Samurai Jack was an American animated TV series that premiered on Cartoon Network in 2001 and ran for, eventually, five seasons. The story follows the adventure of an unnamed samurai travelling through a dystopian future governed by a demonic wizard named Aku. What makes Samurai Jack unique is the moral paradigm that can be read into the central premise of the plot, neatly summarised by the tagline of the opening sequence: ‘Gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack.’
The world that the samurai fights to destroy – a world corrupted at every level by Aku’s evil – is unambiguously modern in character. When he is cast through a time portal at the end of the first episode, he falls out into the squalid depths of a futuristic inner city ghetto. He drops out of the sky into a world of towering black skyscrapers, massive electronic billboard advertisements and sky-streets jammed with flying motorcars. The thunderous roar of the city’s traffic disorients and terrifies him.
After barely surviving his dramatic entrance, he is greeted by some locals who give him the name ‘Jack’ and speak to him in what is easily recognisable as a modern urban patois. ‘Yo, Jack! That was some awesome show!’ ‘Word! Jack was all ricochetically jump-a-delic!’ Their manner of speech contrasts heavily with Jack’s own old-fashioned and deliberately measured standard English. When Jack hesitantly asks where he is, he is told by these odd strangers that he is in the ‘central hub’ of Sector D. This is a placeless place, devoid of history or culture and labelled a ‘hub’ of a ‘sector’ in familiarly modern and soulless bureaucratic fashion.
Jack then stumbles into a seedy nightclub where he becomes even more distressed than before. He holds his hands to his ears, desperate to block out the loud, thumping techno music, and looks around wild-eyed at a room full of scantily-clad dancers and hideous aliens with bionic body parts. This new world is too bright and too loud for Jack. The world he came from is tranquil, soft and full of flower-filled meadows, rolling hills and beautiful snow-topped mountains. Aku’s world is vulgar, harsh and obnoxious. Jack is a man out of time, questing through the future in order to return to the past. He fights to turn the clock back in order to prevent the world around him from ever existing and to save the world he once knew. The tale of Samurai Jack is a reactionary, luddite Odyssey.
The first scene of the first episode is like something out of a bad psychedelic trip or a nightmarish fever dream. Everything is uncanny – the sun and moon are too large, the landscape is barren and red and the lone piece of flora in the scene is a twisted black tree. The giant moon eclipses the sun, shooting red lightning through the sky as the tree twists and morphs into the demon Aku. This terrifying moment, complete with deliberately unsettling sound effects, masterfully introduces the show’s main antagonist. It is also a prime example of Tartakovsky’s use of the environment instead of dialogue to evoke emotion and convey information about his characters.
Aku is able to see Jack through a magic mirror at all times, he can shapeshift endlessly and is immune to all physical weapons. Aku is more than a demon wizard – he is a malevolent god. He is informed instantly of Samurai Jack’s arrival in the future by his informant network that, throughout the show, seems to extend into every nook and cranny of the universe. Aku’s armies are inexhaustible, dwarfed only in size by the intergalactic mining operation he employs to sustain it. The entire universe is in the grip of an Orwellian state in the service of a quasi-Gnostic demiurge. The central premise of the show itself implies the extent of Aku’s dominance – dominance so complete as to be completely insurmountable, and able to be defeated only through time travel. Genndy Tartakovsky’s finest creation is a kids TV show set in a world that is incomprehensibly awful, where the main character faces completely hopeless odds and the main antagonist is all-powerful. Jack stands alone, armed only with a magic sword and the power of righteousness, and yet it somehow feels as though Aku fears him more than he fears Aku.
For the first four seasons Jack is an unchanging constant as the setting around him is repeatedly changed in line with his journey. Dialogue and character development are conspicuously limited in contrast to many other shows, but this speaks to the genius of Samurai Jack’s unique formula. The relationship between the main character and the setting are reversed – Jack is the unchanging stage. The story takes place around him but he stays the same, dressed in his characteristic white robes, forever a fish out of water. The only exceptions to this rule are the first episode, where Jack’s character is established, and the final season on Adult Swim, which takes a different and more mature tack.
Genndy Tartakovsky’s work for Cartoon Network is understandably constrained by limits of what is appropriate for children to watch before school, but when the show was moved to Adult Swim it became free to explore darker themes. For the first four seasons, Jack turns his deadly sword on his robotic and demonic enemies only. This allowed Tartakovsky to showcase Jack’s skill, defeating hordes of enemies that sometimes cover the entire horizon, without any graphic violence. The fact that Jacks opponents until the final season remain the minions of Aku, which are overwhelmingly robots, rather than the flesh-and-blood inhabitants of his fallen world is another way in which Aku and his evil are made to seem industrial in character, in opposition to noble, agrarian Samurai Jack.
The entire show is hand-drawn without outlines so that characters blend into their backgrounds. Lineless drawings give the animation a rudimentary, child-like appeal as well as greater flexibility with regard to proportions so that all of the characters’ movements feel powerful and dynamic. Action scenes are one of the great strengths of Tartakovsky’s cartoons – evident in Star Wars the Clone Wars (2003) earlier in his career right through to Primal, which aired just recently in 2019. All of this combined with the use of comic book-esque screen framing make the series feel more like a graphic novel come to life or an anime series than a Western kids cartoon. What’s more, Samurai Jack accomplishes this without sacrificing childish entertainment value.
However, what makes Samurai Jack stand out in a sea of well-animated cartoons is the story. Jack is a unique character that represents a sentiment not often explored in visual media – the sense of longing for a world you’re not even sure exists, or ever existed. The world around Jack is fetid and evil – but the world he remembers, was it ever truly as good as he remembers it to be? Was the world that was ever free of the corruption and evil that so disgusts him about the world – the ‘world that is Aku’ – that he fights to undo? Jack’s sense of alienation is deeper than that of a stranger in a strange land – he is a man trapped at the wrong place in time entirely. Not only is the world foreign, but everything is laced with and governed by Aku’s evil. The very ground on which he walks, the air through which he moves, is hostile to him. In our world where seemingly nothing can escape the plastic-coated grip of modernity, this cartoon asks whether it really is so crazy to feel like you’ve gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack.
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Consorts (Part 1)By Sarah Stook — 4 months ago
We’ve had many monarchs in English and British history. Nearly all of them have been married, some more than once.
Here’s part one of my series on consorts:
Matilda of Flanders
- Life: c. 1031-2nd November
- Reigned: 25th December 1066-2nd November 1083
- Spouse: William I (m. 1051/1052)
- Children: Nine, including William I and Henry I
- Parents: Baldwin V, Count of Flanders and Adela of France
- Origin: France
Early Life: Matilda of Flanders was born in roughly 1031 to Baldwin V, Count of Flanders and Adela of France. Baldwin was a descendent of Alfred the Great. It’s believed that Adela could be the woman who was married to William I’s uncle, though historians are unsure if it is her. She was also the daughter of Robert II of France. This meant that Matilda had an impeccable lineage.
We do not know much about Matilda’s early life beyond that she spent it in Lille, northern France. Her mother, the extremely devout Adela, taught her daughter.
Marriage and Children: Flanders was a key region of Europe and allied with many of the important players. This made Matilda an extremely eligible match. William of Normandy was a bastard whose legitimacy tainted his prosperity. Legend has it that Matilda told his envoy that she was too high born for a bastard. William reportedly, depending on which version you believe, either dragged her off of her horse or went to her house and hit her. Matilda was reportedly so moved by that passion that she decided she’d marry only him.
Pope Leo Ix refused to give permission as the pair were too closely related as fifth cousins. This did not dissuade them, and they married in around 1051/1052.
William and Matilda had a strong, loving relationship. Unlike many of his contemporary leaders, William never took a mistress. They worked well together and Matilda was instrumental in getting William on the throne of England. He was devastated by her death, which led to an increase in his authoritarian tendencies.
They had at least nine children, including future kings William II and Henry I. Their daughters either took the veil or had advantageous marriages.
Pre-Reign and Queenship: Matilda became the Duchess of Normandy upon marriage. She had all but one of her children there, with Henry being born in England. Matilda contributed to her husband’s attempts to gain the English throne. She purchased and paid for a lavish ship, designing it herself. William was said to be deeply touched by the move.
Matilda remained regent in Normandy as William settled in England following the Battle of Hastings. She proved a capable leader, with Normandy seeing no uprisings or rebellions under her care. It also became a flourishing centre for arts.
She arrived in England in 1068, where she was crowned in a lavish ceremony. William made sure to crown as Queen and not merely a consort, as had been the case up until that point. Her name was mentioned in official documents and the Church fully recognised her.
Matilda had many landholdings and was a very wealthy woman in her own right. She closely supervised the education of her children, all of whom were educated to the highest extent.
The marriage did hit a rough patch. Their son Robert had been furious at his father for taking his (Robert’s) deceased fiancée’s lands. Robert was further angered when William failed to punish his younger sons after a prank on him. After Robert nearly accidentally killed William in battle, he was exiled. A few years later, William discovered that Matilda had been sending Robert money. He was livid but Matilda managed to plead motherly affection and win him back. Matilda brokered a reconciliation between father and son in 1080.
Matilda died in late 1083. William was devastated. He never remarried- though he wouldn’t have needed to- and did not take any mistresses. It’s said that the loss of her good influence made him more tyrannical. She is buried in Normandy at a church not far from where her husband rests.
Personality: Matilda was a deeply intelligent individual in terms of both street smarts and academia. She ensured the education of her children and was by all accounts a very loving mother. Her relationship with her husband was a good one and she was his best counsel. Matilda’s courage and shrewdness made her a strong ally and callable leader. She was deeply pious, even for the time, and left a lot of money to the church and charity.
Legacy: Matilda is remembered as the first official Queen of England. Her pious nature led her to build many religious centres. Some used to believe she was involved in creating the Bayeux Tapestry, though historians discredit that. She’s the descendent of nearly all English and British monarchs.
Matilda of Scotland
- Life: 1080-1st May 1118
- Reigned: 11th November 1100-1st May 1118
- Spouse: Henry I (m.1110)
- Children: Empress Matilda and William Adelin
- Parents: Malcolm III of Scotland and Margaret of Wessex
- Origin: Scotland
Early Life: Matilda was born with the name Edith sometime in 1080. Edith’s parents were Malcolm III of Scotland and Margaret of Wessex. Malcolm ruled Scotland for thirty-five years, whilst the deeply intellectual Margaret would later be given a sainthood. At her christening, Edith pulled the headdress of her godmother, Matilda of Flanders. This was said to be an omen that Edith would one day be Queen.
Edith’s education was advanced for a woman at the time. She was a desirable match, but the strong-willed Edith refused many matches. Her parents had her betrothed to Alan Rufus, Lord of Richmond, a man forty years her senior, when she was thirteen. The death of her parents and older brother saw Rufus run off to marry another. Her uncle took the throne and her brothers were sent to England for protection. It is likely that Edith stayed in England too.
Marriage and Children: When William II of England died in 1100, his brother Henry took the throne as William was childless. He wished to marry and to cement his stature, he wished to marry Edith. Edith was reportedly beautiful and they’d known each other for years. The only problem was that Edith had been raised in a convent and there was conjecture as to whether she’d been a nun or not. It had been her aunt Christina’s wish, but Edith refused. She told a commission that she’d only been veiled to protect from being raped by soldiers. Edith further said she’d stamped on her habit after being given it. It was eventually decided that Edith was free to marry.
Henry married Edith in November 1100. She changed her name to Matilda. Matilda-how I feel refer to her from now on- and Henry had two children who lived past infancy. They were Matilda and William (original naming).
The pair seemed to have a happy marriage, despite Henry’s many, many illegitimate children. This was the norm for the time and it seems that Matilda chose to ignore it.
Queenship: Matilda was a learned Queen who served as a regent when her husband was away-which was often. She was a huge patron of the arts and made her home of Westminster a hub of music and literature. Matilda was also deeply religious, maybe even more so than her mother, and charitable. She commissioned hospitals, churches, schools and other public works. Matilda would wash the feet of the poor and kiss the hands of the ill.
As was custom for the time, Matilda helped find strong marriages for her children. She had her daughter Matilda married off to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor in 1114. William was engaged to Matilda of Anjou in 1113 and would be married when they were old enough.
Matilda died in May 1118, her husband by her side. Henry mourned the loss, but had to remarry after the death of his son.
Personality: Matilda had a strong personality, as evidenced by her fight to be able to marry instead of being kept as a nun. She was extremely intelligent and devout. It seemed that she was trusted enough to be regent when her husband was often away and she had an active role.
Legacy: Matilda is most remembered for being a devout Christian who funded public works and charity. Many suggested that she be canonized but this never happened. Matilda was used as an excuse by King Stephen to deny her daughter the chance at being Queen, as he argued that she’d been a nun and thus not eligible for marriage.
Adeliza of Louvain
- Life: c.1103-1151
- Reigned: 24th January 1121-December 1135
- Spouse(s): Henry I (m. 1121), William d’Aubigny (m.1138)
- Children: Seven with William d’Aubigny
- Parents: Godfrey, Count of Louvain and Ida of Ching
- Origin: Belgium
Early Life: Adeliza of Louvain was born in around 1103 to Godfrey, Count of Louvain and Ida of Ching. Very little is known about her early life beyond the fact she was reportedly extremely beautiful. Her nickname was ‘The Fair Maiden of Brabant.’ Through her father, she was a descendent of Charlemagne. She may have been well-educated as she knew French, this was not the language of her home.
Marriage: In 1120, Henry I lost his only legitimate son William. He needed an heir and wished to marry Adeliza due to her beauty and heritage. The two wed in January 1121.
Their marriage produced no children, though Adeliza would have children with her second husband. Henry and Adeliza likely had a good marriage as they were always together. She was not, however, at his deathbed in France.
Queenship: Adeliza was not political like her predecessor, but was a huge patron of the arts. She pushed for French literature, making it popular among the nobles of Europe. Henry gave her generous dower lands which allowed her to live in wealth.
Post-Queenship: Henry died in 1135, leaving Adeliza as a widow. She lived in her dower lands as the Anarchy started to unfold. In her widowhood, Adeliza was a proponent of religious charity and commissioned many buildings for the Church. She also remembered Henry and took care of his memorial.
Adeliza was living in an abbey when she was proposed to by William d’Aubigny. His family were minor nobility so the marriage was not too much of a challenge. The pair had seven children together and were ancestors of two of Henry VIII’s wives. Her husband William was a staunch supporter of Stephen, but Adeliza quietly supported Matilda, with whom she had a good relationship. It was only after Stephen threatened the family that Adeliza was forced to lure Matilda into a trap. She did ensure that Matilda could safely leave.
In 1150, Adeliza entered a monastery. This is unusual as she was still married with children. Records indicate she died a year later.
Personality: We know little of Adeliza beyond the fact she was uninterested in politics but enjoyed art. She seemed to be a good stepmother.
Legacy: Adeliza is oft-forgotten due to her lack of politics and not being the mother of a monarch. She is an ancestor of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, however, so she did manage to have a say in the royal lineage many years down the line.
Geoffrey of Anjou
- Life: 24th August 1113-7th September 1151
- Reigned: (Disputed) 1141-1148
- Spouse: Empress of Matilda (m.1128)
- Children: Three legitimate, including Henry II
- Parents: Fulk, King of Jerusalem and Ermengarde, Countess of Maine
- Origin: France
Early Life: Geoffrey of Anjou was born on the 24th August 1113. His father Fulk would become King of Jerusalem upon his second marriage to Melisende of Jerusalem’. Geoffrey had three younger siblings and two younger-half siblings. His sister Matilda was the widow of his brother-in-law William. As a young man, Geoffrey was handsome and loved sports and hunting.
Marriage: Aware of the fact that he likely wasn’t going to have any more legitimate sons, Henry I of England needed his daughter Matilda to marry and have heirs. Anjou had been an ally since William had married Geoffrey’s sister Matilda. In 1128, Geoffrey and Matilda married.
Their marriage was not a happy one. Matilda was a decade older than Geoffrey and felt that marrying a Count was beneath her, as her previous husband had been an emperor. They were both strong-willed and independent people who liked to get their own way. Geoffrey would have bastards.
They had three sons together: Henry, Geoffrey and William. The latter two would die fairly young.
Pre-Reign and Consort: As Count of Anjou, Geoffrey was in charge of the state. He put down several rebellions. In 1135, his father-in-law finally died. Some states submitted to Matilda and accepted her reign, but the English nobles chose her cousin Stephen (eldest living nephew of Henry I). This was for two reasons- the fact that Matilda was a woman and the fact that they didn’t particularly like her husband.
During his contested consortship, Geoffrey fought in Normandy whilst Matilda headed to England. He did make headway but was bogged down, leaving him no time to assist his wife in England. Geoffrey was endlessly putting down rebellions and eventually gave Normandy to his eldest son Henry.
Geoffrey died suddenly at the age of 38. He is buried in Les Mans.
Personality: Geoffrey was outwardly affable and charming, with a love for merriment and sports. He could be very cold and his strong personality made him clash with his wife. Geoffrey was nonetheless very loyal to Matilda, though one would argue that gaining the crown would be more of a benefit to him.
Legacy: Along with Lord Guildford Dudley, Geoffrey is one of two disputed consorts. He is often not included in historical rankings or is least not classed as a consort. His son Henry would live on as king, meaning that Geoffrey is an ancestor of many monarchs.
Matilda of Boulogne:
- Life: c.1105-3rd May 1152
- Reigned: 22nd December 1135-3rd May 1152
- Spouse: Stephen (m.1125)
- Children: Five, including Eustace
- Parents: Eustace III, Count of Boulogne and Mary of Scotland
- Origin: France
Early Life: Matilda of Boulogne was born around 1105 to Eustace III, Count of Boulogne and Mary of Scotland. She was their only child, which was unusual for the period. Her mother Mary was the sister of Matilda of Scotland, consort to Henry I and mother of the Empress Matilda.
Extraordinarily little is known about Matilda’s early life beyond the fact she was betrothed to Stephen aged two and was educated in convents.
Marriage and Children: Matilda and Stephen married in 1125. The two enjoyed an extremely happy marriage, with Stephen taking no mistresses nor bearing any illegitimate children. They had a mutual love and respect for one another.
The pair had five children, three of whom would later rule Boulogne. Eustace was the eldest son and heir to Stephen until the Treaty of Wallingford saw him displaced.
Pre-Reign and Queenship: The first ten years of marriage were relatively peaceful, with the couple often visiting England. All that changed in 1135 upon the death of Henry I. Whilst Matilda waited to claim the throne, Stephen immediately jumped into action and headed to England.
The Anarchy would see Matilda and Stephen often parted. When it came to war, Matilda proved to be a surprisingly excellent leader and tactician. She often came to her husband’s aid with troops. Matilda forged an alliance with her uncle, David I of Scotland, before allying with France through the marriage of Stephen to the king’s sister Constance.
Upon hearing of her husband’s capture, Matilda begged her cousin for his release but was refused. Her army then forced the Empress out of London. It was after she captured Matilda’s extremely loyal half-brother that a prisoner exchange finally happened.
The war dragged on until 1147, when the Empress Matilda returned from Normandy. There was a stalemate at this point and no side had declared victory. Stephen acted as king. Meanwhile, Matilda enjoyed widespread popularity. She was admired for her steadfast dedication to her husband, her bravery, courage and intelligence. Contemporary chroniclers said that she had a man’s heart in a woman’s body. Stephen always listened to her counsel.
Matilda died fairly suddenly in spring 1152 whilst staying in Essex. Stephen was not there at the time. One can assume he was devastated. They are buried together at Faversham Abbey, Kent.
Personality: Matilda was one of medieval Europe’s most brilliant women. Not only was she an extremely loyal spouse, but she was also a talented leader and soldier. She was on the frontlines during the war and was key in several victories. Her love for her husband was evident, as was his love for her. Contemporary citizens loved Matilda and held her up as an ideal woman.
Legacy: Despite the fact her children never ruled England, three would rule Boulogne. Her daughter Marie and granddaughter Ida would be Countesses of Boulogne in their own right, not forced to share power with their husbands. As Henry II was her cousin’s son, Matilda is an ancestor of many of our monarchs.
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Five Truths from Dostoevsky’s The DevilsBy Dustin Lovell — 5 months ago
Whenever I scroll through the news on Twitter or listen to talk radio, I like to play a game called “Dostoevsky called it.” As one can guess, it consists of identifying events or trends that correspond with those in Feodor Dostoevsky’s novels and letters. Because Dostoevsky devoted so much ink to warning about the motives and effects of atheist-utilitarian socialism from the radical left, the game often points to his most direct attack on those ideas: The Devils.
Published between 1871 and 1872 and written in response to the Nechaev affair, where an underground group of socialist-atheist radicals, planning to ultimately overthrow the Tsarist government through propaganda, terrorism, and assassination, murdered a former comrade who had left their secret society, The Devils (Бесы; also translated as Demons or The Possessed) is Feodor Dostoevsky’s most explicit expose of and polemic against the revolutionary nihilism growing in late nineteenth-century Russia. Although, due to his own participation in a socialist plot aimed at educating and ultimately liberating the serfs, he often gave the benefit of the doubt to the moral idealism of the younger generation of radicals—assuming their hearts, if not their methods, were in the right place—in The Devils he nonetheless skewers the radical ideology and his generation and the next’s culpability for it.
While his main focus is on the characters’ psychologies and their symbolic significance, Dostoevsky nonetheless lays out many of the ideas populating late-nineteenth-century Russia, displaying a thorough understanding of them, their holders’ true motives (which, like those of that other ideological murderer Raskalnikov, are rarely the same as those consciously stated by their loudest advocates), and what would be the results if they were not checked. In several places, Dostoevsky unfortunately calls it right, and The Devils at times reads as a preview of the following fifty years in Russia, as well as of the modes and methods of radicalism in later places and times.
It would be too great a task to cite, here, all the places and times where Dostoevsky’s visions were confirmed; at best, after laying out a few of the many truths in The Devils, I can only note basic parallels with later events and trends in Russia and elsewhere—and let my readers draw their own additional parallels. Nonetheless, here are five truths from Dostoevsky’s The Devils:
1: The superfluity of the preceding liberal generation to progressive radicals.
The Devils is structured around the relationship between the older and younger generations of the mid-1800s. The book opens with an introduction of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, father to the later introduced radical Peter Stepanovich. A Westernized liberal from the 1840s generation, Stepan Trofimovich represents the upper-class intelligentsia that first sought to enlighten the supposedly backwards Russia through atheistic socialism (a redundancy in Dostoevsky).
However, despite his previously elevated status as a liberal and lecturer, by the time of The Devils Stepan Trofimovich—and, with him, the 1840s liberals who expected to be honored for opening the door to progress—has become superfluous. This is highlighted when his son returns to the province and does not honor his father with figurative laurels (when such a symbol is later employed literally it is in satirical mock).
Though never the direct butt of Dostoevsky’s satire, Stepan Trofimovich cannot (or refuses) to understand that his son’s nihilism is not a distortion of his own generation’s hopes but is the logical, inevitable product of them. The older man’s refusal to admit his ideological progeny in his literal progeny’s beliefs, of course, enables Peter Stepanovich to mock him further, even while he continues to avail himself of the benefits of his father’s erstwhile status in society. This “liberal naivete enabling radical nihilism” schema can also be seen in the governor’s wife, Yulia Mikhailovna von Lembke, who believes that she can heroically redirect the passions of the youth to more socially beneficial, less radical, pursuits but only ends up enabling them to take over her literary fete to ridicule traditional society and distract the local worthies while agents set parts of the local town ablaze. Stepan Trofimovich, Yulia Mikhailovna, and others show that, despite the liberal generation’s supposed love for Russia, they were unable to brake the pendulum they sent swinging towards leftism.
The same pattern of liberals being ignored or discarded by the progressives they birthed can be seen in later years in Russia and other nations. While it would historically be two generations between Belinsky and Lenin (who was born within months of Dostoevsky’s starting to write The Devils), after the 1917 Revolution, Soviet Russia went through several cycles of executing or imprisoning previous generations who, despite supporting the Revolution, were unfortunately too close to the previous era to be trusted by new, socialistically purer generations.
In a more recent UK, Dostoevsky’s schema can also be seen in the Boomer-led Labour of the ‘90s and ‘00s UK paving the way for the radical, arguably anti-British progressivism of the 2010s and ‘20s (which, granted, sports its share of hip Boomers). In America, it can be seen in the soft divide in congressional Democrats between 20th-century liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and “the squad” comprised of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and others who have actively tried (and arguably succeeded) in pushing the nation’s discourse in a left progressive direction.
2: Ideologies as active, distorting forces rather than merely passive beliefs.
“I’ve never understood anything about your theory…” Peter Stepanovich tells the serene Aleksei Nilych Kirillov later in the book, “I also know you haven’t swallowed the idea—the idea’s swallowed you…” The idea he is referring to is Kirillov’s belief that by committing suicide not from despair or passion but by rational, egotistic intention, he can rid mankind of the fear of death (personified in the figure of God) and become the Christ of the new utilitarian atheism (really, Dostoevsky intends us to understand, not without pity for Kirillov, an antichrist thereof). The topic of suicide—rising in Russia at the time of the book’s writing and a result, Dostoevsky believed, of the weakening of social institutions and national morality by the subversive nihilism then spreading—is a motif through the book. Countering Chernyshevsky’s romanticized revolutionary Rakhmetov from What is to Be Done?, Kirillov is Dostoevsky’s depiction of the atheist rational egotism of the time taken to its fullest psychological extent. Like others he had and would later write (Raskalnikov, Ivan Karamazov), Kirillov is driven mad by an idea that “swallows” him in monomania and which he has admitted to being obsessed with—the idea of a world without God.
Though Dostoevsky considered it the central issue of his day (which still torments Western culture), my focus here is not on Kirillov’s idea, itself, but on his relation to it. Countering the Western Enlightenment conceit that ideas are mere tools to be rationally picked up and put down at will, Dostoevsky shows through Kirillov that ideas and ideology (ideas put in the place of religion) are active things that can overwhelm both conscious and unconscious mind. Indeed, the novel’s title and Epigraph—the story of Legion and the swine from Luke 8—already suggests this; for Dostoevsky, there is little difference between the demons that possessed the pigs and the ideas that drive characters like Kirillov to madness.
Of course, a realist-materialist reading of Kirillov’s end (I won’t spoil it, though it arguably undercuts his serenity throughout the book) and the later Ivan Karamazov’s encounter with a personified devil would contend that there was nothing literally demonic to the manifestations, but for Dostoevsky that matters little; for him, whose focus is always on how the individual lives and experiences life, being possessed by an ideology one cannot let go of and being in the grasp of literal demons is nearly synonymous—indeed, the former may be the modern manifestation of the latter, with the same results. In his work, such things almost always accompany a lowering of one’s humanity into the beastial.
The problem with ideology, Dostoevsky had discovered in Siberia, was in their limited conception of man. By cutting off all upper transcendent values as either religious superstition or upper class decadence, the new utilitarian atheism had removed an essential part of what it meant to be human. At best, humans were animals and could hope for no more than thus, and all higher aspirations were to be lowered to achieving present social goals of food, housing, and sex—which Dostoevsky saw, themselves, as impossible to effectively achieve without the Orthodox Church’s prescriptions for how to deal with suffering and a belief in afterlife. Of the lack of higher impressions that give life meaning, Dostoevsky saw two possible results: ever-increasingly perverse acts of the flesh, and ever-increasingly solipsistic devotion to a cause—both being grounded in and expressions not of liberation or selflessness, but of the deepest egotism (which was a frankly stated element of the times’ ideologies).
From this view, Dostoevsky would have seen today’s growing efforts to legitimate into the mainstream things like polyamory, abortion, and public displays of sexuality and increasingly aggressive advocacy by groups like Extinction Rebellion or NOW (he predicted both movements in his other writing) as both being attempts to supply the same religious impulse—which, due to their being cut off by their premises from the transcendent metaphysic required by the human creature and supplied by Christianity, &c, is a doomed attempt.
3: Seemingly virtuous revolution motivated by and covering for private vices.
By the time he wrote The Devils Dostoevsky had seen both inside and outside of the radical movement; he had also depicted in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment characters who discover, to their angst and horror, that their actions were not motivated by humanitarianism, but by envy, cravenness, and the subsequent desire for self-aggrandizement. The Devils features the same depth of psychology beneath the main characters’ stated ideas and goals, and the book often shows how said ideas cannot work when applied to real people and real life.
As the chronicle unfolds, characters often speak of the petty vices that undermine the purity of the revolutionaries’ stated virtues and goals. “Why is it,” the narrator recounts Stepan Trofimovich once asking him, “all these desperate socialists and communists are also so incredibly miserly, acquisitive, and proprietorial? In fact, the more socialist someone is…the stronger his proprietorial instinct.” So much for those who seek to abolish property; one can guess to whom they wish to redistribute it! The revolutionary-turned-conservative Ivan Shatov later continues the motif, digging deeper into the radicals’ motives: “They’d be the first to be terribly unhappy if somehow Russia were suddenly transformed, even according to their own ideas, and if it were suddenly to become immeasurably rich and happy. Then they’d have no one to hate, no one to despise, no one to mock! It’s all an enormous, animal hatred for Russia that’s eaten into their system.”
Leftists might accuse Dostoevsky of merely wishing to make the radicals look bad with such an evaluation; however, as addressed by Joseph Frank in his chapter on the topic in Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, the “bad for thee, fine for me” mentality of The Devils’s radicals (if their ideology doesn’t completely blind them to such inconsistency in the first place) was straight from the playbook of men like Nechaev: the Catechism of a Revolutionary. Far from trying to evade contradictory behavior, such a work, and other later analogues (Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance”; Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals) advocate being inconsistent and slippery with one’s principles for the sake of the revolution. Indeed, contradicting the rules one was trying to impose on others was and is seen not as an inconsistency but as a special privilege—of which several examples can be found, from upper party opulence in the USSR to modern champagne socialists who attend a $35,000-per-seat Met Gala while advocating taxing the rich.
4: Social chaos and purges as necessary and inevitable in achieving and maintaining utopia.
Perhaps the single most prophetic scene in The Devils occurs in the already mentioned chapter “‘Our Group’ Meets,” which depicts the various local radicals meeting under cover of a birthday party. A cacophony of competing voices and priorities, the scene’s humorous mix of inept, self-serving idealists is made grotesque by the visions they advocate. Most elaborate of the speakers is Shigalyov, whose utopian scheme for the revolution was insightful enough that Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn both referred to the Russian government’s post-October Revolution policies and methods as “Shigalevism.”
While Shigalyov’s whole speech (and Peter Stepanovich’s commentary) is worth reading as a prophecy of what would happen less than fifty years after the book, here are some notable excerpts:
“Beginning with the idea of unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism…One-tenth will receive personal freedom and unlimited power over the other nine-tenths. The latter must forfeit their individuality and become as it were a herd [through re-education of entire generations]; through boundless obedience, they will attain, by a series of rebirths, a state of primeval innocence, although they’ll still have to work…What I’m proposing is not disgusting; it’s paradise, paradise on earth—there can be none other on earth.”
A direct goal of the purges in Soviet Russia, and of the alienation of children from their parents, was to create a new, purely socialist generation unburdened by the prejudices of previous or outside systems.
“[We’ve] been urged to close ranks and even form groups for the sole purposed of bringing about total destruction, on the pretext that however much you try to cure the world, you won’t be able to do so entirely, but if you take radical steps and cut off one hundred million heads, thus easing the burden, it’ll be much easier to leap over the ditch. It’s a splendid idea…”
While hundred million murders may seem like hyperbole in the scene’s darkly comic context, in the end it was an accurate prediction of what communism would accomplish if put into systemic practice; however, we should also not miss the stated method of destabilizing society via conspiratorial groups aimed not at aid but at acceleration—a method used in early 20th-century Russia and employed by modern radical groups like Antifa.
“It would take at least fifty years, well, thirty, to complete such a slaughter—inasmuch as people aren’t sheep, you know, and they won’t submit willingly.”
Besides the time element, the identifying of the individual human’s desire for life and autonomy as a lamentable but surmountable impediment to revolution—rather than a damning judgment of the radicals’ inability to make any humanitarian claims—is chilling.
“[Shigalyov] has a system for spying. Every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform. Everyone belongs to all the others and the others belong to each one. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery.”
A corrollary to the section above on freedom-through-slavery, this part accurately identifies the system of paranoid watchfulness in the first half of the USSR, as well as the system currently in place in the DPRK, among other places.
“The one thing the world needs is obedience. The desire for education is an aristocratic idea. As soon as a man experiences love or has a family, he wants private property. We’ll destroy that want: we’ll unleash drunkenness, slander, denunciantion; we’ll unleash unheard-of corruption… [Crime] is no longer insanity, but some kind of common sense, almost an obligation, at least a noble protest.”
Anti-traditional-family advocacy and the flipping of the criminal-innocent dichotomy as a means of destabilizing the status quo all took place in the early years of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, they are all too familiar today in the West, whether we’re talking about the current argument in the US that children’s education belongs to the community (i.e. teachers, public unions, and the government) to the exclusion of parents, or the argument heard at several points in the 2020 that crimes and rioting committed during protests were an excusable, even “noble,” form of making one’s voice heard (while nicking a TV in the process!).
More recently and ongoing here in California (often uncannily parallel to the UK in certain policy impulses), our current District Attorney George Gascon, in an attempt to redefine the criminal-victim mentality in the state, has implemented policies that benefit criminals over victims by relaxing the definitions and sentences of certain crimes and refusing to try teenagers who commit felonies as adults (among other things); as many expected would happen, crime has risen in the state, with the Los Angeles PD recently advising residents to avoid wearing jewelry in public—which, to this resident, sounds oddly close to blaming the victim for wearing a short skirt by another name, and is certainly a symptom and example of anarcho-tyranny.
To nineteenth-century readers not as versed as Dostoevsky in the literature and ideas behind the Nechaev affair (which was publicly seen as merely a murder among friends, without the ideological significance Dostoevsky gave it), this section of The Devils would have seemed a comic exaggeration. However, to post-20th-century readers it stands, like a clarion pointing forward to the events later confirmed by Solzhenitsyn, as a dire warning not to forget the truth in the satire and not to dismiss the foolishly hyperbolic as impotent. Even in isolated forms, the ideas promoted by Shigalyev are real, and when applied they have been, as Dostoevsky predicted, disastrous.
5: Socialism not as humanitarian reason, but as religious poetry; revolution as primarily aesthetic, not economic.
An amalgam of, among other members of the 1840s generation, the father of Russian socialism Alexander Herzen, Stepan Trofimovich is, by the time of the 1860s setting of The Devils, an inveterate poet. This reflects Dostoevsky’s evaluation of his old theorist friend, whom he nonetheless cites as the enabler of men like the nihilist terrorist Nechaev, despite Herzen’s claims that the terrorist had bastardized his ideas (see truth number 1, above).
The brilliantly mixed critique of and homage to Dostoevsky’s own generation that is Stepan Trofimovich presents one of the book’s main motifs about the nihilist generation: that they are not pursuing a philosophically rational system of humanitarian goals, but a romantically poetic pseudo-religion. “They’re all bewitched,” cries Stepan Trofimovich about his son, “not by realism, but by the emotional and idealistic aspects of socialism, so to speak, by its religious overtones, its poetry.” Later, at the aforementioned pivotal meeting scene, Peter Stepanovich shows he is completely conscious of this fact—and willing to use it to his advantage. “What’s happening here is the replacement of the old religion by a new one; that’s why so many soldiers are needed—it’s a large undertaking.” In the next scene, Peter Stepanovich reveals to Stavrogin his desire to use the enchanting nobleman as a figurehead for revolution among the peasantry, intending to call him Ivan the Tsarevich to play off of the Russian folk legend of a messianic Tsar in hiding who will rise to take the throne from the “false” reigning Tsar and right all the world’s wrongs with his combined religious and political power.
Peter Stepanovich, himself, is too frank a nihilist to believe in such narratives; focused as he is on first destroying everything rather than wasting time pontificating about what to do afterwards, he even treats Shigalyov’s utopian visions with contempt. However, the rest of the radicals in the book are not so clear-sighted about the nature of their beliefs. Multiple times in the book, susceptibility to radical socialism is said to inhere not in reason but in sentimentality; showing Dostoevsky’s moderation even on a topic of which he was so passionately against, this critique often focuses on younger men and women’s genuine desire to good—which ironically makes them, like the naive and forthright Ensign Erkel, susceptible to committing the worst crimes with a straight, morally self-confident face.
It is this susceptibility to the art of revolution that causes Peter Stepanovich to be so sanguine about others’ romanticism, despite its falling short of his own nihilism. His intention to use others’ art for his own advantage can be seen most clearly in his hijacking of Yulia Mikhailovna’s literary fete to use it, through his cronies, as a screed against the social order and to mock artistic tradition. His doing so is just a follow-through of an earlier statement to Stavrogin that “Those with higher abilities…have always done more harm than good; they’ll either be banished or executed. Cicero’s tongue will be cut out, Copernicus’s eyes will be gouged out, Shakespeare will be stoned…it’s a fine idea to level mountains—there’s nothing ridiculous in that…we’ll suffocate every genius in its infancy.”
Against his son’s leveling of mountains, Stepan Trofimovich, to his infinite credit and speaking with his author’s mouth, declares, with the lone voice of tradition amidst the climactic fete, that “Shakespeare and Raphael are more important than the emancipation of the serfs…than nationalism…than socialism…than the younger generation…than chemistry, almost more important than humanity, because they are the fruit, the genuine fruit of humanity, and perhaps the most important fruit there is!” In this contrast between the Verkhovenskys, it is not different views on economics but on art—on Shakespeare, among others—that that lie at the heart of revolution, with the revolutionaries opposing the English Poet more viscerally than any other figure. This reflects Dostoevsky’s understanding that the monumental cultural shift of the 1800s was not primarily scientific but aesthetic (a topic too large to address here). Suffice it to say, the central conflict of The Devils is not between capitalists and socialists (the book rarely touches on economic issues, apart from their being used as propaganda—that is, aesthetically), nor between Orthodox and atheists (though Dostoevsky certainly saw that as the fundamental alternative at play), but between the 1840s late Romantics and the new Naturalist-Realists.
The prophetic nature of this aesthetic aspect of The Devils has many later confirmations, such as the 20th century’s growth of state propaganda, especially in socialistic states like Nazi Germany or the USSR, though also in the West (Western postmodernism would eventually make all art as interpretable as propaganda). Furthermore, the Stalinist cult of personality seems a direct carry over of Peter Stepanovich’s intended desire to form just such a pseudo-religious cult out of Nikolai Vsevolodovich.
Having written a novel on the threat posed to Shakespeare by the newest generation of the radical left (before reading of Verkhovensky’s desire to stone Shakespeare—imagine my surprise to find that Dostoevsky had called even the events in my own novel!), I hold this particular topic close to my heart. Indeed, I believe we are still in the Romantic-Realist crossroads, and in dire need of backtracking to take the other path that would prefer, to paraphrase Stepan Trofimovich, the beautiful and ennobling Shakespeare and Raphael over the socially useful pair of boots and petroleum. Like Stepan Trofimovich, I believe comforts and technical advancements like the latter could not have come about were it not for the culture of the former—and that they would lose their value were their relative importance confused to the detriment of that which is higher.
There are, of course, many other truths in The Devils that have borne out (the infighting of radical advocacy groups competing for prominence, radicalism as a result of upper-class boredom and idleness, revolution’s being affected not by a majority but a loud minority willing to transgress, self-important administrators and bureaucrats as enablers and legitimators of radicals…). While the increasingly chaotic narrative (meant to mimic the setting’s growing unrest) is not Dostoevsky’s most approachable work, The Devils is certainly one of his best, and it fulfills his intended purpose of showing, like Tolstoy had done a few years before in War and Peace, a full picture of Russian society.However, while Tolstoy’s work looked backward to a Russia that, from Dostoevsky’s view, had been played out, The Devils was written to look forward, and, more often for ill than good, it has been right in its predictions. Not for nothing did Albert Camus, who would later adapt The Devils for the stage, say on hearing about the Stalinist purges in Soviet Russia that “The real 19th-century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx.”
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Fact and Fortune: A Note on The ParticularBy Samuel Martin — 5 months ago
Writing this article makes me feel guilty. Like a manic scientist hunched over a microscope, I am hunched over a keyboard, conducting research into pinpointing the unpinpointable. For decades, conservatives have disapprovingly commented on the widespread adoption of once-alternative socially liberal concepts and arrangements, lamenting the desacralization and deprivileging of more “traditional” outlooks. This is very much in step with classic political dynamics: Liberals will tell you “Yes”, Leftists will tell you “Yes, and more!”, and a conservative will tell you “No”. Whilst I generally agree with such disapproving commentary, I will not be contributing to it. Instead, I shall be addressing that which animates the conservative’s disapproval; stating what love is, rather than what is not, all while resisting its substitution with other concepts (pleasure, happiness, etc.) as has been done before. Consequently, I hope to form a fragment of a “moral-social vision” to which a conservative can forcefully say: “Yes”. Moreover, it should be prefaced that I do not care for contemporary fads, such as “making sense”.
Underpinning all human relationships lies an implicit and relative distinction between what is familiar and strange. Courtesy of the innate biological, geographical, and psychological limits of (for lack of a better term) the self, from birth to death most of humanity is a stranger; their existence is affirmed without personal interaction and their initial relation to the self is ambiguous. As proximity to the self transforms, so does the nature of the relationship – strangeness gradually fades away and familiarity increasingly emerges. However, whilst technically specific, the self is a mosaic; it is downstream from various approximations which give identity and demand obligation: the family, the local community, and the nation, all exist as approximations to what is familiar, stretching out towards the stranger.
In the most irremovable fundamental and primordial sense, the family and the self are the same, thus describing the family as a realm of the self, as opposed to what the self is, does not make sense. As such, the first approximation which exists beyond the self, the one more intimate and more familiar than the much wider community, as if it was Venus slotted between Mercury and Earth, is that of the Particular.
The Individual and The Particular are not totally distinct. Whilst technically different, a Particular cannot deny its necessary origins as an Individual, that is to say: certain residual characteristics of an Individual will remain within the Particular even when an Individual becomes Particular. The key commonality between the Individual and the Particular is that both are necessarily unique and singular; they both refer to one. The fundamental difference between the Individual and the Particular is therefore twofold: the nature of [the] reference, and the nature of [the] one.
The Individual One is strictly numerical, it concerns isolated quantity amid implied greater quantity. Conversely, The Particular One is non-quantifiable. It is not perceived mathematically, but in a qualitative and subjective manner; the self-realised reality that there can be no concept of greater quantity when concerned with the existence of something radically specific. However, bound up in the nature of [the] One is how it is referred to. Unlike the Individual, the Particular is realised by a person; it emerges, rising above individualised mass. In this regard, whilst the Individual is an impersonal concept, the Particular is deeply personal.
Facts are the unbending exoskeleton of reality. Hardly negative, they are nevertheless mere matters of being, they are acknowledged by all for the sake of all; they are granted and therefore taken for granted. On the other hand, Fortunes emerge from an incomprehensible conglomerate of probabilities. More than simply being, the total feasibility of Fortune’s non-existence gives it subjective value; to exist as it does makes it remarkable, as if it were a roaring fire in a field of snow. As such, the “impersonally perceived quantifiable” Individual constitutes an existential Fact, whilst the “personally perceived non-quantifiable” Particular constitutes an existential Fortune.
Like every conceivable Fortune, it is discovered through action. Ways colliding through distinct affirmations of life as part of civilised existence, the Particular incrementally emerges into view. The glamourous unthinking of the animal, lurking beneath such civilised folk, smoothens rough edges into idiosyncrasies. It is only during this way-splicing journey that one is eventually obstructed by the wretched bluntness of Fact. The Particular is particular. Made radically specific by intersections of time and space, The Particular is temporary. Mortality, granted and therefore taken for granted, is never acknowledged for its wretchedness until compared to the shining novelty of Fortune. Icarus, made ecstatic by the heights to which his wings could take him, is blighted by the unmissable sun and is reacquainted with reality. Realisation of temporality is the highest realisation of the Particular and thus the undoing of the Self’s tranquillity. It is because of this that all love is bittersweet. A volatile spirit, it wrestles to be total, to be free of its own contradictions; it is humanity’s purest extremity.
Unfortunately, contemporary notions of love have come to be dominated by material transaction, in which material things are exchanged for something in return all while being divorced from direction, tailored only to generalised individual mass rather than the Particular, Regardless of whether material transaction is a consciously cynical effort or just well-meaning naivete, it should be considered a perversion of the material’s true role of expression: the act of turning the immaterial into something material, internal motion into an external display. Even if both are in want, the former deals in expectations whilst the latter deals in hope. Consequently, given the ritualistic importance, just as one who wants to receive must be prepared to give, where one does not wish to give, one must refuse.
Far from pedanticism, there must be immovable details, actions, and sentiments which are confined to the realm of The Particular. If it lacks these, there is no such thing as a distinct romantic approximation; the Particular would cease to be particular at all. Hence why a private realm, knitted together by a veneer of secrecy and the consequent warding off transgressions is not only required, but the very essence of love. The contradiction of this private realm is that it can only be fully secured through public recognition; signifying that there are boundaries which those inside and outside cannot bend if the realm is to exist at all. It is the inability to reconcile this private realm with the world that lies beyond, especially the family and community, that produces the Romeo and Juliet tragedies we all intuitively understand.
At bottom level, these perversions stem from having been confronted by temporality which afflicts us all. Like madmen, they hurry to evade the inevitable. Impending fates, they make frenzied decisions, no sober consideration of what would do them better. Attempting to hoard the whole of humanity in your heart, being subject to the neurotic clamouring for more, made unawares that all will have so much less; you less of them, and them less of you. Just as a nation that attempts to contain the world within its borders does not enrich itself, and consequently makes a world in which the nation no longer exists.
Nobody makes a conscious decision to love, they simply do (on its own, it is Fact which precedes the Fortune of the Particular). It is those deluded folks who choose to act against love that engage in a conscious decision. Like building a dam to obstruct a coursing stream, it is a crude denial of motion. It is because of this motion that the emergence of the Particular cannot be reduced to a meticulous list of preferences. The mechanised procedure of romance has been attacked as a neutralising reconfiguration of love, implying it to be an organic development instead – which it is. If an organic something has stagnated it is either dead or on the verge of death – making compatibility the project, rather than the immediate gratification of love. Just as a flower’s idea of itself animates the contortions of its growth, giving clear form to lofty substance, the idea of two-minded unity is the grand project to which love draws its form and loyally commits its efforts. Unlike the machine which facilitates fleeting relations and heavy-handed intimacy, the Becoming force of love, that which sought to forge beyond the self and in the direction of the Particular, if found to be requited by life’s chances, necessarily reorients itself to go beyond life itself.
The afterlife exists as a Fact. Calling this afterlife “death” makes no difference. There are two certainties: our certain uncertainty of the exact nature of the afterlife and our absolute certainty of our heading there. Whether it’s the minds of men, eternal darkness, or literal new life, it matters not; there is a flipside to this state which gives this life so much meaning. The totality of the Particular and the fullness of heart it provides, ever-driving the two-minded unity, ushers the secret realm into existence, giving us a place not only within explicit life, but within implicit afterlife. Two radically specific souls, becoming one radically specific unit, find themselves undivided by death.
The first approximation, the most intimate and warmest flame, with correspondence to be earnestly followed up or to be dutifully waited on, mends the disjointed nature of life and afterlife. By forging a chain that can never be broken, mere existence is transformed into terrain traversing adventure. The ability to stare into the reaper’s eyes as if they were the eyes of the Particular; that is the essence of love. Never will the strange feel so familiar.
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