Friday, August 10, 2012

Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"I am a sick man...I am a wicked man," begins the anonymous narrator of Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground," in words that sound just as current and common in the 21st century as they must have read on the page in the 19th. It is a voice we hear every day and with increasing regularity, as we become animals both more and less social, more and less giving, more and less self-destructive. Even in the smirking author's voice behind that of the Underground Man is a reminder that human consciousness curdles without attention, and without love.

You could argue that the book and its themes are hardly needed anymore. Over the past month, American society, at least, has gotten a refresher course in just what sick, wicked men are capable of. On July 20, a would-be comic book villain interrupted a midnight screening of a movie by killing 12 people and wounding 58. His act overshadowed a similar one a few days before, when an angry unemployed man shot 17 people in an Alabama bar after other acts of violence, none of them, thankfully, fatal. Within the past week, an apparent racist killed six and wounded two others at a Sikh Temple before turning his gun on himself. And not long after, the author of a Jan. 8, 2011 attack at a political rally pleaded guilty to killing six and wounding 13 others, among them, a sitting U.S. Congresswoman.

In each of these cases, what we have are varying forms of mental illness, diagnosed and undiagnosed, suddenly disclosed behind the trigger of a firearm. Some of the perpetrators seem to us insane, some disaffected, and some simply angry and armed at the worst time. In each case, as in all the cases where some seemingly crazed loner uses a gun to announce his almighty existence to the world, media outlets set up vigil at the scene of the crime and begin to look in vain for the causes of such acts. The inevitable stories follow - the seeking-out of the gunman's neighbors, with either memories of antisocial behavior or the mystified "he seemed so quiet, so harmless." There are the psychologists who try to put the private traumas we all struggle with in society in context. Then the victim's families are interrogated for their observations on the senselessness of it all, in the vain hope of finding "closure." This is the media's hunt, not the victims', because closure will allow the interviewer to move on. If these horrors teach us anything, it is that there will be no moving on for some.

And yet, the world does move on. It is the maddening nature of existence that nothing - nothing at all - brings existence to a halt. The world goes madly on. Yet we all secretly covet that moment when we can, as Eliot observed, dare to disturb the universe. The narrator of "Notes" is just such a being. Richard Pevear reminds us that Dostoyevsky's Underground Man relates to us "the instability, the perpetual 'dialectic' of isolated consciousness." What we have are the writings of a man whose brain will not relax, who desperately wants an acknowledgment from someone of his importance. From the first sentence, we are aware that he is very aware of his sickness, yet he still feels he has much to offer, if everyone would merely give him his moment. And as he himself observes, he not only takes pride in his sickness, but swaggers in it.

"And now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something."

Here is a man stewing in his consciousness, as the first section, "Underground," makes plain. The Underground Man surveys history and finds himself akin to its movers and shakers, yet can't quite understand why he has been robbed of his place among them. He detects the outlines of a conspiracy, and finds it extends from his front door to the very zenith of civilization. Not that there are any secret meetings on his behalf, but it is an unstated and unshakeable pact to deny him his importance. He perceives an ungrateful world that will not acknowledge what he has to offer, but yet he continues to address his comments to a group of "gentlemen" he presumes are reading what he has to say. We can assume that our hero feels, even in his solitude, that he is playing to a crowd.

There are two ideas that we can impose on the text from the comfort of more than a century's remove. The first is that the Underground Man's feelings are not at all unique. We all feel, at one time or another, the feeling of disappointment that life has not, as yet, fully grasped all we can give to it. It goes hand in hand with a similar feeling that the world is "on to us" and will no doubt in the next second figure out just how naked we are in our armor against it. But the other idea we can see now is that even in our solitude, we tend to believe what we are doing matters, or should matter, to a group of eyes far away from our own. Anyone who has read, say, the Unabomber's Manifesto or the ravings of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, hears the same sad and sinister music of someone resolved to not remain forever anonymous.

It is in the second section, "Apropos of the Wet Snow," that our Underground Man interacts with the world. At least, he does in his own way, resolving to bump into his enemies in the park and force them to acknowledge him. His stewing ravings, which are exceptionally literary, reveal themselves as dead when uncorked among living, breathing people. His actions are freighted with cosmic significance to himself, but his fear restricts him from carrying out his plans. He turns "coward before reality," he tells himself. He is a martyr for an embattled cause - himself.

It is only when he finds Liza, the prostitute, that we see him reveal the tenderness that is still within him. Dostoevsky picks a female foil for him, sure to excite and yet bewitching because of her distinct "otherness." We have the faint sniff in the air of perhaps a happy ending for the embattled narrator, finding love in the presence of another who simply wants to be acknowledged. But even this comes to nothing. When Liza tries to reach out to him, he lashes out that society will not allow him to be good. She flees from him, and the Underground Man leaves us as he came to us, alone. "Which is better?" he asks. "Cheap happiness or lofty suffering?" He will take suffering, and one presumes he does not mean ultimately to suffer alone.

As I said, the voice is familiar. One sees it in the anonymous postings that follow news articles and opinion pieces on every website, where a person stripped of identity is suddenly capable of the most vile, poisonous words, left in answer to no one and everyone. The identity of the Underground Man can be both the voice of the teenagers who pick one of their number and begin assaulting him socially until he crumbles, or the one who crumbles under the weight of their taunts. It is the voice of the letter to the editor that inevitably digresses from the issue of the day to the obscure slights of a lifetime, seemingly for reasons known only to the author. It is the voice of the amateur blog, where the writer leaves an observation that perhaps no one else may read, but is desperately important to the one writing.

Dostoevsky created his character as a reaction to certain strains in Russian philosophy. He recognized them as perhaps the seed of something destructive, though it would be perhaps too much to say that he perceived the coming Bolshevik tyranny and all its subsequent horrors. But instead of writing a philosophical response, he created a character who has educated himself and will not learn. Instead of finding the connection between himself and the rest of guilty humanity, he exalts himself in a kingdom of his own creation. Such is the nature of sin that we are always merciless on ourselves but even more on others, grasping God's infinite mercy to our own bosoms and hoping for His terrible justice to be visited upon everyone else.

The Underground Man is a man without gifts who intends, at some point, to teach someone else what he believes society has taught him. If he has felt a keen anguish, then others must as well.  His tragedy is that he is all too aware, of everything. If he speaks for our time, as Dostoevsky felt he spoke for his own, then we find in our fractured social networks, where even children can create true and false personas for themselves, the verdict that we are most dangerous when we are left alone to exult in our wickedness. But the personal audience we create for ourselves never is, and will never be, enough to satisfy.

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