Friday, May 07, 2010

'Notes from Underground' Dostoevsky

There is a whole psychology here…

Even Dostoevsky himself was awed and troubled by the power of this book. In its tone it is too strange, and the tone is bitter and savage… Sometimes I fancy that it will be rubbish, but I still write with passion; I don’t know what will emerge, he wrote to his brother while he was writing it. Notes from Underground was written as a response to particular historical circumstances in an attempt to embody specific ideas current in the Russia of the time. However, such is its remarkable power that it has since taken on a universality of its own, speaking to all kinds of readers of things never intended by its author.

At the end of 1863, Dostoevsky sat down to write a review of Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is To Be Done? But what came instead from his pen was the harsh muttering of the underground man, the first major artistic expression of Dostoevsky’s disagreements with the Westernisers in general, and an attack on Chernyshevsky’s novel in particular. While it is not necessary to understand how the novel is a reaction to Chernyshevsky’s in order to be compelled and disturbed by the underground man’s voice, or to find consolation in what he says, nonetheless, an understanding of the conversation between Chernyshevsky’s book and Dostoevsky’s casts light on some of its undoubted difficulties and its strangeness of form and content.

Chernyshevsky’s novel is a didactic, clumsy attempt to embody in artistic form the main ideas of the Westernisers: an espousal of scientific rationalism as the cure for Russia’s problems. The Core Tenet of Chernyshevsky’s Western rationalism in his novel is the dialectic between ‘rational egoism’ on the one hand and ‘social altruism’ on the other. The conflict between personal life and social questions results from a constant conscious adjustment between the demands of rational self-interest – no one knowingly acts against his own self-interest- and the necessity of working towards a just society where the demands of each individual ego can be harmonised with the needs of society as a whole. This Core Tenet raises a whole host of Related Philosophical Questions: deciding exactly what self-interest is in a situation; finding the primary cause as a wellspring of action and therefore comprehending causality; establishing rational criteria for judging the greater good; working out the relationship between free will and the laws of nature, economics, history and society; understanding even the nature of the self and the workings of the mind and its motivations. These are some of the issues raised rather clumsily in What Is To Be Done?

Dostoevsky had ideological and philosophical problems with Western rationalism all his life, and he attacked it with increasing fervor from 1860 onwards. His main objections to it were that 1) reason is atomistic: rationalists divide the human ego into parcels, convenient for studying and analyzing, but ultimately reductive; 2) he saw how the proponents of rationalism discussed reason as if reason somehow existed outside the ego. Dostoevsky argued that reason is found nowhere else in the universe except in humanity, so to discuss it and analyse it as something separate from humanity, as something abstract, was absurd; 3) the danger of rationalism is that it reduces the human being to an object, and so in the face of this he asserted subjectivity (It's for this reason that he was so admired by the existentialists, especially Sartre); 4) Dostoevsky was firmly convinced that reason is only one aspect or mode of the ego, and other forces such as irrationality played a huge part, a part usually ignored or placed to one side by rationalists. Reason has proved untenable in the face of reality …there are no arguments of pure reason, … nowhere in the world does pure reason exist, he had written in his journal Time. Moreover, for Dostoevsky, a reliance on scientific rationalism was incompatible with the Russian character and unsuited to Russian problems. In his new novel, he set out to persuade his readers of the errors of rationalism, not through philosophical argument (a rational mode), but through the power of art: it is with pictures, with pictures like these that you will beguile…

Now, the theatre where Rationality and its Related Philosophical Questions are worked out, is consciousness; consciousness foregrounds itself constantly in response to and in anticipation of the actions and events we encounter. This is reflected in the structure of the work, which foregrounds the underground man’s thoughts in the first part, entitled ‘Underground’, and then describes the actions and events in his life which caused him to think the way he does, in the second part: 'Apropos of the Wet Snow'. The first part contains no action, but focuses on images and metaphors dealing with the Related Philosophical Questions, while part two describes how in his behaviour the underground man deliberately and repeatedly and in full consciousness knowingly works against his own best interests, to refute the Core Tenet of rationalism.

Part 1 ‘Underground’

You see, gentlemen, reason is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason, and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life- that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches.

Part 1 addresses the Related Philosophical Questions by means of the following images:

➢ The underground – an image of exclusion from the world of the rational. In What Is To Be Done? the central character, Vera Pavlovna, regards her former life before her marriage as having been spent in ‘a cellar’, or ‘underground’ (the word is ambiguous in Russian). In his novel, Chernyshevsky exhorts: Come up out of your godforsaken underworld, my friends, come up. It’s not so difficult… Come out into the light of day, where life is good; the path is easy and inviting. Try it: development, development. The underground man and his notes are Dostoevsky’s answer to this exhortation: he refuses to leave the underground, and asserts the validity of his choice. Throughout the novel, the underground man contrasts himself with those who have only as much consciousness for example as that by which all so-called ingenious people and active figures live¬. By this he means the revolutionaries as described by Chernyshvsky in his novel, and the Westernisers in general. To these ingenious and active people belong the voices which frequently interrupt the text, and against which the underground man argues.

➢ The path – a symbol of the right way to live. The underground man is here drawing on all the world’s religious and moral systems which seek to show man the correct path, the straight and narrow. The underground man disagrees with the notion that there is a correct path: man is predominantly a creating animal, doomed to strive consciously towards a goal… to make a road for himself that goes somewhere, and the main thing is not where it goes, but that it should be going, and he rejects a rational goal: but sometimes he may wish to swerve aside, precisely because he is doomed to open this road.

➢ The mouse – in image of the nature of the self: man as an animal endowed with consciousness. This contrasts on the one hand with the image of the insect: a creature with no consciousness, and on the other with the image of man posited by the rationalists: l’homme de la nature et de la verite, in Rousseau’s words. The mouse’s consciousness includes irrational elements, revenge for example. The mouse cannot accept rationalism, both the Core Tenet, and its Related Philosophical Questions: it has padded out the one question with so many unresolved questions, he can only reject them all, and slink back into his hole and plot revenge. This is a symbol of the underground man himself.

➢ The wall – a symbol of a fatum, the ineluctability of the laws of nature, against which developed people (Chernyshevsky’s rational egoists) stand with arms folded, accepting. The underground man asserts that understanding and accepting this wall through reason is one thing, but becoming reconciled to its presence is another: to be sure I won’t break though such a wall with a my forehead… but neither will I become reconciled to it.

➢ The moans of toothache – another fatum. Moaning makes no difference to the natural law of toothache and yet we do it anyway, a symbol of irrational behaviour. In these moans there is expressed first, all the futility of our pain, so humiliating for our consciousness, and all the lawfulness of nature…there is expressed the consciousness that your enemy is nowhere to be found, that you are wholly the slave of your teeth...

➢ Cleopatra – a symbol of power and history and the arbitrary cruelty of which humanity is capable –further evidence of our irrationality. The underground man is particularly scathing about the way the rationalists ignore the evidence of history in their abstraction of reason from the human: What is to be done with the millions of facts testifying to how people knowingly, that is, fully understanding their real profit, would put it in second place, and throw themselves onto another path…

➢ The Crystal Palace- a symbol of a future society based on rationalism. Dostoevsky is here referring to Chernyshevsky’s use of the Crystal Palace, where it represents Utopia, and to his own previous book: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, where it represents Baal, or the soul of Mammon. The underground man rejects this image if it cannot contain elements which are not rational, if it cannot contain elements of individuality no matter how perverse: Well, and perhaps I’m afraid of this edifice precisely because it is crystal and forever indestructible, and it will be impossible to put out one’s tongue at it, even on the sly.

➢ The anthill- related to the image of the Crystal Palace, and an image of the steadfast devotion to any cause in general, and to the cause of revolution as espoused by Chernyshevsky: ants spend their lives working on the anthill, which does great credit to their constancy and positiveness. But man is a frivolous and unseemly being…

➢ Mathematics - this is a symbol of the laws of necessity, and the denial of free will that these laws imply. What sort of will of one’s own can there be if it comes to tables and arithmetic, and the only thing going is two times two is four? Two times two will be four even without my will. As if that were any will of one’s own, says the underground man. It is also a symbol of the establishment of rational criteria for judging the greater good: you have taken your whole inventory of human profits (he means the ‘greater good’) from an average of statistical figures and scientific- economic formulas. Because profit for you is prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace and so on and so forth….

➢ The organ sprig – this is a symbol of man’s relationship to the laws of nature, and a reference to Diderot, who asserted that man is like a piano key on which nature plays. The underground man rejects this view of man as both incorrect and undesirable: who wants to want according to a little table? He will immediately turn from a man into a sprig in an organ…because what is man without desires, without will, and without wantings if not a sprig in an organ barrel?

➢ Revenge – an especially loaded symbol for the underground man, the key symbol of irrationality, this also stands for the difficulty of deciding exactly what self-interest is in a situation, as well as the problems inherent in causality. The rational man calls ‘revenge’ ‘justice’, but the underground man knows it for what it is: purposeless wickedness. A man takes revenge because he has found justice in it. That means he has found a primary cause, a basis, namely justice. …I do not see any justice here, nor do I find any virtue in it, and consequently, if I set about taking revenge, it will be solely out of wickedness.

➢ Sickness – an image of consciousness. For the underground man, too much consciousness is an illness and the result of too much consciousness is inertia.

Part 1 is undoubtedly difficult. The text is highly fractured, there seems to be no logic, no pointers to show the way. Nothing happens, the underground man rants and rages, brings in images only to drop them immediately and then develop them later. The text is interrupted by other voices against which the underground man argues, and there are many veiled references to things the modern reader has lost the knowledge of. The style is very similar to Dostoevsky’s journalism of the period, and is partly Dostoevsky’s own style, partly a conscious artistic choice: to reflect the shimmering, wayward nature of consciousness, and partly a political necessity in order to evade the ever-present censor. It must be remembered that Chernyshevsky had been arrested, that he in fact had written his novel in prison, that What Is To Be Done? was banned and could only be read in rare editions of the journal in which it had appeared and in zamizdat, and that Dostoevsky himself, as a former political prisoner, was constantly being watched and his output closely monitored. Indeed, his journal Time, which he ran with his brother, had recently been closed by the authorities. Under these circumstances, any direct reference to Chernyshevsky and his ideas was dangerous.

Chernyshevsky had –rather facilely- written: It’s pleasant to observe as a theorist the tricks that egoism plays in practice. On the contrary, Dostoevsky thought, it’s extremely unpleasant; and to show the tricks that egoism plays, he creates in the mind of the reader the fully rounded consciousness of another human being, angry, irrational, illogical, inconsequent, argumentative, cynical, sarcastic, blackly funny, and more truthfully and eternally alive than any of Chernyshevsky’s ciphers.

Part 2 ‘Apropos of the Wet Snow’

Oh, tell me, who first announced, who was the first to proclaim that man only does dirty because he doesn’t know his real interests? Oh, the babe, the pure innocent child!

Having dealt with the Related Philosophical Questions in Part 1 through images and metaphors, Dostoevsky in Part 2 attacks the Core Tenet: - man never knowingly acts against his own best interests- through actions. The underground man focuses on four episodes (and their satellite scenes) and describes each time how he deliberately acts against his own best interests in spite of himself.

First, is the episode of the officer, who moves the underground man out of the way, causing the underground man to plot a baroque revenge, involving bumping into the officer on the street. This is a reference to a specific episode from What Is To Be Done? Lopukhov refuses to yield the path to a social superior, and bumps into him. The other man curses him. Lopukhov picks up his offender, holds him over the ditch at the side of the road and says: Don’t move, or I’ll drag you out there where the mud is deeper. He then brushes his offender down, politely, and releases him. The episode is designed to show Lopukhov’s egalitarianism –he refuses to yield the path to his social superior, and his humanitarianism – he brushes him down politely and sends him on his way. In the hands of Dostoevsky this turns into a symbol of the relationship between subject and object, one of his core concerns about the dangers of rationalism. The underground man experiences himself as someone else’s object, and this causes huge tensions with his notion of himself as a subject. This slighted amour propre of a ‘little man’ features in his very first work Poor Folk, and is a typical Dostoevskyan motif, appearing again and again throughout his career. This feeling, and the revenge he lusts after is, of course, entirely irrational.

Second, is the episode of the reunion dinner, and its attendant scenes. The underground man, for some reason unknown to himself, foists himself on his classmates, even though he knows he is completely unwelcome, and humiliates himself again and again as the evening wears on: For a man to humiliate himself more shamelessly and more voluntarily was really impossible, I fully, fully, understood that, and still I went on… acting knowingly in his worst interests. The social solecism is also a key Dostoevskyan trope, through which he explores the relationship between the ego and the social sphere. As the underground man rushes out of the hotel to catch up with the others in the brothel and to slap Zverkov, he thinks: here it is at last, the encounter with reality! a joke at the expense of the Russian Hegelians, the Westernisers of the previous generation.

Thirdly, is the episode with Liza in her room. We already know from the underground man that his only previous important friendship with a school chum had been based on power and manipulation, a kind of sporting activity, with the aim of making another human being see the world as the underground man does: I wanted to have unlimited power over his soul; I wanted to instil in him a contempt for his surrounding milieu…I had needed him only to gain a victory over him, only to bring him into subjection. Now, in the darkness with Liza, the underground man tries this again, and shows us this process in action. His remarks to Liza are all designed to open her up so that she will trust him, and then he can spurn her: For a long time already I’d sensed that I had turned her whole soul over and broken her heart, and the more convinced of it I was the more I wished to reach my goal quickly and as forcefully as possible. It was the game, the game that fascinated me… To no gain for himself, irrational and cruel.

Fourthly, Liza appears in his room. The underground man, Liza and Apollon form a threesome through which relationships of power, altruism and the perversion of love are examined. Love is of course, the most irrational force in the universe, and here the underground man perverts it by cruelly paying Liza for her love, which had been offered out of friendship.

Chernyshevsky’s book, with its authorial games and didactic purpose may be seen as a kind of Russian enlightenment text, similar to one by Diderot or Rousseau. Notes from Underground, on the other hand, with its emphasis on the irrational and a more rounded, all-inclusive vision of humanity, may be seen as the last outpouring of European Romanticism, and an early precursor of modernist interiority. However, it is important to be clear about one final point. Dostoevsky is not showing up the underground man as an example; he is not proposing the underground man’s views and methods as an alternative to the Westernisers’ rationalism. The underground man lacks two main features which Dostoevsky saw as essential components of the Russian personality, namely, the emphasis on brotherhood, and love; and the episodes in part 2 are specifically designed to show how the underground man perverts both those qualities, and where his human deficiencies lie. Dostoevsky in this novel has no program of his own to assert beyond pointing out that there is more to the human soul than rationalism, and to warn of the dangers to Russia of the Westernisers’ uncritical adoption of European rationality: We are still born. And that’s just what we seem to like more and more. We are getting a taste for it. Soon we shall invent some way of being somehow or other begotten by an idea…

It’s utterly the same to me
Among what faces like a caged-in lion
I bristle, what human company
Excludes me unfailingly to the iron

Shackles of myself, my subjectivity,
Like a polar bear with no floe to sit on.
Where not to get attached (I don’t try!)
Where to degrade myself -it’s all one.

And I’ll not let the milky call
Of my own native language cheat me –
Which I’m not understood in’s all
The same to me, and those who meet me.

(That reader, swallowing his ton
Of newsprint, milker of rumours, hearsay.)
He is a twentieth century one,
I stand before any age or century.

Marina Tsvetayeva
From ‘Longing for the Motherland’


Tuirgin said...

I've just finished re-reading Notes. The last time was well over 10 years ago.

I'm following it up with the excerpts of criticism in the Norton critical edition of Notes with Bakhtin and Joseph Frank in the wings, waiting to take the stage. In fact, from the excerpts in the Norton, they seem to be the most interesting writers about the Notes. I have you to thank for the Bakhtin, by the way.

At any rate, your blog is one of my first spots on the internet I check for interesting things on Dostoevsky. I'm glad to have it as a reference.

Murr said...

I'm delighted to hear that you find it useful! Thank you for your comment.