Humans, we are told, can be distinguished from animals by free will. This free will is confirmed negatively. It can be contrary to their own interests, contrary to all reason, contrary to all the laws of nature. And they can act on it simply because they can. And that’s what the person telling the story does here.
Barbara Frey: This is the text’s dark centre. Dostoyevsky’s protagonist articulates a vehement protest against the Enlightenment project that is still a core part of our Western identity today. This tells us that humans will progressively evolve to become nobler, better creatures if only we can finally understand ourselves. But we don’t understand ourselves and never will. And that leaves a deep wound. This enigma of human nature is what we are exploring in this year’s Ruhrtriennale programme. So far, no form of psychoanalysis, no critical theory, no philosophy and no science has been able to provide us with definitive information. It is something the first-person narrator in Dostoyevsky’s text points out and we see that as a provocation. Heiner Müller once said, elaborating on one of Dostoyevsky’s ideas: The real problem is there are solutions everywhere. We don’t have too many problems, but too many solutions. Solutions suggest that there is some form of knowledge that we don’t have or aren’t using otherwise we wouldn’t destroy that basis for our own lives.
Has Enlightenment failed as a project?
NH Can we even think that? At least the character is struggling to be truthful and that’s why his vehement protest is directed against our belief that everything is always improving and that we can leave the bad things behind us: which is what our laws, our education system and our humanist view of the world are all based on.
BF The Enlightenment project is what drives all our striving, but also our faith in reason and intelligence. But that’s what’s so fascinating about the text. It asks why the world then is the way it is. What is society not achieving? Where does its failure lie? Why isn’t humanity becoming nobler? Why are we still fighting wars? Why do we treat each other so cruelly? And the insistence of the questioning also creates a comedy that is something I really like about the text and that immediately made me think of Nina Hoss. It needs a mind like hers, which is capable of making all the facets of this stream of consciousness shine and teasing out the humour in it. Nina is a great comedienne. This might surprise anyone who’s only seen her film work, where she tends to play darker, more serious roles.
NH You really do get caught up in this text like a spider’s web. This leads to a number of comic situations because there is no way out of the entanglement of being part of what you are criticising. This person is expressing what he’s thinking in the moment, the process, the digressions, yet he’s claiming to have planned each and every detail in advance. We can see that this character really delights in phrase-making and beautiful language, in continually searching for a more telling expression. And sometimes it knocks him off his stride and leads to contradictions. This monologue, this self-interrogation is very lively. And that’s why I don’t find the text depressing, even if its view of humanity is extremely unflattering.
BF I also think the character is cunning and enjoys deception and trickery, the sentences take sidesteps, go round corners and relish artistic and literary expressions and the assertive power of language. The fact that the character rejects the formula 2+2=4 is proof of his own existence, it is how he constructs his own ego. And that’s why I also interpret Notes from Underground as a manifesto for the desire to live.
NH Ultimately it is also a text about how art is created. How many doubts have to be overcome, in order to take action. At the end, the character, criticising his own lack of action, says that he is now going to start writing. And he clearly sees this as an opportunity. It will give shape to his thinking. And there you can see how important encounters are for him, as they are the only way that that shape can be tested. The character – so he claims – has deliberately turned his back on society, on active life, and retreated underground but there is also a kind of activity in his attempt to understand his own criticisms, to be true to himself.
Here I see art’s cathartic method of making people aware of their misery and taking away their superficial satisfactions. The underground of the title, which you just mentioned, refers both to a marginalised place of refuge away from society but also to what is unconscious and repressed (even if Freud would not emerge until later). Our underground is on the top floor of the Mischanlage at Zeche Zollverein. Why did you choose this location?