In short, the year started badly but was peppered with good moments. By mid-2022 it was going excellently, and I thought I was finally past the worst of what this year could throw at me. My hubris was rewarded with some of the worst few months of my life so far. I know that, in the grand scheme of things, I should be thankful for all that I have, and I certainly recognise that I have it much better than most people. It helps to remember that, but it doesn’t change how I felt and acted at the time.
I suppose that that is the nature of life and hindsight. At the time, these moments seemed to mean everything. They either crush your soul and spirit or bring you to the highest heights. I think that this sentiment is expressed quite well in the ‘it’s over/we’re back’ memes that have propagated themselves across my twitter timeline for the past few years. We outright refuse to recognise our own mundane victories and losses, and instead focus on the peaks and troughs – this is natural of course, we would go completely insane otherwise.
I don’t think it is bad to allow these experiences to hit you. Part of the human experience is to be hit by these ups and downs. It is the dwelling on these events that becomes a problem. Holding on to fading hurt and fleeting success instead of moving on in some sort of twisted nostalgia for our best and worst moments can lead us down a very dark and dangerous road. It makes us forget who we are and who we can be. Our lessons learnt, we should embrace the change and simply move on. It is in these moments that we grow and mature as people, and become a better version of ourselves.
For me personally, this year has been an absolute rollercoaster of highs and lows, and that has been very hard to deal with. Things seem to be better now, however, and I am filled with enthusiasm for what the new year can bring me. I think that 2023 will be an amazing time for personal growth and development. I still have a lot of weight to lose, but I am steadfast in my determination to see it through this year. Coming to terms with my situation and state of mind will not be easy, but life is not supposed to be easy. Nothing worth doing is easy.
This is an excerpt from “Provenance”. To continue reading, visit The Mallard’s Shopify.
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By Sarah Stook — 8 months ago
Not every monarch has been an upstanding spouse. Many of the men ruling our kingdom have had a bit on the side whilst remaining married. Some had quick flings whilst others had longstanding partnerships.
It was a different era- royal men were expected and allowed to have mistresses. Their marriages were rarely ever for love. Those who were lucky enough to love their spouses only did after they’d married. Their wives were expected to be naive virgins who would only be there to have children. Kings might have insatiable appetites and want something more. So long as they weren’t too open about it, they could have as many women as they wanted.
Some queens, such as Queen Alexandra, tolerated affairs. Others, such as Isabella of France, did not. There wasn’t much they could do- some were forced to accept the mistresses as their ladies-in-waiting. The luckiest of them got to choose who their mistresses were.
It could be unfortunate. A king who spent more time with his mistresses wouldn’t give his wife a child. Catherine of Braganza suffered three miscarriages and never had any children due to her husband, Charles II, preferring other women. Charles had no legitimate heirs with poor Catherine, but had at least twelve illegitimate children.
Here are some of the most notable women who caught the eye of British kings:
Rosamund Clifford (c. 1150-1176)
Mistress to: Henry II
Time: Pre- 1174-1176
As with many women of the era, we know shockingly little about Rosamund Clifford. Ancient lore describes her as the most beautiful woman of all time, the Helen of Troy of her day. We know that she was not yet thirty when she died, yet her name lives on years later.
Rosamund was the daughter of Walter Clifford and the former Margaret de Toeni. Historians estimate her birth to have been between 1148 and 1150. The affair between Henry and Rosamund was publicly acknowledged by the King in 1174, but it’s believed that it has been going on a good deal longer.
Whilst Henry had initially had a happy marriage with his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. The pair had eight children, including five sons, so Eleanor had fulfilled her duty in medieval eyes. Still, his eyes wandered and Rosamund was one of the women who he noticed.
A common legend, one that is almost undoubtedly false, states that Henry built an elaborate maze so that he could rendezvous with Rosamund. Eleanor reportedly discovered her and forced her to either drink poison or take a dagger to her chest. Rosamund, according to legend, poisoned herself. It is more likely that Rosamund simply died of one of the many illnesses that occurred at the time.
Since so little is known about her, we cannot build an accurate picture of Rosamund. Contemporaries would often exaggerate the beauty of noble and famous women, as beauty was seen as goodliness, so Rosamund may not be the angel that we’ve been taught. That being said, as she was a mistress, society may have been harder upon her so they may be honest in their view.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was also widely reviled at the time as ‘unwomanly’ due to her strong character and political nature. It’s no wonder that it’s rumored Eleanor poisoned her love rival. Rosamund would possibly be described as so beautiful because she was comparatively good and feminine in society’s eyes.
Alice Perrers (1348-1400)
Mistress to: Edward III
Husbands: Janyn Perrers (1360-1364), William de Windsor (1376-1384)
Children: John, Jane, Joan (believed to be with Edward)
Whilst Rosamund Clifford was the picture of beauty, kindness and grace, our next mistress had quite the opposite reputation.
Alice Perrers was widely reviled as a conniving gold-digger who preyed upon an old, grieving king. The wife of Edward III, Philippa of Hainault, was an extremely beloved queen for her graciousness, charity and acts of mercy. Alice had started an affair with Edward towards the end of Philippa’s life but it was not open until after the Queen died.
She’d been first married at the age of 12, shocking for us but very normal for the time. Alice was only 18 when she arrived at court, whilst Edward was 55. We know nothing about when the affair started but they were discreet until after Philippa died. Edward did genuinely love his wife and whilst affairs were tolerated, a king couldn’t afford to be too open about it.
It was this openness that really angered society. Alice was showered with gifts and money from the older king, becoming one of the richest women of the time. Most controversially, Edward presented Alice with jewellery that had belonged to his late wife. If that wasn’t bad enough, he overrode her will, as Philippa had stated that those jewels should have been given to a friend.
Another shocking breach of protocol and etiquette occured when there was an event at Smithfield. Edward presented Alice as ‘The Lady of the Sun,’ and had her sit with him. The senior lady at the event should have either been the wife of his eldest son or one of his daughters. A mistress should never have such an honour.
When enemy powers decided that Alice needed to be out, the King was unable to stop them. Alice was banned from both court and her lover, but this lasted only three months or so. In order to protect herself, Alice had eloped with William de Windsor several months before. She knew that once Edward died, she’d have no protection so she needed to wed. Both strenuously denied it. Edward believed her.
Ultimately, Alice turned out to be right. Edward’s death afforded her nothing, and there were even rumours she’d stolen the ring from his finger as he died. Courtiers got the new boy king, Richard II, to sentence her to exile. Fortunately, Windsor came out and admitted the marriage. This loophole allowed Alice to stay in the country, but Windsor got all of her properties and fortune. Considering women had no legal recourse against their husband, it’s probably what Alice should have expected.
Alice was widowed in 1384. With no children, Windsor made his nephew his beneficiary. Windsor had left Alice a trust, but the nephew did not bother to provide for her. Alice fought it legally but never saw it resolved. Her acknowledged children with the king had been brought up separately from the court. John had already died, whilst the women were married. We do not know anything about their relationship.
It’s believed that Alice died between 1400 and 1401. Historians view her better than her contemporaries, noting it was her business acumen that got her where she was, whilst also noting that Edward did spoil her somewhat.
The contemporary view of Alice probably stems from the deep popularity of Queen Philippa and the age discrepancy between the two lovers. This is somewhat strange, as there were many couples with large age gaps in this period. Perhaps it is because they believed Edward to be old and senile- 55 was a pretty good age back then. Whilst there is no doubt Alice was probably ambitious and cunning, she also probably isn’t the villain they’d like you to think.
Elizabeth ‘Jane’ Shore (c. 1445-c. 1527)
Mistress to: Edward IV
Husband: William Shore (?-1476), Thomas Lynom (1484-?)
Children: Julianne (with Lynom)
Born Elizabeth but known as Jane, Jane Shore was yet another mistress not treated kindly. From a wealthy family, Jane was afforded an education better than many girls of her era. Her intelligence and beauty made her a popular candidate for marriage. Eventually, Jane’s father had her married to a wealthy banker named William Shore. Whilst Shore seemed to care for his wife, Jane did not seem to reciprocate. She had the marriage annulled, ostensibly because of Shore’s apparent impotency:
‘She continued in her marriage to William Schore […] and cohabited with him for the lawful time, but that he is so frigid and impotent that she, desirous of being a mother and having offspring, requested over and over again the official of London to cite the said William before him to answer her concerning the foregoing and the nullity of the said marriage…’
It is believed Jane met Edward IV after he returned from France. Jane’s beauty and intelligence captivated Edward and she became the favourite out of his many lovers. Unlike the others, he did not discard her quickly and the relationship lasted. Other mistresses, however, had been given many gifts. Edward was married to Elizabeth Woodville but was known to have affairs.
Jane wielded a fairly large amount of power at the time, though did not initially receive the same level of hate. She was known to request the reprieve of allies who had been imprisoned. Jane was widely praised as a lively, intelligent and funny woman to be around. The power she wielded only increased after Edward’s death.
During the role of the Protector, the later Richard III, Jane was incriminated in a plot against the government. She’d been in romantic relationships with the men who cared for the boy king Edward V. Jane used those relationships to ensure alliances. Richard, the then-Duke of Gloucester accused her of conspiracy, sorcery and witchcraft.
Jane was imprisoned and required to do a public act of penance. Their had not been enough evidence to charge her with sorcery, so Jane was charged with prostitution. As penance, Jane was forced to walk the streets of London barefoot in a special garment and carrying a taper. The public sympathised with her quiet dignity throughout the ordeal.
Whilst she was imprisoned, Jane became close to Thomas Lynom, Solicitor General. Despite Richard’s misgivings, the romance blossomed and Lynom married Jane. Jane lived the rest of her life in relative comfort and prosperity. Sir Thomas More wrote that she remained somewhat beautiful in old age. Jane died at the impressive age of 82.
Unlike Alice Perrers, Jane’s political actions did not cause her to be disliked. Jane was perhaps more feminine and traditional when influencing the king, as it was expected wives and other powerful women ask for ‘soft’ favours. Her wit and humour also likely offset any issues; Alice Perrers was accused of being haughty and overly ambitious.
Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Blount (c.1498-c.1540)
Mistress to: Henry VIII
Time: Around 1519
Husbands: Gilbert Tailboys, 1st Baron Tailboys of Kyme (1522-1530), Edward Clinton, 1st Earl of Lincoln (1533/34-c.1540)
Children: Henry FitzRoy (with Henry), Elizabeth, George, Robert (with Tailboys), Bridget, Catherine and Margaret (with Clinton)
Bessie Blount may be one of the most impactful mistresses we’ve ever had and it’s not through politics.
Born to minor nobles, Bessie became an attendant to Catherine of Aragon. As with others, the only thing known of Bessie is that she was very beautiful. Henry VIII was known for being lustful and it’s unsurprising that he began an affair with Bessie. Bessie was smart enough to know she’d only ever be a mistress and not a wife and was seemingly content with her position. There is no evidence that Bessie was at all political.
Bessie’s greatest contribution was the birth of Henry’s illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, on the 15th June 1519. Henry was thrilled with having a healthy son and bestowed many gifts upon the boy. The affair soon ended- probably because of Mary Boleyn- so Henry set Bessie up to be married. Bessie had three children with her second husband and three with her third. She died at about 42 years old.
Interestingly, Henry kept this affair discreet. Until his affair with Anne Boleyn, Henry was ‘respectful’ of wife Catherine and kept his liaisons quiet.
Whilst this seems like a rather more uninteresting mistress, Bessie did do one important thing. Illegitimate children were common in history, especially ones sired by kings, so Henry FitzRoy is definitely not special. Still, he was a healthy son. Henry hadn’t had any of those up to that point and wouldn’t for a while. He began to believe that if he could sire healthy sons, then the problem clearly lay with Catherine of Aragon. So began the seeds of discontent.
Bessie was widely lauded at the time for managing to show that Henry VIII could sire healthy sons. She was also uncommonly beautiful, graceful and musically talented.
Mary Boleyn (c.1499-1543)
Mistress to: Henry VIII
Time: Around 1520
Husbands: William Carey (1520-1528), Sir William Stafford (1534-1543)
Children: Catherine, Henry (with Carey), Edward and Anne (with Stafford)
Known as ‘The Other Boleyn Girl,’ Mary was on the scene earlier than her sister was.
It’s most likely that Mary was the eldest daughter and before Anne became Henry’s paramour, she was also the most infamous. She started life in comfort before being sent to France with Mary, Henry VIII’s sister, who was to become Queen of France. Mary Boleyn remained in France after the Queen was widowed quickly into the marriage. Whilst historians believe her promiscuity was exaggerated, Mary was definitely sleeping with King Francis.
Mary had quite the reputation when she returned to England. Francis had called her ‘his English mare.’ Again, whilst her promiscuity was exaggerated, society would have thought ill of her anyway. Francis did call her the greatest whore after all.
She married a man named William Carey in 1520. It was around this time that Henry and Mary began their affair. Carey was showered with gifts and positions, as was Mary’s father Thomas. Some believe Henry fathered Mary’s children but the King never acknowledged them. When Henry did move onto Anne, he requested dispensation for their marriage as he’d previously slept with her sister.
Mary was provided with a generous pension upon the death of her husband, but a secret marriage to a poor nobleman and soldier caused scandal. She had not asked for royal permission and the man in question, Sir William Stafford, was her social inferior. The new couple were sent away from court and cut off. Anne did send Mary some help after she was in dire straits.
There is little information on Mary after she left court. We know nearly nothing about Mary’s reaction to her siblings’ fall from grace and subsequent execution. It is likely that Mary’s marriage saved her from any problems, as she had been sent away before the scandal occurred. Some historians state that Mary tried to beg for her family but was turned down.
Mary lived a life of obscurity from then on. Her marriage was very happy but she died relatively young. Still, this is a much better deal than Anne or their cousin Catherine Howard got. Mary’s time as a mistress clearly influenced Anne, who refused to go down the mistress route straight away and become just another lover. Anne instead went for power and got it.
Lucy Walter (c.1630-1658)
Mistress to: Charles II
Children: James (with Charles), Mary (with Theobald Taaffe, 1st Earl of Carlingford)
Did Lucy Walter marry Charles II secretly? Well, historians are divided.
She isn’t as remembered as Barbara Villiers or Nell Gwyn, but is still important enough here. Charles first met Lucy when he was the King on the Continent, having fled from England upon the Civil War. Lucy’s family had similarly fled. The two soon met and began an affair. Charles would not be married for another two decades and Lucy was similarly unwed. Lucy would bear Charles’ son James in 1649. Charles recognised James as his.
When Charles was away fighting, Lucy had an affair with a married man and had a baby. Upon Charles’ return, the affair was ended. Lucy then lived a life of debauchery on the continent, causing scandal and problems wherever she went. She was lured back to England with her children, but was arrested as a spy and placed in the Tower of London. There was a huge outcry and Lucy managed her way to outfox her captors. Lucy returned to the continent and continued to cause embarrassment.
Lucy was only around 27 to 28 when she died, probably as a result of her lifestyle.
Their son, James, was made 1st Duke of Monmouth. Enemies of Catholicism and Queen Catherine of Brazanga proclaimed that Charles had secretly married Lucy and that James was thus air to the throne. They worried that Catherine would provide Charles with a Catholic heir or that his unpopular brother James would become King.
Upon his father’s death, James arrived back in the country. He attempted to mount a rebellion and used his claim as the king’s first son in hopes of gaining the crown. James was captured and given an audience by his uncle, the new King James II. Unfortunately, King James was not merciful and had his nephew executed.
Lucy lived a short but eventful life. She was described as very cunning, as evidenced by her ability to get out of sticky situations. Lucy lived a very different life to one expected of a 17th century woman- she was sexual, cunning and hedonistic when women were thought to be chaste, demure and modest.
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By The Mallard — 8 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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By Isaac Riley — 8 months ago
The recent Dobbs v. Jackson decision by the Supreme Court of the United States has been hailed as a resounding victory by the pro-life movement as it overturns the supposed right to abortion and the famous ruling on Roe v. Wade made almost 50 years ago. Make no mistake about it, pro-life activists have been campaigning, praying, and working diligently for decades for this moment and this historic political event signals the effectiveness of their labour. While of course this decision does not immediately make abortion illegal on the federal level (despite the contrary claims of ill-informed leftists), it does pave the way for individual states to pass their own legislation on the criminality or otherwise of abortion as their own democratically elected representatives see fit. Thus, regardless of this sure seismic victory for the pro-life movement, many see this as simply the next step in a continuing journey of eradicating abortion from the shores of the Unites States.
This decision is clearly no accident but the consequence of deliberate and painstaking political work over many years, but rather crucially it shows the enduring and significant impact of Donald Trump’s presidency. During his time in office, he appointed three Supreme Court Justices specifically promising his supporters that they would be ‘pro-life judges’ (see here) and it has been these very people who have tipped the balance in the Court to a conservative majority and paved the way for this moment.
Needless to say, the left are furious. Violence has already been committed, protests conducted on mass, and government buildings stormed all in defiance of a decision which totally accords with the political processes of the United States and their foundational political document, the Constitution. As we look on from the United Kingdom however, one can’t help but remember the great distinctions in our political systems which requires the British pro-life movement to work hard for our own change and not simply rely on the progress of our American friends.
The defence of life and the opposition to the barbaric practise of abortion is a core conservative tenet – despite notions to the contrary when one considers the majority view of the ‘Conservative’ Party’s elected representatives – and if the recent US Supreme Court decision can teach British conservatives anything, it is that abortion is not an inevitability in western, developed nations. Conservatives really should care when our society, not only permits, but encourages and celebrates the killing of children – this should be a central issue for us for several reasons.
We have science, reason, and common sense on our side. The left seemed to love “The Science™” when it apparently warranted mass lockdowns and compelled vaccinations but on the issue of abortion they ignore that fact (or worse don’t care) that a foetus in the womb is a human being. It has distinct DNA from the mother, a distinct body from the mother, a beating heart, ability to feel pain, forming features, and with ultrasound technology we are able to see their movements and being before our own eyes. The lazy argument of “my body my choice” has no credit when one realises that a pregnant woman does not have two hearts or two heads, she has a separate human being, a sperate body in her womb. The baby is a distinct life and ought to be treated accordingly. If conservatives are to be the anchor points of common sense in a society drifting into the delusion of leftism (what is a woman?), then we have to be willing to stand with the scientific truth that a baby is a baby and therefore one should not be allowed to kill it.
To be a champion of individual rights must start with life. If conservatives care about building a society of freedom, where people are endowed with value because of they are made in the image of God and thus worthy of respect and dignity, we have to defend the crucial and basic rights of all people. This only works, and only makes sense when the right to life is defended. Without life one cannot exercise any other rights and it makes a mockery of the conservative vision of individual liberty and autonomy when we accept the killing of certain innocent people as a normal aspect of modern life.
Abortion decimates conservative societal values of morality, responsibility, duty, and respect. Engrained in the conservative tradition is not simply the idea that a person can do whatever he wants, but that there are responsibilities we all carry to one another, our family, our nation, and our God. Abortion is, by definition, the unjust killing of an innocent person which clearly begs the moral question, but it also denies the role of responsible self-government in each person’s life. Actions have consequences, when one engages in sexual activity one is consenting to taking on the responsibility of the potential natural outcome of that action. Conservatism is about living powerfully, it is about self-governing, choosing virtue over vice, accepting one’s duty to others even in difficulty, and living morally even when surrounded by immorality. When these principles are abandoned, society disintegrates and we lose any moral and ethical cohesion which will only hurt our country.
Abortion is an inherent attack on the family and perversion of the role of mother and father. Apart for killing an innocent child, it turns mothers against their natural purpose as caregivers and nurturers and it turns men away from their responsibilities, giving them a way to embrace sexual liberty and use women for physical pleasure without facing the consequences. It is a cheapening of people, and a cheapening of the union which comes through sex. Families are the basic building block of society, that should at least be the conservative ambition. We want to empower families to be the primary educators, ethical instructors, societal leaders and role-models, not government bureaucrats. Abortion killed 214,256 people in 2021 in England and Wales (see here), this is not an insignificant number. Abortions devastate families and perverts the role of parenthood. The sacrifice of children on the altar of convenience, self-serving ambition, or even fear is blatant evidence of our waywardness as a society and lack of moral fibre.
What’s notable here is that this reasoning is value-based. This is because abortion is not about economic growth or manufacturing or government spending, it is about morality and ethics, it is about the kind of people we want to be and this sort of things we value. British conservatism can learn something from the Americans. In the US some conservatives will vote on this one issue. They will give their vote to whomever opposes the killing of children irrespective of their stance of tax reform or import tariffs. This is so because there is a realisation that society is more than economic freedom, it is more than just the free market, it requires a strong moral framework for its success and prosperity.
In Britain we cannot have our conservative dream society of low taxes, free markets, and personal liberty if we are unwilling to champion a society which values life too. The very principles of individual freedom and empowerment are undermined when we permit the slaughter of innocent children. We have to mould the culture. We have to influence the cultural norms, call out evil where it exists and promote the alternative good. Conservatism, rooted in tradition, the fear of God, duty, responsibility and courage, best shines in the way people live, in what we permit, promote, and celebrate.
Clearly there is a long road ahead. The appetite for reform in the way I am advocating for is not large at all in the British electorate. It is not a particularly winning issue which is why “conservatives in name only” will never push for this change. Evil has always stood before great men who have risen up to fight for what is right. William Wilberforce faced years of political influencing before seeing the war on slavery won in this country. Today we have another moral evil to purge our country of. For too long we have hidden away from it, out of mind out of sight, but it exists. Babies are being killed. Families are being torn apart. Morality is slipping away and our nation needs defiant, courageous men to speak up for the defenceless, to advocate for the right to life of every person, and to see the culture developed into something worth celebrating and admiring.
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