Imagine Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man with a laptop…
“‘Why you’re . . . just like a book,’ she said, and I thought I caught a sarcastic note in her voice again.” Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is with Liza, a prostitute, but what he wants is to talk to her. He finds her ellipsis revealing. She pauses, and she’s caught the mouse in a trap, even if she didn’t mean to. He mistakes her uncertainty for sarcasm: “I didn’t understand that sarcasm is a screen – the last refuge of shy, pure persons against those who rudely and insistently try to break into their hearts” (174), he says. Four pages of rant follow, and he makes her cry. But she’s his perfect audience. Had he a laptop, he would have pulled something up to show her. But was she being sarcastic, or was she reading him literally? What she says is accurate; he is just like a book.
“It goes without saying that both these Notes and their author are fictitious,” Dostoyevsky says in a footnote to the first page of “Notes from Underground,” which begins with “Part One, The Mousehole” (90). If it goes without saying, why does he say it? Another paradox. The typographical man develops a voice, even if he has nothing to say. Online, we feel a part of something, but of what? It’s enough to feel connected. In any case, these men do exist, in spite of this one being fiction, Dostoyevsky wants to make clear, and he wants to mark the difference between narrator and author. But in trying to distance himself from his narrator, Dostoyevsky adds another note to the pile.
I’m online again, going with the flow, superslow though, gliding, electri-gliding in the cerulean world of blues. “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” Hank Williams sang. But does he cry? He doesn’t tell us that he cries, just that he feels like crying. If only Hank had a laptop. How high the moon? He could look it up.
“Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness” (118)*, the Underground Man says. Later, Jung takes up this theme, that consciousness is born in regret, in memory. But how does man express his regret, which is his suffering? “The fall is into language,” Norman O. Brown said (257). What do we think about if we can’t remember anything? After reason, the Underground Man explains, “All that’ll be left for us will be to block off our five senses and plunge into contemplation” (118).
We were talking about the possibility that online culture diminishes memory because the “onliner” (i.e. someone online, not necessarily a reader, since one can go online without reading – but what is reading?) is constantly looking things up, one thing leading to the next, seemingly random. Nothing is memorized; the bookmarks are endless. If the fall is into language, browsing is free falling. But why all the notetaking in book culture? Can’t the readers remember anything? Non-literate people, McLuhan explains in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” have much better memories than those born to books. Is there suffering being online? “The most obvious character of print is repetition, just as the obvious effect of repetition is hypnosis or obsession,” McLuhan says (47).
“I was so used to imagining everything happening the way it does in books and visualizing things falling somehow into the shape of my old daydreams that at first I didn’t understand what was going on. What actually happened was that Liza, whom I had humiliated and crushed, understood much more than I had thought. Out of all I had said, she had understood what a sincerely loving woman would understand first – that I myself was unhappy” (197). The Underground Man is stuck in a literate view. McLuhan: “The new collective unconscious Pope saw as the accumulating backwash of private self-expression” (308). The Underground Man’s literacy has turned him into an individual, and he’s nowhere to go. This is another reason he appears when he does; his point of view is his own beacon.
The sufferer comments. This is why the Underground Man “has appeared, and could not help but appear” (90), to explain why he has appeared. The browser joins the Internet commute, changing lanes compulsively but leisurely. Summer is near, and in the distance one can hear the Internet Highway and superfast modems melting across asphalt desks backlit with electric candles. A commenter interrupts the flow, but for the Underground Man with a laptop, comments are closed. Go start your own blog. I’m in the slow lane here. Go around me, he signals out his laptop window. Go around.
“I knew that what I was saying was contrived, even ‘literary’ stuff, but then, that was the only way I knew how to speak – ‘like a book,’ as she had put it” (179). The Underground Man is literate; Liza is not. But Liza intuits what the Underground Man must read. McLuhan explains the difference: “The visual makes for the explicit, the uniform, and the sequential in painting, in poetry, in logic, history. The non-literate modes are implicit, simultaneous, and discontinuous, whether in the primitive past or the electronic present, which Joyce called ‘eins within a space'” (GG 73).
“Enough,” the Underground Man says, but the closing footnote says there are more notes. “But we are of the opinion that one might just as well stop here” (203), Dostoyevsky says.
* My text (Signet Classic CT300, 1961, Seventh Printing, translation by Andrew R. MacAndrew), reads, “Why, suffering is the only cause of consciousness.” But I exchanged just this line for the Constance Garnett version of the line, which I prefer for its sole (solo) and soul homonymy (not to mention the suggestion of the sole of a shoe).