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Dreamers and Plagiarists

Two prophecies of apocalypse from Eastern Europe eerily bookend our cultural and political unease

Jacob Howland
June 09, 2024

FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

Times of crisis tend to give rise to awful feelings of aporia. Usually translated as “perplexity,” the Greek word literally means “no way out.” Anxious dreams of missed connections and incompletable phone calls seem to presage some inescapable but inscrutable fate. Extreme outcomes are as likely as anything else, and no one knows what we should fear most. The slow strangulation of free nations by Islamization? Societal collapse that plunges us into violent chaos? Global totalitarianism, maintained by the algorithmic controls and seductions of advanced AI? All bets are off.

Fyodor Dostoevsky and the Polish author Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz long ago envisioned the opposed apocalyptic fatalities of boiling chaos and glacial tyranny. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the murderer Raskolnikov dreams of an unstoppable epidemic of insanity that turns people into homicidal cannibals. The plague is produced by microorganisms endowed with reason and will: infinitesimal, monomaniacal, self-replicating intelligences. These viral fragments of fanatical thoughts—call them ideacules—turn the infected into rapacious, peculiarly conscious zombies. Each is certain that he or she alone sees things as they truly are, while everyone else is mad. Bitter conflict ensues, and human beings tear one another to pieces. 

In Witkiewicz’s novel Insatiability—completed in 1927, five years before Brave New World, but set a century in the future—military conquest and potent pharmaceuticals suppress the highest individual longings. Poland surrenders to an army of Chinese communists accompanied by hawkers of a fiendishly hallucinogenic, soma-like drug that induces Buddhistic serenity by pulverizing the ego, dissolving it so thoroughly in oceanic feelings of mystical unity that it can no longer formulate any coherent program of life.

Crime and Punishment and Insatiability bookend the profound uncertainty of our historical moment with prophecies of physical, political, and moral destruction, all associated with highly transmissible forms of the decayed philosophy that, since the French Revolution, has gone by the name of idéologie. Raskolnikov’s crimes test his vaguely Hegelian theory that “great geniuses” have an innate right to “step over” divine and human laws, destroying the present for the sake of a better future. His dream suggests the mayhem that would ensue if everyone assumed, as he did, that they belonged to this privileged class. And as Czesław Miłosz writes in The Captive Mind, a book that tries to explain why Polish intellectuals capitulated to communism, the drug that pacifies the unhappy Poles in Insatiability is “an organic means of transporting a ‘philosophy of life’”—that of the Sino-Mongolian leader Murti Bing. Like Dostoevsky’s demonic microbes, Murti Bing’s pills short-circuit the intellect. But they also unstring the bow of the human spirit, preparing one to submit to “even the most mechanical tyranny.”

In Raskolnikov’s dream and Witkiewicz’s story, ideological contagion or “cures” spread to Europe from the depths of Asia. What explains this curious coincidence? Perhaps it is because Russians and Poles never forgot the Mongol armies that swept across the steppes and sacked the cities of central Europe. Called Tartars by the Europeans because they seemed to have come from the pit of Tartarus, the lowest depths of the underworld in Greek mythology, the Mongols ruled in the Russian lands of Kievan Rus’ for more than two centuries. They established an administrative state, levied taxes, and demanded submission, thereby laying the groundwork for czarist authoritarianism and Soviet totalitarianism. In any case, life imitates art: COVID, a plague that may have originated in a Chinese bio-weapons lab, heralded a new era of nightmares of censorship and centralized governmental control in the West.

Raskolnikov’s Bible-tinged nightmare occurs while he is delirious with fever during Lent. He dreams that the whole world has been condemned, and “all were to be destroyed except a few chosen ones” who were “destined to renew and purify the earth.” As in the story of the flood, the earth itself is polluted by man’s evil and needs to be cleansed. Victims of the plague become “possessed and mad,” so that they make less sense to one another, and are scattered more violently, than the originally hive-minded people of Babel.

Affected in unique ways by invasive ideacules, the infected live in their own airtight worlds and share no criterion of truth. They are absolutely convinced of the correctness of their personal judgments, scientific conclusions, and moral beliefs. Indeed, “never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth.” Yet “everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else.”

[E]ach thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge and could not agree what to regard as evil, what as good; they did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate. People killed each other in some sort of meaningless spite.

As the pandemic evolves, a residual instinct of sociability leads to sporadically organized aggression:

They gathered whole armies against one another, but already on the march the armies would suddenly begin destroying themselves, the ranks would break up, the soldiers would fall on one another, stabbing and cutting, biting and eating each other.

Dostoevsky describes an unprecedented (yet today all-too-familiar) kind of zombiism, an intellectual death-in-life that is produced by the mindlessness of decayed reason. Vestiges of spiritual instinct—or at least a dim memory of old ways and habits—nevertheless survive in his Kafkaesque prophecy: “In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious.”

The infected are eventually defeated by the simplest tasks. They vehemently disagree about well-established methods of everyday work. Trades cease, “and the land too was abandoned.” Farmers are no longer able to till the rocky soil east of Eden, as Adam did when he was forced to abandon light gardening in the earthly paradise. Fires and famines break out, and “everything was perishing.” As for “the pure and chosen, destined to begin a new generation of people and a new life, to renew and purify the earth”—“no one had seen these people anywhere, no one had heard their words and voices.”

If you remove your earbuds, you can hear the muffled tolling in the big cities of the West today. We sense that we are called to action. But who is ringing the bells? On whose authority are we summoned, and what are we called to do? As in Milton’s vision of hell, we stumble in darkness while seething with rage.

The fundamental issues of our day will not be decided along the horizontal axis of left and right, but the vertical one of spirit and somnolence.

Dostoevsky observes that violent chaos ensues when the emergent social order that sustains individual liberty and free society is lost. Raskolnikov’s dream reminds us that this order depends on civic like-mindedness that springs from a general intellectual capacity to register and attend to the basic facts and contours of moral, material, and historical reality. Should that capacity be destroyed by severe ideological partisanship, we will sink, as Plato puts it, into “the unlimited sea of dissimilarity.”

While Dostoevsky imagines the savagery that erupts when social order disintegrates, Witkiewicz—who committed suicide when the Nazis invaded Poland from the west and the Soviets from the east in September 1939, dividing the nation into fascist and communist halves—comes at the political and psychological problem of ordered liberty from the other side. He anticipates a world in which ideological tyranny, prepared by societal decay, crushes individual vitality. Together, he and Dostoevsky describe the eternal conflict in the human psyche between the labor of wakefulness and the consolation of sleep, the struggle to wring some redeeming meaning out of life and the desire to be done, once and for all, with the suffering this struggle entails.

A vampish old princess in Witkiewicz’s novel declares, “Life’s an open wound that can be filled only with sex.” Socrates filled that wound with the intrepid pursuit of truth in the company of friends. The tortured intellectuals and artists of Insatiability split the difference, frantically trying to sate lusts of the body as well as the mind. The best that can be said of their schizophrenia is that it is a last vestige of rapidly vanishing humanity.

The atmosphere in Insatiability prior to the arrival of the communist steamroller (Chinese forces are already in the Urals when the book begins) resembles that of the West in 2024 to a horrifying degree of specificity. Cultural putrescence, nihilism, and decadence are the order of the day. People cretinized by automation no longer find any meaning in their work. Intellectual rigor has been “driven beyond the pale of society.” The pseudo-fascist state is “a malignant tumor” that spreads to every realm of life, while newspapers trumpet the reigning party doctrine. Yet no one knows who runs the government. Creativity has given way to “plagiarism,” as third-rate art and music are recycled and repackaged. The hypernarcissistic general on whom the Poles depended for salvation is a crude “slab of mediocrity” whose followers nevertheless regarded him as an earthly redeemer.

As a socialistic global consciousness prevails, the concept of sovereign and independent nations has been almost universally abandoned. In the West, natural languages are being replaced by Esperanto, whose very name speaks of hopeful fantasies of world peace. A few intrepid souls still roam on “the vanishing horizon of individualism,” but widespread “swinishness” prevents even modest sacrifices for the greater good. Self-indulgence is the order of the day: Philosophers go on ether binges to escape boredom by entering the “realm of nothingness,” while military commanders drink vodka by the bottle and inhale cocaine in front of their troops. Amid the general confusion, the approach of the Chinese is awaited by many as a “solution … from without”—one that nevertheless aroused the vague terror of “something … sliding down like a glacier from the Mountains of the Unknown.”

The complementary prophecies of Dostoevsky and Witkiewicz make it clear that the fundamental issues of our day will not be decided along the horizontal axis of left and right, but the vertical one of spirit and somnolence. Dostoevsky’s ideacules bring people to blows over private “truths” that are incomprehensible to anyone else, while Witkiewicz’s brainwashed characters come to believe that “Anything shown … in the name of Murti Bing, had necessarily to be the truth.” In our time, too, volatile mixtures of subjectivism and slavish capitulation to authority have replaced informed understanding and individual judgment.

What is next for the West? Will we rip one another apart in solipsistic fury? Will we narcotize ourselves with drugs and sex robots? Either way, a revelation is at hand, one that we await with an impatience born of nervous exhaustion.

Jacob Howland is the Provost and Dean of Intellectual Foundations at the University of Austin.

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