Articles Fyodor Dostoevsky 3


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In the novel, Dostoevsky is taking aim at philosophies of progress and improvement – which were highly popular in his age (as they continue to be in ours). He is attacking our habit of telling ourselves that if only this or that thing were different, we could leave suffering behind. If we got that great job, changed the government, could afford that great house, invented a machine to fly us faster around the world, could get together with (or get divorced from) a particular person, then all would go well. This, Dostoevsky argues, is a delusion. Suffering will always pursue us. Schemes for improving the world always contain a flaw: they won’t eliminate suffering, they will only change the things that cause us pain. Life can only ever be a process of changing the focus of pain, never removing pain itself. There will always be something to agonise us. Stop people starving, says Dostoevsky – with calculated wickedness – and you’ll soon find there’s a new range of agonies: they’ll start to suffer from boredom, greed or intense melancholy that they haven’t been invited to the right party.

In this spirit, Notes from Underground launches an attack on all ideologies of technical or social progress which aspire to the elimination of suffering. They won’t succeed because as soon as they solve one problem, they’ll direct our nature to become unhappy in new ways. Dostoevsky is fascinated by the secret ways we actually don’t want what we theoretically seek: he discusses the pleasure a lot of people get from feelings of superiority (and for whom, consequently, an egalitarian society would be a nightmare); or the disavowed (but real) thrill we get from hearing about violent crimes on the news – in which case we’d actually feel thwarted in a truly peaceful world. Notes from Underground is a dark, awkwardly insightful, counterpoint to well-intentioned modern liberalism.
It doesn’t really show that social improvement is meaningless. But it does remind us that we’ll always carry our very complex and difficult selves with us and that progress will never be as clear and clean as we might like to imagine.