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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Dostoevsky: Notes from the Underground


Blogger SMJ said...

What is the underground? Is it the same as the Greek conception of the underworld where souls dwell in obscurity, forever trapped in their solitude; or is it a symbol of man's rebellion, the nether kingdom of Milton's Satan? Perhaps it refers to being buried underground, a vault of cold death enshrined; or does it mean the same place as the dark cellar ("I carried the dark cellar about with me in my soul."), a kind of prison or place in which things are hidden from public view? The underground is the abandonment of all dreams and hopes for a normal life, an aborted fetus left in a corner of darkness. Whatever it is, the underground stands for the place in which a man suffers "proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a organ-stop."

Notes from the Underground is written as a kind of confessional that is becoming prominent in our society today, but not to be confused with a confessional in which a sinner unburdens the weight of his guilty conscience. Dostoevsky's model is more akin to the smutty, rambling tabloid exposé in which all the dirt and festering sores of society's underbelly lie exposed, like a cadaver on a mortician's table. In this case, however, the cadaver is walking amongst us, both as a public scandal and a form of mass entertainment.

The narrator of this tale is a petty clerk, a mere minion in the bureaucratic world of civil service who is now retired and looking back on his career. His first words, "I am a sick man" reveal a surprising degree of self-awareness, coming as they do, from a spiteful, dysfunctional man whose spiritual forerunner is the servant Smerdyakov in Brothers Karamozov. Like Smerdyakov, the underground man has latched on to a few big ideas concerning the world which he misunderstands with catastrophic results. He says "I am sick," but from what sickness does he suffer? Something is wrong with his liver, but out of spite he refuses medical treatment . He isn't looking for a cure, though he knows he is only hurting himself and no one else. The function of the liver, of course, is to filter out deadly toxins from the body. Since his liver is malfunctioning, poison builds up in his system, which he understands but refuses to do anything about..."the more it hurts, the better."

Clearly, this is a man in conflict with the world he inhabits. As he admits, he has been living this way a long time. When he worked for the civil service, he was rude and enjoyed being rude to those who came to see him. Yet he "never accepted any bribes," which might suggest a thread of moral raiment, until he says "I had at least to find something to compensate myself for that."...his compensation being the daily humiliation he subjects to anyone coming into contact with him.

He is also a man living in contradiction with himself, which in Dostoevsky's view, makes him a useful symbol for the world in which he lives. He is a reader of books and educated beyond his usual station in life. He is vain about his intelligence ("I was cleverer than all the people around me"), though his intelligence fails to advance his career. He says, "I am a spiteful man" but later denies it, saying "not only did I not become spiteful, I did not even know how to become intelligent man cannot possibly become anything." And this is one of the aspects of his condition that Dostoevsky makes clear, for the underground man is an unfinished person. He is an embryo of a human being, not a man in the full sense of the word (Aristotle's "man of virtue"), but a sensualist obsessed with his own bruised vanity. He lives in a perpetual state of becoming, or in modern psychological terms, he presents a case of "arrested development." This condition, of course, exactly mirrors the problem with modernity that Dostoevsky identifies with his own world, 19th century Tsarist Russia.

And what is this problem? Rationality, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say a belief in the power of rationality to improve human society. Rationality or reason lies at the heart of the new industrial state, whose authority is bound inexorably with the victory of science over religion in western Europe.

It is no coincidence that the underground man lives in Petersburg, a city that Peter the Great originally modeled in admiration of Paris. By the 19th century, Petersburg, the Russian city most receptive to western ideas, had become a breeding ground for French Enlightenment humanism, not a development that every Russian welcomed. Eventually, we learn that the source of the poison that infects the underground man is an unhealthy attraction to these modern ideas, specifically ideas that have been imported from foreign soil. Some of these ideas are but a postscript to the American and French revolutions which made many monarchist regimes in Europe quite nervous.

For Dostoevsky, the underground man is a symbol of a new kind of romantic emerging in Russia; a man of great sensibility who is infatuated with ideas, particularly ideas he has read from books. He fancies himself to be a man of culture, though he is only recently divorced from the soil of Russian peasants. He is a man full of ideas and full of doubt about his place in the world. He worships at the altar of pain-- desire and pleasure being the new gods of his religion. More than anything, he values the freedom of will to choose for himself, even if his choice leads to his own destruction.

The underground man has no name because he has no identity. He is a symptom of a pathology and the disease is called consciousness. The underground man is what emerges when the train of social evolution becomes derailed. He is, in fact, an enigma. Nurtured on the thin air of human progress, he rejects the best of society for the worst. He endorses suffering as the path to righteousness, even if the suffering itself is without meaning.

The underground man imagines he is a kind of freedom fighter, struggling against the oppression of natural law. He rails against the Crystal Palace and the hegemony of "twice-two makes four." But order and tradition are only roadblocks to the pursuit of his own pleasure. And what exactly is pleasure for this blackguard who mocks all the rudiments of culture that Petersburg has to offer?

Well, it certainly isn't happiness. He is a man for whom the word "alienation" surely was created. Since he is not acceptable to polite society, he will remake himself into "the antithesis of the normal man." If society admires men of character, he will become spiteful and characterless. If he cannot be a man of action, he will be a man of great sensibility. If he lacks courage, he will emulate the mouse or the spineless mole hiding in its dark cellar. And to offset the many injuries suffered by his foolish pride, he conjures a little philosophical shack to shelter his half-baked ideas on society.

Most of his attack concerns the inadequacy of reason to satisfy man's desires. But his arguments aren't logical or persuasive, nor are they meant to be. They serve merely as a means to vent his dissatisfactions with life, a life he feels has been circumvented by the stone walls in his path. These stone walls may be lack of wealth, connections, public recognition, good fortune, etc. There is a certain whining tone of misfortune that is, at times, comical and other times vexatious. He seems a kind of Russian version of Scrooge, always expecting the worse and getting it. A true misanthrope. As he says, "only man can curse," and "the best definition of man is—a creature who walks on two legs and is ungrateful."

Yet, there are signs that after a lifetime of self-flagellation and constant abuse, the underground man has changed..."even now, after all these years, I somehow feel unhappy to recall all this...I have felt ashamed all the time I have been writing this story."

Perhaps he is sorry for the miserable way he treated Lisa, the young prostitute who offered her love to him, only to be cruelly rejected. In the end, he is left without friends, family, or an ounce of human dignity...("Apart from my reading, I had nothing to occupy me"), writing his memoirs for a reader he assumes does not even exist. In truth, were it not for the fact that his memoirs serve as a confession of his sins (sins he does not really comprehend), there would be no purpose in finishing them..."It seems this is no longer literature, but a corrective punishment." A self-imposed punishment for a man who has faith in nothing but the transparency of life.

The question, for me, is whether the underground man should be viewed as a prophet or the anti-Christ? If he is a prophet, then what is he warning us about? Is Russia in danger of becoming a secular bureaucracy full of dull, insensitive clerks? Does science and technology lead inevitably to moral decline? It seems difficult to make that case unless you believe that western cultural influences are harmful to Russia's people. Alienation is not unique to the Russian climate. It is part of the fabric of modern life. But the real lesson of the underground man is our need for freedom and contact with other human beings. Living alone, in the privacy of one's thoughts, leads only to despair and madness.

2/22/2005 11:26 AM  

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