Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering here and there, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awoke, and there I was, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. (Chuang Tzu)
01. I’d like to first look at a brief video clip from Aleksandr Dugin, professor of philosophy and sociology at Moscow State University. He’s addressing this question of the self, of subjectivity, in relation to the Russian psyche.
To be modern is to have two qualities: reason and will. These two things are missing in principle from modern Russian society.We 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. Aleksandr Dugin, (00:00-01:24) Pure Satanism]
02. Let me say first that Dugin is not claiming Russians are irrational or that they can’t think. What he is suggesting is that the idea of an independent, autonomous subject – ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘my’ ego – as an entity separate from the ‘objects’ outside of my head – this concept was something foreign to the Russian psyche.
03. In other words, what we see in the European Enlightenment (17th Century) – the notion that “I” as a self-contained, rational agent independent of the external world – this ideal may not have seemed natural to Russia’s more visceral (earthy) experience.
04. Now that’s a serious confession for a Russian thinker. But it’s not negative. In fact, I think it points to something rather profound. It suggests a recognition of something more primal in the Russian psyche, the Russian soul — a recognition of being NOT simply a rational agent locked up within a bag of skin or staring out from behind the screen of a mechanical man.
05. Rather, Dugin’s claim may point in the direction of a more fluid, forgiving sense of being-in-the-world, a sense of being always, already outside-of-oneself, where the boundaries between self and world, or between self and other, are less rigid – more elastic; where one is absorbed in the world, wedded to the land [rodina], and more intimately involved with other kinfolk there [rodstveniki].
The Russian soul, like nature, remains wild and passionate — rooted in the soil, under the spell of the earthly sensuous, of the flesh.
This is why Vladimir Dal, in his Explanatory Dictionary of the Great Russian Language, claims that all five senses can be reduced to just one – the sense of touch. Again the primacy of the flesh stands out as key to grasping the Russian soul.
07. It seems then, that this modern Western ideal of ‘self’ as a solitary and independent subject, with NO apparent anchors or attachments in the natural world -– that this notion runs contrary to a more primal sense of ‘who I am’ that finds a home within the Russian experience. One hundred years ago, Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, wrote:
[There is] insufficient development of the personal principle in Russian life. The Russian people have always loved to live in the warmth of the collective, a sort of dissolving back into the element of earth, into the bosom of the mother… The Russian people desire to be of the earth. (Psychology of the Russian People, 1915)
08. Observations from ethnography and anthropology may also be valuable here. We find that in most simple, kinship-based [rodstvo] societies (e.g., early hunter/gatherer tribes), the notion of an independent self does not yet exist. In such cultures, persons only find meaning in relation to the community, fully participating in the life of the tribe, and immersed within its territory. More recently, American anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins wrote:
In kinship relations, other [people are part] of one’s own existence, and vice versa… There is a 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. (The Western Illusion of Human Nature)
09. French anthropologist, Levy-Bruhl, calls this phenomenon ‘participation mystique,’ the commingling of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ in Nature, an openness and fluidity between apparently separate entities, where human and non-human elements fuse, become one, and inter-animate one another.
10. We can find examples of such a conception alive even today as we look at remnant traditions among indigenous populations in Russia, right here in Altai.
11. We may now understand Dugin’s claim more positively, a Russian reticence in adopting a Western metaphysics and faith in the individual self. We may also better appreciate now Dugin’s view of Russia’s positioning with respect to modernity – the Russian is more viscerally grounded within the natural world.
12. So maybe Dostoyevsky was right about the darker, cooler, instinctual earthiness of the Russian psyche –- a soul drenched in the primacy of perception, the body, and the nature that nourishes it.
13. But then, perhaps Russia’s long-suffering mission still stands firm here in Siberia. Maybe Russia can recall mankind from the isolation of scientific rationality and the mechanistic worldview to which it gives rise… a worldview apparently marching with deliberate calculation toward global conflict and ecological collapse.
14. Finally, is it possible that this instinct, deeply embedded in the Russian soul, could re-ignite that faint memory lingering within each of us – a memory of our essential belonging to the earth, and the necessity of sharing it with one another? Maybe in this way Russia can help renew our natural bearings, reestablishing our awareness of a living, breathing cosmos.