I am an inveterate reader of Russian novels. Yes, it’s strange. The vast country, the traditions which refuse to die, the cold darkness of winters; it’s all as alien to me as the most baroque fantasy novel. However, staring into words written long before my grandfather was born I’m struck by the oracular properties.
Let me explain:
In our modern age, the vast rising tide of prosperity and merit has floated all our boats. Even the poorest denizen of an American ghetto has access to pleasures and distractions that the long lost aristocrats would envy. Whereas before, for the vast majority of mankind, there was nothing but hardscrabble grasping, the ever present specter of death and loss and the comfort of a world beyond, now there is now nothing that cannot be experienced or had, even as a second-hand virtual proxy.
Given these gifts, what is anyone with a modicum of talent, perception and a distaste for the social orthodoxies of the time to do? A man of talent, born of nothing in the past, would strive to turn over tables, to carve a niche denied him from his birth, or travel to some new unknown spot on the globe where the rules had yet to be written and the social order yet to be decided. What did he have to lose? A man of talent born into wealth and power, with every opportunity given to him and all his flailing against the strictures of his preordained role at the top of the heap forgiven as part of his birthright, what could he possibly do? Live a life of dissolution or of apathy. There’s nothing he can lose other than his money or his life.
Now, each and everyone of us are born as possible great men. If you are smart and talented, there is a place for you at the table, with its duties and expectations. No one will be denied anything, except the ability to exist outside of the system. You can even pretend you are changing the world, there’s a place for that, with its own rules and expectations. And if you think it’s all bunk? There are countless cheap distractions and drugs to numb you. The system of the world has seen to it, and now the world is all playing by the same rule book, except for the deadenders holding to their religions and outdated ideologies in the face of a smiling suit-coated man with a briefcase full of dollars in one hand and a book of “universal laws” in the other, all to the soundtrack of pop music in multiple languages playing on countless flatscreen televisions.
We are all superfluous men now. Pechorins, Oblamovs, Onegins, Ivan and Dmitri Karamazovs. We chase after women, stay in our houses and pretend we are electronic soldiers of fortune, write missives that most will never read, drink and drug the time away. Dead souls who refuse to be cogs and apps, yet lack the wherewithal or desire to break the machine. In the past, maybe, we had nothing to lose, now we dissatisfied aristocrats of merit have nothing to gain.