The Underground Man: Relativity, Freedom, and Post-Modernism

Gene Fitzgerald, University of Utah

Dostoevskij's Notes from the Underground is considered by most to be the "prologue" to Dostoevskij's subsequent novels and the Underground Man as a prototype of the Post-Petrine educated Russian intellectual. (Mochul'skij, the editors of the Russian Complete Works). Yet, the enormous number of critical commentaries serve to confuse and obfuscate rather than clarify or define the meaning and importance of this paradoxical human being. I would assert that the multiple contradictory interpretations of the Underground Man are the result of a traditional but misguided approach to the novel that requires that critical interpretations of the meaning of the Underground Man have been based on what he says and then, by quoting his discourse, demonstrate the validity of those conclusions. However, here Dostoevskij defeats this methodology by creating a character who negates, contradicts and/or qualifies every assertion he makes. This results in a multitude of contradictory interpretations, a body of critical literature which in toto emulates the underground man's contradictory discursive manner that obfuscates rather than clarifies. This indicates to me that Dostoevskij, through his character's constant and obviously contradictory nature, wishes to dissuade his reader from a singular focus on content and meaning and leads him/her to an examination of the structure of the underground consciousness and language. This change emphasizes the need to determine the nature of how the underground man's consciousness is constructed, how it works, how it uses language and how language in turn reflects how the underground man constructs his own reality through words. In the simplest of terms it is a transferal of importance from what the underground man say to how he says it. In place of concentrating almost entirely on the content of the underground man's discourse, it is my intent to examine how his language, thought, and consciousness "work." It is in the discovery of the workings of this consciousness that I would assert that we will find the "truth" of the underground.

The change in focus from the what of discourse to the how lies at the very heart of the critical thinking involved in what can be called "Post-Modernism." In this "operation" attention is paid not to what a discourse "means," but rather how language, by the very nature of language itself, undermines the assumptions made through language. As Culler points out, if people are interested in expressing truth, then "the relation of their own language to truth, and to the world," needs to be examined. (p. 90) Curiously and heretically, post-modernist thought seems to me to coincide with much that can be found in Dostoevskij's own commentary on the nature of the contemporary "educated Russian" class and so that I consider Dostoevskij himself to be what could be called a "pre-post-modernist."

Therefore, in this paper, I will couch my examination of and conclusions about the construction of the underground man in the context of a few remarks from Dostoevskij's views on the nature of the human being, as well as the thoughts of the linguist Emile Benveniste on language and the construction of the "I" and Jacques Derrida's discussion of "diffÈrance" and the "trace."