Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

The Revolt Against The Wall, by Ricardo Nirenberg.


1.  The Wall.  Amid the anguish and the mad reiteration on TV of planes crashing against the towers of the World Trade Center in New York, my mind countered with another violent image: Dostoevsky’s Wall.  In 2001 I had been reading and writing on the subject of some uses and interpretations of Dostoevsky’s wall, so there was some reason for the echo; I find it more surprising that it took five years for me to associate the two images in a less contingent fashion, through the idea of rebellion or revolt.

Dostoevsky’s wall is presented in his Notes From the Underground.  It makes its first appearance seven pages into the story:

“By the way: facing the wall, such gentlemen—that is, the ‘direct’ persons and men of action—are genuinely nonplussed.  For them a wall is not an evasion, as for us people who think and consequently do nothing; it is not an excuse for turning aside, an excuse for which we are always very glad, though we scarcely believe in it ourselves, as a rule.  No, they are nonplussed in all sincerity.  The wall has for them something tranquilizing, morally soothing, final—maybe even something mysterious … but of the wall later.”

Two pages on, Dostoevsky expands on what his character means by the wall:

“Though in certain circumstances these gentlemen bellow their loudest like bulls, though this, let us suppose, does them the greatest credit, yet, as I have said already, confronted with the impossible, they subside at once.  The impossible means the stone wall!  What stone wall?  Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics.  As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling, accept it for a fact.  When they prove to you that in reality one drop of your own fat must be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow-creatures, and that this conclusion is the final solution of all so-called virtues and duties and all such prejudices and fancies, then you have to accept it, there is no help for it, for twice two is a law of mathematics.  Just try refuting it.

“‘Upon my word,’ they will shout at you, ‘it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four!  Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions.  A wall, you see, is a wall … and so on, and so on.

“Merciful heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason, I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four?  Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.”

Dostoevsky claims it is stone, yet his wall, as you can see, is of a mixed fabric—laws such as gravitational attraction, together with the view that we only care for our own self, together with the assertion that we are “descended from a monkey,” and including propositions of a totally different, conventional order, such as “twice two is four,” which recurs, like wallpaper.  “The laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics,” those are the enemies—enemies of what?—of our freedom, or, to use the same word as the  Man from the Underground: of our whims, our caprice.  The dominant ideology of the nineteenth century held that natural science would be ever expanding, and leave no room for free will.  As Karl Popper put it (Objective Knowledge, Oxford, 1972, p. 222):

“Physical determinism, we might say in retrospect, was a daydream of omniscience which seemed to become more real with every advance of physics until it became an apparently inescapable nightmare.”

The Man from the Underground, Dostoevsky’s thoroughly unsavory, almost repulsive hero, insists on awakening from that apparently inescapable nightmare, and on those grounds he can be called the paradigmatic nineteenth-century European rebel.

But can we can properly apply the word rebel to the radical Islamists who demolished the walls of the New York towers, and who keep killing themselves and others?  Or are they revolutionaries?  Aren’t there apter words for them perhaps, such as terrorist or nihilist?  André Glucksmann in his 2002 book, Dostoïevski à Manhattan, does not have Notes from the Underground in mind, nor the Man from the Underground, but rather the later Dostoevsky’s novel The Devils, and draws parallels between the Russian radicals, those devils, and the jihadists.

2.  The Western Rebel.  One difficulty in answering questions such as the above is that of all possible notions, rebellion or revolt, as it has been understood in the West, is the least amenable to generalizing discourse.  If a general, defining rule were found, a self-respecting Western rebel should aspire to be the exception to that rule.  This means that each revolt must be examined in its unique, exceptional self, and studies such as Albert Camus’ classic of 1951, L’Homme révolté, can be, if at all, of limited value.  We may grant to Camus that a rebel is saying NO to something, grounded on a YES to some principle or part of his own self, his beßern Ich—his better I (let us hope), for a groundless NO sounds childish.  But I find the mock-Cartesian “Je me révolte, donc nous sommes” both 1950s-voguish and a poor joke, and when, 323 pages into Camus’s book I read that, “In the limit, a man devoured by the burning desire to endure and to possess must wish sterility or death for all beings he has loved.  That is the true rebellion,” at that point I find myself wincing, and recall that already in his novel, L’Etranger, Camus blasphemed, “All wholesome beings have more or less desired the death of their loved ones.”   Camus, I feel, is wrong-headed; vraie révolte, for one thing, is oxymoronic: there can be no general rule, no such thing as the true rebellion.  If rebellion is by nature perverse, it is so in uncharted, contingent, unpredictable ways: in Nietzsche’s YES, for instance, echoes the rebellious negation of Schopenhauer’s NO.

How about bestowing on  jihadists the term revolutionaries?  When, to Louis XVI’s question, “C’est une révolte?”, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt replied, “Non, Sire, c’est une révolution”, he presumably had in mind some difference between the two.  The modern, Western sense of the word “revolution” seems to be no older than the English one of 1688, and may be characterized as a discontinuous, important change in a political system, whereas “revolt” and “rebellion” seem to be more individual or isolated, and not to imply or intend any systemic change.  Slaves rebel against their masters, a hungry crowd loots a store, without aiming at overturning the property laws.  Modern Western rebels do not care to be right.  “Revolution,” on the other hand, has scientific pedigree and pretensions, having dwelt for a long time in the sky and in the eternal rounds of the stars.

The tendency to put system above individual, the general before particulars, and the necessary above the contingent, corresponds to valuing revolution as superior to revolt.  The French revolutionaries, who adored concepts like Man and Reason, agreed, in that respect, with the duke, and revolutions acquired a still more august superiority when presented as steps, or rather leaps, along the ineluctable route of human history, in the march toward freedom, justice, absolute truth, and the self-revelation of the Geist.  It may be argued that “revolution” is merely our name for successful rebellions, and “rebellion” the brand triumphant revolutions stamp on anything less than blind support.  In any event, and to avoid endless cavil, let us state: revolutions are meant to address grievances, rebellion tackles grief.  Whether or not the poet Robert Frost was right, that grievances can be remedied but grief is irremediable, it is clear that in one case we stand on right and on clean, legitimate grounds for complaint, but in the other, in rebellion, we lie bruised and naked on soiled straw, like Job, or in the words of another poet, “we have come where thought accuses and feeling mocks.”

3.  Hegel As the Wall.  It stands to reason, then, that Marx and Engels, the main authorities of revolution in our age, were disciples of Hegel, the great champion of all-embracing system. And perhaps it stands to reason, too, that every memorable revolt in the 19th century has been a rejection of Hegel, and a move against systematic thought.  This last statement, however, needs clarification.  Skepticism in any of its varieties, even when it denies the possibility of systematic knowledge and insofar as it acquiesces in those, or any, limits for reason, can seldom be called rebellious.  On the other hand, Schopenhauer’s thought, usually said to be systematic, is rebellious in the following sense: having posited Will as the thing-in-itself, the essence and mover of the world, he says we ought to renounce Will, we ought to say NO to our essence.  Why?  Because Will is grief.  To this ethical imperative there’s the obvious logical objection that such a renunciation of the will is itself an operation of the will, that the beßern Ich in whose name I should say NO to my Ich, is itself part of my Ich.  Schopenhauer’s reply to this objection is that there can be no reply: renouncing Will transcends reason, but on this we must remain silent, for there no lógos can reach.  Even without the abuse Schopenhauer piled on Hegel, the preceding would be enough to set them irreconcilably apart.

Revolt in the West, to repeat, aspires to be unique.  Yet already in the one example of Schopenhauer we find two elements which will be always present in what we may call the modern radical revolt, at least among Western thinkers.  Let me itemize them.  (a) First, a metaphysical system is needed, a theory about the roots of being, a way-things-naturally-are-and-cannot-be-otherwise, what the ancient Greeks called anágke and what Dostoevsky in his Notes from the Underground called “The Wall;” for if there is no such wall, there is nothing for the radical rebel to rebel against, there is no fulcrum or Archimedean point.  Revolution claims the wall as a valuable part of its edifice, but the rebel abhors the wall and prefers to bang its head against it.  (b) In the second place, the radical rebel identifies the wall, that aparently inescapable nightmare, with universal grief. 

In (a) above we already meet the contradictory element, which in Schopenhauer, as we saw, is the will willing itself away.  In general, for the rebel to abhor the wall, to bang his head against the roots of being, is for him to set himself against himself, qua being; it is for him to stand in contradiction to himself.  Revolt is illogical, hence it cannot be justified or accounted for.  When the anguished King Mark asks Tristan, “Why?  Why?  The unfathomably deep and secret cause, who will reveal it to the world?,” Richard Wagner, inspired by Schopenhauer, has Tristan reply, in what to me is the most moving scene of Tristan und Isolde, “O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen; und was du frägst, das kannst du nie erfahren.”  That is to say, “O King, that I am unable to tell you; and what you ask, you can never find out.” Those, then, are the two elements of modern radical revolt in the Western tradition.

It would be vain to try to establish a complete genealogy of Revolt from Adam and Eve on; the Buddha rebelled against the Will long before Schopenhauer, and Meister Eckart taught, in the name of God, the need for ridding ourselves of our need for God: perhaps all negative theologies inhabit the same paradox.  All the same, it is noteworthy that modern radical revolt arose, in the West and in the period of one generation, as a reaction against Hegel and his system.  After Schopenhauer, Emerson and Kierkegaard come immediately to mind; a bit later, the less popular Max Stirner.  Camus mentions him in L’Homme révolté, and in a negative way Stirner is emblematic of modern revolt, since Marx and Engels, the prophets of modern Revolution, singled him out for protracted attack in The German Ideology.  Saint Max, they called him sarcastically.

Starting as a disciple of Hegel, Stirner became the advocate for revolt against the rational prestige of revolution. His book of 1845, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum which can be rendered as “The Unique and its Property” or “The Ego and his Own” sets the uniqueness of our ego as the supreme value, and devalues revolution as merely reformatory.  In revolution it is not the unique individual who acts, but a people, a tyrannical sovereign nation in the name of tyrannical reason or the Hegelian Geist. My irreplaceable self, however, is valued infinitely higher than nation, reason, Geist.  In the name of this unique I, the beßern Ich, I must say No to my natural, experiential I.

“If reason rules, then the person succumbs,” writes Stirner (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, p. 105), and further on (pp. 147-8) he expands:

“But I am neither the champion of a thought nor the champion of thinking; for ‘I,’ from whom I start, am not a thought, nor do I consist in thinking.  Against me, the unnamable, the realm of thoughts, thinking, and mind is shattered.”

Stirner’s  I is unique not in the sense the number 3 is unique, a logical uniqueness issued from the concept of equality; no, the uniqueness of his I is prior to logic and to conceptual thought, and so it is “unnamable,” as well as immediately graspable.  Samuel Beckett, our contemporary great radical rebel, used the same word, “The Unnamable,” as the title of the third novel in his trilogy, to designate the I previous to all the soliloquies and stories I tells to itself.  Stirner’s prelogical I, then, enables him to escape the soliloquies and stories which start from our desire for the other’s desire, our need for recognition (for what could a consciously unique self need an other’s recognition for?)  It becomes the weapon of his rebellion against Hegel.

To be freed from Hegel’s system of progressive negations, Stirner could not settle with reason setting reasonable boundaries to reason and thought criticizing itself (thereby attaining a higher level); he went further and beyond, deprived thought of all prerogative, and deposed conceptual knowledge from its exalted throne. Whether or not the attitude which Plato called “misology” is actually necessary if we want to rid ourselves of the Hegelian incubus, in any case Stirner thought it was.  He writes:

“Criticism is the possessed man’s fight against possession as such, against all possession: a fight which is founded in the consciousness that everywhere possession, or, as the critic calls it, a religious and theological attitude, is extant.  He knows that people stand in a religious or believing attitude not only toward God, but toward other ideas as well, like right, the State, law; he recognizes possession in all places.  So he wants to break up thoughts by thinking; but I say, only thoughtlessness really saves me from thoughts.  It is not thinking, but my thoughtlessness, or I the unthinkable, incomprehensible, that frees me from possession.”

“A sudden jerk does me the service of the most anxious thinking, a stretching of the limbs shakes off the torment of thoughts, a leap upward hurls from my breast the nightmare of the religious world, a jubilant Hoopla throws off year-long burdens.  But the monstrous significance of unthinking jubilation could not be recognized in the long night of thinking and believing.”

Jerks and leaps may have done the job for Stirner; Dostoevsky’s Underground Man would have purposely gone mad, if necessary, so he says, to liberate himself from the tutelage of reason, as reason was understood by Hegel and his followers.  The Hegelian system became the Wall, synonymous with universal grief, the wall which all 19th-century radical rebels hurled themselves against.

4.  The Wall into the 20th Century.  We may object that those radical rebels did not look at reason the right way, that reason does not have to be embodied in a monolith like the Hegelian system, that two time two is not always four and the sum of the angles of a triangle is not always 180 degrees, that no logical system is God-given, that today we have Pragmatism, non-Euclidean geometries, quantum mechanics, Derrida, etc., etc.  True.  But what matters here is that reason is presented as such a monolithic wall by some, and others believe it is so, and for those latter it conforms an apparently inescapable nightmare.  The faith, the thoroughly mad but fervent faith in the possibility of awakening from that nightmare into freedom (however logically contradictory their notion of freedom may have been), was still burning in some hearts all through the 20th century.

The Russian philosopher Lev Shestov (born in Kiev, 1866; died in Paris, 1938) proclaimed that Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground are “the true Critique of Pure Reason” rather than Kant’s.  To the fabric of Dostoevsky’s wall Shestov added the irreversible and irremediable nature of time: once something happens, it becomes a factum that can’t be changed.  We must revolt against the wall, against the facticity of facts, and our rebellion requires a faith which, like Tertullian’s, must be the stronger for its absurdity.   A sufficiently strong faith may undo what has been done.  But to be effective, this faith, like any force, requires a fulcrum, a firm hold; it must be exerted from the strongest part of the wall: from an extreme situation, from a surplus of grief.  Shestov’s hope, then, is that from the depths of depair we may be suddenly awakened into a world of pure freedom, and that is why he has been called “the Russian existentialist.”  Remarkably, Shestov set more hope on those who rejected his writings than on those who easily accepted them, for these latter did not grasp the solidity of the wall he was struggling against, and therefore could not possibly understand his thought nor the nature of his rebellion.

The poet Benjamin Fondane (born in Jassy, Romania, 1899) moved to Paris in the early 1920s, where he became Shestov’s only disciple, precisely because he happened to be the only one who understood that the Wall was unbreakable and that sharing in Shestov’s faith required consenting to an excess of grief.  It is our own scream which awakens us, so he understood, from the Hegelian nightmare.  And thus for him the scream becomes a method: “Le cri comme méthode”.  Fondane died in Auschwitz, gassed by the Nazis in 1944, a death which he had foretold and which he could have avoided, but he refused to do so.

Here we encounter the dire antinomy of revolt: the refusal of convention becomes a convention, the rejection of norm, a norm, and the inarticulate scream or moan eventually acquires the impersonal functions, the readiness to hand, of the linguistic symbol.  To express himself, the cornered rebel might resort to terror: "shoot into a crowd," as André Breton recommended (the Hegelian dictator of Surrealism was often Fondane’s chosen enemy.) But then the moan, the inarticulate scream, would not be his; the only hope to save my moans, my screams, from becoming formal, banal and suspect, is to back them by self-sacrifice.

Some possible rationales, if it makes sense to speak of rationales when it comes to self-sacrifice, are these.  We can tell a Western radical rebel such as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man,

“You are full of contempt for the laws of nature and the laws of man, even for the laws of logic.  You say you aspire to freedom from all those.  But you must be aware of the law which Spinoza formulated in Part III of his Ethics: ‘Everything, in so far as it is in itself, endeavors to persist in its own being.’  Every man is aware of it, and call it the law of self-preservation.  It controls your behavior much more strictly and persistently than twice two is four.  Well, you are not against that law, are you?  At least, it doesn’t look to us like you are.” 

At which point the Underground Man has only two options: violate the logical principle against contradiction—heaven forfend!—or prove, by forfeiting his life, that he is indeed consistent to the last. 

Or take the serious seeker after faith, who claims that if he only had enough of it, that which has been done could be undone.  He may not take his own life solely in the expectation that it will be given back to him, for such an act would be tantamount to tempting the powers who bestow, but, should the occasion come to meet death face to face, he will not try to evade it but he will interpret the event as a call from above, a summon to sacrifice, and respond like Abraham, “Here I am.”

In any case, if he is not to stand condemned of bad faith, the radical rebel must be ready to lay down his life at a moment’s call.  This is not the case with those who are not radical rebels, who abide by (some) rules and are not obsessed by walls: Archimedes of Syracuse and Hypatia of Alexandria may have been killed because they were too absorbed in mathematics, but they did not voluntarily surrender their lives, and they had no reason to; and of course we have the famous example of Galileo, who chose to recant, since he knew that nothing he said or did could alter the fact that our planet moves and is not fixed at the center of the cosmos.

The increased solidity of the Wall in the 20th century, and the correspondent surfeit of grief, were of course not limited to the texts of poets and philosophers.  The advances in technology and the correspondent advances in systematic stupidity made the wall millions of times more solid, the grief incomparably more demeaning.  Stalin once put it unsurpassably vividly.  When, during the purges of 1938, Kamenev refused to “confess,” an NKVD professional went to Stalin with the news that Kamenev “didn’t yield to persuasion.”  Stalin asked him what was the weight, literally, of the whole Soviet state.  The poor bureaucrat had no idea how to take that.  “Put together factories, machines, the army, the tanks, the heavy guns, the battleships, and so on,” Stalin urged him; “how many tons does all that weigh, when it is put together?”  The goon could only surmise that such weight would be “an astronomical figure.”  Whereupon Stalin asked whether a man could possibly withstand the pressure of an astronomical weight, and advised the terrified torture expert not to come back until he had Kamenev’s “confession” in his briefcase. 

5.  Walls Made in the U.S.A.  When the Berlin wall came down in 1989, it seemed as if an astronomical weight had been lifted from the backs of many people in many nations.  “A new world order” was proclaimed by the American president, who naturally went for the phrase inscribed in dollar bills; “a new dawn” was expected by those with a weakness for the well-worn; freedom for all seemed to be tantalizingly around the corner.

But it was not to be.  The Wall had become an indispensable fixture of the world, and perhaps this should not be surprising in itself, if we consider that people with a rebellious bent will raise a ferocious outcry and demand to be given their fulcrum back, and that those with a conformist heart are bound to feel disoriented, depressed and dispossessed, without their full habitual complement of boundaries and ramparts.  What may appear surprising is the nature of the fabric: the new wall, rushed in to replace the crumbled one of Berlin, turns out to be built with the same materials, I mean, with the same arrogant, pseudo-rational Hegelian stuff.  Yes, it may be naïve of me, but I find it astounding that the book which apparently had the most influence on the disastrous policies of the present U.S. Republican administration was a Hegelian tract, The End of History and the Last Man.  Just as Hegel proclaimed the end of art, and Marx & Engels decreed the end of idealistic philosophy, Francis Fukuyama announced to the world the end of all ideologies and therefore the end of history, on the grounds that the American system and the globalized market are already satisfying all human needs.  “All human needs,” we should specify, are identified and listed in Hegel’s Phenomenology and in Kojève Lectures; that is to say, the needs common to animals (hunger, sex, etc.), plus the human need for recognition, which means the need to be persuaded that others are desiring what you are and what you have.

Thus, from Washington, DC, Fukuyama, PhD in Political Science (Harvard) proclaims the end of history.  Just as Hegel’s “end of art” did not mean that you couldn’t write a poem if you wanted to, but only that your poem would have no real importance, would be nothing earth-shaking, “the end of history” doesn’t mean that a new prophet cannot arise, someone preaching a new idea of being and life; no, it just means that all would-be-prophets will be henceforth merely calling in the desert, banging their heads against the impassable wall of present arrangements.  Imagine, for illustration, a bottle containing a gas at a certain temperature, say 65F; now imagine that one of the molecules in the gas goes nuts and decides to start moving at a much higher speed than all the others: it will crash against the walls of the bottle much more frequently than the others, but that will not make the slightest difference in the temperature of the gas, which depends only on the average speed of the molecules, and not on one—or even a few million of them—going nuts.  To continue the simile, it is in Washington, DC, that the temperature of the gas in the bottle is decided and set, whether it is going to be 65F or something else.  And so it is on such grounds, laid out by luminaries including Francis Fukuyama and his colleague Paul Wolfowitz, that U.S. soldiers are shipped off to establish democracy in Iraq.

As always, hybris or arrogance of reason consists either in trying to impose rational views on what human nature ought to be, or in positing necessity, anágke, briefly a wall, where, if you look more carefully, you will find only a bunch of arbitrary, contingent human decisions.  It is on the basis of arbitrary professional decisions, for instance, that to get a PhD in Political Science one must read Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Hegel, but one may safely ignore Cervantes, Dostoevsky or Kafka.  Pity, because a less biased education might have taught our decision-makers that unbreachable walls invite breaching, that human beings are not molecules in a bottle of gas, that they are so perverse that often it is enough to tell them, “This is the way the world is going,” for them to try to go in the opposite direction, or, “There’s nothing you can do, this wall is impenetrable,” for them to crash themselves to death against that wall.

Last thing I’ve heard, the President of the U.S. has signed off on the building of a wall along the border with Mexico.



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