Monday, March 14, 2011

(edited) Underground 2: the man without a character

Two questions help us classify undergrounds: who lives in it? And where is it?

At first glance, the latter question seems to pick at a mere tautology. The underground should surely be under the ground. This, however, is not the case: undergrounds are not simply underground, but are portable, made out of a habitat, a milieu, a political choice, a crime. How these things become underground depends on the metaphoric filter that connects a symbolically charged place with the modern. Or even pre-modern. There is, for instance, an underground in the brain in as much as a memory is perceived as hidden – it sinks into a ‘hole’ in the brain. When Augustine evokes memory in the Confessions, he evokes the underground:

“All these things, each one of which came into memory in its own particular way, are stored up separately and under the general categories of understanding. For example, light and all colors and forms of bodies came in through the eyes; sounds of all kinds by the ears; all smells by the passages of the nostrils; all flavors by the gate of the mouth; by the sensation of the whole body, there is brought in what is hard or soft, hot or cold, smooth or rough, heavy or light, whether external or internal to the body. The vast cave of memory, with its numerous and mysterious recesses, receives all these things and stores them up, to be recalled and brought forth when required.”

Memory, in this image, is a sort of drain as much as a cavern. Drainage is what sewers are about, and sewers are what modern cities are about. The image of memory as that into which the senses drain, the underground of the soul, is one that will re-emerge in Freud.

Sewage was the main target of what Alain Corbin calls the ‘strategy of de-odorization” recounted in his book, The Miasma and the Jonquil. “To disinfect – and thus deodorize – participates, besides, in a utopian project: that which aims to seal off the witnesses of organic time, to repress all the irrefutable markers of duration, those prophecies of death which are excrement, the product of menstruation, the decay of the corpse and the stink of the cadaver.” (134)

‘I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.”

Such is the beginning of the most famous account of the underground: Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. The title to which has been a famous translator’s quandary. Notes from under the floorboards? Notes from a Mouse Hole?

Joseph Frank, in his biography of Dostoevsky, records this attack on Dostoevsky, mounted in two articles the Russian Messenger: [they] accused him of being ‘immoral’ and of fixing “the reader in the stinking atmosphere of the underground, [which] little by little, against the intentions of the author and perhaps in spite of them, blunts his sense of smell and accustoms him to this stinking underground.”

Dostoevsky, in his notes to The Raw Youth (which he was writing at the time, in 1875), responded: “I am proud to have exposed for the first time, the real image of the Russian majority… its misshapen and tragic aspects. The tragic lies in one’s awareness of being misshapen.” And he continued concerning “the tragedy of the underground, which consists of suffering, self-laceration, an awareness of a better life coupled with the impossibility of attaining it… What can sustain those who do try to improve themselves? A reward, faith? Nobody is offering any reward, and in whom could one have faith? Another step from this position, and you have extreme depravity, crime (murder). A mystery.”

Smells and stinks are certainly one of the physical features that the Underground Man notices. He imagines himself in a hole, as an insect, a mouse, and notes that his cleaning lady, an old peasant, “ill natured from stupidity, and moreover, there is always a nasty smell about her,” while in the next sentence he remarks about the unhealthy effects of the St. Petersburg climate – which is clearly based on the theory of the miasma. In fact, the narrative is traversed by a metaphoric in which nasty thoughts and nasty smells are interchanged, especially when the underground man is considering himself in the aspect of a verminous beast:

“Apart from the one fundamental nastiness the luckless mouse succeeds in creating around it so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts and questions, adds to the one question so many unsettled questions that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew, a stinking mess, made up of its doubts, emotions, and of the contempt spat upon it by the direct men of action who stand solemnly about it as judges and arbitrators, laughing at it till their healthy sides ache. 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 home our insulted, crushed and ridiculed mouse promptly becomes absorbed in cold, malignant and, above all, everlasting spite.”

At the time that Dostoevsky was writing the Notes from the Underground, the Paris sewage system was being overhauled by Haussmann. Interestingly, “Haussmann was reluctant to allow any human faeces to enter the magnificent collecting channels of the new sewer system, and only did so under intense pressure from the city's municipal authorities. The desire to separate 'clean' storm water from 'dirty' human waste was integral to Haussmann's conception of an orderly flow of water through urban space.” (Matthew Gandy, 1999) At this time, the inspector of the sewage system, Eugene Belgrand, had the inspired idea of hiring Nadar to photograph the underground spaces. (Gandy)

We’ve been following the clerk, the pre-eminent circulation agent in a system presided over by infinite metamorphoses and a gnawing lack of production. The media as we know it – that system of signs and images that has begun, in the eighteenth century, to break free of one bureaucracy of clerks – the church – and is branching out of the purely circulation segment in the total system of commodity circulation under capitalism – is the natural locus for both the alienation of the clerk and the work of the journalist.

I want to note the connection with the clerk, the middleman, the creator of metamorphoses. The Underground Man makes a special point of being a government bureaucrat – a broker of documents in a chain that stretches from the “underground advokatura” (see William Pomeratz’s 1993 article) to the high state functionary. This, I think, is not a coincidence, but an intersigne.

The underground, here, mirrors the middle – a stream of waste reflects the stream of paper.

The underground, as we have said, comes in two ‘types”. The underground in which a man or woman hides is the product of a couple: the hider and the seeker. One of the determinants of the underground in which a person hides is the nature of that from which the person hides. The Great Seeker, here, is usually taken to be the State. The underground city is not just a mirror of the above ground city, but it is a potential repository of the above ground city’s perversities – robbery instead of legal exchange, perverse sexuality instead of marriage, the violent overthrow of the state instead of court or legislative politics. But the couple can also be otherwise: the hider can be coupled with the more amorphous seeker, society. In the nineteenth century, the state increasingly casts itself as the representative of society – but they operate along different axes from the point of view of the underground man.

Alain Roger, in the Breviare de la betise, astutely, exhaustively follows the ‘logic of tautology’ that is the form of one of the underground man’s great obsessions – betise, or stupidity. Roger distinguishes the banal, a simple accumulation of identity statements, A is A, man is man, from the tautologies that give life to stupidity: Man is always man. More, woman is always woman. More, a Jew is always a Jew. The temporal index of the “always” is the beast’s, or rather, the brute’s mark. In the 19th century, French writers from Balzac through Flaubert and Baudelaire to, finally, Bloy seized on the second form of tautology and, by citing it obsessively, by collecting it, by daydreaming over it, sought to shame it by mirroring, repeating, overhearing, echoing it – by trumping tautology with its own sound, look, smell, characteristic gait, household, habits, bank account, and all the stuffings. The attack on stupidity was an attack on the bourgeoisie – always the middle class. In England, as Alexander Herzen pointed out at the time, this attack was mounted with more restraint by John Stuart Mill in his essay on Liberty. Herzen sympathizes with Mill, but at the same time mocks him, for it is Herzen’s idea that Mills attack on conformity is superficial: conformity, Herzen thinks, is the natural product of a historical process, and Mill is caught up in the contradiction between defending that historical process – which, for our purposes, we will call the society of the market economy – and decrying its product. “But this deterioration of individuality, this want of temper, arre only pathological facts, and admitting them is a very important step towards the way out; but it is not the way out. Mill upbraids the sick man and points to his sound ancestors: an odd sort of treatment, and hardly a magnanimous one.

“Come: are we not to begin to reproach the lizard with the antediluvian ichthyosaurus? Is it the fault of one thaqt it is little and the other was big? Mill, frightened by the moral worthlessness, the spiritual mediocrity of this environment, cried out passionately and sorrowfully, like the champions in our old tales: “Is there a man alive in the field?” (Herzen, 460)

Herzen is an almost unique intelligence in that his viewpoint mixed a Russian experience with a thoroughly European education. 19th century Russia witnessed a different relation between society and the state than did France. In Czarist Russia, the two are so imbricated, and at the same time so amorphous, that the difference highlighted by Roger between the tautologies of banality and stupidity doesn’t function. Gogol – and Dostoevsky after him – collapses the stupid into the banal, and makes the banal the starting point for the fantastic. The banal, as Gogol once wrote, was his speciality. Dmitry Merezhkovsky, in his great essay on Gogol, gives us a sense of the writer’s realism that has not been taken up by the literary critics who are so fascinated by the topic, from Belinski to Lukac. Gogol’s starting point is the infinity of the divine. If the devil is the opposite of the divine, he is the opposite of the infinite. “The Devil is the noumenal median of being, the denial of all heights and depths – eternal planarity (ploskost’), eternal banality (poshlost’). The sole subject of Gogol’s art is the Devil in just this sense, that is, the Devil as the manifestation of “man’s immortal banality,” as seen beneath the specifics of place and time – historical, national, governmental, social; the manifestation of absolute, eternal, universal evil – banality sub specie aeternitatis.” (57-58)

This banality is something we will come back to again and again. It is, certainly, more lurid, more comic, more real than simply the logic of identity against which Alain Roger pits the truly stupid. In a serf society – or a slave society, like the United States – that banality constitutes that ‘quiet desperation’, that gravitational field that brings all things down to one level for the American underground man – Thoreau and Melville in the 19th century – and which follows Huck to the Territories and beyond.

Alain Roger, however, largely neglects the banal in favor of stupidity. In an interesting analysis of Barthes Mythologies, he detects a certain … complaisance in Barthes for the proverb, for the prole and the peasant. The ‘happiness of identity’ given by tautology is all shoved onto the petit bourgeois. It is at the center of the middle class cult of good sense: “Good sense is like the watchdog of petit-bourgeois equations: it stops up all the dialectical exits and defines a homogenous world.” Stupidity, in this form, is aggressive, according to Barthes. Roger disagrees: “It seems to me essentially sufficient. It is there that its force resides, which is inertia.” (68-69)


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...