Dostoevsky's storm and stress: Notes from Underground and the psychological foundations of Utopia
King-Salter, John Luke
Notes from Underground is Dostoevsky’s most intense examination of the fundamental psychological basis of society and politics, and was conceived as a polemical response to the utopian socialism of Nihilists like Nikolai Chernyshevsky. This dissertation presents a new interpretation of Notes from Underground, and in particular its argument against utopian socialism, based on a comparison with the German Sturm und Drang movement and related literary and philosophical texts. It is usually assumed that Dostoevsky’s problem with utopian socialism is that it curtails individual liberties to an unacceptable degree, since human beings have an innate need for freedom. I argue that the appeal of this reading rests on the ambiguity of the word “freedom,” and that when its conceptual foundations are clarified, it leads to serious inconsistencies in Dostoevsky’s social thought. The need for an entirely new approach thereby becomes evident. Having examined and clarified the meaning of relevant portions of the novel, I find that for Dostoevsky it is not the need for freedom that renders utopian socialism psychologically inadequate, but the need for deeper spiritual fulfilment. By placing the novel in its broader historical context, I show that this new approach can be illuminated and justified with reference to German philosophy and literature, and the works of Friedrich Schiller in particular. The influence of Schiller on Dostoevsky is well known, but it has not been sufficiently appreciated by those interested in his social and political philosophy. I argue that Notes from Underground should be seen as a revival of psychological themes from the Sturm und Drang movement to which Schiller contributed, and, crucially, that these themes are the linchpin of Dostoevsky’s polemic against utopian socialism. The Sturm und Drang movement was a reaction against the demystification of human nature by Enlightenment philosophy; its anti-heroes represented the psychological and spiritual dangers of this demystification and the lack of spiritual fulfilment it entailed. Dostoevsky, I maintain, draws on these insights to argue that any ideology that rejects the spiritual needs of humanity, including utopian socialism, will lead to the dire psychological consequences illustrated extensively in Notes from Underground. Overall, I present an original reappraisal of Dostoevsky’s novel that sheds new light on this crucial intersection of his political, psychological, philosophical and religious thought.