Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I was ecstatic. I rejoiced and sang Italian arias. - the Underground Man in action

Has the What Is To Be Done? plus Notes from Underground sesquicentennial readalong been a success?  Most of the action in the past couple of days has been in the comments of a Scott Bailey post about tea sandwiches.  I take that as a success.  These are interesting books!

Scott has also put together a handy list of many of the parts of Chernyshevsky’s novel directly parodied by Dostoevsky.  I’m going to look at one of them, the sidewalk bumping scenes.  This is in no way original.  Marshall Berman devotes twenty pages of All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982) to these scenes.  My excuse is that I read that books twenty-five years ago and do not have it at hand.  If you do, skim this and read that.

In Part 3, chapter viii, one of Chernyshevsky’s robot men bumps shoulders on a St. Petersburg street  with a “portly gentleman.”

The gentleman, turning slightly toward Lopukhov, said, “What sort of swine are you, you pig!”  He was about to continue this edifying speech when Lopukhov turned to face him, seized the gentleman in a bear hug, and deposited him in the gutter very carefully.  He stood over him and said, “Don’t move or I’ll drag you out there where the mud is deeper.”  Two peasants came by, looked, and applauded.  (209)

The fat fellow is presumably the young tutor’s social superior in some obvious way.  Everyone is happy to see him get his comeuppance.  The revolution must be just around the corner.

Some parts of What Is To Be Done? seem to have enraged Dostoevsky, but this one must have made him laugh (those peasants).  It led to one of his all time great comic scenes.  It begins in a billiards parlor:

As soon as I set foot inside, some officer put me in my place.

I was standing next to the billiard table inadvertently blocking his way as he wanted to get by; he took hold of me by the shoulders and without a word of warning or explanation, moved me from where I was standing to another place, and he went past as if he hadn’t even noticed me.  I could have forgiven even a beating, but I could never forgive his moving me out of the way and entirely failing to notice me.  (II, 1, 34)

I can imagine Ralph Ellison reading this passage with great interest.

Unlike Chernyshevsky’s buff heroes, the Underground Man is “small and scrawny,” so he can only plot his revenge.  A duel, perhaps (duel fantasy follows, the first of two in the novel).  Or a satirical article in the newspaper (submitted; rejected).  He encounters the officer on the Nevsky Prospect, always stepping aside for his superiors, as does the narrator, as does everyone.

Then a most astounding idea suddenly dawned on me.  “What if,” I thought, “what if I were to meet him and…  not step aside?  Deliberately not step aside, even if it meant bumping into him: how would that be?”  The bold idea gradually took such a hold that it afforded me no peace.  I dreamt about it horribly, incessantly, and even went to Nevsky more frequently so that I could imagine more clearly how I would do it.  I was in ecstasy.  (37)

But what gloves should he wear, black or lemon-colored?  Is his shirt nice enough (no)?  And what about his old overcoat, with a raccoon collar?  Impossible.  The Underground Man goes into debt, humiliating himself before his boss, to buy a nicer collar.

Even this is not enough to give the Underground Man courage, but he finally does succeed.  “Naturally, I got the worst of it; he was stronger, but that wasn’t the point.”

I returned home feeling completely avenged for everything.  I was ecstatic.  I rejoiced and sang Italian arias.  (39)

All of this is in a single two-and-a-half page paragraph.  The “Italian arias” could not be improved upon.

Between Chernyshevsky and Dostoevsky there is a difference about how people behave, what they fundamentally are like, that is irreconcilable.  One pictures a world free of humiliations, a world of small, meaningful triumphs; the other says we create the former and imagine the latter.  One enjoys a fantasy of perfectibility; the other is horrified. 


  1. I'm having a great time with this readalong. I'm only just beginning the second part of Notes From the Underground, though.

  2. He sings Italian arias but then it all slides away, and he refers the reader back to the first page of the Notes:

    It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything. Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature.

    Even the narrator recognizes the pointlessness of his sad little act of revenge, because every act is pointless in a "rational" society devoid of free will.

    The "Italian arias" is really good, yeah. The extended riffing on the fur collar is great as well. When there are no important problems to be solved (or when the important problems cannot be solved), we focus on trivia. The Underground Man is constructed of self-loathing and trivia.

  3. He has his puffed up triumph then slinks back into his hole. Poor fella.

    Part of the fun of this readalong is that a person could just keep going, all through Dostoevsky, through his peers and on into some of the early Soviet writers. I don't want to say there is a direct connection, but reading Olesha's Envy in this context would likely be a good idea.

    1. It's the structure that carries Dostoyevsky through all of his subsequent work: Triumph! Despair! Triumph! Despair! Repeat unto death!

      Maybe Victor Pelevin's post-Soviet novella Life of Insects carries on the "underground man" tradition, too. I'll have to think about that. I also want to think about Chernyshevsky and Dostoyevsky as authors in the middle of an established Russian literary tradition. And as 19th-century European writers who share traits with their contemporaries. So the usual stuff.

    2. Dostoyevsky might claim that it's despair then triumph, though. Something else to think about.

  4. The Norton Critical Edition has the Prologue of The Invisible Man - now there's a piece of writing, a bit of Zamyatin, a bit of Sartre, a Woody Allen parody, and a Robert Walser story that was fascinating and incomprehensible. Myself, I have been having dark thoughts of Faulkner.

    I will probably at least mention Gogol and Sterne today, even if you do it first. Rousseau, everybody is always parodying Rousseau. I should look at Rameau's Nephew, too. There is no end to it. Literature is wonderful!

  5. I think it's been a success. I've been enjoying your posts even if I have nothing to contribute. That bit about the Italian arias is a gem.

  6. A great success. If only I had something more interesting to contribute. That will never stop me.

    Later in the book, the narrator thinks he might sing, but then does not, so I do not know if we would have gotten more Donizetti. The picture of this lunatic belting out the bel canto is hilarious.

  7. Not that I've read Chernyshevsky, but it's illuminating to know that Underground Man was a reaction against a specific provocation, not a general spew.

  8. Yes, same for me. Whatever that rant is meant to be, it is not simply "crazy Dostoevsky."