Daniel Brooks

Cuckstoevsky: Teaching Russian Literature in Trump’s America


Donald Trump’s once looming and now distressingly real presidency has been transforming my social media feeds into paroxysms of anxiety, self-flagellation, and bittersweet recognition. The last of these comes primarily from my fellow Russianists, who have sardonically embraced our field’s sudden public resurgence—from our historical insights into the totalitarian language of ‘alternative facts,’ to our ability to explain the etymological, cultural, and political roots of Trump’s kompromat. Number one on my list of favorites, though, are friends’ and colleagues’ articles doggedly seeking precedents for 21st-century tragedy in the 19th-century novel (e.g. Trump resembles Dostoevsky’s vicious caricature of Nechaev;1 Chernyshevsky unwittingly engineered the historical forces that led to the 2008 recession2). I rejoice at such sallies into the sphere of viral content, public intellectualdom, and Making Literature Relevant Again, of course. Yet in light of the left’s recent samokritika regarding the media echo chambers that we have constructed around ourselves, I wonder if such pieces are reaching the people who need them—such as the undergraduate student inclined to hang an argument on the Trumpian assertion that a certain character we’d encountered was a “scumbag” and that another “[had] no balls.”

Such assertions (about Raskolnikov’s victim in Crime and Punishment and Goliadkin of The Double, respectively) did not lack for a certain truth. However, as a veteran of freshman composition courses, I’ve long been accustomed to asking students to refine too-colloquial or coarse diction in their collegiate essays. Besides, better to neutralize such stylistic tendencies now, before Trump’s epithet-laden puttanesca can further exacerbate them. With the appropriate commentary made, I thought the matter done. However, several days letter, the student responded in an e-mail, apologizing for his unprofessional language and offering an explanation for his word choice. It turned out that such language reflected a matter more serious than mere style.

He stated that in using the word ‘scumbag,’ he was attempting to ventriloquize the discourse employed by Raskolnikov to justify his murder of the pawnbroker. This was a minor if still objectionable sin: he was playing the part of a narrator given over to free indirect discourse. (The rest of his analysis was not unalloyed with the perspective of Crime and Punishment’s saintly prostitute Sonia, who unambiguously condemns Raskolnikov’s act; Dostoevsky’s message had been received, even if the medium for the student’s restatement thereof muddied it.) In regards to the metaphorically castrated Goliadkin, however, the student’s e-mail calmly and confidently stated that the protagonist of The Double represented a “beta male,” someone who lacked the “testosterone” of a more active, “alpha male” type—one represented by the forthright and active doppelganger conjured up by the nervous protagonist’s fevered mind. The student then briefly mentioned that, like Goliadkin, he became nervous when asked to speak in public and did not feel as “masculine” when called upon to do so.

Although it was tempered with a greater degree of self-reflection, this second admission concerned me—all the more so, given the student’s inclination for uncritically using ventriloquism as a rhetorical tool. Throughout the semester, the student had demonstrated an admirable degree of curiosity: he had not merely been reading Dostoevsky, but seeking out a variety of critical perspectives on the author’s work. He’d ask me questions regarding YouTube clips of other professors’ recorded lectures on Crime and Punishment. Much of his research was in that vein: relatively innocent, if indiscriminate and conducted entirely online. However, having read the student’s explanation for the terms (alpha/beta, emasculation, castration) in which he’d described Dostoevsky’s characters, it now seemed to me that he had wandered into less benign territory, and was sourcing ideas from darker corners of the internet.

The theory of “alpha” and “beta” types emerged primarily from 20th-century research on primates and other pack animals, and it soon spawned vulgarized versions in the popular consciousness. Today, this conceptual division of men into two broadly countervailing categories has become more directly associated with certain corners of the so-called manosphere—websites and message boards where disaffected men gather to rail about feminism and bemoan the ostensible pussification of Western culture. The alpha/beta binary has set down some of its deepest roots in the space occupied by the self-designated “pickup artists,” men who claim that certain practices (affecting a brash, aggressive manner; initiating unsolicited physical contact; and “negging,” or practicing the delicate alchemy of admixed insults and compliments) are guaranteed to enthrall and arouse any woman. This behavior and the sexual conquest that it guarantees are obviously the province of the alpha male. Conversely, the beta males are those who sit on the sidelines during these grand courting rituals and fail to get laid. The theory of alpha dominance in pack animals, while not unfounded, has been expressed with more regard for situational nuance in recent years.3 However, this reassessment has not stopped the theory’s original incarnation from being uncritically received as gospel by certain online subcultures. The practices endorsed by the pickup artist community are taught to self-described beta males by more experienced and self-identified alphas, and advertised as a toolkit for timorous young men hoping to remake themselves as Lotharios.

Misguided as they might seem, these practices nevertheless reflect and produce a dangerous yet ascendant politics. The boundaries between the pickup artist community, the “red pill” poppers of the Reddit and 4chan boards, the members of the men’s rights “movement,” 4 and the alt-right fringe have become—or perhaps have always been—somewhat porous. One can observe as much in the mutations that the alpha/beta distinction has spawned in recent years, most notably the “cuck,” a shorthand for the word “cuckold.” The term itself suggests a weak, inferior man whose partner extracts financial and material comforts from him while simultaneously sleeping with a stronger, more virile specimen—perhaps even with the knowledge or consent of the former. Thus, whereas the term “beta” simply describes a type of passive behavior, the term “cuck” suggests a male who is missing out on sexual activity to which he has a natural or exclusive right.

In the last two years, the term’s sexual import has slipped into a more conspiratorial and bigoted one, thanks to its appropriation and portmanteauization by the alt-right. A “cuckservative,” for example, is one who has compromised the ideological purity of the American right, and has consequently ceded ground to the American left. Most distressingly, the alt-right has reframed the sexual and biological features of cuckoldry as racial: white American men have ostensibly become feminized and weak, and as a result, are being actively “cucked” by a variety of more virile minority types (black men, Mexicans, welfare queens, etc.), who illegitimately seek to dominate them sexually, socially, and economically. Far from novel, this quintessentially American narrative is couched in the racist mindset of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when paternalistic concern for innocent white women and myths about the supposed rapaciousness of black men were an American commonplace. In the early twenty-first century, alt-right rhetoric about these sexual bogeymen has abolished the symbolic distance between petty cuckoldry and the apocalypse of so-called “racial extinction” and “white genocide.” Donald Trump’s campaign, with its overt racism and misogyny, became a beacon for members of these online communities that in turn furnished the candidate with fawning retweets and other kinds of support. Fed a vision of American culture based on the ever-fecund manure of racism, sexism, and classism, they seek strength in a paradoxical union of alphas, ready to help America shed its cuck status and become great again.5

None of this is to say that my abovementioned student subscribed to these notions or was aware of the more recent permutations of his chosen vocabulary; I seriously doubt that either of these was the case. But the way this vocabulary slithered into his worldview, and the casualness with which it was employed as an interpretive apparatus, gave me pause. I bristle at the ease with which lazy plagiarists passively copy-and-paste internet content into their papers, passing it off as their own. Such active, even eager, application of a misrepresented encountered theory promulgated on internet message boards scares me more. This particular manner of thinking produces historical myopia: just like evolutionary psychology, the alpha/beta distinction peddles a bullshit theory about society and culture by appropriating and misusing the ostensibly transhistorical authority of the social and natural sciences. Students in the thrall of such flawed visions of the world must be disabused of such notions before any kind of genuine thinking—historical, ethical, aesthetic—can take place.

I thus submit the following thesis: if, for the sake of argument, we take the wrongheaded rhetoric of cuckoldry as the most pervasive, seemingly innocuous but ultimately destructive meme of the moment; if misused social and natural sciences represent a profound threat to genuinely historical thinking; then the best Russian text to teach in Trump’s America is not The Possessed, Dostoevsky’s account of how gleeful shit-stirring leads to apocalyptic social collapse, or The Brothers Karamazov, which contains Dostoevsky’s prophesies of humanity’s voluntary deception at the hands of propagandists. It is Dostoevsky’s minor, frequently overlooked gem of a novella The Eternal Husband.

Admittedly, The Eternal Husband (1870) is an odd, wholly unrepresentative text in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre. At a mere 180 pages, it is a work of atypical length for that well-known sufferer from logorrhea. That is no coincidence: the critical failure of his now famous novel The Idiot, his longest and most complex work up to that point, spurred the writing of this comparatively modest novella. The Eternal Husband concerns itself not with impotent messiahs walking the nineteenth-century earth but with the more manageable topic of adultery, a relatively minor sin among those committed by the murderers and rapists who populate Dostoevsky’s corpus. On the surface, the theme seems better suited for the subtler and more genteel Tolstoy, whose Anna Karenina famously faults adultery for its tendency to produce domestic disorder. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, treats adultery as another front in his perennial battle against egoism, a human trait that—per his polemic with Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the radical critic and accidental godfather of Alan Greenspan—invariably leads to sordid and violent ends.

The 2016 election season made it clear that egoism and violence are mutually constituting—and electable—phenomena. That Dostoevsky can locate this dynamic not merely in the aspirational murder committed by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment but in the petty actions of The Eternal Husband’s womanizing protagonist makes the latter text all the more useful in our current cultural moment. Trump represents (among many other things) a spit-polished, self-satisfied misogyny sustained by physical and symbolic violence against women and not-quite-masculine-enough men. In The Eternal Husband, Dostoevsky gives us—and hopefully, even our less discerning students—the tools to recognize and criticize this phenomenon for what it actually is.

A brief summary of the novella’s plot becomes necessary here. The main character, the one whose consciousness inflects the standard semi-omniscient third-person narration, is named Velchaninov. A well-off landowner, superficially decent but self-deluding and ultimately incapable of genuine empathy for others, Velchaninov had an affair with his female lodger (now deceased) some time ago. The husband of that lodger, the superficially comical Trusotsky, shows up at Velchaninov’s home. He is recently widowed and carries a traumatized young child, Liza, in tow. Velchaninov suspects not only that Trusotsky knows of the affair with Trusotsky’s wife, but that Liza is actually his own child, the product of this affair; both suspicions are confirmed much later in the narrative. The alcoholic Trusotsky routinely mistreats Liza; one suspects (and this, too, is later confirmed) that he knows of her real parentage and is cruelly punishing her for it. Velchaninov convinces the spiraling Trusotsky to momentarily entrust Liza to a more caring household; nevertheless, the innocent child soon dies.

At that point, the novella takes a seemingly odd turn. Trusotsky wishes to find a new wife, and has his eyes set on Nadia, the fifteen-year old daughter of a St. Petersburg bureaucrat. Curiously, he invites Velchaninov along. He implicitly seeks to test whether his adolescent fiancee will resist Velchaninov’s charms and remain “true” to Trusotsky. The plan backfires spectacularly: Nadia confesses to Velchaninov that she is interested in a more appropriately aged man than the aging Trusotky, who is made the object of ridicule during a farcical game of hide-and-seek. Velchaninov and Trusotsky return to the former’s house and turn in for the night. Velchaninov awakens to find a razor-wielding Trusotsky standing above him; a struggle ensues, leaving Velchaninov with a permanent scar on his hand. Subdued for the night, Trusotsky departs in the morning. The final chapter concerns a coincidental meeting between these characters two years later. Neither individual, it seems, has managed to change his behavior or learned much of anything from their confrontation: Velchaninov is again on the prowl, and Trusotsky is again wed to a flirtatious woman, who predictably seems to have taken a shine to Velchaninov. Velchaninov passive-aggressively refuses her advances, and seeks to humiliate Trusotsky one last time by showing him his scar, presenting himself as the truly wronged party. Trusotsky responds with the simple words “...and Liza, sir?”—demonstrating that the myopic Velchaninov has lost sight of the true cost of their conflict.

In The Eternal Husband, Dostoevsky provides us with neither a character’s grand revelation about his sins, nor an apocalyptic ending in which the morally compromised characters perish. The denouement is confusing, even nihilistic: wronged, vengeful enemies are now curiously civil with one another; the unpunished death of a child casts a pall over the events. Given this conclusion, the initial question that provides much of the story’s drama—Does Trusotsky, the apparent serio-comic villain, actually know of Velchaninov’s affair?—becomes conceptually unsatisfying. This aporia forces upon the reader a different question: What is the worldview that constructs Trusotsky as a serio-comic villain in the first place? The answer lies in a careful analysis of the novella’s discourse and the left turns of its plot, one that a discerning pedagogue must dwell upon for the text’s true import—and conceptual utility for our historical moment—to become apparent.

The key to this interpretative dilemma is provided by Velchaninov’s vocabulary, which, by dint of the narrator who focalizes the novella’s action through his caddish consciousness, also structures the text as a whole. Velchaninov views the world through a series of binary distinctions, one of the most prominent being two diametrically opposed human types, the “predators” and “eternal husbands,” who map quite well onto so-called alpha and beta males, respectively. Dostoevsky adapts these terms from his contemporary, the critic Apollon Grigor’ev, who argued that the “natural” Russian type is “peaceable,” and that “predators” were misbegotten symptoms of the West’s corrosive influence on Russian culture. Velchaninov’s understanding of the predatory-peaceful distinction seems more in line with that of our contemporary pickup artists, and effectively reverses Grigor’ev’s moral polarity: predators see something that they want and immediately, justifiably take it; peaceables are more passive, and are pathetically disinclined to action. This distinction acquires its full sexual implication in Velchaninov’s conflation of the peaceable type with a term of his own invention, the “eternal husbands”: the naively loving partners (e.g. Trusotsky) whose wives enjoy secret trysts on the side. Much like the scientism that gives the alpha/beta distinction a false veneer of objectivity, these terms—especially predator, which quietly marshals the authority of the natural sciences—permit Velchaninov an airtight, transhistorical schematization of human behavior and sexual practice. Trusotsky’s peaceable type may well forever be the husband, but it will never be the father: that is the exclusive right of the Velchaninovs, the sexual predators.

Like the denizens of the manosphere, Velchaninov is quite proud of his binary thinking, which he refers to as his “higher ideas.” However, at the beginning of the novella, he is losing sleep, and although he dimly understands that his “higher ideas” are the origin of his anxiety, he cannot seem to admit this fact to himself. In this fragile state, he remains reluctant to proclaim his beliefs in polite company for fear of being mocked; indeed, as a kind of self-defense mechanism, he is the first to laugh at them in public. As Dostoevsky’s biographer Joseph Frank indicates, Velchaninov cannot transform this contradiction into self-insight:

Velchaninov’s attitudes toward Trusotsky is the result of his own inner conflict, which combines a feeling of guilt and a need for expiation with an unconquerable aversion to admitting to himself—or, even worse, to others—the presence of any such inadmissible sentiments. As a result, he stubbornly refuses to feel any sympathy whatever for Trusotsky, because to do so would break down the wall protecting him from his own guilt. His view of Trusotsky is thus consistently colored by this need to safeguard the facade behind which he conceals the undermining ravages of his “higher ideas.”6

Velchaninov’s “higher ideas” do not prop up racist causes within the narrative world of Dostoevsky’s novella, but that does not prevent us from enlisting The Eternal Husband in a critique of alt-right thinking. Dostoevsky’s text permits alternative, more profound insights into the phenomenon of cuckoldry than its shallow, over-heated incarnation in contemporary discourse permits. To demonstrate as much, we need only move away from Velchaninov’s pseudo-scientific theories of masculinity and instead explore the more psychologically inflected theory of mimetic desire developed by literary critic and philosopher René Girard. Girard posits that we learn to desire, and acquire objects of our desire, by imitating others. Think of two children on a playground. Child X sees Child Y contentedly playing with a toy, and immediately wants it (even though Child X already possesses one); a fight to possess Child Y’s toy soon breaks out. For Girard, desire always apes a preceding desire being performed by another; this dynamic inevitably causes us to devalue or overvalue the ostensible objects of our desire.

In his study Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard seeks to uncover this dynamic in a series of fictional works by a variety of European authors, and his theory finds fertile ground in Dostoevsky, especially in the case of his acerbic novella Notes from Underground. Girard sees Dostoevsky’s unnamed protagonist affecting a particularly masochistic version of desire: as the victim of real and imagined slights at the hands of a more assertive character, the underground man seeks to humiliate another person in much the same way as he has been humiliated. He desires his tormentor’s success as a tormentor, and wants to see himself in that role rather than continually play the part of the victim. The underground man selects as the object of his potential torment a prostitute—the lowliest of the lowly, and thus the one most likely to help him achieve his mimetic desire. However, she confoundingly meets his torment with (for him, humiliating) sympathy rather than spite, and thus short-circuits his plan. Girard concludes that Dostoevsky’s protagonist is driven underground—that is, to a simulated, theoretical world of egoistic self-contradiction—because his mimetic desires are frustrated.

Although it is a centerpiece of Girard’s study, this episode from Notes from Underground is arguably not as rich as The Eternal Husband, a novella which Girard likewise addresses, albeit in far briefer fashion and in a different study.7 Indeed, the example provided by Velchaninov and Trusotsky brings to the surface the vital triangular dynamics of imitative desire, one that ultimately presents a more nuanced vision of human behavior than the absolute alpha/beta (or predatory/peaceable) distinction, and one that bears upon the dynamic of cuckoldry more effectively. In The Eternal Husband, we see not a linear chain of mimetic actions (i.e. the tormented becoming the tormentor ad infinitum), but rather two competitors projecting intertwined if distinct kinds of desire onto a single object. Girard, in other words, presents us with an unequal process of triangulation between a subject, an object, and a mediator—the last of these being the entity whom the subject wishes to imitate.

One would be mistaken to assign absolute dominance to the mediator, that is, the entity with the originary possession of or desire for the object. (This is the governing assumption of pickup artistry: a luckless beta sees the alpha’s prior success with women and jealously wishes to replicate it.) On the contrary, The Eternal Husband (via Girard) shows that the competitors’ positions are actually quite mutable: the mediator and the subject inevitably switch places in the triangle. Velchaninov’s interests are piqued by married or otherwise committed women: as the subject, he imitates the desire that their husbands presumably have for them. Trusotsky nominally drags Velchaninov to his young fiancee’s party to test whether she will be faithful, but actually does so to acquire outside, objective confirmation that his bride-to-be is desirable: Velchaninov is thus unwittingly thrust into the role of mediator. Trusotsky’s move here is actually quite clever, demonstrating that his understanding of triangular desire is more profound than Velchaninov’s: he exhibits marital interest in his fiancee to activate Velchaninov’s imitative sexual interest in her—which, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy, would then give Trusotsky imitative license to pursue the girl.

Girard deftly catalogs these nuances of these two characters’ relationship, and disavows some of the more radical conclusions one might draw from them (e.g. a Freudian identification of Trusotsky’s latent homosexuality). He suggests that the conscious masochism of Trusotsky’s actions—inviting his romantic rival to tempt his intended wife—masks a far more quixotic and unconsciously masochistic truth about the character:

The eternal husband is in love not with his rival but with his rival’s success as a lover. Like a bold gambler, he wants to recoup his losses at a single stroke. He only triumph that really interests him is the one he would achieve at the expense of his rival...He will never achieve it. Being less elegant and handsome than the eternal lover, he will always come out second best. His frantic desire for revanche exposes him to endless defeats. 8

However, Girard also splits the difference of his analysis. He acknowledges that Trusotsky’s cunning blackmail of Velchaninov with his/their daughter Liza—an object of familial rather than sexual love—puts him in a more advantageous, dare we say dominant position. Here we might extend and simultaneously complicate Girard’s gambling analogy: Liza is a far more valuable chip in Trusotsky and Velchaninov’s poker game, yet she also represents a no-win rather than an all-in scenario. Trusotsky’s surest path to victory (the one that Dostoevsky’s text actually provides him with) is a pyrrhic one in which Velchaninov becomes devastated by the death of a daughter whom he was just getting to know. Or perhaps such a victory is not simply pyrrhic, but also devastatingly temporary: as we see from the novella’s conclusion, it is Trusotsky rather than Velchaninov who, in the end, is more permanently distraught by Liza’s death. If Trusotsky had an inkling of this outcome when he first made his gambit, that would (contra Girard) be a textbook example of masochism.

Given the impossibility of a positive outcome for Trusotsky, I am less inclined to think of him as a bad gambler than as someone for whom mimetic rivalry is an end in itself. To intermingle the theories of Girard and the literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, one could say everything Trusotksy does is a means of experiencing the process of mimetic rivalry. The object itself (i.e. his daughter or his teenaged fiancee) is quite unimportant. With no desirable denouement in sight, Trusotsky is content to stave off a definitive conclusion (in Shklovskian terms, to retard the plot) as long as he can. He can carve out ephemeral victories—the only ones available to him—in temporary assumptions of the dominant/alpha/mediator role before Velchaninov reacquires it. In these moments, he is less playing a gambler’s bad hand than leading from a superficially subordinate position, analogous to someone “topping from the bottom” in a D/s relationship: the cuckold, the party who is seemingly weaker and disadvantaged, is actually the one dictating the terms of the situation to a desired effect. That effect, I would argue, is his and his competitor’s perpetual exchange of the mediator and subject positions—that is, destabilizing either character’s claim to the exclusive occupation of the alpha/predator or beta/cuckold type.

Girard’s theory, applied to Dostoevsky, illuminates interpersonal dynamics that the cuckoldry-obsessed alt-right and subscribers to the alpha/beta distinction would rather remain obscured: given the invariably imitative nature of desire, one’s movement between subject and mediator is inevitable. These subcultures’ vision of sexuality and male behavior is both binary and stratified: one’s identity is contingent on access to or control of sexual intercourse. One, the alpha or cuckolder, has it and is superior; the other, the beta or the cuck, lacks it and is inferior. Girard’s triangular formulation, on the other hand, demonstrates that primacy is not an ultimate result (e.g. a stable hierarchical position achieved at the end of a sexual arms race), but rather a matter of relative sequence: desire—be it sexual, romantic, or any other type—always imitates a pre-existing model. Thus, given the inextricable power of desire, we have all been cucks, and will sooner or later be cucks again.

It is not difficult to uncover a similar dynamic at work in contemporary pickup artistry, which, like Velchaninov, remains willfully blind to the true dynamics of desire. Proof lies in the alt-right’s fascination with Donald Trump and his presumed sexual prowess—or, to use Velchaninov’s term, (sexual) predation. Not coincidentally, the alt-right and pickup artist community are united in their adoration of Trump, as reported by Claire Landsbaum in a recent NYMag article. Landsbaum highlights Trump’s appeal for one of the founders of the pickup artist community, Daryush Valizadeh, who stylizes his name as Roosh V:

When Trump won, Roosh V saw it as a victory for the PUA movement. ‘I’m in a state of exuberance that we now have a President who rates women on a 1-10 scale in the same way that we do and evaluates women by their appearance and feminine attitude,’ he wrote. ‘We may have to institute a new feature called ‘Would Trump bang?’ to signify the importance of feminine beauty ideals that cultivate effort and class above sloth and vulgarity.’9

Roosh V’s fixation on Trump is no incidental phenomenon. It represents a consciously developed imitation of an alpha type, a practice that is theoretically meant to be ennobling: I will bang only those women whom Trump, the ultimate alpha and thus the ultimate arbiter of sexual taste, would bang. However, viewed through the prism of mimetic desire, the unwittingly self-defeating nature of this project is easily exposed. Roosh V (in Girardian terms, the subject) learns what/whom he should desire (the object) by mimicking the observable and/or presumed desires of Trump (the mediator).

Roosh V needs a model, and he projects onto Trump not only virility and assertiveness, but primacy: Roosh V is rudderless, effectively impotent, without the prior (hypothetical, imagined) sanction of his mediator. If only unwittingly, his actions echo those of the meek Trusotsky, who invites the mighty Velchaninov to his engagement party in order to ensure that his fiancee is up to snuff. In other words, by consciously lionizing Trump, Roosh V unconsciously cucks himself.

This system is flawed in other ways as well. Per Girard, desire is always imitative, always chasing some prior model: Roosh V’s mediator itself will seek mediators and thus assume the subject position. Trump is not immune to the ultimately masochistic dynamic of mimetic desire, as his pathological fascination with his daughter’s sexual desirability ably demonstrates:

Mr. Trump frequently sought assurances—at times from strangers—that the women in his life were beautiful. During the 1997 Miss Teen USA pageant, he sat in the audience as his teenage daughter, Ivanka, helped to host the event from onstage. He turned to Brook Antoinette Mahealani Lee, Miss Universe at the time, and asked for her opinion of his daughter’s body.

“‘Don’t you think my daughter’s hot? She’s hot, right?’” Ms. Lee recalled him saying. ‘I was like, ‘Really?’ That’s just weird. She was 16. That’s creepy.”10

Trump seems to believe that, for an alpha male, desire is unproblematic both conceptually and legally: a superlatively confident and proactive man can simply grab a woman by the pussy without consent, and she will let him do it. Yet his anxious queries about Ivanka’s desirability (to say nothing of his frequent assertions that he would be dating her were he not her father) demonstrate that he too is the subject in Girard’s triangle: he too needs prior validation, prior permission from the mediator of his desire. Pity Ivanka Trump, for whom a father’s love is dependent upon her sexual attractiveness to others.

Like Trusotsky, like Roosh V, Trump cucks himself. Unlike Roosh V, however, he does not idealize his mediator: he gets the model for his desire “from strangers,” as the authors of the abovementioned article stress. Compared to Roosh V’s delusional belief that imitation helps one ascend masculine hierarchies—that imitation paradoxically flatters the imitator—Trump’s indiscriminate, even desperate, search for Girardian models seems refreshingly honest about the mechanics of desire. Roosh V’s question Would Trump bang? is thus not only too vulgar, but too misguided to enter the great canon of “cursed questions” (Who is to blame? What is to be done?) that define Russian literature’s search for truth. No original or ultimate model for desire exists; we can never fully possess the object that—either in reality or in our imagination—has always already been possessed by another. As Trusotsky knows, desire inevitably makes cucks of us all.

If Velchaninov’s “higher ideas” blind him to that Girardian truth, then the alt-right’s meme-ification of cuckoldry does much the same. And like Dostoevsky’s characters who “[go] ‘underground’ as a result of frustrated mimetic desire,”11 contemporary men who dimly grasp this dynamic but cannot reconcile themselves to it retreat to a self-contained world of masochistic, vitriolic contradiction (i.e. the manosphere)—one that successfully invaded mainstream political discourse during the 2016 election season. Dostoevsky’s complex deconstruction of the alpha/beta distinction and its connection to the fragile male ego makes The Eternal Husband both shockingly prescient of our current state of affairs and particularly useful for overcoming them.

This does not mean that Dostoevsky’s novella makes for a straightforward read with a ready lesson. The manner in which The Eternal Husband is narrated (3rd-person semi-/omniscient, focalized through Velchaninov) allows for the reader to maintain an uneasy identification with the protagonist, and by extension, his cynical yet facile classifications of the world and caddishness with women. (Think of the esteem that Don Draper commanded among the Mad Men audience.) Conversely, that Trusotsky is associated with abuse of his daughter and violence towards Velchaninov12 makes him an immediate (if tonally seriocomic) villain, bolstering Velchaninov’s claim to the hero role—one that he leans into with his failed attempt to save Liza. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky clearly wants the reader to overcome this and every other oversimplifying binary system that the text advances. Spelling out—or even quite literally drawing out—the shifting Girardian triangles yields several conclusions: that Velchaninov and Trusotsky frequently exchange the designated roles of predator and (peaceable) prey; that dominance is not a fixed and predetermined characteristic of either party but rather part of an impermanent, context-specific dynamic; and that this mimetic rivalry ultimately yields negative, irrevocable consequences for both parties.

Of course, in The Eternal Husband, these consequences exist not only for the male characters quixotically seeking to escape the position of Girardian subject, but also (or rather especially) for the Girardian object: Liza, whose fate is unquestionably the saddest, the one that the narrative’s Velchaninov-induced myopia consistently invites the reader to gloss over. Come the end of the novella, it is easy to bemoan her fate, but the task of assigning blame is more ethically fraught—and all the more necessary for it. Trusotsky, the eternal husband to a seemingly unfaithful woman, and Velchaninov, the eternal bachelor in pursuit of unfaithful women, have both resumed the problematic practices that facilitated Liza’s death in the first place. Velchaninov confides in Trusotsky that he will not follow up on his enamored wife’s invitation to visit—a condescending truce of sorts, an acknowledgment that they should not let their desires get mimetically entangled once more. But when Velchaninov’s mood changes and he plays the victim, showing Trusotsky the scar on his hand, Trusotsky simply replies, “And Liza, sir?”

Readers can easily be confused by such a laconic rejoinder: it seems empty in more ways than one, given that the abusive Trusotsky deserves the lion’s share of the blame for his daughter’s demise, and should not be able to play the Liza card, as it were. But with this empty response, Dostoevsky hails the reader, asking them to do something that the solipsistic Velchaninov is entirely incapable of and which the ethically compromised Trusotsky can only gesture towards. In a chapter where Velchaninov’s next intended conquest is given the generic moniker “a provincial lady acquaintance,” Trusotsky’s decision to actually name the third point in their competitive triangle (even if he has no grounds to say anything about her) shows that he, unlike his competitor, comprehends their earlier sins. He now recognizes that the Girardian object is actually independently important, that Liza (like the 16-year-old Ivanka Trump) became the innocent collateral damage in a war between egos—indeed, that she paradoxically possesses a more unique identity than the subject and mediator, whose race for absolute primacy is made moot by a mimetic competition that obscures their differences. Predator and peaceable, alphas and betas, Trump and Trusotsky: all are beholden to a system that they will never turn on its head. Such are the lessons that readers might take away from the novel, and which we instructors of literature might underscore for our students: better to reconcile oneself to the dynamics of mimetic desire, shed the destructive terminology of transhistorical, binary thinking, and call people and things by their true names. Or, at the very least, we can make the cuck great again.

1 Ani Kokobobo, “How Dostoevsky Predicted Trump’s America.”

2 Adam Weiner, “The Most Politically Dangerous Book You’ve Never Heard Of.”

3 See L. David Mech and H. Dean Cluff “Prolonged Intensive Dominant Behaviors Between Gray Wolves, Canis lupus,” Canadian Field Naturalist 124.3 (10): 215-218. Mech and Cluff do not deny behavioral dominance, but suggest that it occurs primarily between parents and offspring—that is, between male specimens who are not sexual competitors.

4 In the lingo of men’s rights activists, the “red pill” generally refers to the bitter truths about gender and sexual relations which remain taboo in a world that is clandestinely dictated by conspiratorial misandry. Reddit and 4chan are internet message boards that have become havens for adherents to such beliefs. For further exploration, see Stephen Marche’s Guardian article “Swallowing the Red Pill: A Journey into Modern Misogyny” and Rachel M. Schmitz and Emily Kazyak, “Masculinities in Cyberspace: An Analysis of Portrayals of Manhood in Men’s Rights Activist Websites,” Social Sciences 5.2 (2016), which surveys the less anonymous online communities that peddle the same terminology and ideas.

5 On the alliance between Trump and the far-right corners of the internet, see, for example, Feliks Garcia, “White Men Radicalised Online Were Amongst the Silent Majority who Chose Donald Trump.” One should note that this demonization of cuckoldry has not prevented the right’s sublimation of such racialized fears into sexual fetishes: cuckold pornography has recently become relatively popular, especially in states whose electoral college points went to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election; see Pornhub INSIGHTS, “Could you be a Cuckold?”.

6 Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 385.

7 René Girard, Resurrection from the Underground: Fyodor Dostoevsky (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2012).

8 Girard, Resurrection, 79.

9 See “Men’s Rights Activists are Finding a New Home with the Alt-Right.”

10 Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey, “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved with Women in Private.”

11 Girard, Resurrection, 76.

12 I should note that Dostoevsky depicts the struggle rather ambiguously, as befits a passage focalized through Velchaninov’s limited point of view. Prior to the scuffle, Velchaninov is sleeping, and the boundary between the real and oneiric events of this passage—people entering his apartment, a struggle with a pair of arms that are stretched out over his bed, and a sudden stab wound in his hand—is never clearly defined. I am inclined to think that Trusotsky stands immobile over Velchaninov, razor in hand, waiting for him to wake up, goading him into making the first move. This passive-aggressive action would be consistent with the inclinations that structure his movement between the object and mediator points of Girard’s triangle.

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