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1862: Dostoevsky on the new world order

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Russian writers on war

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Selections on war

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Fyodor Dostoevsky
From Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1862)
Translated by Kyril Fitzlyon

The immense town [London], forever bustling by night and by day, as vast as an ocean, the screech and howl of machinery, the railways built above the houses (and soon to be built under them), the daring of enterprise, the apparent disorder which in actual fact is the highest form of bourgeois order, the polluted Thames, the coal-saturated air, the magnificent squares and parks, the town’s terrifying districts such as Whitechapel with its half-naked, savage and hungry population, the City with its millions and its world-wide trade, the Crystal Palace, the World Exhibition…

The Exhibition is indeed amazing. You feel the terrible force which has brought these innumerable people, who have come from the ends of the earth, altogether into one fold; you realize the grandeur of the idea; you feel that something has been achieved here, that here is victory and triumph. And you feel nervous. However great your independence of mind, a feeling of fear somehow creeps over you. Can this, you think, in fact be the final accomplishment of an ideal state of things? Is this the end, by any chance? Perhaps this really is the ‘one fold’? Perhaps we shall really have to accept this as the whole truth and cease from all movement thereafter?

It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you are left breathless. You look at those hundreds of thousands, at those millions of people obediently trooping into this place from all parts of the earth – people who have come with only one thought in mind, quietly, stubbornly and silently milling round in this colossal palace, and you feel that something final has been accomplished here – accomplished and completed. It is a Biblical sight, something to do with Babylon, some prophecy out of the Apocalypse being fulfilled before your very eyes.

You feel that a rich and ancient tradition of denial and protest is needed in order not to yield, not to succumb to impression, not to bow down in worship of fact, and not to idolize Baal, that is, not to take the actual for the ideal…

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The Crystal Palace

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[If] you had seen how proud the mighty spirit is which created that colossal decor and how convinced it is of its victory and its triumph, you would have shuddered at its pride, its obstinacy, its blindness, and you would have shuddered, too, at the thought of those over whom that proud spirit hovers and reigns supreme. In the presence of such immensity, in the presence of the unbounded pride of the dominating spirit, and of the triumphant finality of the world created by that spirit, the hungry soul often quails, yields and submits, seeks its salvation in gin and debauchery and succumbs to a belief in the rightness of the existing order…

In London you no longer see the populace. Instead you see a loss of sensibility, systematic, resigned and discouraged. And you feel, as you look at all those social pariahs, that it will be a long time before the prophecy is fulfilled for them, a long time before they are given palm branches and white robes, and for a long time yet they will continue to appeal to the Throne of the Almighty, crying: ‘How long, oh Lord?’

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From Meditations About Europe (1876)
Translated by Boris Brasol

Everybody predicts lasting peace; everywhere, clear horizons, alliances and new energies are being discerned. Even in the fact that in Paris a republic has been established, people perceive peace; moreover, even in the fact that that republic has been established by Bismarck – even in this, people perceive peace. In the accord of the great Oriental powers people unhesitatingly see great pledges for peace, while some of our newspapers begin to observe even in the present Herzegovina disturbance unmistakable symptoms of the stability of European peace, instead of the former apprehension.

Peace “to the very finish” is altogether impossible there [France]. Acclaiming the republic, everybody in Europe has been asserting that it is needed by both France and Europe by the fact alone that only its existence will render the “revanche” war with Germany impossible, and that the republic alone – among all the governments that have been only recently claiming power in France – will neither risk nor desire it. And yet all this is a mirage: the republic has been proclaimed precisely for the purpose of war, if not with Germany, then with a still more dangerous adversary, communism.

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  1. doug winspear
    October 21, 2011 at 5:04 am

    Well, Dostoevsky’s prophecy has been fulfilled. Now, it’s had a makeover-the original has been replicated everywhere, in the crystal palaces of consumption. A friend just returned from visiting Russia, and seemed to feel that they are doing a good job of serving both God and Mammon. Another acquaintance went back to India and noticed that the slum dwellers of Calcutta had flat screen TV’s in their hovels. Marxists will have to re-assess the opiates of the masses. The crystal palace beamed into the Calcutta shanty towns. The world of Maya, which means “measurement” in Sanskrit. The Anglo-American Empire, based on calculation. British utilitarianism metastasizes into nullitarianism.Meanwhile, the Empire crumbles from within. We’re all collateral damage now.

    • richardrozoff
      October 22, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions is a work almost entirely – and tragically – neglected.
      It’s not anywhere on the Internet; not, for example, posted by the Gutenberg Project, Google Books, etc.
      I only typed part of the section on his trip to London; it’s worth reading in its entirety.
      Indeed smart phones, Ipods and satellite dishes have supplanted the gin and laudanum that appalled Dostoevsky almost 150 years ago as the stupefying somas of the people.
      Compare his account of London during the World Exhibition and its Crystal Palace with Frederick Engel’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (mothers drugging their infant children with opium before heading off to 16-hour shifts in the textile mills), the relevant sections of Marx’s volume two of Capital, and the later – and also unjustly ignored – People of the Abyss by Jack London.

    • richardrozoff
      December 22, 2011 at 4:17 pm

      Very astute observations. Astonishingly so, in fact.
      This is from 1838, from Vladimir Odoevsky, a writer and philosopher who had a major influence on the later Dostoevsky.
      The following except is from a political parable on (exactly) utilitarianism devolving into what you aptly term nullitarianism:

      https://rickrozoff.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/vladimir-odoevsky-city-without-a-name-system-with-one/

      “Many years passed in these internecine and external wars, which would now stop for a while, now flare up again with added bitterness. Common and individual sorrows led to a common feeling of general despondence. Exhausted by the long struggle people gave themselves up to idleness. No one wanted to do anything for the future. All feelings, all thoughts, all man’s incentive were limited to the present moment…The divine, inspiring language of poetry was inaccessible to a Benthamite. Great phenomena of nature did not plunge him into lighthearted thought which diverts man from earthly sorrow. Mothers knew no songs they could sing at their babies’ cradles. The natural, poetical element was long since killed by selfish calculations of profit. The death of this element contaminated all other elements of human nature; all abstract, general thoughts which unite people seemed to be madness; books, knowledge, laws of morality – useless luxury. Only one word – benefit – had remained from former glorious times, but it, too, acquired an indefinite meaning; everyone interpreted it in his own way.”

  1. October 6, 2013 at 4:10 pm

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