Thoughts this morn about Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. I’ve been enjoying the taste, feel and smell of this 1972 paperback for the past few weeks. I think I acquired it while visiting London in 1995. Obviously it’s not dealing with age and dryness but neither am I. Funny thing is, I’ve already gone through three or four rubber-bands to keep it together. Looks like I won’t be reading The Double anytime soon. Oh well.
To begin, here’s the intro from the author where he, for whatever (literary) reason, feels the need to qualify his work.
“The author of these Notes, and the Notes themselves, are both, of course, imaginary. All the same, if we take into consideration the conditions that have shaped our society, people like the writer not only may, but must, exist in that society. I have tried to present to the public in a more striking from than is usual a character belonging to the very recent past, a representative figure from a generation still surviving. In the chapter entitled ‘The Underground’ this personage introduces himself and his outlook on life, and tries, as it were, to elucidate the causes that brought about, inevitably brought about, his appearance in our midst. In the second section we follow this personage’s memoirs of some of the happenings in his life.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky
What’s the saying about Russian novels? If you’re happy–don’t read one. As far as this worst-reader goes, since happiness is over-rated, you’d think the likes of Dostoyevsky would be for me. But the truth is, after reading The Idiot so many years ago, I’ve spent more time staring at my old copy of The Brothers Karamazov than reading it. (Ok. I’ve read parts of it and plan on reading it whole. Someday. Maybe.) Like most of Dostoyevsky’s work, the biggest hurdle is not his subject matter or its depth but instead the winded, drivelling, unending sentences, not excluding multiple page single paragraphs. I mean, come on, you gotta be smart to read this guy–or?
When I can get through the sentences, two things happen (in my worst-mind) while doing so. First. If aliens ever come down to visit and they want to know what it is to be human, they should read Dostoyevsky (or Gogol). Second. After Dostoyevsky, and living in #eurowasteland for so long, I’ve concluded that no one knows The European better than the big D. Yeah, baby. That’s right. The only way to understand The European is to read depressing Russian novels of yesteryore. And what is The European, you ask. How ’bout this. Bureaucracy. Greed. War. Clans. Fascism. Authoritarianism. Genocide. Etc., etc. All the industry, farmers, cheese, booze, classical music, cars, art and architecture, theatre, etc., etc., pale in comparison to the death, destruction and human waste The European has given humanity. Seriously. All of the world’s problems stem out of the inhumane death and greed culture that is The European. And before you attack me regarding America–heed this. America is not just bluejeans and Hollywood, war and money, different kinds of cheese, art and fascism, and let’s not forget, the new world and the land of the free (to be stupid). That’s just a front, a story, a narrative. America is The European thru and thru. In fact, it is The European version 2.0. Did I mention how we all need to be so thankful to The European for imperialism?
It was/is The European mindset that slaughtered the Indians of North America. It was that mindset that fought the silly clan war known as the American Civil War, igniting it all because The European needed slaves to build its new world. It was that mindset that perverted capitalism and turned the northern hemisphere into a cult of self perpetuating greed and death. Indeed, dear worst-reader. When I read Dostoyevsky that’s what I get out of his writing. And it feels kinda good to read it these days, as though something inside me is vindicated, as though, after all these years in Europe, among these The Europeans, I can finally read him. Yeah. Maybe it is time to get on with Karamazov. Or maybe not.
Notes From the Underground is short novel about the narrator who can’t control his anger and frustration while trying to exist in the blossoming automaton world of late 19th century (far eastern) Europe. I’ve read on the Interwebnets that some think this work is the beginning of existentialism–but I have no idear what that is supposed to mean. All I know is, if you could bring the narrator of this story to life, you could put him right in the middle of the corporate world; he’d fit perfectly. Even though there is a huge amount of anger and confusion rolled up inside him, he is docile and weak on the outside; he seems to stand for nothing except musings about Russian soil. His ego is so overblown that when he argues with comrades and ends up challenging one to a duel, no one even shows up for it. Instead they all go about their meaningless, automaton lives in the(ir) bureaucracies, the(ir) cafés, the(ir) dinning halls of sloth and gluttony. And just like the automatons in the corporate world, the narrator himself is fluff and meaninglessness–all on the verge of sissy tears–just like all those soccer “men” who fall down on the field like gurly-girls in order to find an advantage. Yet, does the narrator find meaning in his search? The question hasn’t changed since the late 19th century. The automatons find meaning in what ever they deem fit. They find it in their arrogance. They find it in that other great European pastime that is the opposite of humility–misbegotten pride. They find it in their nationalism, tribalism, clans.
The earth knows no noses higher than those noses in Europe. (-tommi)
This is a quaint story to read. I rather enjoyed it–long sentences or not. I felt a kinship with the narrator–or was it empathy? Nomatter. The important thing to keep in mind about it is that there is contempt between “the author of these notes” and “the notes themselves” (see quote at beginning of post). Dostoyevsky is obviously extremely judgemental of his surroundings yet he never quite reveals why. There is something naive about how he writes this. Or maybe it’s carelessness. I don’t mean his prose, though. His ability to transcribe the mind’s eye is flawless. It’s just the subject matter he’s addressing that gets me. It’s as though he created the narrater in order to just mock everything about the world he’s forced to live in–The European world. Either way he is judging society by portraying its components and how they interact in the most banal of all settings.
“We Russians, generally speaking, have never been stupid transcendental romantics of the German, or especially the French, kind, who are not affected by anything; the earth may crack under their feet, all France may perish on the barricades, but they remain the same, they won’t make the slightest change even for the sake of decency, but still go on singing their transcendental hymns right up, one might say, to the grave, because they are fools. But here, on Russian soil, there are not fools, as everybody knows: that is what distinguishes us from all the other, Germanic, countries.” -Notes From Underground, FD
There is something eerily profound about what Dostoyevsky is getting at in this short novel–that I may be confusing with my own worst-prejudices. And. As usual. I’m not sure I understand any of anything I read. But he makes me think of the wave of revolution that preoccupied Europe before and after Dostoyevsky. Before Dostoyevsky I’m referring, of course, to the French Revolution. In its essence wasn’t the French Revolution not just an attempt break the chains of feudalism and monarchy, but also an attempt to subvert The European? In a lesser attempt, the Russian revolution–which emulated the French–tried to do the same thing. Is there no irony in the fact that both those revolutions lost and who was the winner? In Russia, The European turned to authoritarian communism embodied by Stalin and the Soviets. In western Europe, The European turned to predatory capitalism disguised in the bullshit called socialism. I couldn’t help but feel that Dostoyevsky was alluding to this level of human failure that could only come from the mindset that is The European. The people he argued with, the female he so clumsily fell in love with, the servant he couldn’t stand up to, etc. They all represent The European. And like all Europeans, the story just reaches the last page. Or something like that.
Rant on. -Tommi