Posted by: gdevi | March 14, 2010

Fyodor Dostoevsky/Notes from the Underground/ Existentialism

English 220

Dr. G. Devi

Fyodor Dostoevsky/ Existentialism/ Notes from the Underground Study Notes

Dostoevsky’s life (1821-1881) was very much like the lives of some of his characters. The son of a doctor, Dostoevsky was trained to be an engineer at the Petersburg Academy for Military Engineers though he had no interest in the military or engineering; he had enrolled in the Academy so he could read Russian and French literature. When his father died in 1839, Dostoevsky resigned his military commission, living on his inheritance to devote himself to writing and in 1846 published his first novel The Poor People which became an instant success with the critics, but a second novel later that year The Double which told the story of a mad man who is haunted by a look-like who eventually takes over his life was a critical failure due to the psychopathic nature of the main character and its general anarchic questioning of the certainty and optimism of life. Dostoevsky at this time was a member of a socialist group called the Petrashevsky circle considered an anti-government group and on April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested on charges of treason and condemned to public execution. While facing the firing squad, the young Dostoevsky received a last minute pardon and his sentence commuted to four years hard labor in the penal colony in Siberia. Dostoevsky spent four years in Siberia in the company of real criminals and murderers wearing fetters on his legs and doing hard labor. In 1854 he was reintegrated into society and posted as a common soldier near the Mongolian border. In 1859—after ten years of his life had been spent in Siberia—Dostoevesky was allowed to return to Russia. Dostoevsky wrote about his Siberian existence in two haunting novels, The House of the Dead (1861), and The Insulted and the Injured (1861). The years of (1861-1872) which saw the publication of his greatest novels started off with Notes from the Underground (1864) often cited as the first Existentialist novel in the world followed by Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), and The Possessed (1872).  During this period of great literary output Dostoevsky married, traveled to Europe, became an alcoholic, became addicted to gambling and entered a phase of perpetual poverty and debts, debilitating emotional entanglements, and frequent epileptic seizures. In 1867 Dostoevsky married his second wife 22-year old stenographer Anna Snitkina who brought a modicum of balance to his life and remained with him for the rest of his life as his secretary and companion. Dostoevsky and Anna fled Russia to avoid his debtors, traveling around Europe, living in abject poverty, and suffering the death of their first child. Dostoevsky and Anna returned to Petersburg in 1871 when The Possessed became a critical and publishing success and Dostoevsky finally began to receive critical and popular recognition. Dostoevsky and Anna purchased a house in Staraya Russa, which became their permanent home. With the publication of The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80) Dostoevsky became recognized as one of Russia’s greatest writers and indeed one of the greatest of the western novelists. Dostoevsky enjoyed this financial and emotional stability only for a very short time; he died one year after the publication of this great novel, in 1881; he is buried in the Aleksandr Nevsky monastery in St. Petersburg, with Anna devoting the rest of her life to publicize and cherish the heritage left behind by her husband.  In many uncanny and singular ways, Dostoevsky anticipated the ideas of Freud and Nietzsche, and though they were contemporaries, Dostoevsky never met Tolstoy during his lifetime.

Existentialism: Though the term existentialism is believed to have been coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the 1940s, many of the fundamental tenets of this philosophy appeared in the 19th century in the writings of the Swedish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who along with Dostoevsky are regarded as the founders of a particular kind of existentialism known as Christian existentialists. Though existentialism has both a theistic and atheistic schools of thought, all existentialists share the following beliefs:

  • The true subject of philosophy is our concrete existence in the world and the conditions of this existence.
  • There is no predetermined essence that should tell us what it means to exist as human beings. In existentialism this belief is phrased as the axiom “existence precedes essence.”
  • We exist in this world but we are separate from it; we project our meanings into this world in order to define to ourselves what we are. Sometimes this projection involves acting. Sometimes it involves not acting. Each one of us does this individually. There is no collective idea out there that tells us how to do this or what this projecting is like. Sometimes this projected meaning is terrifying; sometimes it is an insight. In any case, such moments give our lives that are otherwise meaningless, meaning.
  • All of us experience what the existentialists call angst, which is the fear, dread or anxiety of action and freedom. A common analogy is to imagine standing on a cliff and feeling afraid not just of falling off, but also of wanting to jump off. This is a famous problem in existentialist philosophy, which led the Algerian/ French philosopher Camus to state that the only real problem in philosophy is the problem of suicide (Myth of Sisyphus).
  • We all have the freedom to act; not acting is also acting. Not choosing is also a choice. Freedom in existentialism explores the responsibility one carries as a result of one’s freedom.
  • We are free to live authentic lives. An authentic life is one where we act as we are, not as we should, or our parents should, our community should, our families should etc. When we act authentically we don’t act randomly, we don’t choose either-or; we don’t deny the differing values that our many options have. When acting authentically we take responsibility for such acts we undertake, such choices we make. Inauthentic acts for existentialists emerge from the denial of one’s authentic self and one’s authentic freedoms to live, as one is.
  • Existentialists, particularly, twentieth century existentialist philosophers, believe in the notion of the Absurd, the notion that the world has no meaning beyond what meaning we confer to it through our actions. (Absurd conflicts directly with karmic philosophies.) Thus existentialists have room for states such as tragedy.

Notes from the Underground: Uncanny as it is, all of the above axioms may be read in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Its main character, the narrator is the Undergound Man, who describes himself as “sick man, spiteful man, unpleasant man.” The short novel is in two parts. Part 1 lays out various philosophical positions and arguments in the form of a rambling polemic by an unstable narrator. The Underground Man picks various targets for his polemical argument: humanism, optimism, positivism, rationalism, romanticism. From these arguments, we begin to see the blueprint of many existentialist notions–the idea of free will, freedom, authentic life versus inauthentic life (two equals two is four — the bitter polemic), the conscious intellectual, the truth of confessions (known as Dostoevskian confession–why are you confessing?) etc. Part II contains the main story of the Underground Man and his hostile encounters with his friend Simonov and the gentle prostitute Liza.

Here are some key passages for you to review as you work through the novel:

Part 1

p. 551-52: Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child!  . . . So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage…. Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of man consists? And what if it so happens that a man’s advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle falls into dust. What do you think — are there such cases? You laugh; laugh away, gentlemen, but only answer me: have man’s advantages been reckoned up with perfect certainty? Are there not some which not only have not been included but cannot possibly be included under any classification? You see, you gentlemen have, to the best of my knowledge, taken your whole register of human advantages from the averages of statistical figures and politico-economical formulas. Your advantages are prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace — and so on, and so on. So that the man who should, for instance, go openly and knowingly in opposition to all that list would to your thinking, and indeed mine, too, of course, be an obscurantist or an absolute madman: would not he?

p. 554. “I say, gentleman, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!” That again would not matter, but what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers — such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning: that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea). One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy — is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.

p. 556. Gentlemen, you must excuse me for being over-philosophical; it’s the result of forty years underground! Allow me to indulge my fancy. You see, gentlemen, reason is an excellent thing, there’s no disputing that, but reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots. Here I, for instance, quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life. What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is a poor comfort, but why not say so frankly?) and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and, even it if goes wrong, it lives. I suspect, gentlemen, that you are looking at me with compassion; you tell me again that an enlightened and developed man, such, in short, as the future man will be, cannot consciously desire anything disadvantageous to himself, that that can be proved mathematically. I thoroughly agree, it can — by mathematics. But I repeat for the hundredth time, there is one case, one only, when man may consciously, purposely, desire what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid — simply in order to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is sensible. Of course, this very stupid thing, this caprice of ours, may be in reality, gentlemen, more advantageous for us than anything else on earth, especially in certain cases. And in particular it may be more advantageous than any advantage even when it does us obvious harm, and contradicts the soundest conclusions of our reason concerning our advantage — for in any circumstances it preserves for us what is most precious and most important — that is, our personality, our individuality.

p. 558: You, for instance, want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man’s inclinations need reforming? In short, how do you know that such a reformation will be a benefit to man? And to go to the root of the matter, why are you so positively convinced that not to act against his real normal interests guaranteed by the conclusions of reason and arithmetic is certainly always advantageous for man and must always be a law for mankind?

p. 562 Now, when I am not only recalling them, but have actually decided to write an account of them, I want to try the experiment whether one can, even with oneself, be perfectly open and not take fright at the whole truth. I will observe, in parenthesis, that Heine says that a true autobiography is almost an impossibility, and that man is bound to lie about himself. He considers that Rousseau certainly told lies about himself in his confessions, and even intentionally lied, out of vanity. I am convinced that Heine is right; I quite understand how sometimes one may, out of sheer vanity, attribute regular crimes to oneself, and indeed I can very well conceive that kind of vanity. But Heine judged of people who made their confessions to the public. I write only for myself, and I wish to declare once and for all that if I write as though I were addressing readers, that is simply because it is easier for me to write in that form. It is a form, an empty form — I shall never have readers.

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