Monday, 19 August, 2019

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Doomers, Demons, And Dostoevsky | The American Conservative



A reader in Europe writes:

Recently I have seen you posting a lot about the plight of broken and desperate people who might turn to violence, as seen by the recent shooting in America (my most sincere condolences for your country’s plight). In general many of your essays deal with this – loss of meaning, community, family, goals, God, tradition, a sense of place. This is particularly tragic and common among young people, among whom crises of identity and all sorts of psychological plights are becoming more and more prevalent.

In my surfing throughout the internet I may have bumped into a little phenomenon that might interest you. Some months ago I first encountered an internet meme, that came out of 4chan. This meme is known as the Doomer. The Doomer is a 20something year old, almost always male, who is depicted as being completely disillusioned with society, family and himself. Made of a simple drawing of a young man and surrounding text, the Doomer memes deals with suicide, depression, alcoholism, drugs, inability to find romantic companionship, disgust with the culture, politics and social norms, a cry for help.

A good intro and image gallery is here https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/doomer

Some of these memes may have included right wing and far right themes, particularly in their distaste for contemporary culture or the fear of doom for Western civilization, demographic displacement of European ethnicities etc. (Of course some left wing sites tried to make the doomer meme as a white nationalist symbol that encourages violence by making vulnerable people despair)

Initially I disregarded it as an interesting yet inconsequential internet meme, but since its conception on Autumn 2018, it has gained traction and popularity. A simple google search will find hundreds of them. YouTube channels started making videos about what a doomer is and how to help doomers. There are dozens of doomer playlists for “nightwalks” (the only outlet of relaxation for the doomer).

This 10 minute video “What is the doomer? Dealing with an age of hopelessness” has 1.4 million views:

I firmly believe this meme (although quite old, maybe “dead” by now) is on to something. Many young people “live lives of quiet desperation”, alienation, afflicted by all kinds of addictions. They see no future ahead, in work or family formation. Of course, one might say that these things always existed. But I cannot help but see a pattern, especially due to the other component of the doomer meme: cultural disillusionment and existential hopelessness. We are not talking only about so called “losers”, angry teens or depressed people here. Possibly we are seeing a whole generation, a good part of it, completely lost and vulnerable. Go at the doomer music playlists and read the comments – it is heartbreaking, but also immensely thought provoking.

There are some even more heartbreaking animations, too https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMFV705oG_c

Vulnerable maybe to those who wish to create chaos. I am firmly against those who say that this meme is totally (or even mainly) part of some far right metapolitics. I find it very valuable – and it is weird because I identify little or at least moderately to it. I have talked to some people about it and they say that it completely describes their lives. I know several doomers or almost-doomers around me. Some are as described by the meme. Others have their lives in check, but they are crushed by the absurdity of politics, culture, relationships, almost everything (I am from a European crisis-stricken country, so I guess this makes things worse in all areas).

Maybe it is as said in Fight Club: “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

What do you think? Can this image be something beyond edgy internet sh*tposting? Is it maybe a sign of the times?

I strongly urge you to watch the ten-minute YouTube clip explaining Doomers. It’s important. Of course I strongly disagree with the video’s recommendation of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer as remedies for the crisis. But I strongly agree that the crisis these Doomers are experiencing is a reasonable response to the world into which they have been born — “reasonable” in the sense that faced with these fact, it is understandable that they reach such a despairing conclusion.

If you’re read the novels of Michel Houellebecq — especially his breakthrough novel, The Elementary Particles — you will understand this. It is a very serious thing, and not to be dismissed. The more I’ve dived into the social science research since the weekend, the more I’m convinced that the problem is deeper than “white supremacy” or other malignant ideologies. The problem is that profoundly alienated young people are desperate for something to believe in.

I was never a Doomer — I don’t suppose we had them when I was in my late teens and twenties — but the sensibility the video describes is not alien to me. What pulled me out of my own Doomer-ish spiral in college was this little paperback I ran across in the student bookstore one day, explaining the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard. I’m sorry that it’s out of print, but if you can get your hands on a copy, by all means do. It has a lot to do with my becoming a Christian.

Why? The author, John Douglas Mullen, showed me how Kierkegaard knew me better than I knew myself. I was living in what Kierkegaard called the “aesthetic mode.” That is, I was looking to escape the boredom and meaninglessness of existence by keeping myself distracted through pleasure and adventure. A lot of people live that way, and go through their entire lives never really knowing themselves, because they are too afraid to be still and to think. They’re running away from themselves. That was me. The problem is, once you get bored with whatever you’re using to distract yourself, the problem of meaninglessness is still there. You’ve not dealt with it.

Again, that was me at 19. I thought the only alternative was to become a Respectable Citizen — that is, to go to church, to follow the rules, to do what my culture told me I was supposed to do. That seemed empty to me. Here’s the thing: Kierkegaard said it was! This is what he called living in the “ethical mode.” For SK, living in the ethical was higher than living in the aesthetic, because at least the ethical person is living by a code that’s higher than merely satisfying his own desires. But it’s still less than authentic. It is still, says Mullen, “a system that becomes a gigantic abstract justification for bourgeois taste.” If people live fully in the ethical mode, they should not be surprised to find themselves waking up one day to wonder, “Is that all there is?”

Kierkegaard told me that I was right to see a trap in the ethical mode. Most American Christianity is some combination of the aesthetic (emotions) and ethics (middle-class moralism and respectability). SK also told me that the only way out was the religious mode, which combines the aesthetic and the ethical, and transcends them. The reason neither the aesthetic nor the ethical modes satisfy us is because we are creatures who are made for eternity.

I wish I could send you the final chapter of Mullen’s terrific book! He writes so powerfully, and precisely. Basically he says that according to SK, there is no way to be happy without also existing in an absolute relationship with God. This is because of who we are. St. Augustine famously wrote that our hearts are restless until the rest in God; Soren Kierkegaard, writing 15 centuries later, said the same thing. SK says that it does no good to try to make God part of our lives. Pursuing and following Him must be the “absolute telos” of our lives. To make anything other than God one’s telos is to be in “despair” (SK’s term). If you’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy, you know that this is what he learns too, in his pilgrimage. Augustine knew it, Dante knew it, and Kierkegaard knew it.

Mullen writes, quoting SK:

And so, “If the idea of an eternal happiness does not transform his existence absolutely, he does not stand related to it.” This means that to become a religious person cannot be like becoming a Rotarian; it must rather be to transform one’s entire life. So we don’t speak of a religious “believer” as we would ask concerning UFOs whether someone is a “believer.” We speak rather of a religious exister. “Do you exist religiously” is the question. This means in the abstract realm of formulae, “Is your eternal blessedness the absolute telos of your life” where the idea of eternal blessedness admits of no concrete description in language.

All that can be said at this point is: 1) it is unlike any of the relative goals and 2) it will be recognizable when it is accepted and 3) it demands a complete life change, since the problem “does not consist in testifying about an eternal happiness, but in transforming one’s existence into a testimony concerning it.”

The first thing you have to do if you want this, says SK, is to practice “resignation.” That means: stop running, stop resisting. Writes Mullen, of the sincere seeker:

He must admit his own complete dependence upon, and nothingness in the face of, the Eternal. He must learn to see himself as a “creature.” To be a creature is to have been created by another and to be sustained and in debt to that other.

He can’t expect a proof of God’s existence. In fact, to ask for a proof is to demonstrate that you aren’t ready to exist as a follower of God. Would you ask for a proof of your lover’s love before agreeing to fall in love? That’s what loving God is like. It requires a leap of faith. Nor can you do a cost-benefit analysis. Either God is everything to you, or He is nothing. There is no middle ground. All middle ground is self-deception and cowardice.

This set me free. I didn’t become a Christian at once, but this did help me to understand much better what was at stake, what the traps were, and my own responsibility to seek with unremitting honesty. This was hard. But it was the only thing there was.

There is far more to Kierkegaard’s model of what it means to be a true Christian, but you get why this spoke to me as a semi-Doomer. Houellebecq writes in his novel Submission about the search for an answer to life’s meaninglessness by François, an academic at the Sorbonne who is trying to escape meaninglessness by drink and women, and professional achievement. It’s not working. He eventually submits to Islam, but not as a true believer. He does it because within the novel’s narrative, it gives him the means to live more aesthetically. He has the chance to convert to Christianity, but lacks the courage.

(To be clear, his conversion to Islam is not an honest conversion, the conversion of someone who genuinely believes the faith. It is a conversion of convenience, by a man who wants to be able to fit into the new Islamic political order.)

For me, reading this book about Kierkegaard, and encountering Kierkegaard’s thought, cleared up a lot. I honestly thought the only options available to me were the aesthetic mode and the ethical mode. I thought religion was the ethical mode people at prayer. (I would learn later, as part of the search, that a lot of popular Christianity is also aesthetic mode people at prayer.)

I bring all this up in light of the European reader’s letter to say that I too flirted with proto-Doomerism as a young man. I can remember sitting in my dorm room in a darkening winter’s afternoon in early 1986, listening to the Velvet Underground, and thinking about how I could get away from the pain of the girl I loved who didn’t love me back, and the general sense of futility and meaninglessness that had overcome me. That afternoon, I listened to this song over and over, as a kind of prayer that I wanted to make my own.

I drank a lot back then, for escape, or at least the illusion of it. And then Kierkegaard entered my life, and acted as a mighty wind on the spark that had been lit within me two years earlier, when I stumbled into the Chartres cathedral. I hadn’t thought about what that 1986 sadness and lostness felt like in many years, until reading this e-mail.

The letter also brought to mind these passages from Roger Scruton’s novel Notes From Underground, set in Czechoslovakia under communism. Here are passages in which Honza, the protagonist, is talking with a Catholic priest named Father Pavel, who wouldn’t collaborate with the government, and was kicked out of ministry:

“But if there is no God?”

“God has withdrawn from the world: that we know, and we Czechs perhaps know it more vividly than others. Our world contains an absence, and we must love that absence, for that is the way to love God.”

“But how can you love an absence?”

He gave me a look of indescribable sweetness, as though I had touched on what was dearest in his life.

“I was called to this love, and at first I did not find it. During my early years as a priest, I felt powerless to help. People came to me as a refuge from the system, laying their problems at my door, asking for the proofs of another and a better world than this one. And I had no proofs. As a refuge from the system I was also part of the system, an improved version of the slavery they knew. I thought all the time of my failure to be what they wanted, which was an alternative. and fi you spend your days obsessed with your powerlessness, then every good and beautiful thing is like an insult. It was only when I was thrown out of the official church that I understood what was being asked of me. I was abandoned among the abandoned, and I had to love them for what they lacked. Quite suddenly, my life as a priest was full of joy. My flock still came to me, for they had witnessed the cloven hoof under my successor’s cassock. But they did not come for refuge. They came for prayer, for stillness, for the life of the imagination to which the Gospel so beautifully speaks. I would kneel beside them and we would become nothing together, because in our nothingness we could encounter the love of God. Perhaps that sounds strange to you?”

More:

The purpose of these paradoxes was not to tie me in intellectual knots, but to persuade me to see the world in another way, or rather to see through to its other side, on which the light of eternity was shining. I had to practice what he called “a gymnastics of attention,” always detaching things from their circumstances so as to overcome their randomness. The tree, the bowl, the desk; the car, the book, the window — all ask, he said, to be rescued, to be pried free from the flow of mere events and raised to the dignity of being. He confided in me that this was his spiritual exercise, and that by means of it he had driven from his soul all resentment at what they had done — not to him only, but to our country to those woods and fields that smile in the music of Dvorak, to those garlands of wildflowers woven into words by Erben, to the old legends of what we are, which are not legends at all but ideals to live up to. “Purity,” he once said, “is the power to contemplate defilement. Our world must be redeemed from its circumstances piece by piece, place by place, time by time. It is up to us to lift things from the muck, and to polish off the taint of their misuse.”

More:

To make a home, Father Pavel said, we must settle among eternal things, and therefore we must bring the eternal to earth. Those moldings which swell around the pilasters as though drawing them together in a dance are not made of stucco of stone but of light, and in the shade of their chiseled parallels angels are always resting, even on a day like this when the light is pale and the shadows weary. In such facades we find the meaning of our twofold city: every building wears a face, and looks down on us from the elsewhere of salvation.

And finally:

The important thing, Father Pavel had said, is not our belief, but His grace. We refuse His gifts out of meanness, for we fear the cost of them. And yes, the cost is everything.

Yes, this. Kierkegaard showed young, proto-Doomer me the cost of my own salvation: everything. It was an exchange that frightened me so much that I avoided it for years, until I was too desperate to refuse grace any longer.

Becoming a religious believer — a religious exister — does not solve all your problems. It does change your ability to deal with them, though. It does not end suffering, but it sustains you through the suffering that all of us must endure as the human condition. Look, I totally get why people think that Christianity is bunk. Honestly, I do. When I was 19, I thought Christianity was either being a nice, respectable, middle class person who never gets passionate about anything, or being a hippie-dippie liberal God-botherer, or a wackadoodle Jimmy Swaggart fundagelical who revered Ronald Reagan as a 19th century Russian peasant would revere the Tsar.

It was easy to find evidence to support those prejudices. But that’s what they were: prejudices. Christianity was a much older, much deeper, much weirder thing than I imagined. A book I always suggest for people is historian Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit Of Early Christian Thought. It’s about the early church and the patristic era. Wilken is a gorgeous writer. I came upon this book a few years back, as someone who is an Orthodox Christian, and who therefore worships in a tradition that keeps the patristic era front and center. And still, my God, the treasures in this book! The beauty and the depth of early Christianity is overwhelming. Whether you are a believer, or just curious, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’m digressing (what else is new…?), but I tell you, I wish that book had existed when I was searching. It is a doorway to a new world — which is to say, a very old world that was always there, and is there today. But you have to look. And you have to practice what Scruton’s Father Pavel calls a “gymnastics of attention.” The religious life is not just a matter of getting the right arguments straight in your head. It is about recovering reality.

Anyway, I want to also commend to you this great piece by Jon Askonas, writing on the blog Mere Orthodoxy. It’s about Dostoevsky, possession, and the shooters. It’s so good I really should put it in a separate post, but in truth, it has everything to do with the crisis that the European reader cites. I’ll end this long post by citing these passages of Askonas:

In the wake of mass shootings over the past few years, I’ve frequently thought about Doestoevsky’s novel about terrorism in Russia, Demons, sometimes known as The Possessed. The latter, older title is bad translation but good sociology. We spend too much time interrogating demons, and not enough understanding what unites the possessed.

The novel charts the descent into terror and terrorism of a group of young men in rural Russia, ostensibly led by the rakish-yet-passive nobleman Nikolai Stavrogin. One of the remarkable things about Stavrogin’s band of merry men is that none of them quite agree on what he stands for, what his great movement is. Ringleader Pyotr Stepanovich claims to be engaged in a far-reaching anarchist conspiracy. Kirillov believes he shares with Stavrogin a philosophical nihilism, while Shatov insists that Stavrogin converted him to a kind of theological nationalism. Dostoevsky’s point seems to be that any particular ideology is epiphenomenal to the seduction of ideology itself. What possesses the characters is not an ideology but a social-spiritual void that demands the infinite promise of surrender to a totalizing force. At one point, Dostoevsky references the story of Gerasene Demoniac. Jesus asks the evil spirit (singular) what his name is: “My name is Legion: for we are many.”

More:

Unmoored from any kind of meaning-giving narrative, with enough time, education, and money to be discontented at the monotony and mediocrity of the everyday, these superfluous young men would latch on to any grand system that promised self-immolating sacrifice for a greater purpose, even if that purpose was just exposing and destroying the hypocrites and phonies. Dostoevsky doesn’t have much to say about what we might call “true believers” whose actions are dictated by “rational” though radical conclusions. He sees terrorism as a spiritual and not intellectual force. Dostoevsky’s characters are not driven to violence by ideology: they are driven to ideology by violence, metaphysical and spiritual violence first, leading to physical violence. As Dostoevsky sketches in the character of Shigalyev, a social theorist with lurid visions of a totalitarian state but little vision for the society it might build, the attraction of an ideology is not in its end vision but precisely in the means needed to realize it. The more radical the break, the more annihilatory violence will be required to bring it about.

Read the whole thing. It’s the most important thing you’ll read all day. Askonas says that by all means we have to fight violent radicals and their ideologies with the means we have, but if we don’t recognize the roots of what we’re fighting — that it’s social and spiritual, not ideological — then we won’t get anywhere.

Askonas — again, explicating Dostoevsky’s novel — points out the overwhelming social changes that overtook Russia in the mid-19th century, and that produced a generation of nihilists and revolutionaries. We know where that all went. I can’t tell you how unnerving it is to have been reading this summer about the roots of totalitarianism, and to see it (via Hannah Arendt, primarily) in rootless, directionless, atomized and (understandably) angry young people, especially males, who have been raised in a . Askonas draws the point: it’s not so much the particular ideology as it is the search for a totalizing cause to give one’s life to, to ground oneself, and to provide meaning.

Is this not what Kierkegaard said Christianity had to be? Yes! But there is a world of difference between giving your life over to the God who spoke the Beatitudes, and to fascism, or communism, or ethnic supremacism, and so forth. Look around you: the conditions exist, and are coming into being with even greater force, for something very, very nasty. Solzhenitsyn wrote:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings, that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

Dostoevsky knew. He told us so. Listen, the reason people point to Germany’s Weimar Republic as relevant to us today is not because they think sexual decadence caused Hitler. It was because Weimar is an example of how liberal democracy could not withstand the pressures from the collapse of German social structures and moral belief (in the wake of World War I), and the disintegration of the German economy. The sexual decadence was simply a sign of the greater sickness … a sickness that caused people to turn to Hitler, who promised deliverance and a return to order.

All these people today who are fomenting and celebrating the destruction of all the normal social forms and verities, they are summoning up Dostoevskian demons. There will be hell to pay. There already is … in El Paso, in Dayton, in Gilroy, and everywhere else where angry young men express their rage. You don’t believe me? Read Stephanie McCrummen’s searing long form 2015 piece on the life that the white supremacist mass killer Dylann Roof lived before he went and shot up the black church. 

This is the void. This is the American void, “where little is sacred and little is profane.” This is the nihilistic vacuum that cannot withstand the disintegrating pressures pushing on it from all sides. Just you wait until the next hard recession.

Watch that ten minute video about the Doomers before you comment, please.



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