Sympathy for the Devil?

Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun book section claims, “Almost seven years after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, readers still display a surprising hunger for the definitive ‘9/11 novel.’ If fiction cannot cope with the biggest event of our lifetimes, then its long-prophesied death is surely at hand.”

Kirsch, respected critic for The Sun, finds the genre has failed.

“[t]he best novels in [the 9/11] genre eschew…direct psychologizing. Instead of delving into the mind of the terrorist and coming up empty-handed, they concentrate on the more comprehensible experience of the victim and the bystander.” Why is it that our novelists, despite their best efforts, cannot write a politically informed, psychologically convincing book about Islamic terrorism? Why is it so difficult to bring such a terrorist to life on the page?

Kirsch later laments that today’s writers have no “inner sympathy” the terrorist. Quite a surprise in The Sun, a paper well-known for its conservative perspective. Let’s go back to Russia to see what he means.

Kirsch uses this overview of 9/11 literature to introduce a new translation of Dostoyevsky’s “Demons”, a “perennially relevant book about the seductiveness of political evil.”

The Russian writer’s “experience of the psychology and milieu of the revolutionaries led him to become their outspoken foe, to the point that he became known as a leading reactionary and Slavophile. Yet like so many great conservatives, his writing was always marked by his early radicalism.”

Dostoyevsky’s goal…was to “have it out with the younger generation” of radicals, “in total frankness and with no fooling.” Yet he was also able to say, “I could probably never have become a Nechayev [who convinced 4 fellow revolutionaries to kill the 5th of their group]. But a Nechayevite? Though I can’t be sure, I possibly might have become one in my young days.” And this inner sympathy is what marks the difference between Dostoyevsky’s novel of terror and those of his 21st-century descendants. There is no way to imagine men as worldly, rational, and sensual as Mr. Updike and Mr. Amis ever being tempted by the fanatical puritanism of an Osama bin Laden. They can only write about Islamic fundamentalism from the outside, conceiving it in intellectual, approximate terms. When Dostoyevsky wanted to create a terrorist, on the other hand, he could look into his own soul.

If contemporary novelists have not produced a comparable book about the terrorists we face today, the reason may be that the variety of evil that confronts us is so unalluring. There is hardly an American of any political persuasion who sympathizes with Al Qaeda’s vision of Islamic theocracy. Dostoyevsky’s lesson is that it is when evil comes to us wearing the mask of goodness — as it has so often in the past, and certainly will again the future — that we have to be most on our guard.

Any current writer who can speak to would be jihadists with the Russian’s bitter wisdom would necessarily come from the Arabic-speaking world. He or she would probably agree that the modernization projects of the 1950s to today have failed but still sees something vital in the process.

For Dostoyevsky, the antidote to the revolutionary spirit and its “forms of moral decay” rest with “enigmatic possibilities of redemption, through self-sacrificing love or self-abnegating faith.” Unfortunately, in the 150 years since his near-execution and Siberian exile, the revolutionary spirit overtook his society and his virtuous antidotes lay frozen in Siberian snow for future forced-laborers to discover. (See Solzhenitsyn)

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