Under Ground

One may be under ground in the literal sense of hiding in some hole where one will be safe from the prying eyes of those “others” who are always trying to judge you or in the figurative sense of serving in a profession not held in good repute by society. Either way, the longer one lives under ground, the more one risks becoming introverted; the more introverted one becomes, the more one risks the development of a biased perspective, which in turn transforms easily into contempt for those from whom one has hidden oneself. The rest of us, we who live conventionally as part of society, equating that conventional behavior with goodness, have many words for those who live under ground—crazy, lunatic, extremist—but what we are really saying is “different:” we reject such people, shove them further into their isolation, feed their lunacy, their “distinctiveness.” This is dangerous for what we sneer at, they do indeed come to see as their distinction, their justification for pride, and then their marginalization can become the source less of weakness than of power.

The madman who lived under ground–well…either he is mad or all of us are and since there are a lot more of us, I conclude that the fault is his—and who so meticulously noted down his self-absorbed ravings may indeed have been a pathetic and insignificant creature proud of his diseases [Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (Russian Classics in Russian and English, 13).], but from that self-absorption to a transformative drive for power can be an astonishingly short step.

Whether Dostoevsky was predicting Lenin, or Lenin discovered himself in Dostoevsky, or Solzhenitsyn had Dostoevsky’s underground man in mind as he depicted Lenin hiding helplessly in his own self-absorbed Swiss underground as the February Revolution unfolded, it is hard to tell where the brilliant ravings in Notes ends and masterful Leninist revolutionary strategy begins.

Жгло, что сам — не там, невозможно вмешаться, невозможно направить. [СОЛЖЕНИЦЫН,  КРАСНОЕ КОЛЕСО , Узел III — МАРТ СЕМНАДЦАТОГО,  Книга 3 (главы 449).]

Il se consumait de n’etre pas la-bas, de ne pouvoir imposer sa direction aux evenements. [Mars dix-sept (Fayard, 360).]

In his first sentence, Dostoevsky’s imaginary underground writer admits…and proceeds to make the case quite persuasively:

Я человек больной… Я злой человек. [[ Фёдор Михайлович Достоевский, Записки из подполья —Часть I, Глава I.]

I am sick…I am a spiteful man.[7.]

The real underground man, upon hearing that revolution is indeed breaking out all over Russia, rejects all cooperation, stressing his own unique grasp of Truth:

И социалистам-центристам, Чхеидзе — никакого доверия! никакого слияния с ними! Мы — отдельно ото всех!

Surtout, n’accorder aucune confiance aux socialistes-centrists, a Tcheidze! Ne jamais fusionner avec eux! Nous sommes—a part! [361.]

Let the centrists form the new regime. To retain power, they must feed the people, but (one can see Lenin smirking), they won’t be able to. Until then, let them all stew in their own juices while we remain in our citadel, safe from the free marketplace of public debate…underground:

И вообще: будет величайшим несчастьем, если кадетское правительство разрешит легальную рабочую партию, — это очень ослабит нас. Надо надеяться, что мы останемся нелегальными! А если уж навяжут нам легальность, то мы обязательно сохраним подпольную часть…

Bien comprendre que ce qui peut nous arriver de pire, c’est l’autorisation d’un parti ouvrier legal par le gouvernement Cadet, cela nous affaiblirait beaucoup. Esperons que nous resterons illegaux! Et si on nous impose la legalite, conservons absolument une activite clandestine: notre force est dans le podpolie…[361.]

As the first few days of the February Revolution pass, Lenin agonizes over whether or not it is precisely the right time for him to return to Russia but quickly focuses on the strategy he will use: repression without pity.

не повторить нам ошибок Коммуны, её двух основных ошибок: она не захватила банков в свои руки и была слишком великодушна: вместо повальных расстрелов враждебных классов — всем сохраняла жизнь и думала их перевоспитывать. Так вот, самое гибельное, что грозит пролетариату, — это великодушие в революции. Надо научить его не бояться безжалостных массовых средств!

Les deux erreurs de la Commune, ses deux erreurs fondamentales, nous ne les repeterons pas: elle n’a pas saisi les banques et elle a ete trop magnanime: au lieu de fusiller en masse les classes qui lui etaient hostiles, elle leur a conserve la vie en esperant les reeduquer. Car le plus grand peril qui menace le proletariat, c’est bien sa magnanimite en periode de revolution. Nous devons lui apprendre a ne pas reculer devant des measures de masse impitoyables! [363.]

Sneered at by “men of action,” the rejected, humiliated “little mouse” seeks safety underground in a hole where it can do nothing but…think.

Доходит наконец до самого дела, до самого акта отмщения. Несчастная мышь кроме одной первоначальной гадости успела уже нагородить кругом себя, в виде вопросов и сомнений, столько других гадостей; к одному вопросу подвела столько неразрешенных вопросов, что поневоле кругом нее набирается какая-то роковая бурда, какая-то вонючая грязь, состоящая из ее сомнений, волнений и, наконец, из плевков, сыплющихся на нее от непосредственных деятелей, предстоящих торжественно кругом в виде судей и диктаторов и хохочущих над нею во всю здоровую глотку. Разумеется, ей остается махнуть на все своей лапкой и с улыбкой напускного презренья, которому и сама она не верит, постыдно проскользнуть в свою щелочку. Там, в своем мерзком, вонючем подполье, наша обиженная, прибитая и осмеянная мышь немедленно погружается в холодную, ядовитую и, главное, вековечную злость. [Часть I, Глава III.]

Apart from the one primary nastiness the luckless mouse has by now succeeded in creating around it so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts and questions; it has added to the one question so many unsettled questions that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew, a sort of stinking filth, made up of its doubts, emotions, and finally of the spits showered upon it by the direct men of action who stand solemnly around it as judges and dictators, laughing at it with all their might. Of course the only thing left for it is to dismiss all that with a wave of its paw, and, with a smile of assumed contempt in which it does not even itself believe, creep ignominiously into its mouse-hole. There in its nasty, stinking, underground our offended, crushed and ridiculed mouse promptly becomes absorbed in cold, venomous and, above all, everlasting spite. [19.]

Thinking in isolation, without action may certainly lead to lunacy, i.e., belief in something unreal provoking irrational behavior, but a short step away in a different direction lies the absolute determination to risk all in a burst of action. The mouse becomes the “direct man of action.” For this to occur, Dostoevsky’s underground mouse must answer the question so innocently posed at the beginning of its analysis of “revenge:”

Ведь у людей, умеющих за себя отомстить и вообще за себя постоять, — как это, например, делается?

With people who know how to revenge themselves and to stand up for themselves in general, how is it done? [17.]

One comment on “Under Ground

  1. […] toward balancing the regional military equation: all states seek security and its lack frequently provokes dangerously risky behavior. Particularly in a region plagued by three militant religious states, marginalizing and […]

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