The Heterodox

The Heterodox


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Coming up from Underground

October 30, 2010 , , , ,

Within the past month there have been several important literary anniversary dates in which I felt impelled to commemorate in print. Today marks yet another notable literary occasion with the birth of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky in 1821. Any well read individual has a work of Dostoevsky that has some significant value in their life. Most often you will hear people spout off about the influence of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, or The Brothers Karamazov. For myself, the book I find the most intellectual nourishment from to this very day is Notes from Underground. Besides the book’s literary originality, I still marvel at how this book retains all of its modern sapidity in spite of its extreme brevity. There are few books from the twentieth century let alone from the nineteenth which still have this kind of dynamism.

For those of you who do not know what literary quality I am alluding to, please allow me the oppurtunity to enlighten you on the quality of this book of which I am speaking. In the first half of the twentieth century in which Existential philosophy was gaining prominence, many philosophers and scholars began to look for other writers whose prose gave off an existential effluvium. In a sense, they were trying to distill into existentialism writers who spoke on the modern predicament in which man finds himself in existing. In this camp one usually finds Dostoevsky as well as Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, and Rainer Maria Rilke—these writers in particular as they cover both the French and German schools of this philosophy. This era also happened to be the time in which Dostoevsky’s work in general was beginning to gain prominence in the West. As his value began to be recognized outside of Russia, many of his themes were closely examined within the gaze of philosophy.

Even after reading a mountain of scholarship on this subject, I still find it a stretch and a slight reproach to group Dostoevsky in with the existentialists, even as a proto-existentialist. I view the man as a brilliant writer who explored existential themes that were rife within the zeitgeist of his time. Because so much of his writing explores the ontic ideations found in the post-industrial urban wasteland, themes first proposed and investigated by Kierkegaard, I understand the logic behind trying to place him within the existential integument. I just see it as unnecessary. The slight reproach I suggest is in the fact that Dostoevsky was staggeringly aureate as a writer and deserves singular attention while not being grouped in with others simply for literary or intellectual convenience.

So what is it about Notes from Underground? Like Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky exquisitely wrote about the modern man who feels irretrievably alienated from the rest of society. A feeling that one often finds in the modern urban milieu, even to this day; a yearning to individualize from the suffocating bind of mass society. It was in the nineteenth century in which writers began to fully explore this domain of the individual, delving into the stygian depths of the human mind, and Dostoevsky in particular was exploring this land long before Freud and the psychoanalysts. In this book we meet a man who politely introduces himself and continues on to entreat us to his intellectual rants and sapient screeds on the spite he feels towards society and himself. Feeling no recourse, he explains his time underground and his not being able to escape from his misanthropic pangs.

He ultimately realizes that he both loves and hates himself just as he also loves and hates the way society views him. He shows us that the true underground realm of mankind is not to be found below the earth, but is instead only to be found within the boundraries of the skull, a place that during my tumultuous adolescence I too found refuge in. Dostoevsky makes it plain that for some of us, acumen is a curse in which one is accosted daily by the unlettered and mendacious world that our species finds itself in. But it is within this self-actualized nihilism that true meaning and solace can be found if one is brave enough to gaze at oneself through the veracious mirror of self-criticism. In this regard, I managed to be one of the lucky ones who was able to climb my way back to the surface, escaping by own self actualized chasm instead of succumbing to suicidal ideation.

So, it is not just his radiant and sardonic prose but a feeling of empathy and camaraderie that I get from Dostoevsky which is so endearing. A feeling that was also shared by Nietzsche, as he had acquired a French copy of Notes from Underground in 1887 and wrote many letters to his small circle of associates exclaiming the kinship he had found with the man in this book. Isolation and self-exile were themes that Nietzsche would have definitely found familiar, as do I. And even within the light of his vile antisemitism, Russian national chauvinism and Christian orthodoxy, I can still admire the man who wrote this book. That is a testament to his prosaic genius and in some way is what also allows me the means with which to ameliorate the man in my mind and let his words speak for themselves.

Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.

—Dostoevsky, 1839

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Dostoevsky was a good writer, but I always found the philosopher Kierkegaard to be a genius of the first order.


October 30, 2010

I could not agree more. Soren is the only theist whose thoughts I respect, now or in history.


October 30, 2010

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