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Commentary on Fyodor Dostoevski's Short Story "Notes from the Underground"

Commentary on Fyodor Dostoevski's Short Story "Notes from the Underground"

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Published by Edward L Hester
From the Father of Russian Existentialism comes this great example of the western disease of the soul
From the Father of Russian Existentialism comes this great example of the western disease of the soul

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Published by: Edward L Hester on Jun 11, 2010
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07/05/2010

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A Commentary on Fyodor Dostoevski's "Notes from the Underground"Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian author of such great literature as The Brothers Karamazov ,Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot, also wrote in 1864 a short story titled "Notes from theUnderground." In this short story, he wrote about the life of a lower level bureaucrat during four days in the reign of Tsar Peter the Great. The Tsar was the emperor of a declining Russian statemired in feudalism and religiosity. So the Tsar decided to redirect the course of his countrytowards the rationalism and scientific outlook of the West. As a sign of that redirection, Tsar Peter build the city of St. Petersburg as a gateway to the West for Russia.Dostoevsky found himself deeply conflicted about the introduction of Western ideas and thoughtinto Russia, and he wrote numerous stories illustrating the conflict the new ideas created withinthe culture of feudal and Christian Russia. He admitted the virtues of the new rationalism andscientific thought, but yearned back towards the old values of Christianity and the simplicity of life in rural Russia. He couldn't help idealizing the "simplicity and goodness" of the Russian peasant, as well as the deeply religious culture and its values. As a result, he felt a irreconcilableconflict within himself and within his writing that emerged in nearly all his works between themythic past of Russia and the existential future of the West. He was joined by other Russianwriters who wrote in the same vein: writers such as Gogol and Pushkin wrote similar novels andshort stories.Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground" is known in literary circles as one of the bestdescriptions of the soul-sickness of modern Western man. The protagonist of this story, like thatof his other works, is a resident of St. Petersburg--a loner who was alienated from his fellowhumans and life--a narcissist, suffering from the shame of feeling inadequate and inferior, yetunable to open himself to the possibility of a genuine human relationship for fear of rejection or failure. His narcissism is, of course, a neurosis, the result of a wish to meet needs which hecannot meet. His narcissism sometimes causes him to feel more clever than others. He "looksdown on others" but, at the same time, feels inferior to them.Even though the story is written in the hand of the protagonist as entries in his "journal", his lifeis virtually invisible in the city. In fact, the story never reveals his name even. He feels that hedoes not exist--no career, no identity, no recognition from others that he exists, and no role insociety. Although he lives within the center of the city, he exists outside society.He was, he tells us, for a short time a low level bureaucrat in a routine government post, but--having received a modest inheritance--he retired and for the next twenty years spent his timein idleness.In his work, he never felt competent or able to face the criticism of his fellow bureaucrats, so hehid his feelings of inferiority behind a mask of indifference and sarcasm. In fact, at work hedwelt in constant anxiety and fear of being shown to be incompetent, stupid or made to feelunworthy by his co-workers. He was incapable of standing up for himself in officeconversations. Although he loathed those who choose idleness as slothful, he himself wasunwilling to venture back into a meaningless and threatening workplace. He was at the sametime unable to avoid viewing himself as lacking in character because of his own idleness.
 
Although he is lonely and desperate for human company, he is unable to maintain a normalrelationship with woman or man; much of the four days, in fact, involve his visits to and crueltreatment of a poor prostitute. He is caught in religious literalism, believing that having sex isevil. But his body betrays him, and so he goes to a prostitute feeling depraved. This is the closesthe can bear to get to another human being, and his use of her testifies to the contempt with whichhe views himself and her. When she shows a moment of compassion for him, he lashes out anddestroys her emotionally in a rage.Like modern Man, he is a man trapped between the past and the present. He struggles in theethical conflicts programmed into his being by historical issues, including Russian culture andhis Christian heritage, and the loss of meaning to his life associated with Western scientism bereft of religious content. He finds no meaning in science or rationalism, and therefore foreseesno future that holds any interest for him. He sees these western disciplines as creating a future of mathematical certainty--a future without need for choice or choosers, since certainty removes theneed for a person to choose. Certainty, he insists, is the beginning of death; a future withoutsurprises is not worth living. His own sense of worthlessness is threatened and intensified by thisidea. And so he spins and spins in a well of meaninglessness, self-absorption, worthlessness, andself-contempt.He is not interested in the meaningless work in a modern society but hungry to feel of value. Heis not able to be vulnerable with other persons but beset by an agonizing unmet need for love. Heknows himself enough to recognize his animal-like passions, his perversions, and the "evil" buried in himself; but his rationality "proves" to him that because of these qualities he can never  be anything but damned, forbidden human contact, human happiness, and divine salvation.Imprisoned in his isolation and meaninglessness on the Earth and denied love from God or humanity because Western science and rationality have done away with them, he cannot get hisneeds met. He cannot go back into the past for a purer, more secure, less certain future; and hecannot face the meaningless of life in a rationalist Russian future. And so, he constantly punisheshimself and others for his denied needs, even as he himself is the one denying himself happiness.He "chooses" to live in a hell of his own making--like Satan, who would rather suffer in hell than bow to [western] Man. He debates with himself the blessing of "consciousness" to Mankind,arguing at first that consciousness brings awareness of an imprisonment in Matter and loss of Heaven but that he (and Mankind) would choose to be conscious even if it meant that this meanthe would be aware of his double-bind. Then, contradicting himself, he says he really longs to be"unconscious" so that he might be re-united with his fellow man, living within the old religiousvalues, and like other normal persons who are "stupid, non-thinking, and react emotionally."But his much-vaunted consciousness is not so-much rationalist as emotionalist; what he is doingis constantly "running emotional pain tapes." He needs love and relationship, but feels he cannothave them. So he reacts with the narcissistic rage of an infant, which he constantly feeds bysulking. However, his religiosity forbids that he express his rage, and so it gets turned withinwhere it decimates his sense of self. He suffers and is ashamed of himself for being of so littlevalue.His narcissism is the narcissism of a child. He appears to be trapped in an early emotional stage
 
of mental development, that of childhood, still needing his mother to lead him into understandingof how to love by accepting him unconditionally and protecting him from overwhelming change.Lacking this psychological sense of security, he does not know how to face the insecurity of interacting with others in a impersonal and existential culture. His idealization of his Church andthe collective culture of Old Russia is reminiscent of the idealization of and need for the mother appearing in modern man as a Mother Complex.Western culture is deeply marked by the Mother Complex, which causes us to yearn for a returnto the collective consciousness of simpler times, a yearning to be absorbed within any collectiveand its beliefs, or a yearning to be merged with another human being so we can feel accepted andsafe within ourselves. The Mother Complex works against the development of a strong andseparate ego capable of maintaining healthy, normal heterosexual relationships or dealing withthe impersonality of society. It leads to codependence between men and women, and finally theloss of relationship and intimacy western people so yearn for.He tries to deal with his feelings of unimportance and insignificance by constructing a persona o power and superiority. But it is a mask only. To defend his mask, he treats others with blindingindifference, cruelty, snobbery, and abrasive language. Then, to justify his treatment of others, he projects his own reasoning and self contempt outward onto others, seeing them as evil,irredeemable, and shameful like himself; and their lives as meaningless and uninteresting. Hewill neither forgive them for being this way, nor himself for being this way. He will neither givelove nor accept it. He will neither give respect to others nor accept it from another.Like those others, the protagonist is constantly "becoming". He is not able to be with himself or accept himself as he is, so he is engaged in strengthening his intellectual skills in his journal or imagined discourse with those he needs to impress. But he feels incompetent to change hiscircumstances. He feels no effective sense of "self" nor "will" to change anything. This is aworldview characteristic of a collective society where individuals were locked into their community identities and roles.He displays severe psychic fragmentation and neurosis, a poverty of spirit, an alienation fromsociety and other persons, a loss of grounding, and the disease of the soul carried by mostmodern Western persons. His ego is decimated, with the consequence that he has nocomprehension of the outside world or how things "work."Unable to experience pleasure or happiness from normal interactions, he wallows in rage,despair, self-contempt, self-rejection and self-pity; he insists that there is a type of perverted pleasure he gets from this source, as if by punishing himself, he also felt he was punishingsociety.************************************** ******************************Dostoyevsky's story is viewed as a psychological masterpiece. If you would like to read thiswork, consider the translation in the series by Barnes and Noble called "Barnes & NobleClassics: Notes from the Underground and Other Stories, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, ISBN 13-:978-1-59308-037-2 or ISBN 10: 1-1-59308-037-9 (paperback-$4.95)

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