Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dostoevsky: Self Interest

The following spiel is delivered by Pyotr Petrovich, a man accused of spouting the progressive line by rote. It seems I’ve heard something similar to this much more recently and from different corners. See what you make of it.

“If up to now, for example, I have been told to ‘love my neighbor,’ and I did love him, what came of it? […] What came of it was that I tore my caftan in two, shared it with my neighbor, and we were both left half naked, in accordance with the Russian proverb which says: If you chase several hares at once, you won’t overtake any one of them. But science says: Love yourself before all, because everything in the world is based on self-interest. If you love only yourself, you will set your affairs up properly, and your caftan will also remain in one piece. And economic truth adds that the more properly arranged personal affairs and, so to speak, whole caftans there are in society, the firmer its foundations are and the better arranged its common cause. It follows that by acquiring solely and exclusively for myself, I am thereby precisely acquiring for everyone, as it were, and working so that my neighbor will have something more than a torn caftan, not from private, isolated generosities now, but as a result of universal prosperity. A simple thought, which unfortunately has been too long in coming, overshadowed by rapturousness and dreaminess, though it sems it would not take much wit to realize…”

Crime and Punishment. Part II, Chapter V. Trans. Pevear/Volokhonsky

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Habitual Reading

Monday through Saturday I wake up at 5:15 A.M. to read before getting ready for work. I settled on this time despite not being a morning person, because it was the only time I could find to be absolutely to myself and not risk falling asleep, or preferring to play games, or watch a movie with my wife instead of reading. At 5:15 A.M. I am entirely on my own. My youngest will wake up at about 6:30 A.M., come downstairs and give me a hug, and ask for breakfast. A cereal bar, a bowl of cereal, a glass of water—she’s set and quiet for the next 20–30 minutes. By then I am either finishing my reading, or already on to writing up my notes. At 7:45 A.M., I leave my books and notebooks for the shower, and the rest of the day is work and family until the kids go to bed at night. This is my day.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Notes from Underground: Vanity

Joseph Frank, in his exposition of Notes from Underground, has laid bare that in the u.m. with which I so identify. In the end, it is simple. Painfully so, as in Foucault’s Pendulum.1

Vanity. I am incredibly vain. I am constantly self-conscious and concerned over how I am perceived by others, and concerned that I be seen as more discerning, more elevated, more spiritual than they—whoever is “they,” whoever is there to see me, to praise me, admire me.

The underground man’s vanity convinces him of his own superiority and he despises everyone; but since he desires such speriority to be recognized by others, he hates the world for its indifference and falls into self-loathing at his own humiliating dependence.

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.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Notes from Underground: Conclusion

I have just finished the last five chapters of Part II.

The Underground Man is a complete, reprehensible motherfucker.

Dostoevsky leads us on as to give us the romantic notion of the saved prostitute, saving the fallen man. He turns it on its head. He gives us a motherfucker, spiteful not from feeling as much as a broken intellect. The feeling rules all, but it is indirect, falsified by intellectualization, by notion. It is feeling falsified by an unworthy ideal.

At each point in the end of the story, the u.m. could have made a different choice and all would have ended differently, ended well. This he does not do, because this we do not do. We do not resolve on mercy, on charity, on love, on nobility. We resolve on crudeness, on vulgarity, on scorn, on spite—to protect ourselves, as not to lower ourselves, not to be vulnerable to another because we cannot live in the filth of reality, but are happy to love the vileness of our suffocated isolation.

How truthful is any of this?

I will have to come back to this after thinking on it. Dostoevsky reveals the lie in the pathetic, romantic image—then gives us its redemption in the end of Crime and Punishment—is that it? Raskolnikov is humbled and thus salvageable in a way that never happens with the u.m. Yes?

I kept expecting Liza to hang herself. Why would this have been more pleasing? Would this in some way have redeemed the u.m., turned him to repentance? Or is it just a pleasing literary turn having nothing to do with life? Pleasing in its finality, in its pathetic tidiness, while the u.m. just continues his dinginess?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Notes from Underground: II.ii


The u.m. would move from his “debauch” in the outer world into dreams of the “beautiful and lofty.” He would imagine that some single outward circumstance would put everything to rights and he “would suddenly step forth under God’s heaven all but on a white horse and wreathed in laurels.”

This sense of the beautiful and lofty coming at even his worst moments he describes as a “sauce,” adding the “piquancy” of “tormenting inner analysis.”

He experienced love in his dreams—love that “was never in reality applied to anything human,” and he “never felt any need to apply it.” From here he moves on to Napoleonic dreams of grandeur.

He would “reach such happiness that [he] needed, instantly and infallibly, to embrace people and the whole of mankind.” At these times he would go to see his department chief—“one really existing person” on which to foist his love for mankind.

And his dept. chief being unavailable he would seek out Simonov—a quiet and equable schoolmate, to whome he felt he was likely a burden. Having no surety, he went anyway.

I feel so revealed, laid bare by the u.m. But how does one move past him? How does one be above ground without being a philistine idiot? An idiot—The Idiot. A purely human “good man” who was abused, who started and ended in sickness and isolation. This, too, is no solution, even if he is the antitype of the underground man.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Notes from Underground: II.i


The first part being a sort of manifesto, the second part is a memoir. The u.m. tells how he alone was unique, developed, intelligent, and all those around him were dull-witted sheep.

The u.m. isolates himself, covering his own meanness with “morbid development.” How like him am I? He despised his equals and “felt convulsive pains in my heart and a hotness in my spine at the mere thought of the measliness of my attire and the measliness and triteness of my darting little figure” among “generals, cavalry officers and hussars, now to ladies.”

The main event of this chapter is the planning of revenge on a 6-foot tall officer who moved him without taking notice of him. U.M. stalks the officer, learns about him, and plots his revenge—this revenge takes the form of simply not giving way before him—of bumping into him. He obsesses, he upgrades his garments in the event that there is a public spectacle, he borrows money for the clothing, and he fails repeatedly to stand his ground.

Finally it is accomplished, he bumps into him and the officer ignores it, but the u.m. is elated. He stood his ground, and is sure that the officer only pretends not to have noticed.

There is another detail about a fine, lofty, and above all literary letter the u.m. wrote to the officer, “composed in such a way that if the officer had even the slightest notion of ‘the beautiful and lofty,’ he could not fail to come running to me to throw himself on my neck and offer me his friendship.”

Every time I read this book I cannot help but to see in the u.m a caricature of myself. Dostoevsky knew me too well—how? Is this so common? And am I so petty?