Notes from Underground
Loops of Consciousness
"The atmosphere of Dostoevsky's Notes is not one of soft voices and dim lights: the voice could not be shriller, the light not more glaring. No prize, however great, can justify an ounce of self-deception or a small departure from the ugly facts. And yet this is not literary naturalism with its infatuation with material circumstances: it is man's inner life, his moods, anxieties, and his decisions..." So says Walter Kaufmann in his introduction to Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Notes from Underground is one of the great works of 'interior literature', of thought over action, of neurosis over event. It is a tradition we find continued in the work of Robert Walser, Kafka and Peter Handke - a sense that the outside world cannot quite compete with internal necessity. As the narrator says "after all, the direct, immediate, legitimate fruit of heightened consciousness is inertia, that is, the deliberate refusal to do anything. I have mentioned this before. I repeat, and repeat emphatically: all spontaneous people, men of action, are active because they are stupid and limited."
No such problem afflicts the man of non-action, who gets caught in infinite internal loops of consciousness, where the 'real world' recedes and subjectivity and projection take over. A couple of good examples can be found in the similarity between a passage from Notesand a short story by Kafka. In Notes from Underground the narrator suffers humiliation from another character that, with the narrator unknowingly blocking the way, "took me by the shoulders and silently - with no warning or explanation - moved me from the place where I stood to another; then he walked past as if he hadn't even seen me." Later when seeing his adversary walking along the street, the narrator gives him his comeuppance. "Suddenly, three paces away from my adversary, I unexpectedly made up my mind, scowled fiercely and...our shoulders came squarely into collision! I did not yield an inch, but walked past on an exactly equal footing! He did not even glance round, and pretended he had not noticed, but he was only pretending. I am certain of that." Though clearly, the narrative voice is very different, it shares an interior similarity with Kafka's story A Little Woman. Though there is basically no connection between the titular woman and the narrator, this doesn't stop him from believing his presence in her life is abominable to her. "I have often wondered why I am such an offence to her; it may be that everything about me outrages her sense of beauty, her feeling for justice, her habits, her traditions, her hopes...All she has to do is to regard me as an utter stranger, which I am, and which I do not object to being, indeed I should welcome it, she only needs to forget my existence, which I have never thrust upon her attention..."
In each instance the interior imposes itself upon the exterior: the thought is much stronger than the action, and a definition of interior literature is well offered by Garbriel Josopovici in On Trust when he talks of Kaka and says, "Kafka seems always to have been in the grip or this sense of being excluded from what comes naturally to others." Our hero in Notes from Underground trusts nothing that would come naturally, as if unhappiness and illogic are the basis of his personality. "Suffering - after all, that is the sole cause of consciousness. Although I declared to begin with that in my opinion consciousness is man's supreme misfortune, I know that man loves it and would not change it for any gratification. Consciousness is infinitely greater than two and two make four." Now why might this be, and why would we still claim our narrator as a figure worthy of empathy despite his self-absorption, cowardice, spite and despair? Kierkegaard can help us here, and specifically an entry in his Papers and Journals where he talks like Dostoevsky of suffering. "Suffering is the qualitative expression of heterogeneity with this world. In this heterogeneity (suffering is the expression) rests the relationship to the eternal, eternity's consciousness. Where there is no suffering there is no eternity's consciousness either..."
It is to the subject of "eternity's consciousness" that Dostoevsky - born in Moscow in 1821, dead sixty years later in St Petersburg - attends, and chooses nevertheless the opposite of a saint to do so. If in his great book The Idiot Prince Myshkin is the holy fool who takes the weight of suffering upon his shoulders, the narrator here is a figure of resentful despair, but no less a representative of eternity's consciousness for that. Myshkin's heterogeneity leads to the inexplicably generous; our narrator's to absurd selfishness. But these are two sides of the same coin: the self in relation to the world. Both men cannot abide the sort of pragmatic considerations of the herd, the sort of crowd Kierkegaard consistently criticises when saying for example, "spiritual superiority sees only individuals. Alas! We humans in general are sensate, and therefore no sooner is there a gathering than the impression changes, we see an abstraction, the mass - and we become different." (Papers and Journals: A Selection) The narrator might not have the spiritual superiority Myshkin possesses, but at the basic level of foregrounding the individual over the crowd, he is a man of importance, no matter his often apparently malicious behaviour. Actually we find his behaviour isn't so terrible, after all. It may constantly want to be and threatens to be terrible, but it often stems from a place of weakened selfhood, heterogeneous feeling, that leads to weak actions.
A good example is in relation to his servant: "my flat was my private possession, my shell, my sheath, in which I hid from all mankind, and Apollon, God knows why, seemed to belong to that flat, and for the whole seven years I found it impossible to turn him out." He talks of withholding the servants' wages for two weeks after a misdemeanour, but cannot do so. Though the servant never once requests his money, the narrator can't hold out because of his internal projection of the servant's external gestures. We are back again to the soldier earlier in the book, and of course Kafka and the young woman. At one moment the narrator says to the servant, "I'll tell you what you came for: you can see I'm not giving you your money, and you're too stiff-necked to submit and ask for it, and that's why you come in here with your stupid stares, to punish me, and you haven't the least idea, torturer...". This is projective reasoning, an unavoidable need to assume what is going on in somebody else's head, without remotely knowing what that actually happens to be.
What we have here is a paradox: the interior character that nevertheless empathises more with his fellow man than the exterior figure. Yet it needn't be so troublesome to understand if we assume consideration for others is based not especially on a set of accepted and shared values, essentially exterior values of the sort offered by Kant in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. Here he insists that our moral behaviour should be disinterested: "All imperatives are expressed by the word ought [or shall], and thereby indicate the relation of an objective law of reason to a will which from its subjective constitution is not necessarily determined by it (an obligation)...[based] on principles which are valid for every human being as such." However, interior literature isn't interested in the universalising principle, and instead seeks out a personal one, however perverse, self-destructive and impractical. It is nevertheless an active choice over a passive, objectively achieved imperative. Now the exterior figure in literature knows by what values one ought to live, and this is basically the role of a hero, but Dostoevsky is interested in the antihero who isn't at the same time a villain. The villain is someone who functions antithetically to the hero and reverses the Kantian imperative, by showing no interest in making his action universally applicable. Villainy rests on the villain's lack of interest in values; he is only interested in his own gain. Sikes in Oliver Twist, Iago in Othello and Claudius in Hamlet are all villains; they are what we might call heteronomous humans in a manner very different from Kierkegaard's heterogeneous self.
"The completely heteronomous human [Kant's term], whose every action, absolutely without autonomy, is motivated from the outside", says Stanley Cavell in Cities of Words, "is not so much immoral - putting his satisfactions before the rights of others, failing to meet certain specific obligations - as unfit for the moral life altogether." Villains are often heteronomous humans in that they are unfit for moral life; yet this is not at all true of the anti-hero: who seeks an individualised ethos by which one can live. They are moral creatures, but need to find the ethos within themselves in relation to the world in which they exist, and cannot assume objective values. There are numerous comments throughout Notes from Underground pointing up the narrator's attempt at a personal value system, for making his individuality count. "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? Two and two will make four without any will of mine! Is that what one's own will means?" In another passage, he says "But good God! What have the laws of nature and arithmetic to do with me, when for some reason I don't like those laws or twice two?"
These laws are all fine and well for the world of fact; but for the world of the human? Dostoevsky, again and again, makes the narrator human - human in the sense of moods, temperaments, attitudes, wilfulness and weaknesses. Our narrator is a physical creature, trying to build a system of values out of this physiological acceptance. When the narrator talks of "going on about people with strong nerves", he adds, that they "will on some occasions, as I have already said, calm down at once when they are faced with an impossibility. Impossibility is a stone wall." However, the narrator will constantly confront the wall, rather as Kierkegaard insists one must, taking into account comments made on the Danish philosopher by Frederick R. Karl and Leo Hamalian in their introduction to The Existential Imagination. "If the individual accepts Kierkegaard's challenge and seeks his religious centre within himself, then he begins his fierce encounter with nothingness. Man here floats in a foreign world in which human existence is feeble, contradictory and contingent upon an infinity of other sources."
In Dostoevsky's work, and in this instance Notes from Underground, this is especially pronounced because the characters' physiology keeps making any sure judgements are impossible. "I turned away, sickened. I was no longer coldly reasonable. I was beginning to feel what I said, and growing heated over it." "My head was full of fumes." "A resentful feeling arose in my mind and swept through my body with something like the unpleasant sensation of going into a damp and musty cellar." Here is a man whose life has been "barbarously solitary", but who probably couldn't wish it any other way. "Although I have said that I am green with envy of the normal man, I wouldn't like to be him in the circumstances in which I see him (even though I shall not cease to envy him, all the same)."
Yet better to be making these unsure judgements than assuming either no judgement at all, or expect judgements to be passed by some general notion of moral values and perceptual assumptions. Though the narrator often comes across not only as barbarously solitary but slightly barbarous, we should not assume this makes him in any way resemble the heteronomous human Cavell so describes. He isn't at all unfit for the moral life; more that the moral life cannot be contained by presumed morality. If the narrator is finally heterogenous rather than heteronomous it lies in his attempt at being human rather than moral, trying to find an ethos in his behaviour no matter how hideous it sometimes appears to be.
One notices this in his relationship with the young woman with whom he has a brief affair. "I was ashamed to look at her, a different feeling was kindled in my heart and flared up all at once...a feeling of mastery and ownership. My eyes glittered with passion and I squeezed her hand hard. How I hated her and how strongly I was attracted to her at that moment! One feeling reinforced the other." The narrator isn't a man without feeling, but one who cannot avoid ambivalent ones. Shortly afterwards he says "she was sitting on the floor, leaning her head against the bed and probably crying. But she was not going and that was what annoyed me. I had insulted her finally...there is no point in telling that story." He goes on to say perhaps "it was incredible not to fall in love with her, or at least not to value her love. But why is it incredible? To begin with, I could no longer fall in love, because, I repeat, with me to love meant to tyrannize and hold the upper hand morally." A heteronomous human would have no problem with this power, taking advantage of it to get women into bed and care little for what they feel. But though the narrator hurts the girl's feelings, this doesn't mean he is indifferent to them. When she leaves he tries calling after her as she goes down the stairs. The narrator says he "flung on my clothes in frantic haste and was rushing headlong after her."
Yet the ambivalence is still there. He wants to beg her forgiveness, "that was what I wanted; my heart was torn, and never, never can I remember that moment with indifference. But - to what end?" The heteronomous figure would know to what end: he would know that he would want his physiological pleasures satisfied and promptly ask the partner to leave. There would be no need for guilt; as Cavell says, such a person wouldn't be fit for the moral life that would include guilt. The heterogeneous figure, however, will possess in the situation both his own feelings and those of the other; the person he is who is frustrated, and the person she is as she feels desperation. Partly what makes Dostoevsky the great writer so many proclaim him to be, is the capacity not only to get into a character's mind, in traditional fiction writing parlance, but to show how other characters get into their minds also. This is central to the interior fiction we have talked about: whether it is the narrator here thinking of what the man who insulted him is thinking, or the figure in the Kafka story fretting over the many ways he believes a woman dislikes him: an apparent egocentricity contained by an unavoidable fellow-feeling.
"The greatest of novelists", Virginia Woolf, says of Dostoevsky, in an essay collection, Books and Portraits, as she recognized the importance in passing of a writer who would help create the sort of interior fiction she would herself practise, with its combination of egotism and compassion, evident in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Somerset Maugham, meanwhile, talks in Ten Novels and Their Authors of an exchange between Turgenev and Dostoevsky. "'Mr Turgenev, I must tell you,' said Dostoevsky, 'I must tell you I despise myself profoundly.' He waited for Turgenev to speak. The silence continued. Then Dostoevsky, losing his temper, cried: 'But I despise you still more. That was all I had to say to you.'" What was Dostoyevsky looking for in reply? Perhaps he hoped for nothing less than an acknowledgement of Turgenev's self-hatred also. Maugham notes that Dostoevsky used the episode twice in his own work: once in Crime and Punishment and also in The Possessed. It is the acknowledgement of man's weakness looking to have it universally acknowledged in another's acceptance of weakness also. Turgenev was clearly not such a man, and perhaps why Woolf notes that though everybody acknowledged Turgenev would write exquisitely, while Dostoevsky was often sloppy, he was "the least great of the Russian trinity." There are of course many other great nineteenth century novelists (Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy, Hardy) but Dostoevsky was surely the greatest 20th century novelist of the 19th - the writer who anticipated so much of importance in the following one. As Kafka offered in his Diaries. "Special methods of thinking. Permeated with emotion. Everything feels itself to be a thought, even the vaguest of feelings (Dostoevsky)."
© Tony McKibbin