Saturday, December 10, 2011

Notes from Underground: Criticism

Having finished the initial reading of Notes, I’ve been reading the criticism selections provided in the Norton critical edition of the book.

The early criticism, that by Mikhailovsky, is the least interesting—he makes of Notes a sort of meditation on cruelty, and I think perceives D as given to an unhealthy interest in cruelty, with “tendencies to torture.”

Rozanov seems a better reader of Dostoevsky, perceives his recognition of the “extreme in the ideal.” The last two paragraphs of this excerpt are the most interesting to me:

By nature, man is a completely irrational creature; therefore, reason can neither completely explain him nor completely satisfy him. No matter how persistent is the work of thought, it will never cover all of reality; it will answer the demands of the imaginary man, but not those of the real one. Hidden in man is the instinct for creation, and this was precisely what gave him life, what rewarded him with suffering and joy—things that reason can neither understand nor change.

The rational is one thing; the mystical is another thing again. And while it is inaccessible to the touch and power of science, it can be arrived at through religion. Hence the development of the mystical in Dostoevsky and the concentration of his interest on all that is religious, something we observe in the second and chief period of his work, which began with Crime and Punishment.

Lev Shestov, then, makes of D a Nietzschian. He makes the underground man a horn for D’s breath.

Notes from the Underground is a heart-rending cry of terror that has escaped from a man suddenly convinced that all his life he had been lying and pretending when he assured himself and others that the loftiest purpose in life is to serve the “humblest man.”

Shestov goes on at length about D’s break with his past. He writes passionately, almost it seems, like a variant of the u.m. Shestov remains an interesting figure for me, one about whom I wish to know more.

Next come Bakhtin from his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. This was a fascinating piece on the form of Dostoevsky’s work—a focus on how the u.m. speaks to others, to himself, to us, and how he cannot come to a decisive meaning because he cannot free himself not just from the shadow of the other, but of his consciousness of that shadow—that is what I find so profound in Notes from Underground, and what I most closely relate to. While the philosophical systems are significant to him and to me as well it is much more this matter of the sideways glance which Bakhtin discusses. I look forward to reading more of Bakhtin.

I then skipped forward to sample Joseph Frank as I have just purchased the abridged edition of his biography of Dostoevsky. I have not finished with this section, but what I have read is encouraging. He states that:

In my view, the vast majority of commentators of Notes from Underground have always been concerned with its significance, and, as a result, its meaning has rather gotten lost in the shuffle.

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