On Utopias and Birds—or Lenin vs. Dostoevsky

Lenin vs. Dostoevsky

In the 1860’s, Nikolai Chernishevsky wrote the manuscript for the novel A Vital Question: What is to be Done? while sitting in prison. Published in 1864, it became to some one of the most important works of the 19th century—notably, to Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his pen name Lenin, who knew the book by heart and wound up using the title for one of his most important pamphlets. Though it isn’t well-read today, some have credited Chernishevsky’s novel with being the literary inspiration for the Russian Revolution some fifty years later.

It also became the inspiration, albeit in an entirely different capacity, for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground. Dostoevsky hated Chernishevsky’s work, and wrote his famous novel, published the same year as What is to be Done? as a direct response to both the style and substance of the work of his ideological enemy. It is perhaps for this reason that Lenin considered Dostoevsky a “superlatively bad writer,” though it seems that in the end Fyodor had the last laugh: the utilitarian projects of the early 20th century proved to be abysmal failures—by most accounts producing even worse outcomes than the systems that they replaced.

The failure of these utopian projects was so profound that in literature it lead to the death of the utopia as a viable concept. The notion of an ideal, optimally-organized society, which had been a staple of philosophers and writers from Plato to Thomas Moore, was forever transformed into the dystopia, the Orwellian despotism which was ideal in form but never in substance. Plato’s Republic and Logan’s Run depict almost identical visions of society, but with very different final analyses. Oscar Wilde’s high-minded assertion toward the end of the 19th century that “progress is the realization of Utopias,” seems archaic and naive to the cynical, politically-weary world of today.

The end of the utopia seemed to represent the end of a struggle between what Bertrand Russell called the two schools of liberalism: the “hard-headed” school, which would include rational utilitarians like Bentham, Ricardo, and Marx, in a progression of ideas that would ultimately be realized in the warped form of Stalinism—and that the “soft-hearted” thinking of Nietzsche and Romantics like Goethe and Byron, who followed a tradition of sorts which, arguably, had concluded with the anti-rational cult of the National Socialist Party. This contrast could be likened to the difference between the “hard-headed” rationalism of St. Paul and the “soft-hearted” transcendentalism of Christ, and, even if we may not agree entirely with these characterizations, a connection could be drawn between the extremes of, on the one hand, utilitarianism and state socialism, and on the other, existentialism, romanticism, and fascism, as latent sociopolitical outcomes of internal conflicts within the Christian tradition.

These internal conflicts or contradictions of Christianity come in full force with Dostoevsky, who perhaps more than anyone before him embodies Christ’s promise to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law,” and so on. This promise points to a reversal of hierarchies (as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount), but also to an extreme sense of atomism or individualism that rejects structures altogether. As Kierkegaard, another 19th-century Christian writer explained, “my own error is something I can discover only by myself, since it is only when I have discovered it that it is discovered, even if the whole world knew of it before.” It is this radical notion of self—in which an individual’s purpose is entirely self-contained, in which truth is completely endogenous and isolated to the self—that at once liberates us from society’s definitions and renders the idea of a utopia or idealized republic completely null and void.

The Birds: Holy Aristophanes!

You unfortunate race, whose life is but darkness, as unreal as shadow, the illusion of a dream, hearken to us, who are immortal beings…you shall know thoroughly what is the nature of the birds…thanks to us, even Prodicus [the sophist] will envy you your knowledge.

Roughly 350 years before the time of Christ, Plato passed away. Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, Nietzsche seemed to take a certain level of joy in the idea that the work of the comic playwright Aristophanes was found under the late philosopher’s pillow. In spite of his use of prurient and scatological humor, Aristophanes was also a favorite of an early church father, Saint Chrysostom; but even more than this, one scholar has argued that the work of Aristophanes had inspired a literary tradition that may have influenced the writing of the Gospels. His play The Birds, about a pair of mortals who leave Greek society to live among birds, and end up persuading them to build a new city-state in the sky in order to supplant the authority of the gods, has some thematic parallels with the New Testament narrative—namely, the casting aside of pagan gods and customs, paving the way for the divinization of men. Strikingly, the conclusion to Aristophanes’ play is as good an embodiment of the declaration in the Gospels: and I will give unto thee the keys to the kingdom of heaven, as anything found in the bible.

The existentialist philosopher Lev Shestov argued that the doctrine of potestas clavium (“power of the keys”) found in Matthew 16 and in Catholic dogma originated not with the Christians, but with the Athenians. “If we are to believe Plato,” he stipulated, “Socrates was the first to discover that man has at his disposal this immense and terrible power, the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” For Shestov, the “terrible power” that we possess is our ability to reason, or more specifically, it is the knowledge of good and evil that is connected with biblical “original sin,” which, as the serpent promised, made us more like the gods, but also severed our intimate relationship with divinity forever. Rather than making us more free, it often seems as if our great capacity for knowledge as a species, which is what allows for our technological and societal complexity, in the end has proved to be more of a burden on the individual than a boon. We feel more like cogs in a vast machine than independent agents of an open society, and sometimes become nostalgic for an imagined, more primitive and innocent past. But our empirical understanding of nature fails to correspond with our longings. The birds of today are not the angelic creatures of Aristophanes, but the squawking mass of Hitchcock’s film.

The solution to this malaise, for the Dostoevskys and Aristophanes’ of the world, is to cast aside the institutions and analytical instruments of humankind in favor of a more spontaneous, intuitive approach to living life. As we had indicated above, this is the direction that was taken by the Nazis and other anti-intellectual political regimes, such as the Neoconservatives under George W. Bush. The shortcomings of these anti-rationalist governments seem to equal the pitfalls of governments that are overly procedural or doctrinaire, like the Soviets. This gives credence to the merits of the more moderate, “piecemeal” traditions of a Thomas Paine or John Locke. On the other hand, if we are going to characterize the problems of radicalism as simple ideological errors, we risk misapprehending or overlooking the conditions that gave rise to them.

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