Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“I am a sick man …….. I am an angry man.”

Notes from The Underground is the third book in my unannounced and (spur of the moment) Turgenev/ Chernyshevsky/ Dostoyevsky challenge.  After reading Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote in response to it, his then politically persuasive novel, What Is To Be Done? , and in response to Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky wrote his powerful Notes from the Underground.  I assumed that it would be an interesting literary, political and philosophical conversation.

Dostoyevsky begins this book with a monologue from a retired 40-year-old civil servant, living in St. Petersburg.  He is our man from the Underground.  His ramblings appear to be disjointed, sometimes silly and then, disturbingly insightful.  But in this novel, is anything as it really appears?

” ….. doesn’t there, in fact, exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, or — not to violate logic — some best good …. which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared if necessary to go against all the laws, against, that is, reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity — in short against all those fine and advantageous things — only to attain that primary, best good, which is dearer to him than all else? ….. to justify his logic he is prepared to distort the truth intentionally.”

 

The Soul of the Underground (1959)
Jean Dubuffet
source Wikiart

The Underground Man argues that perhaps science is not the highest good. The behaviour of man under the laws of nature and of reason does not confirm them; man has a perplexing innate inclination to destroy his own happiness and well-being.  One may argue that man needs to be brought into order, to conform to demands that will improve his life.   But what if man does not want that, and further, what makes one think that this is even good for man?

“Even if we assume it as a rule of logic, it may not be a law for all mankind at all …… And why are you so firmly and triumphantly certain that only what is normal and positive —- in short, only well-being —- is good?  After all, perhaps prosperity isn’t the only thing that pleases mankind, perhaps he is just as attracted to suffering.  Perhaps suffering is just as good for him as prosperity.”

Using historical examples, the Underground Man strengthens his argument. Man is beyond nature, and beyond reality; he is infinitely more complex than science, and therefore beyond the ability of science to completely understand him.

With his Underground Man, Dostoyevsky is attempting to shatter the philosophy seen in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s, What is To Be Done?, a novel that promoted a type of monistic materialism brought about through a rational egoism: if only one used reason to discern the higher purpose of man, working through enlightened self-interest the perfect society would be created. Chernyshevsky’s dogmatic ideology excluded the possibility of “free will”, labelling it as a mistaken perception of what was simply a causal process. However Dostoyevsky, from his years in a prison camp, had continually witnessed the innate human desire to express individual free will, often to the person’s own detriment, and with his Underground Man, he strove to prove the ridiculousness of Chernyshevsky’s philosophy:

“all the beautiful systems, these theories of explaining his best interests to man ……. are nothing but sophistry.  Isn’t there something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, some best good which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared, if necessary, to go against all the laws — that is against reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity — only to attain that primary, best good, which is dearer to him than all else?”

 

“One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness — that is the one best and greatest good, which is never taken into consideration because it will not fit into any classification, and the commission of which always sends all systems and theories to the devil.  Where did all the sages get the idea that a man’s desires must be normal and virtuous?  Why do they imagine that he must be normal and virtuous?  Why do they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable?  What a man meeds is simply and solely independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”

 

Underground Chud (1928)
Nicolas Roerich
source Wikiart

The second part of the novel, entitled “Falling Sleet”, tells of the experiences of the Undergound Man.  First, he is disrespected by an officer on the street who will not give way to him and the Underground Man plots a revenge of deliberately bumping into him.  The narrative then moves to the Underground Man’s presence at a party for old school mates and his contentious behaviour towards them, as he feels the strength his inadequacies in their presence. Finally, he falls into a type of relationship with a sympathetic prostitute named Liza.  In the Underground Man’s interactions with the outside world, the reader sees a man struggling to use his faculties to assimilate himself into the situations around him, and failing in his attempts. Dostoyevsky created a character who believed in Chernyshevsky’s ideals, but demonstrated through his actions, his inability to live up to them.

And so finishes my “trilogy” of conversation between these three authors.  I have been educated not only historically, but politically and philosophically, and encourage anyone who wants to read any of these books, to read the three in sequence.  With Chernyshevsky and Dostoyevsky particularly, you can sense the antagonism within their writing, yet their passion for their ideologies are very effective and make for enlightening reading.

Trilogy:

 

 

Further Reading:
Dostoyevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet by Joseph Frank

 

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

“Well, Piotr, not insight yet?” was the question asked on May the 20th, 1859, by a gentleman of a little over forty, in a dusty coat and checked trousers, who came out without his hat on to the low steps of the posting station at S—–.”

What sort of relationship do you have with your father?  Is it one of respect, deference, and honour, or do you think his ways too traditional, his thought process too archaic, and to keep a tentative understanding between you, do you have to employ a somewhat forced amiability, while underneath feeling an impatient scorn?

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev examines the ideas of the new and old, progress and stagnation, and generational differences.  Yet while Turgenev portrays these conflicts within families and people, the themes echos the struggles that were occurring in Russia itself, between the common liberals and a nihilism movement that was growing and expanding at an alarming rate. Immediately the reader is tossed into the battle and while you expect to be buffeted to-and-fro between the two forces, one is surprised to find a more gently tossing, a disturbing reminder of how subtly, yet how pervasively this new philosophy could spread into the ideas and actions of the people.

Arkady Nikolaitch returns home from university with his good friend, Bazarov, a self-confessed nihilist, who issues a dripping contempt for most people around him.  Arkady maintains a good relationship with his father Nikolai Petrovitch and his uncle Pavel Petrovitch, yet through Bazarov’s influence he begins to question what he values about their antiquated thought and primitive ways.

With Bazarov’s nihilistic charm and new trendy ideas, his challenging of the status quo makes him a hero of the younger generation, while the older regard him either as dangerous, or rather like an unusual specimen that they can’t quite figure out.  Yet, in spite of renouncing life and its perceived useless order, we find that Bazarov is unable to escape it.  While visiting the house of a widowed woman, Anna Sergyevna Odintsov, he becomes enamoured of her, his emotion overriding his philosophy and eroding some of its immutable strength.

Ivan Turgenev hunting (1879)
Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky
source Wikipedia

Turgenev does a masterful job of having nature interplay with the characters, their ideas and emotional struggles.  For example, Bazarov is blind to the beauty around him  He merely uses nature, as he engages in his hobby of dissecting frogs,  pulling Nature itself apart to examine its inner workings.  He can only appreciate the slaughtered bits, but is unable to interact with the whole, Nature as life and beauty.

I don’t believe that Bazarov’s nihilism was a true nihilism.  He obviously wanted to reject the status quo and, in fact, had a quarrel with it, which is apparent in his simmering anger when he speaks about it.  He doesn’t just want to contradict it, he longs to disparage it.  His philosophy is a quasi-nihilism that supports his self-importance and that he uses more as a crutch. He is passionate about it but appears to use it merely as a play for power.  He has developed a philosophy, which is truly an anti-philosophy that prevents him from interacting with life itself.

While with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky you often feel buffeted by the high emotion or deep philosophy, Turgenev’s approach is more gentle, lulling his ideas into the reader’s head with his pastoral description, and lyric pace.  Yet for being gentle, it is no less powerful.  Turgenev has conducted a true masterpiece!

Translated by Constance Garnett

 

“In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate …”

(Note:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a response to Fathers and Sons with his What is To Be Done? and Dostoyevsky wrote a response to What Is To Be Done?in his Notes From the Underground.  Further explanation of this triple conversation is contained in the reviews below.)



Trilogy:

 

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

“My uncle, man of firm convictions …
By falling gravely ill, he’s won
A due respect for his afflictions —
The only clever thing he’s done.

I was so happy to get the chance to participate in Marian at Tanglewood’s Read-Along for my second read of Eugene Onegin in six months.  My first time I read the translation by Charles Johnston and this time chose to read James A. Falen’s translation.  But more comparisons on the two later.

It was such a joy to read such a lively and often tongue-in-cheek poem, yet Pushkin weaves his jaunty remarks throughout a tale of serious love, serious death and serious coming-of-age, crafting a remarkable masterpiece.

Since I already reviewed Eugene Onegin the first time I read it,  I will simply cover a couple of areas that stood out for me from a second read, that were not initially apparent.

First Edition of the novel
(source Wikipedia)

Comparing the two translations, I must say I enjoyed Falen more than Johnston.  Johnston’s words have a loftier tone and are perhaps more beautiful, but I think Falen captures the spirit of the poem more accurately.  A couple of times, his choice of words appeared awkward, yet he communicated the grave situations in balance with the bouncy, cheekiness of the narrator, with flair and apparent ease.  I would recommend him for a first-time reader.

This second read I noticed numerous instances of juxtaposition ………. Tatyana reading books that lead her to form a romantic infatuation with a man she’s barely spoken to vs. Tatyana reading books that lead her to a more mature and formed view of Onegin’s character; Tatyana’s love of the country and woods vs. her marital residence being in the city; Tatyana’s letter vs. Onegin’s letter; Onegin’s rejection of Tatyana, and then Tatyana’s rejection of Onegin; Onegin’s volatile response to a friend’s challenge that leads to that friend’s death vs. Onegin’s wish to seduce a friend’s wife which could have led to a similar circumstance.  It really became apparent to me this time that Onegin hadn’t learned anything.  It was clear to Tatyana, too.  She asks him pointedly, why he is suddenly pursuing her, and her harsh words demonstrate her mistrust of his motives:

” Why mark me out for your attention?
Is it perhaps my new ascension
To circles that you find more swank;
Or that I now have wealth and rank;
Or that my husband, maimed in battle,
Is held in high esteem at Court?
Or would my fall perhaps be sport,
A cause for all the monde to tattle —
Which might in turn bring you some claim
To social scandal’s kind of fame?”

Until he saw Tatyana the second time, he was the same foppish young man, sinking in ennui.  She revived him briefly, yet even in the ardent fog of love, his actions are not the actions of a man who has gone through a self-examination from the tragedy that had come from his initial conduct (the duel).  If he had managed to convince Tatyana to begin a relationship with him, it would have ended in another duel and another possible death of a friend.  I think Tatyana was wise enough to ascertain the baseness of his behaviour and foresaw the consequences.  She loved him as a man, yet rejected his ignoble character.

Statue of Alexander Pushkin
photo courtesy of Cliff (Flickr)
Creative Commons License

This quote by Onegin sums up his character throughout the poem:

“Yet I in futile dullness squander
These days allotted me by fate …..”

There is a pathos in his words and actions with which the reader can sympathize, hoping for a reversal in his chosen path, but at the end he is still walking the road of self-gratification and boredom, and we can only watch him disappear into the thickening mist …..

Russian Literature Challenge 2014

O at Behold the Stars came up with the wonderful idea of a Russian Literature challenge for 2014!

Everyone is probably wondering why on earth would I join another challenge?  I was wondering the same thing, but his one is too good to pass up.  I have been making my way through the Russian literary greats but much too slowly, and this challenge will help me focus and give me connection with friends who are doing the same thing as I.  What better reason to join?

The requirements are as follows:

Because this is a classics blog, I would limit it to classic literature. It can be a novel by a Russian author or a novel set in Russia, and how you choose to define “classic” is up to you. And, of course, you can use books from any other challenge you’ve set yourself. Finally, you can list list your books before you start, or, like me, you can just explore and read whatever comes your way.

There are four levels:

  • Level one: 1 – 3 books
  • Level two: 4 – 6 books
  • Level three: 7 – 12 books
  • Level four: 12 + books
If there’s enough interest, I’ll put a post up each quarter for people to link any posts may have written.
So, if you want to join in, write a post on your own blog writing your intentions, then leave me a comment so I know to read it.

I am going to go completely against my nature and be conservative, aiming for Level One.

1.  Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin

2.  The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

3.  Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

4.  War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

5.  Fathers and Sons – Ivan Turgenev

The Eugene Onegin Read-Along will soon give me my first Russian book for the year.

Best of luck with the challenge, everyone!  And thanks to O for creating it!

Eugene Onegin Read-Along

Marian at Tanglewood is having a Eugene Onegin Read-Along for 5 weeks beginning January 7, 2014.  Pushkin was seen as setting the foundation for Russian literature so if you are looking for an introduction, this work is a wonderful place to start.

Here is the schedule:

Ch. 1 & 2 – January 7 to 16
Ch. 3 & 4 – January 16 to 25
Ch. 5 & 6 – January 25 – February 3
Ch. 7 & 8 – February 3 to 12

She has decided to allow 1 1/2 weeks per every two chapters, which seems like a decent balance between going at a regular clip and dragging on too long.

Please see the Tanglewood blog for further instructions and also a lovely calendar for a visual schedule of the read.

Since I just finished reading Eugene Onegin, I am very excited to be participating in the discussion of Pushkin’s “untranslatable” poem.  Thanks for organizing the read, Marian!

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

“My uncle – high ideals inspire him;
but when past joking he fell sick,,
he really forced one to admire him –
and never played a shrewder trick.”

Eugene Onegin is a fun-loving, rakish young man who lives carelessly among fashionable society and cares nothing for any of the responsibilities of life.  Yet soon his wild living becomes stale and, desperately bored, he moves to an estate in the country inherited from his uncle, to recapture the zest in life.  Onegin’s lack of growth and a stable character causes him to return to his constant feelings of ennui and he passes his days in careless endeavours.  Enter, Tatyana, a sheltered girl who falls passionately in love with Onegin.  Finally, amid her torments of love, she composes a letter to Onegin, confessing her devotion.  Giving her a surprisingly gentlemanly refusal, he then, on a whim, proceeds to seduce his friend, Vladimir Lensky’s, future wife, Olga, who is the sister of Tatyana.  Lensky, in a fit of poetic rage, challenges Onegin to a duel, where Lensky is shot through the heart.  A number of years later, Onegin spies a married Tatyana at a party and is immediately drawn to her.  He pursues her to the point of exhaustion and finally writes her a letter acknowledging his love and eternal devotion.  Tatyana, in spite of still harbouring tender feelings for Onegin, spurns him from the outset, and eventually declares that she would never be unfaithful to her husband.  Because Onegin has never made any effort to develop into anything other than an empty man, he is left with a bleak future ahead of him.

I’ve hear it mentioned that Tatyana is the true hero of this novel, and her strength and effect is certainly evident.  While she shows a naivety and a juvenile infatuation with Eugene when she first meets him, years later when they meet again, she exhibits the poise and maturity of a sophisticated and experienced young woman.  In the magnificent finale, she admits her love for him but says, “… but I’ve become another’s wife — and I’ll be true to him for life.”   Onegin has spent his whole life blowing around like a leaf in the wind, consumed by ennui, driven by precipitate decisions and self-absorption, while Tatyana grows and blossoms into a strong woman with firm convictions.  She became a truly admirable character.

One wonders at the commonalities between this work and Pushkin’s life story.  Pushkin, himself, was no stranger to duelling.  He was involved in many contests before being killed in a duel while defending his wife’s honour, echoing his poet Lensky’s fate in an ironic prophesy. And, of course, there was the question of Pushkin’s wife being unfaithful, as Olga was untrue to Lensky, which one can also contrast with Tatyana remaining true to her vows of marriage at the end of the tale.

In one way, the poem is an eerie premonition of future events, while on the surface it takes many forms; playful, romantic, humorous, mocking, tragic.  It’s a tribute to Pushkin’s genius that he was able to artfully blend a myriad of themes and emotions into a introspective classic that examines the human condition and began a Russian literary tradition.

(translated by Sir Charles Johnston)