Descent Into Madness: Dostoevsky and the End of the West

By Boyd D. Cathey
My Corner

February 12, 2024

Our society is coming to resemble a dystopian “peoples’ paradise” in its darkly disturbing features. Think back to iconic works of literature like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon and George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Are we not living in a society which is little more than a cross between the nightmare visions of Koestler and Orwell? Do we not live in a society where dissidents are branded as “domestic terrorists,” “insurrectionists,” or “racists,” and face imprisonment for heretofore unimaginable thought crimes, all in the name of “defending our democracy”? –where our children have become wards of the state and are indoctrinated daily by mountains of fetid radical ideology? –where television and the Internet are employed to fashion a particular jaundiced view of life?—where science is now used to tell us the world will end in, what, ten years, if we don’t take immediate action to curb “the climate crisis”?—where we are cajoled to accept a “great reset” and a “new world order” controlled by unseen elites?

Far too many citizens do not fathom what has occurred and is happening in our society. And those who do understand, whether here in the US or in Europe, are swatted down by the long arm of “Big Brother,” turned into “non-persons,” their reputations destroyed, awakened by armed-to-the-teeth FBI agents before dawn and imprisoned for months or years without trial or the benefit of counsel—“enemies of the regime.” Is this not reminiscent of what occurred in Eastern Europe immediately after the conclusion of World War II, when the Soviets progressively installed socialist dictatorships by successfully eliminating and suppressing any real opposition, all happening why the benevolent USA looked on?

But in some ways our situation is worse than that of those Soviet-occupied countries in the aftermath of the world war. For while the post-war Communists essentially maintained certain inherited standards of behavior, for instance, supporting large families and traditional marriage, our elites continue to push the boundaries of what was once thought normative and acceptable in every area of human endeavor, even under Communism. And the disruption or rejection of the laws of nature and those well-established and valid millennia-old norms of behavior and belief leads to gross and grotesque imbalances and vicious infections in society which distort and eventually destroy it—what I have called in an earlier essay, “the zombification of our culture.”

It’s as if significant portions of American (and European) culture have been possessed by frenetic Evil incarnate…in academia and education, in our media and communications, in politics, and in our entertainment and sports industries. We are now supposed to be like Pavlov’s dog, trained to bark when prompted, to sit when told, in short, to be obedient and receptive subjects of the latest ukase or dogmatic proclamation of government or revelation of its satraps and lapdogs at some formerly-prestigious university 0r from fashionable glitterati.

As I read through various recent news articles, chronicling some of the more bizarre actions and occurrences in our modern American society, example after example abundantly confirms this impression.

Let me cite just a handful of recent egregious instances from our educational sector—there are far more, too numerous to count:

In Oregon, the Department of Education recently sent out a “mathematics guide …to schools tell[ing] educators that asking students to show their work in math class is a form of white supremacy.” The guide offers a year-long framework for “deconstructing racism in mathematics.” It calls for “visibilizing [sic] the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture with respect to math.”

In Houston, Rice University launched a course (January 2024), titled “Afrochemistry,” which reportedly will “apply chemical tools and analysis to understand black life in the U.S.” According to the University’s website, “Diverse historical and contemporary scientists, intellectuals and chemical discoveries will inform personal reflections and proposals for addressing inequities in chemistry and chemical education.”

In Brookfield, Connecticut, the public school administration placed tampon dispensers in boys’ restrooms, which were promptly vandalized by some boys who disagreed with school policy. The administration related that the “vandals” had been dealt with. But the worst aspect of this is that dispensers were put in place in compliance with a Connecticut law which “requires all schools from grades three to 12 to put menstrual dispensers in female restrooms and at least in one male restroom” in each high school.

One last example, and it would be truly comedic if not so serious in its implications about the state of higher education in America. Several years ago (2018) Professor Peter Boghossian, formerly at Portland State University in Oregon, and two colleagues, prepared a series of scholarly articles in the humanities, and several were accepted by so-called prestigious peer-reviewed journals. The submitted papers sounded all the chords of ideologically “progressive scholarship,” supposedly pushing boundaries in what the authors called “grievance studies,” such areas as “critical theory” and “gender identity.” But with one major characteristic: the articles were all complete spoofs, skillful fakery which managed to deceive those who claim to be “the best and the brightest.”

As Boghossian explained in a later summary of the project:

“While our papers are all outlandish or intentionally broken in significant ways, it is important to recognize that they blend in almost perfectly with others in the disciplines under our consideration. To demonstrate this, we needed to get papers accepted, especially by significant and influential journals. Merely blending in couldn’t generate the depth necessary for our study….”

And a number of the articles were eagerly accepted and were praised fulsomely by other academics. Indeed, it is fascinating to read what peer reviewers wrote.

One of the  papers is titled, “The conceptual penis as a social construct,” and it was published to great acclaim by the journal Cogent Social Sciences, in 2017. Here is the abstract:

“Anatomical penises may exist, but as pre-operative transgendered women also have anatomical penises, the penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity. Through detailed poststructuralist discursive criticism and the example of climate change, this paper will challenge the prevailing and damaging social trope that penises are best understood as the male sexual organ and reassign it a more fitting role as a type of masculine performance.”

These few examples can be replicated ad nauseum. Such poisonous nonsense characterizes what passes for learning and scholarship in our colleges and schools; it undergirds and informs our journalism and media; it drenches our entertainment with its infectious dross; it disintegrates and perverts our artistic and musical heritage. It is engaged in total war against the two millennia inheritance of our Christian civilization, which it seeks to destroy.

Have we not descended into sheer madness, collective insanity on a massive cultural and social scale? Indeed, are we not experiencing a foretaste of Hell itself, of the Nether Regions where proud souls possessed by sheer evil and brazen malfeasance are eventually rewarded by their own incredibly excruciatingly painful self-immolation?

Of course, it is not at all fashionable to believe in a literal Hell these days. Yet, the imagery of such a state envisioned by a number of our greatest authors over the centuries describes a reality which is becoming all too palpable in our day, at least for those who care to notice.

The common denominator which characterizes those visions, whether from the pen of Dante Alighieri, John Milton, or other writers, not to mention the strictures from the Bible, is this: without Hope in something greater than ourselves, something beyond the mere material, something indeed spiritual, we are lost. And all the puffed-up scholarly texts about “gender identity” and “critical studies”—all the foul and ugly detritus which passes for modern culture and entertainment—lead only to individuals T. S. Eliot calls “hollow men,” dead souls, with no past to guide them, no future to welcome them, isolated, alone, and empty.

As tiny individual specks in the Universe we are as atoms, at times self-important, but in the scheme of things, miniscule and falling back continually on our own very limited powers and abilities, with the great leveler, Death, our conclusion.

Has this not been the insight and wisdom of our Christian civilization, that without that spiritual understanding, life becomes a mere few short years of banging about until our time is up?

It is Hope, that belief in something beyond ourselves, eminently spiritual, which enables us to lead lives according to both the Natural Law and the Divine Positive Law, which properly and superbly fit, guide and measure our own human natures.

I am put in mind of a piece I wrote for Chronicles magazine a few years back (“The Devils in the Demonstrators,” Chronicles, November 2021. Pp36-37) which focuses on my direct experience with such persons who inhabit a counter-reality, peopled by dead souls whose hatred for our civilization is only matched by their uncontrollable, burning rage.

I offer it now.

The Devils in the Demonstrators

I was chairman of the Annual Confederate Flag Day at the North Carolina State Capitol in March of 2019 when our commemoration was besieged by several hundred screaming, raging demonstrators—Antifa-types and others. It took a mammoth police escort for us to exit the surrounded Capitol building.

I clearly recall the disfigured countenance, the flaming eyes, the foul imprecations of one of the protesters: he was young, white, and obviously not impoverished, probably the son of some well-to-do parents who had shelled out thousands of dollars for his education at one of North Carolina’s premiere universities. His contorted, angry grimace was that of a possessed soul, made mad by years of slow and patient educational indoctrination from our complacent society which tolerates and encourages everyday evil in nearly every endeavor we experience.

I remembered that day—that face—over two years later as I finished watching a made-for-television Russian series titled Demons. Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1872 novel of the same name (also known as The Possessed), the plot is fairly complex and difficult to compress into a filmed series. Yet, enough of that complexity and meaning still comes forth while watching its English subtitles.

I read the novel many years ago. Even back then it was a difficult read, especially for someone unfamiliar with Russian history of the mid-19th century and Dostoevsky’s interest in the ideological visions of various revolutionary and nihilist movements then existent in Imperial Russia.

But the television series does an admirable job of encapsulating the novel’s main themes and storyline. And like much of Dostoevsky, the theological questions of good and evil, sin and redemption, and order and disorder are never far from the surface. For the great Russian author saw deeply into the hearts of his fellow men, particularly those vacuous and empty souls of the fanatical idealists who professed a secular vision of a future socialist and globalist utopia on earth, a paradise without the encumbrances and limits of tradition, tsarist authority, and God. But it was precisely such natural and real lineaments which both regulate our innate freedom of will (so that it may not become license), and also provide a safe and ample space for our existence.

In tracing the evolution of revolutionary thinking personified in his diverse characters, Dostoevsky captures and illustrates—as perhaps no other author before or since—the true nature of evil which inevitably ends not only in the destruction of the individual, but eventually also spurs the dissolution and decay of the social fabric of society.

That evil—and it is pure demonic evil as Dostoevsky reveals in Demons—is all consuming, a madness which he both historically and theologically identifies with rebellion against God and, in his particular view, in opposition to the traditional Russian Orthodox Church. But that meaning is applicable for all of traditional Christianity.

In another Dostoevsky novelThe Brothers Karamazov, his worldly and secular character Ivan makes a statement often expressed as: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” By novel’s end he realizes that God does—must—exist, and therefore there must be—and are—rules and law, both divine and human, that must be observed for there to be any kind of human society. Indeed, without them there can be no genuine liberty, no justice, no true happiness.

In Demons the revolutionary cell in Dostoevsky’s imagined provincial town is composed of mostly young members of the upper classes, a couple of disaffected military officers and intellectuals, and the magnetic personality of Nikolai Stavrogin.  Stavrogin is highborn, refined, handsome, self-assured, and intelligent. And yet there is, as the narrator of the story informs us, something repellent, deeply cynical, and inherently foul about him. The other revolutionaries are fascinated by him, specifically Pyotr Verkhovensky, perhaps the most loathsome and manipulative character Dostoevsky ever created, a man capable of murder simply on caprice or whim, without any apparent sense or thought of regret. Truly he is a man possessed.

Verkhovensky, who claims to be taking orders from a central committee in St. Petersburg, is bedazzled by Stavrogin and wishes him to lead the revolutionary efforts; but Stavrogin hesitates. In the depths of Stavrogin’s consciousness, there is that awkward awareness of his own misshapen and fatally damaged soul. Finally, after some hesitation, he visits a spiritual guide, Father Tikhon, where he confesses that he has lost any sense of good and evil, and that all that remains is simply avarice. Stavrogin is a man who refuses God, but in his frustration he innately realizes that nothing else can satisfy that emptiness. Indeed, without God, without the fullness of faith, it is the Devil, Evil Incarnate, who fills the void. Without God, everything is permitted.

Ivan Shatov is perhaps the character with whom Dostoevsky most closely identified. He had once idolized Stavrogrin and looked up to him as a potential leader who would inspire Russia to Christian regeneration. Disillusioned, he has now come to regard him as an irresponsible man of idle luxury. Stavrogin, he declares, is driven by a passion for inflicting torment, not merely for the gratification he receives in hurting others, but to torment his own conscience and wallow in amoral carnality.

Verkhovensky detests and hates Shatov, and conceives a plan to assassinate him, for Shatov, he believes, stands in the way of the triumph of the revolution. And, in fact, one of the conspirators lures Shatov to a remote location where he is cruelly murdered, much to the insane delight of Verkhovensky.

But the conspiracy unravels, and the conspirators are arrested or, in the case of Verkhovensky, flee to St. Petersburg where he can again work his revolutionary mischief. And Stavrogin, understanding finally the futility of his life, and understanding more profoundly than any other of the revolutionaries the nature of the revolutionary contagion—a true “demonic possession”—does what for him is the only logical action: he hangs himself. Unable or unwilling to make repentance, and knowing darkly that he has been possessed by demons, but refusing the mercy of God, like a brightly burning supernova, he collapses upon himself, extinguished and damned.

Of all the great counterrevolutionary works—novels, autobiographies, narrations—Dostoevsky’s stands out for its very human, very real description of the sheer personal evil and demonic lunacy of the then-nascent Marxist revolution incubating in Russia. In more recent times, we have a George Orwell, an Arthur Koestler, and an Aleksander Solzhenitsyn who recount what they experienced or what they saw and observed. But it was Dostoevsky who with deep insight visualized it a century earlier, who plumbed the depths of the human psyche and the inherent and personal nature of what is essentially a “revolution against God and Man.”

For the rejection of God as He desires to be known and obeyed through his Word, His law, and through His church does not result in a secular utopia, a kind of secular parousia or Heaven-on-Earth. The revolutionary madness is, as Dostoevsky declares, a form of possession of men who have misshapen and empty souls which have then been occupied by demons, by evil.

Thus, as I watched Demons I remembered that day several years ago with its seemingly possessed protesters. I also recalled images flashed across the television screen more recently of our latter-day violent Verkhovenskys and Stavrogins, those deracinated students, wooley-brained woke academicians, effete Hollywood celebrities and media personalities, and political epigones who have turned the American republic into a charnel house where the bones of a once-great nation lie in trash heaps.

Over the past many decades, we have permitted our government to impose on us and much of the world what is termed liberal democracy and something we call “human rights.” But those precepts and vision are of a secular, globalist world where the Verkhovenskys dominate a complacent and obedient population, where our culture has been so infected and so poisoned that, as William Butler Yeats prophesied a century ago, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

It does not and will not end well. The “American Century,” without the kind of repentance that was offered to Nikolai Stavrogin, and which he would not accept, is over. And despite our insouciance and material gratification, there will be a price, a severe and heavy price to pay.

Observing the pre-World War I revolutionary fervor which would soon overtake the world, the Anglo-French critic and essayist Hilaire Belloc wrote these lines in This and That and the Other:

“The Barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this that he cannot make; that he can befog or destroy, but that he cannot sustain; and of every Barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilisation exactly that has been true. We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us: we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.”

Dostoevsky, through Father Tikhon, reminds us that there is a way out of the fetid and poisonous bog we are drowning in. In his day it was not taken by the revolutionaries who eventually would have their way in Russia and later in the world, with the charnel house counting eventually 100 million victims.

Like Verkovensky, that frenzied youthful demonstrator against Confederate symbols back in March 2019 was possessed, incapable—unlike Stavrogin—of recognizing his diabolical possession.

Good and evil stand in eternal conflict; one must triumph and one must be extinguished. Dostoevsky fully understood that, and so must we.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.