Monday, May 12, 2008

"The Double" and "Notes from Underground" Dostoevsky

… a secret theatre of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all…

from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

What Jaynes’s description of consciousness seems to take for granted here is that everyone’s consciousness is the same. And yet, it may not be so. It’s possible on a very simple level to conceive of consciousness as a tool which mediates the world to the self. Using language as an analogy, imagine a spectrum of transparency. At one end, language is totally transparent, allowing the reader to focus on the message (technical writing, manuals, transactional messages); at the other, the language foregrounds itself leaving the message to be picked out, to be inferred (poetry, literature). In the same way perhaps consciousness operates on a similar spectrum of transparency. On one end of the spectrum, consciousness is invisible, allowing the world to be mediated easily and unproblematically; on the other, consciousness foregrounds itself, fills the mind and problematizes the subject’s interaction with the world.
At the transparent end of the spectrum, we have people who are fully socialised, confident, unquestioning, able to accept things as they are and to use them for personal advancement. At the other, we have the misfit, not the social or class misfit, but the individual who is at odds with his own consciousness: the person who has whispering doubts and cynical promptings, the self imprisoned by the burden of a consciousness which foregrounds itself relentlessly. At the two extremes, of course, we have stupidity (an unconscious consciousness, the blissfully ignorant), or mental illness, (the speechless monologue becomes bicameral voices). Perhaps, at different times and in different states, we oscillate between these two extremes.

Dostoevsky is the portraitist, the poet, of the misfit: I am strongly convinced that not only too much consciousness but even any consciousness at all is a sickness.
The figure of the misfit is first developed in The Double and Notes from Underground, and it seems to this reader that the protagonists of these two stories may on some imaginative level be seen as the same character. (Milton’s Satan may be an early sighting of the misfit: the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. …for only in destroying I find ease from my relentless thoughts.)
There are many parallels between the two books. Both protagonists are lowly government clerks with little hope of advancement, or at least dependent for advancement on the patronage of superiors whom they both feel to be morally and intellectually inferior to themselves. They are both loquaciously convinced of their own overlooked worth. There is the same business with letters, with debts, with toe curling solecisms, the same feelings of humiliation and powerlessness, the same tormented relationship with a servant who knows too much, and the same tramping about the freezing streets of St Petersburg. But what’s interesting is the way that the misfit changes in the intervening years between the publication of these books.

The Double (1846: Dostoevsky’s second published work) features Mr Golyadkin, a man who is finally victimised by his consciousness. The text is fractured by ellipses, repetitious material, dialogue that is almost Beckettian in its revolving miscommunications. A subplot involving letters and former lodgings is very shakily sketched and we are never sure we have understood the details correctly.
Golyadkin encounters his double for the first time on a deserted Petersburg street in a freezing storm in the middle of the night, and this powerful scene raises shivers. Dostoevsky was indebted to
Hoffmann's Unheimliche Gast for the basic premise of his story (Conrad also was influenced by this tale in his story The Secret Sharer) and the text is full of interpretative difficulty: does the double/sharer really exist, or is he only a figment of the protagonist’s feverish and fevered imagination? He appears to be visible to other characters in the story -in fact he usurps Mr Golyadkin’s position at his office- but the close conjunction between the 3rd person narrator and the thoughts of Mr G himself, still make it impossible for us to decide once and for all whether the double exists outside Mr G’s consciousness.
What we have in this tale is the depiction of a man imprisoned, tormented by his consciousness, at the mercy of his mind. The narrative is told by a third person, an ironic but ultimately sympathetic all-knowing narrator. The book is organised in long monologues alternating with action scenes featuring a series of social humiliations. In the monologues, pages long, Golyadkin rehearses what he wants to say to the other characters, he justifies himself at length, explains himself, describes and asserts his good nature and achieves some sort of understanding with the other characters: all in the theatre of his own mind. In the subsequent action scenes, however, all goes wrong, communication is impossible, Golyadkin dries up, breaks out in sweats, cannot explain himself, looses his words, is painfully aware of the impression he is making on others, and cannot escape from his inner voice telling him what a fool he is all the time. The constant foregrounding of his consciousness throughout the book threatens and ultimately ruins his relationships with the world.

Notes from the Underground (1864) has as its main protagonist also a man fully aware of the burden of his own consciousness. However, something has happened to the misfit. Unlike the hapless Golyadkin, the Underground Man is not a victim of his foregrounded consciousness. While the two characters share the same difficulties socialising themselves to the world, the Underground Man seems to have his foregrounded consciousness on a tight leash, or perhaps, in a tight grip around the throat might be a better description.
The Underground Man is angry, and his anger is directed just as much at his own consciousness as it is to the world. On the one hand he vehemently, sarcastically and repeatedly asserts the right to the subjectivity of his own consciousness: I stand for my own caprice and that it be guaranteed me when necessary. The symbol for this in the text is his view of arithmetic, the Platonic forms, the world of mathematics: objectivity. (Dostoevsky studied mathematics at university, and although he displayed gifts in this area, he detested it.): two times two is four has a cocky look; it stands across your path, arms akimbo and spits. I agree that two times two is four is an excellent thing, but if we’re going to start praising everything, then two times two is five is also sometimes a most charming little thing…Consciousness, for example, is infinitely higher than two times two. On the other hand, he curses his consciousness for the suffering it brings him: Consciousness is man’s greatest misfortune.
The greater control of the Undergound Man over his unruly consciousness is reflected in the structure of the two books. In place of the alternating monologue and episode structure of The Double, in Notes from Underground, the monologue and action scenes are clearly separated into two parts. Part One is the monologue. We are treated to a long exposition of the Undergound Man’s views regarding his own subjectivity and objectivity; we have our noses rubbed in his consciousness, we inhabit it for a while. Part Two of the book details the events in the story which gave raise to the views expressed in the first part. This is not easy for the reader: the long monologue sorts the chaff from the wheat: only the strong minded can get through it. By placing the monologue at the beginning of the book, rather than at the end, rather than putting the more reader-friendly events and actions first, Dostoevsky risks alienating potential readers. This is a deliberate strategy: the interiority of consciousness is foregrounded structurally: this is not a book for people who have not experienced a foregrounding of their own consciousness. It’s not a book for the stupid.

What might have caused this shift, this difference in the relation of the self to consciousness in these two tales? Between 1846 and 1864, the two dates of publication of the novels, Dostoevsky endured mock execution, internment in the gulag, and 5 years of conscripted soldiering in Siberia. It’s as if during this time, the misfit has, through the purging fire of his terrible experiences, gained strength, or perhaps even a kind of balance, an uneasy accommodation of self, foregrounded consciousness, and the world.


James said...

What an excellent comparison and contrast of these two works. In realizing the relational shift you have identified, Dostoevsky found his mature voice in Notes from Underground. His underground man became the forerunner of Raskolnikov, Stavrogin and Ivan/Smerdyakov.

Murr said...

Murr purrs....