Notes from Dostoevsky: The Underground, Spirituality, and Personhood

By Craig Verniest

            On Monday, November 8, the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies welcomed guest lecturer Dr. Susan McReynolds for its latest installment in the Fall Colloquia “Dostoevsky at 200” series. Dr. McReynolds is an associate professor in the Slavic Languages and Literature department at Northwestern University, with research interests in topics such as Russian and German literature and philosophy, nationalism, antisemitism, and Dostoevsky in the 19th and 20th centuries. In her lecture, titled “Voices from the Underground: Spiritual Resistance and the Theology of the Person in Dostoevsky,” McReynolds explored the topics of spirituality and personhood within Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions and Notes from the Underground and asked us the central question: how can human beings live together without destroying each other physically and spiritually?

Both works were written following Dostoevsky’s first trip to Europe in 1862, and as such, are grounded in his experiences in Europe and how he perceived the philosophical, spiritual, and socioeconomic states of the places he visited and people he observed. As McReynolds made clear early on, all of Dostoevsky’s subsequent writings, indeed the monumental literary figure he would become, had their foundations in what he took away from his trip to Europe: “It is first in Winter Notes where Dostoevsky will create images, voice thoughts, and stimulate emotions” that will become central to the form and content of all of his future texts. McReynolds reminds us that provocation is an essential theme for Dostoevsky’s writing. His encounter with Western values, ideas, and society during his trip to Europe and his subsequent engagement with a Russian intelligentsia increasingly influenced by their European counterparts provoked him to write scathing reactions against both the Western worldview and the Russian intellectuals who promoted it. Thus, the context for Dostoevsky’s trip to Europe and the trends of Westernization within Russia at the time of his return are crucial for understanding Dostoevsky’s personal ideology and why he voices the ideas expressed in his future writings.

Another element that is essential for consideration is his use of the “notes” form of genre. McReynolds informed us that between the Golden age of Russian literature and era of massive novels (Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in particular), the genre of “notes” proved popular. The notes form provided authors the ability to inscribe their thoughts in a semiautobiographical fashion, signaling to the reader an enhanced level of authority from the author’s position—given the narrative’s basis in the author’s own experiences—while still signifying an element of “unknowability” to the text. The reader would not be able to know outright what parts of the story were entirely autobiographical, and, from such uncertainty, how much of the narrative would be real and true.

Dostoevsky uses this format to great effect in both Winter Notes and Notes from the Underground. Winter Notes is presented as an autobiographical account of his travels in Europe, told in his own words and his own narrativistic voice. Thus, his authorial voice is established, and the reader is implicitly encouraged to make the connection that, when Dostoevsky writes about matters of Europe and their social and spiritual malaise, his word is worth its weight. However, Notes from the Underground, written a year after Winter Notes, is presented through a fictional narrator, one touching on themes and ideas Dostoevsky first gave light to in Winter Notes. Thus, the opening lines of Notes from the Underground subliminally encourage the reader to associate the authority of the fictional narrator with the authority of the autobiographical Dostoevsky, thereby establishing a communicative relationship between Dostoevsky, his fictional narrator, and the audience. For those who attended Caryl Emerson’s illuminating lecture on November 4, they might recall the idea of a trinitarian interaction between intratextual characters and the Holy Spirit advanced by Mikhail Bakhtin: here, we might see the application of this idea of trinitarian interaction at an external level.

Having analyzed the context and form of both notes, McReynolds moved on to the content. Notes from the Underground, at its core, unveils this idea of the “underground psychology”: between the narrator and every character with which he engages, each interaction is a life-or-death contest, a conflict of power dynamics with the other, an existential battle in which the narrator must dominate the other or else he will be humiliated and his sense of self irrevocably shattered. Indeed, in both Winter Notes and Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky reveals his own and his narrator’s struggles over this type of power competition with other humans, such that the mere existence of the other, especially one who has something positive, makes the narrator feel guilty, punished, and disgraced. The narrator is also a recluse, a resident of St. Petersburg who has shut himself in his home never to leave—not his city, not his country, not even his home itself. The contrast this character’s nature presents with the context of Dostoevsky’s prolific travels over much of Western Europe provides a glimpse into arguably the central dilemma of both texts: how can one coexist peacefully with others?

For Dostoevsky, the answer clearly isn’t in following the model set by Western Europe. Either through an over-emphasis on collectivization, or an over-emphasis on individualism, Dostoevsky presents an image of the “underground” as manifesting both as a condition of wider society and a condition of the interior psyche. In Winter Notes, Dostoevsky depicts an image of London as, frankly, a hellscape: smoke and pollution clog the air, inhuman sounds echo throughout the night, the working masses collectively drink themselves into a mind-numbing stupor, and women and children as young as 11 are abused and forced into a life of prostitution. Thus, the underground can be conceived of as societal destitution, a place in which, through the failures of scientific rationality and Western modernity, large swathes of people have lost their spirit and seemingly their will to aspire to great thoughts and action, maybe even for life itself. On the other hand, Notes from the Underground presents an image of the underground as the deep recesses of one’s own mind, a self-constructed cage surrounding oneself and their mind that isolates them from the outer world and eventually cuts off all ability to communicate and interact with other human beings and external reality.

However, in true Dostoevskian fashion, McReynolds told us that the secret to both texts isn’t this idea of the underground: the underground is a “red herring,” meant to distract from “Dostoevsky’s real preoccupation, which is what’s on the outside of the underground,” i.e., the “aboveground”. The aboveground is a place of light, of collective good, a utopia, but at the moment, it is currently “unacceptable,” because the reality of the underground is essential for our achievement of a real aboveground. At the time of his writing, rational egoism and a kind of socialist utopian thinking—expressed most clearly in Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done—professed to indicate the ways in which an ideal aboveground could be achieved, but as Dostoevsky points out, these types of thinking draw their inspiration from the same strands of European modernism that have created the societal malaise plaguing Europe and fail to address the spiritual component necessary for true change.

Ultimately, in response to both the text and the question “What is to be done?”, Notes from the Underground asserts, essentially, that there is nothing to be done; that when the aboveground offers no better solutions to the issues of one’s existence, well, then it is better to remain in the underground. That being said, McReynolds again reminded us that Dostoevsky was above all, a man of Orthodox Christian faith whose beliefs told him that the impossible must be embraced and met head on. He believed wholeheartedly in the impossible, impractical nature of Christianity, of the reality of miracles, even that his purpose for existence was “transcendent, self-sacrifice in the aspiration of Christ-like love for all humanity.” This aspiration for a higher purpose, one greater than simple rationality or biological maintenance, can be seen in what might be his more developed response to solving the issues of contemporary European and Russian society. In Winter Notes, he writes that people need the spirit of brotherhood, of an unconditional love and support between the individual and society, in order to overcome the loss of faith and growing nihilism of the late-modern West. It is a spirit that can only be cultivated naturally, consensually, it cannot be enforced through short-term, violent revolution; but if cultivated over hundreds to thousands of years, it could bring about the type of utopian society in which both the individual and society had all of their collective and individual needs met, and a healthy, loving humanity would reign supreme.

Craig Verniest is a first year M.A. student in History.

This entry was posted in Colloquium Talks, Essays, Havighurst Lecturers, Lecture Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.