I’ve decided to share my thoughts on a passage from Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky. The first time I read it, it struck me intensely at a heart level. At the time I didn’t even understand why. It took me some time and a few re-readings to understand what it was about this passage that I had connected with. Even now it’s not easy to explain, I think there is more there and I have a feeling this is one of those texts which I will come back to at further stages in my life.
“It’s like this, you see: if instead of a palace it was a hen-house, and it began to rain, I might creep into the hen-house so as not to get wet, but I shouldn’t take the hen-house for a palace out of gratitude because it has protected me from the rain. You laugh; you even say that in that case it doesn’t matter whether it’s a hen-house or a mansion. No, I answer, if not getting wet was all one had to live for.
But what if I have taken it into my head that that isn’t the sole object of living, and if I have to live, let it be in a mansion? That is my will and my desire. You can drive it out of me only by changing my desire. Well, change it then; attract me by something else, give me a different ideal. Meanwhile I still refuse to take a hen-house for a palace. Let us grant that a building of crystal is a castle in the air, that by the laws of nature it is a sheer impossibility, and that I have invented it out of nothing but my own stupidity and certain antiquated irrational habits of my generation. But what does it matter to me if it is an impossibility? What difference does it make to me, so long as it exists while my desires last? Perhaps you are laughing again. Laugh if you like: I will accept all your ridicule, but all the same I won’t say I’ve had enough to eat when I’m hungry, I won’t be satisfied with compromise, with the constantly recurring decimal, merely because it exists by the laws of nature and exists in reality.
What does it matter to me that that kind of building is impossible, and that one must content oneself with blocks of flats? Why was I made with such desires? Can I have been made for only one thing, to come at last to the conclusion that my whole make-up is nothing but a cheat? Is that the whole aim? I don’t believe it.”
Notes from Underground is a short but intense book. I found the belligerence of the narrator simultaneously discomforting and captivatingly honest. Underground is a dark, cold, lonely place. Part of the discomfort came from how easily I empathised with the narrator. It’s only one part of me and I certainly don’t feel like him all the time but I have to admit that to a certain extent, the underground man, with all his bitterness, arrogance and predisposition for self-destruction, does lurk inside me. Perhaps he lurks inside all of us.
But lets get back to the particular passage quoted above which I feel, despite the belligerence, is intensely beautiful and ultimately positive in outlook.
I asked a friend what she thought of this passage and like me she was most struck by the line “if not getting wet was all one had to live for”.
I love that line because it acknowledges the desire I think all humans feel sometimes (or most of the time?) for something more, something beyond our everyday needs. The desire that somehow both drives me crazy and keeps me sane. For me the palace of crystal represents my struggle to understand it all…
Life, the universe and everything!
I know it’s impossible (even if the answer really is 42), but I still can’t stop. I can’t be satisfied with a hen-house life. Buddhism teaches that to live without suffering we must let go of desire. It might be true but the suffering I feel from this desire is something I’m not ready to let go of. As I wrote above, it drives me crazy but it keeps me sane. It reminds me I’m alive.
The friend I shared this with went on to say she thinks we can either stay in the hen-house and be semi-comfortable and dry, or risk getting wet in order to start building our own palaces of crystal.
Palaces of crystal might be impossible dreams that we can never fully achieve in reality, but does that mean they can’t add a richness to our lives which is as much real as we are, so long as it exists while our desires last?
I wonder too if the palace of crystal could be a useful metaphor for God.