Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dostoevsky: "Notes from the Underground" (1864)

Two years separate Dostoevsky's short book (you could hardly call it a novel, even a short one) from Hugo's long one, Les Miserables (1862) but these two writers inhabit different literary as well as moral and philosophical worlds: Hugo is a 19th century Romantic who looks back to the revolution that had occurred before he was born and forward to the brave new world of modern, enlightened, democracy which he knows in his heart is just around the corner. Dostoevsky, living in a land that had never had a revolution, a more feudal, more rigidly hierarchical and authoritarian place than anything Hugo could have known, writes as if he has seen the future and concluded that things can only get worse--but worse in a way that the big-wigs & power-brokers, the rich & the beautiful, or those who aspire to enter that world of power and privilege, will never appreciate; only a fellow spirit, another underground man, Kafka for example, can understand what Dostoevsky means by 'worse'--or what he means by that word, 'underground'.

Dostoevsky, thinking the title of his tale required some explanation, has this to say in a foot-note: "The author of the Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the author of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances under which our society was formed... In this fragment [he] introduces himself and his views, and, as it were, tries to explain the causes owing to which he has made his appearance and was bound to make his appearance in our midst."

How often have you heard explanations that don't explain very much? That raise more questions than they answer? Dostoevsky writes as one who is even more detached from his tale than his readers. He writes as one who belongs to the very upper-crust world that the nameless character he has invented (whom we can only identify as 'the underground man', or OU) is not merely excluded from but has willfully excluded himself from.

If you have read this tale, you may remember that the OU is not someone who makes detachment easy; he grabs you from his opening words, "I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man": he holds on to you and makes you listen; whoever or whatever he is, he is real, authentic. (Don't underestimate the magnitude of Dostoevsky's achievement here.)

What does Dostoevsky mean when he says that the existence of such a man is inevitable "in our society"? What is it about our society that virtually requires an underground? Who is included in that word 'our'?

1 comment:

  1. george@jochnowitz.netDecember 9, 2008 at 12:39 PM

    When Dostoevsky wrote the word "underground" he took a step on the road to a different word: "subconscious." He thought of himself as a reactionary, but he was part of a process that led to psychoanalysis and an ever more subtle understanding fo the complexity of human nature—and therefore to an increasingly humane society.