Wednesday, September 19, 2007
The Consolations of Misanthropy
Vladimir Nabokov had famously little use for Feodor Dostoevsky, whom he saw an an overrated bore, a sentimentalist, a fashionable nut, and a hack. In his Cornell lectures he took extensive note of a fairly representative example.
"Memoirs from a Mousehole," which "bears in translation the stupidly incorrect title of Notes from the Underground ... may be deemed by some a case history, a streak of persecution mania, with variations." It presents "a cesspool of comfessions through the manners and mannerisms of a neurotic, exasperated, frustrated, and horribly unhappy man," as well as a somewhat mysterious degenerate: "Dostoevsky, as so often happens with authors of his type, authors who have a general message to deliver to all men, to all sinners, Dostoevsky does not specify the depravity of his hero. We are left guessing."
Nabokov, as usual, continues with a very precise synopsis that is not without praise for the book's occasional comedy. The ending, with the introduction of "that favorite figure of sentimental fiction, the noble prostitute," is a fake.
"The conversations are very garrulous and very poor, but please go on to the bitter end," he advises. "Perhaps some of you may like it more than I do."
I'm afraid I'm a latecomer to that class of reader. I've read the novel at least twice before, never much cared for it and could only dimly remember what it is about, since it's more of a rant than it is a novel; something must have stuck, though, because I found myself thinking about that character lately, that mouseman, and of people whose lives are somewhat driven by frustration, who can't get what they want, who cannot resolve their moral or spiritual conflicts, who bask in a thorough unforgiveness toward the world and who revel in their own martyrdom.
Coming back to this short, crazed, wearying book a third time proved the key; it was on my mind without me being fully aware of it. Above and beyond what one may think of Dostoevsky as a literary artist, he nailed something in it about human life: the need for other people, and the equal and powerful yearning to be liberated from that need, the desire to gain approval only so you can reject it, so you can prove that you don't need it. Think of a man who desires a woman he can't have, and who consequently lives in a fantasy world where the roles are reversed, where he's the one who does the refusing. This is the case, in a much larger sense, of Dostoevsky's narrator: a small, choleric, thoroughly disappointed man who feels rejected by the world, wants to reject the world in turn, and finds to his eternal bitterness that the world simply does not care. It's a comic novel, in a way, mainly because it's so excessive; the stand-up routine of a Rodney Dangerfield whose self-awareness is too deep for him to ever laugh at himself.
It's maybe the greatest novel ever written about spite -- spite as a way of life. William Gass paid an extended and literal homage to Dostoevsky with The Tunnel, his laborious 1995 novel about a German History professor who is literally and figuratively writing notes from underground, both by burrowing into the story of his life and by digging a tunnel out of his study.
The book also inspired at least one great song: Magazine's "Song From Under the Floorboards," which I've heard for years but never made the connection until reading Wikipedia's entry on the novel.
The narrator is a 40-year-old mediocrity who seems to have had dreams of being a writer and wound up becoming a civil clerk, and the book is an extended rant of what might possibly be called solipsistic nihilism: a hopelessly personal diatribe by a man who feels imprisoned by life, who hates society and himself. As Dostoevsky will call him on the last page, he's a "paradoxialist": as an individual, he hates society, and as a (somewhat adjunct) member of society, he hates himself. He's a masochist of a decidedly philosophical bent. Or, at least, he would be if he believed anything he said, which he doesn't, really. All he knows is what he says at any given moment, and his focus keeps changing.
He's an essential Dostoevsky figure in this regard, I think, and maybe the key to seeing the writer whole; he's the shadow man behind Stavrogin, Raskolnikov, Myshkin and Karamazov, and it's not surprising to learn from the novel's date that Dostoevsky had to create him before he could create the others. The plots of Dostoevsky's other major novels all involve characters who are locked in deep conflict with themselves; in Underground he focuses on the character and basically scraps the plot altogether, or as much of it as he can get by with. He's bent on trying to capture a deep sense of anguish that is both psychological and philosophical.
"I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased." So go the famous opening lines. The pain, we soon learn, has less to do with any of these than of simply being alive and aware, of being self-conscious, of knowing yourself and why you react the way you do, which is why the narrator can curse himself for a lowly state that he knows is his own fault and blame everyone else at the same time. His schadenfreude is both personal and general. He knows what's conventionally right, but he yearns for the liberation that comes with subverting it. He wages moral rebellion against order. Self-hatred not only reminds him he's alive, but nourishes him: he likes to "suck at myself until the bitterness finally turned into some shameful, accursed sweetness, and finally -- into a decided, serious pleasure." To paraphrase a rather Dostoevskian song by Randy Newman, he just wants you to hurt like he does.
Somewhere in Annie Hall, Woody Allen describes someone having a self-image several notches below Kafka. That more or less describes the narrator, who says he has not yet approached the level of an insect. He tells us he isn't born from nature but from a retort -- he's shaped by insults (either ones he has received or has self-inflicted): "...this retort man sometimes folds before his antithesis so far that he honestly regards himself, with all his heightened consciousness, as a mouse and not a man."
The two -- man and mouse -- are at war within him: as a man, he wants to avenge slights against him, but as a mouse he doesn't really feel he deserves justice of any kind. The man takes revenge out of a sense of justice, while the mouse, “as a result of its heightened consciousness, denies it any justice.” Justice denied nurses contempt; the mouse “immerses itself in cold, venomous, and above all, everlasting spite. For forty years on end it will recall its offense to the last, most shameful details, each time adding ever more shameful details of its own, spitefully taunting and chafing itself with its fantasies.” The mouse believes “neither in its right to revenge itself nor the success of its vengeance.” What remains is the pleasure he can only draw from his own pain as a victim, feeding on the “poison of unsatisfied desires penetrating inward.”
The narrator is up against the wall, against society, against what I suppose we call otherness, which is I suppose what makes this a key existential text. Certainly, it can be read that way, although for I personally don't find it to be all that much an "outsider" classic, if only because the real source of oppression is inside rather than out. He’s at war with a toothache, he’s at war with cold, stony nature and with other people. The wall is an intractable force. You suffer, Nature does not. People offend you and you can’t do anything about it.
“How can a man of consciousness have the slightest respect for himself?” he asks. Being a frustrated, spiteful little shit becomes -- to his mind, and perhaps to Dostoevsky's -- the natural state to which all humans are born. But this aspect of the book is only moderately convincing, because consciousness isn't really his problem, I don't think; it's his inability to connect.
Part of the problem is that he's simply lazy: “...perhaps I really read myself as an intelligent man because throughout my entire life I've never been able to start or finish anything.” The other part of the problem: no one confronts him with his laziness, because no one cares. He is, in many ways, absent from human society, and throughout the book it's as if he's waving a sign that says: "I'M HERE."
He has no faith in civilization, either, and argues against the idea of better living through understanding and reason, because the more we understand, the less encouraging life is. Life isn't about reason, anyway; it's about desire, and stupidity. People, in fact, are essentially stupid, if by stupid we mean cursed with a sense of individuality that cannot be realized. They want their own way, they want not to feel like cogs in the wheel of the universe, ever-turning, they want not to be predictable, even if being unpredictable means acting against one's own self-interest. You don’t always want to take the road to “somewhere or other,” he points out, you want to swerve -- “the main thing is not where it goes, but that it should simply be going.”
He's stuck on the road less travelled by; he is -- and he broadens this to include most of humanity -- anti-successful. A man loves chaos "because he is instinctively afraid of achieving the goal and completing the edifice he is creating." Ants might build an anthill, but men like the “process of achieving the goal, but not the goal itself.” In writing this very book, he is his own perfect example.
There’s something very Prufrock about him; like T.S. Eliot's character, he's afraid of life, and the way every action, no matter how small, carries some consequence, even or especially if it's only interior. “Is it possible to be perfectly candid with oneself and not be afraid of the whole truth?” he asks. He’s trying, in a roundabout way, to be honest with himself -- but is he? How honest can he be? He goes back and forth: “Maybe it’s also that I’m a coward. And maybe also that I’m imagining a public before me so as to behave more decently while I write.” But, why write at all? To impose order on random thoughts?
Almost in spite of himself, that's what he's managing to do, and we've only gotten to page 38. So far, he's given us an unpleasant but palpable portrait. How did he get this way? That's the subject of the much longer Part II, where he goes back over a few formative experiences in early adulthood that shaped him for life.
He starts by confessing something we already know: “It’s perfectly clear to me now that it was I who, owing to my boundless vanity, and hence also my exactingness toward myself, very often looked upon myself with furious dissatisfaction, reaching the point of loathing, and therefore mentally attributed my view to everyone else.”
More than that, he wants desperately to reach out, to make some kind of connection with another, and in an early recollection he brings to mind no one so much as Jerry, the tortured loner from Edward Albee's The Zoo Story who is so desperate to make contact that he provokes a total stranger into killing him. Dostoevsky's Narrator, much to his frustration, doesn't get that far, because he can't even get noticed. He goes to a bar where a guy playing billiards casually moves him aside like he's a piece of furniture; the kind of scene you could easily imagine in some old Buster Keaton film. The biiliard player, a big guy who probably has moved a lot of people aside, doesn't recognize he's been insensitive to the narrator's hair-trigger temperament, which makes the narrator recognize his own lack of courage, his own cowardice. Why didn't he stand up to the billiard player? The question dogs him daily, because he keeps passing the billiard player on the street and always steps out of his way; he's still too scared to act, so much so that he has to buck himself up, to refuse to step aside for the billiard player, achieving something of a moral triumph when his imaginary nemesis brushes past him. The smallest, most trivial act in the world becomes for the narrator a game of chicken that will tell him whether he's gotten the better of someone, and whether he's a man or a mouse.
Our narrator isn't without ideals; actually, he's chained to them. His head stays in the clouds, among the “beautiful and the lofty.” He's a man who has gradually deteriorated into meaninglessness, and he daydreams constantly of what he would do, of courage he doesn’t have; looks forward to the sudden miracle that will transform him into the man of his dreams, the hero of his own life, possibly a great artist: a hero whose defects aren’t really defects so much as they are testaments to excessive strength and force of personality, to his own singularity of mind.
That's the hope, of course, but in the main significant episode of the book, he proves the opposite. Once again and for always, the Narrator finds himself the outsider, looking on as his old schoolmates throw a party for a fellow named Zverkov, who becomes his latest enemy. The Zverkov party is a reminder of how the Narrator was rejected as a youth, and it's a rejection that brought on a certain snobbery: he's rejected, he tells himself, because he''s better. He needs people, though, and he reveals that he badly treated the one friend he had in life, mainly because he needs someone to reject: “I needed him only to gain a victory over him, only to bring him into subjection."
This pattern will play out again with the Zverkov party. The narrator imagines that he will be seen as the great intelligent wit he believes himself to be. His dreams are hungry, his dreams are selfish: maybe the gang will drop Zverkov and worship the narrator. Maybe he could even crush Kverkov and THEN make him his friend; he could have him as a friend only if Zverkov recognized his superiority.
The party naturally goes badly. He arrives an hour early, because no one bothers to tell him it was postponed to an hour later. When Zwerkov tries to be nice, the narrator feels as if he is being patronized. The others turn on the narrator, and when Zverkov tries to intercede, it only makes things worse, because the narrator hates having Zverkov comes to his rescue. He's so mad he wants to get up and leave -- unfortunately, he doesn't have the guts. Instead, he gets drunk, makes a fool of himself, prostrates himself before Zverkov, apologizes, wants only his friendship, but the group has had its fill of him and understandably want to leave this wet blanket behind when they head to a whorehouse. Instead, he follows along, hoping to redeem himself in their eyes.
Of course, as by now we've seen demonstrated constantly, he only needs people because he wants to pull them down with him and hopefully beneath him. Unfortunately, he's beneath contempt; just as the billiard player didn't notice him, Zverkov pities the narrator too much to ever be offended by him, which is unfortunate because the narrator is looking forward to a duel of honor -- all for the better, as it turns out, because the narrator doesn't have a friend who could act as his second.
At this brothel, he meets a girl, Liza. In her shame, her destitution, he sees an image of himself, or seems to. He tries to counsel her to leave this life -- he has found someone he can help, if only with cliches. She is cynical about life, far more than he is; she doesn't have illusions or dreams about herself; she accepts the cruelty of life. He gives her pages of trite advice about how she should go home, get married, have kids, the whole package and lays out a picture of what the whore's life is, how it uses up a woman until she has nothing more to sell, sinking ever further into the abyss until she's dead. It's quite a performance and it seems to have the salutory effect of saving Liza's life.
Alas, our narrator isn't through with her yet. He's attracted to Liza, which naturally induces a hope that the attraction is mutual, which immediately sets off a power struggle. First, there's the fear that when she comes to visit him she'll see that he's poor, and maybe not quite the gentleman she imagined. Also, because he can't really stand the idea of submitting to his desire for someone else, he dreams of the reverse, something that will give him the upper hand: she will fall in love with him, and he'll show what a refined sort he is by refusing to take advantage of her.
Unfortunately, Liza doesn't show up at his house: a common whore has rejected him. The narrator is in constant need of redressing his wounded ego by rejecting someone else; "without power and tyranny over someone, I really cannot live," he says. Love, he says, "consists precisely in the right, voluntarily granted by the beloved object, to be tyrannized over." As a result, he takes out his anger on his servant, Apollon, by denying him his wages. To compound matters, his servant in turn rejects him, by threatening to go to the authorities. As he yells at Apollon, Liza arrives, which makes matters worse, because he can't forgive her for seeing him as he is: a poor man, in a ragged dressing-gown, belittling his hapless servant.
He gives Liza money; after nominally saving her from being a whore, he now wants her to feel like one. The fantasies of his head have poisoned his heart. Liza leaves and he lets her go, then tries to bring her back. He wants to beg her forgiveness, but his sense of love loses out to his evil-- no, he really wants to hurt her, to let her leave with his insult, to know that the person she turned to for help spurned her, hurt her, crushed her belief that she could be helped. The narrator broadens his despair to all mankind: he is who we are, only more so. Shaped by spite, he has become the living embodiment of it.