An essay on Dostoyevsky by Aspen Kincaid

Today I’ve got the latest entry in an ongoing series of student writings from Janice Ahn’s VCS Reading, Writing, Thinking class. (You can read the earlier selections by following the links at the bottom of this post).

The essay below is by VCS student Aspen Kincaid. It’s a response to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, which is one of the texts that Janice has the class read and discuss.

Twice Two

Twice Two is Fydor Dostoyevsky’s metaphor for the idea that every action one man makes is critically dependent on his best and normal interests. This may seem like common sense, but it is much more than this. It is a formula for the thoughts and actions of mankind. The Underground Man despises this idea. He views it as the demise of thought and free will. After all, those are exactly what a man of the underground stands for and the only two things he has control over. Twice two is a formula for the end of the underground man.

Dostoyevsky first mentions the phrase Twice Two in the last paragraph of section eight, however; he starts to describe what it represents in section seven. Beginning by asking the reader “Tell me, Who was it who first declared, proclaiming it to the whole world, that a man does evil only because he does not know his real interests, and if he is enlightened and has his eyes open to his own best and normal interests, man will cease to do evil and will at once become virtuous and noble.” Dostoyevsky is cynically illustrating the main principle of twice two. Notice how he uses the words “enlightened” and “normal”, “enlightened” presumably to describe the state of mind of men of action, and “normal” referring to the standard set of values they have created. Also, by using the word “who”, he translates the idea that a person or group of people are the creators of “best” and of “normal”, revealing the true lack of divinity held by the idea of culture. Dostoyevsky wants the reader to question the accepted norms of right and wrong. Hoping that these questions will serve as the catalyst needed for his audience to break into free thought.

With the seed of intellectual unrest planted, Dostoyevsky begins to further his case for irrationality. He sites the fact that men in the past have almost never solely acted in their “best interests” and that in many cases they have deliberately acted in the opposite. This brings him to question the ideas of “best”, “normal” and the advantages held by those who observe them. He asks, “What if a man’s advantage must consist of desiring not what is good, but what is bad for him? And if so, if such cases are even possible, then the whole rule is utterly destroyed.” In this statement, Dostoyevsky points out a major flaw, what if the normal idea of advantage doesn’t apply, what if the risks out weigh the rewards? He illustrates the inapplicability of this law to the countless number of situations presented by human emotion. Bringing up the innate and unavoidable sense of passion we all posses. Quit simply, we do what we want to do, often regardless of the consequences.

This is Dostoyevsky’s greatest quarrel with Twice Two, he resents the notion that with such a law, every human action could be formulaically predicted. There would be no conflict, no want, no volition and no free will. He compares men of this law to the keys of a barrel organ, played by an almanac of their every action. But we all know this is not human nature. Mankind is defined by it’s ability of abstract thought and with it the capability of deviation. He ascribes this deviation not to the stupidity of man, but to his simple lack of gratitude, illustrating this by stating, “Shower him with all earthly blessings, plunge him so deep into happiness that nothing is visible but the bubbles rising to the surface of his happiness, as if it were water; give him such economic prosperity that he will have nothing left to do but sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the continuance of world history and he, I mean man, even then, out of mere ingratitude, out of sheer devilment, will commit some abomination.” This notion that even if man has everything he could possibly want for his normal and best of interest, he would still deviate, is one of Dostoyevsky’s best arguments. One cannot help but notice its similarities to the story of Adam and Eve. How better to support an argument regarding human nature than the monotheistic story of human creation. He makes the argument that this very trait is what makes us human. Exclaiming that no matter what, we must continue to deviate from the normal and best, simply to prove that we are man and that if we did not than we would be nothing more than the keys of a barrel organ.

Although it is human nature to deviate, it is also human nature to construct. But Dostoyevsky is not content with this; he deduces that while it is human nature to construct, we do not always wish to finish construction. He uses the metaphor of the “everlasting and unceasing construction of a road no matter where it goes”

Dostoyevsky concludes that it is not the goal but the attainment of the goal that we as humans truly cherish. He states that we are even scared to attain that goal, giving as proof of this, our love of destruction, “Doesn’t his passionate love for destruction and chaos (and no one can deny that he is sometimes devoted to them that is a fact), arise from his fear of attaining his goal and completing the building he is constructing”. This all may seem unrelated but it is actually a metaphor for the history of modern society. The building of the road signifies life or mankind’s continuous path towards civilization ending with the realization of Twice Two, the completion of the road. This brings us to another level of the analogy of twice two, and its relationship to, as Dostoyevsky puts it, the beginning of death.

Mankind fears nothing more than this metaphorical death but ironically, it is not the unknown of physical death, which they fear, but the lack of unknown presented by twice two. This is where our love or tendency for destruction comes into play. Yes we construct, we build magnificent cities, develop sophisticated artistic cultures, constantly improve technologically, all to increase our quality of life. However, with each advance, we take one step back. Every improvement being a shortcut, eliminating some decision or previously necessary action, each shortcut inching us further and further away from life and closer and closer towards Twice Two. If only subconsciously, we know this and it scares us. It is the source of our destruction, war, greed, jealousy, all the forces that negatively impact our society stem from the unrest of this subconscious knowledge. This is the cycle, which we must contentiously perpetuate, striving endlessly towards the goal of a perfect society but each time before it is reached, out of fear, destroying the progress we had made and each time beginning again.

Twice Two has now reached its final destination in the convoluted series, which constitutes the rationalizations of the Underground Man. When Dostoyevsky compares Twice Two to death, the analogy comes full circle and the ideas of the underground man begin to make sense. You see, Twice Two is the goal of all men of action. It is the eradication of thought, want, volition, originality, free will and every other trait, which distinguishes us as human beings. If Twice Two were to be realized, it would mean the death of not only the underground, but of humanity.

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Here are the other writings from Janice’s class that I’ve posted on the VCS blog over the last couple years:

Visual & Critical Studies