Dostoevesky’s protagonist the underground man in notes from underground covers many different philosophical concepts in the book, one of them was utopianism, I would even go to say that this book is one of the best books which critique utopianism guided by a rational positivism.
The main argument against utopianism for the underground man is that there is no existence of rationality in mankind, because of this; a scientific positivism and rational egoism to formulate a utopian society is impossible, Why? Because man is fundamentally irrational, mankind can not be slotted into a fitting compartment of meaningful purposeful existence and be content forever, we are not questionable subjects with a definite corresponding answers, if anything, we are questionable subjects and indefinite creatures when it comes to finding meaning and purpose in our lives. What is most evident is this, as dostoevsky writes: we are very much like chess players, fond of the process of achieving his or her goals rather than reaching the goal itself, perhaps the whole goal towards which mankind is striving in this world consists solely in the uninterrupted PROCESS of achievement.
As I quote:
“Man loves to construct and lay down roads, no question about it. But why is he so passionately fond of destruction and chaos?”
Just as an ant will build and anthill and finish such with a positive outlook, man is much more a superficial and unseemly creature.
2 twice 2 is four, this is very much the formula that dostoevsky uses as an example of the rational, mathematical principle which is to be foundational to the building of the rational utopian positivist world but the underground finds distaste in this because it does not follow the human nature that we live by, that people are not “piano keys” or “organ stops” by which he refers, if a formula so does exist then man will stop desiring, he will be man without volition, without human nature, it will become calculated into logorithms whereby all will have a sound, manageable, expected, predictable conclusion, this formula he speaks of is no longer life but the beginning of death, as I quote:
“Man has always somehow been afraid of this twice two is four and I’m still afraid of it! Let’s suppose that man does nothing but seek out this twice two is four formula, sails across oceans, devoting his life to the quest but never reeling finding it – God, he’s afraid of it somehow! You see, he feels that once he found it there’ll be nothing left to look for. Where can man go?”
I love this because he alludes to God here and I personally think this is strictly intentional, he is saying the age of modernity, the enlightenment, the rational principle expelled onto man’s complete earthy disposition will make man nihilistic, deprived, Godless, I see it really as man being afraid of losing God in the process and that he is afraid of what this formula will do to everything, everything we have known.
“What will become of your will once the whole business ends up with tables and arithmetic, when only twice two is four is in demand? Twice two will make four without my willing it. So much for your will!”
Here Dostoevsky is referring to the core advantageous advantage of the human spirit: free will, that which makes you irrational, the catalyst for that irrationality which excessive free will, will be lost forever.
So let me get to the fundamental point that makes this book truly important, to be honest the most frightening element of this book.
He talks about the rational utopia, the end of free will being the catalyst for your innate irrationality, how everything will be predicted through tables of a positivist perspective and how it will never work so on and so on, but he makes a crucial distinction, that in all it’s attempts, because of the primary importance of free will in all of mankind, the glass will crack and that the modernist decision is a fallacy:
“one may say anything about the history of the world – anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one cannot say is that it is rational. The very word sticks in one’s throat. And, indeed, this is even the kind of thing that continually happens. After all, there are continually turning up in life moral and rational people, sages, and lovers of humanity, who make it their goal for life to live as morally and rationally as possible, to be, so to speak, a light to their neighbors, simply in order to show them that it is really possible to live morally and rationally in this world. And so what? We all know that those very people sooner or later toward the end of their lives have been false to themselves, playing some trick, often a most indecent one. Now I ask you: What can one expect from man since he is a creature endowed with such strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in bliss so that nothing but bubbles would dance on the surface of his bliss, as on a sea; give him such economic prosperity that he would have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with ensuring the continuation of world history and even then man, out of sheer ingratitude, sheer libel, would play you some loathsome trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive rationality his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly, that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself (as though that were so necessary) that men still are men and not piano keys, which even if played by the laws of nature themselves threaten to be controlled so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And, after all, that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of sheer ingratitude, simply to have his own way. And if he does not find any means he will devise destruction and chaos, will devise sufferings of all sorts, and will thereby have his own way. He will launch a curse upon the world, and, as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals) then, after all, perhaps only by his curse will he attain his object, that is, really convince himself that he is a man and not a piano key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated, chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself – then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and have his own way! I believe in that, I vouch for it, because, after all, the whole work of man seems really to consist in nothing but proving to himself continually that he is a man and not an organ stop. It may be at the cost of his skin! But he has proved it; he may become a cave- man, but he will have proved it. And after that can one help sinning, rejoicing that it has not yet come, and that desire still depends on the devil knows what! . . .”
That’s the most frightening part of the book and the most true of it all but it is that man will deliberately go insane in order to be rid of reason and still have things his own way. & it is if you spot the associations Dostoevsky is pointing towards the downfall of an attempted utopia, a fall into a dystopia because man cannot be rational being with cohesive, conclusive counterparts, you could say that dostoyevsky predicts the not so distant future of mathematical madnesses such as the soviet and communist chinese state and of course the german and italian authoritarianism of the early 20th century, this is of utmost importance, that man can’t remain a “piano key” in an attempted utopia but that it will be a dystopia of authoritarianism, that the underground men who reside in the cracks of the earth will rise and use their resentment as political charisma, who could be a better example than hitler, a man who had the physical and behavioural attributes of the underground man himself and someone who used resentment and what nietzsche called: imaginary revenge (which i talk about in my other on dostoyevsky video) to create a world of chaos and destruction.
Dostoevsky acknowledges the madness of man and mankinds irrationally but most importantly, that this is an extremely delicate thread, that when man attempts to constrict it’s own human nature it may create a disastrous chemical reaction, that the strange human condition which we are may produce not a utopianism followed by rationality but a dystopian authoritarianism which is guided by powers that desire to demonstrate the devil’s own free will, free will for the sake of free will, a will which is made into reality to prove that man is not rational and cannot be equally placed as jigsaw to form a finality of perfect happiness.
So Orwell, the reason why I am going to compare this to orwell is because 1984 see’s the same key points but through a different lense, instead of a book that panders towards the irrationality of man and that the most advantageous of all advantages is free will, it instead plays out what dostoeyevsky says in his book, it brings to light dostoyevsky’s conclusion in how hyper rationalism can influence totalitarian irrationalism which represents the disappearance of the human personality, the dystopian world of 1984.
it is that both hyper rationalism and totalitarian irrationalism that represent the disappearance of the human personality, the dystopian world of 1984 apply both to stalin and hitlers regimes which can be seen as caused by excessively perverted outgrowths coming from enlightenment and counter enlightenment ideals.
I first want to first talk about the formula where 2 twice 2 = 4 which represents the rational but another formula is used in both notes from underground and 1984 to represent the irrational, this formula is 2 twice 2 = 5
This is key signifier that makes these two books stand out much more then any other utopian novels as both refer to reality of irrational formula as something that does happen, something that does emerge from the cracks and can, as we can see in 1984 cause for a dystopian irrationality.
As I quote notes from underground, dostoevsky writes:
“I admit that two times two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are going to praise everything, two times two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing”
The same approach is taken in Orwell’s 1984, as I quote:
“You are a slow learner, Winston” said O’Brien gently. “How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.” “Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five…”
So here both these books are earring towards and acknowledging the fact that hyper rationality or rational dictorship in the desire for a utopia can turn violently into an irrational authoritarianism.
A key difference between the two books is that the underground man is very fighting against a rational utopia as if it is something that will be accepted as the ultimate truth, that it will be nothing but the salvation since the death of God, that the ideals will be fulfilling true and worthwhile but 1984 is different, rulers in the book have abandoned the ideal of universal happiness but still use the concept of universal happiness for propaganda purposes, we also see that Goldstein alludes to the fact that the machine was worthwhile and that a true utopia was possible, while the underground man knows that I will never work, Orwell alludes through one character that it could:
“From the moment when the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease could be eliminated within a few generations. And in fact, without being used for any such purpose, but by a sort of automatic process — by producing wealth which it was sometimes impossible not to distribute — the machine did raise the living standards of the average human being very greatly over a period of about fifty years at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.”
“the earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation”
Notes From Underground & Brave New World don’t represent abandoned utopia’s like 1984 but realised utopia’s from the eye’s of society or from what society expects, notes from underground speaks out about what can happen such as what happens in the authoritarian dystopia of 1984 but also predicts the nazi, communist regime’s and it was writtern before such devastations happens unlike Orwell’s 1984 which was written by influence of such happenings.
A character that represents a lot of the characteristics of the underground man in 1984 is O’Brein the antagonist, he displays “lunatic enthusiasm” when in a heated discussion with Winston where he reject’s the notion of scientific positivism and that reality can be rewritten by those in power, he even claims that laws of nature are mere human construct which is a very nietzschean perspective, I quote:
‘“We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation—anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature.”
So here the power of man’s free will has taken power over the rational positivist utopia, the will to power in it’s most devastating form has taken hold through irrational free will, the most advantageous of all human advantages. O’Brien can be seen with a very sadistic attitude and behaviour which is similar to the underground man when it comes to demanding dogmatic language, for example: how O’brein attempts to “reeducate” winston and how the underground man tries to “reform” the prostitute Liza but also how the underground man early on in the books talks about how he finds strange pleasures in things he shouldn’t.
What makes O’brein interesting compared to the underground man is that he is not resentful over him being a so called: “piano key” which the underground man is distasteful of, this represents a clear contrasting point, o’brien is more comfortable with this reality and sees as the foundation to the majority of his purpose and meaning and identity, I quote:
“Alone-free-the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.”
O’Brien represents a key psychological state in this regard, he uses sadistic desires to overcome the dichotomy of positivist determinism and human freedom by merging them together, by making a deterministic radical freedom based on his sadistic pleasures and desires, which can be described as simply authoritarian which associates itself to real world authoritarianism. When their is an embodiment of the underground man’s ressentiment in a human their is also a possibility for extraordinary violence and rage via political movement, this can be caused by what I quoted from Dostoevsky beforehand, as I quote again: “man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and go his own way” or more precisely, the authoritarian way, as due to irrationality man cannot keep himself within the confounds of rational positivism and mathematically predicted action that the new world is trying to conclude us in, this is why Dostoyevsky is said to have supposedly predicted the happenings of the soviet union and authoritarian regime in Europe.