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When I was in college in the late 1960s, I took a course called Russian Intellectual History. I had always liked Russian literature, I’d been told the professor was good, and the course seemed an easy way to fulfill a history requirement.
It was all that, and more. I was very fortunate to take it during that particular era because I could not help but notice—in fact, it was glaringly obvious—that, despite the distant time and place and many different details and although we young people thought ourselves to be inventing a new and better world, there were enormous parallels between our times and the path that ultimately led to the Soviet Union.
That course kept me from idealizing my own generation or their ideas, and it served as a warning about intellectual and political hubris. Recent events have only solidified those notions and added layers of present-day observation about current generations and the danger their ideas present. It’s a variation on a theme.
One of the books we read for that course was Dostoevsky’s Demons, in a translation that at the time was called The Possessed:
The original Russian title is Bésy, which means “demons”. There are three English translations: The Possessed, The Devils, and Demons. Constance Garnett’s 1916 translation popularized the novel and gained it notoriety as The Possessed, but this title has been disputed by later translators.
They argue that “The Possessed” points in the wrong direction because Bésy refers to active subjects rather than passive objects — “possessors” rather than “the possessed”. However, ‘Demons’ refers not to individuals who act in various immoral or criminal ways, but rather to the ideas that possess them: non-material but living forces that subordinate the individual (and collective) consciousness, distorting it and impelling it toward catastrophe.
What made me think of the book again is probably obvious: the reaction of many on the left to the news that the Trumps have tested positive for COVID. But that’s just one example of a phenomenon we’ve seen a great deal of in recent years, and some of the worst things about it is the element of transformation of the formerly mild-mannered and kindly into founts of seething malevolence.
It’s deeply unsettling to see the rage come over a person, as I recently did when looking into the eyes of a previously genial acquaintance who was shrieking with rage at me, her eyes narrowed with what looked like hatred.
People don’t like what threatens them, especially if they have no immediate factual answer to some of the evidence presented to them. What’s left to them is to explode—which this person did, ultimately getting into her car and peeling off with tires screeching. I would guess, although I don’t know, and I’m certainly not about to ask, that she and plenty of other people I know might be rejoicing, openly or secretly, in Trump’s diagnosis.
Are they “possessed?” Is this “demonic?” I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I tend to think in psychological terms because these people are, for the most part, not inherently evil. They are filled with self-righteousness, and they have been whipped up into a fever pitch by an MSM and Democratic Party bent on doing so for political reasons. This is no accident.
It is somewhat similar to a phenomenon described in another great literary work, Nineteen-Eighty Four, the “Two Minutes Hate“:
In the cinematic version of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), brainwashing of the participants in the Two Minutes Hate includes auditory and visual cues, such as “a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil” that burst from the telescreen. meant to psychologically excite the crowd into an emotional frenzy of hatred, fear, and loathing for Emmanuel Goldstein, and for Oceania’s enemy of the moment, either Eastasia or Eurasia.
The hate session includes the participants throwing things at the telescreen showing the film, as does the Julia character. In the course of the Two Minutes Hate, the film image of Goldstein metamorphoses into the face of a bleating sheep, as enemy soldiers advance towards the viewers of the film, before one enemy soldier charges towards the viewers, whilst firing his sub-machinegun; the face of that soldier then becomes the face of Big Brother. At the end of the two-minute session of hatred, the members of the Party ritualistically chant “B-B . . . B-B . . . B-B . . . B-B.” To maintain the extreme emotions provoked in the Two Minutes Hate sessions, the Party created Hate Week, a week-long festival of hatreds.
We’ve experienced a festival of hatreds that’s already lasted much longer than that.
[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]DONATE
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