Apocalypse Then and Now

by Christopher Batty zarathustra87@hotmail.com

        Dostoevsky would have understood Columbine. In 1866, the great Russian novelist wrote Crime and Punishment, the most harrowing and insightful of modern murder stories. Raskolnikov, a sensitive but impoverished student, fantasizes about killing an old woman, the pawnbroker who holds him in her thrall. Alienated from his urban environment, the sweltering heat and crowded mean streets of St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov has nowhere to go but inward, deeper and deeper into his own dark fantasies.

       It was not that he was so cowardly and downtrodden, even quite the contrary; but for some time he had been in an irritable and tense state, resembling hypochondria. He was so immersed in himself and had isolated himself so much from everyone that he was afraid not only of meeting his landlady but of meeting anyone at all. He was crushed by poverty; but even his strained circumstances had lately ceased to burden him. He had entirely given up attending to his daily affairs and did not want to attend to them. [Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky translation]

        A century and a third later, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris felt burdened by a different but related set of strained circumstances: not Russian poverty but American prosperity; not urban weltschmerz but suburban ennui. The Littleton, Colorado killers suffered inside their gilded cages a severe atrophy of the spirit, a purely emotional, not financial, deprivation. But the prison of grinding poverty and the prison of free-floating privilege are not so far apart; two roads can lead to the same dark place. (Note that the two touchstones of 20th century dystopian fiction, Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984, are divergent yet complementary visions of oppressive societies. Orwell's nightmare regime was like an even more brutal Stalinism, whereas Huxley modelled his decadent Brave New World upon Los Angeles.)

        Dragging a dusty old tome like Crime and Punishment into the debate surrounding teen violence might sound hopelessly retrograde, like something your stooped, befuddled English prof might do, but it could hardly be any more useless than some of the junk the "experts" have fed us. Sociologists, psychologists, statisticians, journalists, gun control advocates, preachers, and politicians have all had their say. Some of their analysis has been extremely good. Some of it hasn't. What's disappointing, though, is how many authority figures have embraced a knee-jerk, tunnel vision attitude to the problem. Rather than brood upon the disturbing spate of school shootings, they've instead drawn lines in the sand from which they refuse to budge.

        In July, four American health associations "definitively" linked violence in television, video games, music and movies to aggression in children. "Its effects are measurable and long-lasting," according to a joint statement by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Psychological Association. For a quartet of national medical societies to issue a joint statement like this is unprecedented. But what is the general public supposed to make of it? At the same time as experts are telling us "definitively" that popular culture is poisoning our young, other experts want us to know that youth violence rates are way down, the lowest they've been in two decades. (Oh, but don't forget, female adolescent violence still is on the rise.)  Huh?  How are we supposed to reconcile all this stuff?

        I think what we're seeing here are the limitations of abstract data; the limits of social "science," which is really a kind of art, a fiction writ large. Obviously, the medical associations support the fiction that things are getting worse, and they're motivated by more than usual concerns about violent youth. The Columbine massacre hovers at the diligent centre of every clinician's mind: Bill Clinton in fact commissioned the joint investigation in the wake of the tragedy.

        Senator Joe Lieberman, one of Hollywood's harshest critics, took the findings seriously. As Al Gore's running mate, Lieberman brought Hollywood amorality front and centre as a campaign issue. In the past, the most vocal attacks on Hollywood have come from Republicans, but Lieberman is as hostile to the entertainment industry as anyone in Washington.

        The sickened spirit of Los Angeles is undoubtedly relevant to any discussion of what goes on in and out of classrooms across North America.  But for politicians and psychologists to blame teen vigilantism solely or primarily on Hollywood movies is more than a little dubious. That playing violent video games all day long can encourage routine aggression in children (schoolyard brawls, fist fights, etc.), I have no doubt. But to blame a premeditated, coldly rational revenge-slaying on The Matrix or The Basketball Diaries is really stretching it. If anything, lurid and gory action movies are an outlet or escape from an already unhealthy situation. At their worst, they simply accelerate the breakdown of a diseased mind.

        Diseased by what? At what point does a warped fantasy life take over the whole person? In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov's murderous fantasy becomes reality when he kills both the old pawnbroker and her mentally handicapped stepsister with an axe. But what prompts his lethal impulses in the first place? Though Dostoevsky deliberately leaves the student's motivation ambiguous, the reader is given some clues. The young man apparently wants to test his will-power, to establish his own identity as a "great man" like Napoleon by committing a gratuitous crime. In killing a worthless "parasite," the greedy and malicious old woman, Raskolnikov elects himself the arbiter of justice, and sets himself above the ugly crowd. Eric Harris takes the "parasite" notion several steps further. In his diary, he depicts the whole world as consisting of nothing but parasites: he hates "niggers, spicks," but also, incredibly, he hates "racism. Anyone who hates Asians, Mexicans, or people of any race because they're different." He hates rich white snobs, but he also hates poor white trash. He hates "fitness fuckheads," but he also hates the weak and unfit. In many ways, Harris was as delusional and incoherent as you'd expect. But not in all ways.

        Harris and his partner in crime Klebold were almost farcical parodies of Dostoevsky's anti-hero. Like Raskolnikov, they killed in part to establish their own "relevance," their own potential for "greatness." In a Salon online article (by Dave Cullen, Sept. 23, 1999) about the tragedy, lead investigator Kate Battan, who analyzied the killers' writings and journals, said, "Sometimes they want to be adult-like and say, 'It's because we're above all you people,' and other times it's 'You shouldn't have! picked on me.' " The same tension, the same superiority/inferiority complex, exists in Raskolnikov. But these boys, like Raskolnikov, were not insane in any normal sense. As grotesque as it sounds, their behaviour was quite rational, provided we define "reason" the way Dostoevsky defined it in his novel. For much of his life, Dostoevsky was tormented by a utilitarian definition of reason that became widespread in the nineteenth century, and he was appalled when members of the Russian intelligentsia fell under the spell of European rationalism. Though it may seem absurd to apply the epithet "rational" to the Columbine killers, it's not so absurd if you define "reason" in a precise, particular way. The Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume wrote, " 'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." Hume's eloquent sentence illuminates what the Colorado killers could never articulate: Hume clarifies the logical basis of deranged actions.

        After all, what did Harris and Klebold want more than anything else? To be famous, to be celebrities, to be the centre of gravity for once. If you could choose between being positively significant, negatively significant, or perfectly insignificant, which would you choose? Almost everyone would say they want to affect the world in a positive, helpful way. But what if you truly believed that you would never have a positive impact on anybody or anything? Then there are only two options left. Quite a lot of people, I'd gather, would rather be newsworthy for a loathsome reason than to be perpetually ignored or rejected. What is Darva Conger famous for? Monica Lewinsky? These may be perfectly nice people, but the fact remains, they're famous for tacky, foolish reasons. This fact doesn't seem to bother either woman in the slightest.

        But I was discussing young men, not young women. Statisticians say violence committed by teenage girls is on the rise (don't these people ever question the validity of their own data?); maybe that's true, but it's still guys who are responsible for shooting sprees. What's the problem with boys these days? Why are so many of them screwed up? Falling behind academically? Reliant on Ritalin? Pathologically violent? Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys, blames the alleged stifling of boys' natural rowdiness and healthy aggression by politically correct educators. William Pollack, psychologist author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, claims just the opposite: boys are not allowed to express their real feelings; they're victims of a false ideal of macho manhood. Where Hoff Sommers sees excessive feminization of boys, Pollack sees excessive masculinization: masculinity of a nasty, brutish, hyper-aggressive sort. I find Pollack's thesis far more credible than Hoff Sommers' (which teenage boy feels more shame, the one who aspires to be an NHL star, or the one who wants to design women's couture?), but I don't think either author quite hits the bull's eye. Pollack, for all his astuteness, finally leads us back to the standard left-wing dogma: too many guns, too many raised fists, too much patriarchy. Whereas Hoff Sommers, with her fear of feminized boys and feminist cant, repeats (in a finer tone) the mantra of the disgruntled conservative: boys should not be raised by single mothers; boys should be boys; there's a breakdown of traditional values, etc. Pollack's secret whisper is, "It's father's fault," and Hoff Sommers' is, "It's mother's fault." Pollack and Hoff Sommers are both thoughtful, intelligent, and compassionate thinkers, and I'm not scoffing at them. But I do wa! nt to offer an elucidation of teen vigilantism that doesn't fit too neatly into political categories. I want to shift the focus of the discussion, because Harris and Klebold had much to say about themselves, and what they say is revealing.

        From diary excerpts made public, it's obvious that the killers were encouraged more by the lure of fame, the anticipated coverage of their crime, than by violent action movies.
Hollywood was an incitement to violence only insofar as they expected, wrongly, that Spielberg or Tarantino would be fascinated by their story, and eager to document the atrocity. The incentive wasn't media violence per se but the mere fact of the media spotlight; it's not Pulp Fiction but "reality TV" that's the (partial) culprit. Becoming a televised artifact was the only validation of their existence, and their authenticity as unique individuals, that Klebold and Harris could even imagine. Beyond that, there's the "chain reaction" effect. In a small town or village, a single suicide frequently triggers several more in close succession. In the global village of our information age, a single act of vigilantism can do the same; hence, it's no surprise other angry young men quickly followed the Colorado killers' lead. The late junky/queer Beat novelist William Burroughs (probably not one of Joe Lieberman's favourite writers) registered this phenomenon thirty years ago, in the interview compendium The Job:

        The excuse for censorship of fiction, that it causes people to commit crimes, is absolutely ridiculous, in view of the crimes committed every day by people who got the idea from reading about it in the newspapers. And television is just about as bad, because in this medium you have news programs of things that are happening, and you also have fiction. Fiction in that juxtaposition seems to exert more of an influence... An additional factor is news programs on television, something actually happening, as opposed to fiction, which everyone knows is make-believe. People don't rush out and commit murder after reading Agatha Christie, but they certainly do commit murder after reading about other murders in the newspapers.

I would modify Burroughs only by noting that the detrimental effects of "reality TV"—that hyperkinetic hybrid of fiction and non-fiction which barrages us every day—could be defended against by an educational, formative environment that expands rather than reduces the consciousness of the child. Such an environment, however, would have to offer exactly the sort of intellectual freedoms (i.e. the right to read any book, see any painting, watch any movie, pursue any interest, form any friendship) that religious conservatives and cultural traditionalists tend to oppose. At this moment in time, healthy and successful schooling is a rare occurrence indeed; about the only time you see it is when children drop out of public school in favour of home schooling.

        But what about the fact that these boys had privileged upbringings? Their parents don't appear to be bad people; these guys didn't come from abusive families. Nor can we single out Columbine for scrutiny, since these fits of violence have erupted all over the map, in Canada as well as the States, sometimes involving stabbings instead of shootings. Columbine's problem isn't that it's unique; it's that it's all too typical: it's the epitome of middle-class, whitebread normalcy. These ordinary locales are exactly where one should expect, to borrow Wallace Stevens' phrase, "the pure products of America [to] go crazy."

        We need to keep in mind that middle-class suburbia, with all its protections and safeguards, is not quite the "privileged" state we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking it is. High school as we know it today is most definitely a "pure product of America," but it's more often than not also a bewildering, streamlined, ultra-conformist, and potentially damaging place that rarely corresponds to real world relationships and complexities. A vocal proponent of home-schooling, former English teacher Grace Llewellyn, wrote a 1997 book called The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School & Get a Real Life & Education. Admirably blunt, Llewellyn cuts to the chase with a quote from John Taylor Gatto (New York State Teacher of the Year 1991): "Schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes any more that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders." The sad thing is, almost any precocious teen reading Llewellyn's title or Gatto's comments would instantly agree with them.

        High school's clique atmosphere, the Darwinian pecking order, the in-class boredom and antipathy have all been around for time immemorial—and yet things do appear to be getting worse as all of North America goes suburban, and often gated. (Gated communities are a whole other alarming trend I don't have the space for here). Some boys and girls, particularly the athletic and the beautiful, thrive, but what about those more than a handful who don't thrive? They might as well be living in a separate world. In a sense, the social rejects are living in a separate world, because, as Wallace Stevens (Stevens again!) wrote in "Description Without Pla! ce": "It is possible that to seem—it is to be, / As the sun is something seeming and it is. / The sun is an example. What it seems / It is and in such seeming all things are."

        Which means: We don't live inside the world; each of us lives inside his or her own private and quite arbitrary interpretation of the communal world. "Reality" is a construct. What we notice and what we fail to apprehend out of everything that surrounds us is, of course, not a hallucination, but it is—always—the reflection of our idiosyncrasies. It doesn't much matter if parents, teachers, and popular students felt it was an ideal place. Klebold and Harris lost their way in life, so for them Columbine was hell. In gunning down their peers, they remade the worlds of the survivors in their own infernal image. Students who had never felt any deep discomfort were plunged into sorrow and depression. Like Dostoevsky's tormented student, these two imitation Raskolnikovs started by plotting revenge against those they presumed to be guilty, but culminated with the random spilling of innocent blood. (Eric Harris' diary, excerpted in Salon: "If you recall your history, the Nazis came up with a 'final solution' to the Jewish problem: kill them all. Well in case you haven't figured it out yet, I say 'Kill mankind.' No one should survive.") We ought to trust our instincts more; as teenagers, we all wondered at times what the hell we were doing here; why we went through the same banal routine day after day; why we suppressed our true selves and substituted virtual reality simulations for public consumption.

        Emily Dickinson, arguably the greatest American poet, wrote:  "The brain is just the weight of God / For, lift them, pound for pound / And they will differ if they do / As syllable from sound" And also: "I never spoke with God / Nor visited in Heaven / Yet certain am I of the spot /As if the chart were given".

        "We live in the mind," Dickinson's disciple Wallace Stevens affirmed. Raskolnikov, after killing the two women, encounters Svidrigailov, a frighteningly charismatic personification of nihilism. Svidrigailov, the most brilliant mind on display in Crime and Punishment, has a rather unusual idea of the "spot" where "Heaven" is located. Here's the old nihilist, in a flight of vicious gusto, tantalizing Raskolnikov with visions of the sweet hereafter:

    "What is it they usually say?" Svidrigailov muttered as if to himself, turning aside and inclining his head slightly. "They say, 'You're sick, and therefore what you imagine is all just nonexistent raving.' But there's no strict logic here. I agree that ghosts come only to sick people; but that only proves that ghosts cannot appear to anyone but sick people, not that they themselves do not exist."
    "Of course they don't!" Raskolnikov insisted irritably.
    "No? You think not?" Svidrigailov went on, slowly raising his eyes to him. "And what if one reasons like this (come, help me now): 'Ghosts are, so to speak, bits and pieces of other worlds, their beginnings. The healthy man, naturally, has no call to see them, because the healthy man is the most earthly of men, and therefore he ought to live according to life here, for the sake of completeness and order. Well, but as soon as a man gets sick, as soon as the normal earthly order of his organism is disrupted, the possibility of another world at once begins to make itself known, and the sicker one is, the greater the contact with this other world, so that when a man dies altogether, he goes to this other world directly.' [italics mine] I've been reasoning it out for a long time. If one believes in a future life, one can believe in this reasoning."
    "I do not believe in a future life," said Raskolnikov.

The sicker one is, the greater the contact with this other world. Klebold and Harris never developed properly, so they began to lose contact with any kind of "earthly order." (Harris' diary opens with the sentence, "I hate the fucking world," and goes on from there.) For Harris, the brain was not quite the weight of God; for nothing could be punier and paltrier than his ideas of transcendence. Does high school as we know it encourage young people to discover for themselves the weight of God? No, not often. On the contrary, it suffocates them, forces them into a kind of living death, a zombie-like state of anomie, antipathy, and annihilation.

    Svidrigailov sat thinking.
    "And what if there are only spiders there, or something of the sort," he said suddenly.
    "He's a madman," thought Raskolnikov.
    "We keep imagining eternity as an idea that cannot be grasped, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, imagine suddenly that there will be one little room there, something like a village bathhouse, covered with soot, with spiders in all the corners, and that's the whole of eternity. I sometimes fancy something of the sort."
    "But surely, surely you can imagine something more just and comforting than that!" Raskolnikov cried out with painful feeling.
    "More just? Who knows, perhaps that is just, and, you know, if I had my way, it's certainly how I would do it!" Svidrigailov answered, smiling vaguely.

Near the novel's conclusion, Svidrigailov utters his cryptic last words to a bystander, right before he blows his own brains out with a pistol: "If they start asking you, tell them he went to America." In today's America, Svidrigailov's descendants are plentiful. Usually, they're young, and have read few books, and therefore possess little of Svidrigailov's terrifying intellect and imagination. They possess just enough to know they're disconsolate, and seething with rage, and they desperately need to vent that rage—not by committing murder, like Raskolnikov, or suicide, like Svidrigailov, but rather a combination of the two. Unlike their literary precursor, today's dimestore Raskolnikovs have no desire to conceal their crimes. For these young nihilists are even more firmly convinced than Svidrigailov was that the life after death is real, and it's "covered in soot, with spiders in all the corners," and that's just the way of the world; that's just the way they'd do it anyway, if they had their way. Again, let's look at the Salon article:

    [Lead investigator Kate] Battan actually believes fame was the single biggest reason Harris and Klebold ultimately went through with the plan... Other key investigators back that assessment. The texts were littered with comments about their expected glory, Battan said. "They certainly wanted the media to write stories about them every day. And they wanted cult followings. They're going to become superstars by getting rid of bad people. And you know, it worked. They're famous."

Battan's right, of course. The plan did work, the killers did manage to transfer their suffering to the community at large, the world has remembered their names but not their victims' names, the reverberations from Littleton have been felt in Washington and Los Angeles and anywhere a copycat crime has been committed. Almost everything the killers hoped would happen has indeed come to pass. It's at moments like this that we can see just how chillingly accurate David Hume's definition of reason is: " 'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of my finger." Reason and madness are not necessarily contraries; as Shakespeare demonstrated, it's perfectly possible to have "matter and impertinency mix'd... Reason in madness." [emphasis mine]

        Thanks to the mass media, Klebold and Harris are far more famous and influential than they could ever have been had they not picked up a gun. The Columbine killers have gone from a death-in-life state, the generic hell of middle-class modernity, which constituted the only version of mortality they knew; to a life after death state, or what we call immortality. Okay, so it's immortality of the Andy Warhol "fifteen minutes" variety. That's the only kind worth striving for; what other kind is there nowadays?

        But I'm not interested in attacking the news media for being too tabloid-ish, lurid, and sensationistic. After all, Paddy Chayevsky was making that complaint back in the mid-seventies with Network, and two decades before Network, there was A Face in The Crowd. (The Fifties, the golden age of "family values," weren't quite as golden as Bible beaters like to think.) There's no question that the lure of posthumous fame/infamy enticed Eric Harris into his spree. But, as Dostoevsky implied, nihilists don't succumb to perversity and delusion (i.e. they don't turn into nihilists) until this world—the world of present pleasures and satisfactions, of flesh and blood in the here and now—crumbles to dust in their hands. The real question is: why have we allowed the crucible of adolescence—the school—to devolve into a sick joke? As school becomes more and more boring, spiritless, and corporatized, as it stifles the natural curiosity and inventiveness of young people, turning them into a bunch of corporate clones and conformist zombies, their amorphous anger and apathy are only going to grow worse. Todd Solondz directed a 1996 black comedy about the horrors of junior high, Welcome to the Dollhouse, that's scarcely an exaggeration of reality, despite the fact that the appalling behaviour on display would be characterized as psychopathic if it occurred anywhere else but high school and the suburbs. The big mystery about Columbine is why so many people were surprised that psychopathic violence could erupt there.

        I have one last point to make. A standard attitude to "the kids today" goes something like this: "Once upon a time, kids had religion, morals, and family values. The sixties swept all that away, and replaced it with toxic popular culture, which is why our kids are going crazy." It dis! turbs me that liberals are so often unable to adequately respond to this charge. Nihilism is at the heart of the matter, it's true, but nihilism did not begin with the sixties. Nor is religious belief the opposite of nihilism. In many instances, the two are one.

        When would-be vice-president Lieberman declares the United States "the most religious country in the world," I can only nod in agreement. But if Lieberman thinks this is a wonderful truth, he ought to ponder the authentic religious impulse (however inchoate or depraved) behind the carnage at Columbine and elsewhere. Way back in the 1930s, novelist Nathanael West ("the closest thing we have had to Dostoevsky," according to the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) registered this link between America's rampant Bible obsession and its capacity for monstrous violence. In Miss Lonelyhearts, his best novel, a newspaperman is given the duty of answering the forlorn letters to the Miss Lonelyhearts column, and he begins to suffer delusions of grandeur ("I've got a Christ complex"), at the same time as his heart suffers a deadness and vexation of spirit. Miss Lonelyhearts cannot believe, but he also cannot not believe, and he begins to wonder "if hysteria were really too steep a price to pay for bringing [the world] to life." This tension between his nihilism and his inability to abide nihilism leads Miss Lonelyhearts not to salvation, but to bloody catastrophe. That's why critic Harold Bloom, in his recent book How to Read and Why, concludes his brief exegesis of Miss Lonelyhearts with the accurate assertion:

    No nation, as West prophesied, is now as religious or as implicitly violent as we are... Why read Miss Lonelyhearts? To understand better our obsession with guns and violence, our fanatic need to be loved by God, our Gnostic roots (which we deny overtly) that teach us redemption through sin...

        Chaotic religiosity, rather than organized religion, is, for better or for worse, at the heart of American morals. Religiosity can take a multitude of forms, many of them scarily perverse. Lieberman doesn't recognize it, but Klebold and Harris were true believers, true proponents of the American faith, seekers of televisual redemption through lurid, sensational sin. You can't hold up transcendental spiritual ideals to young people, while at the same time closing off every opportunity for them to attain those ideals, without courting nihilism, which in its most extreme form manifests itself as violence. If we want to save our children, let's start by changing the way they're educated. Otherwise, we're simply creating another generation of confused, bereft and lonely hearts.