In the wave of news about the terrorist attacks Friday night in Paris, I was struck by a reference to a book – not available in English, unfortunately – from the French philosopher André Glucksmann.
Glucksmann wrote a book called “Dostoevsky in Manhattan,” in which “he insisted that modern terrorism, including Islamic terrorism, is nihilist before it is religious and even before it is political.” That’s Adam Gopnik’s description of the book, in a post for The New Yorker.
Gopnik continues, channeling Glucksmann:
He attached its motives to the terrorism of the century before—to the violence, which Dostoevsky and Conrad dramatized so well, which redounds not to a political end but with a wild vengeance and the existential message, “I kill, therefore I am.” Certainly, the communiqué in French from ISIS, taking responsibility for the mass murders—the blind assaults on the stadium, the rock concert, the cafés, none of them exactly haunts of the wealthy—had, for all its apparent political logic, a deeper ring of unleashed rage and blood madness, down to the ancient fury at the existence of Paris as a place of pleasure.
When George W. Bush posed the question in the wake of 9/11 “Why do they hate us?” he answered “They hate our freedoms.” Implicit in the former President’s answer was the idea that no rational, sane or decent person could hate freedom. Therefore, the terrorists of 9/11 were irrational, and the question of “why” was really a question of pathology, a way of diagnosing sickness.
Of course, there is another, more disturbing way of looking at this.
We wish to believe that freedom, secular society, progress, music, science, sport make up the natural tendency of humanity. The Islamic state is the most extreme incarnation of the counter-argument: if you take Glucksmann seriously – and you should – then the question is unavoidable: what’s behind “a deeper ring of unleashed rage and blood madness?”
Perhaps this. An alternate vision of how the world works, one awful to contemplate but with its own cold rationality. George Orwell’s 1984 is, as always, prescient. Here, the key speech of O’Brien, as he tortures Winston Smith:
Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything.
Movements like the Islamic state will eventually fall apart, implode; they are inherently unstable. But what if they aren’t and don’t? What if they gain strength from the slaughter?