Life (and Dostoevsky) – Not as simple as a sum.


(An adaptation of Notes from Underground for modern opera. This trailer sums up the key moments in the novella and is interesting from the perspective of modern adaptation.)

In our first week of class next semester we are to have read The Book of Job, Candide and Notes from Underground all of which may be read from a certain existential perspective – and all which give rise to the question of why? What is our purpose on this earth… and in the first two especially “Why do bad things happen to good people and how do we exist with the knowledge that they do?”. In Notes from the Underground I think we are faced with less of this question, and more of the first question – “What is our purpose, how do we articulate ourselves in the face of an uncaring god/society/bureaucracy/city?” And also, what is this human nature we are saddled with? What is nature versus construct?

In this short (110 pages) novella Dostoyevsky creates a truly detestable main character. This character is not repulsive because he is a murderer, a rapist, a tyrant or a thief – but somehow because he is none of those things. And nothing virtuous either. Here we have an unnamed character who believes himself trapped by his intellect and so confined away from other members of his society, when in reality it is his petty jealousies and desires which bind him to a succession of unsatisfactory encounters which leave him increasingly alienated and self-hating.

There are two parts to this novella – part one which reads as a rambling essay about the nature of man and society, and part two which recounts three experiences of the narrator some years past which he has come to ruminate on in his advanced years of forty (!) Both parts of Notes purport to be from the same diary, which I find a bit of an artificial construct – even as the intellectual themes of the “essay” carry through into the experiences of the narrator. There are no clues given as to why this memoir is being prepared, or who is being written to – while at the same time there is a sense throughout that the narrator wants *someone* to hear his thoughts. And perhaps that is the point. Alienated from everyone, penning the memoir contains the hope that perhaps someone will discover it, or that he will find the courage to share it and thus be freed from his “disease of excessive consciousness”.

In Part One we are treated to the narrator’s introduction to himself as not even a loathsome insect – he gives us some brief biographical details (he is a retired civil servant, lives in St. Petersburg) – but mostly focuses on his philosophy of the human condition in this part. We are treated to a bitter tone throughout – though the narrator has some germane reflections on the enlightenment notion that is man could only become enlightened – then! he could start acting in his true self-interest instead of being blinded by traditions and desires. Dostoyevsky’s character says:

When, to begin with, in the course of all these thousands of years has man ever acted in accordance with his own interests? What is one to do with the millions of facts that bear witness that man knowingly, that is, fully understanding his own interests, has left them in the background and rushed along a different path to take a risk, to try his lucky, without being in any way compelled to do it by anyone or anything, but just as though he deliberately refused to follow the appointed path, an obstinately, willfully, opened up a new, a difficult, and an utterly preposterous path, groping for it almost in the dark.

And later he asks of the reader, even if we could bring all human life down to the simplicity of a sum (2+2), understanding human nature from a deterministic standpoint – would we want to?

For who would want to desire according to a mathematical formula?… For what is man without desires, without free will, and without the power of choice but a stop in an organ pipe?…

For when one day desire comes completely to terms with reason we shall of course reason and not desire, for it is obviously quite impossible to desire nonsense while retaining our reason and in that way knowingly go against our reason and wish to harm ourselves. And when all desires and reasons can be actually calculated… something in the nature of a mathematical table may in good earnest be compiled so that all our desires will in effect arise in accordance with this table…. In short…. there would be nothing left for us to do: we should have to understand everything whether we wanted to or not.

And more

What does reason know? Reason only knows what is has succeeded in getting to know… whereas human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously, and unconsciously, and though it may commit all sorts of absurdities, it persists.

Interesting as this discourse is, I often wonder in novels which go on this way – why the author hasn’t simply written an essay to address what are obviously the  intellectual debates of the day. For it is clear here that Dostoyevsky is making some kind of response to the philosophical debates of his day, though putting that response in the mouth of a character who turns out to be pretty unlikable and bitter.

I have to wonder how we are supposed to relate to this main character in Notes, particularly as we move into the second part which is more “memoir” than philosophy. In this section we see the character’s interactions with 1) a bullying captain who the narrator eventually walks into on the street in an attempt to become equals (the captain doesn’t notice him) 2) some former classmates with whom the narrator insinuates himself at dinner in order to prove something about his intellect (in which he fails miserably, acting like a boor and drinking too much and then insulting everyone) and 3) with the prostitute Lisa who he encounters after his fateful dinner and ultimately acts horrendously towards in the days which follow. As I mention above, he doesn’t become a killer or rapist, because he is unable to free himself from his inaction, instead engaging in a kind of insidious insulting game – using his intellect as a bludgeon against comradeship, intimacy and ultimately love. Near the end he says of love “Even in my most secret dreams I could not imagine love except as a struggle, and always embarked on it with hatred and ended it with moral subjugation.” This statement seems to be true of all his human relationships – that every encounter is about obtaining power and thus he is disagreeable to most of the people in his life.

Our narrator seems capable of one kind of self-reflection, but not another. While he is able to understand in hindsight his problematic behaviour, he seems powerless to transform it in future actions, and unwilling to let go of a problematic identity in order to be truly free. For all this narrator’s talk of being free (he discourses on this at length to Lisa who he claims is much less free than him because she is engaged in the labour of selling her body), he is just as unable as her to move on with his life. Through his story of a prostitute whose coffin he has seen taken up on the street the day before, we see that the fears he projects on Lisa are his own – that he shall leave nothing behind but derision and the ignorance of the people around him laughing at his demise. And perhaps this too is a clue as to the reason for the Notes – he is focused in the first part of some type of potential physical illness, but we can see throughout that it is truly a psychic/emotional illness which is likely to kill him before he is of advanced age.

Ultimately I am left with the question of how we are meant to relate to this character – for as reprehensible as he might be, he is not without some insight into the human condition. We sympathize with him only as one who is immobilized by his desires and his inability to deal with them maturely and appropriately. As the title suggests, our narrator feels hopelessly separated from the above ground world – the world of adults who take on responsibilities, learn social niceties, and keep up appearances. While the narrator feels this above ground world is somewhat fraudulent and thus postulates superiority, he also yearns to be accepted into it. While he goes on at length about his romanticism, he also refers to his own status several times as “insect” – belying both the fantasy and the fear that dwell within. Is this character just an extreme of something which exists within each of us? Do we all feel the tension of individual versus society on some level and is that the main commentary here? For such a short work, I am left with the need to re-read in order to examine Dostoyevsky’s clues as to the answers…..

As the video trailer at the beginning of this post attests – the questions at the heart of Notes still resonate 170 years after its publication. There is an online lecture here which I am moving onto read next – which promises to offer more insight into the text.

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