Thursday, March 3, 2016

Notes on Notes

"I am a sick man. I am a wicked man."

This is how Fyodor Dostoevsky begins his novella Notes On Underground and what a way to kick things off. The novella is neatly cleaved in two. The first containing most of the novella's philosophical import and the second section reinforces the first through narrative. Now it's important note the footnote toward the beginning of the text.

"Both the author of the notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons a the writer of such notes not only may but must exist in our society, taking into consideration the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed."

The Underground Man is not Dostoevsky himself. He was a devout Christian who fought against feudalism. He couldn't have possibly advocated the narrator's views.

Or is it? Dostoevsky does something clever at the end of the book. He directly contradicts his claim at the beginning of book that the Notes are fictional. Now he presents them as if they are being copied. "The notes of this paradoxalist do not end here. He could not stop himself and went on. But it also seems to us that this may be a good place to stop." It keeps in line with the parodoxical claim to love all things and then destroy everything. It's watching an intellectual ping pong between two polar opposites.

As far as philosophical novels go, it precedes Albert Camus' The Stranger and Sartre's Nausea as what is looked upon as the first existential novel. Friedrich Nietzsche would go onto rate reading Dostoevsky as "among the beautiful strikes of fortune in his life," Interesting in that the Underground Man's thought process works off of something akin to a Master Vs, Slave morality. Something Nietzsche would take further in his worldview.

Fyodor was someone whose works were banned in Russia after the Communist Revolution. They were taken to be highly subversive to Stalin's worldview. Being that Dostoevsky was a conservative.
When he was young, he was a socialist and stood in front of a firing squad when at the last minute, a note from the Czar commuted his sentence to labor. So he was sent to a labor camp for four years where he would form most of his thoughts and views.

In his novella, we see that he deals with the concept of freedom and our need to seek happiness out in rational ways. Dostoyevsky's underground man objects to this need. His belief is that for freedom to be genuine, the entire spectrum of possibilities must play out. It shouldn't just be those that give us gratification and happiness. If only happiness and gratification were the case, the automatic choice to choose the pleasant experience would result in us being more mechanical than genuinely human.

Dostoevsky's character celebrates the choice to choose to do something destructive.  To sabotage yourself. Choosing to do something harmful or negative out of pure caprice. Human beings, he puts it, are not reducible to a mathematical algorithm. 2 + 2=4 but can also make 5.

The human capacity to want is another theme explored. Our narrator posits that if one day they find the formula according to precisely how these wants are spread and "what they strive for in such-and-such a case and so forth" that man will immediately stop wanting. Man without desires or wanting is nothing but a sprig in an oil barrel. Is it impossible, then, while preserving reason, to want senselessness? Certainly not according to the underground man. It's a battle against reason.

Notes From, Underground demands your full attention. It dares to show us alternatives to our lives that we never knew existed. Like the best literature, it forces us to confront our darker selves.

1 comment: