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Dostoevsky and American Despair: The Penalty of Nihilism

Dostoevsky and American Despair: The Penalty of Nihilism

These chilling words, ringing with despair, come from one of the most striking characters in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov:

We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is? I sometimes fancy it like that … it’s what I would certainly have made it.

Svidrigailov is a rich, disaffected, hedonistic gentleman wandering through life, bringing suffering in his wake. At the halfway point of the novel, he visits the protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov is a young student toying with fashionable radical ideas of the time (such as nihilism), and who has even begun to test out those ideas by murdering an old pawn broker.

Svidrigailov wants to seduce Raskolnikov’s beautiful sister, and he tries to use Raskolnikov to get to her. Raskolnikov is repulsed yet fascinated by the charismatically despicable Svidrigailov, whose dastardly past of exploiting, gambling, womanizing, and murdering makes him (arguably) the most evil character in the book.

What is it that drove Svidrigailov to so much sensuality? What made him capable of so much evil? He tells us himself: “But I’ll confess frankly, I’m very much bored.”

No burning coal of ambition, fierce desire for revenge, or radical political vision propels his sin. Svidrigailov is simply bored.

But a better term than boredom, perhaps, would be existential ennui. Svidrigailov has a deadly case of ennui: a heartbreaking, torturous disillusionment with the world based on life’s perceived meaninglessness. To counter it, he simply pursues the next sensual stimulation, the next distraction. Nothing really matters to him. He seems hardly human, for a human being has hopes, fears, desires, loves, and hates. Svidrigailov has only his bodily appetites and world-weary smile.

Critics have pointed out that Svidrigailov is a foil for Raskolnikov: They share many similarities, and in some ways Svidrigailov represents Raskolnikov’s potential dark path—what he could become if he fully embraces his nihilistic leanings. Because nihilism, by definition, denies the existence of objective meaning in life. For the nihilist, it’s up to us to create and enforce our own meanings—to bend reality to our will, like some kind of superhuman sorcerer. Often, this means tearing down the old institutions that represented allegedly stable values and meanings.

Such a prospect—of molding the world and its meaning through the sheer power of the will—appeals to the power-hungry, such as Hitler, who seem to have been influenced by nihilistic philosopher Nietzsche and his notion of the “triumph of the will” over the chaos and emptiness of this paltry existence.

But so deep is the desire for meaning that, I suspect, all the nihilists, dictators, existentialists, postmodernists, atheists, and others who assert that we must “create our own meaning” end up deeply dissatisfied. Bored.

Because creating our own meaning doesn’t cut it. We all know this on some level. It makes of life a pathetic game, where we set all our own rules, always knowing that, at the end of the day, those rules are arbitrary, just figments of our mind. After all, meaning isn’t created; it is discovered. The human soul longs for something bigger than itself, and nothing of its own invention can satisfy that longing. Like swimmers in the sea, we want to submerge ourselves in a reality that is, means, and exists apart from us. The bathtub of our “own truth” is a poor substitute.

It seems to me that the defining feature of modern philosophies and philosophers is their unspeakable sadness. They think they’ve finally dispensed with the prejudices and presumptions of the past, seeing through the infantile notion that the world is one—is meaningful. But “To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see,” as C.S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man. They’ve penetrated beyond the walls of the world and found the cosmos to be just a dark, empty room, with spiders in the corners, like the vision of the afterlife that Svidrigailov offers to Raskolnikov.

And since meaning is the one thing man cannot live without (psychologist Viktor Frankl demonstrated this persuasively through logotherapy), how could nihilism be anything other than sad? Like Svidrigailov, one natural reaction to that sadness is to turn to sensual pleasures. To drown out the unanswered echo of the universe via sensory overstimulation.

Because unlike the medievals, the modern philosopher does not look up at a night sky—a sky filled with the music of the spheres and the stately dance of celestial bodies—and glorify the Meaning at the universe’s core. When he looks up, he sees a darkening void: airless, soundless, suffocating, and empty. That, understandably, causes despair.

In one of his notebooks, Dostoevsky affirms that Svidrigailov is himself “despair, the most cynical.” While Svidrigailov may not be a philosopher, per se, he is living out a philosophy—he is living Raskolnikov’s nihilism even more completely than Raskolnikov himself. Dostoevsky brilliantly dramatizes modern ennui through the character of Svidrigailov, whose story (not surprisingly) ends in suicide.

And Raskolnikov, the murderer? I won’t give away the ending for those who have not read the novel. All I will say is that in Dostoevsky’s notebook, he compared Svidrigailov with another character, a young woman Sonya, who despite her sins and shortcomings, believes in something. Dostoevsky said that she represents the other path Raskolnikov could take. She is “hope.”

And ultimately, hope is what Raskolnikov needs. It is also what our weary world—with her downcast, tear-stained eyes and shuddering shoulders—desperately needs more of.

Image credit: Public domain

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Walker Larson
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  • Avatar
    Swissarge
    February 1, 2024, 2:14 pm

    “The modern mind is in complete disarray. Knowledge has stretched itself to the point where neither the world nor our intelligence can find any foot-hold. It is a fact that we are suffering from nihilism.”
    ― Albert Camus

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    • Avatar
      JCowan@Swissarge
      February 5, 2024, 11:14 pm

      We suffer from existential despair, which isn't nihilism in the sense Dostoevsky was utilizing it, which is more moral nihilism, negating morality as something that matters at all. Meaning would still exist, negating the objective aspect is what existential nihilism does, that we are not pawns on a board, we aren't drawn along like puppets on strings.

      Camus, ironically, didn't like to call himself an existentialist, coining absurdism, which is a whole other consideration of meaning and people's approach to that despair of life seeming hopeless

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    Jan Kreie
    February 1, 2024, 9:17 pm

    Thank you for that article. I wish I had you as a professor when I read Crime & Punishment in college. He was the most 'modern' progressive with his teachings. It disturbed my soul. I've found much more comforting theology with CS Lewis.

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