In Job's Balances \ I \ The Conquest of the Self-Evident


     Dostoevsky finished his time in detention and the military service which succeeded it. He went to Tver and then to Petersburg. Everything that he had expected came to pass. He had the vast dome of the sky over his head. He became a free man, like all the men whom he had envied while he was in chains. It remained for him now to fulfill the vows which he had made to himself when he was in prison. Dostoevsky did not, presumably, forget his resolutions, his ~ immediately; he must have made more than one desperate effort so to order his life that the old mistakes and the old follies should not be repeated. But it seems that the harder he tried the worse did he succeed.

     He soon began to notice that the life of freedom came more and more to resemble the life in the convict settlement, and that "the vast dome of the sky" which had seemed to him limitless when he was in prison now began to crush and to press on him as much as the barrack vaults had used to do; that the ideals which had sustained his fainting soul when he lived amongst the lowest dregs of humanity and shared their fate had not made a better man of him, nor liberated him, but on the contrary weighed him down and humiliated him as grievously as the chains of his prison. The sky oppressed him, the ideals fettered him, and the whole human existence became like that of the inhabitants of the "House of the Dead", a heavy and painful slumber filled with hideous dreams.

     How had this happened? Yesterday Dostoevsky had written The House of the Dead in which the existence of the convicts, those involuntary martyrs, was described as a nightmare, from which nevertheless deliverance was promised, after a certain appointed date, the approach of which could be measured quite certainly on the stockade surrounding the barrack yard. The chains had only to be taken off, the doors of the prison to be opened, for the man to be free and his life to begin again in all its fullness. So, as we have seen, Dostoevsky thought; his eyes showed him that it was so, and so did his other senses and "divine" reason. Then suddenly a new witness appeared, against all the others. Dostoevsky of course knew nothing about the gifts of the Angel of Death. He had heard of this angel, but it could not have entered his head that this mysterious, invisible guest should share his gift with a mortal. Yet it was impossible for him to reject the gift, just as we cannot reject the gifts of the Angel of Life. All that we possess we receive we know not whence nor from whom. It has all been apportioned to us, before we were able either to ask questions or to answer them. This second sight was apportioned to Dostoevsky unasked, as unexpectedly and as arbitrarily as the first. There is only one difference, which I have mentioned but which, in view of its importance, I wish to stress: while the first sight begins in man at the same time as all the other faculties, with which it is therefore in complete harmony, the second sight only awakens much later, and the giver of this gift troubles not at all to make it harmonize or agree. Death is the greatest dissonance, the most brutal rupture (and a premeditated one) of every chord. If we were really persuaded that the law of contradiction is the fundamental principle, as Aristotle teaches, then we should be obliged to declare: in the world there is either life, or else death; the two cannot co-exist.

     But the law of contradiction is not so unshakable and all embracing as we have been told, or else man does not always dare apply it and only does so within the limits of the world in which he himself can play the part of creator. Where man is master, where he rules, this principle serves him very well. Two is greater than one, not equal to one, nor less. But life was not created by man, nor did he create death. And although mutually exclusive, they co-exist in the world, to the despair of human thought, which is obliged to own that it does not know where life begins and where death; nor whether that which appears to be life is not death and that which appears to be death, life.

     Dostoevsky suddenly "saw" that the sky and the prison walls, ideals and chains are not contradictory to one another, as he had wished and thought formerly, when he still wished and thought like normal men. They are not contradictory, but identical. There is no sky, no sky anywhere, there is only a low and limited horizon. There are no ideals exalting the soul, but only chains, invisible indeed, but binding man more securely than iron. And no act of heroism, no "good work" can open the doors of man's "perpetual confinement". Dostoevsky's barrack vows of "improvement" now appeared to him as a sacrilege. The experience which he underwent was much the same as Luther's when he remembered with such unfeigned horror and disgust the vows which he had pronounced on entering the convent: ECCE DEUS, TIEI VOVEO IMPIETATEM ET BLASPHEMIAM PER TOTAM MEAM VITAM.

     This new "sight" is the subject of The Notes from Underground, one of the most extraordinary works, not only of Russian, but any literature. Most people only saw, and only see today in this little book a "scandalous revelation". Somewhere down there, in the underworld, are wretched, sick, unhappy beings, the step-children of fate, abnormal creatures who in their senseless bitterness reach the uttermost limits of negation. As though these beings were only the product of our own times, and had not existed before! Dostoevsky, it is true, was himself partly responsible for this interpretation and suggests it in the note which he has written at the head of the work. And he may have done this in honesty and sincerity. Truths of that kind which appeared to the eyes of the underground man are of their very origin such that though they may be stated, they need not, and indeed cannot, be made into good, useful truths suitable at all times and for all people. Even their discoverer cannot make them quite his own. Dostoevsky himself was uncertain, to the end of his life, whether he had really seen what he described in The Notes from Underground, or whether he had dreamed it, taking hallucinations and ghosts for reality. Hence the strange style of the underground man's story; this is why each of his sentences gives the lie to the one before and mocks it; this explains too its bursts of ecstasy, of inexplicable joy, alternating with fits of no less inexplicable despair. It is as though he has stumbled over a precipice and fallen sheer into an unplumbed abyss. An unexampled, joyous feeling of flight, combined with terror of the abyss, the all-engulfing void.

From the first pages of the story, we feel a terrible, supernatural power catch up the writer and carry him off. This time our judgment is not at fault - remember the Angel of Death. The writer is in ecstasy, he is beside himself, he runs he knows not whither, he awaits he knows not what. Read the last lines of the first chapter:
"Yes, the man of the nineteenth century must be, is morally obliged to be, a characterless individual; the man of action must be a commonplace person. Such is the conviction of my forty years. I am forty, and forty years are a whole lifetime. It is disgusting, low and immoral to live more than forty years! Who lives more than forty years? Answer me honestly and sincerely. I will tell you: imbeciles and good-for-nothings. I will tell you so in the face of all the old men, all the old men with their silver, perfumed hair. I will tell you so in the face of the whole world. I have the right to say it because I, myself, shall live to sixty, to seventy, to eighty years. Wait, let me take breath!"

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC