Sunday, September 19, 2010

Underground Compassion

I have read Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864) many times.  Although most critics focus on the philosophical argument against rational egoism presented in the first part, the emotional crux of the novel really lies in Part Two.

Having gone to a party (to which he was not invited and at which he was not welcome), the narrator gets drunk, insults the other guests and heads off to a whorehouse, where he has sex with a prostitute named Liza, who strikes his fancy because of her kind and unusually serious eyes and expression.  As he remarks, the fact that she looks so thoughtful can only work to her detriment in her profession, and the narrator revels in their mutual degradation--she is a quiet and serious whore, he is an agitated and repulsive john.

Afterward, he finds out that, in fact, her parents sold her to the madam.  Because he has been humiliated at the party that precedes his trip to the brothel, the narrator decides to taunt and torment Liza, to even the scales by reasserting his superiority over her.  He paints a picture of the future that awaits her--mental and moral degradation, followed by poverty, illness, and death--and then poetically suggests that someone who could see past all of this might one day come along and save her, giving her a chance at a home, a family, and love.

The narrator comments, "What chiefly attracted me was the game itself"--the chance to see how good a player he really is.  He wants to see if he can convince Liza that he is the kind of man that he pretends to be, to see if he can get her to overlook the obvious and painful realities that should have already clued her in about the type of guy he really is.  Much to his surprise, he succeeds.  She falls for it.  He wins.

As it turns out, Liza does hold out hope that she will be able to leave the life to which her parents have condemned her.  She has recently reconnected with a childhood friend at a party, a man who ostensibly knows nothing of her current profession and who has written to her, telling her that he loves her.  She believes she can still escape her fate; she still has hope.

Fascinated, the narrator realizes that he has miscalculated the depth of Liza's spirit and integrity.  Nevertheless, he tells her to "come see him" at his apartment.  He immediately regrets it.  He has presented himself as confident, well-off, intelligent and altruistic, as a thoughtful and compassionate man-of-the-world, who just happened to drop by the whorehouse drunk and disheveled that one time.  In fact, as he well knows, he is insecure, poor, disgusting and spiteful, and he knows that the minute that Liza sees where and how he lives, she will realize the truth about him.

Days pass, and she doesn't come.  When she finally does, the narrator is in the middle of a frantic shouting match with his servant--in short, Liza couldn't have picked a worse time to drop by.

At this point, the narrator unloads all of his anger and resentment.  He laughs at Liza for believing in him, tells her it was all just a game to him and that he thinks she is ridiculous for believing that he is a better man than he actually is.  He lets her know that, basically, she needs to get a clue and face reality, that this is how people are and that this is how the world really works. 

As he goes on and on, he describes how "something exceedingly strange happened": "Liza, whom I had so abused and humiliated, understood a great deal more than I imagined.  She understood that ... I myself was unhappy."

Instead of being crushed by his words, Liza sees through them to the suffering underneath.  She realizes that the games that the narrator plays with words and sex have only left him lonely and very unhappy, and that he is too frightened to ever break out of the emotional underground that he has created for himself.  He has buried himself alive, and although he claims that he prefers it there and that he is happy and entertained watching it all unfold from the safety of his "corner," she knows that really, he is tired, anxious and miserable.

Because she understands, she offers him a genuine connection of sympathy and compassion, in spite of the pain that he has caused her.  She looks past her own pain and humiliation because she sees that they are simply a result of the actions of a man who is, in the end, emotionally and spiritually lost.  And she realizes that this is a terrible feeling.

The narrator, true to form, takes advantage of her emotional generosity, sleeps with her again, and then kicks her out.  As he shows her the door, he pays her and then turns away.

When he turns around, Liza has left.  And she has left the money behind. 

Faced with the narrator's repeated efforts to showcase human nature as fundamentally egotistical and painfully confronted with his need to reduce relationships to a game of words that everyone supposedly plays and enjoys, Liza silently asserts her own understanding of life and its purposes. 

It is one of my favorite moments in all of literature. 


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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."