Do the Humanities Help Us Understand the World in Which We Live?

Readers of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy will better understand Putins's behavior and his response to Western disapproval if they remember those 19th century authors' deep skepticism of the Enlightenment's emphasis on logic and reason.
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What do the Humanities do? I would argue that they help us understand ourselves and the world in which we live. When we read, we listen to words, respond to behavior, and try to judge what people's mindset is. We "read" human behavior every day in our interaction with colleagues, family, friends, and public figures, and our reading improves our knowledge, perspicacity, judgment, and sensitivity. In other words reading helps us make sense of our lives and the world we live in.

Reading literature and experiencing music, dance, live theatre, and the visual arts are as much part of our life experience as other events and can have a similar impact. The Humanities contribute to our moral, historical, and political awareness; this occurs even if the events described in a literary text, a painting or sculpture, or an operatic or theatrical performance are more imaginative than factually accurate.

Thus Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1898), with its stress on European imperial greed and racist exploitation of Africans, helps us understand the history of the country now called the Democratic Republic of Congo -- formerly the Belgian Congo -- and to some extent other former colonies in Africa. E.M. Forster's Passage to India (1924) helps us understand India, particularly the continued divide between Muslims and Hindus and the more recent efforts in India to move beyond both its caste system and its colonial past to define itself as an inclusive democracy.

Let me turn to a current event, namely, Russian President Vladimir Putin's seizure of Crimea from the Ukraine. What follows is not an apology for Putin's outrageous and duplicitous behavior but an effort to understand it through the lens of literature.

Readers of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy will better understand Putins's behavior and his response to Western disapproval if they remember those 19th century authors' deep skepticism of the Enlightenment's emphasis on logic and reason. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy believed in the Russian destiny and the exceptionalism of the Russian soul. While Putin shares many of their beliefs, we will also see that he ignores some of the humanistic implications of their fiction.

Although steeped in a Marxism that can be seen as a product of Enlightenment thinking, Putin sees himself as a Slavophile living by passion, faith and intuition and unwilling to submit to Western views of reason and fairness. Reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I believe, helps us understand Putin's disdain for the West. What Westerners may see as Putin's arrogant belief in Russian destiny needs to be understood in terms of a nation that fears not merely Western domination but Western invasion.

Putin's acute xenophobia mixed with suspicion of Western ways of thinking were on display when he announced plans to absorb Crimea into the Russian Federation:

"Some Western politicians are already threatening us not just with sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. ... I would like to know what they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of 'national traitors,' or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent?"

According to David Herszenhorn, the author of the aforementioned article: "Widely expected to be enacted into law, the proposed cultural policy emphasizes that 'Russia is not Europe' and urges 'a rejection of the principles of multiculturalism and tolerance' in favor of emphasizing Russia's 'unique state-government civilization.'" Among other things, Putin, when evoking multiculturalism and tolerance as Western ideas, is expressing his disdain for homosexuals.

Putin's mindset owes a good deal to Napoleon's and Hitler's invasions of Russia and the historical memory of those events. The Napoleonic invasion was never far from the 19th Russian imagination, and that is particularly true in Dostoevsky's and especially Tolstoy's case. Even more timely for Putin is the more recent invasion by Hitler in World War II; although born in 1952, the historical and personal memories of the horrors of World War II were a defining part of the world in which he grew up.

Putin believes that once again the West wants to shrink Russia -- that is the greater Russian empire he imagines -- and that shrinkage has been going on since 1989. In his mind, the Russians lost no war but rather have been out-maneuvered to lose the peace. He detests any alliance between Ukraine and NATO. As he said March 18, 2014: "NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our own backyard; in our historic territory."

Putin claims to have read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and includes Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov among his favorite books. Whether he reads them carefully or read about them, he would have found in those authors strong evidence of national disunity, severe class division, decadence, alcoholism, and the need for transforming Russia by one means or another.

Dostoevsky cast his lot with the Slavophils who were skeptical of Western ideas and thought Russia needed to maintain its cultural distinctiveness, That distinctiveness included spirituality and mysticism, as well as disdain for measuring and categorizing humans by scientific theories that fail to take account of each individual's uniqueness. According to Robert G. Durgy: The Slavophils sought to dissociate Russia from the western influence and to discover her peculiarity in the old peasant commune that was believed to reveal her socialistic soul. Whereas the Westerners' doctrines were either frankly atheistic or at least are areligious, the Slavophils believed in the primacy of the moral and religious laws of the Russian Orthodox Church and favored a holistic, spontaneous reason over the lower logical and analytic reason they associated with western positivism. (Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, ed. with an introduction by Robert G. Durgy, trans. Serge Shiskoff. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969, xi-xii).

Dostoevsky is skeptical of the abstract reasoning and logic that he believed dominated Western Europe and in particular the Enlightenment. That is, Russia must find its own way derived from its own past and cultural traditions.

He was doubtful that the light of reason could effectively illuminate, organize, and understand human behavior by means of social and scientific theories. Dostoevsky was skeptical of western philosophical ideologies such as utilitarianism and political systems such as socialism or democracy that made rational claims about human behavior. He had great doubt that the scientific revolution would lead humankind to a better life or that humankind could step by step accumulate universal truths by evaluating hypotheses according to evidentiary tests. Nor did believe we can predict behavior from observation as if a human being were an experiment within -- to use a figure from Notes from Underground -- a laboratory retort. Nor did he believe, as did some of his Russian contemporaries who bought into Social Darwinism, that humans were upwardly evolving and fulfilling a teleological pattern to a perfected or at least a much-improved humanity.

He believed that the only way for humankind to contain man's darker impulses--self-love, passions, desires, and impulses to narcissistic and destructive behavior--is through belief in God. Dostoevsky is something of a mystic who believed in the Russian soul as an individual and collective entity.

In Notes from Underground (1864), Dostoevsky is sympathetic to his narrator's rebellion against logic and reason and various Western social formulae ranging from British utilitarianism (as defined by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham) with its concomitant Hedonic Calculus to the Romanticism of Rousseau with its idealization of human behavior. The Romantics believed humans were born with an inherent propensity toward the good and beautiful that, were humans not corrupted by society, could be maintained in a state of nature.
Dostoevsky understands that we humans do not always act logically and or in our self-interest. With few exceptions, most notably Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Dostoevsky's characters not only lack modesty, balance, and gradualism but also at times respond to passions and needs that they barely understand or control.

Let us consider how Dostoevsky proposes an alternative to Western thought. For most of Crime and Punishment (1866) we are in the world of chronological, linear time where we hear the clock ticking and ask what will happen next. However, within the novel, there is another alternative reality and that is the one that matters most to Dostoevsky: the timeless reality of God and salvation, a principle of inner order, patience and tranquility represented by Sonya. This is the world of faith and the Bible, specifically the account of the resurrection of Lazurus, which foreshadows Raskolnikov's transfiguration. Transfiguration takes place within significant time -- what the Greeks called kairos -- when the tick-tock of passing time doesn't matter. When Raskolnikov throws himself down at Sonya's feet in an act of humility, we are to understand that he experiences a transformation from immersion in the chronological world to awareness of this alternative, richer reality: "They were resurrected by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other" (Crime and Punishment. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1993; Epilogue II, 549).

Although his father was an atheist in keeping with Communist ideology, Putin was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church under his mother's auspices. Since the 1990s he seems to have embraced Russian Orthodoxy; he makes clear that he wears a cross around his neck that was given to him by his mother. Whether he believes or not, he wants the Russian people to see the cross as a link to the Slavophil tradition just as he wants to advertise his supposedly remarkable physical fitness and outdoor adventures -- including swimming in a cold Siberian river and other daring- do as alternatives to supposed Western decadence.

Let us turn to Tolstoy. Putin would certainly have found a source for Russian exceptionalism in Tolstoy's diagnosis of what is right and what is wrong with late 19th century Russia. Tolstoy's focus in both War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877) is Russia in the later nineteenth century after the freeing of the serfs in 1861 but still in the time of the Tsars. In the earlier novel, the focus is on the Napoleonic invasion and the perversion of Russian values by decadence that is often but not always of Western origin.

In War and Peace (1869), Tolstoy's narrator is often a surrogate expressing the author's views: major events do not depend upon a hero's will but upon a confluence of causes. History is an accident informed by God's will which humans cannot understand; military action is more often farcical than the fulfillment of a plan. Humans need to isolate a comprehensible concatenation of events from the historical mess.

What makes life meaningful is human love, but finally we need to recognize God's miraculous world. We think we control far more in our personal lives than we do. Selfishness is bad and self-immersed narcissism is worse, but some self-love is necessary to act effectively. Tolstoy's conservative view of Russia's social structure sees the great families as necessary guardians of serfs and peasants.

In the combination of the characters' empty social prattle, family ambitions, and manipulative and self-serving discourse in War and Peace, Putin would have seen Russian decadence and examples similar to contemporary cocktail parties of influential people and wannabes. Even as the upper classes speak French, the gathering storm is Napoleon's expanding empire. Quite ironically, the first words we hear are Anna Pavlovna's French. As Count Rastopchin sarcastically remarks in 1811 when the restive Napoleon is proving an unreliable and patronizing ally: "[F]ar be it from us to fight the French. . . .The French are our gods, and our kingdom of heaven is Paris" (War and Peace. Trans Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007; 2.5.iii.545).

Among the historical themes in both War and Peace and Anna Karenina that Putin evokes from Tolstoy is the greatness and specialness of Mother Russia with its own Slavic traditions and culture, including its traditional rural communities as opposed to the impersonality and frivolity of the modern city and urban life. Notwithstanding his own luxurious life style and his concept of "state capitalism," part of Putin's ideology is based on his appeal to the have-nots and to those who think traditional communism was better. In Anna Karenina, he would have found underemployed and marginally employed workers whose safety is not taken seriously, as in the case of the railroad watchman accidentally killed when Anna meets Vronsky for the first time.

Putin claims to be concerned with how Russia is to organize itself morally and spiritually. In Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin is a typifying character with historical resonance struggling with moral and economic issues facing large landowners once the serfs are freed. It is Levin's values that resonate with those of the other Tolstoy surrogate, the narrator. Tolstoy is scathingly critical of wasteful and dissolute ways of living by people of privilege. To an extent, Levin is the cultural answer to the triviality and superficiality of the world of Oblonsky, Vronsky, Anna, and her husband, Alexei Karenin.

Like his character Levin Tolstoy believes that the Russian nobility have special responsibilities to the less fortunate, but also believe that the Russian (Slavic) temperament and soul are different from those of Europeans. Levin's acceptance that he lives in a universe informed by God's presence transform Levin into a fully functional person.

Many of Levin's -- and Tolstoy's -- values are implicit in Putin's espoused program. Like Tolstoy, Putin is impatient with the compromise and sluggishness of democracy, and he claims that his mission is to extend economic welfare to the less fortunate.

Putin's appeal is to Russian Manifest Destiny and the purity of the Russian land, now polluted in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. When we join Levin in the country in Part Two of Anna Karenina . Chapters xii-xvii (151-173), it is as if Tolstoy takes us into a different, cleaner, and clearer world than the urban world of Part One. Tolstoy's view of urban life, contemporary fashions, and political machinations is very much that of Levin's. Tolstoy draws a strong contrast between what he sees as the superficiality of urban life and the substantive family oriented life of those who live on the land. It is almost as if the Russian soil is a mystical presence shaping character. Yes, Tolstoy can be a polemicist -- he hates triviality, licentiousness and sloth -- but understands intuitively that human behavior cannot always be controlled by reason.

The question is whether Putin is misreading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and doing so to cater to reductive and simplistic solutions that serve his own purposes. For there are also significant differences between Putin and both these authors, and, given the positivism of Marxist theory, we can see the irony of Putin's invoking both of them. Moreover, while Tolstoy undermines the great man theory and sees much of history as accident, Putin sees himself as larger-than-life figure unifying Russia in the wake of the terrible and catastrophic break up of the USSR in 1991.

We might remember, when thinking about Putin's self-concept bordering on megalomania that Tolstoy detests Napoleon's megalomania, ambition, solipsism and self-immersion. Tolstoy presents Napoleon as a vain foolish man who is in over his head. He mocks Napoleon's invading Russia -- he sarcastically calls Napoleon "that genius of geniuses" (4.2 viii.1001) -- and thinks every major decision Napoleon made was wrong-headed. In Christianity and Patriotism (1896), he wrote, "No feats of heroism are needed to achieve the greatest and most important changes in the existence of humanity."

Putin has done everything possible to remain close to the now independent nations that once composed the U.S.S.R. He plays on what he believes is the Russian desire for strong leadership, but Tolstoy was ironic about the transfiguring presence of a Czar, and both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were in fact far more concerned with spiritual values, the moral qualities of the individual, and the specialness of Russia under the auspices of God and less with power than the Machiavellian and xenophobic Putin who often appeals in his intolerance to diversity -- whether in his attitude towards sexual orientation or political opinions -- to the lowest common denominator of the Russian sensibility. He may see himself as an heir to the Tsars and the charismatic Lenin and Stalin, but we see him as a deluded man following his passions. When it comes to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, he is misreading the literary and historical analogies he invokes and ignores the essential humanism that shapes their view of personal relationships.

Author of the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which recently appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century. He blogs on higher education and the media for The Huffington Post. He can be reached at and followed on twitter at danRSchwarz and

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