The bilious Underground Man

13 June 2012 § Leave a comment

“I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver”. As opening lines go, that one’s a cracker, although the trouble is that it then continues in much the same vein for a hundred pages and it gets a bit tedious. The Underground Man goes out of his way to be disliked, and his accounts of what seem to be his final disastrous attempts at getting on with other people are excruciating to read. The trouble is, it’s a really important text for understanding Dostoevsky – I keep referring to it throughout Dostoevsky’s Russians – so I had to keep going back to wade through the mire. More dangerously, it’s also frequently misunderstood, and sets up the idea that Dostoevsky himself is advocating the Underground Man’s rejection of human society and everything good in the world.

The reason I’m writing about the Underground Man is that I came across this article by David Denby in The New Yorker – go and read it now, because it’ll save me the bother of rehashing his excellent summary of the novel. Denby rightly reminds us that Notes from Underground is a strikingly modern piece of writing – there’s no strong story; the narrative voice is thoroughly unreliable; it all contradicts itself and there isn’t really any story, as such. It’s also modern in its subject matter: the alienated individual, living alone in a big city, who has fallen through the cracks and dropped out of society. He’s constructed his little nest under the floorboards (the title, in Russian, literally means “notes from under the floor”), loves no-one and is loved by no-one. Today, it’s even easier to live without any human contact at all; our cities must be teeming with underground men.

I particularly like Denby’s assessment of the Underground Man’s own internal contradictions – “self destructive mess” is spot on – but I’m not convinced by his conclusions. The idea that Notes from Underground is a glorification of the Underground Man’s bad behaviour, that we all have the right to mess up our lives as we want to rather than submit to someone else’s idea of what constitutes happiness is misleading – this is how adolescent boys may read Notes from Underground and, indeed the big novels too, but this is a simplistic approach to Dostoevsky’s thought.

It’s not so much that Dostoevsky thinks it is wrong to imprison people in a perfect utopian society, like one of Charles Fourier’s phalansteries, but rather that he thinks it’s impossible, because as human beings, our natural tendency is to be stroppy and rebellious, and decide for ourselves what we want rather than be told by others. The Underground Man, like so many of Dostoevsky’s characters, is simply that side of our nature magnified to grotesque proportions. He’s saying, look this is what can happen: if you take individualism too far, we’ll all end up like the Underground Man. Specifically Dostoevsky is also satirising writers like Chernyshevksy, whose doctrine of “rational egoism” naively stated that people will always do what is in their best interests – the Underground Man is there to prove Chernyshevsky wrong. Joseph Frank suggests too that the Underground Man  is trying to live by rational principles, discounting all superstition and irrational emotion, but he ends up morally paralysed because you can’t reduce human nature to 2+2=4 and so he can do nothing but retreat from the world that causes such painful contradiction.

Dostoevsky doesn’t offer any solutions here – I don’t think he even had any answers at this stage, or at least nothing well-worked out. Frank’s interesting section on Notes from Underground in his Dostoevsky biography contrasts the novel with an article Dostoevsky wrote at about the same time about Christ – and as so often with Dostoevsky, that’s where the answer lies.  As the Grand Inquisitor complains, Christ gives us a terrible freedom – a freedom that the Underground Man abuses, but Dostoevsky thinks that somehow we can surrender to Christ and follow his way without actually being imprisoned in another Crystal Palace. The answer is much less interesting, and less effective, in literary terms than the posing of the problem.

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