if I don’t finish my Ph.D., Dostoevsky will understand

The direct, lawful, immediate fruit of consciousness is inertia — that is, a conscious sitting with folded arms. […] I repeat, I emphatically repeat: ingenuous people and active figures are all active simply because they are dull and narrow-minded… As a consequence of their narrow-mindedness, they take the most immediate and secondary causes for the primary ones, and thus become convinced more quickly and easily than others that they have found an indisputable basis for their doings, and so they feel at ease; and that, after all, is the main thing. For in order to begin to act, one must first be completely at ease, so that no more doubts remain. Well, and how am I, for example, to set myself at ease? Where are the primary causes on which I can rest, where are my bases? Where am I going to get them? I exercise thinking, and, consequently, for me every primary cause immediately drags with it yet another, still more primary one, and so on ad infinitum…

— Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

Dostoevsky – or rather, his Underground Man – is wrong here, I think — that anguish, sympathetic as I alas am to it, is something to be overcome, rather than wallowed in. It’s something I’ve learned slowly: there can be action with doubt and with consciousness. Indeed action undertaken in defiance of doubt can be all the more potent; and action undertaken with consciousness, with at least a solemn nod at the doubts that hanker at its heels is what, I think, writing a Ph.D. is all about learning to do. And thus the darned things get written, and some of them, ministering soberly to the swarms of doubts that pursue them to the finish, might even end up being rather good for it.

PS: Notes from the Underground = brilliant


6 responses to “if I don’t finish my Ph.D., Dostoevsky will understand

  • Tim

    A lesson for graduate students: “Consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction. Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice two makes four. Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing.”

  • Rachel

    The same passage in Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, which I somehow feel gets the tone more right (at least the tone I imagine, in my head, the rambling Underground Man lets loose from his wandering pen):

    “Though I did declare at the beginning that consciousness, in my opinion, is man’s greatest misfortune, still I know that man loves it and will not exchange it for any satisfactions. Consciousness, for example, is infinitely higher than two times two. After two times two there would, of course, be nothing left — not only to do, but even to learn. The only possible thing to do then would be to stop up our five senses and immerse ourselves in contemplation. Well, but with consciousness, though the result comes out the same — that is, again there’s nothing to do — at least one can occasionally whip oneself, and, after all, that livens things up a bit. it may be retrograde, but still it’s better than nothing.”

    I’m told the very first line of Notes from the Underground has been rendered in a whole gamut of different ways – “I am a sick man… I am a [spiteful/evil/base/wicked etc] man.” The perils of translation!

  • Tim

    Yeah, I was stuck with an e-text. Still, it’s better than nothing.😉

  • Jeremy Young

    Thanks! This is very helpful for a doubting grad student about to start writing a preliminary diss. paper.

  • Belle

    Hey Rachel, where’re those wonderful Travels of Marco Polo bits you did? I wanted to send my World Civ class to those so they could see your fabulous work.

  • Rachel

    Hi Belle – there’s a short URL to it at http://www.tinyurl.com/marcopolomap and the actual post is here – https://idlethink.wordpress.com/2008/08/31/indulgence-sin/

    enjoy! I can’t wait to start on the next book, whenever I get a copy of it.

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