From WHAT IS TO BE DONE? to THE NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND:
or, THE MAN-GOD MEETS THE MAN-MOUSE
James M. McLachlan
Oh, tell me who was it first said, who was it first proclaimed that the only reason man behaves dishonorably is because he does not know his own interests . . . . Oh, the babe: Oh, the pure innocent child:
The "pure and innocent child" that the Underground man refers to is Nicolas Chernychevsky,
whom Dostoevsky regarded as the leader of an age, the spiritual head of the Russian nihilist movement. Dostoevsky viewed this movement as a logical culmination of the influence of western secular scientism, socialism, and philosophy on the Russian mind. That Dostoevsky regarded Chernychevsky, the highly influential editor or the literary journal "The Contemporary," as the spiritual leader of the nihilists is evidenced by Dostoevsky’s visit to Chernychevsky in May of 1862 after finding a pamphlet, "To the New Generation," on his door. Enraged by its content and worried that the nihilists had been responsible for the fires that had destroyed St. Petersburg’s Tolchukii market, Dostoevsky paid a visit toChernychevsky and plead with him to use his influence to prevent further tragedy. This was one of the few meetings between Dostoevsky and Chernychevsky and though Chernychevsky only commented on Dostoevsky’s work once and Dostoevsky later wrote that based on their few meetings he felt he had rarely met a more "kind hearted and cordial man," Chernychevsky’s thought became the symbol and served as the target for Dostoevsky’s attack on nihilism and rationalism.
In 1861 Dostoevsky wrote The Humiliated and the Insulted which contains a reply to
Chernychevsky’s notion of rational self-interest. In the same year Dostoevsky also attacked Chernychevsky’s and Dobrolubov’s aesthetics in "M. --bov and the Problem of Art." Then in the Notes From the Underground Dostoevsky criticizes Chernychevsky’s rational paradise that will be built by a "new generation" that has repudiated God, the human soul, beauty, the independent
status of art, and reduced the world to materialistic monism and morality to rational self-interest. For Dostoevsky self-interest leads not to wholeness as Chernychevsky thought but to fragmentation and disintegration: for the fully conscious man who asserts his own radical freedom and tumbles into the vortex of possibility. However, before considering Dostoevsky’s critique it is necessary to outline Chernychevsky’s own anthropology and prophecy for the future of man without God, with man as god.
N. G. Chernychevsky was the son of a priest and a seminarian when he came to St. Petersburg to the university in 1848. He shed his beliefs quickly enough and after a very brief encounter with Hegel became a devout disciple of Ludwig Feuerbach, adding an admixture of popular science and French utopian socialism. After a short and disappointing tenure as a secondary school teacher in the provinces, Chernychevsky returned to St. Petersburg and became a writer for the city’s most influential journal, The Contemporary. In view of what followed, Chernychevsky’s appointment in 1854 was indeed ironic. Nekrasov, editor of The Contemporary, wanted to create a journal of wider scope encompassing all of Russian intellectual life. By his dedication, Chernychevsky became editor of the journal in 1855. Then with the hiring of Chernychevsky’s spiritual double, N. A. Dobrolubov in 1857, The Contemporary alienated writers who were not of Chernychevsky’s materialistic persuasion and became exclusively a materialist journal, quite opposed to the spirit of its originator, Pushkin, and also to Nekasovs original notion of a kind of ecumenical journal of all Russian literary expression. But under Chernychevsky’s editorship The Contemporary thrived financially, more than doubling its circulation from 1855-1860.
Chernychevsky’s literary and philosophical ideas are not extremely sophisticated. His primary import was as a popularizer of Feuerbach and scientism to the young radical intelligentsia of St. Petersburg. In this respect he was extremely effective; he was read widely as the increased sales of The Contemporary indicate. Chernychevsky considered himself a disciple of Feuerbach and in the 1880's in the preface to the third edition of his thesis on aesthetics, "The Relations of Art to Reality," he sought only to extend the scope of his masters researches to fields that Feuerbach had not considered. Speaking in the third person Chernychevsky said of himself, "the author made no claim what-so-ever to saying anything new or on his own." He wished merely to apply his masters researches to aesthetics. The importance of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity to Chernychevsky is apparent from Chernychevsky’s journals and in Chernychevsky’s main philosophical work, "The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy." In it Feuerbach’s theological "death of God" is apparent. Chernychevsky felt Feuerbach had proven that God was merely a projection of the infinite in man’s nature. Man had projected his infinite being in an
illusory God, a being outside himself, splitting himself and creating a dualism that alienated man from his infinite nature and reduced him to a finite creature. "The Anthropological Principle" takes its name from the notion that man must be understood by man and nothing else. But Chernychevsky goes much further than his master in disposing of all dualisms. He creates a materialistic monism that is based on a type of optimism resembling the older materialism of the eighteenth century philosophies. In "The Anthropological Principle" the world of nature is viewed as a rational whole; man is a part of this whole and thus is capable of a direct perception of the world and of absolute knowledge of the truth. All knowledge, according to the "anthropological principle" was to be based in the natural sciences, and natural sciences had eliminated dualism. The problem of mind-body, soul-body and even subject-object dualisms that had posed such tremendous philosophical problems for ages had been eliminated. Man was also just a complex chemical compound, an organic part of the world. His ideas were caused by the organic process called life, so ideas had the capacity of being faithful representations of material circumstances, since they also were of material origin. The natural sciences governed by mathematics had set down the basic laws for all the human sciences; these general laws had already been discerned and had solved the great questions of God, good and evil, the origins of men’s actions, etc. All that had to be done was to apply these laws to individual instances and details (why do children like to break their toys, for example). Included in this of course was what Chernychevsky called the moral sciences.. The application of the "anthropological principle" to the notion of good and evil and the origin of human action yielded the explanation that all human action was based on self-interest and so good and evil were determined according to utility. "Good is the superlative of utility, a very useful utility. Evil consists in what is not useful, an the extreme evil that men perpetrate upon each other is caused by theoretical miscalculations in determining utility. These theoretical miscalculations had caused men more misery than the plague. The fact that there can be theoretical miscalculation as man pursues his own self-interest arises because man has failed to realize that the world is a whole; he has not been able to ground his egoism properly. The fact that man is a egoist is not the problem, this is simply the way the world is, and indeed should be. For Chernychevsky the problem is that man must realize that his best interest lies in the best interest of the rest of the world. Once man realizes this he will immediately become a moral man, want would be eliminated and with want "at least nine-tenths of all that is bad in human society would quickly disappear." In the course of
one generation "humane manners and conceptions" would be established. Chernychevsky’s faith that evil will be eliminated with the advent of "moral science" stems from the optimism of his materialistic monism. Man’s self-interest is natural to him; it is a part of the natural world of which man is an integral part. Chernychevsky thought self-interest must lead to wholeness with the world and men.
Chernychevsky attempted to give these ideas flesh and blood in his novel What is to be
Done?. In it we are introduced to the "new generation," those young people who realize what their self-interest really is. What is to be Done? also contains in it the notion from Feuerbach that underlies "The Anthropological Principle;" the idea of a "humanity-god" and "man-god." The humanity-god" is represented in the notion of self-interest that envisions the creation of a social utopia as the ultimate goal and subordinates everything to it in order to fulfill the self-interest of the individuals who seek it. "You see, my good penetrating reader, what sly dogs honest people are and how their egoism works. Their egoism is different from yours, because they do not find their pleasure in the same direction that you do. . . . You concoct evil plans, injurious to others, while they concoct honest plans, useful to others." The "man-god" as an individual is present in the character of Rahkmetev who sees truth simply, as it is in the world, and acts on it. He is the complete man of action in possession of perfect knowledge of the character of other individuals as well as himself. He is truely the "man-god."
What is to be Done? was published in 1863 while Chernychevsky sat in the Peter and Paul Fortress awaiting his exile to Siberia. This book served as the catalyst for Dostoesky’s critique with the creation of the Underground Man. Dostoevsky originally proposed to write a review of What is to be Done? In his own journal, The Epoch, but in a letter to his brother Micheal, he explained he had changed his mind and instead proposed to write a novel, The Notes from the Underground. The Notes became a refutation not only of Chernychevsky’s naive rational optimism, but formed the base Dostoevsky’s attack on rationalism and scientism and his anthropology of man that is carried into all his major novels. In The Notes Dostoevsky not only discusses what becomes the themes of his major works; free will, rational organization of human happiness, and value of suffering, but also develops his own psychology and metaphysic. Dostoevsky uses Chernychevsky’s immensely popular work to illustrate that man is a much more complex creature than the complex chemical compound of Chernychevsky’s materialistic monism.
But some of Dostoevsky’s criticism of Chernychevsky, developed in The Notes, had already been used in an earlier work, The Humiliated and The Insulted. Here he attacked
Chernychevsky’s notion of rational egoism found in the "Anthropological Principle in Philosophy." The character of Valkovsky mouths Chernychevsky when he says that at the core of every virtuous act lies a deep self-interest, and that the more virtuous the act the more self-interest is involved. In the character of Valkovsky, Dostoevsky portrays the love of self not as the optimistic restructuring of the universe that it was for Chernychevsky, but as something essentially destructive. Dostoevsky also introduces another idea, equally as destructive for Chernychevsky’s kingdom building enterprize, "self-interested suffering." That a human being could take pleasure in his pain is an inner contradiction in man which repudiates the basic idea of the rational egoism of "The Anthropological Principle," that "man likes what is pleasant to him and dislikes what isn’t. But that these notions were not explicitly developed is indicated by Chernychevsky’s own guarded but still positive review of the book in The Contemporary. Dostoevsky himself was not satisfied with the book and said that perhaps only fifty pages of it were good.
The Notes provide a complete response to Chernychevsky and to rationalism and utilitarianism. The unveiled references to What is to be Done? are numerous. The Underground Man is a member of a "generation still with us" as opposed to Chernychevsky’s "new generation." The Crystal Palace is from Vera Pavolona’s forth dream of a final rational organization of humanity. "Men of action" refer to Lopukhov, Kirsanov.
Rahkmetev, and all the people of the "new generation." The ironic and belligerent tone that the Underground Man takes toward his "knowledgeable reader" is a parody of Chernychevsky’s derisive diatribes against the "reader with the penetrating eye" in the sections of What is to be Done? where he explains his philosophy. The incidents from "Appropos of Wet Snow" also have counterparts in What is to be Done?. The Underground Man’s collision on the street with the officer who is his superior on the social scale is the pathetic version of Lopukov’s not stepping aside for a gentleman on the street and eventually throwing the man in the gutter to demonstrate that he was on an equal footing with all men. The Underground Man’s showdown with Zverkov and his companions, where he intends to destroy them by the power of his intellect, is reminiscent of many scenes in What is to be Done?. Finally, the Underground Man’s relation with Liza is a Dostoevskian version of Chernychevsky’s Kirsonov attempting to save a young consumptive prostitute by the power of his moral teaching. She of course falls in love with him, but her disease is too far advanced and she dies.
Dostoevsky’s response to Chernychevsky is set out in the Underground Man’s philosophical ramblings in part I of The Notes and in "Appropos of Wet Snow" these ideas are
given flesh and blood, much in the sense that Chernychevsky tried to embody the materialistic
monism and rational egoism of "The Anthropological Principle" in "What is to be Done?.
Dostoevsky’s response to Chernychevsky in The Notes can be divided into two main themes; first, the limits of reason and the defence of freedom against rationalism, and second, self-interest or egoism. Dostoevsky, as he had already indicated in The Humiliated and The Insulted,
regards egoism as the basis of human action, but in a much larger and more pessimistic context than Chernychevsky imagined. When Dostoevsky outlines the limit of reason in human activity and separates it from desire and will with the chaotic principle of freedom, self-interest is changed into the destructive disintegrating vortex of the Underground Man and not the progress toward wholeness envisioned by Chernychevsky’s rational self-interest.
The Underground Man tells us that reason is an excellent thing, but that reason can only satisfy the reasoning ability of man, whereas volition is a manifestation of the whole of life. This is an indication of the Underground Man’s attitude toward the ability of reason to satisfy man’s desire to take him to the truth. In another passage the Underground Man says "reason knows only what it has gotten to know, why not admit it frankly there are things that reason will never know." The things that reason will never know lie at the depths of consciousness. The problem with the "man of action," the Underground Man’s term for the Chernychevskyian creatures who feel they can find the base cause for everything and act according to a rational process on a first cause, is that they are not fully conscious men. Were the men of action fully conscious they would see that they have mistaken a second or tertiary cause for a primary cause, and the Underground Man wonders where he will find a primary cause to lean against. The Underground Man’s lamentation is explained when he says that spite can replace any cause precisely because it is not a cause. This causelessness of human desire takes the place of first reasons or causes for human action in the fully conscious man. Thus the Underground Man explains that logical systems which explain human action and suppose themselves to be firmly secured in the ground of first causes find themselves suspended in mid air with no firm ground beneath them. All systems are just exercises in logic because, as the Underground Man says, one value has not been added to them and that one value has several names; capricious will, volition, desire, and freedom. This one value destroys all logical systems because if capriciousness is introduced, the systems cannot be anchored in the firm bedrock of a never changing primary cause. The ground dissolves beneath them and they collapse by their own weight. This is what the Underground Man means when he talks about the stone wall of reason and 2+2=4. Man can accept it, but at the moment he does, life is over, will, freedom, and consciousness are given up. 2+2=4 is death, consciousness ends, and all that is then possible is to stop up your ears and "sink
into contemplation". According to Chernychevskian psychology, when it could be demonstrated to a man that his self-interest was in logically doing what was best for humanity, there was nothing he could do but comply, for man seeks what is pleasant. But the Underground Man tells us that this is not so; man wants a free choice and simply because you show him the stone wall of 2+2=4, he does not have to accept it. "Man is the ungrateful animal that walks on two legs;" he desires not to accept 2+2=4; out of his own capricious will; 2+2=5 is also very nice. The Underground Man maintains that man may see the Crystal Palace with its flats for the poor and happiness for all and out of sheer boredom will stick out his tongue at it. The introduction of capricious will, of desire that is without cause, is the destruction of the Crystal Palace because it destroys the ground on which it is erected, man’s rationality. Once man’s rationality, his ability to see his own interest in accordance with conforming to certain natural laws that will lead to an integral humanity, is rejected, the very fact that man has the ability to desire other than those supposed natural laws means they are not binding on him; because, according to Chernychevsky, desire will be brought into conformity to natural law of moral science. But for the Underground Man, desire, will, is capricious and because of that doesn’t have to conform to the laws of moral science.
The consciousness of capricious will for the Underground Man is the plunge into the vortex of possibilities. To the Underground Man, the fully conscious man of the nineteenth century must be characterless, a man without qualities. It is impossible for the fully conscious man to be anything because he is in constant flux. At one point the Underground Man tells us "to actually be a blackguard is something," and at another asks the "knowledgeable reader" what he the Underground Man is? The answer is a loafer; but within a paragraph this is refuted by saying that he would have very much liked to have been a loafer; it is a title, a career, a purpose in life; but being an acutely conscious man, he can not be one because he cannot remain the same that long. The acutely conscious man is incapable of relations outside of himself, even his objects are determined by the flow of his capricious will. Even his spite cannot be concrete; the laws of consciousness invoke a process of disintegration.
Besides, my feeling of bitterness, too, is subject to the process of disintegration
as a result of those damn laws of consciousness. One look and the object
disappears into thin air, your reasons evaporate, there is no guilty man, the injury
is no longer an injury . . . .
Because the inner state of the Underground Man changes with his capricious will, even his objects in the world constantly change. The structure of The Notes also indicate the inner flux, of the vortex in which the acutely conscious Underground Man finds himself. The Underground Man, illustrating his own point about man’s capricious will, contradicts himself; he tells us at one point
he is a spiteful man, but at another he says he could never be a spiteful man. He moves along
constantly affirming and disclaiming positions, just as he darts through crowds as he walks in the street. But all of this affirms his own point about the freedom and capriciousness of man. Not only does the Underground Man contradict himself over time, but at each instant he feels the inner contradiction, the whirling of possibilities. Even at moments of the sublime and beautiful he is also acutely conscious of the base and evil, able even to commit "contemptible actions." For the mouse, the acutely conscious man, every question is surrounded by a large number of insolvable questions; the mouse is drowned in a deadly brew, a stinking puddle made up of its doubts. Consciousness is a disease. The Notes themselves do not end, they cannot; they must continue because the Underground Man cannot by himself extricate himself from the vortex.
In part one, "Underground," Dostoevsky deals with Chernychevsky’s notion of rational egoism. Self-interest, egoism, still has its place in the world of the underground man. What is pleasureable to man is the basic rule "The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy." The Underground Man accepts this notion and reduces it to the meaninglessness of the world of acute consciousness. The Underground Man explains the pleasure of despair, that despair has it moments of intense pleasure especially when one becomes acutely conscious of the utter hopelessness of his situation. Suffering is pleasure because it makes man more conscious of himself, of his own ego. The man with the toothache enjoys the pleasure of pain and the power it gives him over the other people in the house where he lives. Civilized man, because of his many-sidedness and desire to avoid boredom, comes to find pleasure in the shedding of blood and devises ingenious methods of doing so. Man is so fond of suffering he will never give up suffering, destruction, and chaos.
. . . . I am convinced that man will never renounce real suffering, that is to say, destruction and chaos. Suffering! Why, it’s the sole cause of consciousness! And though at the beginning I did argue that consciousness was the greatest misfortune to man, yet I know that man loves it and will not exchange it for any satisfaction.
Since man can find pleasure in suffering, and completely irrational desires, that form the base of his actions on which he builds his logic, are clearly against his "rational self-interest," what is left of Chernychevsky’s rational egoism is egoism. Egoism is the basis of the vortex in which the Underground Man finds himself. He tells us at the beginning, "what does a decent chap talk about with the greatest possible pleasure? . . . himself. Very well, so I will talk about myself." The Underground Man as an egoist, a man of intensified consciousness or rather intensified self-consciousness, is cut off from the rest of the world. He has retired into his hole in the floor as a man of acute consciousness must, becoming a complete egoist and solipsist. But in contradistinction to Chernychevsky’s egoism that was natural and would eventually lead to the
integration of man with other human beings and the world, the egoism of the Underground Man is "born of a test tube" and leads to disintegration and chaos. Dostoevsky’s vision of the world based on egoism is a world of each man for himself, deriving his pleasure from his intensified consciousness. Man’s relations to other people are not real relationships but duels. These duels, arising out of man’s alienation from others in the intense egoism of his acute consciousness, are described in the Underground Man’s story "Apropos of Wet Snow." This shadows Chernychevsky’s attempt to give rational egoism life in moving from the ideas expressed in "The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy" to putting them into the minds of the characters in What is to be Done?.
The events recounted by the Underground Man in "Apropos of Wet Snow" happened fourteen years before, when we still had some intercourse with the outside world. At the same time the story is written the Underground Man has broken completely with the world. He had been fortunate enough to come into a small inheritance so he resigned from his position in the civil service and retired to his cellar to withdraw into himself. The incidents in the story reflect this continual withdrawal and the incapacity of the "acutely conscious man" to enter into relation with the world outside himself. All relationships in the world of the Underground Man are based on power and the intensification of his own consciousness. Even in the incident in the billiard hall the Underground Man wants to be able to force the officer to throw him out the window in order to fulfill his desire to manipulate others to achieve his ends. Instead, the officer refuses to even recognize his existence. He picks him up and moves him as though he were not even there. This is the ultimate insult which sets off a fever in the Underground Man, a fever of dreams and plans for revenge. Although he faints several times in his efforts to force recognition from the officer, he finally carries out his "revenge" by nudging the officer on the street. And as he is certain that the officer noticed, he believes he succeeded in forcing the officer to recognize him as an equal.
His memories of school are full of attempts at gaining power over his schoolmates. He destroys his one friend by dominating him even though he knew that this friend alone was a pure soul. He exalts himself in his dreams and imagines a time when all men will recognize his greatness. His dreams for setting the world aright are not for the good of the world, but for his own pleasure. Like his dreams, the Underground Man’s relations with his old schoolmates, though terribly humiliating, also reveal his efforts to gain power over his adversaries and force them to recognize his ability and superiority.
The best example of how all relationships between the "man of intensified consciousness" and others degenerates into what he conceives as power duels between separate egos is the affair with the prostitute Lisa. The Underground Man is infuriated by her indifference for him when he first begins to speak with her, but when his preaching finally arouses her interest and begins to strike at her heart, the game changes and he begins to manipulate her. He leaves here after expounding his noble ideas and actually touches her. She responds by showing him a love letter from a medical student to show that she is loved and is not merely an object. As he enters the street the Underground Man is struck by the "terrible truth" of what he has been doing,
manipulating her as he has done in all his other relationships with human beings. Later, when she comes to see him, he treats her with contempt and tells her that he only wished to humiliate and manipulate her. But she sees through him, sensing the extreme pain of his isolation and for a moment, by her love, breaks through the vortex. The Underground Man’s heart fails him and forgetting his aims, begins to sob as he never had before in his life. But when the Underground Man realizes that the hysterical fit cannot go on forever, he feels ashamed and the thought comes to him that their roles have been reversed. Lisa was now the heroine; she was saving him, not he her.
All I know is that I was ashamed. It also occurred to me just then, overwrought as I was, that our parts were now completely changed, that she was the heroine now, while I was exactly the same crushed and humiliated creature as she had appeared to be that night-- four days before. . . . I cannot live without feeling that I have someone completely in my power, that I am free to tyrannize over some human being. But--you can’t explain anything by reasoning and consequently it is useless to reason.
The Underground Man quickly recovers himself, falling back into the vortex of his own intensified consciousness, his own egoism. He rejects the love that she has offered him and insults her by using her as a prostitute. After she leaves he runs after her, but this is only a pretense. He is still acting as he had done when he first met her; he knows this and knows he doesn’t really wish to find her. The Underground Man then justifies the insult because, as he tells us, an insult is a sort of purification, the most painful sort of consciousness that will live with her the rest of her life. After a few closing remarks the Underground Man continues his notes, in fact Dostoevsky tells us that he goes on and on though the novel stops here. The Underground Man must go on because he is trapped in the vortex of his own acute consciousness and he cannot make an end because he must constantly contradict what he has just said.
In a letter to his brother, Michael, Dostoevsky complained that the tenth chapter of The Notes was mutilated by the censor. Dostoevsky indicated that the censor had cut out a statement by the Underground Man that the only chance to be freed from the vortex of acute consciousness was through faith in Christ. In the novel this is intimated in the final scene with Lisa, when, by her love, the Underground Man is momentarily disarmed and breaks loose from his isolation, but this only lasts an instant and the theme of Christ isn’t developed in the story. Dostoevsky leaves this for the later novels. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov is saved by the love of the prostitute, Sonja, and finally through his conversion. But in The Notes to the Underground, Dostoevsky answers Chernychevsky by indicating that rationalism and egoism do not lead to communion with the world and wholeness of the self, but rather to groundlessness, isolation, and disintegration of the person in a world without Christ.
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