Soon we’ll conceive of a way to be born from ideas. (II.10., 91)
This will sound archaic, I know, but I first encountered Dostoevsky in a Western Civilization course, where he was read alongside Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Sigmund Freud, just to stick with his contemporaries, more or less, as if there were some value in the illusion that every undergraduate in the liberal arts read a common set of authors of some importance and difficulty. How naïve we all were back then.
What is the right way to live, that was the constant question. Notes from Underground was ethics, not literature. Every text not related to the history of science was reduced to ethics, or politics. Maybe I am wrong; maybe even Galileo’s Starry Messenger was reduced to ethics, although I doubt anyone in class argued the side of the Catholic Church.
Of course, after two times two, there’s nothing left, not merely nothing to do, but nothing to learn. (I.9., 25)
Only now do I see the subtlety of the inclusion of Notes from Underground in Western Civ. Dostoevsky is attacking the foundation of the university, an attack on the value of reason. His book is a counter-Enlightenment assault on Chernyshevsky’s radical Enlightenment. The university, as it exists today, is an Enlightenment enterprise.
At that time, it’s still you speaking, new economic relations will be established, all ready-made, also calculated with mathematical precision, so that all possible questions will disappear in a single instant, simply because all possible answers will have been provided. Then the crystal palace will be built. (I.7., 18)
The “crystal palace” is from What Is to Be Done?, “Vera Pavlovna’s 4th Dream,” parts 8, 9, and 10, which depicts life in the rationalist utopia, where everyone lives, eats, and dances in communal structures of glass and aluminum which are lit by electricity and cleaned by child labor.* And it is also an actual building, the home of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Humans turned into ants, says the Underground Man. Dostoevsky had been horrified by the Crystal Palace and had written about it before Chernyshevsky used the metaphor. Paradise for one, a nightmare for the other, and one more reason for Dostoevsky to be angry at Chernyshevsky. Personally, I do not think Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is such a great threat, but I would probably be irritated, too, if someone stole and reversed my metaphor.
These days, I frequently come across attempts to defend or justify the humanities in higher education. Dostoevsky’s implicit position, that the humanities are the home of the essential irrationality of humankind, is not likely to shake lose any grant money or tenure lines, even though he is right.
* “More than half the children have remained inside to attend to the housework. They do almost all the chores and enjoy their work very much.” (What Is To Be Done?, 4, xvi, 8, p. 371). Proof, even more than the oceans turning to lemonade, that Fourierists were loons.