Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Note on Notes From The Underground

And then I read the line, “So this is it – this is it at last – a head-on clash with real life!” This was spoken by the Underground Man of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Having worked through his major and late novels I have been enjoying his earlier shorter works. This is where you see his ideas take a cruder form. It is here that you listen to his dress rehearsals and confirm you inklings about his vision. Dostoevsky will make any turn necessary so that there will be a possibility for the real. The Underground Man both despises and feels despised by his anonymous audience. He attempts to recount his life with brutal honesty which means being honestly deceptive at times. He throws any notion of consistency out into the street for it is being tossed on your head into the street that one might actually learn something about one’s self. The Underground Man concludes spitefully that he was sorry for ever starting this account of his life recognizing that is was a pursuit in vanity and has move away from literature. For, “[a] novel must have a hero, and here I seemed to have deliberately gathered together all the characteristics of an anti-hero, and, above all, all this is certain to produce a most unpleasant impression because we have all lost touch with life, we are all cripples, every one of us – more or less.” He goes to tell us that because of our disability with are left with a disgust for any encounter, any taste with ‘real life.’ In response to any rejections his audience might raise for this view the writer continues by saying that, “for my part, I have merely carried to extremes in my life what you have not dared to carry even half-way, and, in addition, you have mistaken your cowardice for common sense and have found comfort in that, deceiving yourselves.” And even after this the Underground Man is not finished.

My opening quotation came about half-way through this short story and immediately guided me the rest of the way. It has crystallized for me what is clear to all of us. As humans we act out and articulate the desire for something ‘real’. I don’t think we do this for all of our life. Realness in childhood is knowing that the world is more than it is. Realness is creative and unstable. Realness becomes in young adulthood more concrete as we begin to pursue tangible goals in love and vocation. Because the real was always more and bigger than ourselves it was never captured or tamed and so in time most of us began to simply give up on the real and sought the comfortable and stable. And so from below the order streets and time-conscious pedestrians the Underground Man emerges not with a challenge but with an assertion and a condemnation. I have followed through and looked around the corners of the dark corridors of the real. I have said yes to all of life. The pitch of the Underground Man rises in its crescendo. In deceiving yourselves “as a matter fact, I seem to be much alive than you. Come, look into it more closely! Why, we do not even know where we are to find real life, or what it is, or what it is called. . . . 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.” The Underground Man includes himself in this condemnation.

This short piece also confirmed for me the thought that the dominant two forms of pursuing the real for men are sex and violence. The slogan for The Ultimate Fighting Championship is As Real as it Gets. In these matches two hyper-masculine men enter an intimate and solitary space where they touch and embrace, sweat and grown moving from one position to another until there is climax and exhaustion. There is an overt sexuality to this expression that dangles right in front of the aroused spectator but remains unnamed. Conversely of course sexuality remains the oldest field of battle for position and dominance. And the vast majority do not even go so far as engaging in these expressions but rather we remain passive, insulated observers allowing the barest union between what is happening in front of us and what we are experiencing. These are the only two plotlines in Notes. First it is the author’s confrontation (verging on physical) with his peers. The second is with a woman he meets a hotel where he hopes to confront the men he spoke of the first half of the work. So it would seem that Dostoevsky also acknowledges these two paths of the real for men. I would argue, however, that the difference is Dostoevsky’s willingness to wrestle internally and then to vulnerably articulate externally. It is in his process where there is the possibility of ‘real life’ and not in the story itself. The Underground Man himself warns of the comfort we find living by the ‘book’ (we could substitute television now). Do not assume that this story itself will be of any aid to you. It is simply an account, a testimony, of one who wrestled.

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