What motivated you to write How Bad Writing Destroyed the World?
The idea evolved over time. While I was attending university I kept hearing about what an incredible, life-transforming experience it was to read Ayn Rand’s novels. Eventually I became curious enough to read The Fountainhead. The awfulness of the writing dumbfounded me, and I began to wonder what people could possibly be finding in there—it couldn’t be pleasures of an artistic order, so something else. As a graduate student I had to read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s history-making but horribly written novel What Is to Be Done? and I became immediately aware that its badness was akin to what I had found in Ayn Rand. I mean not merely the clunky prose style and android heroes, but the dictatorial, sermonizing tone, and the sense that questionable ideological values were being hawked practically for free. When I began to teach literature at Wellesley College some of my students kept naming Ayn Rand and Nabokov as their favourite writers, and I was dismayed that the two names were being spoken in the same breath. So I read Atlas Shrugged. Only then did I get it: Ayn Rand, while officially despising socialism, had found her most immediate literary inspiration in Russia’s homegrown socialist, Chernyshevsky. All of the same ideas, devices, images: the same rational egoism; the same utopian scheming, right down to weird details, like perpetual motion machines. Humankind would discover miraculous new metals, motors and professional relations that would allow them to re-shape the world in their own image. Do god’s work. Become the master of your destiny. Etc., etc. I knew that all of this nonsense had been a direct inspiration to Lenin, who had destroyed the Russian Empire under its heady influence. Suddenly I saw that Ayn Rand had done much the same thing in the US by programming Alan Greenspan with objectivism and unleashing him into our economy, where he deregulated everything to the point of disaster and beyond. That’s when the book took shape in my mind.
“Ayn Rand, while officially despising socialism, had found her most immediate literary inspiration in Russia’s homegrown socialist, Chernyshevsky. All of the same ideas, devices, images: the same rational egoism; the same utopian scheming…”
Your subtitle is provocative: ‘Ayn Rand the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis’. What might readers expect to find inside?
My book is set up as a paperchase, where the quarry is an idea. I start with the US congressional investigation blaming the financial crisis on Alan Greenspan’s deregulatory actions as Fed Chair, then trace this deregulation to Greenspan’s apostledom in Ayn Rand’s objectivist circle of the 1950s and 1960s. Continuing backward in time, I map Rand’s objectivism to Chernyshevsky’s philosophy of rational egoism, which he promoted in his novel What Is to Be Done?Then I begin to move forward again, toward the present, showing how Dostoevsky tried and failed to stomp out the fire Chernyshevsky had started in the minds of the intelligentsia, how the fire spread to become the Russian revolutionary movement, culminating with Lenin, then Stalin (i.e. genocide). Nabokov attempted to finish the job Dostoevsky had started and purge Russian culture of Chernyshevsky’s pernicious influence by including a merciless satire of Chernyshevsky in his last Russian novel, The Gift (1938), but it was too late: Ayn Rand was already resurrecting rational egoism as objectivism in the US, particularly in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The basic idea of my book is that policy makers sometimes find direct inspiration and even detailed instructions in novels. The deeper point is that the novel form offers propagandists some unique advantages, allowing them to control the minds of readers, some of whom may, alas, find themselves in a position of political leverage.
Why is it important to understand Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 text, What Is to be Done?
Lenin met with Plekhanov at the turn of the 20th century and saw that the great Russian Marxist had already written an entire shelf full of books. Returning home, Lenin realized that real revolutionaries wrote books and got to work. The first real book he wrote he named What Is to Be Done?, in honor of his favourite writer, Chernyshevsky. When people tried to point out to Lenin how abject, pretentious and stupid Chernyshevsky’s novel was, Lenin became indignant and asked them how they could doubt the talent of a book that had radicalized so many Russians, including Lenin’s brother and Lenin himself. One has to admit that What Is to Be Done? did convert many people into revolutionaries and cause terrible damage. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has done very much the same thing, radicalizing its readers, conditioning their minds, steeling them against philanthropic thoughts, converting them into ruthless corporate and political agents. The strangely effective formula Chernyshevsky hit upon and bequeathed to Ayn Rand was lifeless, robotic superheroes, programmed with rational selfishness, doggedly pursuing personal gain and constantly putting all irrational thoughts to death in their minds.
“One has to admit that What Is to Be Done? did convert many people into revolutionaries and cause terrible damage. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has done very much the same thing, radicalizing its readers, conditioning their minds, steeling them against philanthropic thoughts, converting them into ruthless corporate and political agents.”
Could you say a little bit about the role Dostoevsky plays in the book?
Dostoevsky’s role in this story is central and complicated. His apprehensions about the cataclysmic potential of Chernyshevsky’s novel proved absolutely lucid. His re-tooling of his writing into a deadly weapon in the fight against Chernyshevsky really was decisive in his evolution into a great writer. Dostoevsky’s wicked parodies of Chernyshevsky and of what I call the Western Idea (materialism, socialism, revolution) as a whole are brilliantly funny. At the same time Dostoevsky understood that he could not just cut down the opposition but must offer up as an alternative a positive vision for Russia. Hence his Russian Idea—and here is where Dostoevsky goes off the tracks and into the weeds. The Russian Idea is essentially the messianic and nationalist heresy that Russia has, for various reasons that I won’t go into here, become the “god-bearing people,” chosen by God to lead the world into a Christian future. Dostoevsky once remarked to a friend that it would be better to be dead than to live in a socialist phalanstery. A valid observation, but I’m not sure a religious utopia would be preferable to a socialist one, and Dostoevsky himself had his doubts.
In what ways do you think your recent book builds on your previous work, By Authors Possessed: The Demonic Novel in Russia?
By Authors Possessed described a tradition of Russian novels obsessed with the devil. My first book stood squarely in the territory of literary scholarship, and in it I never went farther than to show how the image of the author in these novels tended to become tainted with the same evil he was depicting. In How Bad Writing Destroyed the World I often step outside of literary scholarship and into history, where real people keep allowing their personalities to be overwritten by images out of books—and very appalling books at that.
Did you come across any shocks or surprises during your research?
I did come across some surprising things. Here’s one: In the files of the czar’s secret police are papers describing the interrogation of the members of Nikolai Ishutin’s terrorist cell, “Hell.” Starting in 1863, the year Chernyshevsky’s novel was first printed, the terrorists were attempting to become living incarnations of Chernyshevsky’s revolutionary superman, Rakhmetov. One fine night they came up with the term “mortus” by which they meant a czaricide-suicide. While Chernyshevskky doesn’t explicitly identify Rakhmetov as such, the Ishutinites interpreted him to be a mortus. Dmitry Karakozov’s (botched) attempt on the life of the czar in 1866 was intended to make him Hell’s first mortus. The surprise, though, was finding this strange word “mortus” in Nabokov’s novel The Gift. The protagonist, Fyodor, writes a biography of Chernyshevsky, which becomes the fourth of The Gift’s five chapters. In the fifth chapter an outraged critic attacks Fyodor’s wonderfully playful Chernyshevsky book, complaining that what literature needs is not witty satires of cherished literary men but “human documents.” The unfriendly critic’s name is… Mortus! The point seems to be that Chernyshevsky’s aesthetics were alive and well 75 years after the publication of What Is to Be Done? And alive in fact today, because what I am really describing in my book is how humans willingly become documents when they cede control of their minds to propagandastic novels.
What’s next for you?
I am currently working on a book about I.A. Richards. Richards is best known as one of the inventors of the “close reading” as a method of literary criticism. Much less known are his deep and, I think, disturbing connections with behavioral conditioning, outcome-based education and technocracy in general. Another utopian!
How Bad Writing Destroyed the World is available from Bloomsbury.