The Underground – Larry Inchausti

Larry Inchausti: One of the things that struck me yesterday was all these images about water, and how the water goes underground. So you have this underground stream but it finds its own limit. It got me thinking about a person that I wrote about in my book, and I teach Dostoyevsky whose great metaphor is the underground and later in his life they asked him which novel he wanted on his gravestone as his lasting contribution to the world and he said, “I don’t want you to put the names of any novels. I want you to describe me as the discoverer of the underground, of the psychology of the underground.” And so, I thought I would tell you a little story about the underground and what Dostoyevsky meant by the underground as a way of talking about some of these problems that we are going to deal with today. For Dostoyevsky the underground was the source of all human irrationality, violence and cruelty in our world and in ourselves.

It is a little bit about him and I think. When he first started out, he majored in engineering in school and he wanted to be a great writer. He translated Honorè de Balzac from French into Russian. And he wrote a kind of a breakthrough novella called “Poor Folk,” and “Poor Folk” was kind of a description of the “Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People.” It was, what they called in the day, ‘sentimental naturalism,’ which was a kind of a celebration of the goodness of the working people and the struggling Russian underclass. And this novel made him; it opened the door to him to belong to the writer’s circle of anti-Czarist Russian activist. And so, he would go to this circle and he would read his, stories and he would also read other great Russian writers that spoke for the need of social revolution. What he did not understand, what he did not know that the group had been infiltrated by Czarist informants and they were reported to the Czarist police as traitors to the Russian government, and brought up on a treason trial.

So Dostoyevsky and five of his friends were convicted of treason against Russia and brought before a firing squad, and Dostoyevsky, I think is third in line for the firing squad. They put one of his friends up, they line him up with the firing squads and they fire blanks. And Dostoyevsky and his friends are like…collapsing. A horseman rides in and he says, “Because of the infinite mercy of the Czar, he has communicated your sentences and you will not be executed today, but you will be sent to Siberia for an eight to ten year sentence.” It’s an archetypal story of Dostoyevsky because I have heard people say, of those people that were being set up that day to be killed, one went crazy. One later killed himself. And the other became Dostoyevsky, the father of existentialism.

They send him to this prison in Siberia, but it was not a pleasant prison because you had 19th century mother rapers and father rapers and pretty bad people. I can’t imagine. You think of the twentieth century, 19th century penitentiary in Siberia and he was the guy who in his spare time translated Hübner and Balzac from French into Russian. You have this very sensitive intellectual and now he is in this environment of these really brutal people and one of the things that he discovered there was the psychology of the underground. When he came back, he no longer wrote works that were sentimental naturalism, but he wrote works that explored what he thought was the fundamental problem of humankind, which was the psychology of the underground, and liberating practices and structures by which you can cure it. And this was his great masterpiece, “Brothers Karamazov.” He spent his whole life trying to solve this problem and he never really solved it to his satisfaction until the last book, “Brothers Karamazov” where he thought he had finally come up with some liberating structures to deal with the psychology of the underground. I thought I would tell you. So, there are a lot of stories of Dostoyevsky, and Brothers Karamazov is just one anecdote of another people, trying to deal with their own irrationality and their own violence and the legacy of violence and all these things. But I have one from my own experience that I think is both funny and awful simultaneously that names the underground and then if there is a little bit of time, I can just tell you two quick things about “Brothers Karamazof” about Dostoyevsky’s cures. When he was at the birth of an underground man, and he calls these creatures, the “underground men” and they populated the prisons.

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In a nutshell, the underground is when people are brutalized or betrayed they don’t become evil people. Their goodness goes underground and what they do is that they turn against the world in defense of that goodness. So they don’t think they are bad and you are good. They think, the so-called good world is bad and they are good. Anything ‘you’ want, ‘I’ don’t because I am protecting the good in me that you try to destroy by being normal. And this is pretty perverted. But it’s how we all feel. You know I am not calling someone out. I am not engaging in that “Yes /And.” I got a big “But” and a big “No” and that makes me who I am, and you are not going to break me, and if I can stay true to that “No” I win. And this is how people survive in the prisons because they became survivors by fighting back. And he saw that and he said, “Well you know I did not really factor in my sentimental naturalist stories. There was a reason that people were not responding to my charity with gratitude. That in fact the nicer I was to them, the more they wanted to beat the crap out of me and I did not realize I was rubbing salt in wound by reminding them of their deficit.”

David the Key Club and the Underground
Anyway, I want to tell you this story because it is both funny and awful, I told you that. When I was in high school, I was in this really terrible club called ‘Key Club,’ sponsored by Kiwanis. None of us who were in the club, really cared about the club. It was just an excuse to get out of our parent’s house. And go to the school on the weeknights and we would bring milkshakes from McDonalds and would eat and screw around, you know, have fun. But we were really junior Kiwanis, and said so the word and one day we are at this meeting and we realize that none of the officers of the club are there. And we say, “Why do even come to this club, the officers don’t even show up? You know the president or the vice president don’t even show up, what is this all about?” And well the kids say, “They just use us, they just use this club to get something on their college applications. They are the president of our stupid club and they get to say that on their applications and we are just sort of the backup group for their success.” And so one of the kids says, “Why don’t we impeach him.” I am into that. So I go, “Ok let us impeach the president. Let us impeach the vice president.” So we impeach all the officers. That was kind of fun. (laughter) But it was kind of not enough. So somebody says, “Let’s make a rule that none of their children can ever belong in Key Club.” So I said, “Yeah that’s cool.” So their children are not allowed. “How about if they ever want to come back they have to apologize to each of us by kissing our ass in the cafeteria.” Second that third that, things got really imaginative. We kept coming up with more outrageous forms of punishments and humiliations. Well, there was one kid that wasn’t participating in the general fun and that was a kid named David, I would not use his real name, we will call him David ‘X.’ And Dave was sort of sitting in the back watching all of this and he didn’t really like what was happening because Dave wasn’t the most popular person and he really, and his one thing was Key Club and here we were crapping all over Key Club. So, he says, “I have something to say. I think John has been a very good President and I think that even though he does not come to out meetings, he supports Kiwanis and he has been very good and I think you guys are being very disrespectful by saying that he has to kiss your ass and wear his underwear outside his pants.” And so a guy’s hand comes up and he says, “I move that Dave be kicked out of the key club.” And second, third, and “Dave you are out.” And Dave says, “You can’t say that.” And I move that Dave’s children not be allowed. So, now all this is. So what is Dave thinking?

We will take Dostoyevsky in motive. He is not thinking, “I am a fool. I am not getting the joke. I am not merging with the collective here.” He is thinking, “I am the one person that stands for the good, true and the beautiful and all these people here are my enemies and if I have any pride in myself, I am not going to let them get away with this. I am going to fight this little mother to the death.” Dave gets up and he says, and this is his great moment, and he says, “You can’t do this. Because you know what you guys are.” And we go, “What are we David?” He says, “You are,” and he was so mad he could not come up with a word, “You are. You are.” And we go, “Dave. You got to tell us who we are. We cannot wait all day here. You have go to you know, what are we?” And he says, “You are, you are assbutts.” And there is like silence in the room and someone says, “Assbutts.” Everybody started laughing and just rolling on the floor, falling out of chairs, holding our sides and saying assbutts, how ridiculous that is. And so then, David was sort of standing there turning different colors and did not know whether he should join in the fun but not. Right. Because that would be giving over to evil. So he says, “ Well, whatever.” And then finally the laughter stops and then someone goes assbutts and laughing. Well again falling around and I say, “ Meeting is over Dave, I am sorry. We are sorry. You created the funniest memory of our life Dave.” We all left the meeting, thinking that things were cool with us and Dave. We did not know that that was kind of Dave going underground because now it was Dave who carrying the moral torch against all us stupid conformists ‘assbutts.’ So this is kind of where violence and anger and perversion come from.

It comes from this sort of suppression or un-received initiation. Right. Three years later, I am working at the college bookstore at Sacramento State College and there was a freak snowstorm, and if you know Sacramento, it only snows in Sacramento once every twenty years, and so there was this freak snowstorm and it was actually snowing. So I ask my boss, can I go out? I just want to go out and play in the snow a little bit and celebrate this on my break. And he says its fine. And so, I go out and I am going to try to commemorate this moment of snow in Sacramento. I say well what do you do when it snows? – Snowball. So I make a little snowball, find one of my friends that I could hit with a snowball and then my professor was walking down there. So I go, why not? And then I thought probably not a good idea. That is kind of a presumption. Behind the professor, was Dave and I had not seen Dave in three years and here was God putting him in front of me for his role in my life as humorous source of humiliation. Now I thought, I was a friend of Dave. So I thought it was a funny moment. I thought he knew that it was funny. So I said oh Dave, I know Dave. I hit him with a snowball. So I pack the snowball up and I sneak up behind him. And I say, you know right out of and this is going to be scene right out of Brothers Karamazov and I say, “Hey Dave, look out for snowballs,” and I go throw it at him and he does not flinch. He just leaps on me. And now I am back like this. And he is pummeling me. And I can’t even fight back and it is like ‘ Dave, it is just a snowball.’ And he is beating me and tears are running down his eyes and he is just beating the crap out of me and one of the things that Dostoyevsky said about the underground, which is really fascinating for me is when you go underground, you become symbolic, symbols are big thing.

So he is beating me and then he realizes that I am putting up no resistance and he is beating the crap out of me and so he gets off me and this is a great moment and he picks up a bunch of snow, he picks up a bunch of snow and he goes right over me and he throws it on my head, and at this point I just felt so bad for him, I wanted him to beat me up more but the snow was a great touch. I have to admit, it was a nice touch. So he throws the snow on me. I am in snow, and he points down to me and says, “Next time you see Crawford, you tell him, I whipped your ass.” And I say “that is all right.” And then he walked away with more dignity than I had ever seen him. Now I am lying in the snow and I am thinking, who in the hell is Crawford and then it dawns on me that Crawford was on of the guys one the Key Club, and he had been carrying this anger, he had been carrying this shame and he had been carrying this violence in him for three years and then I wondered as he was walking, ‘Is he going to target practice, is he going to his Nazi group, is he going to revenge of the nerds, where is he going with that stuff?’ We had created this stuff but we did not know we would create that. We were creating community by uniting the loser against people that were oppressing us but we were also creating the psychology of the underground. So how do you undo the psychology of the underground because those guys in the prison were with Dostoyevsky and so he became fascinated with his problem and he saw it everywhere. Everybody is underground to some degree. When you read the Brothers Karamazov, the opening is like a 18th century novel where he has the background of the family, the prequel, but the background of the family is how everyone in the family went underground at some point in their lives. This grandmother married this guy because her parents hated him. And then she divorced that guy that loved her to pick a guy that would brutalize her. And then she gave birth to…. and so it is like a history of dysfunction until you get to the brothers Karamazov, and there is one character that is trying to undo the damage of five generations of underground behavior.

Father Zosima
I don’t want to go on too long but I do want to give you an example of how the underground is. How its liberating structure of Dostoyevsky and how he did it. He had one character in the Brother Karamazov, Father Zosima, who was a former underground man who almost killed a man in a duel. It kind of woke him up that he was not doing things right and so he had the spiritual transformation. He wanted to heal the underground rather than perpetuate it and so he becomes this sort ‘subversive orthodox’ monk and the literal orthodox monk and he installs these practices that are kind of subversive to the normal monastery because one of things is that women are not allowed in the monastery. So he goes out to the gate and he gives spiritual direction to women on Fridays, and the other monks don’t like this and they think it is kind of weird and there is one little chapter in Brothers Karamazov, that’s like, maybe 50 pages where you get to be in Father Zosima’s spiritual counseling sessions and everything is parallel construction. So they have a poor woman of faith, his counseling to her followed by the rich woman with no faith. So you get two sides of this. And Zosima’s ruling principle and spiritual direction is you just try to keep people from going underground, from nursing a resentment and identifying with the injustices, and hating their world. Because you really don’t have to worry about hating themselves because it is a part of them that loves themselves. They have decided to turn against the world, they have decided, God’s world is unjust.


So, the poor woman of faith comes to him and says, “I have had three children and all of them died.” Dostoyevsky actually had a baby that died when he was one and a half and his name was Aliosha. Of course the hero of brothers Karamazov was Aliosha. And so the woman comes to him and says, “ I have had three children that have died, I have had two children that have died before the age of three and I had this third baby and she made it to four and then she died. And you know the other two I got over but this one, I have been grieving for three years. I have gone to these spiritual advisors like you and they tell me that I must have lost my faith because the child is in heaven and why are you still grieving. And what bothers me even more is in some ways that not only have I lost all my children, I have lost faith. And I am feeling like I am going underground,” but she does not say ‘underground’, “ I don’t know if I can live with this.” So Zosima says, “You know that guys that you talked,” and this is the orthodox subversive, “ Those guys you talked to they are right. Your baby is in heaven and your baby is probably happy. But they did not tell you the full psychological side of this thing. That babies sometimes demand that their parents grieve and sometimes it is a week, sometimes it is a month, sometimes it is a year and sometimes it is 10 years and it sounds like you have these babies that want you to grieve. So just grieve. You haven’t lost your faith. And when the baby has had enough of your grief, she will send you a sign.” Thank you, thank you I just needed this. And so she goes away and says oh by the way I have got this radish for the poor and put it in your stone soup.

The rich woman comes in and says, “Father, I have a question for you.” And he says, “ What?” And she says, “I am just so grateful for all the things God has given me and I have all the graces of the world, I have this nice house and I have dinner parties and I am just really being blessed. And there is one thing that bothers me and that is I am going to die and this is all going to be taken away from me. So it takes away some of the joy I feel in life because it is so transitory, but I know that in our tradition there is this doctrine of eternal life and if I could believe in eternal life, I would not feel so bad about dying but I do not believe in eternal life. I know you are a great spiritual master. Can you explain the doctrine of eternal life in a way that I can understand that will make my life meaningful?”

So how do you keep her from going underground and so Zosima says, “Well you have got it backwards, you think that you need to believe in eternal life before you can love people but it is exactly the opposite. First you love people and then the idea of eternal life might be given to you as a grace, but you don’t wait until you believe in eternal life before you love because that is like you want the guarantee before. And see this poor woman over here. She just lost her baby; all three babies and she could really use a dinner. So why don’t you invite her over to one of your dinner parties and talk to her about her faith because she is one of the most faithful women I have ever met.” And the wealthy woman says, “I knew you had nothing to tell me.”

That’s Dostoyevsky. He both recognizes that they are both ways of addressing the underground but they are fraught with, it is not an easy thing because the thing that is motivating the other person’s contempt for you is their secret love of the good, true and the beautiful that they don’t believe your world has room for. And in some ways Zosima probably failed the wealthy woman because he did not know, but he did try to tell her that get in touch with community. That I think is part of what we are talking about in the stone soup and the underground is that it is not that the good, true and the beautiful are fighting against evil, but that there is this perversion or this sort of turning around of the good true and the beautiful into a kind of defensive thing that has to be undone, and it is trickier than it looks probably. That is my two bits for the morning.