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.

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