Dostoevksy’s Notes from the Underground and personal autonomy

At the end of a previous post, I started to explore something about Dostoevsky’s novella Notes from the Underground (1864), and I will continue these thoughts here.

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man is a perverse, spiteful, unhappy man; however, he is considered an anti-hero because he defends human autonomy and human complexity against politics and utilitarian philosophy.

Here is the first paragraph from the book:

I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can’t explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “pay out” the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well–let it get worse!

Like Charles Dickens, Dostoevsky took aim at Benthamite utilitarianism and a rationalism that under-appreciated human complexity. The utilitarian, rationalist notion that we can create good, happy people by creating a good society or enlightened political system was laughable for Dostoevsky. The human being is far too complex for that–indeed, society is far too complex for that. Dostoevsky makes this argument in Notes from the Underground. In terms of systems theory, we can say that Dostoevsky was defending the autonomy of the psychic system, arguing that this system cannot be directly changed by any social system. Psychic systems are self-determined, responding to any external irritations according to their own principles.

In a 1978 journal article (Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” versus Chernyshevsky’s “What Is to Be Done?” College Literature5(1), 24–33), Jane Barstow showed that Dostoevsky wrote Notes from the Underground as a direct, critical reply to Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel, What is to be Done? Interestingly, Chernyshevsky was itself written in response to Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862). Chernyshevsky believed that a scientific, rational approach to social problems could lead to utopia, or the end of evil. Social justice could be realized through human reason. Vladimir Lenin reportedly loved this novel, reading it five times.

Dostoevsky also defends art from science and politics. For someone like Lenin, art must be subordinate to politics; it must serve a political agenda, thus we get a ridiculous principle of Socialist Realism. Great literature brings out the complexity of individual lives; it’s far less interested in mass movement or bringing about an enlightened society or social justice, whatever that is.

Dostoevsky took the side of the Slavophiles in the ideological battle between the Slavophiles and the westernizers—those promoting the new thinking of western Europe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.