Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

DOSTOEVSKY: Notes from the Underground (Part 2)

Notes from the Underground begins with the main character informing the reader that I am a sick man.  I am a spiteful man.  No, I am not a pleasant man at all.  He’s telling the truth.  This man is probably the most unlikeable, self-absorbed character we’re ever likely to find.  So why would anyone spend three or four hours listening to this guy go on and on about his problems and his worthless life?  Because Dostoevsky has an important lesson to teach.  The message is this: reason is not what separates man from beast; it’s love.  We can’t grasp that kind of message with our brains; it has to touch our hearts.  And only literature, great literature, is capable of doing that.  We look at nature and see how even cats love their kittens and dogs love their puppies, etc.  But Dostoevsky presents a uniquely human problem: anybody can love kittens and puppies but who will love this man?  He’s despicable, unlovable.  Dostoevsky want us to pause for a moment and ask ourselves: how did he get that way?  He didn’t come into this world as a despicable and selfish grown man.  Here was his unpromising start in life: I was sent to the school by some distant relations of mine on whom I was dependent and of whom I have not heard anything since.  They dumped me there, an orphan already crushed… He doesn’t have the supporting love of a family but at least he’s with kids his own age.  School doesn’t go well either: I did not find it at all easy to make friends with people as they did to make friends among themselves.  I at once conceived a bitter hatred for them and withdrew from them all into my own shell of wounded, timid, and excessive pride.  Their coarseness appalled me…  I could not help looking on them as my inferiors. This is the painful confession of an outsider who desperately wants to be accepted by his playmates.  He’s not.  So he does what many shy people do, he turns to books instead: …To escape their ridicule I purposely began to apply myself more diligently to my studies and was soon among the top boys in my form.  This did make an impression on them.  Moreover, they all began gradually to realize that I was already reading books they could not read, and that I understood things (not included in our school curriculum) of which they had not even heard.  They looked sullenly and sardonically on all this but they had to acknowledge my moral superiority… He’s not, in fact, morally superior to his classmates.  He’s just well-read and intensely lonely.  And books aren’t enough for a fulfilling life: In the end I could no longer stand it myself: the older I became, the more I longed for the society of men and the more I was in need of friends.  Many people limp through adolescence bruised but not scarred for life.  They move on smoothly into adulthood.  This guy couldn’t make a smooth transition: I was only twenty-four at the time. My life even then was gloomy, disorderly, and solitary to the point of savagery.  I had no friends or acquaintances, avoided talking to people, and buried myself more and more in my hole.  At this point most young men go out in search of a companion, a soul mate, hopefully a good woman who will understand and love him.  Not this guy.  He’s honest enough to admit that I could not possibly have loved anyone because, I repeat, to me love meant to tyrannize and to be morally superior.  I have never in my life been able to imagine any other sort of love… He has his chance with a young woman named Lisa.  He almost lets her come into his life and (literally) re-form his heart: (Lisa) had not come to listen to my pathetic speeches at all, but to love me, for it is only in love that a woman can find her true resurrection, her true salvation from any sort of calamity, and her moral regeneration, and she cannot possibly find it in anything else… The truth is both these people need resurrection, salvation and moral regeneration.  They need each other; he needs it even more than she does.  But he lets his chance slip by.  He’s too far gone: I longed for her to disappear.  I longed for “peace.” I wanted to be left alone in my funk-hole.  Dostoevsky’s message is old and simple: we must love one another.  Why?  Because…we are all cripples, every one of us; more or less…and love is the only known cure for that kind of disease.


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