Thursday, May 8, 2014

Quoting the Underground Man - it’s really better in books

I said I might do a post of Dostoevsky quotations.  Why not.  Notes from Underground is so quotable.  The voice of the narrator is so strong.

Now, then, what can a decent man talk about with the greatest pleasure?

Answer: about himself.

Well, then, I, too, will talk about myself. (I.1., 5)

Strong with irony.  One of the great critical debates over Notes has been about this narrator.  To what extent does he represent Dostoevsky?  Many critics, friends and enemies, have taken the book, especially its first third, as distilled Dostoevsky.

A novel needs a hero, whereas here all the traits of an anti-hero have been assembled deliberately; but the most important thing is that all this produces an extremely unpleasant impression because we’ve all become estranged from life, we’re all cripples, every one of us, more or less.  We’ve becomes so estranged that at times we feel some kind of revulsion for genuine “real life,” and therefore we can’t bear to be reminded of it.  Why, we’ve reached a point where we almost regard “real life” as hard work, as a job, and we’ve all agreed in private that it’s really better in books.  (II.10., 91)

This is from the last page, one of the texts declarations that the narrator is not Dostoevsky. This is where it really helps to know that Dostoevsky is parodying Chernyshevsky, and perhaps others, that the Underground Man is an extreme case.  “Soon we’ll conceive of a way to be born from ideas” (91).  None of which means that some pure Dostoevsky is not smuggled into the parody.

In short, man is made in a comical way, obviously there’s some sort of catch in all this.  But two times two makes four is an insufferable thing, nevertheless.  Two times two makes four – why, in my opinion, it’s mere insolence.  Two times two makes four stands there brazenly with its hands on its hips, blocking your path and spitting at you.  I agree that two times two makes four is a splendid thing, but if we’re going to lavish praise, then two times two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing.  (I.9., 24)

Dostoevsky and the Underground Man nod in agreement.  They both feel the need for a Counter-Enlightenment blast against Chernyshevky’s radical Enlightenment. ”I felt how they swarmed inside me, these contradictory elements” (I.1., 4).  I am usually an Enlightenment kind of fellow myself, but after a good dose of Chernyshevsky, I too begin revising my multiplication tables.

Although capable of sitting around quietly in the underground for some forty years, once he emerges into the light of day and bursts into speech, he talks on and on and on…  (I.10., 26)

Now I am identifying a little too closely with the Underground Man.


  1. The question "Is the Underground Man Dostoyevsky?" , though frequently asked, doesn't, itseems to me, have a clear answer. In the first place, Dostoyevsky was very keen in his fiction to place some of his own most deeply felt views in the mouths of foolish people; or he would presentthem in a way that make them seem foolish. An obvious example is in "Demons" where Shatov speaks passionately about the idea of a "Russian Christ". Now, Dostoyevsky was himself very keen on tis idea of a specifically Russian spiritality that would save the world; but thankfully, when he presents this idea in the novel, he mocks it.

    The Underground Man is oobviously mad. But much that he says, Dostoyevsky would have approved of. But atteh same time, Dostoyevsky knows it is madness. It's abit like the relationship between Swift and Gulliver, partocularly in the last part of "Gulliver's Travels", where Gulliver really does go mad.

    I suppose in the end that the question "Is the Underground Man Dostoyevsky?"; and the related question "Is the reader supposed to accept whatteh Underground Man says?" are only important qestions if we believe that this novels are didactic rather than exploratory, and tat works of art are to be understood in terms of their "message".

  2. You're not working from the actual debate. The early critical positions were that art is in the service of message, Notes is didactic, and the first third of the book is a position paper by Dostoevsky. None of these critics "accept" what "Dostoevsky" says. They argue against it. But they think it's Dostoevsky.

    Later critics said "Maybe we should pay attention to the last 2/3s of the book" and "Maybe this business with Chernyshevsky is worth looking at." Once we do that, "Is the Underground Man Dostoevsky?" turns out to have a clear answer.

    So the questions are important because influential Russian critics thought they were important. They're part of the history of the book.

  3. Indeed, the questions are important in the context of critical responses to the book. But it does seem to me that both the earlier and the later critics, as you describe them, were a bit wide of the mark. I really don't think it'll do to see this purely as a "position paper" by Dostoyevsky; and neither do I think it makes much sense to pay attention only to the last 2/3 of the book, detaching it from what had come earlier.

    I do not doubt that the essayist of the first part of the book has strong elements of Dostoyevsky himself; neither do I doubt that Dostoyevsky is using the voice of the essayist to refute Chernyshevsky. But this essay is the essay of a fictional character; it presents the thoughts of a fictional character. The essay itself is part of the fiction.

  4. Right, part of the fiction, exactly.

    The later critics - e.g., Joseph Frank - are not "wide of the mark." They're the integrators ("only" and "detaching" are not part of my description). I haven't come across a critic who pays attention only to the last 2/3, or a critic complaining that other critics did so. The problem was earlier critics ignoring the last 2/3.

  5. Oh, I see. Not for the first time, I fear, I misunderstood...

  6. I urge you to read Joseph Frank's big Dostoevsky bio. 1) What I've read of it is excellent, 2) you would be a great reader of it, 3) I would rather read what you write about it than read it myself. It's very long!