Under the Lofty and Beautiful

"Only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals)." --Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The idea of a purpose, aim, function or goal is summed up in the Greek word telos. And in one way or another, most thinkers on the subject of human nature assume we have one. Even Darwin saw a point to human survival and propagation (just not a unique one). During this past week I’ve been reading Emerson’s Nature for class, and it strikes me that what’s really radical about Emerson is his view that human beings are free to define their own telos. It’s we who decide what our purpose is. It’s neither immanent, nor ordained. We just need to trust ourselves, he argues. For Emerson, a human being is an autotelic object, although few of us ever realize it.

After Emerson, of course, my class moves on to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but I suddenly wish it were Dostoyevsky, whose portrait of the Underground Man in his novel Notes from the Underground offers another view of autotelic freedom, one that’s isolated, lonely, and self-obsessed. The Underground Man wishes to be free like Emerson's artistic hero. He longs to realize his dreams of a unique “lofty and beautiful” telos, but his wishes confront an indifferent reality, cold equations, the otherness of brute nature. The mass of people who stroll St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt blithely disregard him.

In the mirror in his cellar apartment he sees his own sneering, abject mouth and knows he is incapable of making anything outside of his mind conform to his dreams. For the Underground Man, a human being is a creature gifted with imagination enough to define its own telos, but so what? It will never happen. So he curses both his dreams and the world that defeats them.

In Part Two of the novel we see the younger Underground Man’s inept and self-defeating attempts to get the world to take notice of him and, ultimately, we discover his fear of actually being noticed for who he is (and not who he wishes to be). It’s true that our dreams and fantasies about life keep us going. Most of us could not get out of bed in the morning without some half-baked trust in the lofty and the beautiful.

Indeed, I have a friend who once related a vision of all of her dearest loved ones gathered lovingly around her deathbed. With each, she told me, she would share a private moment of laughter, remembrance and closeness. This woman is a minister who’s been in more than one hospital room with doped, unconscious, emaciated patients that have tubes jammed down their throats and up their backsides. She’s seen them unceremoniously flatline, or silently kick off while the nurses chatter down the hall. But that’s not what she imagines for herself. No, her death will be the lofty and the beautiful (as if death ever played fair).

In the end, what recommends the Underground Man to me (and not much does) is his willingness to be utterly undeluded about life and its desperate need for delusion, yet to curse them both.


TXC said…
I wanted to mention that some friends of mine produced a very frenzied, sweaty, claustrophobic "Notes from Underground" last year, which I saw. I wish you could have seen it, as you would have appreciated it much more than I. It was well done, but the herding of the audience into a tiny, confined space and seating them right on top of the actors isn't really my cup of tea.

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