But “Notes” is a canny work of literature, not a tract: Dostoevsky may have put his own ideas into the mouth of a brilliant man, but he undermined him as a self-destructive mess at the same time. The text, as academics might say, is multivalent, at odds with itself. It’s not so much that the underground man’s opinions are wrong—surely Dostoevsky thought that many of them were true, however wildly phrased—but that they were inseparable, like all opinion, from personal strengths and weakness, even personal pathology. We are inevitably subjective and self-justifying—that is one of the modern elements in the book. We are also entirely inconsistent. The underground man taunts his listeners, apologizes, criticizes himself, then gets aggressive, then collapses again. On and on. He pulls the rug out from underneath his own feet; he realizes he’s trapped in the prison of his own character. Hell is myself.
Sometimes The New Yorker is worth reading.
Whenever I consider this subject, I cannot help but think of Hari Seldon and Asimov’s Psychohistory, which in so many ways is the epitome of what the Underground Man (and Dostoevsky) thought was wrong with certain modern concepts of man.
My father has told me how he chose to major in psychology largely due to the Foundation trilogy, and “psychohistory.” He is not the only one to be influenced in such a way:
Krugman explained that he’d become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he’d read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon. Seldon was a “psychohistorian”—a scientist with such a precise understanding of the mechanics of society that he could predict the course of events thousands of years into the future and save mankind from centuries of barbarism. He couldn’t predict individual behavior—that was too hard—but it didn’t matter, because history was determined not by individuals but by laws and hidden forces. “If you read other genres of fiction, you can learn about the way people are and the way society is,” Krugman said to the audience, “but you don’t get very much thinking about why are things the way they are, or what might make them different. What would happen if?”
It is interesting that so often it is brought up that psychohistory “couldn’t predict individual behavior,” when it was precisely used to do such in book three. The issue that purportedly made it difficult to predict the behavior of an individual was the number of variables needed to be taken into account. Large populations could be generalized more easily. In either case, in keeping with Asimov’s robot mythology, it is clear that human beings are, in essence, organic computers responding predictably to stimuli. Pure fatalism. Atheistic Calvinism. Which doesn’t mean that the trilogy is not highly entertaining, or at least it was when I read it in high school.
Of course, this sort of thinking, which Dostoevsky identified so long ago, still permeates modern society. The clearest modern antonym to Dostoevsky’s concept of humanity is not some Socialist theory, but the idea of “rational self interest.” Which is why I recommend Notes to all my Orthodox Randian libertarian friends, but they never seem too keen on the idea.