Dostoevky's influence on Nietzsche

Submitted by Corina Leu on Monday, 10/12/2009, at 6:08 PM

As we have discussed in class, it is obvious that many of the ideas that Dostoevsky develops in his writing have influenced the European literary circles. Among the many Western thinkers who were greatly intrigued and shaped by Dostoevsky's works was Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. In Nietzsche's Werke, he says, "Dostoevsky is the only psychologist from whom I was able to learn anything. I rank my acquaintance with him among the most splendid achievements of my life." From this quote, one clearly gets the idea that Nietzsche's encounter with Dostoevsky's writing shaped his future progress. Although Nietzsche began reading Dostoevsky years after the Russian writer died, Notes from The UndergroundThe Possessed and Crime and Punishment, bore relevance undisturbed by the passage of time.

Particularly in Crime and Punishment, one can clearly see the seeds that Dostoevsky lays in Nietzsche's mind. Some of the ideas revealed in the novel, seep into Nietzche's idea of the Superman or the Übermensch. Both Dostoevsky and later on Nietzsche write that, "all people are somehow divided into the 'ordinary' and the 'extraordinary'."(Dostoevsky 259) The first group is obedient, it is a group of men who live to reproduce and maintain the balance of law. The second group is rebellious; liable to transgress the law, has a right to his own conscience, which intrinsically makes him an individual. "The first category is always master of the present; the second - master of the future. The first preserves the world and increases it numerically; the second moves the world and leads it towards a goal." (Dostoevsky 261) Although Dostoevsky often wrote about ideas that were not necessarily his own, Nietzsche took these thoughts a step further to create an entire philosophical outlook developed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. We cannot claim that Dostoevsky was the sole provider to this philosophical novel, but it would be unfair to make light of his influence, considering Nietzsche’s own opinion of  Dostoevsky’s influence which I provided earlier.

The Apropos in Reverse

Submitted by Jack L. Seaver on Friday, 10/9/2009, at 11:25 PM

We were discussing the "Apropos of the Wet Snow," and it's relationship to the narrator's confession in Notes from the Underground, the other day in class. I noticed, however, there is a bit of irony in the plots of the poem and the novel. In the poem, a nobleman redeems a prostitute from a life of sin, and she, reflecting on her past, is overcome by guilt. In Notes from the Underground, however, it is the prostitute who holds the narrator's keys to redemption. Unlike the prostitute in "Apropos of the Wet Snow," the narrator is unable to redeem himself, and continues to live a life of misery.

I think Dostoevsky is drawing a distinction between economic/physical oppression, and self-inflicted emotional oppression. The prostitute, forced into her situation essentially through a bad deal, can be saved by a stroke of good luck, such as meeting a nobleman. The narrator, by contrast, has hardened himself into an emotionally corrupt man, and nothing can save him from a life of misery.

The narrator is given a tremendous opportunity to ressurect his life, pull himself up from the "underground," yet is not able to do it. Liza is for him what the nobleman was for the prostitute in "Apropos of the Wet Snow," however the narrator's situation is such that he can be redeemed by nobody save himself.


Submitted by Victoria E. Gauthier on Friday, 10/9/2009, at 7:06 PM

In the treatise portion of Notes from the Underground, the Underground Man addresses “you, gentlemen,” presumably the rational thinkers of the day, pointing out the flaws in the theories to which they subscribe.  The toothache example discusses the difficulty of the of the hyperconscious 19th century modern intellectual (the Underground Man) within the framework of an ultra rational, utopian society.   To begin with, the Underground’s Man masochistic derivation of pleasure from a toothache falls far outside the boundaries of rational human behavior (“by these groans mixed with malice…the sufferer expresses his pleasure” (273)).  Furthermore, the UM connects this groaning for the sake of groaning with the moans of “an educated man from the nineteenth century…a man of culture and European civilization.” (274). Groaning about one’s inevitable suffering becomes somewhat of a romantic art form, decorated with “trills and flourishes,” becoming first and foremost an “expression of sensual pleasure” (274).  (Perhaps here one can call on Victor Hugo’s romantic definition of the sublime as a mixture of the grotesque and beautiful). 

                One can also read into this example a direct critique of utopian socialism, where the ideals of fraternity and equality reign.  First, the UM states that “for all the dentists in the world you are entirely at the mercy of your teeth,” (273).  Perhaps he means that regardless of the efforts of a utopian regime, there will always be some problems that cannot be rationally controlled by man (The power of nature, romanticism, dominates).  Groaning about one’s pain may be a selfish act.  Within a socialist brotherhood, society’s members would be obligated to indulge his complaints, even if “they are listening to him with disgust and don’t believe him in the least” (274).  Rational egoism would explain the sufferer’s griping.  It would ultimately be more pleasurable to spread one’s suffering onto others than to deal with it alone.  This environment would be an inevitable breeding ground for spite, especially among those hyperconscious individuals who acknowledge that human nature is in direct conflict with the utopian system.        

Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, and the Critique of Modern Society

Submitted by Hannah M. Gais on Friday, 10/9/2009, at 4:17 PM

Looking back on Dostoevsky's critique on the 19th century, it is somewhat startling to see how much of his critique really "predicted" the events of the 20th century, namely the first and second World War.  On the matter of modern man's thirst for blood: "At least, if civilization has not made man more bloodthirsty, it has certainly made him viler in his thirst for blood than he was before.  Before, he saw justice in bloodshed and massacred, if he had to, with a quite conscience; now, although we consider bloodshed an abomination, we engage in it more than ever.  Which is worse?  Decide for yourselves" (32).  That is to say, war is viewed by the "rational and scientific" man as being horrible and unnatural, yet it is nevertheless practiced.  The modern thinker is convinced that reason shall overcome these evil and barbaric habits, only to replace them with something more fruitful and humane.  Despite as much, "everywhere blood flows in torrents, and what's more, as merrily as if it was champagne" (31).  Civilization has not rendered man to be less bloodthirsty; it has provided him with rational reasons for his actions, which he can attempt to justify in the name of "science."

In terms of the 20th century, we can see this theme arising from the World War I, but, most importantly, World War II.  Blood is shed because it is deemed "necessary" by tyrannical regiemes; furthermore, the State begins using pseudo-scientific justifications for its evil actions (e.g., social Darwinism pushed to an extreme level).  Mythology -- especially in the German state under Hitler -- remains ever-present, but reason is pushed more and more as being the rational for most actions.  What seems particularly bizarre to me, at least, is with the development of better and better weapons that require less and less physical interaction with the enemy, man's ability to kill without regret becomes stronger.  To wit: The usage of nuclear weapons by the United States against Japan, the firebombing used by the Nazis, the Cold War and the bomb race between Russia and the United States, etc.  What Dostoevksy notices in the 19th century becomes more terrifying and even stronger in the 20th with the leaps in technology, especially with regards to weapons.  He is, thus, very much a writer learned in the ways of the 20th century, or so it seems.


Submitted by Daeyeong Kim on Friday, 10/9/2009, at 12:35 AM

After rereading parts of Notes from Underground, my mind has been occupied with Liza a lot. The last episode of part II seemed to me the crux of Dostoevsky's message--the artistic fleshing out of his message in the first part.  As we discussed towards the end of class today, Dostoevsky pits Liza against the 19th century enlightened (or not so enlightened) man. Unlike the underground man who thinks to love "[means] to tyrannise and to be morally superior," Liza is borne out of the Dostoevskian vision of brotherly love--the Christian love, to lay your life down for the other, first mentioned in Winter Notes. I think it is Dostoevsky who is speaking through the underground man when he says, "She considered herself so inferior to me" (371). This quality of humility allows her to love; paradoxically, Dostoevsky indicates that this brotherly love is her only hope, only way out of the underground: "... but to love me, for it is only in love that a woman can find her true resurrection, her true salvation from any sort of calamity, and her moral regeneration, and she cannot possibly find it in anything else" (373). Through the underground man Dostoevsky shows us that humans, if left alone, will all crawl into an underground hole; and likewise, he provides a solution through Liza--to love and to consider yourself as inferior to fellow man is the only way to live the "real life" that suffocates the underground man. So in the ostensible parody of Nekrasov's poem, and of the general mode of the redeemed prostitute, Liza the prostitute isn't saved by modern man. Instead, she is saved by her ability to love.

Nabokov dismisses Dostoevsky's using the Romantic literary convention of the redeemed prostitute as sentimental junk. After reading the Nabokov packet, I, too, wondered if this stylistic maneuver sort of cheapened and reduced Dostoevsky's already idealistic message to sentimentalism. But after thinking it over, I think I disagree with Nabokov's criticism--if anything, the stylistic maneuver actually enhances Dostoevsky's message. The inversion of the underground man and Liza's position at the end of the story, I think, effectively negates the sentimental qualities because it's exactly what Dostoevsky planned to do. The underground man, in fact, is the redeemed prostitute--a prostitute to western, enlightened philosophical ideas such as rationalism--and Liza is the noble gentleman (woman, in her case) who can him from his underground hole. Obviously, she doesn't actually save him, but she is an embodiment of Dostoevsky's vision of fraternite, and saves herself. Her slamming the door and leaving to the streets is perhaps symbolic of her re-entry into society. Dostoevsky in Winter Notes talks about the "humiliation of reason" by artificially trying to create brotherhood, rather than letting it happen. I wonder if this humiliation is realized artistically through Liza and the underground man--the triumph of Dostoevsky's brotherhood over enlightenment egoism. The underground man himself mentions that he did feel humiliated; although he reasons against reason, and seems to be pitting himself against rationalism, at the end of the day, he is still a product of 19th century enlightenment rationalism--he ultimately subjects himself to humiliation because he artificially tries to create an image for himself, but fails time and time again. 

Culture of the Dead

Submitted by Brigitte C. Morency on Thursday, 10/8/2009, at 7:32 PM

The more I read about modernity and its impact on humanity life, the more impressed I am by Dostoevsky's ability to "predict" the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional condition of modern man. True, Dostoevsky lived and wrote during what can be loosely described as "modernism," but he manages to take an exceptionally objective view of society around him.

I feel as though the decade he spent ostracized from Russian and Western European culture helped him form these insights into human nature. In the Paris art world of the 1950s, Manet shocked critics with this unsentimental portrayal of the modern man. His subject matter and setting was utterly recognizable to Parisians of the time, and his paintings forced them to examine the world in which they lived. Up until that point, art was dominated by the Salon's long-held respect for historical paintings and the "great masters" such as Raphael. But the modern artist, deeply affected by the swift rise of industrialization and urbanization refused to sit back and allow people to dwell in the lingering miasma of Romanticism.

Dostoevsky re-entered society at this point in history. His persepcetive was ideal for perceiving the changing social climate. More than anyone, I think he realized how "dead" modern man was. His narrators in "House of the Dead," "Winter Notes," and "Notes from the Underground" are fragmented individuals, torn between the "old world" values with which they were raised, and rapidly-evolving humanity in the present. I think the Underground man in particular feels this schism between past and present. Like Dostoevsky, he is only just "emerging" from societal exile, and can see clearly the irrevocable changes in the world. This is certainly enough to drive anyone mad.

At this point in his writing, I don't think Dostoevsky holds ot much hope for the immediate future. He sees the innate corruption of man and realizes why theortically-sound ideas like socialism have no place in the modern world. The modern man (like in the Underground man) is a self-defeating entity, doomed to make the same mistakes because of his obessive drive toward the future and his utter rejection of the past.

Narration of narration of narration

Submitted by Elyse J. Yarmosky on Thursday, 10/8/2009, at 7:04 PM

It would be too easy for Dostoevsky to present a straightfoward treatise of his philosophy on any subject of the matter. The twisted and somewhat confusing lens through which we get philosophical musings in "Notes from Underground" comes through the mouth of a narrator who Dostoevsky himself seems to use as a backwater for criticism. He has created a character who, literally and otherwise, has been trapped for forty years, isolating himself from the world, yet Dostoevsky has given this character a mind, capable of concluding and, most importantly, critiquing. Here is where we recieve the blows of critique against the 19th-century "man of action," the rational man who clings to the laws of nature. It would be all too easy to decude that these views, too, are Dostoevsky's; but in a typical backhanded style, we realize that this "Underground Man," as critical as he is, is precisely one of the men he so detests. So once we dig through these layers of narration, what are we left with? Is this a critique-of-a-critique? What is Dostoevsky trying to prove?

It could be that Dostoevsky is making the point that even a smart, capable man such as the "Underground Man" has been influenced by the very society he attempts to shun. This may be a statement of the inevitable route towards rationality and modernity that no one, not even someone who locks himself in a cellar, can escape.

The paradox of free will in Notes from Underground

Submitted by Jeffrey A. Tucker on Thursday, 10/8/2009, at 5:56 AM

Reading Notes from Underground, I was initially stumped by the paradox of Dostoevsky's philosophical rejection of determinism, paired with his narrator's hopeless lack of free will. In Part I, the narrator argues fiercely for the value of free will--how it is intrinsic to human behavior, and man will give up anything to keep it. Yet in Part II, the hero's attempts to exercise his free will are continually stymied. He tries to withhold wages from his valet, Apollon, yet crumbles after four days, as he admits he has done on every previous attempt. He realizes after inviting himself to Zverkov's farewell dinner that it would be better in every way not to go: "Of course I mustn't go. Of course to hell with the lot of them. ... I'll let Simonov know tomorrow." Yet even as he says this to himself, "the reason why I was so furious was because I knew perfectly well that I should go, ... the more indecent my going was, the more certainly would I go." (319) The mere fact that an act is self-destructive does not make it a liberating gesture of free will--the horrible truth is that the underground man not only acts self-destructively, but does so out of a kind of necessity. He almost stops himself from following the dinner party to the brothel, but gives up, declaring, "It's ordained! It's fate!" (336) In fact, at the very end of Part II, the narrator utterly contradicts his argument in Part I, declaring "just try, just give us, for instance, more independence, untie the hands of any one of us, ... and we--yes, I assure you--we should immediately be begging for the discipline to be reimposed upon us." (377)

Perhaps this paradox can be explained by Dostoevsky's ambivalence toward his rejection of rationalism. On the one hand, rationalism destroys the possibility of free choice, but on the other it conveniently absolves men of guilt for their animal passions. The underground man inverts this, claiming in Part I that the self-destructive pursuit of animal pleasures--fornication, degradation, etc.-- is noble because it is an act of free will. But in re-telling his personal narrative, the narrator cannot stand to claim he acted purely by free will: the moral depravity it would imply is too much even for him to bear. In fact, Part II seems to show that Romantics, with their propensity to day-dream about the course of events, anticipating them as some sort of sentimental fable whose tragic ending is written in stone, are just as guilty as the rationalists of determinism. As he says in his conclusion, "Leave us alone without any books, and we shall at once get confused, lose ourselves in a maze, we shall not know what to cling to, what to hold on to, what to love and what to hate." (377) Clearly Dostoevsky does not see a reliable champion of free will in the Romantics.

Man: The Stupid Ungrateful Beast

Submitted by Danielle M. Morrissette on Wednesday, 10/7/2009, at 11:39 PM

As I read this work, I kept running into the same conclusions that human beings can never be fully satisfied, they enjoy pain in order to annoy those around them which in a sense gives them pleasure, all action is primarily self-centered in nature, and that perfect models of existence cannot exist in world filled with people who are so utterly imperfect. The underground man's statements about his liver problems and how he refuses to see a doctor out of spite is just remarkable. Spite to whom? The rules of society that one must see a doctor if one is in pain? Simply because he is like the man with the tooth ache who enjoys having maladies, if for no other reason, but to annoy and attract the attention of those around him? This man is something else because he goes from that to saying he's not really a spiteful man, but yet he was as a clerk. This whole work seems that it was written by a guy with a serious illness who is not longer thinking very clearly at all. 

The effect of consciousness on the individual, as the underground man sees it, is that while he strives for the «sublime and beautiful" unfortunately, he also becomes more aware of how un-sublime and nasty the world actually is. This would perhaps back up his statement that “an intelligent man cannot possibly become anything in particular and that only a fool succeeds in becoming anything." This is obviously because the fool is not conscious, and is able to accept the world as it is and not as it should be. He is not striving for the sublime and the beautiful; therefore he is able to rise to the top if he is unaware of the muck.

There is so much I would like to say about this work, but I suppose I will just touch on one last thing. He basically discredits all utopian systems, such as communism and socialism, by explaining that man is an irrational, stupid, ungrateful creature, who will create chaos if only for the reason to prove that he is not an "organ stop". He then admires the perseverance and industriousness of ants. They have an ultimate goal and do not bother themselves to consider it bad to be organ stops. This is all why the crystal palace cannot work in a world of men. Man will simply stick his tongue at it to prove that he can, regardless if the palace scientifically fixes all of his problems. The problem of utopian systems to Dostoevsky is that he questions as to why human instincts need to be corrected in the first place. While yes man is a rotten, ungrateful, stupid creature who doesn't realize his own interests, that is his very nature that, like the industrious ants industrious, should not be changed. Why? Because he is man and it's in man's nature to be stupid and irrational. 


Understanding Mimetic Desire in Dostoevsky's works

Submitted by Muddasir M. Ayaz on Wednesday, 10/7/2009, at 10:43 PM

Rene Girard writes an excellent piece on mimetic desire and how it becomes the obsession of the Underground Man until he is slave to his own self-interests, which ultimately do not serve him at all. Girard also touches on the idea of the dissolution of religion from society with the rise of mimetic desire and the influence mimetic rivalry on the scale of society. One could make the suggestion that Nabokov's article is precisely that of mimetic desire towards Dostoevsky, with his bitter, yet insightful analysis. But is it really anything more than envy? I don't quite see the distinction between the two ideas.  In Notes from the Undergound, the obsessive self-reflection of the narrator makes mimetic desire plausible, but what of the case in his earlier works, like The House of the Dead? It seems like quite a jump to go from the obessions of the Underground Man and his understanding of the self-spiraling destruction by exerting his will, and the keen observations of Goryanchikov.

Goryanchikov talks about others, and suggests that some of the prisoners are morally superior to others in his eyes, but the idea of mimetic desire or mimetic rivalry doesn't manifest itself as clearly as it does with the Underground Man. In fact, Goryanchikov's character establishes an identity in the novel by finding just the opposite of mimetic desire; he allows details of the lives of others to absorb himself in a way that prevents him from desiring those things the other prisoners desire. There is an element of salvation in House of the Dead as well, but it seems interesting that one of  Dostoevksy's earliest works after House of the Dead focuses so intensely on this idea. Furthermore, the prisoners in House are prisoners of self-interest in one sense, but there is no trace of a mimetic desire that brought them there in the first place.  If Dostoevsky is making social commentary about the inherent lack of value in pursuing self-interest, then why does he not work to make the inner turmoil of mimetic desire more applicable in his earlier works?

Romanticism, Rationalism, and Defense Mechanisms

Submitted by Eva M. Becker on Wednesday, 10/7/2009, at 3:15 PM

Throughout both Part I and Part II of Notes from the Underground, the underground man expounds the strenuous relationship between romanticism and rationality, asserting that the enlightened rationalism of the nineteenth century is not only a force that pacifies and deceives, but also a force that impossibly seeks to remove human will and volition from the human experience. The narrator argues that rationality, as illustrated through metaphors such as the stone wall and the twice-two-makes-four theory, acts as a support system upon which people hold on to justify progress, impossibility, and their own faults. Part II then presents a depiction of how the narrator’s ideas of romanticism and free will manifest in his account of painful memories. “One’s own free and unfettered choice, one’s own whims, however wild, one’s own fancy, overwrought though it sometimes may be to the point of madness…” (284), he claims, is the greatest good.

However, we considered last class how Dostoevsky might critique the underground man’s argument apropos of his utter isolation from society. As the underground man presents his argument and recounts his life in Parts I and II, respectively, his incessant mentioning that he is a literary man and a learned man becomes very apparent. In order to combat feelings of inadequacy, social anxiety, and his physical unattractiveness in grade school, for example, he finds protection through academic pursuit. Indeed, it seems to become his shield from society’s criticisms, as well as his justification for separating himself from society in the first place.

In viewing the underground man’s situation in this way, the last chapter of Notes from the Underground is particularly insightful in considering how Dostoevsky may be critiquing his isolation. In considering his failure with Lisa, he states, “I have…spoilt my life by a moral disintegration in my funk-hole, by my unsociable habits, by losing touch with life…” (376). He explains his anger at Lisa, musing that she inspires anger in him because she reminds him of the “real life” that he has lost touch with after years in solitude. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the underground man’s defense mechanism of literature and academia is not only brought to attention, but also suggested as being yet another crutch that people hold on to for comfort, like the stone wall. “Leave us alone without any books, and we shall at once get confused, lose ourselves in a maze, what shall not know what to cling to, what to hold on to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We even find it hard to be men, men of real flesh and blood, our own flesh and blood. We are ashamed of it. We think it a disgrace” (377). Perhaps Dostoevsky’s critique lies in this particular passage: whether it be romantic or rationalist in its scope, any sort of crutch that allows us to excuse ourselves from our emotions and our actions threatens our interactions with others and with ourselves.

Capitalism and The House of the Dead

Submitted by Richard S. Hevier on Tuesday, 10/6/2009, at 1:01 AM

Some of the most striking sections of Winter Notes are ones where Dostoevsky applies his experience in Siberia to his critique of Capitalism.  I see the strongest correlation in his observations of London.  Whereas in The House of Dead, where Petrovich remarked that one of the highest expressions of freedom in prison was in spending one's money, Dostoevsky alludes to a similar situation in London.  The workers in London grasp for freedom in much the same fashion as the convict who opts to spend his money on a drunken hiatus.  Dostoevsky remarks that they spend the Sabbath in a drunken state and "that everyone rushes as fast as he can to drink until he loses consciousness."  Their joy must be concentrated in the same fashion as the convicts--joy because they have the power and means to get drunk; and by doing so, they come as close as they can to freedom and individuality.  The middle of page 39 offers what I think is the clearest evidence that Dostoevsky's Capitalism is essentially prison outside of Siberia.  He marks that the workers in London will attempt to "separate themselves from everything, even from the human image, if only to be something of their own, if only to avoid being with us..."

It is needless to say that Dostoevsky, like any other released convict, left Siberia a changed man.  It is even more significant that his experience is both subconsciously and consciously altering the lens through which he sees the world.  By firsthand experience, he learned in a most grueling fashion about what are always lofty philosophical terms: freedom and individuality.  Whereas it may take someone a lifetime to discern where their beliefs lie in regards to such loaded terms, I think he discerned his in a most rigid fashion during his relatively short stay in Siberia.  I'm trying to imagine how his notes from abroad would have read if he had not been among the House of the Dead.  Foremost, I think that it gave him a sense of disdain over Capitalism.  In other words, mere observations and objections he would have had to circumstances in France and England turned into an impassioned rage with the addition of his near death experiences.  It is undoubtedly a rage fueled by his belief that the evils of the West remind him so much of the evil of imprisonment; that the brutality within those walls was so pronounced so far away from them.  And even worse, that those evils were being revered by Russian aristocracy and, to Dostoevsky, corrupting it. 

Narration in "Notes from the Underground"

Submitted by Susannah E. Rudel on Monday, 10/5/2009, at 11:45 PM

While reading “Notes from the Underground” I was reminded of the narration in “The Double.”  In Part I the narrator is often clearly writing in response to what he anticipates the “gentlemen” to whom he seems to be writing saying.  For example, he writes, “But don’t worry, gentlemen, I’ve never had my face slapped, and I don’t care a damn what you may think about it…But enough!  Not another word about this subject which seems to interest you so much” (271-272).  Dostoevsky goes even farther than just having his narrator respond to the anticipated remarks of the “gentlemen,” by having him imagine an entire conversation with the “gentlemen,” including the exact words they would say (273).  Interestingly, Dostoevsky explains this habit of the narrator, writing through the narrator’s voice, “…if I address myself in my writings to any reading, I’m doing it simply as a matter of form, because I find it much easier to write like that.  It is only a form, an empty show, for I know that I shall never have any readers” (296).  I was curious why he thought he would have no readers, but seemed to find my answer at the very end of Part II when the narrator states that his story is not interesting and has created an anti-hero (376).

I was also reminded of “The Double” in that the narrator seems unreliable as a result of his constant contradictions.  For example, in recounting beginning a life of debauchery, the narrator records, “Mind you, I have spoken at such great length now not at all because of any desire to justify myself.  And yet—no!  It’s a lie!  Of course I wanted to justify myself.  I’m making this little note for my own use, gentlemen.  I don’t want to lie.  I promised not to” (303).  Not only does he contradict himself, but it seems as if he is displaying an internal battle on the page.  Further, although he claims he promised not to lie, the narrator does later admit to having a tendency to exaggerate (“…an exaggeration.  I was always aware of that weakness of mine, and sometimes I was very much afraid of it” (359), furthering his unreliability.  Though not related to the narrative structure, the scene where the narrator is with his old school friends, after inserting himself in their lives without an invitation, seemed similar to Golyadkin’s awkward experiences during the party scenes in “The Double,” in that he seemed to be oblivious to his being out of place and unwanted. 

Finally, I was also intrigued by the narrator’s tendency to describe feelings as rising up inside of him, such as when he has a meltdown in the presence of Lisa; “…it was because I was ashamed to look at her that another feeling was suddenly kindled and blazed up in my heart—a feeling of domination and possession” (372).  I’m not sure if this is at all significant, but the repeated structure makes me wonder if it is at all reflective of something in his life in the “funk-hole” of the Underground.

Prison Walls

Submitted by Zainab M. Khalid on Monday, 10/5/2009, at 9:18 PM

Dostoevsky’s art presides in his ability to embody in words a sense, a palpable feeling, of the distances between worlds. Whether it is the distant, desolate horizon that stretches for dismal miles deep in the heart of Siberia, or the distance of cold hearts in the suffocating quagmire of poverty and depravation in the capitals of European civilization, what remains stamped in my mind is an overwhelming- even oppressing- sensation of the isolation of human existence, divided and subdivided into a multitude of categories that thrive specifically on the differences between each other. There is, in the subjects of all his social observations, an almost voluntary submission to these rigid differences as part not only of identity- either on the national, class or even personal level- but of life itself.

It is the distance between class and identity of the Russian nobility that is of particular interest to me.  It seems that the elite of all cultures subordinate to an ideal “civilization” suffer from the same maladies of deception. Out of humiliation at belonging to a culture considered inferior to the paradigm, this elite class strives to separate itself from all that binds it to that shame; emulating the paradigm with smug self-satisfaction- failing to recognize the glaring faults that bleed through even that superior culture.

As a member of a society that has been colonized, and as a product of the psychological, social and political effects of that colonization, I can attest to Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the Russian elite- though the political and historical trajectories of the Subcontinent and Russia are highly different from each other, it is true that the cultural colonization of any society starts from the uppermost tiers. The arrogance of the upper classes also remains the same; the assumption that the masses understand nothing, that their values are barbaric and outdated, that they need to be led by those that know better, those that realize that only principles and ideologies conceived of in the minds of those not tainted with the tar of a backward culture are worth upholding; these and only these must be applied to lives that they know nothing of, and surely have no desire to know anything of, and society will forever be imprisoned by the rigid class divide because of this.

How self-assured we are, on the other hand, in our mission to civilize, how haughtily we solve problems, and what problems they are!” (pg 21, Winter Notes)

It begins with dressing like the European, looking like him, and ends with total dependence on that superior civilization, so that even the mother tongue is considered too vile, too simplistic- tainted by the commoner’s tongue- to be considered a vehicle of progress for the more refined amongst us. For the Russian elite, French was that surrogate language, and for the Pakistani elite, it is English; so much so that one begins to articulate thought in the superior language, and it dominates over all but the basest (and therefore perhaps the most instinctive and vital)of mental faculties. I am perhaps an all too painful example of this. Although I would not consider myself as part of the Pakistani elite, in a country where poverty and suffering are rampant, my family can hardly be called unfortunate. I was taught English at the same early age that I was taught Urdu; so that I grew up speaking both languages- only to have the foreign language dominate to the extent that I am more comfortable writing and arguing in English than in Urdu. This is, I feel compelled to mention with the utmost regret, considered a sign of superiority by many in my country.

And so it is that the nobleman really does not belong anywhere, and he is imprisoned by this. He refuses to be a part of his indigenous culture, with all its vices and incompatibility with the modern world. He has the advantage of education and the intellect and contact with this modern world, and yet he cannot truly be a part of the culture that he so desperately parrots because he never truly was a part of that culture. He cannot know the lives of his fellow countrymen, even if on the rare occasion he strives to understand them. The distances between the classes grow infinitely vast, and the separation is firmly espoused not only by the nobility, but upheld, as seen in The House of the Dead, by the peasantry itself. Even here within a remote prison fortress, amongst men that could be considered as possessing great ability and strength (morality strictly not factored in) merely because they take risks and undertake ventures that many men would flinch from, social norms are practiced with a rigor that is almost ridiculous in its irony. Here are men that have transgressed all the laws of nature and society that most of humanity holds sacred, committing gruesome crimes, and yet the need for the rigid social structure, and indeed the distance and isolation that this breeds, prevails.  There is an awareness amongst the prisoners of a code of conduct, of knowing one’s place, and of maintaining one’s dignity by acting within a designated sphere.

The ultimate self-deception lies in this then; that the fundamental difference between a prison with walls and a prison without walls lies in the limitations of freedoms; that the miles of wasteland that stretch out beyond vision represent a greater distance between the prisoner and freedom than that between a free man amidst the claustrophobic buzz of a rich capital city. The degree of suffering that the human soul must endure in a prison with walls is definitely more severe, but the truth is far more chaotic to face; that all the ideals that we adopt and espouse as the intellectual elite have not led to a utopia. Things are in fact not “as they should be,” because walls or no walls, humanity is chained to physical boundaries, to events outside its control, and more so to its insatiable appetite for power, cruelty and neglect, giving birth to a hedonistic, vacant world where only “Baal” reigns supreme.

“Our lack of habitual contact with it made freedom seem to us in some way freer than freedom itself, the freedom that is to be found in the real world, that is.” (pg 355, The House of the Dead)

The Underground Man

Submitted by Corina Leu on Monday, 10/5/2009, at 7:10 PM

The novel “Notes from the Underground” is arranged in a non-linear fashion, with Part II preceding the actions of Part I. A novel that has an atypical structure creates an anti-hero. For that I love “Notes from the Underground,” here Dostoevsky reveals his true genius.

In Part I, the narrator introduces himself as “a sick man…a spiteful man…not a pleasant man at all” (Dostoevsky 263). Although he is highly intelligent, the man believes that to be the sole cause of his corruption, saying that, “an intelligent man cannot possibly become anything in particular and that only a fool succeeds in becoming anything” (Dostoevsky 265). His alienation is further advanced when he mentions the fact that he has been living in a “funk-hole,” in The Underground, where his retirement from Civil Service (due to an inheritance), finally allowed him to completely break off from society. His abandonment and self-alienation allowed him to discontinue the performance he put on for the rest of the world. He “used to devise [his] own life, …so as to be able to carry on somehow.” (Dostoevsky 275) Now, The Underground Man no longer has to abide by performance rules, rules of nature and social expectations. But although the man makes it look as if his present state (alienation) is a more positive thing, he abuses his name and calls his new house a “dreadful, horrible hole.” Is this a man that takes himself seriously? Does he really think that his alienation is a more genuine state of being than perhaps his previous state of horrible disinterest? Throughout Part I we get to know his true character, his opinion of the sole purpose of the intelligent man (which is “to talk, that is to say, to waste time deliberately?” (Dostoevsky 277)), we also hear of his opinion on reason and science, the laws of nature and values systems, desires and whims. What do these reflections tell us about this man? How does Part II expand and complicate our understanding of Part I? Is his alienation self-imposed? Or is it a direct result of the existence of the other? To what extent can his suffering be blamed upon others? Who is to be blamed?