Absurdism, Books

Rise of the deplorable

What is to be done?

Here is a story of hope.

Human beings are innately good and amendable to reason. As soon as, by enlightenment and emancipation, humans have overcome unreason and superstition and religion, a scientific-based humanism can be established with a chance of happiness for all. A predictive model of human behaviour can then advantageously guide economic and political relations. By this rational and scientific thinking, and a compassionate regard for all humanity, the human world can be rebuilt on secular lines. Humans, freed from archaism, will see that what is in their interest is also in society’s interest and act together in harmony upon it. Irrationality and hatred and violence, over time, can therefore be made unnecessary. What is needed is education and scientifically sound laws that promote this harmonious regulated life. This materialist philosophy of rational self-interest and progressiveness will promote happiness for all.

Here is a story of anger and resentment.

There has been an irruption of political irrationalism. The discontented and powerless are furious, and are expressing an incomprehensible joy in mutual hatred and chronic envy. With a yearning sense of humiliation and anxiety these people have been lured into resentment. Coherence is giving way to catastrophe as losers dream of revenge. Experts are being ignored, obvious facts denied and an educated elite derided. There has been a subterranean outbreak of an irrational and disturbing complex of emotions.

Let us attempt to make sense of these contradictory narratives by examining two Russian novels, one published in 1863 the other in 1864.

What is to be done? is a novel written by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Set in 1850s Russia, Vera Pavlovna defies her mother’s attempts to marry her off and elopes with a medical student, Lopukhov. Along with other women, Vera, sets up a cooperative sewing business. She has four epic allegorical dreams (representing ‘love’ ‘equality’ etc). She leaves Lupokhov (who selflessly stands aside) for another man, Kirsanov, and they all live happily ever after. Large parts of the novel are given over to earnest philosophical and political conversations between the (deliberately flat) main characters. A narrator regularly intrudes to add further explanation and education for the readers: this is a didactic work. It became on publication a classic and a paradigm for Russian progressives as a generation fell under the sway of Chernyshevsky’s ideas. It is a programmatic work, an influential manual for progressive thinkers. The novel is a heady combination of ideas from English utilitarians, such as James Mill and Bentham, and French thinkers, such as Fourier and Proudhon. Chernyshevsky’s main idea was ‘rational egoism’ – the notion that no one knowingly acts against their own best interests. The goal of society, therefore, is to achieve a state where personal self-interest converges with the interests of the common good. He believed in the decisive historical role of the application of science to life, and once the correct social and economic laws were discovered and stated and followed humans could achieve politically perfect conditions. If human interaction could be reconfigured into these harmonious economic and political conditions utopia was within reach. Humans would recognise that what was in the best interest of everyone in the community, and so themselves, was how best to act. The character in the novel who embodies these progressive ideas, Rakhmetov, hurls out at on point a provocation: “What I want, with all my heart, is to make people happy. In that lies my happiness. Mine! Can you hear that, you, in your underground hole?”

Dostoevsky accepted Rakhmetov’s challenge. His tragi-comic short novel Notes from Underground was his direct response to What is to be Done? The entire narrative is a diatribe from an anti-hero, who claims to be a retired civil servant aged forty, hibernating and stewing alone in an apartment in St.Petersburg. We do not see him, or learn his name, but only hear him through a crack in the floorboards, from where he projects his words to the world. This underground man replies directly (“gentlemen”) to the rational-progressive Chernyshevsky and his circle. He is an angry man, a resentful man, a sick man, a wicked man, a misanthrope. His monologue is a confessional: he hurls abuse, he teases, he taunts, he insults. He is well read (Rousseau, Lermontov, Byron, Pushkin), but he rails against the words of others – the foreign books that have, so he claims, polluted his Russia. He permits himself the right to assert that 2 + 2 does not equal 4. He argues against that monument to scientific progress built in London for the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace. He abases and humiliates himself before us. He takes contradictory positions and deploys arguments full of loopholes and special pleadings. There is chapter after chapter of irrationalism, a complex of emotions fuelled by envy and spite. He does not spare himself self-accusatory abuse, or apologies. In the second part of the book he relives various episodes from his twenties involving being humiliated by his former school friends and a disastrous ‘rescue’ visit to a brothel. What is Dostoevsky doing? How is this any answer to Chernyshevsky’s clear-cut ideals?

In chapter seven the underground man seeks to meet Chernyshevsky’s arguments. He posits the possibility that Chernyshevsky has built the edifice of his rational-progressive world view on a fatal misreading of what it means to be human. There is a withering dismissal of the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle, an influential thinker at the time, who formulated the view that the correct development of civilisation would lead to the cessation of war between nations. Then the underground man launches into a criticism of Chernyshevsky’s idea of rational egoism: that humans never knowingly act not in accordance with their advantage (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, and not what is profitable? And if so, if there can be such a case, then the whole rule goes up in smoke. What do you think, can such a case occur? You’re laughing; laugh then, gentlemen, only answer me: has man’s profit been calculated quite correctly? Isn’t there something that not only has not been but even cannot be fitted into any classification? Because, gentlemen, as far as I know, you have taken your whole inventory of human profits from an average of statistical figures and scientifico-economic formulas. Because profit for you is prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace, and so on and so forth; so that a man who, for example, openly and knowingly went against this whole inventory would, in your opinion – well, also in mine of course – be an obscurantist or a complete madmen right? But here is the surprising thing: how does it happen that all these statisticians, sages, and lovers of mankind, in calculating human profit, constantly omit one profit?

In chapter seven the views of Dostoevsky and the underground man converge. They understand, where Chernyshevsky does not, that humans don’t always act in accordance with their own interest. “A man can consciously and purposely desire for himself what is positively harmful and stupid”. For Dostoevsky the utilitarian progressives draw their map of utopia from a misunderstanding of the human animal. Chernyshevsky had built his world view on determinism, and so fatally underestimated the human need to assert agency and free will. Humans continue to take the opportunity of denying the obvious because that may be more important to them than the benefit of slavishly acknowledging it. In this way humans have an embarrassing tendency to reject what has been devised for their betterment. The underground man can take the opportunity to deny that 2+2=4. He can permit himself to be an obscurantist and a madman. “Today’s science has even succeeded in anatomising man up that we now know that wanting and so-called free will are nothing else….who wants to want according to a little table?

For Dostoevsky, the rationalist-progressives fatally failed to recognise that:

  • human beings are unfathomable
  • humans exult in perversity
  • humans have free will.
  • humans choose the right to deny what is obvious
  • humans exult in chaos as well as order
  • humans subvert their own interests for many reasons.
  • humankind is a comical construction
  • humans beings revolt against being forced to be happy and insist on the right freely to refuse to cooperate
  • humans are contradictory
  • the homo economicus is an unhappy man forced into being happy
  • humans desire to operate outside the logic of self-interest
  • humans have a capacity for self-sacrifice and self-destruction
  • humans can be arbitrary.
  • when they are authoritatively shown what is good for them, humans are not constructed to necessarily choose it.

What a rational administrator decides is best for us is no match for compulsive human passion. For Dostoevsky, Chernyshevsky’s idea of rational egoism is built on determinism and so doomed to dangerous failure. The pretensions of the rationalist materialist is a vanity project because it is a denial of free will. Passionate intellectuals who claim to have discovered true and dependable laws of history based on science and rationality are propagating folly and illusion. It is dangerous to turn history into law because to compel humans to adhere to a policy of living is, for Dostoevsky, to provoke an explosive reaction of uncontrolled forces. The underground man is a self-suppressed man gratifying his own will in bile and fury. The underground man has to break through to the core of self; his humiliation and self-abasement is evidence of self, evidence that he is not over-determined by the rational. When human beings are forced to be happy, suppressed for their own good, they will assert their will to power.The way to assert free will against overbearing reason is to spit hate because reason cannot be reasoned with, it cannot be overpowered by reason. Rationalist progressives neglect the nature of the thing itself and lay the ground work for a nihilistic rebellion against the carefully constructed reasonable order. In this way it is not that they misread and misunderstand the angry man: they cause him. When linguistic liberty is curtailed, when only correct words that accord with the rational scheme are permitted, an outbreak of irreverence and revulsion is coerced into the open. The rational humanist, who cannot bear to contemplate the unreasonable, fails to anticipate that hyper rational schemes of progress will unleash this uproar of helplessness. Besotted people drunk on ideas of reason and progress spawn a rebellion against order itself. In this way the angry irrationalist is the mirror of the rationalist progressive.

The underground man anticipates all this: “I for example, would not be the least bit surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman of ignoble, or, better, of retrograde and keeping physiognomy, should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: ‘Well, gentlemen, why don’t we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick; for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil and living once more according to his own stupid will!’ That would still be nothing, but what is offensive is that he’d be sure to find followers: that’s how man is arranged.”

The underground man is a writer. Part of his humiliation and discontent come from the fact that notwithstanding he is highly educated and well read he is still reduced to his subterranean hole. He is dependent on the consciousness of others and subject to their power; he is all reaction, hostility, and non-acceptance of their judgments. He is under the floorboards trapped in the prison of his own language where he writes his contradictory notes and confessions. He has read his way into the underground and he is trying to write his way out of it. His book is an outpouring, a crude diatribe, a stream of consciousness of anger and bile, of seemingly random recollections “I will not introduce any order or system. Whatever I recall, I will write down”. His prose style is, he declares, artless and contradictory.

Chernyshevsky prose style in What is to be Done? is didactic, clumsy, deplorable. The chunks of philosophical tract are turgid. Vera’s four allegorical dreams are excruciating; as is her her song “As soon as we become enlightened we shall become rich…let us learn and be industrious and we shall have heaven on earth”. The intrusive, sermonising narrator explaining ideas is artless and clunky. The meaning of this novel has been settled in advance by the author. For Chernyshevsky content was more important that form. His is a political novel, a manual, not a work of creative art. Facts and statistics were supremely important to him with his flat, pedestrian style. Art was that which had a social purpose, that which helped bring advantageous social change. In this way his novel was a precursor to the soviet realism of the soviet years.

Dostoevsky too is a writer, but Notes from Underground is a work of art – a tragicomedy of ideas. Dostoevsky’s novel is ironic comic prose, and so a further repudiation of Chernyshevsky’s work. Where Chernyshevsky separates the ideological and artistic, Dostoevsky reunites them. Dostoevsky put some of his ideas into the mouth of a loathsome character: the style of the novel is thus Swiftian satire. His intention is refracted, the polemic concealed (unlike Chernyshevsky’s). The underground man is thigh deep in polemics, from which Dostoevsky keeps his comic distance. What distinguishes Dostoevsky’s text from the underground man’s is laughter. Stylistic and parodic humour pervade the novel, the laughter creating the distance that allows this recognition. The ostensible writer underground is tormented and savage, the actual writer Dostoevsky is ironical and absurd. The underground man writes that “man is a comic creation” but provides, in his ranting text, no evidence for it. Although their texts are word for word identical, the underground man leaves the comedy to Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky is an artistic giant, Chernyshevsky a nobody. But it is the ideas of prescriptive scientific and economic rationalism that still prevail. For Dostoevsky, the philosophy of rational self interest may be reasonable, but it is inhuman. To write comic novels is unreasonable, but if it is anything it is human. When the reasonable happen to be wrong and the loathsome troglodytes happen to be right, what is to be done?


One thought on “Rise of the deplorable

  1. Sarah Greenan says:

    Your essays on Cervantes left me feeling that (mercifully) it was no longer necessary for me to read Don Quixote. This essay has more than reminded me that I still need to finish Tristram Shandy. I started it aged circa 13 (a little young maybe) and foundered after 100 pages or so. Now I shall return to it. Thank you for the encouragement.

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