225. Approach (III)
Americans used to speak of “shitlibs”; perhaps the phrase is out of fashion, but the type is still with us—always has been. The historical paradigm for a “shitlib” is Leo Tolstoy; it sounds excessively cruel to attach such a vulgar word to a noble man—or a man who looked noble, anyway—but it is true. The qualities that made Tolstoy famous are the same qualities that made him an unbearable prig and moraliser: he was a man of great intelligence and sensitivity; he was a man of novel and humane ideas—he was a pain in the ass.
In the four-quadrant map of civilisational decline, Tolstoy sits at the bottom left corner. To recap: in the top right corner sits the virtuous strong man, a Nelson or Henry V; in the bottom right corner sits a doughty merchant, an Adam Smith or Benjamin Franklin; in the bottom left corner sits the milky progressive, Tolstoy or Bertrand Russell—those whose hearts bleed so profusely that their shirts are a permanent red; in the top left sits the perverted authoritarian—the manly but debased leftist dictator, a Castro or a Stalin. We run around the clock of characters: the virtuous warriors degenerate into stout merchants and the merchants into spoiled progressives and the spoiled progressives into the bandit leftists. At the moment, America is wedged in the spoilt progressive quadrant, the bandits wait their moment.
It is true that Tolstoy undertook bold adventures in the service of the Tsar as a youth; but, for the most part, his career was spent in ill-advised attempts to reform Russia. Just as contemporary American progressives have an overly sensitive relationship to America’s black population, so Tolstoy had an overly sensitive relationship to Russia’s serfs—a group whom he romanticised.
Men like Tolstoy are dangerous for a society because they are very intelligent and enjoy high social status, but they present ideas that are ultimately suicidal for society as a whole. Tolstoy contributed to the eventual rise of Bolshevism—a movement he would have abhorred—by his persistent campaigns to undermine the Orthodox Church, the Tsar, and the military through pacifism and novel religious ideas; in other words, he undermined the moral legitimacy and practical functional capacity of Russia. He was a neurotic man who could not settle with Orthodoxy; he was always after novelty, a trait of the intelligent—and he desired a religious life that would make him look more holy. I have no doubt that if Tolstoy were alive today he would visit shamans in South America, take ayahuasca, and then appear on the Joe Rogan Experience to discuss his new 40-hour Netflix special. At the end he would say, “I am but a seeker.”
The counterpoint to Tolstoy is Dostoyevsky. The difference between these two men is that Dostoevsky was not neurotic—at least, not in Tolstoy’s way. As a gambler, he put everything on red. As a young revolutionary, he was a real revolutionary and was arrested; he was subject to a mock execution. When Dostoyevsky describes the walk to the place of execution in Crime and Punishment it is authentic because Dostoyevsky once walked the walk to a firing squad himself. This mock execution was a rebirth for Dostoyevsky; he went from all-in for revolution to all-in for Orthodoxy—he achieved a genuine mysticism inaccessible Tolstoy.
Men like Tolstoy are very dangerous, precisely because their own guilt at being born powerful and their sentimentalisation of the lower orders leads them to undo the structures that constrain society from collapse. They influence the smarter members of the middle class into fads that undermine the core of the nation. Dostoyevsky was, in many ways, an ugly man; yet he was always authentic. Tolstoy remained limp and uncommitted: at the end he tried to give away all his property to his movement, much to his wife’s chagrin—you should beware a man who would sacrifice his family for an attractive fashionable idea, the essence of the “shitlib”.