Relationship between the Underground man and the theories of socialist Utopianism: “Notes from Underground” is not just a parody of the socialist Utopianism but is a defense of the freewill as sacrosanct entity.
In 1863, Chernyshevsky declared in his novel “What is to be Done?”, that the pursuit of enlightened self-interest leads to his attainment of perfect virtue. It was not just a statement of intent, nor was it a postulate to signify the coming of the totalitarian socio-political system. It was an attack on the individualism of the Russian. Before anybody else could grasp the significance of the proclamation, Dostoyevsky responded to such theories in his “notes from Underground” that all these beautiful theories try to catalog freewill and individualism as commodities and that is the essential flaw of any utopia-aiming socio-economic or socio-political systems and beliefs. “Notes from Underground” is not just a parody of the socialist Utopianism but is a defense of the freewill as sacrosanct entity.
Chernyshevsky wrote as is quoted in the introduction to “Notes from Underground”
“A man does evil only because he does not know his real interests, and if he is enlightened and his eyes are opened to his own best…interests, man will cease to do evil, and at once become virtuous and noble, because when he… understands what will really benefit him he will see his own best interests in virtue… it is well known that no man can knowingly act against his best interests”(10).
This is precisely the point Dostoyevsky proves to disprove through his work “Notes from Underground”. To understand the angst of the unnamed narrator, it is important to understand the Russian society of the later part of the nineteenth century. Russia was always influenced by the western thought and the refinement of a person was measured by his ability to understand and adhere to such thoughts. But this process negated the opportunity for Russians to explore and embrace their own unique culture. The refinement provided by the study of the philosophical systems of Germany, the literature of France with a sufficient back ground in the Latin and Greek classics only helped educated Russians be more and more estranged from the Russian culture which had a large emphasis on family, religion and soil. The perceived instability or the inefficiency of the existing political structure of the Tsars (with nepotism and corruption characteristic of that particular system) was a fertile breeding ground for disillusionment. However, the systems that were propagated from the comforts of the German or the British academic circles was being imported to Russia that a collective consciousness was a true and strong force and it was required to find its manifestation in political arena. The enlightened (read well read in the western thought processes) Russian were the flag bearers for such a change. The paradox was that any Russian who had the individuality to study and choose the philosophies of the west, then had to subjugate that individuality to the belief that conformism was an accepted end result of such individual quest.
Marx and Engels from their relative comfort of the academia were proclaiming that man did what was best for him. This theory put enormous belief in the faith that man was a universalizable commodity and what was true to one will necessarily be true to all or many. Even the theories of Immanuel Kant where free will was an instrument of a universal moral code found favor with the societies all over the world. What all these theories failed to recognize and acknowledge was that the individual aspirations and likes and dislikes were a force to reckon with even when dealt n large masses.
In the Notes form the Underground, Dostoyevsky effectively brings out this paradigm. The unnamed narrator is well read and has a grasp over several socio-political philosophical theories. But his inherent affinity to inertia and his inability to take decisions (which are undeniably, individual traits) only make him increasingly unsocial. Intellectual activity was found to be pressing upon people to move in a certain direction – the direction of the promised land, the Utopia – the land where every person acted out of his own free will in conformity to a moral code that helped in making the society a better place. But the better place never asked its components of their opinion. It just was. This intellectual activity that denied a person the individualist eccentricities was something that got on the nerves of the narrator. He was strict adherent to the thoughts he had come to learn but it never helped erase his individual traits of timid ness. The learning of totalitarian theories filled with compassion for fellow man never helped a man become better in interacting with them. This intellectual activity is what he resents and he speaks about it without giving adequate explanation. It almost seems that offering an explanation for his feelings itself is an affront to his individuality.
“But all the same I’m firmly convinced that not only a great deal, but every kind, of intellectual activity is a disease. I hold to that. Let us leave it for the moment”(18)
The main grouse of the narrator is that theories seeking the establishment of Utopia neglect the deep desire of a person to exert his own free will, even if it is harmful for him. The narrator exclaims
“Ha, ha, ha! After that, you’ll be looking for pleasure even in toothache!’ you will exclaim, laughing.
“Why not? There is pleasure even in toothache,” I shall reply.”(24)
It is not necessary that man always loves the choices he has to make for the good that is established by an order other than himself. Like a child wantonly going against the strictures of his elders, it is possible that he act in spite. It is also possible that acting in his own best interest that are derived from logic and reasoning are not close to his heart. Even if the establishment of Utopia demands such conformity, it runs against the freedom, a man craves to exercise in his life’s affairs.
“As a matter of fact, though, if the formula for all our desires and whims is someday discovered – I mean what they depend on, what laws they result from, how they are disseminated, what sort of good they aspire to in a particular instance, and so on – a real mathematical formula, that is, then it is possible that man will at once cease to want anything, indeed I suppose it is possible that he will cease to exist. Well, what’s the point of wishing by numbers?”(34)
As William Irwin points out in his “The Matrix and Philosophy”, “Notes from Underground” actually is a diatribe against the shortcomings of the enlightenment projects that were gaining currency not allowing the dissenting voices to be heard.
“ …the underground man offers more than a dark negation of Enlightenment social science. He points out the contradictions inherent in the Enlightenment project. The chief contradiction, the one that preoccupies the underground man and is the source of his unrelenting and paralyzing dialectic, concerns freedom. Enlightenment theorists promise liberation from various types of external authority: familial, religious, and political. But an unintended consequence of the implementation of Enlightenment theories is the elimination of freedom.”(157)
However, there are opinions held by other critics that Dostoyevsky might not be entirely against the Kantian theories of the pursuit or admiration of the beauty and the sublime. Goldfarb defends that the satire of Underground man is not directed against the Kantian principles but the twisting of the same to claim support for totalitarian and utopian social thought processes.
“The object of satire here is hardly Kant’s theory, but the imperiousness of certain critics and their insipid appropriation of German Romantic aesthetics as a marker of unrelated social status. Notice that the expression “beautiful and sublime” in these satiric references appears always as hendiadys, “i prekrasnoe i vysokoe” where the items do not describe an opposition of quality and quantity, but a single sublimely beautiful thing. It seems as if, for the moment, the narrator does not even understand that there is a difference.
The narrator must be “lying,” adopting a pose here, however, because his strongest argument is saved for the very Kantian notion of a “pleasure of despair”, or a masochistic, sublime pleasure in pain. For Kant, “
In fact he summarizes succinctly the aim of the underground man’s spite when he concludes
“The Underground man’s ironic “individualism” is not about satisfying his own needs, but fulfilling the maxim of individuality for its own sake, even when his own material needs are contradicted. It is individualism without egoism.”
Such well-intentioned defences not withstanding “Notes from Underground id a clear derision of any attempts to usher in Utopia based on totalitarian philosophies which tend to universalize human traits and leave no space for the existence of the individual. No more adventures . As Hoyles puts it
“The Dostoveskian anti-utopia has two starting points. There was the compulsory communism of prison following his arrest as a member of a conspiratorial group attached to the Fourierist Petrashevsky Circle(1849)…His anti-utopian reactions… are recorded in Winter notes on Summer Impressions….: Is this, indeed, the final ideal- you think, is the end here?’Certainly not. An ‘unremitting spiritual resistance and negation’ must be forged against the temptations to worship this ‘Biblical picture’ of a false god.”(87-88)
Fuelled by self experience or a legitimate fear of the loss of individual voice in the prevalent atmosphere of the time, Dostoyevsky modeled the notes of the underground man to signify the millions of small upheavals that were bound to begin in the hearts and the minds of the thinking public – whom the theories dreaming of Utopia classified as items to be segregated or united under one pretext or another.
Notes from underground cannot, therefore, strictly be classified as a parody of the utopia seeking works like “What is to be Done?” primarily because it does not justify its intellectual basis by negation of a concept alone. Notes is a manifestation of the multiple challenges faced by the individual in trying to find that he has been decoded to adhere to a behavior system which is completely external. Besides, it is also a commentary on the Russian society which was adopting western philosophical traits with unforeseen gusto that it was in the danger of losing its unique national and cultural character. In the myriad interactions of the Underground man’s insecurities, and his inertia, the reference is made to the lack of individualistic fervor in te average Russian to take offence to the various “-isms” being thrust upon him without taking cognizance of his priorities or needs. It is a clarion call to all discerning people to be aware of the arrival of the totalitarianism that aims to usurp the mantle of the individual choice by presenting the needs and actions of man in the light of moralistic theories that are never open ended. If predetermined moral choices are all man has in a utopia-seeking totalitarian set-up “Underground man” beseeches the average Russian(and by extension to everybody around the world) to reject such a system.
Paralysis of the thought process under the weight of knowing that his choices are predetermined and his own free will is a nuisance is a vivid picture painted in the “Notes from Underground” and the overwhelming helplessness is not a parody aimed at the utopianism but a separate call for action against subjugation to totalitarian philosophies.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. and Jessie Coulson. Notes from Underground: The Double. London: Penguin Classics, 1972
Chernyshevsky, Nikolay Gavrilovich and Michael R. Katz. What is to be done?. New York: Cornell University Press, 1989
Irwin, William. The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2005
Hoyles. John. The literary underground: writers and the totalitarian experience, 1900-1950. Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991
Goldfarb. David.A. Kant’s Aesthetics in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. 9 February 1996. Mid-Atlantic Slavic Conference, Columbia University, 18 March 1995. 27April 2009. http://www.echonyc.com/~goldfarb/u-ground.htm