Saturday, March 21, 2009

Matters of life and death

American fiction... does not stem only, as Hemingway claimed, from a book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry finn but also from another, it may be argued with equal pertinence, by Dostoyevsky called Notes from Underground.
Ihab Hassan. Radical innocence: studies in the contemporary American novel


I am not a fan of Notes from Underground but I can certainly see Hassan's point. He suggests that, even although it was published in 1864, it could be considered a modernist text. Certainly, in the narrator's anger and self-loathing it pre-figures existentialism, or at least that caricatured perception of existentialism which obtains more readily to nihilism, but which is peddled by a certain type of individual as the root of modern society's malaise. It is this reason that I dislike Notes from Underground so much: it is an intensely socio-political book, didactic and two dimensional. It is straw man building par excellence. Without it, there could be no Flannery O'Connor, because she surely learned her entire technique from Dostoevsky's creation of the wretched Underground Man.

Hassan continues:

That Dostoyevsky's "insect" [ie the Underground Man] can establish his identity only by forcing himself to collide ignominiously with an arrogant officer who does not even recognize his existence is of no importance. The important thing is that it is he who forces the recognition. This is freedom.

Hassan then turns to Conrad, and in particular Kurtz from Heart of Darkness. This is significant, as it points to where the failure of Dostoevsky lies. In the Underground Man, Dostoevsky paints a picture of nihilistic despair in which 'freedom' can only be expressed through self-destructive narcissism. It is the natural product of solipsism. This is the kind of man created by those who believe free will is only a qualified possession, and that there are always greater forces at play. Conrad, however, does not wade in the shallows of metaphysics; appropriately, for a seaman, he takes us directly into the face of the storm and forces us to confront what Hassan describes as the 'unintelligent brutality of existence'. In this, Kurtz could be said to share some of the characteristics of the Underground Man, but the difference between them is one of action, of choice. Free will. Humanness. It is this which is denied by writers like Dostoevsky or Melville. This, what almost amounts to a denial of humanness, is what marks out anti-rationalist writers. What they do is hark back to Ecclesiastes:

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

This is a characteristic of Cormac McCarthy which I noted in my discussion on All The Pretty Horses. And it informs the writing of Flannery O'Connor. It is the root of Dostoevsky's contempt for his Underground Man. But what they all misunderstand is that looking into a mirror is not only an act of vanity. How may we ever understand ourselves if we do not examine ourselves? The answer, often, is unpalatable, as Kurtz will attest, but to ask the question at all is preferable to waiting for the answer to be delivered from on high. It is a matter of truth.

So, yes, Notes from Underground could be argued as being a modernist text, but is doesn't so much seek truth as anticipate death. And thus it is the modernism of Eliot and not of Joyce, rooted in the maker, not the made. For my part, I would rather have a meaningless life than a meaningful death.

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