Excerpts from the Underground

Lonely TrainI was introduced literally to Fyodor Dostoyevsky through Kierkegaard and cinematically through Richard Ayoade’s film based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, the double  (Ayoade once said in an interview, “there is Darth Vader in all of us, I think about that everyday in the shower“. This quote was just to get a Star Wars reference in. Sorry) . Subsequently I greedily bought a few of Dostoyevsky’s works only to not have time to read them, which is pretty much the problem every bibliophile faces – so many books, so little time (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

Eventually I thought it good to start small with “the meek one” and was not at all disappointed. Taste and see they say, so back for more I am with “the underground” and luckily the copy I have also has “the double” included, double for my buck.

So far this has been an excellent read nothing like I’ve ever read before. Not much of a plot, just the thoughts of a lonely, neurotic man that seems to have a lot of good stuff to say, I guess even madmen can often speak the truth in the same way only the village drunkard dares to say what the rest of us internalise.

I will here quote from a section that I found so striking that it had to shared. In it, the sole character deliberates about desire as related to any notions of Natural law (in both the Liberal and Christian sense) and also that of the naive notion of moral progress as found famously in Steven Pinker who thinks that violence has been reduced thanks to civilisation, Dostoevsky seems to disagree:

At all events, if as a result of civilisation man hasn’t grown more bloodthirsty, he has certainly become viler in his quest for blood than before. Formerly he saw justice in bloodshed and exterminated those he needed to with an easy conscience. But nowadays, although we consider bloodshed something abhorrent, we still participate in it – and more than ever. Which is worse? – that you must decide for yourselves. They say Cleopatra (apologies for taking an example from roman history) was fond of sticking gold pins into the bosoms of her slave girls, taking keen delight in their screams and contortions. You will say that this happened in relatively barbarous times; that today too times are still barbarous because (also relatively speaking) we still stick pins into people; and that even now although man has learned to see more clearly than in barbarous times, he’s long way from accustoming himself to act as science and reason dictate. For all that you are absolutely convinced that man is bound to grow accustomed once certain bad old habits have been discarded and when science and common sense have fully re-educated and directed human nature along normal lines. You are convinced that man will then, of his own accord, cease making mistakes and – so to speak – willy-nilly refuse to divorce his volition from his normal interests, And that’s not all: you say that then science itself will teach man (although in my opinion this is already a luxury) that in actual fact he possesses neither will nor whims and never did have then and that he is nothing more than a sort of piano or key or organ stop; and, what is more, that there do exist in this world the laws of nature, so that whatever he does is not of his own volition at all, but exists according to the laws of nature. Consequently these laws of nature need only to be revealed and man will no longer be responsible for his actions and life will be extremely easy for him. All human actions, it goes without saying, will then be calculated according to these laws, mathematically, like a logarithm table reaching 108,000 and entered in a directory. Better still, certain orthodox publications will appear, rather like our modern encyclopaedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so accurately calculated and specified that there will no longer be either independent actions or adventures in this world.
And then – it’s still you who maintain this – a new political economy will appear on the scene, ready-made and also calculated with mathematical precision, so that in a flash all conceivable questions will vanish, simply because all conceivable replies to them will have been provided. Then the Crystal palace will be erected. Then …well, the golden age will dawn. Of course, it’s quite impossible to guarantee (it’s me speaking now) that things won’t be incredibly boring, for example (because what will there be left to do once everything is calculated according to tables?); but, on the other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational. Of course, when you’re bored you can think up all sorts of things ! After all, its from boredom that gold pins are stuck into people, but none of that would matter. The bad thing is (and again it’s me speaking) that then – who knows? – people might be glad even of gold pins. Man is stupid, phenomenally stupid. I mean to say, he may not be so completely stupid, but then he’s so ungrateful that you couldn’t find another like him, even if you were to look hard. For example, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if some gentleman of dishonourable – better, of reactionary and mocking – appearance were suddenly to spring up from nowhere amidst this universal good sense, stand hands on hips and tell every one of us; well gentlemen, why don’t we get rid of this good sense once and for all by giving it a good kick, just so that we can send all logarithms to hell and once again be able to live according to our own foolish will? That wouldn’t be so bad, but the really galling thing is that he would undoubtedly find followers; that’s the way men are fashioned. And all this for the most trivial reason which, one would think, is hardly worth mentioning: to be precise, because man, whoever he may be, has always and everywhere preferred to act as he chooses and not at all as his reason or personal advantage dictate; indeed, one can act contrary to one’s own best interests and sometimes it’s absolutely imperative to do so (that’s my idea). One’s own free, independent desire, one’s own whims, however unbridled, one’s own fantasy, sometimes inflamed till the point of madness – all this is precisely that same, invariably omitted, most advantageous of advantages which cannot be accommodated within any classification and because of which all systems and theories are constantly consigned to the devil. And where on earth did all those sages get the idea that man needs some kind of virtuous, some kind of normal desire? How did they come to imagine that man categorically needs rational, advantageous desire? All man needs is independent volition, whatever that independence might cost and wherever it might lead. Anyway, the devil only knows what volition is.

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