Thursday, December 11, 2008

Notes From the Underground (2)

What did Dostoevsky mean by the word 'underground'? The political meaning, familiar to anyone who remembers the Nazi or Soviet 'occupations' of the 20th century, is clearly irrelevant; the Underground Man has no political beliefs, belongs to no political organization. Nor is he a criminal; the current meaning of 'underworld' can also be ruled out. Yet, though the word has to be a literal translation of some Russian word, Dostoevsky's use of it is clearly metaphorical--unlike the Paris underground in Les Miserables which is literal. While the reader can think of the Paris sewers as a metaphor for the dark, fillthy places inhabited by the forgotten wretches of world, Hugo does not himself insist on it. He doesn't have to.

Dostoevsky's Underground Man is so far beneath the notice of the various social and political establishments that he might as well be living under the ground. That is not, however, quite how he sees himself. I don't think he ever uses the term 'underground' as a metaphor for his place in the world; the word he uses is 'insect.' Franz Kafka, fifty-one years later, would take him literally in a story he entitled The Metamorphosis (1915). Why does the hero (so to speak) of that tale, Gregor Samsa, wake up one morning as a giant bug? Because that's how the world, including his father, sees--or doesn't see--him. He is beneath notice, a nobody, a person of no significance. He might as well be a bug. And how does one become such non-person? Or, rather, what does one have to do not to become such a person? The answer is obvious, is it not? Since the powerful, not the meek, inherit the earth, get power anyway you can. Some are born powerful, others seize power, others have it thrust upon them. Money is power as long as you know how to use it, or as long it lasts. Inherited social status helps a lot; luck and natural ability count for more: the 19th century is an age of (a few) self-made millionaires and tycoons; Napoleon, the greatest of them all, became the hero of poor but energetic and ambitious young men everywhere. But those young men would have had a tougher time of it in mid 19th century Russia than anywhere else in northern Europe--and Russia did in those days consider itself a part of Europe.

There is another way to make the world notice you: invent or join a political party; acquire a group or corporate identity. But the Underground Man does not want to be successful or noticed or happy; having consciously internalized the world's contempt for powerless people such as he, he welcomes it, embraces it even in order to prove a point--or rather to disprove one: the argument of modern utilitarian economics that each of us, acting in his or her own self-interest (within the rule of law) will automatically bring about the greatest good of the greatest number. And so the Underground Man repeatedly demonstrates his power to act freely against his own interests by going out of his way to humiliate himself--thus making a sort of political point, despite his own intentions. Doesn't he warn us from the beginning that he is a sick man, a spiteful man? But of course the political point is Dostoevsky's.

If that were all, this little book would not matter as much as it does. You want to know what its like down in the belly of the beast, down in the guts of our modern, urban Leviathans? Let the Underground Man tell you about life in that dismal Hobbesian state where everyone preys on someone weaker, powerlessness leads relentlessly to humiliation, and the humiliated take it out on those who are more powerless still.

The UM is willing do anything no matter how shameful to make people notice him; why does he want to be noticed? So he can shit on them.

What makes this book such a discomforting and painful read?--it has no equal in this way, nothing else is quite like it. Dostoevsky has managed to write a book that does to the reader what the Underground Man does to himself.

Like any story written in the person, this one draws you in; you begin to identify with or at least share the teller's point of view. Dostoevsky takes advantage of this literary habit to trap the reader in the skin of a man who despises him or her as much as he despises himself.

Why is Dostoevsky trapping his readers in this way? I don't know.

If there is one person the UM despises even more than himself--if that's possible-- it is the French novelist and romantic, or romantic novelist, George Sand, who stood up for the rights of women and taught what Keats calls "the holiness of the heart's affections." She taught generations of young readers, men and women, that love is a divine instinct: follow the dictates of your heart and you can't go wrong. (She practised what she preached, with results that were not always entirely happy.) The UM does not believe in any of this; he is a cynic: he does not believe in virtue or the goodness of the human heart, which he thinks is capable of nothing but humbug and hypocrisy. He believes in nothing.

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