Notes From Underground Critical Essays On Literature

Notes from the Underground is a fictional, first-person "confession" told by a hateful, hyper-conscious man living "underground." Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian thinker living in St. Petersburg, wrote Notes in 1864. His wife was dying at the time, so you can speculate on how that might have affected his work. When writing, Dostoevsky said of the work: "It will be a powerful and candid piece; it will be truth."

Later, Notes from the Underground was hailed as a forerunner to existential literature of the 20th century. Dostoevsky explores themes of absurdity, isolation, and radical personal freedom. Philosophers and writers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett would take these ideas and run with them, developing more fully an entire school of thought, the seeds of which can be found in Notes. Existentialism, the philosophical belief that individuals (rather than a god or a government or authority) define the meaning of their own lives, blossomed in the 20th century. In other words, Dostoevsky was way ahead of his time.

Even outside of existentialism the impact of Notes from the Underground is staggering. It made popular a distinct and often imitated approach to the novel: the fictional "confession." We see it again in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; in fact, the first paragraphs of Ellison's novel are an explicit reference to Notes. Since Dostoevsky published Notes, we've seen everything from homage to parody, and a mountain of literary criticism.

Of course, all of this criticism, being good criticism and all, isn't just talking about Notes from the Underground itself. It's viewing the work in the context of its intellectual history. As you'll soon find out, to study one piece of Russian literature often means studying many pieces of Russian literature. This stems from the fact that guys like Dostoevsky were carrying out their arguments on the written page. It worked like this: someone would write a treatise or argumentative novel, and instead of disagreeing in person, some other guys would just write a treatise or novel back. (This is why there are so many Russian texts.)

Before Dostoevsky wrote Notes,Ivan Turgenev published Fathers and Sons. Go back for a minute to Russia in the 1840's, where, according to Turgenev, there's a growing divide between the older generation (the traditionalist liberal "fathers") and the younger (the growing group of nihilist "sons"). Traditionalists are steeped in Russian Orthodoxy (i.e., a belief God and morality), while the nihilists reject any notion of God or objective truth. Turgenev picks up on this growing divide, makes it the focus of the aptly-named Fathers and Sons, and publishes his earth-shattering novel in 1862.

Meanwhile, big changes are going down in Russia. Feudalism is coming to an end, the plight of the peon is finally brought to light, and governing this all is the European Enlightenment blowing in from the West, bringing with it social, political, and scientific change. (As one example, Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859 and first translated into Russian in 1864. This is a big rejection of the classic, age-old idea that God made everything.) The Enlightenment introduces rational egoism, the idea that man will always act reasonably and according to his own best interests.

So in 1863, a year after Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky publishes his response to the work, a novel called What Is to Be Done? This becomes known as "the handbook of radicalism" (source). It embraces the Enlightenment, praises socialism and rational egoism, and promises to turn all of society into "a Crystal Palace," a technologically-advanced utopia (or ideal society).

Now what about Dostoevsky? Well, back in the 1840's he's hanging out with radical socialist thinkers and loving the idea of reform for Russia. Great, until 1849 when he gets thrown into prison for his intellectual troublemaking. When he finally gets back to St. Petersburg in 1859, he is singing a different tune. Rather than praising the virtues of reform, Dostoevsky is Mr. Traditional Russian Values – just in time to rail on Western European values for changing Russian institutions. Talk about being in the wrong intellectual camp at the wrong time.

And so, finally, in 1864, Dostoevsky writes Notes from the Underground, at least in part as a response to Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? from a year before. Remember, Chernyshevsky was all about rational egoism and the Crystal Palace – both of which are slandered and mocked in Notes from the Underground. Notes argues that man can never be confined to reason – to think as much would be to ignore free will, which, you will soon see, is quite the force of nature.

"There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused, and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis. My punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing."

Oh, Dostoevsky, lighten up!

Wait a minute.

That's not Dostoevsky. It's Christian Bale in American Psycho. And now that we've completely distracted you, we're going to talk about Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky's Underground Man, despite the fact that he's living in a dirty abode underground and has no friends, manages to imagine a life that is, for him, an even worse reality. What if, he wonders, we could someday figure out all the rules of nature? If the world is governed by a series of formulas and laws, and we knew what they all were, we could see everything that was ever going to happen in the world. According to the Underground Man, this would be terrible. For our miserable narrator, this is something out of science fiction. Although conceivable in some far-distant future, this result is in fact a fantasy – that is, it's highly, highly unlikely. And likewise, for us today, it's still highly, highly…

Now wait just another minute. How unlikely is this chilling prediction? Because the fact is, with the burgeoning field of genetics, we're getting closer and closer to writing about the dreaded "little table" with a gridded list of everything man's supposedly "free will" may desire. As Matt Ridley points out in his 2000 bestseller Genome, we claim (and indeed, many of these are subject to debate) to have identified genes for diseases, sexual preferences, intelligence, and personality. How far can we be from an Excel spreadsheet that reads in one tiny box: "Tuesday, August 17, 2017: eats cornflakes for breakfast. Goes for a jog, beats personal mile time by .57 seconds."

This probably makes you uncomfortable, if not outright upset. We rebel against this spreadsheet for the same reasons we rebel against the idea of fate and our parents deciding what we're going to do with our lives. There's a fancy, scholarly, scientific name for this. It's called the "I Can Do Anything I Want!" theorem, a subset of the "You're Not the Boss of Me!" principle. And, as it turns out, it's been making people angry for a long time. For the Underground Man in the 1860s, this principle came to life as an argument against Rationalism, in which the laws of nature took away our control. And now, in the 21st Century, some argue that genetics jeopardizes our ability to decide who we are and what we will do. So, in the words of another very famous Russian, What is To Be Done? How do we reconcile scientific certainty with individual freedom?

Who can say. But we think it's a pretty good sign that we just went from Christian Bale to Rationalism in…seven paragraphs. We don't know about you, but our free will is flexing its muscles. And now we're going to go try to make 2+2 equal 5, just because we say so. If that sounds random, read on… the Underground Man has something to say about that.

His early inclinations were to the side of the radicals; he leaned more or less toward the Westernizers. He also consorted with a secret society (though apparently did not actually become its member) of young men who had adopted the socialistic theories of Saint-Simon and Fourier. These young men gathered at the house of an official of the State Department, Mikhail Petrashevsky, and read aloud and discussed the books of Fourier, talked socialism, and criticized the Government. After the upheavals of 1848 in several European countries, there was a wave of reaction in Russia; the Government was alarmed and cracked down upon all dissenters. The Petrashevskians were arrested, among them Dostoyevsky. He was found guilty of ''having taken part in criminal plans, having circulated the letter of Belinsky* full of insolent expressions against the Orthodox Church and the Supreme Power, and of having attempted, together with others, to circulate anti-Government writings with the aid of a private printing press.'' He awaited his trial in the Fortress of SS. Peter and Paul, of which the commander was a General Nabokov, an ancestor of mine. The sentence was severe -eight years of hard labor in Siberia (this was later commuted to four by the Czar) -but a monstrously cruel procedure was followed before the actual sentence was read to the condemned men: They were told they were to be shot; they were taken to the place *A letter written to the writer Nikolai Gogol in 1847 by the Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky. [ TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE ] assigned for the execution, stripped to their shirts, and the first batch of prisoners were tied to the posts. Only then the actual sentence was read to them. One of the men went mad. A deep scar was left in Dostoyevsky's soul by the experience of that day. He never quite got over it.

These four years of penal servitude Dostoyevsky spent in Siberia in the company of murderers and thieves, no segregation having been yet introduced between ordinary and political criminals. He described them in his ''Memoirs from the House of Death'' (1862). They do not make a pleasant reading. All the humiliations and hardships he endured are described in detail, as also the criminals among whom he lived. Not to go completely mad in those surroundings, Dostoyevsky had to find some sort of escape. This he found in a neurotic Christianism which he developed during these years. It is only natural that some of the convicts among whom he lived showed, besides dreadful bestiality, an occasional human trait. Dostoyevsky gathered these manifestations and built upon them a kind of very artificial and completely pathological idealization of the simple Russian folk. This was the initial step on his consecutive spiritual road. In 1854, when Dostoyevsky finished his term, he was made a soldier in a battalion garrisoned in a Siberian town. In 1855, Nicholas I died and his son Alexander became Emperor under the name of Alexander II. He was by far the best of the 19th-century Russian rulers. (Ironically, he was the one to die at the hands of the revolutionaries, torn literally in two by a bomb thrown at his feet.) The beginning of his reign brought a pardon to many prisoners. Dostoyevsky was given back his officer's commission. Four years later, he was allowed to return to Petersburg.

During the last years of exile, he had resumed literary work with ''The Manor of Stepanchikovo'' (1859), and the ''Memoirs from the House of Death.'' After his return to Petersburg, he plunged into literary activity. He began at once publishing, together with his brother Mikhail, a literary magazine, Vremya (Time). His ''Memoirs from the House of Death'' and yet another work, a novel, ''The Humiliated and the Insulted'' (1861), appeared in this magazine. His attitude toward the Government had completely changed since the days of his youthful radicalism. ''Greek-Catholic church, absolute monarchy, and the cult of Russian nationalism,'' these three props on which stood the reactionary political Slavophilism were his political faith. The theories of socialism and Western liberalism became for him the embodiments of Western contamination and of satanic sin bent upon the destruction of a Slavic and Greek-Catholic world. It is the same attitude that one sees in Fascism or in Communism -universal salvation.

His emotional life up to that time had been unhappy. In Siberia he had married, but this first marriage proved unsatisfactory. In 1862-63 he had an affair with a woman writer and in her company visited England, France and Germany. This woman, whom he later characterized as ''infernal,'' seems to have been an evil character. Later she married Rozanov, an extraordinary writer combining moments of exceptional genius with manifestations of astounding naivete. (I knew Rozanov, but he had married another woman by that time.) This woman seems to have had a rather unfortunate influence on Dostoyevsky, further upsetting his unstable spirit. It was during this first trip abroad to Germany that the first manifestation of his passion for gambling appeared which during the rest of his life was the plague of his family and an insurmountable obstacle to any kind of material ease or peace to himself.

After his brother's death, the closing of the review which he had been editing left Dostoyevsky a bankrupt, and burdened by the care of his brother's family, a duty which he immediately and voluntarily assumed. To cope with these overwhelming burdens Dostoyevsky applied himself feverishly to work. All his most celebrated writings, ''Crime and Punishment'' (1866), ''The Gambler'' (1867), ''The Idiot'' (1868), ''The Possessed'' (1872), ''The Brothers Karamazov'' (1880), etc., were written under constant stress: He had to work in a hurry, to meet deadlines with hardly any time left to reread what he had written, or rather what he had dictated to a stenographer he had been obliged to hire. In his stenographer he at last found a woman full of devotion and with such practical sense that by her help he met his deadlines and gradually began to extricate himself from his financial mess. In 1867 he married her. This marriage was on the whole a happy one. For four years, from 1867 to 1871, page 60 they had achieved some financial security and were able to return to Russia. From then on to the end of his days Dostoyevsky enjoyed comparative peace. ''The Possessed'' was a great success. Soon after its publication, he was offered the editorship of Prince Meshchersky's very reactionary weekly, The Citizen. His last work, ''The Brothers Karamazov,'' of which he wrote only the first volume and was working on the second when he died, brought him the greatest fame of all his novels.

But even more publicity fell to the lot of his address at the unveiling of the Pushkin memorial in Moscow in 1880. It was a very great event, the manifestation of the passionate love Russia bore Pushkin. The foremost writers of the time took part in it. But of all the speeches the most popular success fell to Dostoyevsky. The gist of his speech was Pushkin as the embodiment of the national spirit of Russia, which subtly understands the ideals of other nations but assimilates and digests them in accordance with its own spiritual setup. In this capacity Dostoyevsky saw the proof of the allembracing mission of the Russian people, etc. When read, this speech does not explain the great success it enjoyed. But if we consider the fact that it was a time when all Europe was allying itself against Russia's rise in power and influence, we can better understand the enthusiasm Dostoyevsky's speech provoked in his patriotic listeners.

A year later, in 1881, and but a short time before the assassination of Alexander II, Dostoyevsky died, enjoying general recognition and esteem. Through French and Russian translations, Western influence, sentimental and Gothic - Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), Dickens (1812-70), Rousseau (1712-78), Eugene Sue (1804-57) - combines in Dostoyevsky's works with a religion of compassion merging on melodramatic sentimentality.

We must distinguish between ''sentimental'' and ''sensitive.'' A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person. Sentimental Rousseau, who could weep over a progressive idea, distributed his many natural children through various poorhouses and workhouses and never gave a hoot for them. A sentimental old maid may pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician may remember Mother's Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival. Stalin loved babies. Lenin sobbed at the opera, especially at a performance of ''Traviata.'' A whole century of authors praised the simple life of the poor, and so on. Remember that when we speak of sentimentalists, among them Richardson, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky, we mean the nonartistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader.

Dostoyevsky never really got over the influence which the European mystery novel and the sentimental novel made upon him. The sentimental influence implied that kind of conflict he liked - placing virtuous people in pathetic situations and then extracting from these situations the last ounce of pathos. When, after his return from Siberia, his essential ideas began to ripen - the idea of salvation to be found through transgression, the ethical supremacy of suffering and submission over struggle and resistance, the defense of free will not as a metaphysical but as a moral proposition, and the ultimate formula of egoism-Antichrist-Europe on one side and brotherhood-Christ-Russia on the other - when these ideas (which are all thoroughly examined in countless textbooks) suffused his novels, much of the Western influence still remained, and one is tempted to say that in a way Dostoyevsky, who so hated the West, was the most European of the Russian writers.

Dostoyevsky's lack of taste, his monotonous dealings with persons suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human English words expressing several, although by no means all, aspects of poshlost are, for instance, ''cheap,'' ''sham,'' ''smutty,'' ''highfalutin,'' ''in bad taste.'' dignity - all this is difficult to admire. I do not like this trick his characters have of ''sinning their way to Jesus'' or, as a Russian author, Ivan Bunin, put it more bluntly, ''spilling Jesus all over the place.'' Just as I have no ear for music, I have to my regret no ear for Dostoyevsky the Prophet. The very best thing he ever wrote seems to me to be ''The Double.'' It is the story - told very elaborately, in great, almost Joycean detail (as the critic Mirsky notes), and in a style intensely saturated with phonetic and rhythmical expressiveness - of a government clerk who goes mad, obsessed by the idea that a fellow clerk has usurped his identity. It is a perfect work of art, that story, but it hardly exists for the followers of Dostoyevsky the Prophet, because it was written in the 1840's, long before his so-called great novels; and moreover its imitation of Gogol is so striking as to seem at times almost a parody.

In the light of the historical development of artistic vision, Dostoyevsky is a very fascinating phenomenon. If you examine closely any of his works, say ''The Brothers Karamazov,'' you will note that the natural background and all things relevant to the perception of the senses hardly exist. What landscape there is is a landscape of ideas, a moral landscape. The weather does not exist in his world, so it does not much matter how people dress. Dostoyevsky characterizes his people through situation, through ethical matters, their psychological reactions, their inside ripples. After describing the looks of a character, he uses the old-fashioned device of not referring to his specific physical appearance anymore in the scenes with him. This is not the way of an artist - say Tolstoy - who sees his character in his mind all the time and knows exactly the specific gesture he will employ at this or that moment. But there is something more striking still about Dostoyevsky. He seems to have been chosen by the destiny of Russian letters to become Russia's greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels. The novel ''The Brothers Karamazov'' has always seemed to me a straggling play, with just that amount of furniture and other implements needed for the various actors: a round table with the wet, round trace of a glass, a window painted yellow to make it look as if there were sunlight outside, or a shrub hastily brought in and plumped down by a stagehand.

Let me refer to one more method of dealing with literature - and this is the simplest and perhaps most important one. If you hate a book, you still may derive artistic delight from imagining other and better ways of looking at things, or, what is the same, expressing things, than the author you hate does. The mediocre, the false, the poshlost* -can at least afford a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize. But the books you like must also be read with shudders and gasps. Let me submit the following practical suggestion. Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain - the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed -then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavor will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.

When an artist starts out on a work of art, he has set himself some definite artistic problem that he is out to solve. He selects his characters, his time and his place, and then finds the particular and special circumstances which can allow the developments he desires to occur naturally, developing, so to say, without any violence on the artist's part in order to compel the desired issue, developing logically and naturally from the combination and interaction of the forces the artist has set into play.

The world the artist creates for this purpose may be entirely unreal - as, for instance, the world of Kafka, or that of Gogol - but there is one absolute demand we are entitled to make: This world in itself and as long as it lasts must be plausible to the reader or to the spectator. It is quite inessential, for instance, that Shakespeare introduces in ''Hamlet'' the ghost of Hamlet's father. Whether we agree with those critics who say that Shakespeare's contemporaries believed in the reality of phantoms, and therefore Shakespeare was justified to introduce these phantoms into his plays as realities, or whether we assume that these ghosts are something in the nature of stage properties, it does not matter: From the moment the murdered king's ghost enters the play, we accept him and do not doubt that Shakespeare was within his right in introducing him into his play. In fact, the true measure of genius is in what measure the world he has created is his own, one that has not been here before him (at least, in literature) and, even more important, how plausible he has succeeded in making it. I would like you to consider Dostoyevsky's world from this point of view.

Secondly, when dealing with a work of art we must always bear in mind that art is a divine game. These two elements - the elements of the divine and that of the game -are equally important. It is divine because this is the element in which man comes nearest to God through becoming a true creator in his own right. And it is a game because it remains art only as long as we are allowed to remember that, after all, it is all make-believe, that the people on the stage, for instance, are not actually murdered - in other words, only as long as our feelings of horror or of disgust do not obscure our realization that we are, as readers or as spectators, participating in an elaborate and enchanting game: The moment this balance is upset we get, on the stage, ridiculous melodrama, and in a book just a lurid description of, say, a case of murder which belongs in a newspaper instead. And we cease to derive that feeling of pleasure and satisfaction and spiritual vibration, that combined feeling which is our reaction to true art. For example, we are not disgusted or horrified by the bloody ending of the three greatest plays ever written: The hanging of Cordelia, the death of Hamlet, the suicide of Othello give us a shudder, but a shudder with a strong element of delight in it. This delight does not derive from the fact that we are glad to see those people perish, but merely our enjoyment of Shakespeare's overwhelming genius. I would like you further to ponder ''Crime and Punishment'' and ''Memoirs from a Mousehole,'' also known as the ''Notes from Underground'' (1864), from this point of view: Is the artistic pleasure you derive from accompanying Dostoyevsky on his excursions into the sick souls of his characters, is it consistently greater than any other emotions, thrills of disgust, morbid interest in a crime thriller? There is even less balance between the esthetic achievement and the element of criminal reportage in Dostoyevsky's other novels.

Thirdly, when an artist sets out to explore the motions and reactions of a human soul under the unendurable stresses of life, our interest is more readily aroused and we can more readily follow the artist as our guide through the dark corridors of that human soul if that soul's reactions are of a more or less all-human variety. By this I certainly do not wish to say that we are, or should be, interested solely in the spiritual life of the so-called average man. Certainly not. What I wish to convey is that though man and his reactions are infinitely varied, we can hardly accept as human reactions those of a raving lunatic of a character just come out of a madhouse and just about to return there. The reactions of such poor, deformed, warped souls are often no longer human, in the accepted sense of the word, or they are so freakish that the problem the author set himself remains unsolved regardless of how it is supposed to be solved by the reactions of such unusual individuals.

It is questionable whether one can really discuss the aspects of ''realism'' or of ''human experience'' when considering an author whose gallery of characters consists almost exclusively of neurotics and lunatics. Besides all this, Dostoyevsky's characters have yet another remarkable feature: Throughout the book they do not develop as personalities. We get them all complete at the beginning of the tale, and so they remain without any considerable changes, although their surroundings may alter and the most extraordinary things may happen to them. In the case of Raskolnikov in ''Crime and Punishment,'' for instance, we see a man go from premeditated murder to the promise of an achievement of some kind of harmony with the outer world, but all this happens somehow from without: Innerly even Raskolnikov does not go through any true development of personality, and the other heroes of Dostoyevsky do even less so. The only thing that develops, vacillates, takes unexpected sharp turns, deviates completely to include new people and circumstances, is the plot. Let us always remember that basically Dostoyevsky is a writer of mystery stories where every character, once introduced to us, remains the same to the bitter end, complete with his special features and personal habits, and that they all are treated throughout the book they happen to be in like chessmen in a complicated chess problem. Being an intricate plotter, Dostoyevsky succeeds in holding the reader's attention; he builds up his climaxes and keeps up his suspenses with consummate mastery. But if you reread a book of his you have already read once so that you are familiar with the surprises and complications of the plot, you will at once realize that the suspense you experienced during the first reading is simply not there anymore. The misadventures of human dignity which form Dostoyevsky's favorite theme are as much allied to the farce as to the drama. In indulging his farcical side and being at the same time deprived of any real sense of humor, Dostoyevsky is sometimes dangerously near to sinking into garrulous and vulgar nonsense. (The relationship between a strong-willed hysterical old woman and a weak hysterical old man, the story of which occupies the first hundred pages of ''The Possessed,'' is tedious, being unreal.) The farcical intrigue which is mixed with tragedy is obviously a foreign importation; there is something second-rate French in the structure of his plots. This does not mean, however, that when his characters appear there are not sometimes well-written scenes. In ''The Possessed'' there is the delightful skit on Turgenev: Karmazinov, the author a la mode, ''an old man with a rather red face, thick gray locks of hair clustering under his chimney-pot hat and curling round his clean little pink ears. Tortoise-shell lorgnette, on a narrow black ribbon, studs, buttons, signet ring, all in the best form. A sugary but rather shrill voice. Writes solely in self-display, as for instance in the description of the wreck of some steamer on the English coast. 'Look rather at me, see how I was unable to bear the sight of the dead child in the dead woman's arms,' etc.'' A very sly dig, for Turgenev has an autobiographical description of a fire on a ship - incidentally associated with a nasty episode in his youth which his enemies delighted in repeating during all his life.

It is, as in all Dostoyevsky's novels, a rush and tumble of words with endless repetitions, mutterings aside, a verbal overflow which shocks the reader after, say, Lermontov's transparent and beautifully poised prose. Dostoyevsky as we know is a great seeker after truth, a genius of spiritual morbidity, but as we also know he is not a great writer in the sense Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov are. And, I repeat, not because the world he creates is unreal -all the worlds of writers are unreal - but because it is created too hastily without any sense of that harmony and economy which the most irrational masterpiece is bound to comply with (in order to be a masterpiece). Indeed, in a sense Dostoyevsky is much too rational in his crude methods, and though his facts are but spiritual facts and his characters mere ideas in the likeness of people, their interplay and development are actuated by the mechanical methods of the earthbound and conventional novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

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