The Public Humanist

"Swallowed by an Idea"

Can three great writers from the nineteenth century help us understand the eruption of terrorism in our own time? In my view, they can and we shouldn’t ignore what they have to tell us.

As a case in point, the title of this essay is based on a profound insight from Dostoevsky’s great 1872 novel about Russian Nihilists, first known in English as The Possessed. More recently it has come to be called Demons or Devils, either of which is a more accurate translation of Dostoevsky’s title.[1] However, I think that the earlier, inexact English title The Possessed actually captures more accurately Dostoevsky’s idea, as crystallized by a statement made by one character, Peter Stepanovich, to the anarchist Kirillov: “I also know you haven’t swallowed the idea—the idea’s swallowed you.” For me this notion of a person, especially a young person, being “swallowed” by an idea—or being “possessed” by it—goes a long way to explaining what is occurring in our own time when an otherwise outwardly calm and studious young person, as if in a trance, sacrifices herself in a murderous suicide bombing attack. But how does this come about—how is it that a person can be destroyed by being swallowed by an idea?

This is not only a question for our time. It is also a question that not only Dostoevsky, but also Oscar Wilde, and Henry James attempted to answer in their own time in three important works: Dostoevsky’s Devils, Wilde’s little known first play Vera or the Nihilists, and Henry James’s extraordinary novel The Princess Casamassima. Not surprisingly, each answers the question differently; also not surprisingly, we can learn from each.

Why did these writers feel compelled to deal with this issue? Because the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a wave of terrorism, usually blamed on Anarchists, that rivals the terrorism we are confronting now. High-profile assassinations and bombings were almost commonplace: for example, the Tsar of Russia, Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 and between 1894 and 1901 anarchists assassinated the President of France, the Empress of Austria-Hungary, the King of Italy, and U.S. President McKinley. The same types of justifications for terrorist violence offered today were presaged during that earlier period: thus when a judge reproached the man who bombed the French Chamber of Deputies in 1893 for endangering innocent men and women, the bomber replied, “There can be no innocent bourgeois.” The much-criticized “Red Scare” of the 1919-1920 in this country did not materialize out of thin air; its trigger was the series of anarchist bombings and attempted bombings that occurred in 1919, and included the bombing and attempted assassination of Attorney General Palmer and his family at their home (described recently in Dennis Lehane’s 2009 novel The Given Day).[2]

The problem of terrorism, then, was a very real one in the period, and it is not surprising therefore that these major 19th century artists grappled with it. Not surprisingly, the most intense treatment of the question is found in Dostoevsky’s Devils. A very difficult and dark work (thankfully lightened here and there by Dostoevsky’s brilliant flashes of irony and humor), Devils demands special attention because Dostoevsky had actually experienced being part of a radical cell (and suffered the life-altering trauma of a mock execution as a result). To over-simplify this towering work, Devils ultimately presents the not unfamiliar view that acts of terrorist violence have no rational basis whatsoever. Rather, for Dostoevsky, those he portrays are truly possessed; they are people who have literally lost their minds in the hothouse of a Russia where (a) they have no meaningful work; (b) there is endless suffering—both physical and mental—all around them; and (c) the values that sustained their ancestors have been destroyed primarily through the corroding effect of liberalism. The end result is “Nihilism” in its full sense: loss of all belief in values and moral precepts; and the only solution that Dostoevsky sees is a re-submission to the authoritarian institutions of state and religion. Here one might well agree with Sigmund Freud who observed of Devils: “Dostoevsky threw away the chance of becoming a teacher and a liberator of humanity, instead he appointed himself its jailer.”

Very different from Dostoevsky’s explanation for terrorism is the view offered by Oscar Wilde in a work that is almost forgotten today, the very first play he ever presented, Vera or The Nihilists.[1] Unlike Wilde’s better known plays, Vera is not a comedy, but a serious melodrama about nihilism in Russia; indeed its very subject matter likely explains why it failed when it opened in London in 1881. In the play the Tsar is assassinated; in real life, 1881 saw the assassination of Alexander II (as well as of President Garfield). Obviously, the play cut very close to the bone, but I suspect that it was closed for another, more important reason, namely that, unlike Dostoevsky, Wilde presented the Nihilists actions as understandable reactions to widespread repression and injustice. Indeed, in the play Wilde depicts and even appears to endorse violent change: if the Tsar in the play had not been assassinated, there would be no hope. On the other hand, the impulse to violent change is also shown to reach a point of irrationality where it must be limited and tempered by some countervailing principle if it is not to go too far. But what is this principle? In the play, as one hope would be the case in life, it is the recognition of the higher goal that the violent acts serve; in Vera it is the love of Russia, for the preservation of which the Nihilists, like sincere revolutionaries, have been working, that causes her to call a halt to the violence.

Between Wilde’s view of terror and violence as rational responses to oppression and Dostoevsky’s view that they are not rational, but are caused by impulses unleashed by cultural disintegration, there stands the more psychologically complex view expressed in Henry James’s ambitious 1886 novel The Princess Casamassima. This is James’s only “social” novel, and it is significant, I believe, that he decided to focus it on .the anarchist movement. His hero, Hyacinth Robinson, the illegitimate son of a French seamstress imprisoned for murdering her aristocratic lover, is brought up by friend of his mothers in grating (if genteel) poverty. Although poor, Hyacinth is intelligent and sensitive; he also feels that he has been deprived of his rightful place—he feels that there is aristocratic blood in his veins. Eventually, he becomes a bookbinder and through colleagues at work he becomes a member of an anarchist cell.

In Hyacinth’s turn towards anarchism and revolutionary politics there are many factors at work. There is the objective reality he sees of the world of the worker in England. Notably, of the works under consideration, James’s novel is the only one where the protagonist is actually a worker—he has a job to which he must go every day and he earns his own living. There are also psychological factors—his youthful desire to combat unfairness; his own sense that he has been deprived of what he deserves. The Anarchists he falls in with are essentially harmless folk who talk revolution but basically do nothing about it. They are old, but Hyacinth is young and idealistic. It is his youthful idealism and his deep sense of honor that lead him to take an oath to be on call for the next five years to commit any act of revolutionary violence that he is called upon to do by the vague and mysterious central anarchist body.

But once Hyacinth has taken this oath, once he has made the ultimate commitment to the revolutionary cause, his mind is freed to take in other impressions and he is opened to the world around him in a new, freer way. (This, too, I believe is a keen psychological insight by James.) Through various influences, including a tiny legacy from the woman who brought him up, Hyacinth is exposed to Europe and to culture in way that he had never been before. In several pages of brilliant description, James tells us how Hyacinth’s confrontation with the great cultural peaks of ‘European culture lead him in an unexpected direction. He comes to see this great works as the pinnacle of human achievement, purchase at a great cost of human labor and suffering, to be sure, but nonetheless worthy of preservation. And the view forms within him that all radical, revolutionary politics is not based on altruism but on envy.

What is it exactly that the revolutionaries want to do with a work like the Mona Lisa? Cut it up into a million pieces so that every worker will have one? Well, obviously, once that is done, the Mona Lisa will no longer exist and will be of no use to anyone. In thinking these things through, Hyacinth becomes aware of a paradox of social life: inequality may actually be the essential aspect that allows our civilization to achieve the most! Whatever its causes, he does not want to destroy these great things.

Returning to England from Europe, Hyacinth is ultimately called to assassinate a government official. Although he could turn down the assignment, he will not do so because of his sense of honor—he took an oath and will stand by it. However, in the end, rather than carry out the task, he shoots himself, thus ending his life at the very moment when his mind and soul had been freed to understand something profound about life and civilization. Unlike in the other works discussed here, a great sense of sadness and of waste rises up as one reads of Hyacinth’s end.

The ultimate pessimism of James’s novel is perhaps the bad news for us as we confront revolutionary and terrorist movements today. Hyacinth’s youthful idealism and impatience trap him into making the promise. The same qualities forbid him from abandoning his oath. Like Vera, in Wilde’s play, he will sacrifice himself; perhaps by doing so he betrays his cause, but he does not betray his own sense of integrity. And perhaps it is, after all, a youthful over-estimation of the importance of honor (an old-fashioned word and concept) that is at work in the responses of the characters in Dostoevsky’s Devils as well—and also in much of what we see today.

These three different, but not mutually exclusive, views of the etiology of a terrorist and, therefore, of terrorism, are informative, as well as being great literature. I have offered only the briefest summaries of the important perspectives that each work presents for us today. I urge you to read them and see for yourself what these three important works have to offer.

[1] Vera is not included in most available anthologies of Wilde’s plays. It is available online at:

[2] The novel’s title in Russian is 5AK, which is transliterated as Besy. (I don’t know Russian, but supply this explanation for any readers who do.)

[3] Also, we should not forget that Sacco and Vanzetti were both identified as anarchists and that it was precisely during the period of the Red Scare in the U.S. from 1919-1920 that the events in the case occurred.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate