In one of his gleefully apocalyptic pronouncements, William S. Burroughs said we should regard consciousness as a “failed experiment.” The Man in Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (1864), which Burroughs committed to memory, says consciousness is a sickness. It conflicts with taking action, even with reality. Too much scrutiny can turn something into “the whole other side of the coin”: love becomes tyranny, or tyranny, love. Hamlet, so cursed he can’t move, is the poster boy of consciousness. And so, Dostoevsky implies throughout, are we all.
The Man spent the first 40 years of his life in hiding. For the past 20, he’s inhabited a civil servant’s cubbyhole. Unlike Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853), who stops working a meaningless job and pays for his choice, the Man decides to write down what he’s experienced in four decades of suppressed anger. He’s doing it now because only “fools and scoundrels” live past 40.
Just about everything he says is double. Humans are creative animals, he contends. He bemoans having consciousness but says it’s much better than the animal “stupidity of a man of action.” And even the word creation has at least two sides: it also implies destruction because, he’s convinced, humans are instinctively afraid of achieving their goals. Where social movements — à la Rousseau and Fourier — promise an earthly paradise, the Man sees collectivism as an inhuman “anthill,” like his past 20 years on the job. True freedom, he argues, is the right to follow a desire “to whatever it may lead.”
Notes From Underground has two parts: the first, “Underground,” is theoretical, as the Man defines his irrational stance; in the second, “On the Occasion of Wet Snow,” he recalls his attempts to “encounter reality.” He wants to see if he can face the whole truth about himself in his notes (the more decent the man, he says, the more dark secrets he’s stored up). In the process, he debunks the illusions and “comforting frauds” of his era. But every time he opens what looks like a new door of honesty, another — often contradictory — lies ahead. In the end, however, he opens one he can’t close.
Possibly out of self-defense or to bolster a more optimistic view of human nature, it’s tempting to ascribe facile motives to the Man (and his author). When he started Notes, Dostoevsky’s beloved wife was dying; he’d spent five years in a Siberian prison; he lost faith in anything permanent. But the author and the Man, a maelstrom of contradictions, evade easy psychological, and even philosophical, labels.
Maybe it’s the times, but San Diego theater has seen few works, of late, that dare to venture beyond “sheer entertainment.” A common subtext links these shows: each is a quest for approval, and anything goes. Notes From Underground, at the La Jolla Playhouse, offers some of the year’s most stark, piercing drama, and it couldn’t care less about your love. Directed by Robert Woodruff, the piece is intellectually, physically, and psychologically brutal. It is also unforgettable.
The Man’s “underground” apartment isn’t set in 1864; it resembles a sound studio of today, if you don’t count the snow-covered floor, across which the Man walks barefoot. Using various electronic instruments, Michaël Attias and Merritt Janson create an eerie soundscape. Attias also plays the Man’s incorrigible servant Apollon, and Janson, the salvation-seeking prostitute Liza.
As the Man, Bill Camp wears a headset mike and televises himself with a small camera. Twenty-first-century technology surrounds him. But the look, like his words, is multiple: he’s always changing sizes. When close-ups project his face on a wall, he looms much larger. But the projections also diminish the live actor...almost erase him, in fact.
Camp gives an astonishing performance, never once peeking from behind the mask to say, “This guy isn’t me” or “Isn’t he freaky?” Instead Camp adamantly defends the character’s choices. He inhabits the bitter, conflicted Man and builds a crescendo from piano to triple forte. And, in an amazing moment, Camp takes on the full hatred of the audience. He stares back, with the grim satisfaction of a serial killer or presidential assassin.
Call it the move after the move. Those lucky enough to see Robert Woodruff’s Heat at UCSD in 1985 will remember Gloria Mann and a male actor (can’t remember the name) interlocking themselves and rolling, as if in a barrel, down a long ramp. What many forget is what Woodruff had them do next: Mann jumped straight up and yelled the guy off the stage. In Notes, the move is a violent rape. The move after is Camp’s hate-absorbing look — like a martyr for evil — as if the Man were saying, “Now I’ve got your full attention!”
No one reading of Notes fits all, especially since a censor cut out the novella’s escape hatch. Chapter 10, which Dostoevsky said was the “most important,” asserts “the need of faith and Christ” (in this context, the story reads as the confession of a man asking his Maker, “Can You forgive even me?”). But for reasons unknown, the censor whittled the chapter down to a page and a half and omitted its religious solution. For reasons equally unknown, in all later editions of Notes, Dostoevsky never restored the original text. ■
Notes From Underground, adapted from Dostoevsky’s novella by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff
La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
Directed by Robert Woodruff; cast: Bill Camp, Merritt Janson, Michaël Attias; scenic design, David Zinn; costumes, Moria Siné Clinton; lighting, Mark Barton; composer/sound designer, Michaël Attias
Playing through October 17; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.