The man from underground
By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.
Among the continental masters, Fydor Dostoevsky stands out as showing the ability of the modern imagination to do the “paradoxical task of standing both inside and outside itself, articulate its own formlessness and encompass its own extravagant possibilities.”
In the Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky, whom Andre Gide regarded as the greatest of all novelists, demonstrated his unusual power in describing the lower depths of the human psyche and the inner states of the mind. His psychological penetration which made him a towering figure in world literature is matched with his equally powerful gift for new ideas, the philosophic import of which had a wide-ranging significance for the world at large. In Dostoevsky, therefore, as shown in the fictional work cited, we find the exemplar of the continental master who exhibits the ability of the modern imagination not only to take stock of the inner world of the individual self with all the mysterious forces locked up within it but also stand outside the self and discover awesome truths about itself and its relation to society.
The striking thing about the Underground Man, a forty-year old employee who retired from the civil service, is his exceptional ability to look with sharp clarity into himself self-critically. He knows and is fully aware of what troubles him—and that is the fact of his self-contradiction. He is sundered from within between his will on the one hand and his reason on the other. The root cause of his torment is the endless conflict between these two sides of his individuality. Underground Man also knows that his ultimate salvation lies in his ability to integrate these extremes of his makeup by means of the power of conscious will and freedom of choice. He is nameless, which means that he is almost a nonentity, and also that he could be everyman.
The primitive elements in him prompt him to stand up against the forces in society that do violence to the passions that make for a heightened sense of life and sensitivity to the natural pleasures they afford. And he sees quite rightly that so-called culture and civilization have only succeeded in crippling his natural human propensities such as the appetite for the pure act of living and its simple pleasures. Systematic morals and social conventions suppress the primal passions, the instincts and drives surfacing from the wells of the unconscious. Society has but succeeded in producing a new type of human being characterized by artificiality of manners, phoniness, and the cold sophistry of reasoning exemplified in the inexorable formula ‘two plus two makes four.’
But Underground Man scoffs at this systematic conditioning that stripped him of the true qualities that make him human. He argues that reason itself and the fanatical worship of the intellect have not really transformed him any better but instead estranged him from himself, from the foundations of his human reality as a flesh and blood individual. So, he affirms the will and passion as against mere intellection or cerebration, of involvement with life from which modern man is tragically divorced. He is for life minus the veneer of civilization, life in the most naked form that Camus’ Meursault enjoyed on the sun-drenched Algerian beach.
That is why he goes underground and lives apart from society which he cannot stand. In his underground hole on the outskirts of the town he sharpens his insights all the greater and gains the proper perspective to look at the world out there. He speaks truthfully if haughtily when he says: “…there is more life in me than in you. Look into it more carefully! Why, we don’t even know what living means now….”
For modern man has not lived a fully integrated life. He merely drifts along through existence as a walking corpse, having weaned himself away from the primal sources that give life its true sustenance and richness. “We are oppressed at being men—men of real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea.”
All along, Underground Man is himself pretty much aware of his own self-divided nature. Right at the outset he confesses that he is a sick man and that he is not a pleasant man at all. It is true that he himself has the longing to go back to society; and in Liza, he is offered the opportunity to lead a normal life regulated by social institutions. She brings to the fore his own unconscious desire to join mainstream society, to be one among the many. That is why he loses his own self-respect because he sees his own transparency, his own unresolved self-contradiction. He even becomes spiteful and cynical about himself.
Yet in the consciousness of his freedom to make independent choice, he sets himself above the common run of mortals, the herds who are already dead but wander about the workaday world of socialized living. Salvation for the outsider like him, owing to his self-divided nature, lies in integration, in self-transcendence.
What ultimately Underground Man holds out to us is that what we most need in order to live fully is to cease from living in abstractions. We also need passion. The passion for life, for living. It is this passion, bordering on madness perhaps, that enables us to touch base with the universal force. It is this that builds and creates, the power that conjures up for you and me worlds upon worlds of infinite possibilities. This is the daimon referred to by Federico Garcia Lorca. This, too, is what Plato meant by an inspiring power that takes possession of the poet in the creative process so that what he says carries a density of significance.
All great works whether of art or philosophy extend our vision of what the world could be and sharpen our discernment into what or who we truly are. Yet in the final analysis, self-mastery is a matter too important to be left to the writers or philosophers alone since everyone is a stakeholder in the human enterprise. For we are all participants in the endless act of creation and the clearer we get to know our part in the grand scheme of the cosmic process, the better our chances of coming upon the deeper meaning of what our life is for.