Have you ever felt that the world might be your dream, felt alienated, set apart from others, overwhelmed at times by your inner thought process? If you have, then you may find “Dostoevsky and the Profound Egocentric,” written when I was just nineteen years old, to be very relevant to your inner experience. My adult consciousness began with the writing of this paper, but it wasn’t until the following year, when I was twenty, that I connected the psychological state of profound egocentrism with an evolutionary model, and recognized its connection to the dawning of a new mode of consciousness and communication (see “Archetypes of a New Evolution”).
In “The Path of the Numinous”
https://zaporacle.com/the-path-of-the-numinous-living-and-working-with-the-creative-muse I describe the origins of this paper as follows:
One night during my first year of high school I felt something prod me out of the deep sleep of a healthy fourteen year old boy at two or three o’clock in the morning. Some irresistible inner prompting had me reaching toward my futuristic-looking Panasonic clock radio to switch on the sound. When I did so I heard a voice coming out of the radio that sounded exactly like my own mind speaking in my head. I was stunned and wondered if I was still dreaming, but everything in the room felt so physical and real. The voice seemed to express my inner most thoughts, the thoughts I had not shared with anyone, and the thoughts and feelings expressed by the voice had what I thought were the unique perspective of my own mind and personality. Suddenly there was a station identification break and I found out what was going on. The station was WBAI, FM, the station I tuned into far more than any other. WBAI was one of my main lines into the Sixties, and I have never encountered a radio station remotely like it before or since. It was run by hippies; nothing was too weird to be broadcast, and it was a fountain of creativity and novelty twenty-four hours a day in the Sixties and Seventies in New York City. On this particular night WBAI was doing an all night reading of Fydor Dostoevsky’s novella, Notes from Underground. At the time I didn’t know what to make of this experience, but made a mental note that one day I would have to find out who this Dostoevsky was and how it could be that a Russian writer could so perfectly express the inner perspective of my mind way back in the Nineteenth Century.
I wanted to read Dostoevsky, I was following the Path of the Numinous, and I wanted to find out more about the voice that was coming out of the radio, but I didn’t fully realize that yet. My original proposal was that I would write about Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, a city that attracted both his fascination and loathing. Because it was one of the first cities to be completely preplanned, Dostoesky saw it as an artificial world, a landscape of the soulless ego. This was a perfectly intriguing subject, but it was not where the muse wanted me to go.
Fairly soon into the project I came to realize that what was really numinous, what I really had to investigate was why that voice from the radio sounded like the inside of my own mind. As I read Dostoevsky I found that I felt something in common with a number of his central characters, not just the man from underground, but also Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and a few others. I had only taken one psychology course, the introductory survey course that everybody takes, but I was starting to discover that my mind was psychologically oriented and that I seemed to have psychological intuitions and thinking without having been trained in it. My mother was a psychologist for forty-four years, so I did grow up hearing and overhearing some psychology, but much of my insights seemed to come from the inside. Reading Dostoevsky novels I began to use certain of his characters to build a psychological model of a personality type I called “ the profound egocentric.”
While I was building this psychological model there was a decisive moment, perhaps the first of those twenty to forty minute zones when an entire vista of awareness opened up. It was at night and I was sitting on a park bench by myself on a path that led to the college library. Suddenly there was a vast coalescing of insights and intuitions, everything seemed to come together. I saw how this personality type worked in the Dostoevsky characters and how it worked in me, how it limited me, and how I was now in a situation with allies where I could begin to transcend those limitations. This was, for the first nineteen years of my life, an epiphany, a breakthrough into an unprecedented self-knowledge. I felt the inner tectonic plates shift, and at that exact moment, on that park bench, I felt then, and feel now, that my adult consciousness began. To this day, when I look back at the landscape of memory that was the dividing line, the memories that come after that park bench are of a different sort as they are seen through the eyes of an analytical, self awareness that had not really come into its own before I sat down on that bench.
Dostoevsky and the Profound Egocentric
© Jonathan Zap 1977, 2006
Spring, 1977 College Scholars Program, Ursinus College
Adviser: Dr. Decatur
Profound egocentrism is a psychological concept that I believe is necessary for a complete understanding of Dostoevsky and many of his characters. It is also a concept that can be useful in a psychological approach to literature in general. A Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytical Terms defines “ egocentrism” as “ concerned with oneself, preoccupied with one’s own concerns and relatively insensitive to the concerns of others, though not necessarily selfish . Profound is used here in two senses. The first sense implies great depth and scope —- dealing with many levels and deeply within those levels. “ A profound effect on the situation .” The second sense implies great intellectual depth and complexity e.g. “ a profound philosophy .” The profound egocentric is a personality of great depth and intellectual complexity and is egocentric in many, many levels of his personality and very deeply within those levels. Profound egocentrism is an exclusive class within egocentrism.
Everyone (some autistic children may be exceptions) has to a greater or lesser extent, a sense of “ I .” A sense of “ I ” can be defined as a sense of one’s own being and thought process. Everyone also has, to varying degrees, a sense of other . A sense of other can be defined as an intuitive realization of the independent existence of other human beings, and of an independent, ongoing mental process in others.
The profound egocentric has a very exaggerated sense of I. Closely related to this exaggerated sense of I are extreme sensitivity, self-awareness, self-consciousness (in the commonplace sense of feeling awkward), and inner-directed thinking and personality. Qualities more indirectly related to the exaggerated sense of I are high intelligence and a constant flow of creative thought (thought not just a response to thee environment – abstract thought for example). The profound egocentric’s sense of other and outside reality is generally weak. This sense of other has an inverse relationship with environmental stress. In other words as situations become more trying, the sense of other and outside reality can disintegrate completely. Closely related to this weak sense of other and outside reality is an inability to relate to people in a natural way, and an unwillingness to associate with people. A disintegrated sense of other and outside reality also results in an inability to distinguish between hallucination, dream, imagination and reality, and a failure to recognize other human beings as independent entities.
Dostoevsky very concisely summarizes the net effect on the personality of an exaggerated sense of I and of a weak sense of other: “But though Ratkin was very sensitive about everything that concerned himself, he was very obtuse as regards the feelings and sensations of others – partly from his youth and inexperience, partly from his intense egoism.”
In order to make this concept more concrete and more applicable to individual characters, I am going to approach the profound egocentric as a psychological model. A psychological model is a very useful device, but it has some drawbacks. The greatest drawback in transforming a psychological concept into a psychological model is that it can seem to imply greater universality than is actually the case.
Although all profound egocentrics have a unified concept in common, they do not necessarily have every functional characteristic of the psychological model in common. The greatest differences are in superficial behavioral symptoms that may be peculiar to particular characters. The more directly derived characteristics, however, differ only in degree. The difference in degree can be roughly explained by the consideration of five variables, or by dividing the profound egocentric into five stages of development. These explanations of differences in degree will be presented after the psychological model when they will be most meaningful.
The intensity of the profound egocentric’s inner world and his weak sense of other make him feel removed from the rest of humanity. Profound egocentrics, as a general trait, are loners and keep to themselves. The central character of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, is a good example:
“It should be noted that Raskolnikov had scarcely any friends at the university. He held himself aloof, never went to see anyone and did not welcome visitors.”
In 1841, one of Dostoevsky’s instructors gave the following description of him:
“His favorite place to work was the embrasure in the company’s corner dormitory… In this spot isolated from the other desks, F. M. Dostoevsky used to sit and occupy himself. It frequently happened that he would not notice anything that was going on around him.”
One of Dostoevsky’s classmates recalled that, “He always held himself aloof, and he struck me as being almost constantly apart from the others…” (Mochulsky, p. 15) Dolgoruky the narrator of The Adolescent tells us that, “There’s really nothing so marvelous about people to bother so much about them.” Recalling his school days Dolgoruky shows a more serious sense of isolation: “Even at school, I had to overcome the disgust and force myself to chat familiarly with my classmates and I certainly never became really close with any of them. I built myself a shell and stayed in it.” (The Adolescent, p. 47)
The profound egocentric does not just tend avoid others, but actively withdraws from human contact: “He had resolutely withdrawn from all human contacts, like a tortoise retreating into its shell…” (about Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment, p. 23)
Dolgoruky repeats this sentiment almost word for word:
“I’ll break off with them, leave everything, and withdraw into my shell. Yes my shell exactly that – I’ll hide inside it like a tortoise!”( The Adolescent, p. 14)
The profound egocentric’s intuitive belief, as compared to an intellectual understanding, in the existence of other people is normally weak and under stress may become nonexistent. With an abstract, but not an instinctive realization of the existence of other people, the profound egocentric feels a gigantic distance separating him from other human beings:
“The most surprising thing of all, in general, was the unbridgeable chasm which lay between him and all the others. It was as if he and they belonged to different races. They regarded him, and he them with mistrust and hostility.” (about Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment, p. 23)
The profound egocentric can feel a separation from people in a very literal sense: “…everything round me seems as if it were happening somewhere else…Even you…it is as if I were looking at you from a thousand miles away…” (Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment, p. 196) The profound egocentric feels different from other people and out of place: “Why, why am I here? Why do I feel an alien? Why am I on ‘another planet’?” 5
The profound egocentric’s sense of outside reality is capable, especially under stress, of disintegrating completely. The process of disintegration seems to begin with a weakening and eventual collapse of the intuitive sense of outside reality. At that point the profound egocentric’s concept of reality is purely abstract and intellectual. When Raskolnikov’s sense of outside reality breaks, for example, he looks around him and says, “This is all conditional, all relative, all merely forms.” The profound egocentric’s constant self-exploration and abstract reasoning eventually lead him to question all intellectual beliefs. Without the benefit of intuitive premises the profound egocentric finds himself incapable of proving to himself the existence of outside reality. In other words, he can get as far as “cogito ergo sum,” but no farther. Ivan Karamazov’s internal demon, in a dialogue with Ivan, crystallizes this philosophical dead end:
No, you are not some apart, you are myself, you are I and nothing more! You are rubbish, you are my fancy!
Well, if you like, I have the same philosophy as you, that would be true. Je pense, donc je suis , I know that for a fact, all the rest, all these worlds, God and even Satan – all that is not proved, to my mind. Does all that exist of itself, or is it only an emanation of myself, a logical development of my ego which alone has existed forever… (The Brothers Karamazov, p. 781)
Dolgoruky also has this egocentric view of reality and sees it as generating from his own being,
“Here are all these people rushing around hurrying desperately when, in fact, who knows, perhaps it’s all only somebody’s dream and not a single person here is real, genuine, not a single action is really taking place. What will happen if the dreamer suddenly wakes up and everything just vanishes?” ( The Adolescent, p. 136)
In “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” a short story Dostoevsky wrote near the end of his life, we see a total collapse of both outside reality and a sense of other:
It seemed clear to me that life and the world in some way or other depended on me now. It might almost be said that the world seemed to be created for me alone. If I were to shoot myself, the world would cease to exist – for me at any rate to say nothing of the possibility that nothing would in fact exist for anyone after me and the whole world would dissolve as soon as my consciousness became extinct, would disappear in a twinkling like a phantom, like some integral part of my consciousness, and vanish without leaving a trace behind, for all this world and all these people exist only in my consciousness.
Later in my paper I will go into the profound egocentric’s fatal pride and distance from God as a result of his reasoning ability. In the above quotation we can see the ultimate act of pride and separation from God. The character thinks of the universe as existing inside his consciousness, and therefore of his being God.
(In this paper I seem to assume a monotheistic POV, perhaps because that was Dostoevsky’s point of view, and possibly because it was my own at the time as well. I should have made a clearer distinction, and pointed out that the concepts of pride, reason as rebellion of God, etc. came directly from Dostoevsky and were not superimposed on the material by me. —-Jonathan in 2006)
One group of Dostoevsky’s characters, his dreamers, have a very weak or nonexistent sense of the outside world and have, as a substitute, a world of their own creation. Dostoevsky’s concept of the dreamer was very complex and any attempt to define it here would be an oversimplification. A working distinction between dreamers and non-dreamers is that dreamers are people immersed in a world of romantic fantasies. There is a strong relationship between Dostoevsky’s dreamer and the profound egocentric. In Dostoevsky’s writings as a whole, a large number of the profound egocentrics are dreamers, and almost all of his dreamers are profound egocentrics. This relationship I believe to be entirely consistent with the concept of the profound egocentric. The profound egocentric’s intense inner world, and separation from the outside world, creates an ideal environment for dreams, and is a prerequisite for dreamers. In other words, the above characteristics of the profound egocentric lead to a great susceptibility to dreams, and these same characteristics, almost by definition, are basic to the dreamer’s personality. After all, how could a true dreamer not have an intense inner world and a separation from the outside world?
Most profound egocentrics, however, do not appear to be dreamers when we meet them – at least not in Dostoevsky’s romantic sense of the word. Dreaming is the profound egocentric’s second stage of development. When we encounter the profound egocentric, he may have already passed out of that stage of development, though at some point in time he was a dreamer. In one of those later stages, the profound egocentric may have come to regard dreaming as a weak indulgence, and may even be in the process of trying to become a “man of action” or a “moral superman”, philosophical concepts that preclude indulgence in day-dreaming and fantasy. Although the profound egocentric at that stage may not allow himself to indulge in fantasy of the romantic sort, he may be totally absorbed in a world of philosophical theories, intellectualizations and abstract reasoning that may be even further removed from reality (and far more dangerous) than the dream world.
The profound egocentric’s continuing susceptibility to dreams is observable in a variety of ways, but especially in his inability to separate his sleeping dreams and hallucinations from reality. Raskolnikov, for example, after having a nightmare, must ask himself, “Is this still the dream or not?” And “Can this be the dream continuing?” (Crime and Punishment p. 236-7). Ivan Karamazov is another example of a non-dreamer who cannot separate dream from reality:
It was not a dream…I was asleep last time, but this dream was not a dream…I have dreams now …yet they are not dreams but reality. I walk about, talk and see…though I am asleep. ( The Brothers Karamazov, p. 792)
Still another profound egocentric with the same problem is Yakov Golyadkin, hero of The Double:
“…not quite certain whether he was awake or still asleep, whether the things around him were real or the continuation of his chaotic dreams.”
Later, Golyadkin must ask himself, “Am I dreaming or is this real?” (The Double, p. 196). The list goes on; this inseparability of dream and reality appears to be universal to the profound egocentric.
Many profound egocentrics that are non-dreamers are eventually revealed as having once been dreamers. Dolgoruky in The Adolescent is a good example:
During the days of my dreamy Moscow loneliness the seed of the idea appeared in my mind while I was still in the second year of high school and has never left me since. Everything else in my life became subordinated to it. Even before it got hold of me, indeed from my earliest childhood, I’d always lived in a dream world, colored by a certain light, but, after this great all-absorbing idea came to me, my daydreams acquired a certain unity, took on a well-defined shape, and instead of being crazy became rational. ( The Adolescent, p. 13)
To Dostoevsky, however, the distinction between “crazy” and “rational” was purely academic, as I will demonstrate later in my section on reason. Later in The Adolescent, Dolgoruky gives us an explanation of how, exactly, the dreamer becomes a rationalist-monomaniac. We begin to understand that the profound egocentric’s next stage of development is a focusing of many dreams into one dream based on logical premises and rationally derived.
Dolgoruky describes the transformation:
I was the happiest when I went to bed at night and could pull the blanket over my head, thus isolating myself from the people around me and from the sounds they made, I became free to re-create my life in a different pattern. Wherever I went, my most extravagant, wild, daydreams went with me, until I discovered my “idea”. Then all my crazy silly longings were transformed into rational aspirations and my wishful thinking, which had been spinning a dreamy romance inside my head, was turned into reasoned thought applicable to real life. Everything merged into one single goal. (The Adolescent, p. 86)
Dostoevsky himself went through a transformation similar to Dolgoruky’s. Dostoevsky, however, acquired a sense of outside reality while Dolgoruky did not. During the first part of his life, up to his early twenties, Dostoevsky was a dreamer. Then, sometime in the years 1843-1845, Dostoevsky ceased being a dreamer and became infinitely more aware of external reality. One of Dostoevsky’s best biographers describes the turning point:
Up until this moment Dostoevsky had lived in a world of romantic dreams. Far-off lands and distant times, the exotic and heroic had completely captivated him. He was blind to reality, and everything that was mysterious, fantastic, and out-of-the ordinary would lure him into its captivating sphere: the knight’s castles in the novels of Radcliffe and Walter Scott, the tales of Hoffmann, the diabolism in Souilie…Then suddenly his eyes were opened and he understood: there is nothing more fantastic than reality. (Mochulsky, p. 27)
In 1861, Dostoevsky himself described the experience and said, among other things, that “in those precise minutes, my real existence began…” (Mochulsky, p. 27)
Dostoevsky, in a very autobiographical piece for The Petersburg Chronicle, describes the dreamer. Many of the characteristics of his dreamer coincide exactly with the characteristics of the profound egocentric. For example:
They settle themselves for the most part in a deep solitude in inaccessible corners, as though trying to hide themselves from people and from light…Frequently reality produces an onerous impression, one hostile to the dreamer’s heart, and he hastens to withdraw into his own inviolable golden nook…Imperceptibly the talent for real life begins to deaden within him… (Mochulsky, p. 71-72)
We soon become aware that the author is talking about himself, “…His imagination has been set in motion: straightaway an entire story, a tale, a novel is born…” (Mochulsky, p. 72) Fourteen years later the subject comes up again in a collection entitled Petersburg Dreams. Here Dostoevsky abandons the pretense of third person narrative, and tells us about his own life as a dreamer:
“And what dreams did I not have in my adolescence…I was so lost in dreams that my whole youth passed by without my ever noticing it…” (Mochulsky, p. 72)
In White Nights we find another profound egocentric-dreamer in whose character Dostoevsky makes some autobiographical revelations, “‘I can dream up whole novels, you know…’ He dreams of everything…of being a poet, at first unrecognized later crowned.” Through the same character, a government clerk, we get a long discourse on the agonies of creating art. The character is obviously autobiographical, and we are given a very autobiographical description of the dreamer. Most importantly, the characteristics described by the narrator as being universal to the dreamer are equally universal to the profound egocentric. For example, the recurrent metaphor of the tortoise retreating into its shell is used to describe the dreamer:
“A dreamer is, if you want me to define him, not a real human being but a sort of intermediary creature. He usually installs himself in some remote corner, shrinking even from the daylight. And once he’s installed in that corner of his, he grows into it like a snail or at least like that curious thing which is both an animal and a house – the tortoise.” (White Nights, p. 21)
The narrator also gives us a lengthy description of the dreamer’s inability to relate to people. He follows this description of someone with a weak sense of other with a comment on the dreamer’s grip on reality in general:
“If fact, sometimes he almost believes that the dream life is no figment of the imagination, no self-deception, no delusion, but something real, actual, existing.” (White Nights, p. 27) The narrator then applies this to himself and describes the agonies of a life lived inside the mind, and the agony of what Dostoevsky variously describes as “acute consciousness” or “lucidity.”
“…for there are moments when I’m overcome by such anguish and despair that…In those moments, I feel that I’ll never have a true life because I feel sure I’ve entirely lost touch with reality; because I feel damned; because in the middle of my fancy-filled nights, I have moments of lucidity that are unbearable! ” (White Nights, p. 30)
Dreams are used as substitutes for external reality. Many profound egocentrics’ disintegrated sense of external reality creates a greater dependence and reliance on internal reality, while depriving the profound egocentric of an external frame of reference. This frame of reference cannot exist once the sense of other has disintegrated. Without a sense of other, the profound egocentric is unable to relate to, or understand, other personalities and hence has no frame of reference in which to compare and objectify his own emotions and ideas.
The internal world which the profound egocentric inhabits may be very self-contained and rational in its own sphere. Obviously, however, the internal world becomes totally isolated once the external world has collapsed. Because of this isolation, the internal world must now suffer the same logical analysis that destroyed the outside world. The profound egocentric logically dissects the outside world until he finally comes to the dead end question – “Is reality real?” Unable to answer that question the profound egocentric retreats into his inner world. The process of logical analysis continues until he reaches another dead end, “How do I know if the internal world is real?” i.e. “How do I know if I’m insane?” Raskolnikov is a good example of the profound egocentric at that stage:
A dark and tormenting idea was beginning to rear its head, the idea that he was going out of his mind and that he was not capable of reasoning or protecting himself. (Crime and Punishment, p. 69. For a variation see p. 76)
Ivan Karamazov sums up the problem, “And can one observe that one’s going mad oneself?”
Once the question of sanity has been raised the entire thought process is under doubt, and even “cogito ergo sum” becomes unsatisfying. When that point is reached, the profound egocentric reaches the ultimate dead end – “How do I know I exist?” Not all profound egocentrics will have reached that stage at the point in time in which we encounter them. The fear of existence as illusion is in fact the profound egocentric’s last internal stage of development. Once existence itself has been questioned, the personality must either break down, or go through spiritual rebirth.
The fear of existence as illusion is a recurrent force in Dostoevsky’s writings. Dostoevsky is especially afraid of the nonbeing that determination suggests: that man does not have free will, and that his whole being is reducible to physics, mechanics and the secondary science of biology.
Imagine: inside, in the nerves, in the head _ that is, these nerves are there in the brain…(damn them!) there are sort of little tails, the little tails of those nerves and as soon as they begin quivering…then an image appears…That’s why I see and think, because of those tails, not at all because I’ve got a soul… ( The Brothers Karamazov , p. 716)
This fear reaches its highest level of development in Notes From Underground. A large part of the book is spent in an attempt to refute the determinist’s denial of free will and the right to choose anything, no matter how irrational. (See Notes From Underground, chapter 7) The prime motivator of many of Dostoevsky’s characters is a desire to prove to themselves that they are free-willed entities. With this motivation in mind, many of the most inexplicably irrational actions of Dostoevsky’s characters can be explained. The explanation is simple; these irrational actions are done to prove man capable of irrational, non-advantageous behavior and therefore a possessor of free will.
A weakened sense of other, a weak frame of reference, and a growing fear of insanity are the primary motivations for the secondary behavioral symptom which I term “compulsive explanation.” Many profound egocentrics show a compulsive desire to explain, or at least to relate their most bizarre behaviors to others. These profound egocentrics seem to be practicing a kind of phobia-therapy on themselves. In a desperate effort to reduce their fear of the strangeness of their own actions, their separation from others, and the possibility of their own insanity, they constantly repeat the details of their strangest behaviors with the hope of becoming desensitized to them.
In the second chapter of Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky seems to be consciously working with this idea. Raskolnikov, at that point in the book, has just made up his mind to go through with his planned murder. Once he has made that decision, his usual, secretive self suddenly desires companionship. Raskolnikov has become afraid of himself:
Raskolnikov was not used to crowds and, as we have said, had lately avoided all social contacts, but now he suddenly felt drawn to people. Something as it were new had been accomplished in his soul, and with it had come a thirst for society. ( Crime and Punishment , p. 8)
To satisfy this need Raskolnikov goes to a public house. There he meets another creature like himself, Marmeladov, who has already committed a fatal sin. Raskolnikov’s misdeed was only in the planning stage, and so it is Marmeladov that has the greater need to talk. Marmeladov is instinctively drawn to Raskolnikov as a kindred spirit:
It sometimes happens that we find ourselves interested from the first glance in complete strangers, even before we have spoken to them…The avidity with which he seized upon Raskolnikov was such that it seemed as though he too had spoken to nobody for a month…’Young man, I read a certain affliction in your features.’ (Crime and Punishment, p. 8-13)
Marmeladov proceeds to describe his most immoral and irrational behaviors in a despairing effort to get them off his chest. Marmeladov even encourages his audience to call him a swine, so that he can at least be positively identified with something and put in a category.
After Raskolnikov has gone through with the murder, the compulsive explanation behavior increases dramatically. He goes to public houses and, “felt somehow drawn to talk to everybody.” The behavior intensifies enough that the once secretive Raskolnikov feels compelled to explain the motivations for murder to the investigator, and even hint at his own guilt. Another clear example of this compulsive explanation behavior is in the first-person narrative of Notes From Underground and The Adolescent. Both narrators pick up their pens in a desperate effort to explain themselves. Both narrators tell us that they will never have their autobiographical accounts published, and yet they are constantly responding to an imaginary audience.
In Notes From Underground one is always conscious of the narrator’s feverish desire to explain himself:
But have I explained anything? How is one to explain this…But I shall explain myself. I shall pursue the matter to the better end! That is why I’ve taken up my pen… (Notes From Underground, p. 268)
The narrator finally comes to terms with himself and tells us his real motivations in writing. We are told that the written word is,”…more conducive to self-examination” and that he wants to “make a test and see whether it is possible to be completely frank and unafraid of the truth.” (Notes From Underground, p. 122)
The desire to explain himself is also Dolgoruky’s primary motivation in writing his autobiography – The Adolescent. The book opens with these words:
“I couldn’t resist: I sat down and started writing the story of my first steps in life, although I could have managed very well without doing so.” (The Adolescent, p. 1)
Ivan Karamazov says it in one sentence; “ I am trying to explain as quickly as possible my essential nature…”
As the profound egocentric’s sense of other weakens, his ability to relate to people in a natural way also weakens. Eventually the profound egocentric relates to people in a purely mechanical way. He no longer reacts spontaneously, but rather operates himself from within. The profound egocentric’s true personality seems trapped inside a hollowed-out puppet. At this stage, the profound egocentric is aware that he is play-acting his way through life, and is only concerned with finding the right role and playing it convincingly. One of the best examples of this is Raskolnikov as he withdraws from human society. Raskolnikov’s outward behavior becomes more and more mechanical and artificial. The narrator describes Raskolnikov as speaking, “…rarely and reluctantly, as if under compulsion or to fulfill an obligation…” (Crime and Punishment, p. 188) Raskolnikov’s sister observes that, “He is asking forgiveness and making friends again, as though it was part of his job, or as though he had got a lesson by heart.” (p. 191) Raskolnikov’s mother also notices, and is described as being “…even more worried than before by his sudden new business-like way of speaking.” (p. 199) Raskolnikov himself, worries after speaking, “Have I done well? Did it seem natural? Wasn’t it too exaggerated? Why did I see ‘women’ like that?” (p. 213)
As described earlier, half of the sense of other is an intuitive realization of an ongoing mental process in others. Many profound egocentrics may be somewhat aware of the existence of other people, but not aware that other people are changeable and freethinking. In this stage the profound egocentric views other people as static, and himself as the only variable in any social situation, and the only entity capable of change. The profound egocentric sees his relationships with other people as a game of chess. Other people are chess pieces that can only react in certain patterns as prescribed by the rules of the game. A bishop can only move as a bishop and a knight only as a knight. In the same way, a mother must react only as a mother and a sister only as a sister. So long as everyone plays their prescribed roles they can all be pleasantly manipulated. The game, however, becomes very difficult when the pieces themselves refuse to obey the rules: “In general, although in my imagination I’ve always managed to handle people pretty well, in real life I have proved rather inept at it.” ( The Adolescent, p. 19)
The profound egocentric’s basic instability creates a need for total stability in others. The profound egocentric tends to create static, stable roles for people, and can genuinely like those people, so long as they are not actually present. Dolgoruky loves and idolizes his father until he actually meets him. Dolgoruky comes to hate his father, not for being what he is, but for not being what he was supposed to be. In the same way, Raskolnikov loves his mother and sister until they are in front of him, changing and reacting independently: “The thought occurred to him that it was only when they were absent that he really loved them.” ( Crime and Punishment, p. 192)
With a weak sense of other, the contents of other people’s minds become great mysteries. Combined with a very basic failure to realize that humanity consists of independent individuals, the profound egocentric is subject to certain kinds of paranoia. The perspective is always “me and them.” The profound egocentric begins automatically thinking in terms of a community mind. Throughout Dostoevsky’s literature we find, “they’re all—at/to/of me.” Raskolnikov wonders:
…oh Lord, tell me just one thing; do they know everything or not? What if they know it all already and were only pretending, mocking me while I lay here and what if they come in now and say that they have known everything for a long time… (Crime and Punishment, p. 107)
Golyadkin is one of the more obviously paranoid characters. He is always lamenting that, “They’re all plotting against me.” (The Double, p. 178)
The same paranoia surfaces in extreme self-consciousness. Although the profound egocentric doesn’t particularly worry about what other people look like, he is sure, in his infinite egocentrism, that everyone is minutely examining and ridiculing his appearance. Golyadkin is described as having, “…the impression that all the people inside the house were watching him from the windows, and he felt that he would die then and there if he just turned around.” (The Double, p. 177)
Many profound egocentrics act, even when absolutely alone, as though they were under a spotlight in front a darkened theatre of hostile faces. The narrator of Notes From Underground feels he is being mocked even as he writes his autobiography in his hole in the ground:
“But doesn’t it seem to you gentlemen, that I might be apologizing to you for something? Asking you to forgive me for something? Yes, I’m sure it does… Well, I assure you I don’t care a damn whether it does seem so to you or not… ” (Notes From Underground, p. 264-5)
Dolgoruky writing his autobiography feels the same way:
“The thought has suddenly struck me that if anyone ever read what I’ve written here, he would burst out laughing at this ridiculous adolescent…”
Golyadkin, the hero of The Double, is both paranoid and self-conscious. He has, throughout the novel, the effortless grace and poise of a housewife in curlers and bathrobe, accidentally walking onto a national news show in progress. In the example below, Golyadkin is meeting his doctor for an ordinary appointment:
…having failed to prepare the opening words, which were like stepping stones for him in such cases, he became completely confused; he muttered something that might perhaps have been an apology and, not knowing what to do next, took a chair and sat down. But realizing immediately that he had sat down without having been invited to do so, he stood up again, hoping thus to retrieve his faux pas. Then vaguely realizing that he had made two faux pas one after the other, he immediately decided to commit third and, smiling brightly, muttered some explanation, then turned beet red, lost the thread of what he was saying, became expressively silent, sat down, and this time didn’t get up again. (The Double, p. 155)
Another hypersensitive character, Kolya from The Brothers Karamazov, is terribly worried about his physical appearance. His physical description, as we objectively learn it from the narrator, is identical to descriptions of Dostoevsky in his youth. (See The Brothers Karamazov, p. 646, 652) We do not need to make, however, any parallels to decide whether Dostoevsky himself was self-conscious and paranoid. Biographical data clearly shows us that he was. For example, one biographer relates the following incident:
Turgenev told I. Pavlosky that on one occasion Dostoevsky came into his apartment at the precise moment when all the guests (Belinsky, Ogaryov, Herzen) were laughing at a certain piece of nonsense. He interpreted this as being on his account. He bolted out of the door and for an hour walked about the streets in the freezing cold. Later when Turgenev chanced to find him, he exclaimed: “My God! It’s just impossible! Where ever I go, everywhere they are laughing at me.” (Mochulsky, p. 61)
The highly intelligent, turbulent, and inner-directed mind of the profound egocentric is especially prone to, and often distressed by, excessive mental static. I’m defining mental static as thoughts, memories of sensations and images not willfully conjured by the individual. Dostoevsky describes the phenomenon very effectively:
He could not think. His mind held ideas, or fragments of ideas, disconnected and incoherent images – the faces of the people he had known as a child or seen once and remembered again, the belfry of the Church of the Ascension, the billiard table in some public house, with an officer playing at it, the smell of cigars in a basement tobacco shop, a tavern, a black stair case, sloppy with dishwater and strewn with eggshells, the Sunday sound of bells borne in from somewhere… all changing and whirling in dizzy spirals. Sometimes an image pleased him and he tried to cling to it, but it would fade away. (Crime and Punishment, p. 231)
This mental static is not blocked out by even the most traumatic events, and Dostoevsky seems obsessed with the idea of mental static pervading the mind of the prisoner being led to the scaffold; very likely a result of his own experience. (In 1849 Dostoevsky was sentenced to death. The sentence was altered to four years in penal servitude, but not until Dostoevsky and twenty others went through every formality of an execution.) In The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment this idea occurs repeatedly. For example:
“At the most terrible moments of a man’s life, for instance when he is being led to execution, he remembers just such trifles. He will forget anything but some green roof that has flashed past him on the road, or a jackdaw on a cross – that he will remember.” (The Brothers Karamazov, p. 876)
In The Idiot there is a full two-page description of a man approaching the scaffold and all the irrelevant thoughts going through his head. Clearly, this must have been at least indirectly generated from Dostoevsky’s own mock execution. For the purpose of this paper, these examples demonstrate that Dostoevsky himself was prone to excessive mental static. His obsession with the subject, however, probably had more to do with the religious question which being bound by earthly thoughts before death suggests.
Dostoevsky’s understanding of thought static and the true, disjointed nature of consciousness in general, was sophisticated enough that he developed something very closely approximating stream of consciousness long before Joyce, Proust or Woolf. There are at least two examples of this in The Double:
That gentleman is wearing a wig, Golyadkin decided, and so if that wig were pulled off, he’d have a head just as bare as the palm of my hand.
Having made that important discovery, Golyadkin remembered the Arab emirs who, under the green turbans they wear to show their family ties with the prophet Mohammed, have equally bare, hairless heads that would be exposed if their turbans were removed. Then, probably through a peculiar association of ideas, Golyadkin passed from the Arabs to the Turks and from the Turks to Turkish slippers, which made him think that Andrei Filipovich’s shoes looked more like slippers than shoes. (The Double, p. 180. For another example see p. 286)
One of Dostoevsky’s critics points out an even better example in The Meek One:
Now as long as she’s here, everything is still all right: I come near and look at her every minute; but, tomorrow she will be carried away – and how shall I remain alone then? Now she is on the table in the hall – I put two card tables together – while the coffin will be here tomorrow, a white one, white gros-de-Napables, but then, this is not the point…I keep walking and want to explain it to myself. It’s six hours already that I’ve sought to explain it and I’m still not able to gather my thoughts into focus. The thing is that I keep walking, walking, walking…This now is how it was, I will simply relate it in order (order!). (Mochulsky, p. 548)
At the risk of making a generalization, all profound egocentrics are highly intelligent. Some of Dostoevsky’s profoundly egocentric characters, such as the narrator of Notes From Underground, are among the most intelligent in all literature. In Notes From Underground Dostoevsky expresses the idea that high intelligence in a moral vacuum will evolve into profound egocentricity or as Dostoevsky expresses it, “the man of heightened consciousness.” Every quality Dostoevsky ascribes to the “man of heightened consciousness” coincides exactly with the profound egocentric. This point will be demonstrated later in the paper when I do an individual study of the profound egocentric in Notes From Underground.
Are all profound egocentrics highly intelligent? To use circular reasoning they are by definition people of great intellectual depth. To answer the question in a more meaningful manner, we must decide if there are characters that show signs of being profound egocentrics and yet are not highly intelligent. Two possibilities that might occur to the reader of Dostoevsky are Golyadkin, the hero of The Double, and Dimitri Karamazov. In the first case, the character does not appear especially intelligent, and in the second, he is clearly described as not intelligent.
The confusion in the first case is the result of the personality disintegration of Golyadkin; Golyadkin One is just a projection of Golyadkin’s surface image of himself. All that is humble, respectable and average is projected into Golyadkin One. All that is ruthless, shrewd and manipulative is projected in the “Double” – Golyadkin Two. The intelligence of Golyadkin Two, however, is still not a true reflection of a reintegrated Golyadkin. The intelligence of the true Golyadkin is even more than the sum of the two parts, because they are only surface projections. Somewhere there must be a third entity that maintains the existence of Golyadkin One and Two. We may not find high intelligence in the individual fragments of a disintegrated personality, but when we analyze the psychological phenomenon of Golyadkin as a whole, we must conclude that such a disintegration could only have happened to the most intelligent and complex of personalities.
Dimitri Karamazov, on the other hand, clearly is not very intelligent, and yet he displays several of the symptoms of the profound egocentric. Dimitri’s symptoms, however, are the result of infantile egocentrism under stress, and not a profound egocentrism. Dimitri is so wrapped up in his own gratification that he assumes that providing for him is everyone’s goal in life. Mitya (Dimitri) instinctively expects everyone to respond to his emotional temperament. When he suddenly decides to see a certain peasant in the middle of the night, he is actually outraged to find him sleeping and not waiting for him, Mitya, in breathless anticipation:
What was insufferably humiliating was that, after leaving things of importance and making such sacrifices, he, Mitya, utterly worn out, should with business of such urgency be standing over this dolt on whom his whole fate depended, while he snored as though there was nothing the matter, as though he’d dropped from another planet. (The Brothers Karamazov, p. 457)
Infantile egocentrism, probably extended from childhood, would be the most likely stage of Dimitri’s development, not profound egocentrism. Dimitri Karamazov has the necessary, morally decadent environment, but he does not have enough intellectual depth to develop into a true profound egocentric.
Self-examination and self-awareness of a very flawed personality, and of a very impure soul, leads the profound egocentric to a great deal of self-hatred, self-destructiveness and inverted bitterness. This too, seems to be a universal characteristic of the profound egocentric.
Much of the self-depreciation is really a verbal form of self-flagellation, in the full medieval sense of the word. The repetitiousness of the language in these self-depreciations, and their non-communication of any new information, seems to suggest that they are the verbal equivalent of multiple whip-snaps: “I am a wretch, wretch, wretch, wretch!” (The Brothers Karamazov, p. 712) Raskolnikov, Golyadkin and the narrator of Notes From Underground seem the most fond of verbal masochism. As Raskolnikov says, “The fact is I said that mostly to torment myself…”
Inverted bitterness and internal masochism are also universal to the profound egocentric. The profound egocentric seems unable to resist dredging up old memories of embarrassments and humiliations and of going over a current list of weaknesses. Raskolnikov constantly reproaches himself: “the bitterness was directed against himself; he remembered his own ‘cowardice’ with scorn and shame.” (Crime and Punishment, p. 303) The narrator of Notes From Underground has frequent bitter tirades against himself, often referring to himself in the third person as a mouse:
Of course, the only thing left for it to do is to shrug its puny shoulders and, affecting a scornful smile, scurry ignominiously to its mouse-hole. And there in its repulsive evil smelling nest, the downtrodden, ridiculed mouse plunges immediately into a cold, poisonous and most important – never-ending hatred. For forty years [The narrator (we are already told) is forty years old.], it will remember the humiliation in all its ignominious details, each time adding some new point, more abject still, endlessly taunting and tormenting itself. Although ashamed of its own thoughts the mouse will remember everything, go over it again and again, then think up possible new humiliations. ( Notes From Underground, p. 97)
The superior intelligence, intellectual development, and awareness of the profound egocentric lead him to perhaps his most basic flaw – pride. The profound egocentric’s intense pride can coexist with the worst self-depreciations and humiliations. Pride, in fact, is so inherent to the profound egocentric that it can only be constrained by the total breakdown of his personality.
In Crime and Punishment, pride is directly linked, more than any other force, to Raskolnikov’s fall. Dostoevsky in his notebooks for Crime and Punishment writes, “In his image in the novel is expressed the idea of extraordinary pride, arrogance and contempt for all society…” Right from the start we are made aware of Raskolnikov’s fatal pride:
He was…superciliously proud and reserved. It seemed to some of his fellow students that he looked down on them all as children, as if he had outdistanced them in knowledge, development and ideas, and that he considered their interests and convictions beneath him. (Crime and Punishment, p. 44)
Pride is what leads Raskolnikov’s intellectualizing mind to the concept of the moral superman, and then to murder itself. Pride is also what prevents Raskolnikov’s spiritual regeneration. Suicide is the ultimate act of pride for many, and Raskolnikov is driven to suicide out of pride. Raskolnikov, however, is saved from doing himself in by an even greater form of pride.
And it was to escape the shame that I wanted to drown myself, Dunya, but the thought came to me, when I was already standing on the bank, that if I had hitherto considered myself strong then the shame should not frighten me now… Is that pride, Dunya?
Yes, Rodya, it is pride. (Crime and Punishment, p. 438)
Pride is described as causing his fall, and pride is described as preventing his repentance and regeneration:
I wonder if my spirit will really grow so humble …that I shall whine and whimper before people, branding myself a criminal with every word I utter. Yes, exactly, exactly! That is why they are deporting me now, that is what they want…Look at all these scurrying about the streets, and every one of them is a scoundrel and a criminal by his very nature, and worse still an idiot! But try to save me from exile and they all go mad with righteous indignation! Oh, how I hate them all! (Crime and Punishment, p. 440)
Pride was something Raskolnikov’s character was built around and that he could not function without. When he is sent to Siberia we are told, “…he was not ashamed of his shaven head or his fetters; his pride was deeply wounded, and it was the wound to his pride that made him fall ill.” (Crime and Punishment, p. 458)
Pride is a quality that seems universal to Dostoevsky’s profound egocentrics. Pride is something that comes so naturally to the profound egocentric that it seems virtually inevitable. Even during the worst self-depreciations the profound egocentric cannot divest himself of pride:
I’m going to pieces anyhow. I’m becoming nothing but an old doormat, but that doesn’t prevent me from going around holding forth about my self-respect and talking about saving my honor! (The Double, p. 239)
Pride can so overwhelm the profound egocentric that he may be able to recognize pride in others but be unaware of it in himself:
I ended up with the impression that it was not high society that had turned its back on this proud man but rather he who had banned these people from his presence, so great was his air of independence. What actually worried me was whether he really had the right to look down upon the world with that proud air! I had to find out the truth and find it out very quickly, for I had come here to judge that man! I was still keeping my secret power from him, as I had to decide first whether to accept or reject him. (The Adolescent, p. 17)
The profound egocentric may not even be able to escape through religious submission:
They choose God so as not to submit to their fellow men without of course acknowledging the underlying reason, namely, that it’s less humiliating to submit to God. Some of these people become ardently religious, or rather thirst ardently for religion. But then they mistake their desire for faith itself, so some of them are bound to be disappointed in the end. (The Adolescent, p. 59)
Understanding pride, realizing its destructiveness and recognizing it in himself will still not cure the profound egocentric of all its effects. Dostoevsky was the ideal example. He knew everything there was to know about pride, was aware of it in himself, and yet could no nothing about it. Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to his brother that, “There is a terrible defect in my personality, a boundless self-love and vanity .” (Mochulsky, p. 53) Pride is so very basic to the profound egocentric’s personality structure and mental perspective, that he cannot by his own powers rid himself of it. Unable to escape pride, the profound egocentric, for that reason alone, is in great spiritual danger. The profound egocentric must humble himself before God to be saved, but it is only through the grace of God and spiritual rebirth that the profound egocentric’s personality can be restructured and that he can be capable of genuine humility.
Because of the overwhelming flow of contradictory thought and ideas in the mind of the profound egocentric, and the excessive use of reasoning (the kind that can find only as many reasons for doing something as against it), the profound egocentric feels or suspects that he is incapable of decisive action. Raskolnikov tells us, “…I am talking too much. That’s why I don’t act, because I am always talking. Or perhaps I talk so much because I can’t act.” (Crime and Punishment, p. 2) Dolgoruky talks about “this sickening wishy-washiness of mine” and tells us that “in general, all my life I’ve been slow to take action.” (The Adolescent, p.26, 118) The narrator of Notes From Underground explains his inability to act in terms of the profound egocentric in general:
…the direct, the inevitable and the legitimate result of consciousness is to make all actions impossible, or – to put it differently – consciousness leads to thumb-twiddling…all plain men and men of action are active only because they are dull-witted and mentally undeveloped…owing to their arrested mental development they mistake the nearest and secondary causes for primary causes and in this way persuade themselves much more easily and quickly than other people that they have found a firm basis for whatever business they have had in hand and, as a result, they are no longer worried…Where am I to get the basis from? Where am I to find the primary cause to lean against? I am constantly exercising my powers of thought and consequently, every primary cause within me at once draws another to itself, one still more primary, and so on ad infinitum. That, in fact, is the basis of every sort of consciousness and analysis. (Notes From Underground, p. 276)
In other words, the profound egocentric’s thought process, by its nature, is incapable of being decisive.
The fear of indecisiveness is very dangerous because it leaves the profound egocentric highly susceptible to ideas or systems of thought that allow for action and decisiveness. Raskolnikov’s desire to prove himself a moral superman is driven on by a gnawing fear that he is incapable of decisiveness, let alone Napoleonic decisiveness. Many profound egocentrics want to be “men of action” and are so anxious to get out of the rut of indecision that they are willing to accept any moral compromise.
Without even making any moral compromise, the state of indecisiveness itself is an indication of spiritual decay in at least two ways. First, the feeling that decisive action could and should come from the reasoning capacities of man is an act of terrible pride. Secondly, the reliance on reasoning is a deliberate suppression of the directions provided by the heart. The reliance on reason combined with the inter-related sin of pride are the reasons for the profound egocentric’s great spiritual jeopardy.
The basic immorality of reason is one of Dostoevsky’s most recurrent themes. Dostoevsky always reminds us that reason can prove and disprove at the same time. Anything that relates to fact, science or reason is endlessly described as cutting both ways. Facts are fine but “…evidence, you know, old man, cuts both ways for the most part.” Science is fine but, “the point is all this damned psychology cuts both ways.” (Crime and Punishment, p. 287, 383) It is the inability of reason to find truth that causes the profound egocentric’s indecisiveness.
The use of reason leads the profound egocentric to abstract philosophy, a realization that nothing can be definitely known and a discovery of many ideas and principals in contradiction to the existence of God and Christian teachings. The profound egocentric’s ability to reason, itself, leads to pride and feelings of superiority.
Reasoning also causes the profound egocentric to live life through abstract philosophy rather than through the heart. It is impossible, according to Dostoevsky, to lead a successful life through reason because man is not a rational animal. The character Lebezyatnikov in Crime and Punishment is a satiric mouthpiece for the naïve way of thinking, characteristic of social engineer types, that presumes man is a rational creature that need only be shown the most advantageous course of action to live in eternal happiness:
…if you convince a man logically that he has nothing to cry for he will stop crying…do you know that in Paris they have been doing serious experiments on the possibility of curing the mad by the use of nothing but logical persuasion? A professor there, who died recently, a serious scientist, thought they could be cured in this way. His basic idea was that there is no specific organic disorder in lunatics, but that madness is, so to speak, a logical mistake, a mistake of judgment, and incorrect view of things. (Crime and Punishment, p. 358)
Lebezyatnikov, like Raskolnikov, tries to apply reason to human problems. According to Dostoevsky, any system that is derived purely from reason and is applied to human affairs is innately evil. Logical systems designed to govern the affairs of men (like socialism), are, no matter how beneficial and humanitarian they may seem, as intrinsically evil as Raskolnikov’s idea and action. The fact that Raskolnikov’s system of thinking had murder of an old woman as a corollary is absolutely irrelevant. Raskolnikov reasons,
…how was my idea more stupid than any of the other ideas and theories that have sprung up and multiplied like weeds all over the world, ever since the world existed? One need only look at the matter with a broad and completely independent mind, free from all the common influences, for my ideas not to seem so very…strange. (Crime and Punishment, p. 459)
If Raskolnikov’s reasoning had led to the conclusion that he should spend his life helping retarded children, it would still be just as much of a rebellion against God. What damns Raskolnikov, like so many of the other profound egocentrics in Dostoevsky, is one of the supreme acts of pride – deciding human reasoning can discover moral truths. The profound egocentric’s use of reason is what brings his ultimate spiritual downfall. The investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, sums up the profound egocentric’s problem.
…you my dear Rodion Romanovich (excuse an old man), are still a young man, in your first youth, so to speak, and therefore you esteem the human intellect above all things, like all young people. Abstract reasoning and the play of wit tempt you astray. (Crime and Punishment, p. 288)
What must be substituted for reason is direct, unquestioning faith. Dostoevsky writes in his notebook for Crime and Punishment, “The characters of arithmetic kill, and direct faith saves.” (Crime and Punishment, p. 474) Direct faith must come from the heart, not from the intellect or from worldly evidence. Ivan Karamazov’s internal demon uses the truth to bring Ivan to despair over his lack of direct faith, “…what’s the good of believing, especially material proofs. Thomas believed, not because he saw Christ risen, but because he wanted to believe, before he saw.” (The Brothers Karamazov, p. 774) Alyosha explains to Ivan how life should be led:
“Love life more than the meaning of it?”
“Certainly, love it, regardless of logic as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it.” (The Brothers Karamazov, p. 274)
The profound egocentric’s problem is that he follows his head and not his heart. The profound egocentric’s very personality is a rebellion against God. The profound egocentric is, after all, the creator and occupant of his own world, with its own independently arrived-at moral values.
Raskolnikov’s spiritual salvation comes about only when he stops thinking about life and living internally, and starts feeling life and responding directly. Dostoevsky describes the new Raskolnikov:
…he could not think long or coherently of anything or concentrate his attention on any idea, and indeed he was not consciously reasoning at all; he could only feel. Life had taken the place of logic and something quite different must be worked out in his mind. (Crime and Punishment, p. 464)
The transformation we see above, however, is the ultimate failure of Crime and Punishment. In an earlier version of the book, Dostoevsky had Raskolnikov commit suicide. In the final version he doesn’t fare much better. The very basis of Raskolnikov’s personality is destroyed. The profound egocentric cannot stop thinking any more than he can stop breathing. Raskolnikov is not regenerated or reborn but simply written out of the book.
One could argue that it was Dostoevsky’s sincere belief that, through the grace of God, a complete personality breakdown and rebirth is possible. I have no doubt that this was Dostoevsky’s belief, and I am not making a judgment on the validity of the concept of rebirth. What is significant for the purpose of this paper is that Dostoevsky had no faith in Raskolnikov’s transformation.
There are at least four indications that Dostoevsky was not being honest with himself about Raskolnikov’s transformation. First, as we approach Raskolnikov’s regeneration the book becomes increasingly third person and remote. The narrator that we are scarcely conscious of previously, is suddenly moving towards the foreground and Raskolnikov towards the background. Second, we notice that Raskolnikov’s final inspirational dream is not organic and ambiguous like all the previous dreams, but strikingly artificial and direct. The dream is really not a dream, but a philosophical metaphor, and obviously the creation of a conscious mind. Third, Dostoevsky tells us in his closing paragraph that there is, “…the gradual renewal of a man, of his gradual regeneration, of his slow progress from one world to another…,” but Raskolnikov’s transformation is not slow or gradual, it is abrupt and total. On one page, Raskolnikov is Raskolnikov, the profound egocentric, and on the next page he is his antithesis – a divine idiot. Fourth and finally, after the turning point is reached, we are given no realistic examples of the new Raskolnikov’s behavior, and in fact, the book ends fourteen lines later.
The spiritual fall the profound egocentric goes through is inevitable, but so is an awareness and dissatisfaction with his spiritual state. The profound egocentric’s spiritual turmoil becomes all-consuming. Ivan Karamazov’s internal demon advises him, “…hesitation, suspense, conflict between belief and disbelief – is sometimes such torture to a conscientious man, such as you are, that it’s better to hang oneself at once.” (The Brothers Karamazov, p. 784) The most tormenting awareness, for the profound egocentric, may be an awareness of the good that is still within his soul. The profound egocentric can be driven to despair over the realization of his not having actualized his potential for good. The narrator of Notes From Underground describes that sort of despair:
I never could become a spiteful man. I was always conscious of innumerable elements in me which were absolutely contrary to that. I felt them simply swarming in me all my life and asking to come out, but I wouldn’t let them. They tormented me to the point of making me ashamed of myself… (Notes From Underground, p. 265)
Spiritual turmoil, however, is infinitely better than spiritual apathy. The profound egocentric’s dissatisfaction and awareness of the disorder in his own soul is a major step forward. What is more subtle, however, is that this spiritual self-awareness can lead nowhere by itself. Spiritual self-awareness is once again an internal exploration; an exploration that will not in itself find God and that will not by itself do anything for the profound egocentric. The only thing this self-exploration can do is make the profound egocentric aware that his soul is in a state that he, himself, can never rectify. After that point the profound egocentric must humble himself before God, beg for forgiveness and be reborn.
If the profound egocentrism does not take the final religious step, however, the spiritual self-awareness can become the most destructive force in his personality. A self-awareness of the blackness within his own soul and no channel for expunging it leads the profound egocentric to think depravity a necessary result of his nature, make no effort to restrain it, and despair completely.
The profound egocentric’s ultimate spiritual problem is that he approaches everything internally. Dostoevsky, in a letter to his brother, says of himself that, “The exterior must keep a steady balance with the interior . Otherwise, in the absence of exterior phenomena, the interior will assume too dangerous an upper hand.” (Mochulsky, p. 75) Dostoevsky does not believe man can find salvation inside of himself. The profound egocentric’s internal journey takes him farther and farther from God and the truth. The profound egocentric must break out of himself and destroy his own ego to be at one with God.
The characteristics and behaviors of the profound egocentric differ widely in degree. These differences in degree can be roughly explained by the consideration of five variables and five stages of development.
The first variable is intelligence. Profound egocentrism requires high intelligence, but some profound egocentrics may be more or less intelligent than others. Generally, the greater the intelligence the greater the complexity and magnitude of symptoms. The second variable is intellectual development – how much thinking the profound egocentric has done, and how much reason and philosophy have distorted his mind. The third variable is spiritual state. There is a direct relationship between the intensity of most of the symptoms and spiritual turmoil. The fourth variable is environmental stress. Raskolnikov and Ivan, for example, are under great environmental stress while the narrator of Notes From Underground and Dolgoruky are recalling events in relative tranquility. The fifth variable is stage of development. The intensity of the symptoms, and the variety and type of symptoms are greatly affected by the profound egocentric’s stage of development.
The five stages of development reflect increasing intellectualization, abstraction, detachment from reality and pride. The first stage of development is infantile egocentrism. This is egocentrism without reason or intellectualization. The second stage of development is the dream world. Here thought and creative mental effort cause a withdrawal from the world and an immersion into romantic fantasy. The profound egocentric in this stage, however, dwells more upon creative thought and mental imagery than abstract reasoning. Most significantly, the profound egocentric at this stage has not yet tried to apply reason to questions or morality.
The third stage of development is the period of the idea. This stage is marked by a total absorption in abstract reasoning and the creation or discovery of complex logical concepts. A monomania involving one idea or system of thought will usually dominate this stage. Raskolnikov’s moral superman, Dolgoruky’s, “idea” and possibly Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor are all examples.
The fourth stage of development I term doubt and breakdown. This stage of development is marked by a destructive inversion of reason. At this stage there are no new ideas created and the old ones are being doubted or destroyed. This process of doubting, disproving and destroying eventually carries over to all levels of the profound egocentric’s being. As the pieces of the abstract, intellectual world of the profound egocentric are removed, he must retreat further and further into his own being. The profound egocentric then goes through the process of doubting the reality of the outside world, doubting the reality of his inner world (his sanity) and finally doubting his very existence. The profound egocentric can no longer resolve himself and there must be a complete breakdown.
The breakdown can result in suicide or complete insanity, or it can result in the fifth and final stage of development – regeneration. Through the power of faith, and the grace of God, the personality is rebuilt with emphasis on direct feelings and the heart, and a de-emphasis on reason.
Notes From Underground merits individual consideration because it represents Dostoevsky’s most developed profound egocentric, and because it contains Dostoevsky’s most ambitious attempt to explain his “underground men” as his critics call the, “men of heightened consciousness” as Dostoevsky calls them and profound egocentrics as I have, perhaps too clinically, defined them.
(I have decided to analyze the book in its own order to preserve something of the flow of ideas and system of development in the original.)
Chapter I : Dostoevsky begins Notes From Underground, with a long footnote that explains that people like the narrator (profound egocentrics), are the natural result of a morally decadent society. Profound egocentrism to Dostoevsky was a disease that highly intelligent men in a moral vacuum are susceptible to. Dostoevsky explains that,
…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. (p. 90)
The narrator begins by comparing the profound egocentric to the “man of action.” The man of action is simple where the profound egocentric is mind-bogglingly complex, stupid where he is highly intelligent, a one-dimensional, one-track thinker where he is a multi-dimensional one and above all decisive while he is indecisive. (In 2006 I can’t help but be reminded of George W. Bush who calls himself “the decider” and who brags, like his father, that he doesn’t psychoanalyze himself and that, “I only look in the mirror when I shave.” He has also bragged that he doesn’t think about history because, “I’m the guy out there making history.”) In the narrator’s own words:
…an intelligent man cannot turn himself into anything…only a fool can make anything he wants out of himself…an intelligent man of the nineteenth century is bound to be a spineless creature, while the man of character, the man of action, is, in most cases, of limited intelligence. (p. 92)
Chapter II : The narrator discusses the agonies of “acute consciousness” or “lucidity” (as it is variously translated), which the profound egocentric by his very nature must suffer from:
I swear that too great a lucidity is a disease, a true, full-fledged disease. For everyday needs, the average person’s awareness is more than sufficient, and it is about a half or a quarter of that of the unhappy nineteenth-century intellectual, particularly if he’s unfortunate enough to live in Petersburg, the most abstract and premeditated city on earth (there are premeditated and unpremeditated cities), The extent of consciousness at the disposal of what may be termed the spontaneous people and the men of action is sufficient. (p. 93)
In the discussion of lucidity the narrator mentions the importance of Petersburg. Petersburg is the ideal environment and reflection of the profound egocentric. The city was an artificial creation of man (it was conceived on paper before construction), and is the ideal physical representation of man’s world, set up as a rebellion against God. Dostoevsky’s descriptions of Petersburg’s decay and decadence are reflections of the moral and spiritual decay of Petersburg society. Petersburg is the only place the profound egocentric can feel at home and is where almost all of Dostoevsky’s writing takes place. The narrator insists on living in Petersburg, despite all the inconvenience, and yet he isn’t sure why:
They tell me that the Petersburg climate is bad for me and that, with my miserable income, it’s a very expensive place to live. I know all that myself. I know it better than all my would-be advisers. But I’m going to stay in Petersburg ! I won’t leave! I won’t leave because…
Ah, it’s really all the same whether I go or stay. (p. 93)
In the same chapter, the narrator tells us that when he is most aware of the “sublime and the beautiful” he is most capable of debauchery. An awareness of what is good and beautiful makes the profound egocentric aware of how fallen he is by contrast. Also, the narrator’s awareness of the sublime and the beautiful indicates something of those qualities inside himself. The narrator then subjects himself to the despair that results from contemplating potential for good that was never actualized:
Now tell me this: why, just when I was most capable of being conscious of every refinement of the “good and the beautiful,” as they used to put it once upon a time,…were there moments when I…did such ugly things – things that everyone does probably, but that I precisely did at moments when I was aware that they shouldn’t be done.
The more conscious I was of “the good and the beautiful,” the deeper I sank into the mud, and the more likely I was to remain mired in it. (p. 94)
Directly following this the narrator makes one of his attempts to describe his “strange, elusive pleasure.” This pleasure we are led to understand is, “so subtle, so evasive, that even slightly limited people, or people who simply have strong nerves, won’t understand the first thing about it.” The pleasure is extremely elusive and hard to understand as the narrator admits, but it is, when we analyze its nature, of great moral significance.
I mentioned before, in my section on the collapse of internal reality, that Dostoevsky was terribly afraid of determinism. Much of Notes From Underground is a struggle with the deterministic concept of man. This pleasure, ironically, results from an unconscious embracing of deterministic thinking. If man has free will, then he is guilty of everything wrong doing. If man does not have free will, as determinism insists, then he has no need to blame himself.
The narrator, by convincing himself that a profound egocentric, by his very nature, must have a moral fall, is absolving himself of guilt. The pleasure results from the easing of self-reproach and a stoic acceptance of faults:
I derived pleasure precisely from the blinding realization of my degradation; because I felt that I was already up against the wall; that it was horrible but couldn’t be otherwise; that there was no way out and it was no longer possible to make myself into a different person; that even if there were still enough time and faith left to become different, I wouldn’t want to change myself…Finally, the most important point is that there’s a set of fundamental laws to which heightened consciousness is subject so that there’s no changing oneself or for that matter, doing anything about it. Thus as a result of heightened consciousness a man feels that it’s all right if he’s bad as long as he knows it – (p. 95)
One further revelation made in this chapter is that the narrator is self-conscious and is actually aware of his own self-consciousness: “I, for instance, am horribly sensitive. I’m suspicious and easily offended, like a dwarf or a hunchback.” (p. 95) From the above, we can see another example of the profound egocentric reaching self-awareness and yet not benefiting from it in the least.
Chapter IV: In this chapter more examples are given of the narrator’s self-consciousness, self-awareness and self-hatred. The inseparable relationship between the three becomes clearer:
Of course my jokes are in poor taste, inappropriate, and confused; they reveal my lack of security. But that is because I have no respect for myself. After all, how can a man of my lucidity of perception respect himself?
Part II: The narrator flashes back to an incident that happened sixteen years ago. He describes himself as being at the time, “painfully sensitive and complex, as a man of this age should be.” And leading the “gloomy, solitary existence of a recluse. I stayed away from people, avoided even speaking to them, and kept more and more to my hole. At the office, I avoided looking at anyone; I realized that others regarded me…so, at least, I felt – viewed me with a sort of disgust.” (p. 124-125) He goes on to say that he was worried that, “I was unlike everyone else, and they were unlike me. ‘I’m all alone while there are a lot of them.’ (p. 126) The narrator then reveals that he was a dreamer at the time:
I had an escape that made everything bearable; I took refuge in the “sublime and the beautiful” – in my dreams of course.
I gave myself over entirely to dreaming – dreaming away for three months on end, huddled in my corner. (p. 136)
Chapter X : At the end of Notes From Underground we see a conflict between subject and author again as in Crime and Punishment but this time with the author trying to suppress the reality of the subject. Dostoevsky wrote Notes From Underground with the idea in mind of demonstrating the decadence and hopeless depravity of the profound egocentric or man of “heightened consciousness.” A happy ending, therefore, or even a slightly hopeful one, would be self-defeating (of his conscious intention). The character, however, has taken on enough life on his own that he goes beyond the purpose assigned to him in the book. The character, at the very end, begins to show signs of regeneration. Dostoevsky tries to suppress those signs, but fortunately, he’s not successful.
When we reach the end of Notes From Underground the narrator has found no answers and discovered no path to follow. Somehow, though, we get a feeling of hope. Through all the depravity, humiliation, bitterness and cynicism there is a light. Where that light comes from is hard to say. I think Notes From Underground is autobiographical enough that it is Dostoevsky’s own hope for himself. There is no hint at the end of the novel of the kind of hope and rebirth Raskolnikov supposedly found. There is, however, a feeling of a pause forreflection, a realization of all the dead ends, and perhaps one more attempt to find the right direction.
When the narrator winds down his account with “But that’s enough, I’ve had enough of writing these Notes From Underground.” We get the feeling that he has gone as far as he can go inside of himself. He’s decided to stop writing and perhaps he will now head in a new direction. Dostoevsky apparently attempts to squelch the hopeful tone at the end of the book with an editorial comment, “Actually the notes of this lover of paradoxes do not end here. He couldn’t resist and went on writing. But we are of the opinion that one might just as well stop here.” The implication, of course, is that the character never resolves himself. This editorial comment, however, is a contradiction of the instinctive emotional feeling that the end generates.
I think Dostoevsky could have spiritually resolved this character and given him a new faith without the character losing his identity. Dostoevsky, while writing this novel, was at a very low point in his life, but he managed to pull through. Maybe Notes From Underground was the inner reflection that he needed as well as its narrator. It is my feeling that Dostoevsky put so much of himself into Notes From Underground, and so much of the negative side of his personality, that once he stepped outside the character, he immediately hated him and condemned him. Dostoevsky shows the character’s potential for spiritual regeneration through himself. Dostoevsky never stopped thinking about life and just feeling, and he never stopped doubting, but he did find a faith, no matter how shaky it was. That is the type of regeneration the narrator of Notes From Underground and the profound egocentrics are capable of. The essential beauty of Dostoevsky’s writings is the realization that even for these twisted, “men from underground,” submerged in their own reflections and bitterness, there is still hope.
The profound egocentric is by no means a phenomenon unique to Dostoevsky. Profound egocentrics are among the most developed characters in all literature. Two examples that readily come to mind are Hamlet and J. Alfred Prufrock.
I am hardly the first person to point out the relationship between many of Dostoevsky’s characters and Hamlet. Dostoevsky, himself, constantly compared several of his characters (all profound egocentrics) to Hamlet and so do his critics. There are references to “contemporary Hamletanism” in Dostoevsky’s characters, and the natural association between Hamlet the profound egocentric appears strong.
Hamlet is, first of all, a product of a morally decadent society, as all profound egocentrics seem to be. Hamlet’s line, “The time is out of joint” is used by one of Dostoevsky’s best critics as the most concise possible description of the kind of environment that results in profound egocentrics,
The words of Hamlet: “The time is out of joint” could have served as an epigraph to the novel. Mankind has abandoned God and been left alone on earth. Together with the idea of God the unity of the world is also out of joint. Mankind no longer forms a single family, all have been separated; fraternal communion has been replaced by hostility, harmony by disorder. (Mochulsky, p. 505)
When Hamlet refers to Denmark as a prison, he is referring to much more than his physical entrapment. He is in a moral trap, as are so many of Dostoevsky’s characters. The moral dilemma that he faces in Denmark is only the worst of many he must face in life,
Hamlet: Denmark ’s a prison.
Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.
Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst. (Act II: Sc II, lines 249-53)
Hamlet shows many other characteristics of profound egocentrism besides a morally decadent background. He is constantly berating himself for his failure to take action. This was one quality that Dostoevsky identified with especially. In 1838 he wrote to his brother, “…How fainthearted is that creature man! Hamlet! Hamlet!” Just as the man from underground is almost incapable of revenge because of his conscience combined with reasoning, so, too, is Hamlet,
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied over with pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
(Act III: Sc I, lines 83-88)
Hamlet eventually tries to rebel against his own indecisiveness and become a man of action, “O, from this time forth, /let my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”
Hamlet reproaches himself for being a “John-a-dreams,” but he is basically the profound egocentric in the doubt-breakdown stage. He has no hope of getting anywhere in this world:
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
(Act I: Sc II, lines 133-4)
J. Alfred Prufrock (“The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock” a poem by T. S. Eliot) is another human byproduct of a morally decadent society, another “Waste Land.” He is an obvious example of the profound egocentric in the doubt-breakdown stage. He has no direction and nowhere to look for one. He is self-aware, self-conscious, introspective and withdrawn. He is not even a Prince Hamlet he tells us, for at least Hamlet had energy.
He is in the equivalent social class of one of Dostoevsky’s government clerks. He is not unlike Golyadkin; he is respectable, in an average sort of way and stays out of everyone’s way. His world is constraining, emasculated and as close to nature and real life as a plastic clock-radio.
His world is also utterly devoid of decisiveness or action. There is always, “time yet for a hundred indecisions,” and “there will be time/To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I Dare?’” His relations with people are artificial, remote, and standardized for, “there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;” There will be time for petty self-consciousness too, “They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’” and “They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!”
His desire is to do something, to be something or even to become something. Just as the Underground Man would like to be an insect, just to be something real and definite, J. Alfred Prufrock would like, “to have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
What I would like to do now is turn around what I have demonstrated about the nature of the profound egocentric, as a literary creation and see what he can reveal about his creator.
As I have demonstrated throughout my paper, Dostoevsky created his profound egocentrics after his own image. If Dostoevsky was a profound egocentric, what does that suggest about him, as an artist and perhaps about the artistic process in general?
It is my belief that there are two basic methods for creating a literary character. Those two methods are the internal and the external. With the external approach the artist maintains his own sense of self-identity or I while he is creating his character. With the internal approach the creator loses his sense of self-identity and becomes the character while he is creating him. There are of course many shades in between – an artist may step out of his internal character to get a more objective look at him, and an artist might try stepping into an external character to get a feel for him. There is nothing terribly new about this idea of characters being divisible into internal and external ones, but it is an idea very relevant to the present discussion.
Dostoevsky, as his personality matured and he began to have closer relationships with people, probably developed a reasonably strong sense of other. An increase in the sense of other would not necessarily have an inverse effect on the sense of I. Providing his sense of I with an external frame of reference would allow for new growth. Dostoevsky’s process of self-exploration would continue and his understanding of his own inner world would increase.
The addition of a frame of reference to Dostoevsky’s supremely developed and explored inner world enabled him to go as deeply into human nature as anyone has ever gone. The question is, how did Dostoevsky apply his vast self-knowledge to his characters? The answer, I believe, is that Dostoevsky’s fantastically strong sense of I allowed him to assume the identity of his creations, and with total insight and penetration. The only limitation of this ability is that Dostoevsky’s intelligence and sense of I were so powerful that they had to be carried through during the transformation of identities. Hence, all the characters that Dostoevsky takes an internal approach to, and whose identity he assumes, must share his intelligence and exaggerated sense of I, and therefore his profound egocentrism.
One of Dostoevsky’s critics points out an incident in which Dostoevsky’s assumption of a character’s identity seems to have carried over to real life. Dostoevsky had appealed to the trustee of his father’s estate for unnecessary sums of money. This trustee was described as an “evangelically good man” and he did everything he could for Dostoevsky. When this man refused Dostoevsky his last request, for
Dostoevsky’s own sake,
Dostoevsky became enraged and denounced his rich relation. His letter resounds with savage irony. He dramatizes his own situation, describing himself as sick, impoverished, and dying of hunger. At this time he was working on his first novel Poor People , and almost imperceptibly he transformed himself into his hero, the half-starved civil servant Makar Devushkin. In a good-natured fashion Karepin admonished and tried to reform him; Dostoevsky retorted with malicious sarcasm. The trustee’s reproaches, and they were fully deserved, wounded Dostoevsky’s self-pride. The novelist’s impression converted this honorable philanthropist into the figure of an exploiting bourgeois. Literature and reality were merged into one. The future author of Poor People had been aroused and inflamed by social pathos and Karepin became the victim of his accusations. (Mochulsky, p. 20)
Here is an excerpt from that letter:
You have tormented me, humiliated me; you have mocked me. I have borne it all with patience; I have contracted debts; I have used up all my money. I have endured shame and grief; I have endured sickness, hunger, and cold. (Mochulsky, p. 20-21)
I disagree with Mochulsky, however, in assuming that it was Makar Devushkin whose identity was assumed. I suspect that Dostoevsky assumed the identity of a suffering, martyred, underdog-identity enabling offensive, aggressive behaviors to appear totally defensive. A politician with a Quaker background, for example, whose superego would not tolerate aggressiveness, might need just such a mechanism in order to function in a position of power. (Younger readers might not recognize this as a diss of Richard Nixon who was a Quaker and who fluctuated between aggression and self pity. Nixon showed many symptoms of profound geocentricism, and one historian who read his personal journals described them as tormented and reading like Dostoevsky. —Jonathan, 2006)
The range and depth of Dostoevsky’s writings, is equaled only by life itself. Any attempt to view Dostoevsky’s works through one concept or perspective, will lead to a very limited and distorted vision. The concept of profound egocentrism is not a final solution to all the complex motivations and behaviors of Dostoevsky’s characters, but rather one answer among many. With a proper realization of its values and limitation, profound egocentrism can prove a valuable perspective for a more complete understanding of Dostoevsky’s writings and literature in general.
(I am omitting the end notes to discourage potential plagiarists)