Oct 222014


Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881).    Spared last minute from beheading because of what he wrote.   Incarcerated and then confined to Siberia (10 years in all).

Knows of what he writes!  Had an extraordinary capacity to interpret and then explain human behaviour.

His understanding is very helpful today.


From  Penguin Classics,  Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 

Notes From Underground and The Double, 2009


Introduction:  Vision in Darkness  (by Robert Louis Jackson)

(p. xi – xiii)

…  In the most basic sense the underground behaviour and outlook . . . is the consequence of a radical denial of man’s organic need for self-expression, of his natural drive to be himself and to occupy his own space and place in the world. 

The suppression of the basic drives of human nature, however, signifies not their death, but their disfiguration.  (my emphasis)

…  ‘happiness lies … in eternal indefatigable activity and in the practical employment of all our proclivities and capacities’, but that ‘if man is dissatisfied, if he has no means to express himself and bring out what is best in him (not out of vanity, but as a result of the most natural human need to know, express, embody his “I” in real life)’, he undergoes some kind of extraordinary breakdown – …

 … the ‘need to affirm oneself, to distinguish oneself, to stand out, is a law of nature for every individual;  it is his right, his essence, the law of his being’.  He went on to note that this need ‘in the crude, unstructured state of society manifests itself in the individual quite crudely and even savagely.’.

…  The underground emerges, finally, as a consequence of a profound moral and spiritual crisis of … educated classes.

(p. xxv – xxvi)

…  As a social type, Golyadkin is a casualty of a system whose values he shares.  Man is his own environment.

(Dostoyevsky was 9 years imprisoned in Siberia – state censorship, hence reference to convicts)

Freedom as a basic psychological and spiritual need, and the tragic consequences of its suppression, is at the centre of his great artistic memoir,  Notes from House of the Dead (1860-62).   ‘What is more important than money for the convict?  … ‘Freedom or at least some dream of freedom.’  ‘Through gambling, spending money on vodka, carousing, risk, seeking forbidden pleasures, smuggling, attempts at escape, or just speaking, acting, dressing in flamboyant or bizarre ways the convict seeks to act ‘according to his own free will’, to experience at least the ‘illusion’ of freedom.  His longing for freedom, his hopes, however, are ‘so utterly without foundation as almost to border on delirium’.  Thus, the narrator remarks that sometimes even the ordinarily peaceable and model convict will suddenly and unaccountably burst out in a frenzy.  Yet this is

the anguished, hysterical manifestation of personality, an instinctive yearning to be oneself, the desire to express one’s humiliated personality;  a desire which suddenly takes shape and reaches the pitch of malice, of madness, of the eclipse of reason, of fits and convulsions.  Thus, perhaps a person buried alive in a coffin and awakening in it, would thrust at the cover and try to throw it off, although, of course, reason might convince him that all his efforts were in vain.  But the whole point here is that it is not a question of reason:  it’s a question of convulsions. . . .

Where the life impulse is suppressed, reason becomes irrational or . . . scrambles into (convulsion).        Such a phenomenon, in one form or another, is paradigmatic for the ‘dead house’ where, … ‘almost every independent manifestation of personality in the convict is considered a crime.

…  The convict’s almost insane defence of his personality echoes Dostoyevsky’s use of madness as a social metaphor … psychology of underground protest, one in which man in extreme cases will go mad in order to insist on his own free will.   Dostoyevsky’s sympathies, to be sure, are with the convicts in their plight.  At the same time, he views their rebellion, their excesses, as a tragic inversion of man’s legitimate quest for self-expression, self-mastery and self-determination.

(p. xxvii – xxx)
… broadly condemns Western individualism and social relations in general, …  He insists that the ‘sign of the highest development of personality, of its supreme power, its absolute self-mastery, and its most complete freedom of its own will’ is to be found in ‘sacrifice of one’s whole self for the benefit of all’.  Society must recognize the rights of the individual, but the ‘demanding rebellious individual ought first of all to sacrifice to society his whole “I”, his whole self’.
Dostoyevsky regards both capitalist and socialist ideology and practice as providing deeply flawed and counterproductive models for social development.  …
… Dostoyevsky gives special attention to the much-hailed Crystal Palace that was the centrepiece of London’s Great Exposition in Hyde Park in 1851, and which both symbolized and embodied for many the victory of Progress and the mastery of technology   … Dostoyevsky’s response to this wonder was profoundly negative. 
… However independent you may be, yet something begins to frighten you.  ‘Now really isn’t all this in very fact the attainment of the ideal?’ – you think.  ‘Isn’t this really the ultimate?  Is this not in fact the “one fold”?  And won`t one have to accept this as truth in its entirety, and then fall mute  …  You feel that here something final has been accomplished, accomplished and finished.   This is some kind of Biblical scene …  You feel that it would take a great deal of spiritual resistance and negation not to succumb, not to surrender to the impression, not to bow to the fact and not to deify this Baal, that is, not to accept the existing for one`s ideal.
… the Underground Man, precisely in a spirit of unremitting resistance and negation, will dismiss it as a sorry ideal, and one flawed not only by its wholly utilitarian and materialist essence, but by its deadly embodiment of stasis and finality.
 Finally, in lines and imagery both uncanny and prophetic, Dostoyevsky counterposes to the triumphalism of London with its worldwide trade, its Crystal Palace, and world fair, a dark and forboding, indeed frightening image of mass underground resistance or rebellion, passive and for a moment undirected, … (Dickens) but `a matter enough for real dread`.  The wild, dissolute behaviour at night of (the) poor and dispossessed … represent to him
a separation from our social formula, a stubborn, unconscious separation, an instinctive separation at any cost for the sake of salvation, a separation from us with disgust and horror.  These millions of people, abandoned, banished from the human feast, shoving and crushing each other in the underground darkness into which they have been thrown by their elder brothers, grope about and knock at any gate, and seek a way out so as not to suffocate in the dark cellar.  Here is a final, despairing effort to form their own group, their own mass, and to break with everything, even with the human image, just so as to be themselves, just so as not to be together with us.
…  The Underground Man emerges, finally, as a man without faith and foundations who has been caught up in a treadmill of consciousness.  `Where are my primary causes on which I can take a stand,  where are my foundations?  Where shall I take them from?
(p. xxxiv)
Finally, the Underground Man equates his own personal drama, his own tragedy – and endless series of psychological actions and experiments to affirm his lost sense of dignity and integrity – with the fate of mankind.
(p. xxxviii)
The movement toward catastrophe is precipitous.  every wilful and proud attempt of the Underground Man to affirm his independence and self-mastery, every act of spite, every effort of his to introduce the irrational into the status quo of his existence only deepens his sense of dependence and humiliation, only locks him ever more firmly into the movement towards catastrophe.  . . . His every desperate and irrational act to affirm his personality and individuality parodies his notion that irrational behaviour preserves what is `what is most precious and important, namely, our personality and our individuality`.
NOTES, p. xiv –

… the `dissatisfied` man – one who is denied the possibility of actively employing his abilities and talents in life.

if frustrated or suppressed,  can turn into self-will, arbitrary action, or a feeling that `all is permissible`.

… (15.)   `life is a whole art, that to live means to make an artistic work out of oneself, but that only in accord with the communal interests, in sympathy with the mass of society, with its direct, immediate requirements, and not in drowsiness, not in indifference from which follows the disintegration of the mass, and not in solitude` can the individual find genuine fulfillment.

(P. 7)
 Tell me this:  why did it invariably happen, as if deliberately, that at those very moments when I was most capable of appreciating all the subtleties of the ‘sublime and beautiful’ … I not only would fail to comprehend but would perform the most contemptible actions . . .  well . . . the kind of which everyone is guilty, but which I happened to perform precisely when I was most conscious that I should not be performing them at all?  The more I recognized goodness and the whole question of  the ‘sublime and beautiful’ , the deeper I sank into the mire and the more capable I became of completely immersing myself in it.  But the main feature of all this was that it wasn’t within me by accident, but as if it were bound to be there.  It was as if this were my normal condition and far from being an illness or the fruits of corruption, so that finally I lost the desire to combat that corruption.  It all ended by my almost coming to believe (or perhaps I really did believe) that this was probably my normal condition.  But at the very outset how much agony I was forced to endure in that struggle!  I didn’t believe the same could happen to others and so all my life I have kept it to myself, like a secret.  I was ashamed (and perhaps I’m ashamed now).  It reach the point where I felt an abnormal, secret, base thrill of pleasure when returning to my corner on some positively foul St Petersburg night and I would feel intensely aware that once again I had done something vile that day, that what’s done cannot be undone, and inwardly, secretly, I would keep gnawing, gnawing, nibbling and eating away at myself until the bitterness finally turned into some shameful, damnable sweetness and finally into serious, definite pleasure.  Yes, pleasure, pleasure!  I stand by that.  I broached the subject because I’d like to find out for certain:  do others experience the same kind of pleasure?  Let me explain:  the pleasure I experience came directly from being too vividly aware of my own degradation, from the feeling of having gone too far;  that it was foul but that it couldn’t be otherwise;  that there’s no way out for you, that you’d never make yourself a different person;  that even if there remained enough time and faith to change yourself into something different you most probably wouldn’t want to change yourself.  And that even if you did want to, you’d end up by doing nothing because there might in fact be nothing to change yourself into.  But finally, and more importantly, all this proceeds from the normal, fundamental laws of heightened consciousness and from the inertia which is the direct result of those laws and therefore not only could you not change your self, you’d simply do nothing at all.  For instance, as a result of this intensified awareness you are justified in being a scoundrel, as if it’s of any comfort to a scoundrel that he himself feels that he’s in fact a scoundrel.  But that’s enough . . . Good Lord, I’ve been waffling away, and what have I explained?  How can one explain this feeling of pleasure?  But I shall explain it!  I shall pursue it to the bitter end!  That’s why I picked up my pen . . .
    I, for example, am extremely touchy.  I’m as suspicious and as quick to take offence as a hunchback or a dwarf, but in fact there have been moments when, if someone had slapped my face, I might have been glad even of that.  I mean this in all seriousness:  very likely I would have managed to derive pleasure of a kind even from that – I mean of course the pleasure of despair;  but it’s in despair that you discover the mose intense pleasure, especially when you are acutely conscious of the hopelessness of your predicament.  And here too, after that slap in the face, you are crushed by the realization of what filth you’re being smeared with.  The main thing is that, whichever way I look at it, it invariably turns out that I’m the first to be blamed for everything and, what hurts most of all, that I’m blamed when innocent, according to the laws of nature, so to speak.  First of all I’m to blame, as I’m cleverer than anyone else around me.  (I’ve always considered myself cleverer than everyone else around me and sometimes, would you believe, even felt ashamed of it.  At all events, all my life I’ve somehow always looked away and could never look people straight in the face.)  And finally, I’m guilty, since even if I’d had the magnanimity within me, my awareness of its utter futility would have caused me greater torments, I should probably have been unable to do anything because of my magnanimity:  neither forgive, since the offender might have slapped me according to the laws of nature and you can’t forgive the laws of nature;  nor forget, since even if these are laws of nature it still hurts.  Finally, even had I not wanted to be magnanimous at all but, on the contrary, if I’d wanted to take revenge on the offender, more probably I wouldn’t even have been able to avenge myself on anyone for anything, since I probably would never have had the determination to do anything even if I could.  Why shouldn’t I have had the determination?  I’d like to say a few words about that in particular.
. . .    (I think I have typed up enough!  At least for now.)  

  One Response to “2014-10-22 Notes from Underground, the consequences of alienating people from their society (Dostoyevsky)”

  1. From: Robert L. Jackson [@yale.edu]
    Sent: July 11, 2015
    Subject: re your email of 10/20/14

    Dear Sandra Finley,

    It is long, long past your kind note of October 30, 2014, about my introduction to The Double. I did write a reply, but put it in my “drafts” to send, and… never sent it! But better late than never.

    I appreciated your remarks on the relevance of Dostoevsky’s thoughts as to why Muslims are “going off to war.,” and the issues involved. In general, Dostoevsky is immensely relevant to our world today (to all times indeed), and, yes, – with a mind on the causes and consequences of rebellion, alienation, and other issues. All that enters Crime and Punishment, to be sure.

    Whether one can draw a direct line between cause and effect is another matter, but Dostoevsky was on to something. Of course, Dostoevsky was deeply responsive to social conditions, environment, but always calls attention to the complexity of the human being (why do a few “alienated” people run off (and from what?), and why do others, similarly alienated – do not run off), accenting always responsibility,and the fact that people tend to be their own environment.

    There is much we don’t know. Yet baiting the Muslim population is not a solution! nor are we (I have in mind here the United States and other European powers) without a good deal of responsibility for a lot of the mess. The trouble is, the genie is out of the bottle, and it seems that we are dealing now not with causes but with the consequences of the consequences. We seem to be entering a no-man’s land.

    Yet so much needs to be done in the here and now of our own lives: social and economic inequality, racism, environment, climate, the immediate issues of the day. Something we can get our hands on.

    Again, thank you for your note . And again, my apologies for losing touch with you.
    All good wishes,
    Robert Louis Jackson

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