Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (1)

I have finished Part I of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864) by Fyodor Dostoevsky and have begun Part II, for the second time. I was supposed to have it read for a book club, but I have missed a meeting for the umpteenth time. I read it once before some years ago, but it didn't register then. At the time I was interested because of its alleged influence on Richard Wright. I found Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" much more interesting. But this time I'm getting what Dostoevsky wrote.

I'm not buying the world view that I think this is expressing, but there are multiple implications of what is presented. It immediately reminds me of a cultural/ideological crisis perceptible in the mid-19th century, fueled by the social changes I need not summarize coupled with--crucially--the rising dominance of the scientific, naturalistic world view and the displacement of the supernatural conception of man’s place in the cosmos. Dostoevsky radically disrupts the prospective of social progress and the triumph of a rational social order (utopian) via the (underground) recognition of man's irrational drives and stubborn will that at every juncture violates submission to natural law (let alone order) and even mathematical truth (2 + 2 = 4).

This can be taken two ways; both are probably intended at once. One can of course see this as the mushrooming of reactionary irrationalism that one finds in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and on the other hand, as positivism's antagonist, complement, blood brother, and black sheep of the family. Wikipedia, which never lies, tells me that this work is a riposte to Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (1863). But this recognition of unconscious drives, of existentialist displacement, of the diremption of the conscious individual and the social collective remains an ineliminable problem regardless of the ideology of its proponents. Pre-Marxist Lukács, having passed through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, at one point saw Dostoevsky as the most advanced proponent of this sensibility and orientation to society, and would not relinquish him as he relinquished the other two.

I am leaving out the other major feature of the work, which is the public self-humiliation of the Underground Man and his total ineffectuality in society, which makes this work unique. But first, I note the philosophical configuration of the work, which remarkably, looks to my semi-educated mind as a phenomenon that erupted in several European nations and in the USA about the same time, as the implications of modernity, crisis, and naturalism were coming into focus, with Imre Madách (The Tragedy of Man, 1861), Jules Verne (his early unpublished 1863 novel Paris in the Twentieth Century), George Eliot, and Herman Melville (Moby-Dick, 1851). As for the crisis of world view, Engels saw what was coming in his 1844 critique of Carlyle.

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