31 - 03 - 2003
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Why do you return to the work of Dostoevsky to explain the terrorism of the 20th and 21st centuries?
André Glucksmann: In Dostoïevski à Manhattan I pose a philosophical question: what is the ‘idea’, the characteristic form of modern terrorism? And my answer is: nihilism.
Socrates asked: what do a beautiful woman, a beautiful vase and a beautiful bed have in common? His answer: the idea of beauty. My question is: what do extremist ideologies like the communism or Nazism of yesteryear and the Islamism of today have in common? After all, they support ostensibly very different ideals – the superior race, mankind united in socialism, the community of Muslim believers (the Umma). Tomorrow, it could be altogether different ideals: some theological, some scientific, others racist. But the common characteristic is nihilism.
The root element is the attitude that anything
goes, particularly when with regard to ordinary people: I can do whatever I
want, without scruples. Goehring put it like this: my consciousness is Adolf
Hitler. Bolsheviks said: man is made of iron. And the Islamists whom I visited
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: And this took you back to Dostoevsky?
André Glucksmann: It is the highest achievement of Russian literature in particular that it has revealed this kernel of human experience in which ‘everything is allowed’. In Dostoevsky’s The Possessed there are atheists and believers (a figure like Shatov for example) who have very different outlooks on the future. But they share one thing in common: the right to kill, to burn, to overturn, in order to achieve tabula rasa.
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: When Dostoevsky talks about the devils, or the possessed, he still seems to be guided by the idea that evil is something which captures man from outside. The main protagonist Stavrogin, for example, even talks about the devil’s appearances.
André Glucksmann: Actually, the beautiful thing about Stavrogin is that you don’t really know him. You don’t know if he believes in God or not. In the end, what surprised me was to find that he is a little like bin Laden; he might be very cynical, or fanatical, nobody really knows.
The inner nature of this nihilistic terrorism is that everything is permissible, whether because God exists and I am his representative, or because God does not exist and I take his place. That is what I find so impressive about Dostoevsky: he is a secret, a riddle.
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: The group of conspirators at the centre of The Possessed seems, from the outside, to have both a coherent programme and a great deal of charisma. From the inside, on the other hand, all that remains is a fascination with destruction. And this fascination develops its own dynamic, pulling everyone under its spell. Destruction takes over as the group’s raison d’etre, while some of those involved still believe it is about the content and messages it offers.
André Glucksmann: Yes, there are several different layers of nihilists. There are the ‘outer’ nihilists who follow and believe, and then there are the nihilists at the centre of the action, the activists who pursue the logic of destruction. Dostoevsky has shown this very well indeed, as has Turgenev, in the persona of Bazarov. Or take Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse figure. These destructive personalities have coherence precisely because they are not idealists. Their coherence derives from the logic of destruction. In a linguistic sense it is performative, and therefore self-endorsing.
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Surely Dostoevsky contradicts nihilism to the extent that he is still arguing for a religious solution, a renewal of belief – a point that would be a bit difficult to make today?
André Glucksmann: This is very arguable indeed, and would require a much longer examination of Dostoevsky’s work. I think you are right from the ideological point of view. Dostoevsky was conservative, he believed in Greater Russia, and he was also an anti-Semite. But in his literary work as opposed to his essays, he is much more subtle and complicated. Dostoevsky completely submerged himself in his writing. His literary work is more difficult, but less dogmatic.
Religion as such is surely not the ‘solution’ in this part of his oeuvre. Take the Grand Inquisitor who is a religious man but a catastrophe at the same time. And someone very much influenced by Dostoevsky, the great theologian Vladimir Soloviev, concludes in his Dialogue of 1900 that there is a strong connection between Orthodoxy, eastern theosophy and Catholicism, one that has been very irritating for all sides.
‘Long live death!’: religious shell, nihilist kernel
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Let’s go back to nihilism as you have characterised it. If you include Islamic terrorism in nihilism as you have done in Dostoevsky in Manhattan then you must accept the objection that Islamism is peculiar in presenting itself in the cloth of religion, a spiritual mission.
André Glucksmann: Yes, but you can also find a missionary zeal driving those Russian nihilists who wanted Greater Russia, or at another time the Great Revolution. There are many missions; what is much more difficult to pin down is the actual practice, the approach. For it is in their approach as activists that religious nihilism, dialectical materialist nihilism or Nazi nihilism are the same.
Religion is only the cloth, the excuse and the justification. What is essential is the practice. For there is a direct connection between the Islamic suicide bomber and the general serving under Franco who shouted out in front of the University of Salamanca: “Long live death!” This is the connection that I was trying to grasp.
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: “Long live death!”?
André Glucksmann: At the opening of the
It is precisely this slogan which you hear from Islamic suicide bombers.
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Perhaps then, you think that during the course of the 20th and now the beginning of the 21st century, this destructive nihilism has manifested itself in different guises, but remains something like an anthropological constant throughout. Is that your belief – that man carries this trait in his very nature; that he is bound to recurrently submit to it?
André Glucksmann: I would put it the opposite way round. Man is human: therefore, he can be civilised, even if he can’t read or write, because he can master this hubris. Wherever you go, this belligerent hubris is considered lethal. In the huts of the Amazon, young men are taught to conquer this capacity for excessive violence. You can fight together, but you cannot fight in any way that comes to hand, and you don’t set out to fight just anyone. The same idea occurs in the teachings of the Greeks, the paidera. All European education is based on the same principle.
Indeed, all civilisations have two essential taboos in common: the taboo on ‘total sexuality’, the incest taboo, different in individual cases, but ubiquitous, and the taboo on violence. You are not allowed to succumb to ‘absolute violence’. You have to master that hubris in one way or another. In every civilisation you can find the mastering of these two absolute, destructive impulses. And the nature of modernity means that these fundamental taboos are vanishing.
The sleep of reason
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Let’s go
back to your opening statement on the essential values of
André Glucksmann: It is not only Islamism:
it is nihilism, in its practical manifestation of laying waste to the civilian
population. The same approach was to be found in the case of the Russian army
when it flattened
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: But these
events are not perceived as being played out in central
André Glucksmann: It has happened in
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp:
Nevertheless, for a long time now,
André Glucksmann: Yes, exactly: but this is wrong. This is exactly the complacency, the crime of complacency, which once made Hitler possible. This complacency has cost us about 50 million lives. It also worked well for Stalin. ‘Better red than dead!’ Pacifism is a kind of complacency. And this complacency continues with Milosevic, with terrorism, with Saddam Hussein; people just want to sleep.
This is nowhere more beautifully invoked than in
Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, where the protagonists all live
together on an old estate, and nobody cares at all about what might happen,
even when they already hear the trees falling. (I had just read the play when
they showed the twin towers in
But in the end, the reality principle will catch
up with us. We believe that we can live in a world where there are only little
wars in the peripheries, the suburbs, ‘low-intensity conflicts’, as the political
strategists like to call them. When Ahmed Shah Massoud, Afghan leader of the
Northern Alliance and enemy of the Taliban, came to
When the twin towers fell the day after Massoud’s
murder, I told myself, “Maybe now men will learn that what happens to women in
But I misjudged mankind’s need to sleep. And now
we are saying that this only happens to the Americans, not to
The reality principle
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: But there is a lot of resistance out there to combining anticipation with the use of force, even where it is necessary.
André Glucksmann: Yes, of course. This is simple enough to understand. If someone is ill then you are afraid of this illness: you feel sorry for the sick person but you tell yourself at the same time that this could only happen to him, not to yourself.
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: What was your response to the French government’s thinking on the Gulf conflict and their strict ‘no’ to a forceful removal of Saddam Hussein?
André Glucksmann: I am in a minority on
this, and not for the first time. When I spoke up in leftist circles about Solzhenitsyn I was regarded as some kind of devil. When I
supported the boat people,
it was scandalous. And when it came to Milosevic in 1991, just four of us in
I have discussed these problems a lot with
Joschka Fischer whom I have known since 1968. We became friends because when I
supported Solzhenitsyn, he and Daniel
Cohn-Bendit agreed with that position, and criticised
In these pacifist times, we have had long debates
in Die Zeit. Joschka Fischer did not agree with me for a long time. In
the end he conceded that after Srebrenica there is something worse than war, and that is
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Maybe
André Glucksmann: Of course everything can be understood. Nobody wants war, me included. The question is, is there something worse than war?
I have been answering ‘yes’ for years. One thing
that is worse than war is genocide – that is, the extinction of a whole people.
Many people said this before
That is why I don’t believe that the refusal to
take part in a war against Saddam should be seen as an expression of humanism,
but of a blindness that exists not only in
Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Do you think
André Glucksmann: Longer than in
Bush is a challenge for American democracy;
Aznar, the challenge for Spanish democracy. Why are there fewer protestors in
But the overriding question remains: what about Saddam Hussein? If I may be a little moralistic here: I could not look at myself in the mirror if Saddam Hussein were still in power because I have been to a demonstration against Bush, and as a result, the people in Iraq had to live in this totalitarian regime for another twenty years.
This interview by Liss Gehlen and Jens Heisterkamp originally appeared on Info 3 (http://www.info3.de/English/engl.html). It was translated by Michael Rebehn.
Originally published at: