Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dostoyevsky's Underground Digs Deep

Concurrent with my ongoing Ayn Rand fixation is an interest in exploring works that bear some relation to her, whether directly (I'm tempted to dig into Les Miserables, her favorite novel and a conscious influence on We the Living, which actually isn't too shabby) or more obliquely, which is the case with Notes from Underground. Rand, having grown up in Russia, was familiar with Dostoyevsky and appreciated his virtually unmatched fusion of psychology and philosophy, but almost certainly was repulsed by his embrace of suffering and redemption. Notes doesn't track to her thought particularly well, in fact it is wildly divergent, but it contains some surprising connecting threads; it is, too, a quick read, and I wanted to revisit it a year-and-a-half after my first draught of its peculiar poison.

For one thing, Notes is much funnier the second time through. The first exposure leaves the reader appalled at the Underground Man's (defense of the) most inscrutable and destructive behavior. Now that one is in on the sick joke, one can better appreciate his sour wit, how much fun he's having at everyone's expense. His crack that the upcoming dinner with his old and mutually loathing schoolmates is "like a piece of bad literature," is good one. Or the several times he, in typical self-defeating fashion, goes on a tear only to limply let the air out at the end of it:

"Ah, why bother! I ought to get up right away, take my hat, and leave without saying a word. And tomorrow, I would challenge any of them to a duel. The miserable pigs! I don't have to stick it out to get my seven rubles' worth of food. They might think, though--damn it all! To hell with the seven rubles; I'm leaving right now!"

It goes without saying that I didn't leave.

Why bother, indeed. And a little further on:

"Let him hit me in the face, and all the rest of them with him. I'll shout for all to hear: 'Look at that pig who's going to seduce Circassian girls with my spit shining on his face!'

"After that, of course, everything will be over. My office will have disappeared from the face of the earth; I'll be arrested, tried, dismissed from my government job, and deported to Siberia. But never mind! In fifteen years, after I've served my time, I'll trace Zverkov to some provincial town. He'll be happily married by then, with a big daughter. I'll tell him: 'Look, you monster--look at these sunken cheeks and tattered clothes! I've lost everything--career, happiness, art, science, the woman I loved--and all through your fault. Here are the pistols. I've come to unload my pistol and... and I forgive you.' Then I'll fire into the air and no one will hear of me again."

This almost brought tears to my eyes, although I realized that I'd taken it all from Pushkin's Pistol Shot or Lermontov's Masquerade.

Even when he knows he's stolen it all, he can't even say where exactly from.

The prostitute Eliza becomes an easy mark for this treatment as well:

"You'll die all right, some day, and it'll be exactly like that woman I was telling you about. She was young too, just like you....She died of consumption."

"A dame like that would've died in a hospital."

She knows all about these things, I thought when she used the word "dame."

"She owed money to the madam," I said, enjoying the argument more and more. "And she kept working to the very end, consumption or no consumption. The cabbies around there had spoken to some soldiers, and I heard it from them. They made fun of her. They even intended to have a party in her memory in a tavern."

I had invented much of this.

All of this, the curdled humor, the disregard for sincerity and action, derives from the Underground Man's "tangled logic" of his belief that man, even--especially--when given the deepest knowledge of his world and himself, will inevitably opt for the most irrational and destructive behavior, in order to prove that he has a will of his own, free of rationality and its rigid formulae.

Such a view is not exactly practical; as the book's second half makes explicit, putting a philosophy of inaction, in action, is itself a formula for the most gruesome impotence. It is an extraordinarily pessimistic perspective, but it is not altogether wrong. Indeed it speaks to our own times, almost 150 years on:

Now, let me ask you something: what can one expect from man, considering he's such a strange creature? You can shower upon him all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness so that there'll be nothing to be seen but the bubbles rising to the surface of his bliss, give him such economic security that he won't have anything to do but sleep, nibble at cakes, and worry about keeping world history flowing--and even then, out of sheer spite and ingratitude, man will play a dirty trick on you. He'll even risk his cake for the sake of the most glaring stupidity, for the most economically unsound nonsense, just to inject into all the soundness and sense surrounding him some of his own disastrous, lethal fancies. What he wants to preserve is precisely his noxious fancies and vulgar trivialities, if only to assure himself that men are still men (as if that were so important) and not piano keys simply responding to the laws of nature. Man is somehow averse to the idea of being unable to desire unless this desire happens to figure on his timetable at that moment.

The mid to late 1990s, recall, were for the United States a time of unprecedented material prosperity. The Communism of Dostoyevsky's motherland had breathed its last, liberal democracy and capitalism were sprouting from its ashes, and scholars were openly wondering if history would indeed continue to flow. Then over the course of ten years America threw away a budgetary surplus on an ever-increasing number of disastrous and lethal fancies (tax cuts for the people who needed them least, two wars and a senior citizen drug entitlement plan, all unpaid for), and its financial sector devoured itself in the pursuit of ever higher profits generated from some most unsound economic nonsense. After a few years in victory laps the country didn't know what to with itself. Market headiness and 9/11 worked in tandem to spur the nation's slow process of ripping its skin off its body and laughing about it.

The effect is more pronounced now, in the response to Barack Obama's largely technocratic approach to addressing the nation's ills. There are valid criticisms to be made of his methods, but the Republican party's reaction--"Drill, Baby, Drill," "Death Panels," unwavering support for Israel and unflagging contempt of Muslims--is not among them. It is less a cogent critique than a spiteful retreat to its own worst impulses and a wholesale withdrawal from the "reality-based community." This is of course best manifested in the candidates they have put forward to challenge Obama for the nation's leadership; by turns vacuous, wild-eyed, vicious, vain, and inept, the party's favorites for the presidency are a reified bestiality, a regression in the face of complex problems and the need for complex solutions into imbecility for spite's sake, in the name of individual freedom, no less!

Of course, it is Ayn Rand and her ideas that are the prime movers of so much of the current moment in the Republican party. Her antipathy for any but the most basically functional of government activity was such that she considered President John F. Kennedy and his call for service tantamount to Adolf Hitler's fascism. Such comparisons were beyond the pale in polite society in the 1960s and 70s, but these days an accusation of socialism if not outright totalitarianism against the corporatist-lite Democrats is an easy shortcut to a "non-fiction" bestseller.

The contradiction in Rand's putative objectivism and her extremely distorted subjective view is not the greatest irony at work here, however. That lies in the fact that hers was an understandable overreaction to her traumatizing experience living during the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik revolt was spearheaded by Vladimir Lenin, who was moved to action years before by a book, Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done?, which presented London's Crystal Palace as a vision of human progress. It was exactly this ideal that Dostoyevsky's Underground Man rails against:

Actually, I'm not advocating suffering any more than well-being. What I'm for is whim, and I want the right to use it whenever I want to.

I know, for instance, that suffering is inadmissible in light stage plays. In the utopian crystal palace, it'd be inconceivable, for suffering means doubt and denial, and what kind of crystal palace would that be, if people had doubts about it? Nevertheless, I'm certain that man will never give up true suffering, that is, chaos and destruction. Why, suffering is the only cause of consciousness. And, although I declared at the beginning that consciousness is man's greatest plague, I know that he likes it and won't exchange it for any advantage. Consciousness, for instance, is of a much higher order than twice two [makes four]. After twice two, we'll of course have nothing left either to do or to find out. All that'll be left for us will be to bock off our five senses and plunge into contemplation. With consciousness we have nothing much to do either, but we can at least lacerate ourselves from time to time, which does liven us up a bit. It may go against progress, but it's better than nothing.

Both Rand and Dostoyevsky recoiled viscerally from Chernyshevsky and Lenin's utopian fervor. In some respects their responses are remarkably similar. Both stress the primacy of individual will and its indomitability in the face of external forces of societal organization. Yet they are in fact diametrically opposed. Rand's was a unified system that took rationality as its foundation and sought to repudiate altruism, from which Communism sprung, on grounds of irrationality and mysticism. Yet Dostoyevsky's critique digs far deeper than Rand and in fact damns both her and her Soviet opposites, for Objectivism and Communism both are logical systems of thought (though Rand was never so charitable as to grant her enemies that distinction). Neither could accommodate man's drive for the the irrational, the illogical, the absurd. The repressive nature of both the Soviet state and Rand's cult of personality, and their subsequent collapses, bear this out.

A century and a half later, short of trying not to dwell on the implications too long, there still doesn't seem to be an adequate response to the Underground Man's manic scribblings. The best that can be said is that the idea they describe is so self-defeating and -destructive (in the Underground Man's present-day speech he mentions having, at 40, withdrawn from the world into his mouse hole) that one could hope our current spate of spite will soon burn itself out. Cold comfort, perhaps, but what else could rancid humor provide?


  1. fact check: Dostoyevsky was WAY before lenin and Soviet Communism, let alone Stalinist Communism (which is what America mostly associates with communism. In fact, Lenin and Trotsky agreed that Dostoyevsky's works were still acceptable to be taught precisely BECAUSE he produced so far before the Bolshevik revolution, and therefore couldn't be blamed for not being a part of it. Your piece is run through with misunderstandings because of this historical inaccuracy (which I largely blame on the lack of US education to teach Russian history, it happens alot.)

    1. I'm well aware that Dostoevsky preceded the Russian Revolution by more than a half-century. Perhaps my writing when I referred to Lenin was not clear enough. My point was that Lenin and Dostoevsky, albeit in their own times, were both responding to Chernyshevsky's ideas about the Crystal Palace and human progress and came to fairly different conclusions. Ayn Rand's life was a visceral reaction to Lenin, yet her emphasis on the individual still ends up having more in common with Soviet utopianism than the irrationalist pessimism of Dostoevsky's Underground Man.

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