by Andy Merrifield
The underground man reads a lot, thinks too much, he has a “hysterical craving for contrast and contradiction.” He wants, even needs to plunge headlong into society, to feel its thrills, dangers and delights, its chaos and disorder. Phony order bores him, even disgusts him. He has to get out. Out of his self and out into the world. One night he passes a tavern and glimpses a ballroom brawl. There a six-foot-plus army officer, brandishing billiard cues, is dispatching assailants out of the window. In enters the underground man, yearning to be thrown from the window. But “without a word of explanation,” the underground man is placed aside. The officer passes by “as though he hadn’t noticed me.” “I could forgive blows,” says the underground man, “but I absolutely cannot forgive him for having moved me, for having completely failed to notice me.”
“It goes without saying,” says Dostoevsky, “that these Notes and their author are fictitious. Nevertheless, people like the author of these notes may, and indeed must, exist in our society, if we think of the circumstances under which that society has been formed.” The underground man is woven from a weird cloth. He teems with opposing elements. He calls himself both an insect and a mouse and takes pleasure in his own suffering. He seems stark raving mad. Or maybe he’s completely normal… maybe it’s the world that’s stark raving mad, that drives people over the edge, into action.
How to get even, how to make the officer take notice of him? How to make the world take notice of him? A duel? A literary quarrel? A missive in the mail? The underground man spots his enemy strolling along the Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s main boulevard, rarely moving aside for anybody and trampling right through people. This bully just strolls right though everybody, like they’re empty space. Ordinary people move aside, “wriggle like eels” and make way for him, for authority figures like him, for those in power, for those with power. What if you don’t move aside? What if you stand your ground? Another idea takes hold.
At first, the underground man balks. In one attempt and at the last second, he loses his nerve and steps aside. Another time, ready to go for it, he stumbles and sprawls across the sidewalk, falling at the officer’s feet. Afterwards, he’s feverish for days. Then one afternoon, unexpectedly, he sees his antagonist again, out on the Nevsky. This time, closing his eyes, he doesn’t budge an inch, not one inch! “He did not even look round and pretended not to notice it,” the underground man beams. “But he was only pretending, I am convinced of that. I am convinced of that to this day! Of course, I got the worst of it—he was stronger, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I had attained my goal, had kept my dignity. I’d placed myself publicly on an equal social footing.” And so, “perhaps I am more alive than you are,” the underground man taunts. “Take a closer look at it! We don’t even know where life lives now, or what it is, or what it’s called…”
Bazarov, Turgenev’s anti-hero from Fathers and Sons, might agree. Or maybe he’d disagree, because Bazarov exhibits a degree of dialectical negation, of plague-on-you dialectical confrontation. Bazarov has a hard time with the mealy-mouthed elders of his day, with the liberals and reactionaries who tell you to obey the law and to respect the current order of things. Bazarov severs ties with his parents’ generation, embraces progressiveness and wishes to do away with the old aristocratic order. He scoffs at mediocrity, assails clichés and laughs at saccharine romanticism. Coarse and brusque, Bazarov spends his time dissecting frogs. He examines everything from a hypercritical point of view. He doesn’t take to fools. He’s at odds with the world he’s compelled to live in. Bazarov doesn’t kowtow to any authority, doesn’t acknowledge any superior. He’s an unrelenting questioner, a devastatingly confrontational intellect.
In Chapter Ten of Fathers and Sons, we glimpse Bazarov in action, tackling head on Pavel Petrovich—the “funny old romantic”—the middle-aged uncle of Bazarov’s friend Arkady.
“At present,” says Bazarov, “the most useful thing is negation.”
“Everything?” wonders Pavel Petrovich.
“How can that be? Not only art, poetry—but also—terrible to say—”
“‘Everything,’ repeated Bazarov with indescribable composure.”
Bazarov is a force that can’t be tamed, that can’t be accommodated by the etiquette of his day, by its institutions, by its mores and ambitions. He can’t be domesticated and is incompatible with both the past and the present, their contradictions and their lies. Either society has to go or he goes. “Man is a strange creature,” Bazarov says, “When you look from the side and from a distance at the quiet life the ‘fathers’ live here, you think: what could be better? Eat, drink and rest assured that you’re acting in the soundest, the most reasonable manner. But no: you’re eaten up with tedium. You want to do something for people, even if it’s only to swear at them, but to do something for them.”
Bazarov is like his alter ego from a century on, Guy Debord: both enter the world to seek misfortune. Debord, the Situationist muckraker, the Prince of Darkness who fondly cites Mallarmé, the poet of a modern and unsentimental muse, a terrible beauty: DESTRUCTION. (“Destruction is my Beatrice,” said Mallarmé. “My work is created only by elimination.” He said this, with his own emphasis, in a letter from 1867, the same year Karl Marx published the first volume of Capital.) Debord and his Situationist cohort were “demolition experts,” practicing as well as preaching détournement, the pillorying and hijacking of all things, the negation of all things — of all bourgeois art and literature, of all bourgeois politics and urbanism, all bourgeois spaces and ideas.
“All my life,” Debord writes at the beginning of Panegyric, his slim autobio from 1989, “I’ve seen only troubled times, extreme divisions in society and immense destruction; I have taken part in these troubles.” Debord was a prophet of storms: he lived through a lot of them and conjured up a few more in his own imagination. “I went slowly but inevitably,” he observes, “toward a life of adventure, with my eyes open. I couldn’t even think of studying for one of the learned professions that lead to holding down a job, for all of them seemed completely alien to my tastes or contrary to my opinions.” His was a life “full of danger and disappointment, inexhaustible surprises, forces of contention and contradictory necessities.”
Yet Debord the destroyer is also Debord the creator, the creator of the greatest dialectical work of art ever, the greatest dialectical prose poem: The Society of the Spectacle. Its 221 strange, elegant theses, aphoristic in style and peppered with irony, give us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of a world in which division spells unity, appearance essence and falsity truth. In this topsy-turvy world everything and everybody partakes in a perverse paradox, a paradox denied. What the young Marx said in 1844 still holds: “I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful women. Therefore I am not ugly… I, in my character as an individual am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor… money is the real mind of all things and how can its possessor be stupid?”
Debord wanted to détourn the reality of this non-reality, this world where ugliness signified beauty, dishonesty honesty and stupidity intelligence. He wanted to subject it to his own dialectical inversion, to his own spirit of negation. Here dialectical critique meets a militant call-to-arms. A theoretical exegesis seeks to reveal the fetishism, to name the alienation, to stir people to end their —our — slumbering torpor, our spectacular contemplation. At times, you get the sense Debord follows Stephen Daedalus from The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, even if he does it as an older man, expressing himself in some mode of life and art as freely as he can, as wholly as he can, using for his defense his only weapons: “SILENCE, EXILE, CUNNING.” Debord said he’d cherished the pleasures of exile as others suffered the pains of submission. We might call Debord a dialectical personality: someone in metaphysical exile, out of place, displaced and underground, living life, as Joyce writes in Finnegans Wake, “in the broadest way immarginable.”
This dialectical personality will be forever RESTLESS and QUESTIONING, forever SKEPTICAL and CONFRONTATIONAL, forever MARGINAL and UNPOPULAR. And we’re not just talking about a guy thing, either: think of the negative courage of Rosa Luxemburg, the dialectical anarcho-passion of Emma Goldman; or even Sylvia Plath, negating the “bell jar,” carrying out that Nietzschean need to “break the windows and leap to freedom.” The dialectical personality will never be a “hired-hand,” a professional yes-sayer, somebody who sells themselves over to an institution, to a bureaucracy, to a corporation, to a university. It’ll never be at anybody’s service. It’ll always be amateur, caring for ideas that might be ambiguous, contradictory, ironic, even comic. It’ll stir up things that question professional authority because it’ll express awful truths that professionals don’t consider, that professionals brush aside and repress. Professionals uphold specialisms and have narrow expertise. Dialectical personalities revel in expansiveness, in conflict and contradiction just as pros demand consensus and reconciliation. The pro’s media machine wants simple soundbite and clarity, whereas the dialectical personality affirms complexity and ambiguity—thoughts and ideas that can’t be distilled into trite banalities.
Most ambiguities are beautiful. They hold things together in dynamic tension. They don’t imply uncertainty but convey honesty. They don’t lack clarity but express tension, essential contradictions that form a necessary totality, a tension that must be conveyed, addressed and sometimes sustained. Ambiguities provide a richer meaning for words and actions, even to politics. A dialectical personality will be a complex residue, a minority, maybe even be a normative type, someone who ought to be, who we need more than ever, real intellectuals, real critics as artists, creative destroyers, ordinary citizens with magical powers, with negative capabilities.
— Andy Merrifield is an independent scholar, a dialectical personality and author of numerous books, including Magical Marxism, The Politics of the Encounter andThe New Urban Question.
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