- D. H. Lawrence and Dostoevsky:The Thirst for Risk and the Thirst for Life
As politics makes strange bedfellows, so the theory of literary confluence permits me to juxtapose Dostoevsky, that consummate polyphonist, with D. H. Lawrence, a writer some might call a Johnny-One-Note whose one note the Sexual Revolution obviated. For, indeed, Dostoevsky and Lawrence, the psychologist of the Underground and the liberator of its inhabitants, are complements. Where Dostoevsky sent Notes from the Dead House and Underground, Lawrence sang "The Song of the Man Who Has Come Through." Though Dostoevsky doomed his Idiot, Lawrence resurrected him in The Man Who Died. Lawrence himself perceived this complementarity, finding Dostoevsky the genius who too well delineated, and so perpetuated, that disease of the modern ego he termed "Russianitis" (Phoenix 369), for which he sought the cure. To eradicate the curse of "acute consciousness" that emerged from Dostoevsky's complex verbal fugues, Lawrence attempted to render the felt rhythms of experience. Where theoretical Petersburg,1 or the provincial birdcage and stockyard,2 stifle their egocentric occupants, the Lawrencean universe fairly pulsates with energy, egos submerged within the immediacy of experience.
Yet if Dostoevsky remains the master of the underground psyche, his style the perfect form for that content, Lawrence created his own underground. Critics have historically labelled Women in Love a "Dostoevskeyan" work (Aldington xi; Sanders 99) [End Page 281] and have found the hero of The Trespasser, its title implying the prestuplenie,3 a Stavrogin-like character (Lord 8). Then, in 1925, Lawrence wrote:
Perhaps Dostoevsky was more vividly alive than Plato: Culminating a more vivid life circle, and giving the clue towards a higher circle still. But the clue hidden, as it was always hidden, in every revelation, underneath what is stated.
He seems here to have grasped that Dostoevsky not only rendered the reality of Plato's cave but pointed the way out of it, though few of his characters could ever clearly decipher the clues and most who did rejected them.
I would suggest, then, that a careful reading of Dostoevsky and Lawrence reveals a fundamental thematic affinity emerging from matrices of "generically coherent motifs" (Falk 8). At their core lies the opposition between real and ideal, embodied in Dostoevsky by the epithet, zhivaja zhizn' —real, living life—and igra —play, sport, game, performance—and, by implication, the self-conscious manipulation of form into an ideal arrangement to approximate real life. A brief look at Notes from Underground (Zapiski iz podpol'ja), The Gambler (Igrok),4 and St. Mawr should clarify this pattern and establish its centrality to the works of both authors.
The Underground Man rebels against the Crystal Palace in the name of freedom and "living life." Repudiating the "twice two"5 as the beginning of death, he mirrors that rejection of fixed form Bakhtin attributes to Dostoevsky's voices (59), all fearful lest some final word render them silent. But this creature of paradox reveals himself an arch-formalist who "constructs a life in order to live somehow" (Notes I, 5; 108) and consciously savors his pleasure in having wrought so subtle a creation: his zapiski and himself.
To the twice two he opposes a credo notable for its central paradox: To preserve one's freedom, one must—and he italicizes dolzhno (Notes I, 7; 113)—say No! Further, this self-proclaimed proponent of process over goal, roads that lead nowhere, destruction, chaos, and risk, in practice proves an habitual idealist and model-builder. Invoking the nineteenth-century intelligent immobilized by acute consciousness, he offers himself as its representation, only to refute that model and fashion its antithesis: the Underground Masterbuilder, capricious gamester, and chess player par excellence who, in his willful caprice and gratuitous formal manipulations, defies the limits of the earlier model. The Notes, thus, emerge a blueprint for underground architects and instruction manual for underground gameplayers.
Meanwhile, craving an unfixed, "free" identity, the Underground Man merely substitutes one set of forms for another: for the grateful yes, the ingrate's no; for the laws of nature, a psychological imperative. Rejecting self-definition, he re peatedly [End Page 282] plays his chosen role...