Dangerous Fantasies

We imagine a door. On that door two names are written: Tarabas by Joseph Roth. The door opens. A man walks out, he looks like a character from Dostoevsky.  We hear him speak, and are sure that we have met him before; scurrying through the pages of The Idiot. This man’s mind is populated by pixies and dwarves; it is saturated with mystical signs and personal portents; it believes in fate; convinced that its owner is foredoomed to be both saint and murderer. The book is even set in Russia, at a time the country itself was suffering a mental breakdown. 

Yet there is a crucial difference between Roth and his Russian compadre. In Tarabas, as in nearly all of Roth’s books, the hero (or more accurately: anti-hero) is situated within a community; Tarabas forming part of ensemble which, although described lightly, is caught with miraculous fullness. We therefore recognise this hero as a powerful and complete human being; he is not some moral imbecile or a mad tyrant but a mature product of all the influences that surround him. This man is human; albeit he is qualitatively different from any of his colleagues: more extreme, more aloof, more capable of cruelty and self-sacrifice than anyone else. But: Tarabas is no superman. Like all the other characters in this novel he submits to forces more powerful than himself.  We watch how the world affects him. We see how peace and the rise of the new nationalisms quickly restrict his freedom; taking away not only his power but the honour and recklessness of his life as a frontline officer.  When the war ends he, like all the other soldiers, is forced to bow down to the bureaucrats.  The clerks are in charge now.

In Dostoevsky the hero is always alone.  He is a Robinson Crusoe who dreams of his own island, where he lives in a magnificent palace with a few serfs and a compliant seraglio. But there is a problem  Such grandiloquent isolation is not possible in St Petersburg, or indeed anywhere else in Europe and Western Russia in the 19th century. Always he must interact with other people; even if they are only pedestrians on the street.  The merest contact can cause resentment. There is an officer our narrator regularly meets on the pavement; a man who, because of his status, expects the lower orders to scram out of his way.  No!  I’m as good as him!  Better than him!  He must respect me! It is he who must stand aside for me!  Our narrator is self-important. He is an egoist. But he is also weak. This world is too much for him. His rebellions can therefore only ever be mental ones. He abuses the officer from the safety of his own room.

It is here, in the portrayal of such characters, that Dostoevsky is the prophet of the 20th century. Many see in The Devils an augury of the October Revolution;1 but it is rather in this brilliant novella that he grasps the essence of that mad century; a time where lunatics imagined vast conspiracies, dreamed of parliamentary putsches and instigated coups d’état.  Dostoevsky’s heroes are the disgruntled and alienated intellectuals on the fringes of the radical Right and Revolutionary Left; they are the characters of Norman Cohn’s A Warrant for Genocide; the Lenin and Guy Debord in the biographies of Adam B. Ulam and Andrew Hussey

We have entered the cramped and fuggy atmosphere of the cheap café; where a small number of big ideas feed the boundless resentments of intellectual drifters who seek a new cosmic order and some charismatic saviour.2 Intelligent, but only in an extremely narrow way; their intellectual narrowness is both their joy and honour. They know so many things! However, they have only one idea to explain them… Their minds are the wrong way round. To us they look like intellectual midgets, but to themselves they are geniuses.  Their repeated protestations of intellectual superiority we find boring; indeed, we wonder if there is anything behind these superlatives - are they merely the façades of a Potemkin village?3 They scoff at our ignorance. For such characters the very paucity of their ideas is proof of their purity; which is burnished by their obsessive attention to petty slights and their own impotence.4 The world and their thoughts are one; a single unity. Everything and everywhere is always about themselves. Me. Mine. My own. Intelligent children, they lack the maturity to be creative intellects. During their adolescence they thought up some new idea. How wonderful it made them feel!  Ever since they have kept hold of that idea; which each year grows bigger inside them, until it encompasses everything they know about the world. How it excites them! They want to tell us all about it. Make us believe how unique and marvellous it is. But…we are not impressed. We list the artists, writers, thinkers who have previously conceived of this idea; we name the politicians and advertising execs who use it too.5  They abuse us. Tell us we have got it all wrong. My idea is different. It is mine! You have missed all the nuances… The tantrums never end. They silence all opposition. Such acquiescence they take for assent. Everyone, they come to think, accepts the brilliance of their intellectual banalities. We look at the daubs of a nine year old; and listen as he praises himself to his indulgent mother, who readily agrees that the picture is wonderful; look, we’ll put it up on the wall.

A brief interregnum. The lights come on…

As a young child we believe ourselves the centre of the universe.  In our adolescence we discover this is not so. We are beginning to see that even the local environment is resistant to even our simplest thoughts and most reflexive desires. By our late teens we know the world is against us. Some of us rebel. This world will bow down to our wishes. This angst goes on for a while… It is our 25th birthday. Nothing seems to have happened. All the old forces are still in power; while we are tired, bored of the old gang talking about the same old things; it all seems just a fantasy. We want money! An easy life beckons… We give up the struggle; and settle down and adapt to our time and place; which we learn is largely indifferent to everything about us. It is the start of a prosperous and happy existence; interspersed with a few stray moments of youthful nostalgia.

A few characters never get past their seventeenth year: Hitler; Lenin; Guy Debord; and the hero of this novella are good examples of such arrested development. The first two were lucky; able to impose their teenage dreams onto enormous territories, they made whole populations believe in their adolescent lunacies. Guy Debord was not so fortunate; able to persuade only a small band of acolytes of his omnipotence. Our narrator’s tragedy is that he can convince no-one.

…The lights go off. Interregnum over.

Dreamers. Far too conscious. Far too rational. They are like drivers who have mistaken the steering wheel for the engine.  Or more prosaically - they think that reason alone can change the world for them.  What crazy fools they are!

It is through largely unconscious action that human intelligence is realised. Intelligence is a craft that is absorbed into the material that it creates. In the practical world of business such intelligent activity will be the rapid decision-making of the boardroom or shop floor; uneven but effective such cognition cannot have the perfected beauty of a Rembrandt portrait; such imprecision a sign not of weakness but of a qualitative difference in design and purpose.6  This kind of intellectual work is outside the compass of dreamers; who exist only in a world of self-conscious thought; a metaphysical prison cell whose geometrical regularities they mistake for paradise. Dreamers prefer the hard ascetic outlines of abstract thinking to the messy content of concrete reality.  Their rooms are furnished not with sofas, carpets and cuddly toys, but with the idea of such things. One day, they assure us, the world will be identical to the one inside their heads. They will find the perfect pouffe! But they have confused metaphysics with material reality.7  Little wonder they have no idea how to implement their thoughts; instead they rely on some enormous cataclysm to remove all existing obstacles. Destruction is their messiah.

Dreamers are responsible for the modern world; a society where humans take second place to machines; which are embodied ideas, created by the scientific mind and manipulated by bureaucratic reason. We can go further. After two centuries we wake up from the dream of reason to find ourselves trapped inside the minds of automata;8 ruled for too long by a too narrow rationality we cannot but think like clever machinery…9  

The dreamers of Dostoevsky are the impotent souls of modern life. They are those among us who do not act. They include the failures. The losers. The misfits. They are society’s internal exiles. The overlooked and the excluded. Pure in mind they believe themselves pure in spirit. They are prone to resentment and self-righteousness. Kings in their own court, they tend to overvalue abstract reason at the expense of that mishmash of thought and feeling that makes up ordinary experience. Most people consign such (clinical) thinking to the place where it belongs - it should rarely leave the laboratory. Dreamers lack such sound-sense. They have no intellectual modesty. Super-conscious, and gifted with unsentimental thought, they believe themselves clear-sighted seers of the social world who penetrate the truths of life, which they believe are revealed in a monomaniacal desire (for money, for power, for sex; for species survival) which is assumed to govern all of human behaviour.10 They are different from you and me. They know it too. For they have found the secret of life. It exists in one very simple idea.

Very self-aware they feel that they are always acting. Nothing can be quite what it seems. Their use of irony is ubiquitous; a sign of superiority; and proof that they will not be deceived by appearances. But… such an attitude blinds us to the surface realities; which is where so much of life’s meaning lies.11 The oddity and seriousness of the world will therefore pass them by. Big ideas. Utopian abstractions. Logical argument from first principles. A tractor enters a pretty field and mows down the weeds and wild flowers… Their thoughts are too perfect to comprehend the contingencies of life, whose essence can only be discovered by wild intuitive leaps and instinctive snatches; such insights achieved only when we immerse ourselves in a specific place.  A foreigner comes to live in a small town.  At first he makes many mistakes, for which the locals ridicule him. Slowly he acclimatises, and begins to understand things that will remain forever unknown to a Gwilym and an Angharad…

A dreamer sits all day in his room dreaming. What a dream it is! How brilliant, how subtle, how extraordinary, are the feats that he will accomplish.  But… There is a risk. What if one’s talent is not up to one’s dreams… Isn’t it easier to… Yes! To be really clever one should never act at all!

The dreamer is both audience and actor in his own psychodrama. How wonderful he performs!  And how stupid is everyone else; mere beasts in their unconscious activity. To the detached observer the difference between this “great savant” and the ordinary mass seems minuscule, but for the protagonist, such as the narrator in this novella, the world is separated into different castes; he, of course, belongs to the Brahmins. Dostoevsky’s novella illustrates such a character with a rare perfection.12

For a few moments - when he feels sorry for a young prostitute or when he behaves rudely - the narrator becomes fully human. Tellingly, he doesn't realise that such reactions are typical of the outcast.  And like all such characters he cannot easily accept such unpremeditated behaviour; those instants when the mind is not in complete control. This is why he later puts on an act, and pretends that everything was planned and conscious. Or else he will pass it off as aberration due to drink. 

Such thinking creates a tyrant.  We can only be Robinson Crusoe if no one else lives on our island.13  Only isolation will do. The moment other people appear they will disturb our equanimity, and… my God! we will discover, shock of shocks, that we are hardly different from them. They…they…they are the same as us!  No solipsist can accept such a truth.  Exterminate the brutes!

1  Hugh Seton-Watson argues that Lenin was a throwback to an older 19th century revolutionary tradition; and that he was lucky to see a relatively modern state collapse. (The Decline of Imperial Russia)

2.  See the excellent Hitler: The Führer and the People by J.P. Stern.

To concentrate on political prophecy is to distort Dostoevsky’s oeuvre. He is the poet of office life. A somewhat dismal poetry to be sure; but one that captures the alienation of this uninspiring environment. The work of these clerks is narrow and limited. The office routine is repetitive and hopeless; with promotion mostly by familial connection, although if talent is recognised it will cause resentment (as remarkably portrayed in The Double); those left behind forced to accept the reality of their own insignificance.

Dostoevsky shows how such lives can produce a millenarian hatred. It is based on an inner life of fantasy, where clerks imagine themselves as superior beings, whose success is denied by some vast conspiracy. This is the world of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle; the latter probably the best book ever written about bureaucracy. 

3.  It is interesting to compare these reflections with Thomas Bernard’s memoirs.  Reading them I was constantly on the look out for examples of his intelligence - he is always telling us about his cleverness; while castigating everyone else as stupid fools, who do not understand him.  I did not find a single example… The ego!  The indigence!  The two, of course, are connected.

4.  Guy Debord is a classic case.  He has one idea and attacks the world because it will not accept his intellectual poverty.

5.  For wise comments on the sources of intellectual inspiration see Isaiah Berlin’s monograph on Vico (in Vico and Herder, Two Studies in the History of Ideas). However, Berlin doesn't pay enough attention to how we create our precursors - see my Feel the Thought for some speculations.  

6.  Locke has some wonderful pages about this in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Our ordinary interactions with the world are made up of a series of improvisations; our work and social discourse rough and ready acts that fit the purpose, but are rarely finely tuned, and are certainly not perfect. Science, art and a particular kind of social thought finds such imprecision intolerable – it wants the perfection of the metaphysical mind replicated in physical space. We accept such intolerance in science and art; it is their nature, and we benefit from their fanaticism. In social thought, however, we must reject the tyranny of the intellectuals, who would condemn us live forever inside their abstract conceptions.  

This tension between our normal imprecision and the absolutism of the rational mind may explain the malaise of Dostoevsky’s bureaucrats; who are forced to inhabit a straightjacket of thought that is unnatural to them. 

And… We take a stroll back to the second footnote, have a look, muse a little, smile a knowing smile, and return to And… Is it here that we find the true source of the conspiratorial mindset?  The thin layer of rationality that governs clerkly work permeating down into the over-structured and undereducated mind, to give it a too simple and too rational order; turning vast psychic resentment into enormous world-wide conspiracies.

7.  This is the problem with Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of a Mind.  With great clarity he elucidates the mental activity of the mind, but then refuses to recognise that it has its own metaphysical substance. The result: he collapses the latter into the former - the mind, it is argued, consists only in activity.

8.  For a richer conception of the human animal, which puts reason in its rightful place, see Roy Pascal’s book on The German Sturm and Drang.

9.  As Max Weber noted there are many types or rationality (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). I am referring to the abstract rationality of science (particularly applied science), bureaucracy and capitalism.  It comes under various names, depending upon context: abstract reason; bureaucratic reason or instrumental reason.

10.  They will be disciples of… Marx. Nietzsche. Freud. Darwin.  Each dreamer will have his own preferred obsession. For a marvellous example of how such thinking gets reality wrong see Jenny Diski’s memoir on Doris Lessing and her circle in the early 1960s. These artists dismissed the messy and variegated surface features of social discourse because they believed that the causes of human behaviour were deep and unconscious.  We need, they thought, a microscope to look into our interlocutor’s mind. 

They made two mistakes. The first: they failed to recognise that explanation can exist at many layers of reality - a person’s actions may alone be sufficient to explain their behaviour. The second: they thought that they possessed the most refined microscope in existence - manufactured in Vienna around the turn of the century it was exported in massive numbers to Britain and America in the 1950s…

11.  When Doris Lessing accuses Jenny Diski of moral blackmail she ignores the little details of their life together; it is these that trigger the insecurities which saturate this girl’s personality. 

12.  Is it possible that Nabokov didn't like Dostoevsky because he recognised himself in his heroes?

13.  But then we will go mad.  For an interesting updating of the Crusoe myth that takes in the changed sensibility of the 20th century read Pincher Martin, by William Golding.