Crying in a Wasteland
Essays Society Philosophy

Crying in a Wasteland

Joseph M. Keegin
Joseph M. Keegin

In early 1854, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his friend Aleksandr Yegorovich Wrangel sat in a house surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of southern Siberian desert and read something by the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. “We do not know,” comparative literature professor László Földényi tells us in his new collection Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears, “which book of Hegel’s that Wrangel, who subscribed to the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, ordered for Dostoevsky from Germany”: all Wrangel records of the event is the philosopher’s name and the title of the book Dostoyevsky was writing at the time, his memoir Zapiski iz Myortvovo doma (House of the Dead). Scholars of Russian literature or German philosophy might see this omission as a dead end, wishing disappointedly that Dostoyevsky’s compatriot had been a more exacting historian of his time with the exiled novelist. Földényi, however, takes the deficiency as an invitation: “So let us select one: the lectures on the philosophy of history, which Hegel delivered between the autumn of 1822 and the spring of 1831 at the University of Berlin.”

Possibly a fair choice, but unevidenced nonetheless. The rest of the essay unfolds according to this pattern, a snowball of hypotheticals becoming an avalanche as it tumbles down the hillside of the author’s imagination. If Dostoyevsky and Wrangel had been reading these lectures, then they would’ve encountered Hegel’s dismissal of Siberia as a featureless void “[prevented] from attaining a distinct form in the world-historical process”; and had Dostoyevsky encountered this passage, imagine the despair he would’ve felt being exiled to a meaningless place where he nonetheless glimpsed the face of Christ; and if this had caused him despair, then it could have led him (as he related to his brother in a letter, after crossing the Urals) to burst into tears. This is to say: Dostoyevsky read Hegel in Siberia, and Dostoyevsky burst into tears in Siberia, but nothing Földényi tells us indicates the two events had much to do with each other.

This kind of connection-by-way-of-supposition becomes a trope in Földényi’s essays. Antonin Artaud’s philosophy of language bears uncanny resemblance to, and thus possible influence from, his contemporary Martin Heidegger. Before committing suicide, the German writer Heinrich von Kleist may have read Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities), which makes Földényi suspect inspiration from Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Wherever evidence might leave us wanting, Földényi takes a leap. His intellectual histories are perhaps better understood as speculative fictions, having more in common with Jorge Luis Borges than Montaigne or Isaiah Berlin. Of course, this sort of imagining is not entirely unwarranted: plenty of empirically unreal histories—legends, folktales, &c.—can nonetheless illuminate features of human existence and experience, or inspire a reader to live a better life. The speeches of Thucydides come to mind, or Shakespeare, or Melville’s Moby-Dick. Disappointingly, however, Földényi’s myths more often muddle than elucidate, dazzling the reader with a parade of references in which clarity is sacrificed to a spectacle of erudition.

In the title essay, for instance, Földényi sees Dostoyevsky’s religious fervor as an indication of the need for “transcendence.” Hegelian philosophy, in Földényi’s telling, has widened the gap between the world and God, between reason and revelation, and installed an idealized picture of world history as the new foundation of all philosophical truth. History supplants revelation, dialectic replaces theology, and the persistent human longing for the divine gets parasitized by an obsession with civilizational success and worldly greatness. “Dialectics, in Hegel’s hands,” Földényi despairs, “is a tool for maintaining the given, the extant comfortable arrangements, the weapon of rationality. . . And like every explicatory principle, it is a tool for the dethronement of God.”

But retaining belief in God is not just a struggle for our era. In the Hebrew scriptures, the “stiff-necked” Israelites are always letting their attention drift toward worldly enchantments; the incredulity of Christ’s apostles is underscored again and again, whether in the doubting of Thomas, the threefold denial of Peter, or the betrayal of Judas. That belief is challenging for the believer is well known to anyone who does any believing, whether 2,020 years after the crucifixion or just 20. So what are we saying when we speak of “disenchantment” and “modernity,” of dialectics as a weapon of deicide? Are we articulating something true about the world, or are we just making excuses?

The early twentieth century saw a proliferation of critiques of the Enlightenment’s anti-transcendentalism, individualism, and rationalism. These ideologies held that transcendence could be achieved in the daily, worldly activities of human beings engaged in collective activity. Nation, race, species, and class became vehicles for participation in the grand logic of extra-personal forces that, in Földényi’s terms, lie “beyond reason and unreason,” and through which “I become free. . . by finding what surpasses (what transcends) me.” Walking back Enlightenment solipsism and restoring access to a truth beyond was the unifying principle of all fin de siècle mass movements. The outcome, of course, was catastrophic.

As I hope is apparent, I share Földényi’s anguish over our age’s crude Hegelian faith in “progress” and monomaniacal obsession with technology and applied sciences. I likewise suspect that the way out lies in a rediscovery of a form of perception that allows for the possibility of seeing beyond the merely visible world. But I am highly suspicious about promoting mere “transcendence” as the solution: if it were, then Hinduism, Freemasonry, Mormonism, and Crowleyan mysticism would find themselves strange bedfellows as equally valid fixes to a problem. And even if the key to transcendence is theism, what kind of God should we believe in? Does this being demand burnt offerings? Human sacrifice? Maybe it is wholly immovable and indifferent, preferring its own divine perfection over the messiness of our lives. Or—and bear with me here—might such a God enter into the world he made to be killed by it, asking only that we love one another as he has loved us?

Despite his gesturing toward religion, Földényi’s transcendence seems to be modeled on the melancholic despair of modern artists. When Kleist puts a pistol to the head of the bright, young, yet terminally ill Henriette Vogel before turning it on himself, Földényi sees an act of “the greatest of strength” that “confirmed that there is always, within us, a hidden reserve over which death shall never be the master.” And Artaud’s tortured, misanthropic Theatre of Cruelty “confronts the viewer with death, so that he might seek there a new life, more promising than the one he has lived until now.” Victory over death, the granting of new life: this obsession of Földényi’s is, of course, the center and circumference of the Christian Gospel. In Földényi’s version of the story, however, the triumph is achieved not by God sacrificing himself on the cross to rescue humanity from the burden of their sins, but by the staging of experimental theater and the suicide of a bourgeois German dramatist.

The collection, however, is rescued by the final essay on Elias Canetti’s magisterial and bewildering Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power). Here Földényi reveals himself to be a far more skillful hagiographer than critic, and his strengths as both writer and thinker are in far sharper relief when writing in amazement at beauty rather than in an attitude of denunciation. Canetti’s is a stylistically indeterminate work of not-quite-sociology that sits somewhere between a novel, a work of scholarship, and a diary: like Földényi’s own writing, it is more speculative than scholarly, and Földényi grants he “would not compare [Canetti’s] work with that of Hannah Arendt, but with Kafka’s.” Indeed, Canetti’s starting point, Földényi notes, is the same bottomless, unanswerable, yet absolutely vital question that animates all genuine thinking and writing: “What is man?”

Canetti’s concern for this question inspires Földényi to place him within a community of contemporaries equally as possessed by a passion for the unanswerable: “solitary wanderers” like Czeslaw Milosz, Leszek Kolakowski, Bela Hamvas, Nicolas Gomez Davila, Maria Zambrano, and the aforementioned Borges. Solitary as they may have seemed, however, in Földényi’s perspective they constitute a milieu based upon a common attitude of inquisitiveness:

“What all these thinkers have in common, and what distinguishes Canetti’s book, is the openness to metaphysical questions, which for two and a half millennia was the most powerful tradition in European thought, and which precisely became the most endangered in the twentieth century . . . From the first page to the last, this book is distinguished by its capacity for amazement at the world.”

These writers “all traveled along divergent paths, all of them occupied with this same question, and all of them disinclined to constrain their own free modes of thought to the rigid grid system of academic disciplines.” Though Hamvas and Zambrano seem to have almost exclusively European followings, the others are well-known on American shores for writing with a style geared toward profundity while remaining accessible to any literate person willing to think deeply about serious things.

Of course, Földényi is using Canetti as a foil for himself, and by including the latter among this group of European visionaries, the former is also seeking membership. To a certain extent, he belongs. But “openness to metaphysical questions,” however praiseworthy, is a low bar for entry: these writers were not only honest enough to pose difficult questions, but courageous enough to advance answers. Davila and Milosz were lifelong Catholics, Borges and Zambrano outspoken antifascists. Hamvas’s heterodoxy and mysticism led Hungary’s communist regime to condemn him to twenty years of menial labor in Soviet power plants, with writing and translating crammed into his rare free time. Of the named, Földényi perhaps most resembles Kolakowski: not so much in his fervent and intelligent anticommunism, but in his hesitant agnosticism. Both of them are compelled by the cultural utility of religion while shying away from the question of truth. It’s one thing, however, to suggest that an idea might be good in theory and quite another to stake a claim on its truth by living it—and if Földényi has any such convictions, he makes no effort to show them.

Which is a shame, because he clearly recognizes that beneath our culture’s decadence and frivolity lies a deep yearning for truth. The widespread despair pervading the West evidences a longing for something better, more beautiful, more awe-inspiring than the dull, gray present. The Marxists of the twentieth century sought heaven on earth while creating hell; the postwar neoliberal dream of an “end of history”—of a universal marketplace guaranteed by overwhelming military force—has shown itself to be a condition of universal boredom for the inhabitants of the West and ruthless exploitation of those on the periphery. Seventy years of pointless warfare, domestic strife, intensified economic inequality, and half-baked patriotism has left us all exhausted. Where do we go from here? How do we proceed? Földényi is right to recognize in this breakdown an opportunity for something else, and his effort to point toward an opening that leads beyond the tediousness of modernity is noble. How much more so had he demonstrated the courage to walk through.