Blick ins Chaos

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“Nichts ist aussen, nichts ist innen, denn was aussen ist, ist innen.”

The Brothers Karamazov – The Downfall of Europe (1920) by Hermann Hesse, translated by Stephen Hudson.

It appears to me that what I call the Downfall of Europe is foretold and explained with extreme clearness in Dostoevsky’s works and in the most concentrated form in The Brothers Karamazov. It seems to me that European and especially German youth are destined to find their greatest writer in Dostoevsky–not in Goethe, not even in Nietzsche. In the most modern poetry, there is everywhere an approach to Dostoevsky, even though it is sometimes callow and imitative. The ideal of the Karamazov, primeval, Asiatic, and occult, is already beginning to consume the European soul. That is what I mean by the downfall of Europe. This downfall is a return home to the mother, a turning back to Asia, to the source, to the “FaĆ¼stischen Muttern” and will necessarily lead, like every death on earth, to a new birth.

We contemporaries see a “downfall” in these events in the same way as the aged who, compelled to leave the home they love, mourn a loss to them irreparable while the young think only of the future, care only for what is new.

What is that Asiatic Ideal that I find in Dostoevsky, the effect of which will be, as I see it, to overwhelm Europe?

Briefly, it is the rejection of every strongly-held Ethic and Moral in favour of a comprehensive laissez-faire. This is the new and dangerous faith, that Elder Zossima announced, the, faith lived by Alyosha and Dmitri, a faith which was brought into clearer expression by Ivan Karamazov. In the case of Elder Zossima, the ideal Right still reigns supreme. Good and Evil always exist for him; but he bestows his love on evil-doers from choice. Alyosha already makes something far more vital of this new creed, taking his way through filth and slime with an almost amoral impartiality. He reminds us of Zarathustra’s vow: “In that day I vowed that I would renounce every aversion.”

But Alyosha’s brothers carry this further, they take this road with greater decision; they seem often to do so defiantly. In the voluminous book it sometimes appears as though the relationship of the Brothers Karamazov unfolded itself too slowly so that what at one time seems stable, at another becomes solvent. The saintly Alyosha becomes ever more worldly, the worldly brothers more saintly; and similarly the most unprincipled and unbridled of them becomes the saintliest, the most sensitive, the most spiritual prophet of a new holiness, of a new morality, of a new mankind. That is very curious. The more the tale unfolds itself, the wickeder and the more drunken, the more licentious and brutal the Karamazovs, the more brightly the new Ideal glows through the corpus of these raw appearances, people, and acts; and the more spiritual, the saintlier they inwardly become. Compared with the drunken, murdering, violent Dmitri and the cynical intellectual Ivan–the decent, highly respectable magistrate and the other representatives of the bourgeois, triumph though they may outwardly, are shabby, hollow, worthless.

It seems, then, that the “New Ideal” by which the roots of the European spirit is being sapped, is an entirely amoral concept, a faculty to feel the Godlike, the significant, the fatalistic, in the wickedest and in the ugliest, and even to accord them veneration and worship. No less than that. The ironical exaggeration with which the Magistrate in his speech seeks to hold these Karamazovs up to the scorn of the citizens, is not in reality an exaggeration. It is indeed a tame indictment. For in this speech the “Russian man” is exhibited from the conservative-bourgeois point of view. He had been till then a cock-shy. Dangerous, emotional, irresponsible, yet conscience-haunted; soft, dreamy, cruel, yet fundamentally childish. As such one still likes to regard the “Russian man” to-day, although, I believe, he has for a long time been on the road to becoming the European man. And this is the Downfall of Europe.

In this connexion the figure of Ivan is astonishing. We learn to know him as a modern, accommodating, cultivated individual, somewhat cool, somewhat disappointed, somewhat sceptical, somewhat tired. But he gets younger, more ardent, more significant, more Karamazov-like. It is he who wrote the poem of the Great Inquisitor. It is he who, after coolly ignoring the murderer whom he believes his brother to be, is driven in the end to the deep sense of his own culpability and even to his self-denouncement. And it is he too who the most clearly and the most significantly experiences the spiritual explanation of the unconscious. (On that indeed everything turns. That is the whole meaning of the Downfall, the whole new birth arises from it.) In the last part of the book is a very singular chapter in which Ivan, coming home from his interview with Smerdyakov, sees the devil seated there and converses with him for an hour. This devil is no other than Ivan’s unconscious, no other than the shaken-up content, long submerged and apparently forgotten, of his own soul. And he knows it too. Ivan knows it with astonishing certainty and distinctly says so. Nevertheless he speaks with the devil, nevertheless he believes in him–for what is inward, is outward. Nevertheless he is angered against him, surges against him, even throws a glass at him whom he knows to come from within himself. Surely no poem has ever set forth with more lucid clearness the communion of a human being with his own unconscious self. And this communion, this (despite anger) intimate understanding with the devil, this is just the road that the Karamazovs have been elected to show us. Indeed Dostoevsky shows the unconscious to be the devil. And rightly. For that which is within us is distorted by our tamed, cultivated, moral vision into something hateful and Satanic. But some sort of combination of Ivan and Alyosha would indeed provide that higher, more fruitful foundation upon which a new world must be built. Then the unconscious will no longer be the devil, but the God-Devil, Demiurgus, He who was always, who comes from the All. To find a new Good and a new Evil is not art eternal matter, is not the concern of Demiurgus. That is the business of mankind and its humbler and smaller Gods.

I said Dostoevsky is not a poet, or he is only a poet in a secondary sense. I called him a prophet. It is difficult to say exactly what a prophet means. It seems to me something like this. A prophet is a sick man, like Dostoevsky, who was an epileptic. A prophet is the sort of sick man who has lost the sound sense of taking care of himself, the sense which is the saving of the efficient citizen. It would not do if there were many such, for the world would go to pieces. This sort of sick man, be he called Dostoevsky or Karamazov, has that strange, occult, godlike faculty, the possibility of which the Asiatic venerates in every maniac. He is a seer and an oracle. A people, a period, a country, a continent has fashioned out of its corpus an organ, a sensory instrument of infinite sensitiveness, a very rare and delicate organ. Other men, thanks to their happiness and health, can never be troubled with this endowment. This sensory instrument, this mantological faculty is not crudely comprehensible like some sort of telepathy or magic, although the gift can also show itself even in such confusing forms. Rather is it that the sick man of this sort interprets the movements of his own soul in terms of the universal and of mankind. Every man has visions, every man has fantasies, every man has dreams. And every vision every dream, every idea and thought of a man, on the road from the unconscious to the conscious, can have a thousand different meanings, of which every one can be right. But the appearances and visions of the seer and the prophet are not his own. The nightmare of visions which oppresses him does not warn him of a personal illness, of a personal death, but of the illness, the death of that corpus whose sensory organ he is, This corpus can be a family, a clan, a people, or it can be all mankind. In the soul of Dostoevsky a certain sickness and sensitiveness to suffering in the bosom of mankind which is otherwise called hysteria, found at once its means of expression and its barometer. Mankind is now on the point of realizing this. Already half Europe, at all events half Eastern Europe, is on the road to Chaos. In a state of drunken illusion she is reeling into the abyss and, as she reels, she sings a drunken hymn such as Dmitri Karamazov sang. The insulted citizen laughs that song to scorn, the saint and seer hear it with tears.