Notes from Underground

“… my apartment was my mansion, my shell, my case, in which I hid from all mankind…” (Notes from Underground, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, 113)

That is just one of the many expostulations I felt compelled to underline while re-reading Notes from Underground.  And while I know this is one of those “great works of literature” about which one needs to have serious opinions, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of sentiment in the above to a song lyric of more recent provenance:

Back in the garage with my bullshit detector
Carbon monoxide making sure it’s effective
People ringing up making offers for my life
But I just wanna stay in the garage all night

-The Clash, “Garageland,” The Clash

I just finished D’s book, and then also Frank’s extended discussion of it near the end of Volume 3 of his biography – Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865.  And I have to say that while I’m generally enjoying Frank’s discussion of D’s life in the context of his works, his consideration of Notes from Underground left me feeling like he had missed something essential about the text.

By way of analogy – I was once discussing the Beatles’ “Sexy Sadie” with a friend.  I offered that I loved the song, and what I think I love about it is the twisting lo-fi undulations of the piano, the spookiness of the reverb on the voices, and tangentially, what the song, to my ears, seemed to be about: “you made a fool of everyone,” and somehow a sense of somber realization that feels like it contradicts this in the closing moments of the song – something I get just from the late-developing guitar countermelody, something it’s very difficult to capture in writing.

Anyway, I’m fumbling around, not doing much better than what’s in the previous paragraph, trying to express this to my friend, and he says, “what, no, that song’s about the Maharishi.”  Now a quick Wikipedia search reveals that he was right – the song was in fact written about the Maharishi.  But what frustrated me about the conversation was I felt like what I said was still valid.  I didn’t understand in what way this bit of Beatles biography was supposed to be a refutation, or even any sort of meaningful elucidation of the song itself.  It just felt like fan trivia.

And so with Frank’s treatment of one of the more enigmatic and memorable novellas in western literature.  I set the book down with a confusing tangle of emotions, mostly brought on by the sympathy that D’s “underground” narrator had created in me.  And then I read Frank’s chapter, and he’s gone and splayed the thing out on an operating table, and in the name of placing it in its proper historical context, deracinated the original and turned it into a lesson in intellectual history and failed high-concept satire.

I’ll come back to Frank in a bit – first a bit more about Notes from Underground itself.  So far, none of D’s novels or stories have really had memorable opening lines – certainly no “it is a truth universally acknowledged…”, “all happy families are alike…” or “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” moments.  The opening of Notes from Underground, though, breaks this trend.  To wit:

“I AM A SICK MAN… I am a wicked man.  An unattractive man.  I think my liver hurts” (3).

And so begins a majestic 130-page first-person tirade of intermittent coherence.  Sometimes the narrator is recounting stories from his past, sometimes sermonizing on his own vanity, sometimes lashing out disproportionately at seemingly trivial interlocutors, whether his servant Apollon, an unnamed officer he sees in the street and desires to bump into without being knocked over, or the famous prostitute Liza.

Interlocutors indeed.  In fact, of all the historical, literary and ideological analogues Frank mentions, there is one he overlooks – no less than Plato’s “Apology of Socrates.”  One of the most memorable features of that text, for me anyway, is Socrates’ repeated pausing to silence his audience, the Athenian jury, who is apparently jeering at him.  To jog your memory, here’s a clip from the Jowett translation:

Men of Athens, do not interrupt, but hear me; there was an agreement between us that you should hear me out. And I think that what I am going to say will do you good: for I have something more to say, at which you may be inclined to cry out; but I beg that you will not do this (

Socrates is forced into the second person again and again as he colossally fails to persuade the jury of his innocence.

On just the first two pages, D’s narrator feels similarly so forced several times:

No, sir, I refuse to be treated out of wickedness.  Now, you will certainly not be so good as to understand this.  Well, sir, but I understand it.  I will not, of course, be able to explain to you precisely who is going to suffer in this case from my wickedness… However, that was still in my youth.  But do you know, gentlemen, what was the main point about my wickedness?  The whole thing precisely was, the greatest nastiness precisely lay in my being shamefully conscious every moment, even in moments of the greatest bile… (3-4)

Granted, Socrates’ and the underground man’s agenda may not align in all particulars (though really they might), but their tones are one and the same – a sincerely expressed desire for vindication intermingled with a disgust that cannot be set aside, even though it’s not in either of their best interests; a penchant for self-aggrandizing narrative flashback…

And it is precisely on this issue of tone that I found Frank’s take on things remarkably lacking – indeed, tone-deaf.  Frank sets forth to demonstrate D’s satirical purpose, trying to prove that this entire text is meant as a reduction ad adsurdum of Chernyshevsky’s radical utilitarianism – he even alleges that D’s own creativity keeps this project from succeeding as thoroughly as it might have:

The parodistic function of his character has always been obscured by the immense vitality of its artistic embodiment, and it has, paradoxically, been Dostoevsky’s very genius for the creation of character that has most interfered with the proper understanding of Notes from Underground.  It is not really difficult to comprehend why, in this instance, the passion that Dostoevsky poured into his character should have overshadowed the nature of the work as a satirical parody (Frank 315).

That may all very well be true.  It may be that D’s intent was to create a certain sort of a parody that gets lost in the passion of its execution.  But I propose an alternative way to proceed: perhaps we should read D’s passion not as something that gets in the way of a reductio, but rather as something that inexorably affects D’s purpose – perhaps, in short, this book is not best read as parody, even if D himself thought it was.

To understand more what I mean, let me explain just what sort of a reductio this is supposed to be.  The idea seems to be that “the underground man” (UM) is the living embodiment of a form of materialism that is demonstrated to be absurd by the narrative itself; that materials must therefore be set aside in favor of something else.  The UM is has thoroughly accepted all the normal materialist dicta – no free will; we’re all chemically/physically based; we’re just another species of animal, morality is just a certain sort of vanity that has a coherent reductive explanation; consciousness is just a deception; God is an empty concept we’ve constructed for ourselves, etc. etc – and he says so:

Well, of course, the laws of nature, the conclusions of natural science, mathematics.  Once it’s proved to you, for example, that you descended from an ape, there’s no use making a wry face, just take it for what it is.  Once it’s proved to you that, essentially speaking, one little drop of your own fat should be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow men, and that in this result all so-called virtues and obligations and other ravings and prejudices will finally be resolved, go ahead and accept it, there’s nothing to be done, because two times two is—mathematics.  Try objecting to that.  “For pity’s sake,” they’ll shout at you, “You can’t rebel: it’s two times two is four!  Nature doesn’t ask your permission; it doesn’t care about your wishes, or whether you like its laws or not.  You’re obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently, all its results as well.  And so a wall is indeed a wall… etc., etc.”  My God, but what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic if for some reason these laws and two times two is four are not to my liking? (13)

A reductio ad absurdum, in a strict logical sense, is supposed to be a way of disproving an assertion or set of asserting by deriving a contradiction from it/them.  If p and q are both supposed to be true, and I can show that p à r and q à not(r), then I will have proven that both p and q cannot be true at the same time, since both r and not(r) cannot be true at the same time.  So Frank seems to construe D’s argument as, roughly,

The truth of materialism means I do not have any meaningful experience of consciousness.  But I cannot escape my feeling of consciousness even as I try to affirm the truth of materialism.  Therefore the truth of materialism must be false.

Such an argument is neither original nor all that persuasive, nor would it take the strange construction of the UM to demonstrate.  No – to me, the UM is not a proof or disproof of materialism, he is a demonstration of the sort of man that results from the seeming contradiction that arises between materialism and a sense of self-consciousness.  The UM is interesting precisely because he believes two contradictory things that may well both be true: to wit, (1) that our lives have entirely enumerable material causes, and (2) that it is impossible to make ourselves believe (1) regardless of how true (1) is.  The UM is then not a walking reductio, but rather, an incarnate person whose own very honesty leads him to leading a life that we might think horrible.  This is nothing like a proof that (1) is false.  It is more a meditation in what is really means to accept (1) and still try to live.

So, just like Socrates before him, the UM is brought to a position of frustration precisely because a he lives within the confines of a paradox.  Thus near the end of the first section, the UM concludes,

THE FINAL END, gentlemen: better to do nothing!  Better conscious inertia!  And so, long live the underground! (37)

The book’s second division, sub-titled “Apropos of the Wet Snow”, the UM tells us, is a report of some things that happened much earlier in his life, during the 1840’s (the first half is looking back from the 1860’s) – things which presumably drove him to the above conclusion.  It’s much more narrative, focusing for the most part on one evening out with some pseudo-friends of his.  They reluctantly invite the UM out, he shows up an hour early, gets drunk, proceeds to insult all of them and call them out for their phoniness, and then later he follows them to a brothel.  There, after sleeping with a prostitute (Liza), the UM awakes from his drunken stupor and waxes poetic to Liza herself, trying to convince her to leave her line of work, and let him save her.

A few days later, she shows up to his house, and he tries to convince himself and her that the whole vainglorious speech he delivered was only a form of cruelty – that he was so upset at his friends that he needed someone to destroy, and so he set out to destroy her by launching a moral crusade, apparently on her behalf, but really just to amuse himself.  The sequence ends with him her professing her sorrow for him, that this all makes sense to him.  She leaves, and the book ends shortly thereafter, but not before a puzzling pronouncement:

… a novel needs a hero, and here there are purposely collected all the features for an antihero, and, in the first place, all this will produce a most unpleasant impression, because we’ve all grown unaccustomed to life, we’re all lame, each of us more or less.  We’ve even grown so unaccustomed that at times we feel a sort of loathing for real “living life,” and therefore cannot bear to be reminded of it… Go on, try giving us more independence, for example, unbind the hands of any one of us, broaden our range of activity, relax the tutelage, and we… but I assure you: we will immediately beg to be taken back under tutelage.  I know you’ll probably get angry with me for that, shout, stamp your fee: “Speak just for yourself and your miseries in the underground, and don’t go saying ‘we all.’” Excuse me, gentlemen, but I am not justifying myself with this allishness.  As far as I myself am concerned, I have merely, carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway, and what’s more you’ve taken your cowardice for good sense, and found comfort in thus deceiving yourself.  So that I, perhaps, come out even more “living” than you.  Take a closer look!

I don’t purport to have made sense of this book – it’s one of those books that’s great precisely because it’s almost impossible to create a sense of reading it without actually being engaged in the very act of reading it.  It wouldn’t make a good movie; it cannot be distilled into its “intellectual content” without losing a sense of its vitality.  It is basically sui generis.  It’s awash with gallows humor, hilarious non-sequiturs, and yes, fervent passion.  What is strange to me is that Frank thinks all that is a problem.

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4 Responses to Notes from Underground

  1. Nates says:

    I agree that Frank’s reading seems surprisingly reductive, and your approach to reading it seems much more interesting and plausible. I agree with you that it’s a fascinating and baffling work. I don’t have a well-thought-out reading of it, but here are a few things that came to mind as I was reading your post.

    The connection with Socrates is intriguing. In a way, the UM is a kind of anti-Socrates. Socrates couldn’t live without reason/philosophy, and UM can’t live with it. (That would work well with the anti-hero passage you quote from.) Lurking behind this thought is the idea that UM is reacting not just to a narrowly conceived Russian social materialism, but, rather, is a reaction to modern life itself, as a product of enlightenment rationality. So, for instance, the Crystal Palace, falls in the long tradition of using architectural metaphors for systematic constructions of philosophy.

    I tend to think that his reaction to the dilemma of modern life is more one of defiance than of honesty. Despite his promise of complete candor, UM strikes me as being a very unreliable narrator.

    In general, I get the sense that one of Dostoevsky’s goals in writing the work was just to unsettle the reader. The unreliable narrator helps with that, but the passion you mention seems even more important. He’s at once a repulsive and a strangely admirable figure, which leaves the reader in an odd position.

    Finally, Sexy Sadie: a truly great Beatles song.

  2. Josh says:

    One thing I’ve noticed more and more as I get through the Frank biography is that he’s just not that interested in questions of style – for some reason this feels related to his disdain for Freudianism… he’s not really all that interested in problematic, perhaps unfalsifiable implication or subtext. What’s strange, then is, why he’s so interested in Dostoevsky in the first place, because that’s basically exactly what grabs me about it.

    As for Socrates – you’re right that the UM isn’t all that interested in the Socratic project of “the examined life.” I think what strikes me, though, is still some sort of underlying literary similarity between the two characters. I like the idea that he’s a reaction to modern life itself – that’s probably what gives the text its staying power, beyond the narrow intellectual context in which the book as written.

    Defiance is probably a better word than honesty yes – but, isn’t it an honest sort of defiance? Isn’t the UM pushing something away even though he knows it to be true?

  3. Nates says:

    I do know what you mean about the honesty thing. But it’s weird. Hhe comes across at times as remarkable honest and clear-sighted about society and himself. But there are also signs that he’s being manipulative and deceitful in telling his story. For example, he initially presents his story of his past encounter with Liza as a kind of random recollection–a memory he hadn’t thought of in ages, triggered by the similarity in the weather then and now. Apropos the wet snow and all that. But, if I’m remembering it right, he later reveals that the events of that night profoundly affected him, and that he thinks about it all the time. Something’s not right there.

    My sense is that the tension between his dishonesty and his authenticity is essential to what Dostoevsky is trying to accomplish wit this character, but I don’t know what to make of it.

  4. Pingback: The Dostoevsky Project Wrap-Up #1: Everything I Wrote | Original Positions

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