Robert Westfield is the author of Suspension, his debut novel published this summer by HarperCollins. As a playwright, he was writer-in-residence for The Working Group (A Wedding Album, The Pennington Plot, A Tulip Economy) and the dramaturge for Marc Wolf's award-winning interview-based solo show, Another American: Asking and Telling. Robert lives in Manhattan where he's at work on the first page of several new projects. He blogs about NYC on his website, which will feature virtual tours of the city starting in January 2007. Below he writes about Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground.
Robert Westfield on Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
For reasons I still can't explain, one of the only writers I was able to read in the months following September 11 was Dostoevsky. Perhaps it was owing to the absence of skyscrapers and airplanes in his fiction. Maybe I found comfort inside his decrepit nineteenth century buildings with their squalid yellow rooms just like the ones I was inhabiting in Hell's Kitchen. Looking back now, I realize I must have been fascinated by the cast of characters in Crime and Punishment and his motifs of doors and walls, because all of these made their way into my own novel. But there was something else.
During that fall of 2001, I found myself drawn to the characters in literature who made a clean break with the outside world, stepped into their homes and turned the locks, protagonists who ended their stories by venting their disgust with the society around them and retreating to a place where that society did not exist. These are works that form a kind of literature of repudiation. Gulliver ends his story in a stable, Timon in a cave outside Athens, Moliere's Misanthrope simply away, to 'some spot unpeopled'. And if the characters don't consciously reject society, the author does it for them: think of Holden Caulfield in his asylum, too sensitive to live in a world of phonies.
This escape works especially well with novels. The character, in order to justify the retreat, tends to reduce humanity to fit into a category easy to reject, generalizing everyone as dishonest or greedy or violent or corrupt. And the reader, momentarily closed off in the solitary act of sitting with a book, can be readily persuaded to agree or at least to sympathize with the character's reasoning.
Notes from Underground is a prime example of this renunciation with one of the most alienated narrators of all time, but it's also a book that functions very differently. The Underground Man does spend some paragraphs classifying all happy people as 'stupid and shallow', but Dostoevsky is up to much more, mining many levels of alienation and employing methods different from the usual 'reduce humanity, reject humanity, retreat from humanity'. The Underground Man's reasons for withdrawal have as much to do with self-loathing as they do with a contempt for others, and his means of leaving is less of an escape than an inevitable self-imprisonment, walled in against his will by his own hyperconsciousness.
When the Underground Man writes this confession, he has been living apart from society for 20 years and is still in the process of closing himself off. As he scribbles, rages, and connives, you can almost hear him applying the mortar and stacking up the bricks, enclosing himself in words, words and more words. On the final page when the Underground Man has enough and tells us he doesn't want to write any more, the author points out that the notes don't end here, that 'the paradoxalist... couldn't resist and kept on writing'.
The novella is divided into two parts. The first is the Underground Man's introduction of himself, a polemic consisting of 11 chapters. This part is extraordinarily referential, packed with allusions to literary journals very few of us have ever read or will ever read, so it is usually accompanied with editorial footnotes that illuminate but also pull us even further into the swirl of the logic, make us dizzy, depending on how much attention we pay them, these notes that imply that we really won't understand this book unless we fully grasp that this is a satire of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's theory of rational egoism and doctrine of human advantage and that it would behove us to be familiar with Burke, Kant and Diderot as well as with Rousseau's 'l'homme de la nature et de la verita', and Saltykov-Shchedrin's review of N.N. Ge's painting of 'The Last Supper' which caused quite the stir in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1863.
In the midst of this, the essay spins on its own, because sometimes Dostoevsky plays the satirist with the narrator as the object; other times he utilizes the narrator to make a legitimate point. It's difficult to be sure what he's up to and then, in the penultimate chapter, we learn that one of the most crucial passages of the entire work - a section that dealt with 'salvation in Christ' - was gutted by the censors to Dostoevsky's great dissatisfaction.
But all of this contributes to the delirium of experiencing the book - the more esoteric the references the better. Part of the point is that this is a man overwhelmed, overqualified, who's read 'too much' and is overly influenced by all these modern abstract ideas, an intellectual product of nineteenth century Europe. He often speaks of coming up against the wall of natural laws (why must 2x2 = 4?), feels defeated by predeterminism and is desperate to demonstrate free will.
But I repeat for the one-hundredth time, there is one case, only one, when a man may intentionally, consciously desire even something harmful to himself, something stupid, even very stupid, namely: in order to have the right to desire something even very stupid and not be bound by an obligation to desire only what's smart.Here is the central characteristic of the Underground Man: the constant urge to thwart, to defy with contempt; the embodiment of the emotion repeated most frequently throughout the text and stated in the opening line - spite. One of the main reasons for this introduction is to set up how odious (and also incredibly funny) he's going to be when he tells his story. By having the narrator explain himself and present his rationale, Dostoevsky is preparing the reader for a brilliant comedy of spite.
How about it gentlemen, what if we knock over all this rationalism with one swift kick for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to hell, so that once again we can live according to our own stupid will!
The second part is a flashback to 1848 - that year of revolutionary idealism - when the narrator was 24. It chronicles a series of absurd battles with opponents who aren't aware they're at war. The Underground Man spends months walking along Nevsky Prospect working up the nerve to barge into an officer who once slighted him; he invites himself to a dinner party he doesn't want to attend with former classmates who don't want him to be there; and he refuses to pay his servant until his servant apologizes for not asking for his wages (a perfect illustration of his twisted logic). All of this culminates in a game he plays with Liza, a prostitute he meets after pursuing his classmates to a brothel.
The Underground Man torments Liza, encouraging her to leave the brothel, promising to help her if she comes to his home, then ridiculing and raging against her when she does later in the week. At the end of this, he breaks down in sobs in front of her, but instead of spitting on him or slapping him or at the very least turning her back on him - reactions he fully expects and understands - she embraces him, cries for him, sits by his bed until he's better. Afterwards, he can't stop himself and degrades her by shoving a five-ruble note into her hand to remind her that she's still a whore. He scurries out of the room, unable to bear her response, and she in turn leaves the house, but only after dropping the money on the table. When he comes back in and sees the crumpled bill, he rushes out after her but loses her in the snow. He falls back into his rhetorical flourishes, using an abstract argument to prove that it's best not to follow, to let Liza savor her deep pain and sorrow, and he, so justified, returns home.
The Underground Man is, however, troubled by this and we understand the scene to mark his final break from the world. This conflict becomes a recurring theme - a simple character, from the earth of Mother Russia, uncorrupted by European literary journals, who, with a genuine act of love, mercy, pity, forgiveness, trumps the academic philosophizing. We see it in Sonia, another prostitute, who talks Raskolnikov through his Nietzschean delusions; we see it in the Christ figure who surprises the Grand Inquisitor with a kiss; and in Alyosha, the young Karamazov, doing the same to his brother at the end of Ivan's contentious diatribe.
Notes from Underground received scant critical attention and was considered cynical and nonsensical by most of those who did read it, which was frustrating and discouraging for the author, but this gem of a book was a turning point for Dostoevsky. Many of his subsequent characters would be walled up by abstraction, committing heinous acts based on theory, coming up against characters who love and pity, who above all feel empathy and view their fellow humans as flesh and blood individuals like themselves. Dostoevsky knew that even the glorified social philosophy of the day could be extremely anti-social in its disregard of human nature, and he observed a world where people didn't need to literally lock themselves up or move into a stable or cave outside Athens - they were alienated from their fellow citizens while living and working among them, even as they strolled side by side along Nevsky Prospect.