Wednesday, May 7, 2014

"It would be necessary to describe him, if he had not already been described."

Tom over at Wuthering Expectations has begun posting about Dostoyevsky's 1864 novella Notes From Underground, and thank goodness for that because I was afraid I'd have to go first and I was stuck for anything to say, frankly. If nothing else, I can pad my blogging with lengthy responses to whatever Tom says on his blog. It's like the Republic of Letters, but quite quite watered down on my end. Excitement to commence!

I will begin my own assault on Notes by quoting myself, a comment I made on Tom's post in which I say who and what I think Dostoyevsky's Underground Man--the narrator of Notes, that is--is supposed to be.
My opinion, today anyway (I finished my rereading of Notes last night, about 10:00), is that the Underground Man is the result of Dostoyevsky's testing of Chernyshevsky's theory that mankind would be happy were he rational. Suppose man were given only rational options, FD says, and the Underground Man is what would result. He is forced underground, beneath the feet of the Rational Man as it were, because at heart man is irrational and the more you attempt to force rational behavior onto him, the more irrational man will become. Then FD puts his test subject into versions of scenes from What is to be Done?.
The pieces of Chernyshevsky's novel that are parodied in Notes From Underground are, more or less and in order of appearance:

1. The introduction and numerous subsequent passages where Chernyshevsky the author character directly addresses the reader, often verbally abusing "the perspicacious reader," who may in fact be the Tsar's censors, or at least the censors at the Peter and Paul Fortress in which Chernyshevsky was imprisoned when he wrote the novel.

Dostoyevsky structures Notes as a long unbroken lecture to the reader by the Underground Man.

2. This scene, where Chernyshevsky tells us what sort of man Lopukhov is:
One time he was walking in a shabby uniform on the Kammenoi-Ostrof Prospekt, on his way from his lesson, for which he got fifty kopeks an hour, though he had to go a distance of three versts from the lyceum. A distinguished somebody, of imposing mien, met him, motions him out of the way in the manner of men of imposing mien, and bears straight down upon him without giving way. But Lopukhof, at that time, had a rule, not to be the first to turn out for anybody except a woman. They bumped against each other with their shoulders, and the distinguished somebody, half turning about, said, 'What a pig, what a hog you are!' but while he was preparing to continue the lesson, Lopukhof made a full turn towards the distinguished somebody, took the distinguished somebody by the body, and deposited him in the gutter very tenderly ; then he stood over him, and said, 'Don't you move, else I will drag you farther where the mud is deeper.'
Dostoyevsky shows us what happens when the Underground Man meets a distinguished somebody on a bridge and the question of right-of-way comes up.

3. The many scenes in What is to be Done? where educated revolutionaries get together, talk politics and arm wrestle, acting civilized and progressive and with excellent bonhomie.

Dostoyevsky shows us what happens when the Underground Man joins a party of young gentlemen he knew from school. Hijinks ensue.

4. The central domestic drama of What is to be Done?, of Lopukhov marrying Vera to rescue her from her greedy, common family and then letting her go when Lopukhov realizes that Vera is in love with his best friend Alexander Kirsanov. Releasing Vera from her obligation and gratitude is the function of the Lopukhov character.

Dostoyevsky gives us the story of how the Underground Man confronts the subjugation of women.

That's Notes From Underground in broad strokes. Tomorrow I might quote from each of these sections, comparing and contrasting, etc. Or I might just go for the jokes, because there are a lot of jokes in Dostoyevsky's novella. Or I might just let Tom do all the work and save myself for the essay I'm planning about Anton Chekhov's version of one section of Notes From Underground. We'll see.

1 comment:

  1. I have read this and have been interested and enjoyed it, but what I really want to say to you is something silly.

    Today I have, among other things, written a Pontoppidan (Erik, not Henrik) clerihew, and I am challenging you to write one for Chernyshevsky because with a name like that he clearly needs one. And you don't have to tell me again about how you don't know that much about poetry because clerihews were invented by a mere boy, and he didn't worry much about the rules. He and his schoolmates (including Chesterton) wrote a raft of the things.

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