Notes from underground fyodor Dostoyevsky a critical paper by George Downing June 1, 2004

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky


A critical paper by

George Downing


June 1, 2004

Few would argue with Britannica’s assessment that Fyodor Dostoyevsky is “one of the world’s greatest novelists.” Nor would many dispute that his Notes From Underground, published in 1864, is one of the most important and influential literary works of the Nineteenth Century. Not only did it presage Dostoyevsky’s own great philosophical novels of the following decades, such as Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, but it also profoundly influenced subsequent generations of writers and thinkers. It has often been hailed as the first truly psychological novel. Its protagonist, the unnamed “Underground Man,” is one of literature’s first anti-heroes. He is a neurotic creature of raw nerve endings, railing against the follies of his fellow man while at the same time probing unmercifully into his own tortured psyche.

Years after publication of the Notes, Sigmund Freud, an ardent admirer of Dostoyevsky, was to express his amazement at Dostoyevsky’s brilliant and incisive examination of a disturbed mind – and this at a time when little scientific knowledge existed about human psychology. Kafka and Sartre, too, became devoted disciples of Dostoyevsky, using in their works the same kinds of intense interior monologues one finds in the Notes. Dostoyevsky, with this one work, started a literary revolution.

The profound influence of the Notes on contemporary literature and thought is summarized in the following passage by Joseph Frank, the distinguished Dostoyevsky scholar:

“Few works in modern literature are more read than Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground or so often cited as a key text revelatory of the hidden depths of the sensibility of our time. . . No book or essay dealing with the precarious situation of modern man would be complete without some allusion to Dostoyevsky’s explosive figure.

. . . The underground man has thus entered into the very warp and woof of modern culture in a fashion testifying to the philosophical- suggestiveness and hypnotic power of this first great creation of Dostoyevsky’s post-Siberian years.”

It is hard not to be taken in by the Underground Man. His opening lines:

“I am a sick man. I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver,” grab us by the throat. We know instantly that we are in for a very bumpy ride. This is not going to be Charles Dickens! And the pace does not let up; if anything, his ravings become more and more intense, filled with biting philosophical insights and spiced with mordant wit. He simply cannot be ignored. We may find him cantankerous and repellent but we are drawn to him like moths to a flame.

Part of our fascination with Underground Man lies in the fact that he is a profound analyst of his own anxieties and neuroses. He is, as Britannica describes him, “a supremely alienated individual for whom no truth is absolute and every good is relative. His dualism is caused by a fundamental conflict between will and reason.”

To set the stage for a discussion of Part One of the novel, it should be noted that Dostoyevsky intended the work as a satire on the conventional wisdom of his day, i.e., that man is an essentially rational and perfectable creature. Under this romantic notion, man, if lifted out of his ignorance, will always choose a course of action that satisfies his enlightened self-interest. He will avoid evil and achieve virtue and human goodness because those ends will be dictated by his own best interests and it would be irrational for him to act otherwise.

This was the prevailing view of mankind as expressed by Western intellectuals during the Romantic Period of the mid-Nineteenth Century. But, for Dostoyevsky and Underground Man, as we know from the Notes, this romantic view of man was not only untenable but patently absurd, indeed, laughably absurd. Dostoyevsky intended his Notes to serve as a counter polemic in favor of man’s freedom--and indeed sometimes his desire--to act against his own best interests. For Underground man, who expresses Dostoyevsky’s own views on the subject, it is man’s freedom of will to act in an irrational manner, to take a path which may lead to his own ruin, which distinguishes him as the great and unique creature that he is.

This is the fundamental thesis of Part One of the Notes. In the hands of a lesser writer, all of this might have degenerated into a dreary social or philosophical tract, but Dostoyevsky, through his literary genius, transforms Underground Man’s rantings into a riveting work of art.

In 1863, a then fashionable but now forgotten Russian intellectual and literary figure named N.G. Chernyshevsky published a work entitled What Is To Be Done? Although presented in the form of a novel, it is in fact a lightly disguised polemic in favor of the just-described romantic view that mankind can achieve virtue and nobility through the pursuit of enlightened self interest. As stated in the book:

“A man does evil only because he does not know his real interests, and if he is enlightened and his eyes are opened to his own best . . interests, man will cease to do evil. . . [because] it is well known that no man can knowingly act against his best interests.”

In passage after passage in Part One of the Notes the Underground Man jeers and derides this proposition. For him the single most important thing for man, the very quality which makes him a human being rather than a determinist automaton, is his freedom of will to act deliberately contrary to his own reason, to act on whims and caprices that he consciously knows will not serve his own best interests. Take for example this short passage from Section 8, where in speaking of man’s ability to act on a whim the Underground Man says that this may be “the greatest of all benefits even when it does us obvious harm . . . because it does at any rate preserve what is dear and extremely important to us, that is our personality and our individuality.”

The Underground Man also buttresses his argument in favor of mankind’s freedom of will by observing that attaining a worthy goal does not truly represent the pinnacle of a man s success or happiness; what brings man real happiness is the process of pursuing a goal. And that is because it is in man’s nature to always be in the process of “becoming,” of reaching toward some new goal, of reaching toward some new sense of self.

To quote the Underground Man on this subject: “ . . . man is a fickle and disreputable creature and perhaps, like a chess-player, is interested in the process of attaining his goal rather than the goal itself. . . . He will feel that if he finds [his goal], he will have nothing left to search for.”

These passages reveal why Dostoyevsky is often called one of the fathers of existentialism – that school of philosophy which believes that man, through the exercise of his free will, is constantly making choices which determine who and what he is. Man, unique among animals, has the capacity to constantly reinvent himself through the exercise of his free will. And that is why his free will, and his ability to take acts which are against his own best rational interests, are so precious and dear to him and, indeed, define him as a man.

Although Dostoyevsky cautions us not to assume that he is the Underground Man, nonetheless the Underground Man in his positions on free will and man’s essential nature does reflect Dostoyevsky’s own thinking during this period of his life. As a young man, Dostoyevsky, like many intellectuals of the day, believed in the romantic concept of man as a rational and perfectable being who might be capable of achieving Utopia – the “Crystal Palace” referred to in the Notes. But all of that changed for Dostoyevsky when he was sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison for alleged political crimes. During his years in Siberia Dostoyevsky’s eyes were opened to the appalling kinds of human depravity and degradation his fellow inmates were capable of. He learned from first hand experience in prison that man was not always a rational and enlightened creature, but more often than not a savage and brutish one. This experience was to color his thinking for the rest of his days and obviously undergirds the positions and opinions about mankind which are reflected in the Notes and his subsequent great philosophical novels.

For Dostoyevsky, it is precisely because of man’s capacity for evil that he most needs spiritual redemption. And thus we find the searching for spiritual values which lies at the core of all of Dostoyevsky’s later works. Beginning with the Notes, and continuing through all of his later novels, Dostoyevsky plumbs the mysteries of man’s spiritual and religious nature. There is in all of these late works an unresolved conflict between man’s searching for redemption and spiritual fulfillment while at the same time clinging tenaciously to his rationality. The struggle between these two competing aspects of man’s nature is not, and perhaps cannot, be resolved. Dostoyevsky, just like the characters in his novels, seems unable to break completely from his rational nature and to make a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.

So far in this discussion I have concentrated on Part One of the Notes because, for me, it is by far the more compelling section of the work. Although Part Two has its moments, it strikes me as something of a let down after the exhilarating, white-hot soul searching of Part One. That said, though, I must concede that the first few pages of Section II provide a stunning insight into the brilliant but neurotic mind of the young Underground Man. It is no wonder that the Notes have received such raves from subsequent generations of psychiatrists.

Part One confirms the Underground Man as a bitter and disaffected 40 year old misfit and malcontent. Dostoyevsky’s literary conceit in Part Two is to have the Underground Man give the reader a portrait of himself as a young man in his mid-twenties. The author’s object is to give the reader an account of some of the life experiences which have molded the young man’s misanthropic view of life and ultimately driven him, by middle age, into his miserable, solitary underground “funkhole.” In Part Two we are given a window into our anti-hero’s already tormented soul. He describes his youthful existence as “gloomy, untidy, and barbarously solitary.” He tells us that his “. . . debauches were solitary, nocturnal, secret, frightened, dirty, and full of shame that did not leave me at the most abandoned moments . . . Even then I carried the underground in my soul.”

Supremely conscious of his own intellectual superiority, he talks about his pride, his vanity and his rage. Soon he describes for us in neurotic detail how he carried out a long-planned collision on Nevsky Prospect with a haughty young officer whom he believes has snubbed him and treated him as a nobody, or, as he puts it, as “an insect”. This absurd exercise in self-delusion gives him great silent satisfaction, despite the fact that the young officer seems to be totally oblivious of his existence.

Next we learn of Underground Man’s effort to try to become one of the boys by inviting himself to a farewell dinner for an old school chum which is being thrown by some of his acquaintances. He longs to break out of his solitary doldrums and yet he disdains the stupidity and banality of his contemporaries. Mocking them to himself he says:

“Even at sixteen I was morosely amazed at the triviality of their ideas and the stupidity of their pursuits, their games and their talk . . . They understood nothing at all of real life and that, I swear, is what I found most revolting in them.”

There is wonderful irony in this latter remark, for our young anti-hero is himself totally out of touch with the real world. At the dinner celebration, where he is barely tolerated by his companions, he behaves badly. He gets very drunk and insults everybody, including the honored guest. Narrowly avoiding a duel, he joins the others in a drunken foray to a local brothel. There he meets and is attracted to a young prostitute named Liza, whom he proceeds to browbeat about her squalid and miserable profession. At first she seems cowed by his insults, but then she slyly gains the upper hand by telling him that he sounds just like a book, not a real person. She also shows her innate sense of dignity by producing a letter from a young student who has declared his love for her.

Later she shows her dignity for a second time when, on visiting Underground Man at his filthy apartment, she returns a five ruble note he has thrust into her hand. By this gesture she tells him – wordlessly – that, humble though she may be, she does have her own sense of pride and cannot be bought off. In effect, she becomes his moral superior, a fact which even he seems to comprehend.

Although these various misadventures of our anti-hero do tell us something about him and do explain his troubled and alienated nature, for me they soon grow tiresome. As readers we begin to wonder why we should have to suffer through the pathetic and tormented exploits of such a vain and unredeemed loser. We know, because Dostoyevsky tells us so, that he is intended to represent the very antithesis of the romantic hero. Still there is a limit to our patience; I for one was ready to give him the hook early on in Part Two.

In closing I would like to note that one of the most striking features of the Notes is the brash, headlong prose style which Dostoyevsky uses to propel his story. The sentences race along in a torrent, interrupted by frequent, sometimes contradictory digressions and spiced with black humor and joking asides. These are not the polished and elegantly turned out phrases of a sophisticated philosopher; rather they reflect, and indeed are intended to reflect, the ravings of a madman.

To some readers this style is off-putting. They prefer the measured and well turned out prose style of, say, a Tolstoy or a Turgenev. But for me this rough and choppy style is just right for the job, giving the Notes their singular energy and emotional power. The Underground Man would not be a plausible antihero if he spoke in the sweet and measured tones of a romantic hero. I think Dostoyevsky knew exactly what he was doing in using this style and that it confirms his greatness as a novelist.

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