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Books and Authors > Dostoyevsky's Underground Man & The Crystal Palace

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message 1: by Andy (new)

Andy Hulsey | 2 comments I have not finished all of Notes From the Underground, just the first part. I have been wondering about the crystal palace and what exactly the underground man is saying. I read somewhere that the palace represents a utilitarian utopia. If this is the case then what exactly is the underground man saying about it? I will now put down my interpretation of this part of the 10th chapter. (I feel as though I am far from total understanding, or if I'm even on the right track for that matter, and It would be rad if you guys respond with discussions on philosophical interpretations.)

So he begins by describing the palace as unbreakable and impossible to mock (which I guess means a perfect utopian society). Then he says if the palace (utopia) were really a hencoop he would still take shelter from the rain (use it to avoid trouble I suppose?) but nonetheless he would never call a hencoop a palace (so he would never call an imperfect society a utopia). Then the audience says that in this matter a hencoop would be as good as a palace. The underground man says yes if the only object of life is to avoid rain (to avoid trouble? What does the rain symbolize?)

But if he did In fact think that if one must live he might as well do it in a palace, and he desired to live in a palace that nobody could end his desire unless they took away his willpower. Even of they could take away his willpower, offered him some kind of counter offer, and provided him a new ideal, he still would not call a hencoop a palace. (Does this mean that even if he did want a utopia and 'they' offered him a counter offer such as an imperfect society and told him 'look here is what you need' that he would refuse to call it perfect?)

Then he goes on to say that if the palace was an impossible "thing of dreams" and only his own folly and old, irrational customs had made him imagine it, why should he care? That it would be the same if it exist or not as long as he didn't desire it in the first place. (Is he saying here that a utopia doesn't matter if it exists or not if he doesn't want a utopia in the first place?)
(Also is it concerned with the utopia not being possible because a 'perfectly rational' society would not include the wild card of human freewill and therefore is basically worthless and pointless to want a utopia based on pure reason?)

Please help me understand this passage I have been trying to make sense of it all day. I may be completely off in my interpretation but I just need some help here to grasp the full point. Thanks in advance :)


message 2: by Tyler (last edited Apr 29, 2014 09:21AM) (new)

Tyler  (tyler-d) | 444 comments Hi Andy --

If I correctly remember the tangent about the Crystal Palace, the narrator's concern has more to do with free will than utopia. So where you mention ...

Also is it concerned with the utopia not being possible because a 'perfectly rational' society would not include the wild card of human freewill and therefore is basically worthless and pointless to want a utopia based on pure reason?

... I would say that his point is that a deterministic (utopian, perfectly rational) world wouldn't be pointless or worthless: it would be evil in that it eliminates the only source of good, human free will. Thus, the utilitarianism the British were so fond of at the time was, to him, evil in its consequences.

Dostoyevsky actually had seen the Crystal Palace on a trip to London, noting that not two blocks away were Londoners living in the worst conditions imaginable. He was disturbed by the implication that the technological advancement symbolized by the structure was being thought of by Westerners as the cure to all that ails humanity.

Notes from Underground


message 3: by Andy (new)

Andy Hulsey | 2 comments Tyler --

Thanks for your response! I'm pretty new to philosophy but I think I get it now that I've thought for a few days. Somewhere in there he says something along the lines of: yes reason is great but that it is just reason and nothing more. That reason can only only satisfy a small portion of man whereas volition includes all of life's manifestations. I think he needs to prove that he has some power over life, that's why he does all these things out of spite, just because he can. Exercising his freewill is his way of asserting his power and show that he's not a "keyboard played by nature". Do you think he means that sometimes doing irrational things helps a man prove that he's not a kind of autonomous robot or something? He says this folly preserves to him the most valuable of all his possessions - individuality.


message 4: by Tyler (new)

Tyler  (tyler-d) | 444 comments Hi Andy --

Yes, I think much of the irrationality of the narrator serves to establish his free will. But we have to wonder, given part two of the book, whether the narrator is exercising free will or just being perverse for no discernible purpose.

The great event of the 19th century was the rise of the cities and a new type of person shaped by a purely urban environment. Dostoyevsky is expressing his concern that this new way of living cannot be psychologically healthy for the people, such as the narrator, who live in it.


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