In Job's Balances \ I \ The Conquest of the Self-Evident|
Surgunt indocti et rapiunt caelum! To take heaven by storm, one must give up the learning, the first principles which we imbibed with our mother's milk. More than this: we must, as these quotations prove, renounce ideas altogether; that is, we must doubt their marvelous power to transform facts into theories. Scientific thought has given ideas this supreme prerogative: they are to judge and decide what is possible and what impossible, they are to fix the limit between reality and dreams, between good and evil, between what may, and what may not be done.
We may remember with what fury the underground man flung himself at the throat of self-evident truths, proud in the consciousness of their own intangible sovereign rights. Listen to this too, but forget that you are now concerned merely with a despicable little Petersburg official. Dostoevsky's dialectic in The Notes from Underground, as in his other works, can hold its own with that of any of the great European philosophers, and for courage of thought, I dare assert that only a few geniuses can hold a candle to him. And he is one with the great saints in his contempt of self.
But perhaps the reader has already wearied of following Dostoevsky's thought, and his desperate efforts to overthrow invincible proof. We do not know whether he is speaking seriously or laughing at us. Can one really do anything but bow down before a wall? Can we oppose our little feeble "egos" against nature, which acts without a thought of us, and have we the added assurance to qualify the judgment which denies the possibility of this as "the last absurdity"?
"To go on with the people with strong nerves... these gentlemen immediately prostrate themselves before the impossible. Impossibility, therefore stone wall. What stone wall? Why, natural laws, of course, conclusions of the natural sciences and of mathematics. If, for example, they prove to you that you are descended from monkeys, it is no good wrinkling your nose, you have to accept it. If they prove that one atom of your own fat must be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your neighbour's, you must accept it, there is no help. Try to argue with them. I beg your pardon, they will say, it ‘s impossible to argue - twice two is four. Nature doesn't bother about your consent. It doesn't consider your wishes or stop to think whether you are pleased or not with its laws. You are obliged to accept it, with all its consequences, just as it is. A wall is a wall, etc. But good heavens, what have I to do with the laws of nature or arithmetic if, for some reason, these laws do not please me? Naturally I shall not run my head against that wall if I haven't sufficient strength to demolish it; but I shall not become reconciled to it simply because it is built on twice two is four! What an absurdity of absurdities! It is a different matter to understand everything, to take account of all the impossibilities and all the stone walls, not to bow down before them if they disgust us, to arrive, by the most inevitable of logical processes, at the hateful conclusion that we are ourselves in some way to blame for the stone wall - although it is again absolutely clear that we are in no way to blame; and consequently, in silence and with impotent grinding of the teeth, to lapse into a voluptuous inertia, and dream that we cannot even revolt against any one whatsoever, for there is no one and there will never be any one; that it is all probably a farce, a trick, an absurd rigmarole, one knows not what nor whence. But in spite of all these incomprehensible things we shall suffer, and the less we understand the worse it will be."
But Dostoevsky does allow himself to ask just this very question: whether our reason has any right to judge between the possible and the impossible. The theory of knowledge does not ask this question, for if reason has not the right to judge between possibility and impossibility, to whom can that right belong? Without it everything would be possible and everything impossible. And Dostoevsky, as though making fun of us, also admits that he has not got the strength to knock down the wall. Consequently he admits a certain limit, a certain impossibility. Why, then, did he say exactly the opposite a minute ago? But in this way we shall fall into absolute chaos, not only chaos but nothingness, in which not only rules, laws, and ideas will disappear, but the whole of reality with them! But if we go beyond certain limits we shall clearly have to face even this. A man who has freed himself from the frightful tyranny of ideas imposed from outside, sets forth into such strange and unexplored countries, places so unknown that it must seem to him he has left reality behind and entered upon the eternal void.
Dostoevsky was not the first to live through this unimaginably terrible passage from one world to another and to find himself obliged to abandon the stability which "principles" give. Fifteen hundred years earlier Plotinus, who had also tried to transcend our experience, tells that at the first moment one has an impression that everything is disappearing, and has an overwhelming fear that only pure nothingness is left. I should add that Plotinus has not told the whole truth; he has hidden the most important thing: it is not only the first stage that is like this, but also the second and all the following stages. The soul, thrown outside its normal limits, cannot free itself of this terror, whatever may be said about the ecstatic joys which it experiences. Joy does not exclude terror here. The states are organically bound up with one another: in order to have great joy there must also be hideous horror. A truly supernatural effort is required for a man to summon up the courage to oppose his "ego" to the world, to nature, to supreme evidence: the "whole" will not concern itself with me, but I refuse equally to pay attention to the "whole".
Let the whole triumph! Dostoevsky even finds a sort of delight in telling us of his constant defeats and miseries. No one before him, and none since, has described with such desperate fullness all the humiliations, all the sufferings of a soul crushed by the weight of "self-evidence". He cannot rest until he has torn from himself this desperate confession: "Can a man who has looked into his own soul, really respect himself?"
Who can, in fact, respect weakness and triviality? The whole book is a record of impotence and humiliation. The underground man is flouted, driven away, beaten; and he seems only to look for further opportunities to suffer. The more he is offended, in fact, the more he is humiliated, the more he is crushed, the nearer does he come to his objective, to escape from the "cave"; from that bewitched country where laws, principles, and evidences reign, from the ideal country of sane and normal men. The underground man is the most unhappy, the most miserable, and the most pitiable of men. But the "normal" man, that is to say, the man who lives in this same underworld, but does not even suspect that it is an underworld and is convinced that his life is the true and only life, and his science the most perfect, his good absolute good, that he is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end of all things - this man provokes Homeric laughter even in the underground regions themselves.
Read what Dostoevsky has to say about normal men, and then ask yourself which is better: the painful convulsions of a doubtful awakening, or the grey, yawning torpidity of certain sleep. Then the opposition of one against the whole world will not seem so paradoxical to you. In spite of all the apparent absurdity of this opposition, it is less absurd than the apotheosis of "omnitude", of that golden mean in which alone our science and our "good" can develop.
Aristotle's biographer (when Dostoevsky speaks of Claude Bernard he actually means Aristotle) has called him "moderate to excess". In fact Aristotle was the genius, the incomparable singer of "omnitude", of the golden mean and of mediocrity. He was the first firmly to establish the principle that "limitation is the index of perfection". He created the ideal system of knowledge and of ethics which has served as model ever since. When, in the Middle Ages, the "limits of possible experience" seemed to expand more or less indefinitely, human thought clung firmly to Aristotelian philosophy; and this was of course, no accident. Aristotle was as indispensable to the theologians as the organization of the Roman Empire was to the Papacy. Catholicism was and had to be a complexio oppositorum. But for the moderating influence of Aristotle and the Roman jurisconsults, it would never have obtained the victory on earth.
It may be apposite to remark here that Dostoevsky does not stand alone in Russian literature. One must put Gogol before and even above him. All Gogol's works, The Inspector General, The Wedding and Dead Souls, even the early stories in which he describes Ukrainian life in so gay and colorful fashion, are but the memoirs of an underground man. When Pushkin read Gogol, he exclaimed: "My God, what a tragic thing is Russia!" But it was not only Russia that Gogol had in mind: the whole world seemed to him bewitched. Dostoevsky understood this when he said: "Gogol's works crush us beneath the weight of the unanswerable questions which they put to us."
"How dreary it is to be alive, gentlemen!" This cry of distress which Gogol let fall, as though involuntarily, does not apply to Russian life only. It is dreary to be alive, not only because there are too many Chichikovs, Nosdrevs, Sobakeviches in the world. Chichikov and Sobakevich were not "they" to Gogol, not "other people" who had to be raised up to his own standard. He tells us himself, and it was not hypocritical humility but the grim truth, that it is himself and not others that he describes and ridicules in The Inspector-General and Dead Souls. Gogol's works remain a book with seven seals to us so long as we refuse to admit the truth of his confession. Not the worst among us, but the best are only living automata, which a mysterious hand has wound up and which never anywhere or in any place feel themselves free to express their own initiative and their own free will. Some of us, but they are rare, feel that our life is not life but death. But even they, like Gogol's phantoms, are able to escape only from time to time, at midnight, from their tombs, to come and disturb their neighbour's with their heartrending cries of, "I am stifled! Stifled!"
Gogol himself realized that he was like Vii, the huge, shapeless earth-spirit, whose eyelids reached to the ground, and who was unable to raise them even an inch, even to see that strip of blue sky that was visible to the wretched inmates of The House of the Dead. These works, sparkling with wit and humor, are really terrible tragedies; and Gogol felt his own existence to be a tragedy too. He, too, had been visited by the Angel of Death, who gave him the accursed gift of second sight. But is this gift not a blessing rather than a curse? If one could only answer this question! But the whole meaning of second sight lies in asking those questions to which there is no answer, precisely because they demand so imperiously an immediate answer.
Legions of demons and powerful spirits could not raise Vii's eyelids from the earth. Nor could Gogol himself open his eyes, though his whole being concentrated on the effort. He was only capable of torturing himself, of suffering martyrdom, and of giving himself over to the hands of the moral executioner Father Matthew (Gogol's confessor); of destroying his own best work and writing crazy letters to his friends.
It seems that in a certain sense this thirst for suffering, this extraordinary spiritual asceticism, is more necessary than his splendid literary productions. There is perhaps another means of freeing oneself from the power of" omnitude". Gogol does not use this word. Gogol had never heard of Claude Bernard and certainly had no suspicion that Aristotle had bewitched the world by means of the law of contradiction and the other self-evident truths. Gogol had received no education and was almost as indoctus as the Galilean fishermen and carpenters of whom St. Augustine speaks. But yet, in spite of that, or just because of that, he feels even more bitterly than Dostoevsky the absolute power which pure reason wields over the whole world, and the tyranny of the ideas which the normal, moderate man has created, and which the theoretical philosophy that has accepted the heritage of Aristotle has developed and spread abroad.