I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”
It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay, and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.
Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.” “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical. Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.
For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.
But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?