Voltaire and Dostoyevsky Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground essay

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Voltaire and Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground and Voltaire's Candide are precisely similar works: in attempting to construct a narrative critique of a philosophical system, they slip from harsh satire into a form of sentimentality. I would suggest that comparing the two works' differing approaches to the philosophical problems of optimism, adversity, and violence are indicative of a different attitude altogether toward the philosophical problems presented. Dostoyevsky is passionate but ultimately sees no alternative between traditional religious morality and nihilism; Voltaire, by contrast, sees traditional religious morality as banal and proposes his own alternative. But in my conclusion, I will compare and contrast the role played by comedy in both works -- although each takes a broadly satirical approach toward the philosophical fashions of the present-day, only Candide is the genuinely comic work.

In comparing the role played by optimism in both works, it is important to recall that this was Voltaire's specific target: the subtitle of Candide is "Optimism." Voltaire was actually taking aim at the theodicy of the polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz -- a theodicy is a formal attempt to "justify the ways of God to men" (as John Milton put it) and to vindicate divine justice within the actual happenings of the world. It is the Leibnizian philosophical system that Voltaire mocks in the intellectual musings of Candide's tutor, Dr. Pangloss. Pangloss' name means "all tongue" in ancient Greek, and it is clear that Voltaire intends him to be all talk and no praxis from his introduction in the first chapter:

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles -- thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings -- and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles -- therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten -- therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best."

Of course Voltaire is offering the sly hint that such logic is purely self-serving, intended to flatter his patrons at the same time as it hints at bacon for breakfast. It is also, of course, a wholly self-contained philosophical system, which is incapable of looking seriously at the real world. As Candide and Pangloss later manage to survive the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Pangloss finds a way of spinning that to their rhetorical advantage:

Candide fainted away, and Pangloss fetched him some water from a neighbouring fountain. The following day they rummaged among the ruins and found provisions, with which they repaired their exhausted strength. After this they joined with others in relieving those inhabitants who had escaped death. Some, whom they had succoured, gave them as good a dinner as they could in such disastrous circumstances; true, the repast was mournful, and the company moistened their bread with tears; but Pangloss consoled them, assuring them that things could not be otherwise.

"For," said he, "all that is for the best. If there is a volcano at Lisbon it cannot be elsewhere. It is impossible that things should be other than they are; for everything is right." (Chapter V)

Pangloss' sunny optimism is of course discredited with each new episode of the novel, as we realize that under certain circumstances humans are no better than meat or animals -- as with the discussion of cannibalism (the old woman with "one buttock" who reveals it was eaten in Chapter 12) or the discovery of women in the New World who take monkeys as lovers.

Dostoyevsky's vision in Notes from the Underground is equally directed at discrediting a philosophical school, in this case the current school of optimistic social meliorism which was demanding political reform and revolution in Russia, prompted by the social critique of Chernyshevsky's novel What is to be Done?, whose title was sufficiently legendary in Russian politics that V.I. Lenin would write a response using the same title. Yet Dostoyevsky is suspicious of the kind of political idealism espoused the optimist Chernyshevky, almost as though he could foresee the kind of corruption it would undergo under Lenin and the Soviets; his Underground Man replies with a kind of perfect cynicism:

But these are all golden dreams. Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child! Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, wilfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage....(Ch. VII)

Of course the chief difference between Notes from the Underground and Voltaire's Candide is that Voltaire -- despite the overall harshness of the satire, much more extreme and misanthropic even than the Underground Man's -- permits his readers to indulge the conventional love-story between Candide and Cunegonde. Although he regards it with sober realism when noting, at the story's conclusion, that there is nothing perfect about their relationship, it nonetheless presents a traditional narrative gratification. Dostoyevsky by contrast offers the Underground Man's abortive relationship with the prostitute Liza to show us why social connection is here discredited as well:

"They won't let me ... I can't be good!" I managed to articulate; then I went to the sofa, fell on it face downwards, and sobbed on it for a quarter of an hour in genuine hysterics. She came close to me, put her arms round me and stayed motionless in that position. But the trouble was that the hysterics could not go on for ever, and (I am writing the loathsome truth) lying face downwards on the sofa with my face thrust into my nasty leather pillow, I began by degrees to be aware of a far-away, involuntary but irresistible feeling that it would be awkward now for me to raise my head and look Liza straight in the face. Why was I ashamed? I don't know, but I was ashamed. The thought, too, came into my overwrought brain that our parts now were completely changed, that she was now the heroine, while I was just a crushed and humiliated creature as she had been before me that night -- four days before.... And…[continue]

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