September 7, 2019


Nineteenth-Century Nihilists Foretold Our Era: Why the Age of Alternative Facts Might Have Unnerved Even Nietzsche (Robert Zaretsky September 6, 2019, Foreign Affairs)

To be sure, Dostoyevsky neither coined the term nor gave it currency. The word was loosely applied to semiclandestine student groups in mid-nineteenth-century Russia, at one another's throats over strategy but united in their determination to overthrow the repressive tsarist state. The publication of Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Children in 1862 firmly entrenched the term in the popular imagination. The novel's charismatic protagonist, Evgeny Vasilich Bazarov, embodies a heroic conception of nihilism. When asked just who or what is a nihilist, Bazarov proudly replies: "We act on the basis of what we recognize as useful. . . . Nowadays the most useful thing of all is rejection--we reject." When his shocked interlocutor insists that the construction of a better world is also important, Bazarov cuts him short: "That's not for us to do. . . . First, the ground must be cleared."

Appalled by the terrorist activities of the young nihilists on whom Turgenev based Bazarov, Dostoyevsky transformed their political doctrine into something much larger and more dreadful. In his later novels, ranging from Crime and Punishment through The Devils to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky suggested that the true specter haunting Europe was not communism but nihilism. It was an ism unlike any other insofar as it held that the carcass of the past was not worth preserving, the misery of the present demanded that one act, and the promise of the future permitted one to do whatever was necessary to bring it about. Whereas Turgenev's Bazarov made pronouncements, Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov made plans and acted upon them.

Dostoyevsky drew nihilism from the realms of politics and ethics into that of metaphysics. If everything we have thought is a tale told by an idiot, if everything we have done amounts to a hill of beans, we find ourselves unmoored not just from morality but from the possibility of meaning itself. Everything is permitted, as Ivan Karamazov declares, when you believe in nothing and hold nothing to be important. Whereas the political nihilism that hovers over the characters in Fathers and Children disavows political and social institutions, the metaphysical nihilism that hounds the actors in The Brothers Karamazov disavows existence itself. 

Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche offered prescriptions along with their descriptions of our common predicament.
In order to grasp the relevance of this claim for our own era, we need to glance at the work of the man whose reading of Dostoyevsky led to the definition of nihilism with which we still grapple. In 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche excitedly wrote to a friend about a discovery he had just made: "I knew nothing about Dostoyevsky until a few weeks ago. . . . The instinct of affinity (or what shall I call it?) spoke to me instantaneously--my joy was beyond bounds." As Nietzsche perceived, the Russian novelist had not just blasted political nihilism but also detonated the enlightened foundations, built with the mortar of reason and means of technology, into smithereens.

That same year, while still reading Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche posed the $64,000 question: "What does nihilism mean?" Nietzsche being Nietzsche, he already had the answer, one he emblazoned in italics: "That the highest values devaluate themselves." By "values," Nietzsche means nothing less than truth and reason. The acid of reason, by dissolving every belief we ever held, ultimately dissolves itself. It seems to abandon us in a cosmic dead end, leaving us with a dismal consolation prize--the paradoxical affirmation that "there is simply no true world." 

The Anglosphere is characterized by nothing so much as the ease with which we escaped the impasse.

Posted by at September 7, 2019 7:21 AM