Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 83 (May 1998): 44-45.
Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky. By René Girard. Translated by James G. Williams. Crossroad. 167 pp. $24.95.
Reviewed by Andrew J. McKenna
When we consider the seventy years in the twentieth century his country was in the hands of its revolutionaries trying to build a Communist utopia, we cannot fail to discern in the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky a prophetic dimension—and one in which we may behold an image of our own culture’s controversies even after the fall of communism. The crisis he explored in nineteenth-century Russia’s belated and vexed encounter with Europe foreshadows the critical confrontations of our own time, as we face the decline of traditional religious, political, and epistemological authority while lost in a fog of competing claims about scientific determinism, groundless freedom, and the latest fashionable ideology.
If we cannot imagine Dostoevsky’s adaptation of our culture wars to the debates he stages in the living rooms, taverns, and seminaries of his novels, we haven’t grasped the implications of his work—as René Girard suggests in the concluding essay he has attached to Resurrection from the Underground, his twenty-year-old study of Dostoevsky’s work, now deftly translated into English. The narrator of the Russian novelist’s Notes from the Underground neatly summarizes the far from completely secularized pandemonium in which we can recognize our own nihilistic climate: "Without books and literature, we are entangled and lost—we don’t know what to join, what to keep up with; what to love, what to hate; what to respect, what to despise." The famous passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov—where Ivan Karamazov tells the legend of Jesus Christ returning to the world, only to encounter the Grand Inquisitor—is perhaps the best example of the novelist’s own relentless probing into modern culture’s muddled relation to its religious inheritance, the repudiation of which in the name of purely human dominion he views as blindly self-destructive.
But only in Girard’s retrospective comments twenty years after he wrote the book do these elements in Resurrection from the Underground come clear. With such works as Violence and the Sacred (1972), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), The Scapegoat (1982), and Job (1985), Girard is the author of pathbreaking work in anthropology, psychology, and, increasingly, theology. But he began his intellectual career in literature, publishing in 1961 Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, a study of triangular relations in fiction. His study of Dostoevsky dates from his early (and continuing) work as a literary critic and offers a fascinating window on the sources of Girard’s later thought.
For Girard the key to following Dostoevsky’s development as an author comes in Notes from the Underground. We so easily admire the extravagance of Dostoevsky’s characters, in their variously abject and sublime recklessness, in their rueful and droll frenzy, that we tend to disregard the admonition of his Underground Man, who tells us from his "stink hole": "For my part, I have merely carried to extremes in my life what you have not dared to carry even half-way, and, in addition, you have mistaken your cowardice for common sense and have found comfort in that, deceiving yourselves."
There is a moment in Notes from the Underground in which the narrator tries to show his former schoolmates how little he cares for them—tries to win from them notice of his superior indifference: "I wanted terribly to show them that I could easily do without them, but at the same time, I was stamping my feet on purpose. But to no avail. They really paid no attention to me." This moment encapsulates a pattern of behavior that Dostoevsky explores not just in Notes from the Underground but throughout his masterpieces—a pattern in which Girard finds a template for our own self-understanding. It is because the indifference of his schoolmates is real that the Underground Man’s is so transparently and mortifyingly counterfeit. Their ascendancy over him and his degradation before them are components of a single mechanism that unites thwarted pride and self-hatred. It is the mechanism that will expose him to the icy contempt of his own servant and check his response to the compassion of the prostitute Liza, to whom he bares all his misery and whom he can only think of dominating.
As Girard shows, this is the same unity of pride and self-hatred that wracks the conscience of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who doesn’t know whether his murder of an old pawnbroker places him above or below humanity. It is what propels almost all the characters of The Possessed to venerate the sovereignly impassive Stavrogin—and what no less surely drives Stavrogin to suicide as he contemplates the emptiness that his detachment affords him. Ivan Karamazov cannot determine if he is responsible for the murder of his father, who inspires in him a hatred that he turns on himself at the peril of his own sanity, as he hallucinates the burlesque taunts of a sycophantic devil "made in his own image and likeness."
These extremes of behavior are so many variants of the "underground psychology" that places Dostoevsky, as Girard shows, "in dialogue with every form of Western individualism from Descartes through Nietzsche"—the individualism that "took over little by little the prerogatives that had belonged to God in medieval philosophy." Where "meaning is furnished by others in a world devoid of objective values," we find rival doubles everywhere, and this ubiquitous contest divides us against both ourselves and others. In such late works as The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky presents clearly the need to discard the Manichean image of some gruesome fiend thwarting our nascent good will, the conceit with which Enlightenment philosophy and its step-child utilitarianism disguised a deluded narcissism. Instead we have to see the devil, "liar and father of lies," as old Karamazov cynically calls himself, in the role of others as they tempt and seduce us with the desires that they model for us and that they necessarily oppose when we try to imitate them. But even such early tales as The Double look forward to this insight—though The Double still betrays traces of Dostoevsky’s early romanticism and the romantic pathology that he would later expose in Notes from the Underground.
Precisely because it appears in English long after the wide circulation of Girard’s analyses of doubles, scapegoating, and the "mimetic desire" that is bound to discover obstacles in the models whose desires it copies, the temptation is to read Girard’s Resurrection from the Underground as the application to Dostoevsky of a predetermined interpretive device. In fact, however, what makes this study so fascinating is that precisely the reverse is true: Much of what Girard has gone on to assert about human desire, scapegoats, and the gospel, he learned first from Dostoevsky. The influence that the desires of others has over one’s own desires is the lesson that the novelist drew from his own tormented experience as the precocious author of Poor Folk, who is first lionized then ostracized by Petersburg literary circles—and whose later participation in revolutionary discussions reflects resentful defiance rather than personal conviction. Girard moves back and forth between the life and the works to show how, contrary to traditional biographical practice, the novels explain the author’s social and historical experience rather than the reverse. His disastrous first marriage, in which the role of the rival (two in fact) is paramount, is only later illuminated by The Eternal Husband, which comically portrays a man perversely pursuing his deceased wife’s seducer in order to validate his next conjugal choice.
The picture of literature that emerges in Girard’s study is that of a method of investigation that makes nothing less than the "objective truth" of human relations available to our comprehension. Girard lends robust support to Dostoevsky’s claims that "art is always actual and real, and has never existed in any other way" and that a fully achieved realism is ultimately and integrally religious. From the beginning chapter entitled "Descent into the Inferno" to "Resurrection," the last, Girard traces the novelist’s painful self-discovery in stages that account for the progress from Crime and Punishment to The Idiot and from The Possessed to The Brothers Karamazov. His last work gathers all the disparate themes of earlier ones into a unifying religious and aesthetic vision that is continuous with biblical revelation.
James G. Williams, the translator of Resurrection from the Underground, emphasizes in his preface how Girard explores the biblical imagery both of the pride that separates us from one another and the love that gathers us together. Girard shows that for Dostoevsky evil comes down to "pure choice" between pride and love, as exemplified in the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor by the silent kiss that Christ bestows on his tormentor, by the Grand Inquisitor’s rejection of that kiss, and by Ivan Karamazov’s indecision before the clear implications of his own legend. When, at the end of their conversation, Alyosha Karamazov kisses his brother, whom he calls his own tempter, he is accused mockingly of "plagiarism." This is Dostoevsky’s trope for the imitatio christi that Alyosha believes is the antidote to Ivan’s proud and anguished rebellion. The "unconditional love" that the dying elder Zossima bequeaths to the world in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is not just a matter of religious sublimity, but a pragmatic necessity: the unique alternative to the destructive cycles of pride and humiliation, of domination and servitude, that for Dostoevsky inhere potentially in all our dealings with one another.
In his new concluding essay, Girard clarifies our present-day links with Dostoevsky’s world and his "crucible of doubt," as he styled his life. Girard’s Dostoevsky uncovers no mysterious depths; we find none of the miasmic lowlands of the Russian soul celebrated by Virginia Woolf in a famous essay on Russian writers. But even Woolf found herself forced to admit that such works as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov lead us to "understanding more than we have ever understood before, and receiving such revelations as we are wont to get only from the press of life at its fullest." René Girard knows what only the finest literary critics know: We cannot explain Dostoevsky’s novels; those novels explain us.
Andrew J. McKenna is Professor of French at Loyola University, Chicago, and author of Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction.