Dostoevsky Talks Romans 7, Original Caprice, and Performancism

From his Notes from Underground, in which the great Russian author’s disturbed protagonist questions ideals […]

Will McDavid / 10.17.13

From his Notes from Underground, in which the great Russian author’s disturbed protagonist questions ideals of human progress, enlightenment, secular humanism, and other naïvetés of the nineteenth century – but timeless, too:

notes_from_underground_coverBut these are all golden dreams. Oh, tell me, who first announced, who was the first to proclaim that man does dirty only because he doesn’t know his real interests; and that were he to be enlightened, were his eyes to be opened to his real, normal interests, man would immediately stop doing dirty, would immediately become good and noble, because, being enlightened and understanding his real profit, he would see his real profit precisely in the good, and it’s common knowledge that no man can act knowingly against his own profit, consequently, out of necessity, so to speak, he would start doing good? Oh, the babe! oh the pure, innocent child! and when was it, to begin with, in all these thousands of years, that man acted solely for his own profit? What is to be done with the millions of facts testifying to how people knowingly, that is, fully understanding their real profit, would put it in second place and throw themselves on another path, a risk, a perchance, not compelled by anyone or anything…and stubbornly, willfully pushed off onto another one, difficult, absurd, searching for it all but in the dark. So, then, this stubbornness and willfulness was really more agreeable than any profit… And what if it so happens that on occasion man’s profit not only may but precisely must consist in sometimes wishing what is bad for himself, for what is not profitable? (trans Pevear/Volokhonsky)

I can certainly relate. And part of Dostoevsky’s target must of course include Christianity – the wrong form, that is – which innocently assumes the regeneration of the will and applies to it a “rationally enlightened” decision-matrix. “To prosper you, and not to harm you” – but there’s too much Old Adam for that, even in (for FD, most strongly in) those luminaries moved by love for a higher social order.

There’s the old Jewish/Christian tale about a willful rejection of prosperity and flourishing, and it’s no accident that the protagonist of Notes echoes this story – as he echoed St. Paul above – in his deconstruction of idealism:

There constantly appear in life people of such good behavior and good sense, such sages and lovers of mankind, as precisely make it their goal to spend their entire lives in the best-behaved and most sensible way possible, to become, so to speak, a light for their neighbors… it is known that sooner or later, towards the end of their lives, many of these lovers have betrayed themselves… Now I ask you: what can be expected of a man endowed with such strange qualities? Shower him with all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness completely… and it is here, just here, that he, this man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer lampoonery, will do something nasty… solely to mix into all this positive good sense his own pernicious, fantastical element.


For such a sharp observer of human nature as Dostoevsky, and the underground man to whom he imparts so much of his own insight, the Fall of Adam is ongoing, inescapable. In some way, we favor destabilization almost because it re-opens space for progress, upward movement:

Can it be that [man] has such a love of destruction and chaos… because he is instinctively afraid of achieving the goal and completing the edifice he is creating? How do you know, maybe he likes the edifice only from far off, and by no means up close; maybe he only likes creating it, and not living in it… man is a frivolous and unseemly being, and perhaps, similar to a chess player, likes only the process of achieving the goal, but not the goal itself. And who knows (one cannot vouch for it), perhaps the whole goal mankind strives for on earth consists just in this ceaselessness of the process of achievement alone, that is to say, in life itself, and not essentially in the goal…

The goal terrifies Dostoevsky’s protagonist, too, who is being ironic when he says “one cannot vouch” for the validity of his observation. I know I can sure vouch for it, and I suspect we all can, at firsthand. There is a hypnotic repose in anxiety, the paralyzed ceaselessness of dwelling in achievement or failure, the repose of a drifter with hope always deferred and thus always, though superficially, present. We love the process, and even Dostoevsky’s own anti-process religion – our anti-process religion – quickly forgets the surety of the goal, or neglects to focus on it, because the ‘process’ is so much more attractive. I wonder if original sin is, in some sense, an inability to live in Dostoevsky’s edifice – one constructed for us as Adam’s was constructed for him, an edifice fled every day for the sake of petty control and self-propulsion. The version of Christianity implied here isn’t the false repose of endless process at all, but a hope for the re-discovery of the true, unconditional edifice from which we are so often in flight. Step 1 – AA pun totally intended – might be the admission, along with Dostoevsky’s protagonist, that we love the process too much to choose otherwise; perhaps we find grace even (especially) there.

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