FYODOR DOESTOIEVSKYY: THE TYRANNY OF LOGIC, THE VOICE OF BLOOD, AND INNER DISHARMONY.
By Martin Byrne
Archipelagos 01 / November 22nd 2011 / Brooklyn (USA)
If you’ve ever seen a dog twitch and start in one direction, then leap a step in another only to finally bound away in a third direction, you’ve seen a glimpse into the Dostoevskian man’s mind. He is no wolf, because he is domesticated, yet neither is he a sheep, because he resists his domestication. Perhaps a dog is not even an apt metaphor, but man himself, as he is of the few creatures to be aware of the strangeness of his condition while also being acutely aware of his mortality and all that it entails.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s pivotal novel (essay, expose, pseudo-biography?) Notes from Underground, we are allowed a deeper insight into the feralized mind that he creates, and acts as a loose framework for a number of his later characters. One might contend that this model reflects the insights into the recently birthed modern man that Dostoevsky himself holds. And as a testament of being produced during a state of transition within Russia and society at large, the insights he provides are at once conflicted and cogent. It is unnerving and liberating, filled with depth and marred by shallowness, brilliant and mad:
To be sure, I won’t break through such a wall with my forehead if I really have not got strength enough to do it, but neither will I be reconciled with it simply because I have a stone wall here and have not got strength enough.
But, before we begin, some not-so-trivial background and historical context to the time of the publication, 1864. Fifteen years prior to this publication, after having participated in the literary circles of 19th century Russia, as an enlightened man of the times would do, Dostoevsky had published a handful of novels to mixed review. Continuing his moderate track of the enlightened self-interest, he also joined a group of intellectuals to discuss politics [an illegal act at the time] which would find him imprisoned, waiting to be put to death. One can imagine the horror of a man standing in the Russian cold, hands tied unmercifully with rough cord in front of a brick wall, thinking only that he had done as any enlightened man would and yet there he was. While reflecting on these infuriatingly conflicting circumstances, add the heady wave of relief when a messenger arrives to call off the execution, in lieu of a sentence to hard labor in Siberia. After an episode such as this, it doesn’t take much to imagine how someone might walk away with a, lets say, idiosyncratic world-view. Meanwhile, during Dostoevsky’s sojourn in Siberia, the Crystal Palace is built for the London Expo of 1851, and a fellow Russian intellectual, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, publishes What Is to Be Done?, a novel praising “the ideals of materialism and the scientific perspective”; Notes is, in part, a satirical response to this supposedly “radical” novel.
Then — this is all what you say — new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because every possible answer to it will be provided. Then the “Palace of Crystal” will be built. Then … In fact, those will be halcyon days. Of course there is no guaranteeing (this is my comment) that it will not be, for instance, frightfully dull then (for what will one have to do when everything will be calculated and tabulated), but on the other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational.
To paraphrase a critic, the bile-inducing, bitter tone alone makes the novel. It drips. But how to fashion an argument against enlightened self-interest? How does one rail and rattle against the pillars of logic? At what point in your counter-argument, do you yourself use logic? What more can you do but tear yourself to pieces and scream ‘Can you not see?’ at the top of your lungs only to fall into a ragged sobbing heap? To Dostoevsky’s credit, his scream has resonated.
The novel proceeds in more or less in this fashion, decrying the ultimate (and ultimate it is) short-coming of the “rational process” while also falling prey to that rational process in trying to revoke it of its power. Needless to say, this cycle leaves the protagonist in a most unsavory position, even to himself. To say he becomes disillusioned does not do it near the justice of depth that the perspective deserves. But I digress. Structured in rather backwards fashion, Dostoevsky proceeds by illuminating his philosophy first, in a sort of back and forth with no one particularly present (as is his way) to be followed by several protracted anecdotes attesting to that philosophy, which in the end, forms the content of the protagonist’s lifestyle (if one were to presume that such a life could be styled.)
The predominant method of the opening section contains a philosophical argument with presumably Chernyshevsky and his ilk, the opposition voiced in short bursts by the character himself in order to propel his own argument along. But, not only does he spend time taking on their voice, he also agrees with that voice. It is a frequent occurrence throughout this piece to come upon phrases such as, “Perhaps, you think, gentlemen, that I am mad? Allow me an observation. I agree…” or “I was lying from spite.” And so, the section goes on one side making a rational argument to be contradicted by the character in either a burst of feeling, “… Ech!” or a strain of his own breed of rationality:
Allow me to indulge my fancy. You see, gentlemen, reason is an excellent thing, there’s no disputing that, but reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots. Here I, for instance, quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life. What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is a poor comfort, but why not say so frankly?) and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and, even it if goes wrong, it lives. [emphasis by the author.]
We can see that he can manage to make a rather lucidly reasonable argument about something that is not inherently reasonable. Beyond that, it seems that he often recognizes this inequity, this imbalance, and spends a great deal of his energy fighting himself over it. Eventually he comes to the semi-conclusion that one can only find pure being through the suffering of the day-to-day existence. It is that not that one can approach pure being through an emptying of the moment, but from the overflow of the moment, which causes suffering in its fullness. It is here that the source and substance of a conscious mind is sprung. And for that, Dostoevsky can be credited with one of the most painful and powerful gift an author can wield, assuming that he can place his life in kindred with this character. What makes the work truly brilliant is that the character can manifest both desires of the author, in the fulfillment of the philosophy with the life lived there-from. It does not relinquish itself to the annals of the mind, but manifests in glorious madness through the fits of the body itself. To relinquish one’s body to the travails of the tormented mind is to be fully invested in the thoroughness of the thought as to render it sublime. This sublimity is exactly what the underground man has lamented the loss of through pre-determination, and so his submission to madness is his personal elevation of himself back into the realm of the numinous. Through the fits and fights and conflict of his resistance of the rational, he has driven himself so far underground so as to emerge from the other side on an elevated plane. The supreme and inexorable tragedy of this is that he is completely unaware of his transformation.
What one might find particularly interesting about his position, is that he is, in a sense, creating an intellectual reversal, where he has developed the kind of intensely acute perception of his surroundings and the operations of his consciousness. The nature of the reversal, then, is that he has broken the bonds of abstraction that the modern condition is imposing, and has re-established a visceral connection to the world that was more common in pre-civilized societies, or wild animals. In this regard, the underground man has become feral. He has escaped the shackles of domesticity to reclaim his voice of blood, but with his intellect as his guide.
This voice of blood, as Nietzsche described it, is vividly seen in the following section, ‘Apropos of Wet Snow,’ in which he recounts a series of anecdotes about his meager and miserly life. He aims to describe how that meagerness is the source of his consciousness; a consciousness that has been elevated above the average man precisely through he awareness of his mental anguish. He is, admittedly, rather self-aggrandizing. While these anecdotes have moments of interest [such as punching a carriage-driver for no apparent reason], it seems that the most telling piece of evidence of his tumultuous condition can be seen in the figure of Apollon, his servant. “But I will talk about that fellow, about that plague of mine, another time.” Throughout his stories, he frequently refers to his state of destitution [willful, mind you] and yet he insists on maintaining this completely unnecessary social convention, lest he drop to a lower social rank, one less befitting of such an enlightened man. Bordering on a farce, they often stand opposite of one another in prolonged staring matches, each one testing the temerity of the other’s existence, yet neither fully committing to any possible affront of the other.
All at once, a propos of nothing, he would walk softly and smoothly into my room, when I was pacing up and down or reading, stand at the door, one hand behind his back and one foot behind the other, and fix upon me a stare more than severe, utterly contemptuous. If I suddenly asked him what he wanted, he would make me no answer, but continue staring at me persistently for some seconds, then, with a peculiar compression of his lips and a most significant air, deliberately turn round and deliberately go back to his room. Two hours later he would come out again and again present himself before me in the same way. It had happened that in my fury I did not even ask him what he wanted, but simply raised my head sharply and imperiously and began staring back at him. So we stared at one another for two minutes; at last he turned with deliberation and dignity and went back again for two hours.
At least, no affront outside of the norm, as the underground man repeatedly sets about verbally berating Apollon, even considering a slap. The total irrationality of maintaining a servant who has no work to do, yet refusing to set him loose, and then proceeding to become enraged that the servant not directly request his monthly wages when they had been withheld [a mere seven roubles] is so warped and tangled, no other anecdote could approach the complexity of his plight. And then beyond that, he refuses to discuss it:
But at that time I could not get rid of him, it was as though he were chemically combined with my existence. Besides, nothing would have induced him to consent to leave me. I could not live in furnished lodgings: my lodging was my private solitude, my shell, my cave, in which I concealed myself from all mankind, and Apollon seemed to me, for some reason, an integral part of that flat, and for seven years I could not turn him away.
At the crux of the issue, what seems to move this underground man is the refusal of pre-determination. This is the tyranny of logic, is that it leads you down only one path and from there all further actions can be predetermined with some relatively insignificant variation. Imagine walking down a hallway and knowing where all the doors are in that hallway and what is already behind those doors. And this is your life. The tragedy of it is that you would walk down that hall and enter those doors, simply because you had no other choice. The underground man, however, chooses to sit down in that hallway. For a time. Then he’ll run from room to room, flailing his arms and shouting, beating his breast, and then sitting down again.
Ultimately, what good is it to have seen this insight into the mind of the underground man? It seems to produce a number of things. First, and most importantly, in its flailing about has created the space for the possibility of alternative operation in the world. Beyond that, it offers an operation that can be manifested to oppose any other type of control. Granted, it is a purely reactionary operation, the resisting for the sake of resistance. But without that possibility, without that as the base by which other resistance might take place, the potential for the blocking of any resistance what-so-ever becomes all the more possible and therefore all the more threatening. If that type of power system is not confronted every so often, its expansion is almost inevitable, as that is the nature of power, to grope and grasp and hunt for more.
The semi-tragic side of that type of realization is that in order to restrict the power of a fundamental ideology [because that is really what is binding us, the ideology; the actions of people are merely its arms] is that one must also be at war with oneself. What absolves us of that tragedy, however, is that the pain felt from constantly battling oneself, as the underground man claims, is that it creates a substantive consciousness. In the end, one is brought to a question that ultimately may resound throughout all other future actions: is it worth the pain of consciousness to proclaim your existence?
It is not easy, nor is it rational, to petition for a willfully tormented world-view. But, it is also impossible to proffer the advantages that the alternative provides. What we actually call into question is that which Dostoevsky has already asked, and that is which type of torment do you prefer? Would you rather struggle with the prevalence of the multitude of voices within yourself, or would you rather struggle to make sense of an increasingly insoluble condition that demands and requires your participation only in a certain form? What seems to be the outcome of Dostoevsky’s thought is that through either trajectory, we come to a similar conclusion, only if followed through to the fullest. This distinction is one that he makes infrequently, but is of the utmost to his argument. One must derive his sense of the world through a fully-formed and fully enacted engagement with his own mentality, as multiple as they may be. But to pretend, to falsify, that a singular mentality offers the best directive, one is left ignoring the multiplicities and complexities of the modern condition that can never be truly understood unless one approaches the multi-polar nature of consciousness.
But I’m lying, I don’t believe any of what I’ve just written…