Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review of Notes From Underground by Dostoyevsky

No way around it—this character is a creep. No, worse, he’s a downright pizza-sheet (to him who has ears…). He’s one of the most pathetic characters in all of literature, right beside the all-time sorriest literary pukes like Shakespeare’s Parolles (“Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?), Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, and Tolkein’s Grima Wormtongue. He is an incredibly self-centered, insecure, desperate, conniving, passive-aggressive, socially impotent, lazy, blow-hard. He’s the guy you don’t want at a party, but he’s also the guy you don’t want spending too much time alone with his deep-rooted rancor, household cleaners, and a pinch of nitroglycerin.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Martha Stout claims in her book The Sociopath Next Door that 4% of the population are conscienceless sociopaths who have no empathy or affectionate feelings for humans or animals. Now, I don’t think this story’s character suffers from a genetic form of sociopathy, but his choices have narrowed his skills and boundaries of thought to the point that he is no longer able to swing out of the rut of his ill-timed and over-calculated social impulses. He no longer can sense the edge of etiquette and simple human courtesy. It’s like he’s watching himself in a movie, directing his moves, but unable to react to any direct stimulus without sending a signal back to the conscious ‘director’, which delays and hopelessly exaggerates any attempt at an appropriate response in conversation and interaction. Once you start falling behind in fashion, etiquette, and colloquial pleasantries; and once you lose the naturalness of relating to people—“losing the habit of living”—and becoming too strained and artificial, it’s hard to catch up. Once you’re out, you’re out.

The scary thing is that any analytical, self-aware person, especially introverts and those with a penchant for inner-dialogue, would recognize the meandering self-scrutiny and ‘affliction of options’ (“aporia”) that hamstrings this character. You, Mr. or Mrs. Nerd, reading this classic book review, might very well be able to identify characteristics which you share in common with the protagonist, and that is probably unsettling—which, I think, is Dostoyevsky’s point. Here’s a dude we all despise, but he definitely represents a path we could plausibly take. It’s getting easier to withdraw, develop and live on our private fantasies about who we are, and what we ‘look’ like to others. Social networking sites, comfort in our own homes, technology that enables us—for a certain amount of money—to reinvent an image we can maintain at a distance; all these things may exacerbate the unreality of self-image that may be developing along with our complimentary intellectual/spiritual regress and decreasing confidence in our neglected substance. “After all, we don’t even know where real life is lived nowadays, or what it is, what name it goes by…we are always striving to be some unprecedented kind of generalized human being.” And in our super-societies where we are one of several billion people in the world, this ‘generalized human being’ becomes a real possible distraction away from who I ACTUALLY am, to derive a sense of self from the rubric under which I appear on a census, or what accomplishments I list on my resume, or what value-community I subscribe to, or what profile photo I post on Facebook. “Soon we shall invent a method of being born from an idea” or, at the very least, drive sexy, blue alien bodies from the safety of our basements (that was a reference to Avatar, in case your geek-check failed to highlight it). It’s elementary really: there is the ‘authentic’ me, and there is the me I like others to think of me as. If the two meet, as they did in this story, the meltdown could be nuclear. And hilarious. And deadly. But hilarious.

It was obnoxious but absolutely hysterical how the anonymous character put on airs with his friends, threw temper tantrums to earn their respect, and then wanted to challenge them to duels for the slightest imagined sleight. But the verbal lashing he gave to a broken prostitute was absolutely unforgivable. She was as low as she could be, and he mocked her, rubbed her hopelessness in her face, and even lowered himself to painting a picture of her future un-mourned death. “There’ll be no tears or sighs or prayers for you,  and nobody, nobody at all in the whole world will ever come to your grave: your name will vanish from the face of the earth—just as if you had never existed, never been born! All in the mud and marsh, you can knock as much as you like on the coffin lid at night…” (aCOUGHsshole!!)Of course she cries, he feels bad, he admonishes her some more, feels bad again, offers her his address to come visit him, and then yells at her some more when she visits in hope that he can help her out of her situation. Yeah. He’s a scumbag.

Probably the biggest take-away is the lesson of the paralysis of intellectualism and inaction. It was Goethe who stated, “Thought expands, but lames; Action animates, but narrows.” Thinking brings new possibilities for action, but the longer one thinks, the less fit one is to act; while acting moves one along to new spheres of life, but the longer one moves without some hard-thought, the fewer options one has to choose between. The former was the proclivity of our ‘hero’. His life was all in his head, but his body and instincts had dilapidated. “A man of the 19th century ought, indeed is morally bound, to be essentially without character; a man of character, a man who acts, is essentially limited.” Limited, but alive, as the character found out all too soon. He even admitted as much in his schizo-rants, “Too think too much is a disease, a real, actual disease.” You don’t say. The first half of the story portrays him taking us on a roller-coaster of his rationalizations which he uses to defuse any sense of his responsibility and urgency to act. He gets lost in what he thinks is the inability to classify everything perfectly in his mind, blaming it on the malapropic “many-sided sensitivity to sensations” of civilized people, and this advanced intellectual lopsidedness ends up turning men and women into rationale statues, stone-heavy and packed with generic information that can no longer move them or motivate them.

But let’s not declare this man insane and unfit for society just yet. There’s something to this. Matter of fact, I’m sure this form of reasoning and apparent logical determinism scared Dostoyevsky a bit. Where is individuality without desire? “If ever volition becomes completely identified with common sense, we shall of course reason, not want, purely because it is impossible to want what has no sense.”But then again, we do a lot of things that don’t make apparent sense. Matter of fact, life is ultimately beyond all logic in that life gives birth to logic, conditions it, and continues to ‘live on’ even despite apparent contradictions. “Man’s nature acts as one whole, with everything that is in it, conscious or unconscious, and although it is nonsensical, yet it lives.” Dostoyevsky is, in effect, arguing with himself. But, man, it is a joy to see the debate cut back and forth with excellent points on both sides that leave me dumbfounded. Who can argue with the sentiment so masterfully and beautifully expressed, “Ah, gentlemen, what will have become of our wills when everything is graphs and arithmetic, and nothing is valid but two and two make four?... Twice two is four is, in my opinion, nothing but impudence…it is like a cocky young devil standing across your path with arms akimbo and a defiant air. I agree that ‘two and two make four’ is an excellent thing; but to give everything its due, ‘two and two make five’ is also a very fine thing.” Thinking of a mathematical genius like Lewis Carroll creating brilliant nonsense stories like Alice In Wonderland really hits this point home. So, Dostoevsky has, in my opinion, successfully infected his readers with aporia to suspend our judgment just long enough for his schizo protagonist to go ballistic on his friends. Which is also fun to watch.

Was Dostoyevsky manifesting his own aporia and insecurities in this work, putting his internal dialogue on display? Yes, I think so. Was Dostoyevsky a madman? Maybe a little, but sometimes in a good way. Was he revealing himself to be more petty and full of self-doubt than most people? Definitely not…he was being more honest the most people. Did Dostoyevsky make a good point against the ‘rational egoists’ of the day who thought that reason alone could solve all world problems? Sure, why not. It was a veritable bat to the head of academic Utopia. Can I think of any more questions people might ask of the book that I haven’t already answered? Uhhhhh…

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