November 11, 2020

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man Comes to Post-Election America 

By Stuart Mitchner

No book or essay dealing with the precarious situation of modern man would be complete without some allusion to Dostoevsky’s explosive figure.

—Joseph Frank (1918-2013)

In March the cheering was for health care workers saving lives on the front lines of the pandemic. Saturday it was crowds of happy people all over post-election America cheering postal workers for delivering the votes that rescued the nation. By Sunday I was beginning to think that a birthday column celebrating Dostoevsky (1821-1881) and his novella Notes from Underground (1864) made an awkward fit with the national mood of joyous deliverance.

However, in view of the president’s refusal to concede, and the vengeful damage he could inflict on the nation between now and January 20, I’ve decided to go ahead and share some thoughts from Dostoevsky’s Underground Man that seem pertinent to the current “precarious situation.”

I came to Notes after searching Franz Kafka’s Diaries for references to the writer he considered “a blood relative.” In the December 20, 1914 entry, after citing his closest friend Max Brod’s claim that Dostoevsky “allows too many mentally ill persons” into his work, Kafka writes: “Completely wrong. They aren’t ill. Their illness is merely a way to characterize them, and moreover a very delicate and fruitful one. One need only stubbornly keep repeating of a person that he is simple-minded and idiotic, and he will, if he has the Dostoevskian core inside him, be spurred on, as it were, to do his very best. His characterizations have in this respect about the same significance as insults among friends.”

Insult and Injury

If you make it “insults among enemies,” Kafka’s stress on one of the most charged words in Notes from Underground reminds me of the toxic brew of insult and injury stirred to a boil in Donald Trump’s “Dostoevskian core” by then-President Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. Roasted to a turn, the reality TV dealmaker responded by kicking off his journey to the White House with the birther conspiracy theory.

Consider a certain empowered, verbally abusive, vengeance-driven narcissist and you can find intimations in the Underground Man, who has come “not out of the lap of nature but out of a retort,” a “retort-made man” who “is sometimes so nonplussed in the presence of his antithesis that with all his exaggerated consciousness he genuinely thinks of himself as a mouse and not a man…. Now let us look at this mouse in action. Let us suppose, for instance, that it feels insulted, … (and it almost always does feel insulted), and wants to revenge itself….To come at last to the deed itself, to the very act of revenge. Apart from the one fundamental nastiness,” it “succeeds in creating around it so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts and questions,” adding “so many unsettled questions, that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew, a stinking mess, made up of its doubts, emotions, and of the contempt spat upon it by the direct men of action who stand solemnly about it as judges and arbitrators, laughing at it till their healthy sides ache.”

I should admit that at this point any resemblance to the grim bipolar political reality we’re living in is strictly coincidental, especially the notion that the so-called “most powerful man in the world” would ever think of himself as a mouse, except of course that in the Underground the operative phrase is “in spite of himself.” In the end, the only thing left for the mouse is “to creep ignominiously into its mouse-hole. There in its nasty, stinking, underground home our insulted, crushed and ridiculed mouse promptly becomes absorbed in cold, malignant and, above all, everlasting spite.”

“Swinging On a Star”

In the wee hours of Friday’s endless vote count, my thoughts reverted to Kafka and the following passage from Part 1 of Notes from Underground: “I want now to tell you, gentlemen, whether you care to hear it or not, why I could not even become an insect. I tell you solemnly, that I have many times tried to become an insect. But I was not equal even to that. I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness — a real thorough-going illness.”

Imagine the impact that passage had on Kafka. Not to suggest that Dostoevsky’s Underground Man provided the germ of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa “wakes up one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” No, it’s just that when I made the connection, it was after 3 a.m., the vote count seemed frozen at 253 for Biden, with packets of provisional ballots still to come, and I was getting punchy. Imagine reading Kafka and Dostoevsky during the dark-night-of-the-electoral soul with “Swinging On a Star,” an old Bing Crosby song, crooning in your head. “Would you like to swing on a star, carry moonbeams home in a jar, or would you rather be” — an insulted mouse? A gigantic insect? Or a man with a toothache moaning so noisily, so operatically, that “his whole family listens to him with loathing.” So why not become an insect? Or maybe you’d rather be a wall like the one the Underground Man “cannot break through … by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.” Or would he, finally, rather be nothing but a piano-key? Even then, “even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics,” he “would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse.”

Veterans Day

When you think about the rough draft of a civil war we’ve been engaged in, we’re all veterans today. With obvious, horrendous exceptions, including the hundreds of thousands fallen to the pandemic, it’s been a bloodless conflict compared to the wars of the past. In fact, even as the War Between the States was being fought, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was “ready to deny the evidence of his senses only to justify his logic…. Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne. Take the whole of the nineteenth century … Take Napoleon … Take North America — the eternal union. And through the development of this many-sidedness man may come to finding enjoyment in bloodshed. In fact, this has already happened to him. Have you noticed that it is the most civilized gentlemen who have been the subtlest slaughterers?”

So is it any wonder that Notes from Underground is the single work that inspired Joseph Frank to embark on his epic biographical voyage on “strange seas” of Dostoevsky when he was teaching at Princeton? In the foreword to Frank’s Lectures on Dostoevsky (Princeton Univ. Press $22.95), Robin Feuer Miller singles out Frank’s “fascination with the Notes as one of the primary intellectual underpinnings of his monumental five-volume biography.” Miller goes on to quote Frank on how often Notes is “cited as a key text revelatory of the hidden depth of the sensibility of our time…. No book or essay dealing with the precarious situation of modern man would be complete without some allusion to Dostoevsky’s explosive figure.” After observing how “the most important cultural developments of the present century … have claimed the underground man as their own,” or else have been “linked with him by zealous interpreters,” Frank adds a proviso that rings loud and clear in 2020, “that when he has not been hailed as a prophetic anticipation, he has been held up to exhibition as a luridly repulsive warning.”

“The Will of the People”

Despite Repeated Warnings,” the title of the longest and most musically ambitious piece on Paul McCartney’s 2018 album Egypt Station, still resonates today. In the liner notes claiming that climate change is the song’s subject, McCartney doesn’t name “the person symbolic of certain politicians” who calls global warming “a hoax,” but there’s a hint in the first lines (“Despite repeated warnings / Of dangers up ahead / The captain won’t be listening to what’s been said”), and the hint is unmistakably there in the upbeat call to arms: “How can we stop him / Grab the key and lock him up / If we can do it / We can save the day.” McCartney imagines the Titanic and “a mad daft captain” who knows the iceberg’s up ahead and plows right on anyway. The piece ends with a triumphant mutiny: “So we gather around him / Now the ropes that have bound him / Prove that he should have listened / To the will of the people.” The last lines are repeated in a rousing call to resistance, “It’s the will of the people.”

And it didn’t take a mutiny.

Joseph Frank’s original five-volume biography was abridged and condensed in a single paperback volume, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton Univ. Press 2012), which I reviewed here on March 13, 2013, shortly after Frank’s death. Lectures on Dostoevsky was published in December 2019. I used the Constance Garnett translation of Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky was born on October 30, 1821, according to the Julian Calendar; November 11, according to the Gregorian.