The underground man plays a game with Liza, a prostitute who moved to St. Petersburg from a poor provincial town. When they first meet at a brothel, he has just been slighted by his friends and in retaliation, has determined to intercept them here and challenge one of his aggressors to a duel. All the while, as he makes his way to the brothel, the repercussions of his decision send him spiralling down a slope of desperation, so that when he meets the naive and chaste-hearted Liza, he uses her to assuage his own humiliation. For “how can I fail to get the better of such a young soul?” he assures himself, with the conviction that “[it] was the game that fascinated me most of all”. So he flatters her, tries to get at her innermost thoughts. First he paints pictures of a happier, idealised life; which Liza, abashed and pure, timidly mocks. Angered, he maliciously paints a picture of the brutality of her life to come as a prostitute and sorrowful death, shovelled into the earth in an unmarked grave. As he finally breaks her will, he offers her his address and an invitation to his home. But the offer is just the culmination of the game for him; a triumph and domination over her. When the young girl does visit him, he continues his pathetic manipulation of her feelings and emotions so that she finally succumbs to his moral and physical violation of her. And even though this final act of humiliation was borne of an “envious hatred of her”, for he was seeking to deface that very same compassionate ideal which in himself he found so unattainable.1
In his notebooks, Dostoevsky penned cryptically, “Beauty will save the world. Two kinds of beauty.”2 The duality of aesthetic beauty epitomised in art and the monstrosity of personal deeds are two sides of the same coin. This dual nature of beauty—and more specifically, how it is encountered by the eye of its beholder—forms the central theme of Dostoevsky’s work. According to him, we quest for beauty because we are incomplete. The patchwork of disparate traits that form our fragile sense of personal identity are seemingly out of our control, as are the impulses, thoughts, reactions, opinions, and sensations they evoke, most of which are outside of our awareness. Yet it is this awareness of our separateness from … as effete spectators that leads us to seek unity, wholeness, and harmony. To seek a salve for this fragmentary state of being, to seek out our true nature. Beauty, which is synonymous with truth, is that which completes, that which makes for perfection. But perfection is a universal fact. Nature very rarely makes mistakes; regardless of what the eye perceives from outward appearances, the underlying formulations and transformations that make up both organic and inorganic entities are rarely prone to aberrations. The perfection in the formulation of the basic units of the organism are what has made life possible for a billion years. Perhaps this is why we seek out beauty in the world around us. But the kind of beauty that completes us is that which expresses a livingness. We are drawn to music and art because they capture the essence of movement and of life, as it were. For an animal is a swarm of moving parts that derive their relative stability by constant movement and interactions with systems both within and without. Music delights us with its rhythm and flow. Great art works because it contains a lack of symmetry and conveys the transitory effervescence of all things—beautiful images only come to life in the act of vanishing.
Man strives on earth for an ideal which is contrary to his nature.Dostoevsky, PSS, April 16, 1864 notebook
The quest for beauty is the central driving force of our lives. Beauty as an ideal is the compass that guides us, in the absence of any goal. We yearn for beauty and perfection most when we are in the midst or strife and struggle. We strive for a higher aesthetic beauty: beauty that is pleasing because it offers harmony and is eternal. But beauty at its core is balance. The pleasure of tranquility and harmony must be balanced by discord and struggle. For it is in uncertainty and the questing for a better life that we are most alive. Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin and you cannot have one without the other.
It is man’s inner struggle that he finds beauty in sin, sensuality, and ugliness. Man in his moral obloquy finds pleasure in ugliness, violence, bloodshed, and falsely calls it beauty.
A summary of the final segment from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (New York: Heritage Press, 1967). Beauty and monstrosity↩
Jackson, R. L. (2013). Close Encounters: Essays on Russian Literature. Academic Studies Press.↩