Rescuing the Damned (Notes from Underground) – Jordan Peterson

Today’s Wednesday literature excerpt continues with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life book. For more information about the book and references to Jordan in my blog, you can read the first extract from his book here. In today’s piece Jordan makes a reference to Fyodor Dostoevsky who has also featured prominently here in Wedenesday’s literature excerpt. Dostoevsky is one of Peterson’s most influential literature figures and one of the greatest writers of all time.

Today’s extract comes from Peterson’s rule No 3 – ‘Make Friends with people who want the best for you‘. In the section below – Rescuing the Damned – he hones in on those individuals who are unreachable and depraved in their attempts to rescue someone because they are fuelled by vanity and narcissism. He associates this with one story in Russian author’s Dostoevsky’s bitter classic, Notes From Underground. I can attest that I have done this all too often in my life, which is Choosing friends so I can rescue them. I was perhaps caught in this highest virtue of the desire to help, but was I truly desiring to help and did they truly desire to be helped? Perhaps it wasn’t a conscious effort on my part, but if I dive deep into the murky waters of my soul and reassess what drove me towards these people and to eventually abandon them, it wasn’t because I was a good person, that’s for certain.

As Peterson wrote in another section in 12 Rules and entirely relevant to the above discussion:

‘You must be receptive to that which you do not want to hear. When you decide to learn about your faults, so that they can rectified, you open a line of communication with the source of all revelatory thought. Maybe that’s the same thing as consulting your conscience. Maybe that’s the same thing, in some manner, as a discussion with God.’

I forewarn you the following excerpt is dark, but I found it one of the most challenging and timely-reads; at least for me. Writings from Dostoevsky and Peterson have forced me to hold a mirror up to my soul and see the shameful results of what truly lurks beneath. Here is one such example:

Excerpt from the Chapter – Rescuing the Damned:

Notes From Underground begins with the famous lines: ‘ I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.’ It is the confession of a miserable, arrogant sojourner in the underworld of chaos and despair. He analyses himself mercilessly, but only pays in the manner for a hundred sins, despite committing a thousand. Then imagining himself redeemed, the underground man commits the worst transgression of the lot. He offers aid to a genuinely unfortunate person. Liza, a woman on the desperate nineteenth- century road to prostitution. He invites her for a visit, promisng to set her life back on the proper course. While waiting for her to appear, his fantasies spin increasingly messianic:

One day passed, however, another and another; she did not come and I began to grow calmer. I felt particularly bold and cheerful after nine o’clock, I even sometimes began dreaming, and rather sweetly: I, for instance, became the salvation of Liza, simply through her coming to me, and my talking to her….I develop her, educate her. I notice that she loves me, loves me passionately. I pretend not to understand (I don’t know however, why I pretend, just for effect, perhaps). At last all the confusion, transfigured, trembling and sobbing, she flings herself at my feet and says that I am her saviour, and that she loves me better than anything in the world.

Nothing but the narcissism of the underground man is nourished by such fantasies. Liza herself is demolished by them. The salvation he offers to her demands far more in the way of committment and maturity than the underground man is willing or able to offer. He simply does not have the character to see it through – something he quickly realizes, and equally quickly rationalizes. Liza eventually arrives at his shabby apartment, hoping desperately for a way out, staking everything she has on the visit. She tells the underground man that she wants to leave her current life. His response?

‘Why have you come to me, tell me that, please?’ I began, gasping for breath and regardless of logical connection in my words. I longed to have it all out at once, at one burst; I did not even trouble how to begin. ‘Why have you come? Answer, answer,’ I cried, hardly knowing what I was doing. ‘I’ll tell you, my good girl, why you have come. You’ve come because I talked sentimental stuff to you then. So now you are soft as butter and longing for fine sentiments again. So you may as well know that I was laughing at you then. And I am laughing at you now. Why are you shuddering? Yes, I was laughing at you! I had been insulted just before, at dinner, by the fellows who came that evening before me. I came to you, meaning to thrash one of them, an officer; but I didn’t succeed, I didn’t find him; I had to avenge the insult on someone to get back my own again; you turned up, I vented my spleen on you and laughed at you. I had been humiliated, so I wanted to humiliate; I had been treated like a rag, so I wanted to show my power…That’s what it was, and you imagined I had come there on purpose to save you. Yes? You imagined that? You imagined that?’
I knew that she would perhaps be muddled and not take it all in exactly, but I knew too, that she would grasp the gist of it, very well indeed. And so, indeed, she did. She turned white as a handkerchief, tried to say something, and her lips worked painfully; but she sank on a chair as though she had been felled by an axe. And all the time afterwards she listened to me with her lips parted and her eyes wide open, shuddering with awful terror. The cynicism, the cynicism of my words overwhelmed her…

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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