Crime and Its Own - 5


Read Part 1 here

Terror is the abyss between Dostoyevsky and Stirner. They both recognized precisely the same crisis. It was only their interpretations that differed.

It is, perhaps, no mistake that Raskolnikov’s killing of the pawnbroker is depicted as far more abrupt and mechanical than his nightmare of the man beating the horse to death in the street. No jot or detail is spared us as we stand helpless inside of Raskolnikov’s dream with him, hearing the terrible cries of the horse and the wicked laughter of the horse’s sadistic owner. The horse’s face, at the end of this nightmare, becomes a grimacing image of death; something terribly vacant, something grotesque because of its abruptness, even if the act itself is far too horrifying and drawn out to be called ‘abrupt.’ The vulgarity of the scene is heightened by members of the crowd pleading with the man only to have the man bark back at them that the horse is his property.

Max Stirner was bold enough to suggest that the property was his which he had the power to reach out and take. But would he dare to go a step further and say that he could do to his property whatever he chose to do?

Raskolnikov’s terror in the face of his nightmare is the barest act of protest in the face of Stirner’s unflinching self-interest. The act of violence toward so innocent and beautiful a creature would seem to incite in us more than mere pity for something undeserving. Does there not come with the identification of mindless torture the possibility that this same cruelty may very suddenly visit us as well? Who can escape the crowd which has aligned its will to the one committing the original act of violence?

A legend marks the moment of Nietzsche’s sudden madness, which has, circumstantially, been assigned the date January 3rd, 1889 in Turin. It was commonly held that he made a scene in the streets, after which point he collapsed. Many held that this ‘scene’ involved the flogging of a horse, which Nietzsche tried to prevent by throwing his arms around its neck.

This legend represents the very height of Nietzsche’s idiosyncratic relationship with Dostoyevsky. Just as Nietzsche long identified with the Dostoyevsky characters and ideas that Dostoyevsky himself manifestly didn’t put any final stock in, Nietzsche’s madness is marked by an event, not only confluent to one of the most poignant images of evil in the works of Dostoyevsky, but by an event of extreme, terrible pity—a pity that Nietzsche’s whole philosophy, until that point, opposed.

What caused such a violent gesture of pity in a man so opposed to it? It would appear that Nietzsche responded to his terror of the repercussions of his own philosophy with this act. The dichotomy between Dionysian excess and Apollonian order that Nietzsche entertained throughout his career helped him explain the function of art as an oscillating process of surplus energy and energy consumption and distribution, but the latter part of his career saw his philosophy reduced to an even sharper dichotomy: that of Dionysus against Christ. The defining reduction is not found in The Antichrist, in which Nietzsche only flirted with the dichotomy for sensational reasons, but in a later statement in a letter which was dismissed as belonging to his ‘mad’ writings. In it, Nietzsche made the statement that the death of Dionysus and the death of Christ had precisely the same mythological sequence. The two were only interpreted differently.

The shrill cries of the maenads accompany the sudden terrifying dismemberment of Dionysus—his spilled blood a climax to the excesses to which he had been their king. The crowd joined against Dionysus and consumed him. Because of this final act of violence, there followed peace. Where there is peace, the ground on which that original act of violence occurred becomes holy—an indication of that very transitional moment in which cathartic violence gave way to societal harmony.

Likewise, Christ is crucified, having been handed over to sacrifice by a violent mob. Those satisfied that a blasphemer’s blood has been spilled can agree in their relief with those satisfied that a political usurper’s blood has been spilled. There follows peace for a time, as it happened in every myth before. The unprecedented nature of this story lies in the interpretation—the writers of the Gospels see Jesus as an innocent victim, where the writers of every myth before saw the one killed as a guilty, and thus, necessary sacrifice for the harmony of their respective societies.

Rene Girard considered Nietzsche, ironically, the greatest theologian of all time through an extreme act of mythical inversion. Nietzsche reduced all of society to an act of agreement with either Dionysus or Christ. Where Christ represents the innocence of the victim—the protection of the one against the many—Dionysus represents the complete guilt of the victim—the complete incineration of the one for the exaltation of another’s will to power.

Nietzsche’s siding with Dionysus finds its hints and echoes all throughout his work. He has his prophet, Zarathustra, speaking of war in hallowed tones—It is war and violence that refine the tastes of mankind to its most perfect place.

Stirner, terrible, uncompromising and always slippery, felt he owed nothing to history since all things were nothing to him. Nietzsche, however, unendingly obsessed by a sense of his legacy despite his half-hearted attempts to deter disciples (while turning around and writing chapters titled things like ‘Why I Am a Destiny’) always carried about a great obsession with his place in history. Perhaps it was this immense, philological drive, causing him to trace all the perimeters of history, which led him to see, finally, that a recognition of the mechanisms of myth were not enough to escape myth. Was his collapse that day in the streets of Turin a final cry of terror in the face of a realization that his philosophy was, in many ways, a mere justification of the mechanisms of violence reaching into prehistory and not a revolutionary turn toward amor fati, a great ‘yes’ to life? Perhaps his loving arms thrown around that horse, his tears shed over its mane, indicate his final inability to evade the very primal, initial horror that is inevitable in witnessing the arbitrary murder of the innocent victim.

Dostoyevsky frames a scene for us in which this topography is possible: Nietzsche is Raskolnikov hovering over the horse, weeping with regret and terror, doomed himself to commit the same act of violence as the cruel owner. The cruel owner, having committed an excessive act of violence as an expression of will, is Stirner, and he walks away from the scene and on down the alleyways of history. The beaten, dead horse is the victim whose blood remains an echo and shadow of the reoccurring act of violence on which the myth that shapes our history is built.

This revealed terror for the innocent object of violence is only initial. If this terror, in western society, has given way to a politicization of the protection of the victim, as can be seen in democracy—as well as in communism, to some extent—it is only a recent historical development. The terror surrenders power in its wake.

Raskolnikov’s nightmare about the war of all against all in the final pages of Crime and Punishment—in which soldiers in battle begin to fight each other and there are no longer any sides—reaches toward his nightmare of the beaten horse in the beginning of the book and bridges a great abyss in which the arbitrary murder of the pawnbroker finally cries out as the unsung casualty of an ideology that respects no history, no myth, no process, no sacrifice, no mechanism, no language, no ritual, but only the vanishing points of all collective value.

We see in Raskolnikov the first recognition of the act of violence, not as a cathartic measure to bring about peace, but as a gesture of will which brings about the noise of revolution. When it turns out that the noise is not that of revolution, but madness, violence has reached a stage in which its ritual vocation, even as vulgar as it is, no longer holds the same silencing power in the face of chaos. When society recognizes this new extreme, a choice must be made. The silence can either come about after the violence, or before. If the mob would silence itself before the act of violence were to take place, perhaps there would be no act of violence at all. This marks the first great step in the politicization of love as a recognition of the innocent victim.

Stirner stands over us, still a ghost, revealing the taunting truth that we will only do whatever concerns us. It is Dostoyevsky’s characters, in the muddy streets of Saint Petersburg, who reminds us that one of our concerns absolutely must be the concern of others if we are to continue to maintain any concern of our own.

For Stiner, all things may be ‘nothing,’ but for us, peace is not nothing. Peace is silence. 

Read Part 1 here