian life.

Could it be that the intensity of those masterpieces owed something to Dostoyevsky’s sufferings in Siberia?