Saturday, May 10, 2014

Not merely nothing to do, but nothing to learn - Dostoevsky defends the humanities

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.


  1. I've been in love with Fourier's lemonade ocean since I discovered it in an Isaiah Berlin book. That's how you tame nature to your will! I think Hawthorne makes fun of it in a novel.

  2. Calvino has written some good stuff on Fourier, one fantasy writer enjoying another.

    Hawthorne's Fourier-fun is in The Blithedale Romance, which is partly set on a Fourierist communal farm. Fourier had a significant influence in the U.S., but there is a trick - the American translators left out all of the wild, visionary stuff. No lemonade oceans. So the U.S. Fourier was not so eccentric.

    While preparing the novel, Hawthorne finally read Fourier in French and was stunned by what he found. Also highly amused, since, after all, Hawthorne had worked on that communal farm, too.

  3. I have finally realized that Fourier-the-Utopian-Lemonade-Ocean-Man is not the same person as Fourier-the-mathematician, and I feel a lot better about the world now.

    This is a good post; man cannot live on rationality alone. He must also have irrational rations.

  4. Dostoyevsky hated the idea of closure. He hated the idea that rationality, mathematics, will solve human problems, and thatthese solutions *must8 be accepted,because they cannot be argued with. Freedom for Dostoyevsky meant the freedom to say "no", even if saying "no" is irrational - even if it meantrejecting "2+2=4". He loathed the very idea of a utopia, of finality, where humans don't have a choice.

    But interestingly, his loathing of the idea of closure led him to curiously self-contradictory positions. For religious faith, too, implies closure: those who are religious, as Dostoyevsky was, must believe in an absolute divine wisdom that will guarantee an eternal harmony. And if we are bound to accept this eternal harmony, where is our freedom then? This is why Ivan Karamazov "returns [his] ticket". It's not that he doesn't accept God: but he insists on his freedom to "return the ticket", to reject divine, eternal harmony. The Devil that meets with him also thinks that once he sees the vision of eternal harmony - should such a vision ever be: the Devil admits to being agnostic - then he, too, will be reconciled. And oncethis reconciliation happens, life itself will have to stop, for its end is reached.

    And Ivan - and, I think, a great part of Dostoyevsky too - insists on his freedom to reject this harmony - whether the harmony of an earthly Utopia or of God himself.

    Reading Dostoyevsky takes oneinto very strange mazes!

  5. Ha, no, the Fourier series was not invented by the radical saltwater fish-hating Utopian. Although the mathematician did invent the idea of the greenhouse effect, which is a pretty impressive act of imagination.

    There is a gnostic side of Dostoevsky, isn't there, Himadri? I do not pretend to understand it. Maybe it is just a way to have faith with some doubt mixed in.

  6. Even Marx confused Charles and Joseph Fourier, At least according to an article by Queneau, which I can't find when I need it. I should read some Fourier, one of these days.

  7. No, really, how funny.

    I haven't read any Fourier since college, and even then it was to, I don't know, confirm that some of the wilder stuff was really there.

    He would be an amazing imaginative creation, if he were not real.

  8. I do appreciate the irony in your opening paragraph, even though you know I don't completely agree (about being naive)

  9. I hate to think that we are naïve now.

    Hidden under that paragraph - a college professor recently told me about a group of college seniors none of whom had read or heard of Frederick Douglass. I winced. But I, of course, read Douglass in that Western CIv class.

  10. Your first paragraph made me laugh. I also must agree that the humanities is the home of the irrational. It drives me nuts that so many are trying to turn it into reasonable, quantifiable science.