This semester, I’m running an independent study on existentialism with a pair of students from the English department here at Brooklyn College. Our reading list includes seven novels, four plays, and extracts from several philosophical texts. We kicked off our readings two weeks ago with Dostoyevsky‘s Notes from Underground. Because my students had purchased the Norton Critical Edition (second edition) of Notes from Underground, I did so as well. This Critical Edition–like others on Norton’s list–includes some background and sources, examples of work that are inspired by, or are imitations of the novel under study, and finally some critical notes. While reading it, I found a fascinating foreshadowing of Dostoyevsky’s themes in Turgenev.
Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches includes the story ‘Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District,’ in which “the narrator spends the evening at a party of a landowner.” His roommate for the night considers himself cursed by his lack of “originality” even as he is considered an “original” by his contemporaries:
“My dear sir,” he exclaimed. “I’m off the opinion that life on earth’s worth living only for originals: only they have the right to live. Mon verre n’est pas grand, mais je bois dans mon verre [My glass isn’t large but still I drink from it], someone said. You see” he added in a whisper, how good my French pronunciation is. What does it matter to me if your head’s large and capacious, and if a person understands everything, knows a great deal, keeps up with things–but knows nothing of his own particular individual self! There’s one more storeroom for leftover luggage in the world–what good’s that to anybody? No, it’s better to be stupid, at least in one’s own way! Have your smell, your own smell, that’s what! And don’t think my demands are too great…God forbid! There’s no end to such originals: wherever you look–there’s an original; every living person’s an original, but I have yet to be counted in that number!
Underground man, of course, considers himself just such an ‘original,’ a fact he sets out to establish in excruciating and agonizing detail, much to the discomfiture of not just his fictional companions, but also his readers. Turgenev’s character, like him, has made introspective self-knowledge central to his life’s projects, acknowledging in his case that all the worldly knowledge of libraries and the commerce of men will be of little use if this self-knowledge is lacking. (A classic Stoic, Buddhist, and existentialist dictum.) If the ‘facts’ uncovered in this inwardly directed journey of exploration turn out to be unpleasant, well then, so be it. Better the ‘originality’ of the odious than the inauthenticity of the ostensibly socially desirable.
Crucially, Turgenev’s character points out that the fact of this ‘originality’ is already manifest “wherever [we] look”: we cannot help but be ourselves, even as we struggle, under the misapprehended weight of social expectation, to be someone else. This conflict, this discordance, cannot but be destructive. The price for this discordance, as the underground man’s companions find out, is shared with others.