Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground

Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground by Matthew Raphael Johnson

Fydor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is a classic statement of the ideological struggles of the 19th century in Russia. The westerning “reforms” of the Petrine and Catherineian 18th century led to a 19th century of Russian self-doubt. This self-doubt, as it turns out, became the catalyst for the most significant Russian contributions in literature, theology, political theory and philosophy among which was Dostoyevsky himself.

By self-doubt it is not meant some sort of crisis of faith, but rather a fundamental schism in terms of Russia’s mission and destiny. This schism is well known: it is between those who wish to follow the west in all things, or at least in things of political and economic significance and those who see much of value in ancient Russian tradition.

This is putting it very simply, but it does capture the extreme difficulty Russia found herself in the midst of the revolutionary 19th century. In spite of it all, Russia survived the revolutionary century relatively unharmed. Revolutions radically altered the political landscape of Europe at this time, tearing apart French, Austrian, Italian, German, Hungarian and Irish politics. Russia remained relatively unscathed.

Nevertheless, these ideological battles are far from over. The wild accusations and hysterical reactions from western capitals over the elections of December 2003 prove that the westernizer/Slavophile debate is not only not over, but is entering a more dangerous and volatile phase.

The December 2003 elections brought to power a coalition of nationalist and populist elements. These elements, in spite of many imperfections and eccentricities, are the main opposition against the westernizers, which is another term for the oligarchs and other monopolists and their conservative supporters in Washington D.C.

In the heat of this battle, where Russia is again center stage and calls from the likes of Richard Pearle to throw Russia out of the G8 “on her ear” for daring to elect nationalist politicans, revisiting the ideological struggles of the 19th century become extremely topical. As Russia and her ancient tradition are now fair game in the public arena, dealing with these issues becomes extremely important.

Notes from Underground has had many interpreters over the last 100 of so years. It has fascinated students of philosophy, literary criticism and psychology. Nietzsche’s famous quip that Dostoyevsky “is the only writer that has ever taught me anything worth a damn about psychology” likely stems from a reading of this famous work of ideological confrontation.

The Underground Man is a loathsome creature, loathsome in his own words. This sickness, the sickness made reference to in the first line of this work, is a sickness born of confrontation, ideological uncertainty, and most of all, the tremendous failure of western ideologies in Russian life. (The first line in this work is one of the great opening lines in literary history: “I’m a sick man. . . a mean man. There’s nothing attractive about me. I think there is something wrong with my liver.”)

It might suffice to say that Dostoyevsky is making a distinction between two tendencies in St. Petersburg life in the middle of the 19th century. This is between the “new men,” the highly westernized materialists, capitalists, utilitarians and prophets of modern science and, on the other hand, the more “practical men” of day to day life (represented in a most vile way by the officer, Zverkov). These latter are not very reflective, seek after their own interest and are rather part of a “herd mentality.” They do and do not think; they follow orders and do what is necessary to get ahead. They are the “men of action” in Dostoyevsky’s phrase.

Now, it should be clear that in Dostoyevsky’s youth, he too was a westernizing intellectual, a socialist of sorts, to be exact. He converted to a defender of tradition after his exile in Siberia and his pardon from the government of Nicholas I. Therefore, it makes sense that Distoyevsky, as a personal matter, struggled with the battle between practical men and the “westernized” intellectual in that he identified with neither. The Underground Man is marked by precisely this problem (at least from an ideological point of view). A few have said that the Underground Man is himself an alienated “westernizer,” but this view has two specific objections to it. Firstly, he lives in St. Petersburg and rejects its “premeditativeness,” and second, his critique of utilitarianism and determinism in the first part of the work is a lucid refutation of some of the cardinal points of western science in the 19th century.

These two questions are worth a slightly more in depth treatment. The Underground Man is not a westernizer, nor is he a “man of action.” At the very least, from the critique of utility in the first part of the book, he is an existentialist of sorts. Of course, the second issue is more clear in that he spends quite a bit of time fuming over the exploits of that archtypal “man of action” typified in Zverkov.

For the Underground Man, the life of the westernized “critic” is a miserable one. Reason for Dostoyovsky is a whore, a solvent, something that can be used, but is unprofitable for real activity. Speculation and scientific criticism ultimately eliminates all final reasons for action. Loyalty, love, tradition or anything else that can act as a spur to action is dissolved under the stare of rationalistic criticism. Dostoyovsky describes this state as akin to the life of a mouse:

In addition to being disgraced in the first place, the poor mouse manages to mire itself in more mud as a result of its questions and doubts. And each question brings up so many more unanswered questions that a fatal pool of sticky muck is formed, consisting of the mouse’s doubts and torments as well as of the gobs of spit aimed at it by the practical men of action, who stand around it like judges and dictators and laugh lustily until their throats are sore. Of course, the only thing left for it to do is shrug its puny shoulders and, affecting a scornful smile, scurry off ignominiously to its mousehole. (97)

In other words, the life of reason, the life of reason from the perspective of western materialism produces a state of insecurity that prevents any meaningful activity except escape. On page 103, another more severe indictment of the “rational man” is found:

Obviously, in order to act, one must be fully satisfied and free of all misgivings beforehand. But take me: how can I ever be sure? Where will I find the primary reason for action, the justification for it? Where am I to look for it? I exersize my power of reasoning, and in my case, every time I think I have found a primary cause I see another cause that seems to be truly primary and so on. This is the very essence of consciousness and thought.

And a bit later, “You know, ladies and gentlemen, probably the only reason I think I’m an intelligent man is that I have never managed to start of finish anything.” (104)

Simplistically speaking, the western ideologies that Dostoyevsky is critiquing are the naïve products of the so-called Enlightenment. The basic structure of thought here is that men are individuals owing nothing to the past or to tradition; they seek their own self interest easily categorized as money or prestige easily convertible to happiness and pleasure, and even these things are catagorizible in terms of intensity, duration etc. Human life is predictable, basing itself on a few quantifiable drives inherent in all men. Human life is driven by these impulses and therefore, his actions, his interest and his sense of happiness are equally so. Whether it be Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham or Karl Marx, they had these suppositions in common.

Now, in many respects many might think that this critique of this ideology refers to the Underground Man himself, since in many respects, it reflects the life of the Underground Man. The critique of this mentality, though, shows that this is not the case. Concerning utility and the life of “enlightened self-interest” the Underground Man says: “Since when, in these past thousands of years, has man acted exclusively out of self interest? What about the milions of facts that show that men, deliberately and in full knowledge of what their real interests were, spurned them and rushed into a different direction?” (105-6). In other words, this shows that “stubbornness and willfulness were stronger in these people than their interests.” (106)

Dostoyovsky writes further:

As far as I can make out, you’ve based your scale of advantages on statistical averages and scientific formulas thought up by economists. And since your scale consists of such advantages as happiness, prosperity, freedom, security and all that, a man who deliberately disregarded that scale would be branded by you—and by me too, as a matter of fact—as an obscurantist and as utterly insane. But what is really remarkable is that all of your statisticians, sages, humanitarians, when listing human advantages, insist on leaving out one of them. They never even allow for it, thus invalidating all their calculations.

Of course, Dostoyevsky is directing his aim at Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, who honestly believed that he could quantify all pleasure for all human beings and set the up on a scale. The direction of public policy then, would be based on the achievement of such pleasures as would be practically possible given the diversity of iindividuals under this regime. These would be the summum bonum of human life and public policy. Many variations of such ideas existed throughout Europe in the 19th century, and variants of them are dominant today in the so-called “social sciences.”

However, this “one advantage” that utilitarianism cannot fathom of understand is “that a man, always and everywhere, prefers to act in the way he feels like acting and not in the way his reason and interest tell him. . .” (110)

For the Underground Man, rationality satisfies only rational requirements. Desire, of course, is another matter, and reaches everything else. The problem with the social sciences is that it fails to take this sort of “will to power” in humanity seriously.

But let me repeat to you for the hundredth time that there is one instance when a man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic. He will do it in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things and not to be obliged to have only sensible wishes. (112, italics in original)

Put in other words, the Underground Man says this:

Still, I say that twice two [i.e. 2+2=4] is an unbearable notion, an arrogant imposition. The twice two image stands there, hands in pockets, in the middle of the road, and spits in your direction. Nevertheless, I’m willing to agree that twice-two-makes-four is a thing of beauty. But, if we’re going to praise everything like that, then I say that twice-two-makes-five is also a delightful little item now and again. (117)

The question at issue, in light of Russian intellectual life in the midst of this revolutionary 19th century, is a rejection of all positivist, evolutionary, socialist, materialist and vulgar scientific thinking. The maintenance of the spontaneous is the maintenance of individuality: not so such in that the Underground Man is an individualist, but rather as a method of attacking western “social science.” Men were to be turned into servants of the monopoly capitalist and the absolute state. However, desire and the “will to power” were always in the way; demanding satisfaction, lashing out in the most irrational ways if it was to be squelched.

This basic “existentalist” critique of modern, western ideology is merely a part of this polemic. The critique of the men of action is another matter altogether, and actually takes up the bulk of the work. There are two characters who make this critique make sense. The first is the officer Zverkov. He was a schoolmate of the Underground Man, and like all others, took little notice of him. He did not hate him, but, more or less, ignored him. This officer, having received his commission, is being sent to the southern outposts of the Russian empire, and a dinner party is being thrown in his honor by other schoolmates of the Underground Man. Zverkov is a typical “man of action.” Always talking and bragging about his military exploits, his money (he just inherited an estate with hundreds of serfs, who Zverkov calls “bearded animals”) and his sexual exploits. He is the typical vulgar braggart. On the other hand, there is Liza, a prostitte working a brothel in Petersburg. Now, it is in this connection that the difficulties of the life of reason and the life of action are brought to full focus.

The Underground Man’s desire to attend the dinner party in Zverkov’s honor is another “existential” leap of will that forms the heart of the critique of utilitarianism. There is no rationality behind the decision: he is disliked by his former schoolmates, it requires him to contribute money which he does not have (he needs an advance on his wages), he specifically loathes Zverkov and knows full well he will have a miserable time. However, he demands to be included in the party.

Unsurprisingly, neither he nor his former schoolmates can conceal their mutual loathing. After hours of partying in the restaurant, the guests at the party leave (without telling the Underground Man), and end up visiting a house of ill-repute not too far away from the scene of the dinner. By the time he arrives, his enemies have gone, leaving him alone in the dark antechamber of the “dress shop” (little more than a cover for the brothel). Here, in the darkness, he meets Liza.

It is a matter of come controversy who Liza actually is, or what she represents. During the early days of the French revolution, the Masonic revolutionaries murdered the archbishop of Paris, erecting a prostitute (a local actress) in his then vacant throne. She was then “worshipped” as the “goddess of reason.” It was the classic Masonic “double-think” ritual: ushering in the “age of reason” was allegedly the reason for the revolution, but, now, the aristocratic conspirators ritually admitted that reason is actually a whore, capable of servicing and justifying any and all ideological, economic, emotional and personal vice, passion or ambition.

The former schoolmates of the Underground Man are, to repeat, the archtypal “men of action.” Their lives are unreflective, dependent on institutions, prestige or some other essentially non-rational criterion. Now, after drinking and eating heavily (representing the vices of gluttony and self-will), celebrating the ability of this arrogant officer to “seduce young Circassian beauties” (155) on the southern frontier of Russia, which, significantly, was and is the weakest and most porous point of Russian power within the empire.

After this indulging in all vices (of course, without a thought of the moral issues involved), the party then (without the Underground Man) goes to service a prostitute. Given the nature of the “men of action” the Underground Man lays out early in the work, it makes some sense to surmise that Liza is reason herself. Reason defined as utilitarian self-justification. Rationality here is the ability to rationalize something; to justify something logically, using the categories of logic.

In this case, the using of a prostitute for the men of action is little more than a poetic metaphor for the men of action in general, typified by Zverkov. That reason, that is, logic, is a whore, capable of being used to justify anything, any lifestyle or choice. In other words, reason and logic are not self-justifying, but are things used at whim.

Eventually, the Underground man and Liza have a conversation. But this brief exchange leads to something more substantial, a speech given by the Underground Man to reason, to logic, symbolized by the whore. The structure of speech might well be taken as Dostoyevsky’s vision of the purpose and function of rationality in the healthy society.

The speech given is rather simple, but loaded with political content. The Underground Man tries to convince Liza to leave that establishment. He explains the nature of her predicament (175-179); that she will grow old, she will be used up, disease ridden, unable to have a normal relationship with a man. She would have not known real romance, husband or family, a comfortable house and home. Eventually, she would die of some disease and then discarded as so much worn out equipment for the profit of the owners of that (illegal) establishment.

The Russian “Slavophilic” argument about reason is that the west is doomed because she has elevated reason to supreme judge and arbiter. This is another way of saying that the demands of the western ruling classes can easily be shrouded in pompous logical coating, as representing some sort of “progress” or utilitarian “good” for humanity. Such rhetoric is common enough in modern life. The Underground Man says about abstract reasoning earlier in the story, a “friend” of his that can only represent the modern, post Christian west:

You see, ladies and gentlemen, I have a friend—of course, he’s your friend too, and in fact, everyone’s friend. When he’s about to do something, this friend explains pompously and in detail how he must act in accordance with the precepts of justice and reason. Moreover, he becomes passionate as he expostulates upon human interests; heaps scorn on the shortsighted fools who don’t know what virtue is or what’s good for them. Then, exactly fifteen minutes later, without any apparent external cause, but prompted by something inside him t hat is strong than every consideration of interest, he pirouettes and starts saying exactly the opposite of what he was saying before. . . .(106-107)

Now, while this vetting of the man of “heightened consciousness” can refer to anyone, or any number of people, institutions of nations, it makes the most sense in respect to the west, or, what amounts to the same thing, Russia’s domestic “westernizers.” In other words, moral logic and moral reasoning are prostitutes, used by the ruling classes to cover over their most vile offenses. In other words, moral theory and moral reasoning which undergirds it is radically dissimilar to moral action and can even serve as a cover or justification for immoral action. Hence the limited use of reason.

For the Russian nationalist of the 19th century, however, reason is a tool, and needs to be submerged into a structure of life, virtue, ethnic tradition, Christian life and village folkways. In other words, reason is not creative of anything, but can only serve the existing social institutions and folkways that have proven themselves to be conducive to a people’s survival such as the peasant commune and royal rule.

The Underground man’s speech to Liza is the classic Slavophilic argument against the west and rationalism; she will only be happy, only truly useful ensconced in a home, family and village where she loves and is loved in turn. Experience, devotion and community are the true context of reason and the place where it can be truly useful.

The next day, after receiving an invitation from the Underground Man to come to his apartment (which he regrets), the main character of this story cannot stand her presence. The Underground Man realizes the absurdity of his preaching to this common prostitute while he himself leads a difficult and unrewarding life. Eventually, Liza realizes that she is dealing with somebody unstable (that she thought was just the opposite) and leaves in tears.

It is worth noting that, as the Underground Man first meets Liza in that dark room that fronts as a “dress shop,” he sees himself in a mirror. He is horrified by what he sees (163), his drawn, stressed, unhealthy looking face. This is the ultimate problem: the reconciliation that the Underground Man tries to bring about between reason and communal custom does not hold. Reason is too withering, it holds up a mirror to all it applies itself to; it eventually shows the contradictions and problems of whatever subject matter it approaches.

Regardless of the “touching” words the Underground Man speaks to reason personified (and genderized), the reconciliation cannot be effected. Turning inward, the Underground Man, in his dank apartment, becomes embarrassed, his insecurities exposed (symbolized by his dirty night gown which cannot even cover his private areas) just by being in the presence of rationality.

Thus, the schism remains unhealed. The westernizers wish to reduce all men to cogs in a great machine, the romantics wish to maintain Russian communal tradition, and those men of action wish to seek happiness without thinking too much. Thinking too much is tantamount to seeing themselves in a mirror. Reason is solely to be used.

The Underground Man is both Dostoyevsky and Russia. The former in that he has abandoned his former socialism and materialism, seeing the limitations of reason and its drive to catagorize everything at the expense of human individuality, spontaneity and randomness. The latter is also symbolized because, Russia at this time too was wracked by ideological battles for the nature of her being: western, cold and rational, or Slavic, warm and communal.

Notes from Underground therefore, is a statement of a problem, to effect the reconciliation of communal custom and rationality; between ethnic tradition and western theory; between Alexis and Peter; between the west and Russia.