Sunday, November 26, 2017

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (9)

My running commentary on Dostoevsky reflects what I have assimilated at the moment of writing and my perspective changes with what I learn. My latest podcast was a rush job in which I sought to synthesize a lot of my diverse reading into an overall picture of intellectual and ideological history, in which Dostoevsky plays a part as one of those pivotal figures of the 19th century.

The 14th installment of my radio series “Studies in a Dying Culture,” recorded on 18 November 2017, has both a recording and a written-out text which approximates but is not identical to the actual podcast and has supplementary links and comments. The written text is here:

Dialectic and Dystopia: A Century Before and After the Russian Revolution Through Literature (podcast transcript) by R. Dumain

Listen or download here. [39:40 min.]
DESCRIPTION: November 7 marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. I commemorate this crucial historical event in an oblique manner by examining the works of key creative writers and other thinkers from the 19th century up through the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution who confronted modernity’s essential philosophical and existential issues. Writers discussed include Mary Shelley, Charles Fourier, Friedrich Engels, George Eliot, Herman Melville, Imre Madách, Jules Verne, Fyodor Dostoevsky, György Lukács, Leon Trotsky, and Yevgeny Zamyatin, with mentions of others and with Theodor Adorno and Richard Wright as a coda. All of this is to illustrate the historical failure to render irrational society rational and, with respect to world views, the unresolved dialectic of reason and unreason in the modern world.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (8)

The sphere of psychology, in which such projects take up residence, though with little success, is not exempt from the crisis of literary concreteness. Even the subject matter of the psychological novel is snapped up from under its nose: it has been rightly observed that at a time when journalists were constantly waxing enthusiastic about Dostoevski’s psychological achievements, his discoveries had long since been surpassed by science, and especially by Freud’s psychoanalysis. Moreover, this kind of overblown praise of Dostoevski probably missed the mark: to the extent to which there is any psychology in his work at all, it is a psychology of intelligible character, of essence, and not a psychology of empirical character, of human beings as we find them. It is precisely in this respect that Dostoevski is advanced. It is not only that communications and science have seized control of everything positive and tangible, including the facticity of inwardness, that forces the novel to break with the psychology of empirical character and give itself over to the presentation of essence [Wessen] and its antithesis [Unwesen]; it is also that the tighter and more seamless the surface of the social life process becomes the more it veils essence. If the novel wants to remain true to its realistic heritage and tell how things really are, it must abandon a realism that only aids the facade in its work of camouflage by reproducing it. The reification of all relationships between individuals, which transforms their human qualities into lubricating oil for the smooth running of the machinery, the universal alienation and self-alienation, needs to be called by name, and the novel is qualified to do so as few other art forms are. The novel has long since, and certainly since the eighteenth century and Fielding’s Tom Jones, had as its true subject matter the conflict between living human beings and rigidified conditions. In this process, alienation itself becomes an aesthetic device for the novel. For the more human beings, individuals and collectivities, become alienated from one another, the more enigmatic they become to one another. The novel’s true impulse, the attempt to decipher the riddle of external life, then becomes a striving for essence, which now for its part seems bewildering and doubly alien in the context of the everyday estrangement established by social conventions. The anti-realistic moment in the modern novel, its metaphysical dimension, is called forth by its true subject matter, a society in which human beings have been torn from one another and from themselves. What is reflected in aesthetic transcendence is the disenchantment of the world.
SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. “The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel,” in Notes to Literature; Volume One, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 30-36. Excerpt from pp. 30-32. First published 1954.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (7)


My understanding of Notes from Underground and its context has developed since I finished reading it. There are a number of factors to consider, among them: (1) Dostoevsky's opposition to Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? and the radical, Westernizing Russian intelligentsia, (2) criticism of the "bookishness" and formulaic expressions of the intelligentsia in relation to real life, (3) the Underground Man's indictment of his social milieu and himself, (4) the Underground Man as unreliable narrator, (5) the divergence between the Underground Man and Dostoevsky, (6) the philosophy of the Underground Man (and of Dostoevsky) in part 1, (7) the relationship of the actions in part 2 to the philosophical position of part 1.

I had equated the Underground Man with Dostoevsky himself, whereas the relationship between the two, as well as the relationship between the stated philosophy and lived reality is more complex in the work. The Underground Man's rebellion against rationalism is a failure, though some self-awareness is achieved where his narrative is broken off, and the entire Russian intelligentsia stands accused along with his self-accusation. Dostoevsky himself has an agenda for attacking rationalism and the intelligentsia. Where does it lead? His alienation leads to authoritarianism, reaction, and Christian apologetics, his torment to the justification of torment.

The reception of Dostoevsky's work, not only in Russia and the Soviet Union but abroad in very different contexts, is also eye-opening.

From this rush of research I compiled the following bibliography, with web links where feasible:

Dostoevsky’s Underground, Ideology, Reception: A Very Select Bibliography

I note briefly the relevance of these references to my projects. Joseph Frank is especially useful for mapping the conceptual structure of the novel. Let me call attention to two other references, which branch out into the big picture:

Carroll, John. Break-Out from the Crystal Palace: The Anarcho-Psychological Critique: Stirner, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky. 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2010. (Orig. pub. 1974.)

I loathe anarchists, and I prefer Paul Thomas's Karl Marx and the Anarchists, but this book embarks upon a detailed analysis of Dostoevsky's irrationalism, his relationship to Stirner and Nietzsche, and the opposition to the rationalist "crystal palace" utopia celebrated in Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?.

Jacoby, Russell. Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. See esp. Introduction.

Jacoby says nothing about Dostoevsky here, but his book is relevant to the issues, as Jacoby highlights the 'defeated' perspectives of dissident Marxists and reactionary thinkers who analyzed modernity’s underbelly obscured by the scientistic orientation of orthodox Marxism. The Introduction lays out his perspective.

All of this is to fit into the historical puzzle of the interlocking struggle and inseparability of the contradictions of the modern world, the capitalist world (which includes Stalinism), abstractly designated by positivism vs. irrationalism, or scientism vs Romanticism.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (5)

I have finished Part 2 of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864), and so I have read the entire novel.

I completely disagree with the Underground Man's world view (which might be Dostoevsky's) presented in Part 1, but this work is characteristic of the 19th century obsession with the obstinacy of human irrationality in a modernizing world with a growing scientific, rationalistic world view. This is what "underground" consciousness was. It would not shock anyone now, but it ruptured the veneer of existing civilization at the time. As I suggested in other terms in my first post, there are several aspects to the thesis laid out that are jammed together, both the metaphysical and the historical/epochal (conjunctural).

In Part 1 the Underground Man is up against a stone wall.
What stone wall? Why of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling, accept it for a fact.
And this goes on. But ....
Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.
From a schema of unbridgeable dualism the Underground Man deduces the cussedness of human nature, though we cannot be sure if his orientation towards it is positive or negative. It seems that a mechanistic, logical, or dare I say positivistic interpretation of reality bars any role for self-propelled human volition.
Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice two makes four. Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation.
Man could not tolerate the tedium of a rationally ordered utopia. (Shades of Madách and Szathmári!)

There is more than one way to interpret this rebellion against '2 x 2 = 4', but given the Underground Man's hostility to putatively facile conceptions of rational progress, he lays down the reactionary basis of Dostoevsky's philosophy.

Part 2 is in its own way noteworthy, perhaps scandalous for the 19th century, and something new perhaps for Russia, which had only just freed its serfs. The Underground Man is passive-aggressive, deeply resentful of others, both challenging them and seeking acceptance of them, constantly humiliating himself with his impotent gestures, loathing himself as much as others, alternately hostile and ingratiating. He does this with a circle of acquaintances he imposes himself on (old school chums and their leading light Zverkov, all of whom he loathes), then with the prostitute Liza, then with his servant, then with Liza again, then he recognizes what a spiteful worm he is, finally the narrative breaks off unresolved with a comment from the fictional editor.

When he first wakes up with Liza in a brothel, he gives her a speech, projecting all sorts of feelings onto her, then acting like her savior. She tells him he sounds bookish, but she is finally convinced by the horrible future he lays out for her and is shaken into taking him seriously and accepting his invitation to his home, for which he hates her and pours scorn upon her when she shows up.

When he comes to the moment of self-realization at the end, he admits he is totally out of touch with real life, but because he is acutely self-conscious of this, he might be more in tune with reality since everyone else is just as "bookish" in the sense of being removed from real life. His final words, before the "editor" steps in and breaks off the narrative and concludes with a final note, are:
Speak for yourself, you will say, and for your miseries in your underground holes, and don't dare to say all of us—excuse me, gentlemen, I am not justifying myself with that "all of us." As for what concerns me in particular I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway, and what's more, you have taken your cowardice for good sense, and have found comfort in deceiving yourselves. So that perhaps, after all, there is more life in me than in you. Look into it more carefully! Why, we don't even know what living means now, what it is, and what it is called? Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We are oppressed at being men—men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea. But enough; I don't want to write more from "Underground."
In order for me to render this proposition more believable, I have to translate it into my own social reality. If the Underground Man were merely socially awkward and out of step with a soulless society, I could make sense of his claim. Even the spitefulness and self-humiliation, if it were not carried to an extreme, might make sense. But this orgy of self-humiliation strikes me as too close to the mentality of the misanthropic Christian sinner for me to swallow. Furthermore, it seems itself to be entirely swallowed up by the decaying feudal society that it represents, but without actual historical consciousness.

(All of this, by the way, seems to confirm Trotsky's assessment, summarized in previous posts.)

Which brings me to the question: what does part 2 have to do with the philosophical disquisition of part 1? The argument in part 1 is laid out in absolute abstract terms, yielding a world without history or development. The stubbornness of human irrationality is deeply ingrained, it will prove to destroy us and all life on Earth, but it doesn't live on air. The world view presented is familiar (reminiscent of Kierkegaard, for example); it is the very metaphysical stuff of political reaction.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (4)


This installment is part 3 of Trotsky vs Dostoevsky, a unit of the larger project of analyzing the ideological structure of Dostoevsky's work. These references do not specifically address Notes from Underground, but the issues are the same.

I linked to the following essay without comment in a previous post:

A Special Supplement: The Other Dostoevsky by Philip Rahv, The New York Review of Books, April 20, 1972

Here is Rahv on Trotsky:
What exactly have we given in the area of philosophy or social science?” His answer: “Nothing, a round zero. Vladimir Solovyov, who is usually remembered only on the anniversary of his death? His foggy metaphysics has not entered the history of world-thought; even in Russia his ideas failed to produce anything like a philosophical movement.” Trotsky continues by holding up to scorn the philosophical small fry who are looking forward to the imminent appearance of “a Slavic Kant.” “Where is he? He does not exist. Where is our Hegel? Where is one of equal importance in the history of thought? In philosophy we have none but third-rate disciples and faceless epigoni.
The quotes from Trotsky come from this essay:

“Concerning the Intelligentsia,” by Leon Trotsky, translated from the Russian by Philip Rahv and Irwin Weil, footnotes by Philip Rahv, Partisan Review, Vol. 35, No. 4, Fall 1968, pp. 585-598. Written 1912, published in Kievskaya Mysl. The following quote, p. 592:
In the novel A Raw Youth Dostoyevsky’s Versilov looks at Europe, as Herzen dld, with an anguish not unmixed with contempt. “There,” he says, “the conservative is only struggling to protect his living, and the store-clerk pours out his kerosene only to earn his daily morsel of bread. Russia alone lives not for itself but for the sake of an idea. . . .It is now nearly a century since Russia [that is, Russia’s intelligentsia] has been living without any thought for itself but for Europe alone.” The same Versilov says, “Europe created the noble images of the Frenchman, the Englishman, and the German; but it still knows almost nothing of the nature of the future man. It would seem, however, that Europe still does not care to know. This is understandable, as they are not free, whereas we are free. In all of Europe, I, with my Russian anguish, was the only free man. . . .” Versilov cannot see that, unlike the European conservative or the clerk in the kerosene-store, he had freed himself not only from the fetters of his class traditions but also from the possibility of social creativity. The same faceless environment which had given him his subjective freedom also loomed before him as an objective barrier.
Trotsky had a keen sense for the ideological underpinnings of philosophy and literature as well as a capable sensibility far beyond the limitations of other leading Bolsheviks. Here Trotsky excoriates the vain self-aggrandizement of the Russian intelligentsia that finds itself uprooted from the past but has nothing to go on but its inflated sense of destiny. Trotsky finds the history of Russia a culturally impoverished one, not even being able to boast the glories of other feudal regimes. Whether Slavophiles, populists, or even partisans of modern ideas, the intelligentsia was compelled to fasten onto one or another grand ideology and to absorb hastily and superficially the products of centuries of cultural evolution that had transpired in the West, as an alternative to their own backward station and severance from their roots. Hence their illusions of being free spirits and sacrificing themselves for the people, encapsulated in the quote from Dostoevsky. Four paragraphs on, Trotsky travesties some lines from a poem just quoted: "Versilov's version of  'freedom' could have no other meaning than this freedom of our thought to wander without any work to do."

Then Trotsky ridicules Russian intellectual accomplishments and we come to the passage quoted by Rahv (first paragraph above.) Trotsky is less than impressed even by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Alexander Herzen, Pyotr Lavrov, and Nikolay Mikhaylovsky. Bakunin gets grudging acknowledgment. Even Tolstoy yields political sterility. Belinski is found to be weak. Six more paragraphs and Trotsky has washed his hands of the Russian intelligentsia.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (3)

Actually, this is Trotsky vs Dostoevsky, part 2, but it's all part of the larger trajectory. So this time, here are the other references to Trotsky I have found in his works, with relevant quotes, as well as an important article by Philip Rahv of Partisan Review and New York Intellectuals fame.

Trotsky’s 1908 tribute to Leo Tolstoy by Leon Trotsky (originally in Die Neue Zeit on September 18, 1908)
Tolstoy’s style is identical with all of his genius: calm, unhurried, frugal, without being miserly or ascetic; it is muscular, on occasion awkward, and rough. It is so simple and always incomparable in its results. (He is just as far removed from Turgenev, who is lyrical, flirtatious, scintillating and aware of the beauty of his language, as he is from Dostoyevsky’s tongue, so sharp, so choked-up and pock-marked.)

In one of his novels Dostoyevsky―the city dweller without rank or title, and the genius with an incurably pincered soul―this voluptuous poet of cruelty and commiseration, counterposes himself profoundly and pointedly, as the artist of the new and “accidental Russian families,” to Count Tolstoy, the singer of the perfected forms of the landlord past.

“If I were a Russian novelist and a talented one,” says Dostoyevsky, speaking through the lips of one of his characters, “I would unfailingly take my heroes from the well-born Russian nobility, because it is only in this type of cultured Russian people that it is possible to catch a glimpse of beautiful order and beautiful impressions ... Saying this, I am not at all joking, although I am not at all a noble myself, which besides, you yourself know ... Believe me, it is here that we have everything truly beautiful among us up till now. At any rate, here is everything among us that is in the least perfected. I do not say it because I unreservedly agree with either the correctness or the truth of this beauty; but here, for example, we have already perfected forms of honor and duty which, apart from the nobility, are not to be found not only perfected anywhere in Russia, but even started ... The position of our novelist,” continues Dostoyevsky without naming Tolstoy but unquestionably having him in mind, “in such a case would be quite definitive. He would not be able to write in any other way except historically, for the beautiful type no longer exists in our own day, and if there are remnants that do exist, then according to the prevailing consensus of opinion, they have not retained any of their beauty.”
Literature and Revolution (1924) by Leon Trotsky:
Chapter 2: The Literary “Fellow-Travellers” of the Revolution"
There is falseness even in Dostoievsky’s pious and submissive figures, for one feels that they are strangers to the author. Be created them in large degree as an antithesis to himself, because Dostoievsky was passionate and bad-tempered in everything, even in his perfidious Christianity.
Literature and Revolution (1924) by Leon Trotsky:
Chapter 7: Communist Policy Toward Art
It is childish to think that bourgeois belles lettres can make a breach in class solidarity. What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc.
A Special Supplement: The Other Dostoevsky by Philip Rahv, The New York Review of Books, April 20, 1972