Yesterday, I spent part of a gloomy, overcast day in the CUNY Graduate Center library, preparing for my classes today. In particular, I prepared for my class on existentialism by reading, yet again, Dostoyevsky‘s Notes From Underground. As I read sitting next to a large window, I heard chants emanating upward from Fifth Avenue; I looked out to see a large contingent of protesters heading uptown, presumably toward Trump Tower. (The Graduate Center Library is located at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, so I was only twenty or so blocks away from their intended destination.) I wished them a silent ‘good luck,’ and then turned back to my reading. In an email to my students over the weekend I had asked them to keep in mind that the Underground Man is engaged in a kind of ‘revolt.’ What was he revolting against? How is this revolt expressed? As I read on, and reached Chapter VII, I reached a set of passages which I thought would strike my students as remarkably relevant to these times–perhaps even prescient.
There, Dostoyevsky writes:
I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: “I say, gentlemen, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!”….what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers–such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason….that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests…One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy–is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms….What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.
Dostoyevsky has set up the above pronouncement with the following opening to the chapter:
Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else….Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, willfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage…. And what if it so happens that a man’s advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle fans into dust.
Excerpts above from Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre
, Walter Kaufmann
ed., Penguin, New York, pp. 67-71.