“The Russian Soul is a dark place.” Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
“To be modern is to have two qualities: reason and will.” So says Aleksandr Dugin, contemporary Russian philosopher and sociologist at Moscow State University, speaking about Post-modernity in Western Society. In the same presentation, entitled “Pure Satanism,” he continues:
These two things are missing in principle from modern Russian society. We [Russians] are only approaching the first stages of modernity. Our transition to modernity occurred in a special way—a Russian way. It effectively demolished the tenants of tradition without building in their stead structures of modernity. And so the most important part of the change from the archaic to the modern did not take place. Much more of our society is archaic than is modern. We were never able to form the ‘subject’ – that which is filled with reason and will, and, more importantly, which acts upon that reason and will. Of course, there were elements of this in the Bolsheviks; in Peter [the Great]; in the Old Believers, who, indeed, in the midst of a Christian conformist society, exercised their reason and will by proclaiming, ‘We believe such and such…’ Of course, they were oppressed for this, burned, punished, but they nevertheless stood their ground. And it is this ability to base your judgment upon your own will reason and will, that in Russian culture is practically non-existent.*
Professor Dugin spoke these words just over five years ago, in March of 2009. But, if I hear him correctly, he is suggesting that the modern turn toward the subject, the articulation of a pure subjectivity – an exclusive sense of ‘I’ with its own volition and its own reason, as distinct from the ‘Other’ – that this ‘subject’ has not yet articulated itself clearly or fully within Russian culture or the Russian psyche. And so, what we find at the foundations of the Western Enlightenment, what we find, for example, in Descartes’ maxim “I think therefore I am…” and thereafter in Kant’s Transcendental Subject or Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Idea, and in the further articulation of the sciences, this concept of a rational and willing subject – if not the very experience of an individuated self – this key component of our Western sense of personhood seems to be missing, absent in Russia’s turn toward modernity.
This is a very serious confession, not in any negative sense as a value judgment on Dugin’s culture or his comrades, but rather as an acknowledgment of something far more profound – an inarticulate inherence, within the collective psyche of this culture, of a rather archaic, if not primitive sentiment – the sense of not being an isolated ego locked-up within a bag of skin, but rather, as Heidegger might say, the experience of living ek-statically, literally standing-out from oneself, or being-beside oneself, always, already participating the world, and intertwined with other people in community.
So we might suggest that the Western project not only came late to Russia, but has been poorly received as well. But why? What is it about this culture that strives to remain more archaic, even primitive? And what is it about the ‘subject’ in Western metaphysics, the self of Cartesian doubt that seems so foreign to this people? I often recall Dostoyevsky’s claim that the soul of the Russian people is intimately bound up with the Russian soil, with the peasantry, the earth, and with nature. So, perhaps there is some irreducibly feral element inhabiting the Russian soul. Perhaps there is a subtle but complex intertwining between these people and their land, and concurrently, a primal engagement with one another – something that does not easily lend itself to the process of individuation (and objectification) that we find running rampant in the West. Perhaps, then, it is this modern (Western) sense of ‘self’ – the person as pure subject driven by a unique will and reason – that rubs directly against the grain of a more foundational experience of being-there (Dasein), a broader sense of ‘who I am’ that finds its home within the more obscure Russian soul.
Some observations from ethnography and anthropology might be valuable here as well. In pre-civilized (as well as among extant primitive) kinship-based societies, the very notion of “self” – as the center of individual volition, thought, and action – does not yet exist as we in the West understand it today. That concept, in all probability, was not really articulated or internalized until the birth of cities, the beginnings of literacy, and the accompanying written codes intended to control the individual citizens in a civil society. In fact, for most kinship-based cultures, the self (or person) is only meaningfully constituted in relation to, and as intertwined with other persons within the natural surround.
Marshall Sahlins notes in The Western Illusion of Human Nature:
Ethnographic reports speak of ‘the transpersonal self’ (Native Americans), of the self as a ‘locus of shared social relations or shared biographies’(Caroline Islands), of persons as ‘the plural and composite site of the relationships that produced them’ (New Guinea Highlands). Referring broadly to the African concept of ‘the individual,’ Roger Bastide writes: ‘He does not exist except to the extent he is outside and different from himself.’ Clearly, the self in these societies is not synonymous with the bounded, unitary and autonomous individual as we know him… Rather the individual person is the locus of multiple other selves with whom he or she is joined in mutual relations of being…
The ‘subject’ in such a view is not a solitary, internalized entity confronting and struggling against some foreign world of objects, or competing with other egos there. Rather, such a self exists only as an instantiation of, and integral part of the Other.
Again from Sahlins:
In kin relationships, others become predicates of one’s own existence, and vice versa… It is the integration of certain relationships, hence the participation of certain others in one’s own being. As members of one another, kinsmen live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths… [I]n kinship, as in relations to the cosmos in general, alterity [the Other] is a condition of the possibility of being.
There is a sense here of what Lucien Levy-Bruhl has called a participation mystique, an ontological connection or participation of the self in the Other and in the territory at large, where human and non-human natures pre-reflectively collide, co-mingle, and inter-animate one another in the constitution of meaning, both socially and practically. Here it is difficult to talk about nature vs. culture, for the two are simply manifestations of the same power of being – what the indigenous Melanesians might call mana, or the Sioux, wakanda.
And as Heidegger has summarized in his Introduction to Metaphysics:
The fundamental error that underlies [modern sciences, natural and human] is the opinion that the inception…is primitive and backward, clumsy and weak. The opposite is true. The inception is what is most uncanny and mightiest. What follows is not a development but flattening down as mere widening out… a perversion of what is great, into greatness and extension purely in the sense of number and mass. The uncanniest is what it is because it harbors such an inception in which, from over-abundance, everything breaks out at once into what is overwhelming….
If we carefully reread Dugin’s remarks in light of the above references, it is possible to understand his own claim regarding the delayed development of a Russian sense of self as “subject” more clearly and positively, especially in light of his country’s wild rush to modernity. This, in turn, may enable us to grasp the root of Russia’s inability (or perhaps lack of desire) to conform exactly to the more abstract psychological and philosophical underpinnings of the Western social-cultural-economic hegemony. But, in fact, we may also appreciate this uniquely Russian rapprochement with modernity as more grounded, disclosive of a more primal humanity.
In conclusion, there seems to be a somewhat cooler, indeterminate earthiness infusing the Russian experience – a personal and cultural reality drenched in the primacy of the flesh and the natural world upon which it is nourished. Perhaps this autochthonous connection – a more elemental apprehension of life – may itself be capable of influencing the trajectory of both Russia and the West. Perhaps Russia’s long-suffering mission still stands firm in the caliginous forests of the Siberian taiga: quietly recalling humankind from the apparent abyss of an alienated ‘subjectivity’ that haunts our modern self-understanding – its scientific rationalism, its consumerism, and its otherworldly transcendence – a self-awareness that seems to be marching us mindlessly to global collapse. Perhaps this more primal Russian apperception can call us back to that feral memory trace lingering viscerally within, helping us recall our essential rootedness – ‘our flesh, the flesh of the world.’