Sunday, April 27, 2008

A note on the Notes...

Let’s face it, we all know what a monumental work Notes from Underground is, and I am of course aware that anything I say about it, any view I dare express here would ultimately form the skeleton of yet another sublime platitude that would vainly collapse under the weight of its own inanity; nothingness crushes indeed...
But every platitude carries its own truth and though ostensibly it seems like pointless rumbling that signifies nothing, it’s the purely artistic nature of the Notes that I would like to discuss here. In fact, I would limit myself for convenience’s sake to just one little episode, or rather a seemingly casual remark made by the anonymous confessor with his trademark spitting derision.

The Underground Man’s comment on the ‘sublime and beautiful’ is a telling little instant where Dostoevsky makes his statement by means of only a couple of sentences from which he then departs and immediately moves onto another subject of interest, ultimately giving the impression of a simple, throw-away comment that would hardly make the front page of the reader’s curiosity. But it is exactly in such remarks that one can uncover some previously unexplored areas of the Underground Man’s powerful monologue.
He starts directly with ‘sick, spiteful and unpleasant’, a straightforward and immersive coupling of negative adjectives. But as the text and its theme unwinds, a loud of mysticism forms over certain parts of it that render it unclear in a peculiar sort of way.
Revealing his irrational side as though it was merely his rational side, the Underground Man informs us with an air of vindictive self-mockery, that he would ‘drink away’ to the artist who manages to create an image ‘worthy of a painting by Gay’. This is the way that he ‘delights’ in observing the ‘sublime and beautiful’; he implies that his praise of this ‘image’ is not akin to conventional praise but one which involves the total conceding of the soul to ‘drinking’ in the name of this ‘image’. He would take his hat off before it but he praises it in a disdainful manner – it is exaltation albeit in existentialist terms. In other words, he would not think twice before bowing down before to the picture ‘worthy of Gay’ but this would only be done from the simple, decadent sensation of giving up i.e. dedicating your consciousness to the exaltation of this picture because it inculcates you with the sense of the ‘sublime and beautiful’.
In a way therefore, the Underground Man is effectively sneering at this image because once again, he lets himself be devoured by his own realisation of his superfluity and worthlessness. In other words, he enjoys ‘great art’ for the sake of enjoying his own degradation as he recognizes how ‘low’ he stands in comparison to it. He therefore, perceives the picture ‘worthy of Gay’ as he would perceive a toothache - they are both distractions to his hapless and monotonous manner of living and they are both ‘painful’ to him – a fact which he welcomes with great satisfaction.
In the ‘drinking away’ to this picture, the Underground Man admits that he is prepared to effectively ‘kiss the feet’ of anything he perceives as being so greatly superior to his own achievement. Rather than impairing his ego, it would promote it as it would promote his ‘spite’ because he would realise just how much he enjoys bearing the burden of his own degradation which itself should be carefully observed in the face of the ‘contrast’ which is meant to undermine his opinion of himself. Rather than doing so though, it presents another source, another means of satisfying his craving for pleasure as he perceives himself a greater mystery than the picture ‘worthy of Gay’. This is how he turns the obvious ‘disadvantage’ that tradition yields as a result of such an unenviable position, into an ‘advantage’ for his personal benefit.
Therefore, he praises great art not for its own value but for the ‘fact’ that he knows and is convinced of his intrinsic superiority to this ‘art’.
This ‘intrinsic superiority’ is provided by his perception that he is in fact, a greater phenomenon – something less fathomable than a great work of art, rendering him far more worthwhile than any such piece of ‘great art’ for he, through his unforgiving confession endows the reader with something far more valuable than a ‘mere’ work of art, even if it is ‘worthy of Gay’.

Consequently, by using such remarks through the Underground Man, Dostoevsky is able to articulate a sharp, complex observation of the character’s mental condition which brings about great psychological insight into the workings of our system of aesthetics.The Underground Man would ‘drink away’ to this ‘picture’ and he will recognise it as a supreme achievement but he is hardly concerned about its perceivable aesthetic value; in fact he feasts upon the petty crumbs of his moral depravity. Self-indulgence and insecurity will of course never enable him to ‘cleanly’ welcome this ‘picture’ but rather he would instinctively drown yet another glass reflecting upon it, though ultimately ending up as blatantly mocking it – laughing away its obviousness of perfection and thus trying to ‘distract’ the reader’s attention away from it and onto his own derangement. By doing this, he effectively puts forward the argument that this precise ‘obviousness of perfection’ of a painting by Gay is where paradoxically the kernel of its ‘imperfection’ lies. If something so unmistakably bears such an air of perfection, the Underground Man would merely dismiss it as pompous; indeed in his world, perfection equates to pomposity, and is therefore morally uninspiring. He would discard perfection for the sake of discarding the common man’s view of perfection; a picture of Gay would indeed bear a mark of perfection but it is the Underground Man that would bear a mark of distinction – something which he ineffably perceives as superior – a subtle assertion which his twisted morality ultimately thrives upon.


At 27 April 2008 at 14:03 , Blogger Dude said...

That's interesting, but I think some will interpret this the wrong way, especially since they have not read the book.

At 29 April 2008 at 13:24 , Blogger IPCHUK said...

I agree, indeed with this post I struggled for a satisfyingly clear articulation of what I mean. That said, I would like to add that even for people who have read the book, this analysis may not necessarily make sense since it speaks more of experience and a particular state of mind, rather than anything that can be explained rationally.

At 1 May 2008 at 14:50 , Blogger Dude said...

I speak for myself, having not only read the book more than once, but actually lived it. However, these psychological games which consist in lowering oneself to feel exalted are too ambiguous to be considered a conclusive trait of the Underground Man's mindset. One should not belabour a quirk.

By the way, did you read the book in Russian?

At 1 May 2008 at 15:20 , Blogger IPCHUK said...

Nope, unfortunately as much as Russian is similar to my native language, Bulgarian, it is still quite hard for me to read it. With considerable effort, I would understand it, but such texts really demand fluency.

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