This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

At any rate, we may move from here to Dostoevsky. His novels such as The Idiot and The Possessed put on full display the inner life of the times, but here we will look at his anonymous narrator from Notes from Underground. It is appropriate that the voice of this story is anonymous, for the modern spirit is one of anonymity. Our age manifests anonymity everywhere, all the more so for how hard the people in it try to make a name for themselves. Dostoevsky’s nameless man, however, cannot even get so far as Gergor Samsa:

“I couldn’t even become an insect… I tried many times to become one. But even that was beyond me. I swear that too great a lucidity is a disease, a true, full-fledged disease… not only too much lucidity, but any amount of it at all is a disease.”

Here lies one of the characteristic difficulties of the present age: For us the problems of life have been inverted, and are now the reverse of what is conventionally assumed to be the case. For example, it is not the unknown that tortures—it is knowledge itself that pains. Solomon said that wisdom was grief and knowledge was sorrow. His warning is finally ringing true. It is not that our man wishes to know—it is that he wishes not to know. It is his own heightened consciousness, his hypersensitivity to things, that troubles him. Lucidity is the disease. He longs for bliss, and bliss is in ignorance. Seek truth, goodness, and beauty? Ha! The nameless man continues:

“The more conscious I was of ‘the good and the beautiful,’ the deeper I sank into the mud…But what struck me was the feeling I had that, in my case, it wasn’t accidental, that it was intended to be that way, as if that were my normal state rather than a sicknesss or depravity; so that finally I lost all desire to fight my depravity. In the end, I almost believed…that it actually was my normal state.”

In his perverse lucidity he cannot even find pleasure in goodness and beauty. Again, the old answers no longer bring relief. Like Kafka, his soul is conditioned as such that it must register “every touch as pain.” And once one begins to feel, by relentless experience that depravity and ugliness are his normal state, then there is obviously nothing left but to try and find pleasure in the depravity, which the nameless man does:

“I inwardly gnawed at myself for it, tore at myself and ate myself away, until the bitterness turned into some shameful, accursed sweetishness and, finally, into a great pleasure!…I derived pleasure from the blinding realization of my degradation; because I felt I was already up against the wall; that it was horrible but couldn’t be otherwise; that there was no way out and it was no longer possible to make myself into a different person; that even if there were still enough time and faith left to become different, I wouldn’t want to change myself; and that, even if I wanted to, I still wouldn’t have done anything about it, because, actually, there wasn’t anything to change into…there’s a set of fundamental laws to which heightened consciousness is subject so that there’s no changing oneself or, for that matter, doing anything about it.”

But even so resigned one does not become comfortable: depravity is still felt as depravity even once accepted as an inevitable lot in life, and so shame and insecurity characterize everything, even to an extreme:

“I…am horribly sensitive. I’m suspicious and easily offended, like a dwarf or a hunchback…I believe there have been moments when I’d have liked to have my face slapped…I’d have derived pleasure form this too. Naturally it would be the pleasure of despair. But then, it is in despair that we find the most acute pleasure, especially when we are aware of the hopelessness of the situation. And when one’s face is slapped—why, one is bound to be crushed by one’s awareness of the pulp into which one has been ground.

And again it is consciousness itself which plummets the guilty further into the muck. Ashamed of one’s own existence, as if existence were a crime:

“…whichever way you look at it, I was always guilty in the first place, and what is most vexing is that I was guilty without guilt, by virtue of the laws of nature…I’m guilty of being more intelligent than all those around me. (I’ve always felt that and, believe me, it’s weighed on my conscience sometimes. All my life, I have never been able to look people straight in the eye—I always feel a need to avert my face).”

Here, as in Kafka, god has disappeared, but so has the devil. “Guilt,” although he feels it, is therefore without any sense or meaning, because there is no judge to impute it, nor is there a villain from which to suffer. Guilt has become a fact rather than the result of an action. Forgiveness in such a context is without meaning. Forgiven for what? Being born? Forgive others for what?—for doing exactly what we’d expect, which is a slap in the face?

“…even if there had been any forgiveness in me, it would only have increased my torment, because I would have been conscious of its uselessness. I surely would have been unable to do anything with my forgiveness: I wouldn’t have been able to forgive because the offender would simply have been obeying the laws of nature in slapping me, and it makes no sense to forgive the laws of nature.”

The one who strikes the insect-man is just acting, living, doing what circumstance dictates be done. He is not hated. He is ignorance and envied. His ignorance is the most desirable of things:

“I envy that man. I’m bilious with envy. He’s stupid, I won’t dispute that, but then, maybe a normal man is supposed to be stupid…Perhaps that’s the great beauty of it.”

Our nameless man is trapped, “so subdued by his antithesis that he views himself—heightened consciousness and all—as a mouse rather than a man. So, even if he’s a mouse with a heightened consciousness, he’s still nothing but a mouse, whereas the other is a man. So there. And, what’s more, he regards himself as a mouse.”

This would sound strange to some of our forefathers, would it not my dear reader? But you and I know the truth of it. We have seen how many men and women wake up each day with this inexplicable sense of being undermined by their own existence, which is a sort of absurd despair, and therefore quickly learning to revel in their despair. We’ve seen even children who actively work to make themselves ugly, who cut and brand their bodies, who shoot their fellow children, and who shoot themselves.

The evangelicals are out there preaching forgiveness—but what is that to these new men who wouldn’t know what to do with forgiveness even if they thought they had obtained it? What is that to men and women who perceive their pain, no longer in terms of some great injustice, but as a normal state of things?—with an attitude of resignation? What happens when, as Dostoevsky expressed, shame becomes a fact and not a result? What are these people going to do with devotionals and forgiveness? It’ll just be nonsense and absurdity. If you preach it to them they might laugh at you, or they might spit on you. If they are gentle, they’ll just nod and walk away.

The young men and women you see before you today are going to grow old without nostalgia. There will be no “good old days” for them to tell their grandchildren about, when teen pregnancies were few, when marriage was still sacred, when everyone did not know someone who had killed himself. They won’t talk about the first time they sipped a beer, or even smoked a joint. Most of them are on drugs anyway, and they got them from a doctor. They’ll probably still be on them when they’re talking to their grandchildren.

These, like all elderly, will have their “back in my day” tales, but they will be of a predominantly new character: they will remember watching the towers fall on 9/11, watching men jump from the windows to avoid the fire. They will remember the twenty first-graders who were shot in their classrooms. They’ll remember the countless other mass shootings, youth killing youth, collapsing on itself, violence sparked not by protest of war, political agenda, or devotion to a cause, but rather initiated by nothing at all but apparent insanity. And they’ll remember, perhaps most keenly, their shame which, for all they can tell, they earned by being born. And they’ll remember how much their elders blamed them for all of this—for this encircling chaos.

What comes after nostalgia, or in its absence? What can we expect? Without that bittersweet longing for the past, one might expect to see an enthusiastic anticipation of the future—and indeed that is what we’ve been seeing for quite some time, what with the mania for “Progress” and other such optimisms. But the old nostalgia and the obsession with progress each require a degree of hope and optimism. The man who perceives himself as a mouse, as one ground into a pulp of impotence, does not know what to do with optimism. For such a generation, even the enthusiasm for progress proves unsustainable. Little remains but exhaustion or ennui. Apathy is the ruling sentiment of the mouse-man.

Do we have any virtues?

Well, our virtue comes from our apathy. Once apathy is universal, it gets automatically transmuted into something admirable as a sort of natural process. We call it tolerance. That’s us—that’s my generation. We’re tolerant. It isn’t, however, that we cling to tolerance because it seems all that true. It’s just that tolerance, as G.K. Chesterton said, is the virtue of the man without convictions. It is a pseudo-conviction which we have adopted because we could find nothing else particularly convicting. What I mean to say is that the “conviction market” is quite thin these days—all of the convictions look more like conventions—nothing a man can sink his teeth into. We can’t even adopt convictions about our wars, protesting the meaningless ones like some of our parents did back during Vietnam. How would we know how to protest a meaningless war? First we’d have to know what a meaningful war looked like, and we don’t. We can’t remember WWII and its holocaust, and showing us pictures doesn’t help any. The only kind of war we know is the ridiculous, convoluted, abstracted kind of war. Some of us nonetheless fight and die in these wars, but no one expects them to be meaningful. That’s our norm.

As I said, the conviction market is really a convention market. Some of us adopt them, these counterfeit convictions, and we call these people “Conservatives.” But the rest abstain and remain convictionless. We call these “Liberals.” So we have men following counterfeits and men following nothing at all—and the majority, it seems, prefer the latter option. These are the degenerates and the rebels.

A bunch of “rebels without a cause”: that’s how they appear, and indeed that’s what they are, but that’s only a half-truth. They are not rebelling for nothing—they are rebelling against nothing. There’s a difference. It is precisely nothing against which revolt is aimed, and so naturally it looks absurd. We feel ourselves sitting at the singularity of a black hole, held fast, albeit writhing, and in the dark. He who is trying to escape the dark has nowhere to go—he doesn’t have to have anywhere to go. He just knows it is dark and that he wants to see something. He doesn’t know what, just anything.

I may switch between the first and third persons here and there. You see, I’m speaking for myself as well. Why shouldn’t I? “You,” “they,” “we”—we’re all moderns. Some of us just don’t know it. We’re all rebels with no cause, even if some of us forget the “rebel” part and just live with the “no cause.” I leave it to you to decide which you are. In the end, then, this is a manifesto and a manual for us all, so it’s written in the first person, the second, and the third.

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