Teaching the Underground

undergroundOne aspect of teaching that rarely gets discussed (on blogs and in education news) is the intellectual and ethical challenge of taking students through a complex work like Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I find myself turning lessons in my mind, asking myself what to bring out, what questions to ask, what background to provide, what comparisons to draw. This would be the case with just about any lesson—but with Notes from Underground it’s particularly important, as the work is easy to misunderstand in one way or another. Once the basic understanding is there, it’s possible to appreciate the work’s paradox and play on the one hand and its serious moral questions on the other.

Its narrator and protagonist, the “Underground Man,” lives alone in a dingy Petersburg apartment, from which he does not emerge. He writes and writes, in some sense baring his starkest truths, in some sense fooling the reader. He rails against the formulas that others embrace, formulas for a perfect society or even a reasonable one. No perfection, no happiness, he insists, matters as much to man as his own free will—and for that reason he will knock down any structure and deny any equation, even if in doing so he only harms himself. The Underground Man seems to rebel against formulas and final answers, yet he clings to his own formula, a formula of negation. In the second part, we learn how he landed there; we learn something about his life and actions before his retreat. (I won’t reveal what he tells—but it isn’t comforting.)

A reader of Notes from Underground can easily fall into one of two traps. One error is to judge him without any kind of compassion or identification—to say, “I’m not like that; that man is messed up” and be done with it. The other is to identify with him completely—to see him as a reflection of the hidden self. While this error is a bit more fruitful than the first, it’s still an error, if the reader does not recognize the Underground Man’s responsibility for his condition. To grasp the Underground Man, one must bring both compassion and judgment, both identification and distance. The proportions are difficult to determine (and will vary from person to person and from reading to reading), but both elements need to be there, if the work is to come through. (Other elements need to be there as well; one needs to be able to hear his tones, jokes, allusions, and much more.)

Isn’t that one of our ethical challenges in general—to determine the right mixture of judgment and compassion? Too much judgment without compassion, and you write the person (or work) off. Too much compassion (if that’s the word—I’m not quite satisfied) without judgment, and you neglect the person’s free will and choices. Yet there is no perfect ratio; it shifts from moment to moment and from situation to situation. Nor can it be calculated; one must find it through experience, teachers, and instinct.

From what I have seen, it is more common for students to write the Underground Man off than to see themselves in him. This is partly because introspection gets short shrift today. These kids have been brought up to think in terms of success and achievement, not in terms of understanding human nature. That’s an oversimplification, though; many do understand something of the Underground Man; many do see aspects of themselves, and a few have even found a combination of judgment and compassion. In any case, both extremes have dangers.

The first time I read Notes from Underground, at age eighteen, I couldn’t separate myself from him (until part 2). I thought I was him—and was horrified. Years later, I approached him from a distance and found him very funny. In between, I have had mixtures of responses. Today I see a great deal of the Underground Man in myself but understand, also, how important the differences are. I am not advocating “text-to-self connections”—but Dostoevsky clearly wants us to ask who this Underground Man is and how he might reflect us.

There’s a lot at stake in reading Notes from Underground properly, yet there is no “proper” reading. There is only alertness and avoidance of pitfalls. Or, rather, there’s much more, but it can’t be taught directly, just as one can’t be taught to understand another person.

These are the thoughts that occupy a good deal of my day, when I’m not scrambling to get things done. It matters to teach this work well; that, in turn, is not just a question of bringing out key themes, devices, etc., but involves careful reading, a good understanding of the students, an understanding (when possible) of the original Russian, and a strong ethical and aesthetic sense. It involves a great responsibility: you have to be a good guide to take students into the underground and out again. In short, it requires a good chunk of all that I have and am—including the ability to put myself aside as we focus on the work.

I wish policymakers (of various kinds) had an inkling of this aspect of teaching. It seems completely forgotten, except in nooks of the education world. It’s as though “content” didn’t demand one’s soul, intellect, and conscience, as though you could teach it “effectively” without vitality. No wonder so much work gets piled on teachers; few realize that to teach well, one must be willing to leave the busyness behind, to take a long walk, attend a concert*, or read a book slowly, in order to be shaken into life, the life inside and outside of books, the jumbled, mistake-ridden life that, even at its most perplexing, has room for courage and grace.

*Concert: On Friday I attended the Wingdale Community Singers’ record release show for their new album, Night Sleep Death. A gorgeous performance. The title(-ish) song brings together two Walt Whitman poems, A Clear Midnight” and “O Living Always–Always Dying.”

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