I felt pretty odd after reading Notes from the Underground in a sitting. But I think it’s supposed to be tackled whole, like it is written, in no more than two breaths, and those breathings are the panting of a madman.

But it made sense.

Dostoevsky dearly wanted man to be saved – or at least to be saveable, and I think that is why he so deeply explores the bitter depths of tormented characters. Notes seems to sit unfinished, like it is the parlor game in The Idiot where each tells the worst thing he or she has done. But the book certainly doesn’t end there. And Crime and Punishment does not even end at the prison – we are told so by its reliable narrator.

The narrator of Notes is not reliable, in the extreme. But his thesis – that man cannot be perfectable, because of his basic drive to muck it all up – is actually a demand that the door be left open to salvation and Christ. While he himself may perish (we are not told), his demand is that mankind be left unperfected, natural, raw, capable of good and evil. If the perfect (social/predictive/descriptive/governmental) system is ever found, man will be left knowing that he is incapable of good or evil, simply because it had to be that way according to the system. Dostoevsky demands, via his really awful narrator, that the system be left open. The door must be ajar. The window shall remain cracked, that the Holy Spirit may blow through when He wills.

And as you probably remember from my Iain McGilchrist kick, I think that’s spot on. However, postmodernism may have made one positive contribution that Dostoevsky hinted at (or maybe he got there first, not sure): any attempt to fully close the system, shut the door, slam the window, will make the house of cards fall flat.

I’m hoping Andrew will interact some with this as he ploughs the seas of Kant – does Kant think he exhaustively critiqued pure (or applied) reason? I’m curious, because to claim an exhaustive critique is also to claim a perfectly closed system.

Anyhow, there may be more on this theme from me, too, as I have a bit more of Idiot, and a re-read of Brothers K- ahead (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations – my travel books).




6 thoughts on “Dostoevsky

  1. It is impossible to avoid a sense of claustrophobia when reading Kant. He is explicit that he is attempting a completely exhaustive evaluation of the powers of what reason can and cannot understand. Any weak points bring the system down. And that means a lot of discussion of what we would call consciousness, and that can be a suffocating topic.

    Did you ever read Rowan William’s book on Dostoevsky? I think you might like it, since you seem to be freshly going through many of his works. It’s a work of literary criticism, in a genuinely enjoyable sense.

    Concerning postmodernism, I’ve had a suspicion that romanticism as a reaction to the Enlightenment prefigures in some ways the postmodern sensibility. Think of Kierkegaard’s suspicion of the tidy Danish way of life buttressed by optimistic German philosophy.


    1. Hmm. I have not read Rowan William, but I will look him up – thanks for the hat tip.

      And yeah, it seems that Kierkegaard still wanted the madman around, too. And that perhaps Hans Christian Andersen takes a different tack, and explores how the system is NOT actually tidy, that it crushes ugly things and poor things, and leaves open only the door of conformity, but at quite a price.

      Then, too, it seems to me that Douglas Adams provided a critique of pure reason that was a fun read… And my engineering colleagues throw around 42 as a funny joke, when in fact it is a fundamental accusation of the inanity of system and order (What is six by nine?).

      Communion with Christ, who is a Person. That’s what it all comes down to.


  2. Notes from the Underground has been hard for me to access…well, frankly, Brothers K., and the rest of Dostoevsky has been hard for me to get into. I switched to the Orthodox translators (I believe the ones you mentioned) for more texture and sensitivity to the subtexts; and yet, Notes left me depressed for the narrator and Brother’s K. seemed to stretch interminably in one psychological cul-de-sacs after another.



    1. Hmm. I can’t claim to “get” the Russian heart, but D- writes about the Russian heart, which is so very foreign to us Westerners. Of course Notes should leave you depressed for the narrator! But in a way, strangely buoyant about the possibilities for mankind – we remain human, even in our nastiness, and not just a sum or a cipher. What’s more, the entire book is, in an odd sense, a sacramental confession. In the narrator’s world, the act of writing justifies the existence of the book – confessing – although his confessors seem to be mechanistic moderns, rather than clergy.

      And yes, BrosK does spend a lot of time exploring the hearts of characters, it is true. But novels are not measured by action occurring in time, but (in my own opinion, biased as a poet) in the immersion of the reader into the soul of the writer (in some measure, depending on the attention and temperament of the reader and the craft of the writer). This is why I have sold off a lot of my nihilists in the last year. But D- explores the heart to find its redemption (or redeemability), which is to say, the icon of Christ in his characters.

      Maybe that helps? But it’s also true that some people just aren’t into Russian novels (my father-in-law does one per decade, no more).

      Have you read Solzhenitsyn?



      1. Chuckbox was good. Thanks again.

        I am just now listening to Solzhenitsyn. “Dwell on the past, lose an eye; forget the past, lose both eyes.” I love Russian proverbs.

        I got halfway through BrosK. I will try a better (Orthodox) translation and pick up that doorstop again. Both you and my spiritual father glow about The D.


  3. It was, thanks for the call. There’s so much in Dostoevsky, and I think it’s because he suffered – losing his 3-year-old son Alexei, exile, a mock execution (this is a major theme in The Idiot). And he reconciles this in the church. Solzhenitsyn is a similar story, set in the century which Dostoevsky so chillingly anticipates.


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