Skip to main content

Special book offer for donors on Giving Tuesday. Learn More 👉

Possessed in America

August 7th, 2019 | 4 min read

By Jon 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.”

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.

What is causing this emptiness? Dostoevsky is the opposite of didactic, so he tends to leave evocative echoes. The abandonment of traditional structures as Russia entered modernity. A political economy that built a class of educated but alienated young men. Divine punishment for apostasy. What stands out to me today is that there are no fathers in Demons, save for Pyotr’s father Stepan Trofimovich, the stand-in for the absurdities and shortcomings of his liberal generation (essentially the Boomers of 19th century Russia). The abuse or abandonment of fatherly authority creates the conditions for possession.

The most obvious malefactor in Demons is acedia, the noonday demon. Understood by the Desert Fathers as a spiritual affliction leading to a restless inability to either work or pray, it was transmuted in the 19th century into a Romantic melancholic sensibility, in no place more powerfully than in Russia. Seeing it as a torpor permitting neither acts of creation nor worship of the Creator, medieval theologians correctly identified acedia as the spiritual and moral root of unbelief in monastic communities, taking hold far before intellectual arguments for the same.

In the Divine Comedy, those damned by acedia share a home in the fifth circle of hell, a black bog, with the Wrathful. “We were sullen in the sweet air that is gladdened by the sun, bearing in our hearts a sluggish smoke; now we are sullen in the black mire.” Despair of taking meaningful action, of a work that means something, slides ever too easily into an attempt to create meaning by the sheer violence of action, all while taking revenge against those who refused to live in the black mire. In Demons, one of the culminating acts of violence is arson in the village while the town notables are at a ball and literary festival hosted by a local official. What unites almost every site of this kind of terrorism is that it occurs in a place where other people are visibly happy.

There are also some critical differences that shape how this emptiness takes hold. Just as the nihilistic violence of Tsarist Russia became institutionalized with its own set of symbols and liturgies – secret societies, manifestos, bombs, the “propaganda of the deed“, so has mass shooting channeled American anomie into a grim liturgy with its own symbolic vocabulary of AR-15s, black t-shirts, body armor, internet manifestos, “active shooters”, lockdown drills, and breathless media coverage. Where acedia affected a distinctive class in 19th century Europe, and was probably linked to both massive social changes and the failure of political movements after 1848, we have democratized and mass-produced it. With the internet, video games, pornography, and a political economy of part-time service work, we have built the most powerful engines of acedia ever conceived.

What is to be done? America’s sickness is social and spiritual, not ideological and political. So, yes, pursue all of the obvious and not-so-obvious policy prescriptions. Unleash a state-sponsored campaign against nihilistic channers worthy of the legacy of COINTELPRO and the Patriot Act. But recognize that these are at best band-aid measures and, at worst, a form of delusional denial of the deepest roots of the problem.

As with most sins (individual and societal), the consequences that we hate are the inevitable byproduct of the sins that we love. We make an idol of “freedom” meant as license and unrestraint, the myth of the triumphant individual, and remove any barriers to his emancipation. For the sake of “the economy”, we idolize consumption and pleasure-seeking, and dismiss productive work and meaningful self-constraint. We deny the legitimacy of spiritual turmoil (with its necessary ramifications of human frailty, sin and responsibility, and need for redemption) and instead insist upon a therapeutic analysis which removes one’s agency even over one’s own mind. If we want to stop mass shootings, we need to build a different kind of society. What can it mean that we blink over the slaughter of schoolchildren and innocent revelers? Could it be any more obvious that mass shootings are not the isolated acts of unstable losers but a part of a battle for the American soul?