Sunday, April 15, 2012

Week 09, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

Part 1: "Underground"

Part 1, Chapter 1

The first thing we find out about the narrator is that he is spiteful and physically ill.  Moreover, he is very self-conscious, very aware of this spitefulness that belongs to him.  He explains that he was a rather badly behaved civil servant who took pleasure in causing distress to others who needed his help.  But he can't even really enter into his own spitefulness since as he tells us, it was all sort of an act: "not only was I not a spiteful man, I was not even an embittered one… (1307).  This narrator, it quickly becomes apparent, likes to make bold assertions and then take them back or at least modify them – he is obviously unreliable.  He speaks of "contradictory elements" (1308) in his nature, and these elements torment him.

 The inability to act is the next thing the narrator explains following upon his stated realization that he can't either embrace spitefulness or become good – he is always uncomfortably somewhere in between the hero and the rascal.  And here we are introduced to the notion that intelligence is more a curse than a blessing – a smart man can't do anything or become anything, while fools skate through life always certain of themselves.  To be intelligent is to have no character and therefore strangely unlimited and undelimited, while the man of action is limited.  He used to be a collegiate assessor, but a relative left him 6000 rubles, so he retired last year, and now lives in expensive St. Petersburg.  The first chapter ends with a tricky rejection of the discourse of "a decent man" – the decent man takes pleasure in talking about himself, and our narrator says, "I too will talk about myself" (1308).

Part 1, Chapter 2

To be overly conscious is a disease (1309 top).  The more conscious the narrator became about the beautiful and the sublime, about the good, the less able he was to act, and thus he became bitter.  But finally, after much struggle, this bitterness becomes sweetness and finally pleasure (1310 top).  Is it the same for others?  He wants to know.  As for the pleasure he is talking about, we are told that it came from "the overly acute consciousness of one's own humiliation…" (1310).  You can't change, and you can't do anything, so why not be a scoundrel?  He declares his aim to be explaining the kind of pleasure he is talking about, the perverse pleasure in one's own humiliation and incapacity to do anything about it.

Part 1, Chapter 3

What do normal people do when they run into natural limits, into a brick wall imposed upon them by nature itself?  Well, normal, probably stupid people, according to our narrator, simply give up.  He calls these people "spontaneous" (1311), and says that the wall, for them, is definitive and meaningful, even "mystical" (1311).  It is not so for a mouse like our narrator – for that is what he calls himself.  This mouse has what the narrator calls "overly acute consciousness" (1311), meaning that he is highly self-conscious, self-aware.  This mouse cannot even work up and execute a plan for revenge the way the so-called "man of nature and truth" can; that is because the mouse knows that revenge is wrong, or at least that it makes no sense to call it justice.  So he cannot act, and seethes with resentment (1311).  This is the origin of spitefulness and resentment, an important quality to our narrator, even though as his reasoning progresses, he demonstrates a conviction that spitefulness, like other supposed reasons, is ultimately hollow because it requires an agent that the spiteful but intelligent man simply does not believe in. 

But here things become even more complicated because our mouse starts to take a certain pleasure in his own predicament, his own feeling of being done an injustice and yet not having the ability to do anything about it.  See page 1312 on this, and 1313 for the narrator's explanation: he doesn't care about the laws of nature or that 2+2 make 4; the thing is, he dislikes such laws and that is what matters most.  It is better, he thinks, to refuse reconciliation with the laws of nature, mathematics, natural science, and so forth, better to oppose them all so long as you can maintain a certain independence of thought and will.  Simply not to be an absolute dupe seems to be his goal, and to achieve it he sets himself against the cosmos and other men.  There is bitter pleasure in this.  The narrator is not asserting that he is in possession of any grand systematic truth.  Far from it.

Part 1, Chapter 4

The narrator insists further that even consciousness of pain can lead to a kind of voluptuous pleasure – it is precisely the fact that you know there's no one to blame for your toothache that you betray by moaning about it.  Nature can inflict all sorts of injuries and humiliations upon you and your body, even if you despise nature.  There's nothing you can do about it, and perhaps that is what eventually leads to this strange pleasurable sensation or enjoyment.  See page 1314 in particular: the enjoyment becomes downright voluptuous, says the narrator, when, say, the 19th-century man moaning about his toothache becomes fully aware that the moaning accomplishes nothing but to annoy everyone around him.  He knows he's just acting spitefully and maliciously, and that is what he takes such great pleasure in: it is a kind of knowledge, admirable or otherwise.  The narrator really drills home the point when he asks at the very end of the fourth chapter, "Can a man possessing consciousness ever really respect himself?"  To be self-conscious makes it impossible to have self-respect.  Apparently, only healthy, normal idiots respect themselves.  So why be normal?  To be normal is to live comfortably within one's petty performances, one's illusions, always to be surrounded by the paper bag of unalterable reality.

Part 1, Chapter 5

The narrator describes boredom as central to his consciousness – he has always found himself stirring up trouble, getting emotionally involved in things he doesn't really care about, and so forth, simply to escape this boredom for a moment.  The excess of consciousness that structures his being leads, as he says, to "inertia" (1315).  The normal, stupid person has little trouble finding a foundation or a secure basis for action in the world, but clever individuals understand that there is probably no such foundation, that there are most likely only "immediate and secondary causes" (1315), at least as far as we can know.  Justice would be a primary cause, but that is exactly the sort of thing our mouse can never find fully justified, cannot discover – there is only an infinite succession backwards of secondary causes.  You might think spite could stand in for a primary cause, but the problem is that it disintegrates pretty quickly, and you are left with nothing but contempt for yourself for having believed it could serve as a foundation for action.  Strong negative emotions, in other words, soon burn themselves out, and you can't really maintain them as the basis for sustained action.  So we are back to inertia again.  That is hardly surprising: the narrator can't set forth any of his claims in terms of the primary causality that makes it possible for "normal people" to act.  The underground man can never act, speak or write in perfect faith in the justice of his beliefs or words.

Part 1, Chapter 6

If only, says the narrator, he could pinpoint the reason for his inactivity as laziness.  But he cannot even do that.  A person can make a fine career out of laziness, and be well respected for it.  You could for example be a connoisseur or art critic who simply affirms what everybody else thinks constitutes "the beautiful and sublime" (1316).  That way, you become part of a social system revolving around groupthink, aesthetical or otherwise.  If you don't mind going along, it's very easy to get along and prosper.

Part 1, Chapter 7

Plato's notion that enlightenment is the key to the good society because people always act in their own self-interest seems ridiculous to our narrator, who insists that history proves quite otherwise.  What's the value in constructing utopias, in that case?  No value.  The greatest advantage of all, the one beyond any "rational, advantageous desire," is "independent desire" (1320).  To follow your own will, even if it takes you off the edge of a cliff – that, I think our narrator is saying, is the key to human existence and it annihilates all utopias from the time of Plato onwards.

Part 1, Chapter 8

But what if even free will, which are narrator has been so energetically promoting, turns out to be an illusion?  What if science destroys any possible belief in it?  What if desire itself is nothing but the slave of necessity?  Desire is irrational, and that is its chief virtue – the narrator says that reason is only one dimension of life and that desire is much more pervasive; it is "a manifestation of all life" (1321).  Another key statement: humanity is defined as "a creature that walks on two legs and is ungrateful" – but more particularly, perpetually badly behaved (1322).  We really do not act in our own best interests, either collectively or as individuals.  The key to this chapter appears towards its conclusion: even if we could predict and tabulate all the motions of human desire, even if we turned out to be piano keys played upon by the alleged laws of nature, we would go so far as to abandon sanity itself to escape determination and predictability.  Threatened with being the slave of necessity, or 2+2, so to speak, man will curse, cause disturbances, stir up trouble, defy and make those things the meaning of his existence.  What would be the point of desire if it were not unpredictable, if it were reducible to an algorithm of the laws of nature?  2+2 always make 4, even if your will has nothing to do with it, so why align yourself with the laws of mathematics and nature?

Part 1, Chapter 9

The narrator contrasts us with ants making their anthills.  The difference is that they keep doing the same thing and their purpose is completely utilitarian.  They're going to make good use of the anthills that they build and will keep doing so until there are no more ants.  But for us, achieving the goal of our constructions is the beginning of death, just as 2+2 make 4 is "the beginning of death" (1324).  Consciousness is a curse, but at the same time, we would not give it up, and it is "higher than two times two" (1325).

Part 1, Chapter 10

The Crystal Palace is really not as useful as a chicken coop, says the narrator, and at least the chicken coop isn't terrifying in its implications for free will and desire.  It is impossible to stick out one's tongue at such a palace (1325).  And in the end, this palace really is a chicken coop because it shelters us from the truth that we are nothing more than dupes, is just an illusion that we cherish, an illusion of purpose and perpetual progress.  The narrator concludes this chapter by recognizing just how dangerous his own brand of thinking is to everyone who is not like him (1326). 

Part 1, Chapter 11

In this final chapter of the first part, the narrator explains what to some degree he has meant all along by "the underground": he apparently means by this phrase in part thinking itself, but we should add that this thinking is dialogical, meaning that he imagines an audience in response to it.  To this audience he declares that "it's better to do nothing!  Conscious inertia is better!"  (1326) There is something of the back and forth of conversation going on in this so-called underground.  The underground is everything that healthy, normal people repress as they go about their waking lives and business – they have no need of such philosophizing and agonizing over things like purpose and free will.  It's what mustn't be uttered, perhaps even what shouldn't be thought, lest one suffer the psychological consequences.  The narrator insists that he will never print his words and share them with the public, which privacy-device creates a sense of intimacy as we read – it is as if we are not the reading public but rather individuals who have somehow come by this unpublished manuscript, which itself seems to be the effusion of a man who has been underground for his entire life.

Why not just recall it in his head, if he doesn't mean to publish?  The narrator doesn't give a solid answer to this question, but tells us that perhaps recalling old memories will provide some relief and allow him to get rid of those memories once and for all.  This is an ancient concept of writing, in which the act of writing cuts off a stream of thought from consciousness, alienating it forever from its producer.  That is more or less what Plato makes Socrates say in Phaedrus about the invention and act of writing.  And of course the narrator is simply bored, so setting down his tale will give him something to do: maybe in that sense it is an act of mischief, just as he said earlier about how we deal with boredom.  Does the tale that follows reinforce the philosophy that he has set down with such deliberate lack of systematic rigor?  That remains to be seen, but in general, it seems to back up the first part of the text.

Part 2: "Apropos of the Wet Snow"

Part 2,  Chapter 1

At the age of 24, the narrator was outwardly conventional; the unsettling thing that comes out here is how much of the "underground" was already within him, though it may have structured his life at that point more or less in the form of social awkwardness, the inability to meet the gaze of other people, etc.  Even the normal activities in which the young narrator engaged were already manifestations of his resentment and defiance of all things conventional.
The section in which the officer picks him up like a puffball and moves him aside is hilarious.  The big fellow is like a force of nature: there's no point in resisting him because he's a healthy, normal blockhead who probably wouldn't accepting a challenge from a resentful man-mouse like our narrator.  He didn't even seem to notice the actual bump that the narrator finally manages to give him after two years or so, in an attempt to turn the affair into something suitably romantic, suitably honorable and literary.  In other words, he's trying to transform his sordid, petty reality into something heroic, to creat a situation in which he would be the equal of the blockhead officer.  Along the way, there's the delicious, bitter pleasure of his own self-conscious state of humiliation: all those abortive attempts before the final impetuous one (1336).  If we can say there's a pattern of behavior in this second part, it's something like the following: self-reflection, resentment, boredom with it all, an attempt to get outside one's head, an action at last taken, followed by consequent withdrawal and return to inertia or some other escapist state of mind.

Part 2,  Chapter 2

The narrator withdraws into a fantasy world of romantic reveries about heroism.  He goes to see Setochkin and, more importantly for the rest of the narrative, visits Simonov, his old friend from school days.

Part 2,  Chapter 3

We learn quite a bit about the narrator's early years: he was sent to school by distant relatives, and felt abandoned.  Much of his present character stems from those school years – his contempt for his fellow students and yet his desire to be recognized by them, even to conquer them after a fashion.  He becomes studious because they aren't.  Even as he plans to attend the dinner for the shallow, handsome officer Zverkov, he senses the hollowness of the whole enterprise; that is, putting one over on his old "frenemies" by insisting on attending a dinner to which he hasn't been invited.  I love the fact that the friends already at Simonov's for the initial meeting, Ferfichkin and Trudolyubov, scarcely acknowledge his presence even though he hasn't seen them for years ().  All of these so-called friends, of course, and especially the as-yet absent Zverkov, represent stupid acceptance of reality and the limitedness of all that is healthy and normal.

Part 2,  Chapter 4

The narrator shows up early to dinner since he has not been told about the one-hour time change (1345).  The better part of the chapter centers on the humiliation of this and indeed of the whole evening.  Zverkov's infinitely stupid condescension figures heavily (1346), and so does the bickering of his other friends along with his own attempt to insult Zverkov, which is initially (1349) and then subsequently rebuffed (1351).  In the end, the narrator is ignored.  Although he wrangles six rubles to follow his frenemies to the brothel they have gone to, his request for reconciliation is refused by Zverkov (1351 top).

Part 2,  Chapter 5

The narrator keeps patterning his plans after great Russian literary works such as Masquerade by Lermontov (1353).  Life imitates art, or at least it would if the narrator had any courage.  His confrontation with so-called reality (1351) nets him not the opportunity to slap Zverkov but rather a chance meeting with Liza, a humble prostitute.  He will take out his anger and resentment on her since Zverkov is unavailable.

Part 2,  Chapter 6

The narrator's conversation with Liza begins here, with an inward realization of just how stupid his own debauchery is (1355 middle).  The conversation continues and the narrator's goal is to save Liza after the manner of a Russian hero (1357).  It seems that he has sexual relations with her in the course of this meeting (1358).  He sets before her the image of a happy family life, and paints for her the horrid prospect of continuing on in this lifestyle (1360-61).  At first he fails to understand that Liza's sarcasm is only a cover for genuine feeling.  He knows that his own rhetoric is what she says: something straight out of a book.  It's cheap talk, and hardly sincere.

Part 2,  Chapter 7

Liza continues to be subjected to the narrator's harangue, and the pitch reaches its sentimental crescendo (1364 top).  The narrator even finds that he responds to his own emotional words.  This rhetoric is effective with Liza since it seems to be what she needed to hear in her real-life context.  There is irony in the sense the narrator has so often tried to pattern his life, unsuccessfully enough, after literary texts.  Liza touchingly shows the narrator the letter she received from a gentleman caller who knows nothing of her sordid present (1365).  While leaving, the narrator realizes "the truth" about this whole encounter – as he will say in the next chapter, it has all been nothing but sentimentality, fundamentally insincere.

Part 2,  Chapter 8

The narrator writes to S and pays his debt with borrowed money.  But he is still tormented by thoughts about Liza, about her pathetic match-light smile, and obsesses over being found out in his cheap apartment.  He continues to spend absurd, romantic stories about himself (1368).  But as it turns out, the narrator can't even be in charge as a master, as we can see from his interactions with Apollon, his condescending and infuriating servant.  Liza enters just at the point where the narrator is arguing with Apollon over unpaid wages.  It is a humiliating moment for the narrator.

Part 2,  Chapter 9

Infuriated with Liza, the narrator mocks her in recalling their previous encounter, informing her that it was all just an act.  Why is he so angry at this unoffending young woman?  Probably because she has confronted him with the gap between his self-image and his actual identity.  The Hegelian Master/Servant dialectic may be a good thing to discuss here since for the German Idealist philosopher Georg Hegel, the self is founded upon confrontational moments—risk, contradiction, dread. The self is established by struggle for recognition and certainty, which entails withholding recognition from others, and Hegel's famous representation of the founding of self-consciousness involves a primal struggle to the death between two individuals, with the outcome being the lordship of one and the enslavement or subjugation of the other, and a consequent need for mediating their now-indirect relations through a relationship to and with objects.  But the Master/Servant dialectic can also be read, as Alexandre Kojève and others have done, as a continuing struggle that happens internally, inside the head of each individual rather than a physical struggle between two individuals: a battle for self-recognition, authenticity, personal autonomy.  I suggest that success in this endeavor would perhaps be constituted by an adequate fit between who one really is and who one thinks one is.  If that's the right way to put it, it's clear that the narrator is not succeeding.  Liza is not a blockheaded master-consciousness, and in fact the narrator says that the relative position between himself and this young woman had been reversed: just as she was in the subject-position at the brothel, the weeping nervous wreck of a narrator is now in precisely that position relative to her.  He takes her solicitude for pity, and that is unbearable to him.  She is a sensitive servant-consciousness who seems to be offering him the very recognition he craves but cannot abide.  The situation is intolerable.

Part 2,  Chapter 10
The narrator says that for him, love has always been a matter of dominating others, and it is the product of struggle.  But then, his hatred of real-life makes it impossible to deal with the "subjugated object" (1377).  Liza takes her leave, having rejected the crumpled five ruble note the narrator tried to give her as a token of his own spite, a symbol of his wish to see her as nothing more than a prostitute in spite of her genuine affection for him.  In the end, writing this entire story down seems to have been punishment rather than relief.  The narrator has throughout cast himself as the anti-hero, the man alienated from so-called real life.  The underground seems to be the place where an unquenchable desire to engage with real life battles an equally strong desire to escape from it and forget it altogether, to disappear into heroic fictions spun by others or by oneself. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.