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


     Dostoevsky, too, saw life with natural eyes, the eyes of the historian. But when he received the second pair of eyes, he saw other things. The underworld is not at all the miserable place in which Dostoevsky had made his hero live, nor is it the solitude which, to quote Tolstoy, could not have been more complete in the bowels of the earth or in the depths of the sea. On the contrary, we must repeat that Dostoevsky sought solitude in order to save himself, or try to save himself, from this underground place (Plato's "cave") where "every one" has to live, which every one regards as the only real world, the only possible world, that is to say, the one world justified by reason.

     We can see this too among the monks of the Middle Ages. They, too, had the utmost dread of that spiritual balance which reason regards with assurance as the supreme end of earthly existence. Asceticism was not, as is generally supposed, designed to fight the flesh. The primary aim of the monks and hermits who exhausted themselves with fastings, watchings and similar "works" was to emancipate themselves from that "omnitude" of which Dostoevsky's underground man speaks, that common consciousness which the scholarly and philosophical vocabulary has designated as "consciousness in general". Ignatius Loyola formulates the fundamental rule of the "Exercitia spiritualia" as follows: "Quanta se magis repent anima segregatam et solitariam, tanto aptiorem se ipsam reddit ad quaerendum intelligendumque Creatorem et Dominum suum" (the more secluded and solitary the soul feels itself, the better does it fit itself to seek and understand its Lord and Creator).

     Common consciousness, omnitude, Dostoevsky's principal enemy, is that outside which man cannot conceive of existence. Aristotle had already said: "The man who needs no one else is either a god, having all things within himself, or else a wild beast."

     Dostoevsky, like the saints engaged in saving their souls, hears a mysterious voice ceaselessly whispering to him: "Be bold. Go forth into the desert, seek solitude! There you will become either a god or a wild beast. Nothing can be certain beforehand: first give up common consciousness and then we shall see." Incidentally, the real case is clearly far worse - if you give up this consciousness, you will first of all be transformed into a beast and only later - nobody knows when - will the last, hypothetical metamorphosis take place, the possibility of whose existence was only admitted by Aristotle to complete his theoretical formula. Is it not evident, in fact, that man can transform himself into a wild beast, but that it is not given to him to become a god?

     Human experience, the experience of the thousands of years of our existence, is there to confirm the predictions of reason: men constantly transform themselves into beasts, into brutal, stupid, and savage animals, but there have not yet been gods among them. The experience of the underground man has been the same. Read his own confessions. He tells us incredible things about himself on every page, things that even an animal would be ashamed to admit. "Do you know what I really want? That you should all go to the Devil, that is what I want. I want peace. But do you know that in order not to be disturbed, I would willingly sell the whole world for a kopek? Should the whole world perish, or should I have to do without my cup of tea? I should say: let the whole world perish so long as I can have my tea. Did you know this, yes or no? Well, I know quite well that I am a good-for-nothing, an idler, an egoist." And on the next page: "I am the most ignoble, the most ridiculous, the most cowardly, the most envious, the stupidest worm that crawls on the face of the earth."

     The whole book is filled with similar confessions. And if it pleases you, you can add the superlative of every bad word that comes into your head: the underground man will repudiate none, he will accept them all, and even thank you for them. But do not triumph on that score; read the books and the confessions of the great saints; they all regarded themselves as the most horrible sinners (always superlatives, again), the most vile, the weakest, the stupidest of creation. St. Bernard, St. Theresa, St. John of the Cross, all the saints were filled with horror at their nothingness and sinfulness until they had drawn their last breaths. All the significance of Christianity, and of the thirst for redemption which was the motive power in the spiritual life of the Middle Ages, springs from this feeling. "Cur Deus homo?" Why was it necessary for God to become man and to accept the unheard of tortures and the insults recorded in the Scriptures? Because without this, it would have been impossible to save man, and to redeem his horror and his vileness. His ugliness is so monstrous, his fall so deep, that no earthly treasure could redeem his sin; neither silver nor gold, nor hecatombs, nor even the best of good works. God had to send His only son, to make the supreme sacrifice. Without this it was impossible to save the sinner.

     Such was the belief of the saints, such their philosophy, and such their very words. And this was what Dostoevsky saw when the Angel of Death forsook him, after having left with him, all unobserved, one of the innumerable pairs of eyes. From this standpoint The Notes from Underground might serve as an excellent commentary on the works of the great saints. I do not mean to say that Dostoevsky was simply repeating in his own fashion what he had learnt from other men's books. He would have written The Notes from Underground even if he had known nothing about the lives of the saints. And we have every reason to believe that when he wrote the book, he did not know much about their writings. This fact gives a peculiar significance to his confessions. Dostoevsky did not feel himself supported by any authority or tradition. He acted on his own responsibility, and it seemed to him that he alone, since the world began, had seen these extraordinary things revealed to him. "I am alone, and they are all together", he cries, overwhelmed. Torn away from common consciousness, rejected by the only real world, whose reality is founded on this very common consciousness - for what other basis could the world ever choose ? - Dostoevsky seems suspended between heaven and earth. The earth has given way under his feet, and he hardly seems to know whether it is death, or a second, miraculous birth. Can man exist without resting on some solid basis? Or will he be himself annihilated if his feet no longer touch the earth?

     The ancients said that what distinguished gods from mortals was the fact that their feet never touched the earth, for they had no need for support. But these were gods, and ancient gods at that, mythological beings, pure invention, and rightly scorned by modern, scientific thought. Dostoevsky knows all this as well as any one else, or better. He knows that the ancient gods, like the new God, have long since been banished by reason beyond the bounds of possible experience, and transformed into pure ideas. Russian literature of the time proclaimed it with all the earnestness permitted by the contemporary censorship. The philosophy of Western Europe, including Kant and Comte, was also at Dostoevsky's disposal, although he did not read either Kant or Comte. There was no need to read them. "The limits of possible experience," that formula of the nineteenth century, which our time has received as the supreme revelation of scientific thought, reared itself like the great wall of China, against all the efforts of human curiosity. No one questions that there exists a certain human experience, collective or even ecumenical, and that there is no possibility of comprehending anything that lies beyond its borders, which are rigidly defined by reason. But this experience and its limits, as they appeared to Kant and Comte, were to Dostoevsky another prison wall built by an unknown hand. The walls of the old barracks were a thing of terror, but above those walls there was always a little strip of blue sky. Nothing of any sort can be discerned beyond the walls of experience. They are the end, the full stop. The road is closed and on the wall we may read the Dantesque inscription, "Lasciate ogni speranza".

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