The anguish of God's lonely men:
Dostoevsky's Underground man and Scorsese's Travis Bickle
| Andrew J Swensen


WHETHER epic, myth, romance or novel, narratives have rested on the presence of the "hero" as a manifestation of the human pursuit of an ideal. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, two modern truths arise and forever change the concept of "hero." First, expanding population and economic development beget the modern city, a place of the disequilibrium and discontents so well defined by the likes of Georg Simmel, Emile Durkheim, Walter Benjamin and Sigmund Freud. The labyrinthine city and its frenzy magnify temptation and vice, and the overcrowding, exploitation, greed, and filth of industrialization consequently create a social norm of cynical indifference and an urban mentality vitiating the very substance of the hero.1 The notion of "hero" appears to dissolve into the past as the individual becomes increasingly alienated from environment and as, in Georg Simmel's terms, mental life becomes separate from social life. Second, the very notion of the ideal becomes subject to doubt, and consequently any would-be hero must contend not merely with the challenge of pursuing the ideal, eternally a difficult and perhaps impossible quest, but also with the proposition that the ideal might not exist at all.

Narrative forms become an arena for this crisis of modernity, and two closely aligned works from divergent traditions, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, depict a persona which is alternately a variation, a corruption, and an inversion of the idea of the hero. Both works construct what Burton Pike terms a "literary city" or "word-city"-that is, an archetypal topos in a narrative of the individual and the mass, where the "mass" forms "a peculiar kind of anti-community within the dissociated culture" (Pike 100). A series of paradoxes defines the persona placed into this setting and defines, by extension, a new universal truth: isolation and anonymity amidst a dense population, an alienation from others which grows with increasing proximity, a simultaneous disgust with and fascination for the magnified profligacy and depravity of the city, and finally a pathological psychology and anti-social behavior paradoxically born of the pursuit of ideals. Dostoevsky's The Underground Man and Scorsese's Travis Bickle, the protagonists of the two novels, see metropolitan society as an earthly hell in an age of a dying or already dead God (or gods). They place themselves in an adversarial relationship with the world at large, and they pursue the ideals of spiritual reconciliation and self-realization in ironically repugnant actions. Both, moreover, maintain a perverse sense for the sacred, and this perverted holiness or piety is evident in their discourse reminiscent of the confession genre, in their wrath for an iniquitous society, and in their compassion for the exploited and downtrodden (archetypally rendered in both cases in the form of a prostitute). Ultimately, the reader/spectator, sympathizing and recoiling in the same moment, defines this "hero" by his or her unsettling ambivalence. We are drawn to the quest for ideals in an age when ideals have been trampled on and disposed of, but are simultaneously repelled by the urban grotesque of the modern underground man.

Notes from Underground and Taxi Driver share a host of structural qualities, some of which may be the product of direct influence and many of which appear independently of influence. In a broad sense one should note that Dostoevsky's protagonists loom as an inescapable subtext for any subsequent tale of a marginalized urban figure, and the influence of Notes on Taxi Driver results from a literary and cinematic lineage of underground men leading from Dostoevsky to Scorsese. We also have a more immediate influence apparent in the fact that Scorsese approached Paul Schrader specifically with the intention of adapting Notes from Underground into a film.2 In terms of common structure, both works contain a profoundly unsettled and withdrawn first-person narrator. Although their backgrounds differ (we could never conceive of Travis alluding to Byron or Kant), their psychological motivations come from very similar dispositions. Both settings, inextricably bound to the character of the protagonist, consist of the metropolis and a small, squalid apartment in a dilapidated section of that metropolis. Finally, while the works conclude quite differently, the plots combine a lament on urban decrepitude, an attack on an ideologue, an indictment of urban predation, and the would-be "salvation" of a prostitute victimized by society.3

Scorsese's intention of adapting Notes entices one to probe comparative questions even more engaging, significant, and subtle than the matter of influence. First, a viewing of Taxi Driver informed by Notes provides us with grounds for positioning this film in a lasting tradition of underground men. If Travis Bickle fits into the paradigm of Dostoevsky's underground "antihero," then our reading of Travis gains greater depth both in pure critical terms and in terms of the history of narrative. This second point implies that this comparative reading comprises a study in the evolution of the type, particularly an evolution in the form of presentation. We are here primarily concerned with the perversion of ideals and of an idealistically motivated character, and not with the more general phenomenon of the evolution of narrative from the nineteenth-century novel to the twentieth-century film. Yet because this character is so deeply rooted in the phenomenon of the city, we see this character's "anthropological" evolution, so to speak, as he proceeds into the age where cinema "is the paradigm of public life in the modern metropolis" (Donald 66).4 Finally, one must consider how the comparative study informs our understanding of Notes from Underground, and here something quite interesting comes to light. By virtue of Scorsese's motivation in making the film, Taxi Driver becomes an exegesis of Notes, and Scorsese's picture provides the modern reader with a vehicle for applying the critical language of film to Dostoevsky's landmark text.

Both works have a clear consciousness of their immediate context in cultural history. Dostoevsky's Underground Man as a type in nineteenthcentury Russian literature emerges most notably out of the literature of Nikolai Gogol, specifically Gogol's Poprishchin of "Notes of a Madman," to whom the Underground Man specifically refers (5: 126; Notes 32),5 and the boorish, maladroit, and spiteful characters of Dead Souls to whom he also alludes (cf. Jackson, passim). Dostoevsky also casts this character as an inversion and a parody of typically Romantic heroes such as Pushkin's Silvio ("The Shot"), Lermontov's Arbenin ("Masquerade"), and even Byron's Manfred (5: 133, 150; Notes 40, 58). Taxi Driver reflects the influence of French Existentialism, and the mise-en-scene, lighting, and setting-particularly in the gloom and darkness of the film-owe a debt to film noir. Finally, the monomaniacal obsession with the "salvation" of a victimized adolescent girl further suggests Ethan Edwards of John Ford's The Searchers (Schrader Taxi Driver xvi; Kolker 239; Friedman 67).

Nonetheless, the Underground Man and Travis Bickle are not only social types (a marginalized Russian civil servant and a marginalized Vietnam veteran), but as aspiring archetypal heroes they exemplify a collective consciousness experiencing a shift in its foundation. Their archetypal nature suggests the archetypal criticism defined by Northrop Frye, and while the characters and their narratives speak to "the social" (the interactive), they move past this point and speak to new facts about the interior of the modern self, a new universal truth (Frye 99). Our heroes want to position themselves in the realm of Jung's universal "common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature," derived from the Platonic ideas and predicated on a sense of the divine (Jung 4, 75). Yet in the nexus of industrialization, modernity, and the Nineteenth-century philosophy there arises the possibility that the world needs no divinity in order to function. Thus we encounter a fundamental shift in the axis mundi-or perhaps an elimination of it-and a shift in any "common psychic substrate." What elevates these works to enduring prominence lies in the primal realities of modern horror and bitter disillusionment in "the underground."6 One must now contend with the horror of the industrial city and the metaphysical horror of a universe lacking a God.

IN the metropolis, the proximity of an expanding populace precipitates a mental crisis in what Georg Simmel identifies as "group expansion and development of individuality." One of the first figures to study what we now term "sociology," Simmel recognizes the mounting insecurities associated with the "metropolitan type" dwelling in the rapidly expanding social milieu of the modern city. According to Simmel, the drive for individuality in fact increases in direct proportion to the size of the social sphere in which the individual exists (Individuality and Social Forms 252). That is, the "group expansion" creates an anxiety within the self who feels a more pressing need for individuation. This impulse to distinguish "I" from "you" reaches hyperbolic proportions (true of any archetype) in the Underground Man and Travis Bickle, and motivates the "dialogue" and the interdependence between the alienation of their external life and the solipsism of their internal life.

Because of the protagonists' profound withdrawal, the texts created by them occupy a place in the genre of confession and display a connection to a most notable practitioner in that genre, Rousseau, whose words might easily have come from the pen of the Underground Man or Travis Bickle: "With all the ingenuity of hate they have sought out the cruellest torture for my sensitive soul, and have violently broken all the threads that bound me to them" (Reveries 27).7 Dostoevsky originally subtitled Notes a "confession," and as in the case of Rousseau, its implicit "dialogue" rhetorically preempts its posited antagonist and then moves to general social commentary (Bakhtin 305-06). Travis also comes to acknowledge his status as "God's lonely man,"8 and in his confessional mode he writes: "Loneliness has followed me all my life. The life of loneliness pursues me wherever I go: in bars, cars, coffee shops, theaters, stores, sidewalks. There is no escape. I am God's lonely man." Insofar as the author of the confession establishes a "true" identity in terms of separateness from others, the external acting self becomes a prism for the protagonist's perception and a barrier against intrusion from without. The confession itself (the text of Notes and Travis' journal, the driving narrative force of Taxi Driver) is a first-person narrative but of a more narrowly defined sort. Notes depends upon a strong presence of "you" (i.e. dialogism) and, as Bakhtin notes, the complete foreknowledge of any possible reply by this posited "you." Dostoevsky's protagonist regularly addresses a "you" within the text, a series of taunts marks this "you" as an adversary. In Travis' case, we have no implied reader of his "text," although we clearly have an implied reader/viewer for Scorsese's film, but we could easily use the pattern seen in Notes to posit ourselves as addressee within the film, most likely in the back seat of Travis' taxi. Thus, readers find themselves in an unsettling position. We recognize the madness from our ostensibly objective perspective as an explicit "you" internal to the work but "other" to the protagonist. As readers of a confession, however, we also occupy a privileged, intimate position of viewing the "afflicted and unbalanced" underground archetype from within (Axthelm 9).

The tension between the internal and the external, and the uneasy nature of "readership," are reflected in analogous framing techniques used by both Dostoevsky and Scorsese. Dostoevsky situates the first-person narration within brief comments of an ostensibly "objective" editorial figure. In a footnote on the first page, the editor writes that the author and the Notes are "fictitious," but concludes with a curious contradiction: "The following excerpt contains the actual "notes" of this person about several events in his life" (5: 99; Notes 3). The text concludes with a circular return to the external, the editor: "[T]he notes of this paradoxalist don't end here. He couldn't resist and kept on writing" (5: 179; Notes 89). Similarly, Scorsese insisted that Taxi Driver be told entirely through Travis, and Travis' "confessional" diary entries become monologues laid over montages of Travis writing, driving, and walking through the streets of New York. As Dostoevsky places the frame of a third-person "editor" around the protagonist's text, Scorsese uses diegetic and extra-diegetic camera perspectives to place us within and outside of Travis. The idea of diegesis refers to those things comprising the "reality" of the film (see Metz, Film Language). In strict terms, the camera enters the diegesis when characters recognize a camera being present-as in the case of mock documentary or home movies taken of characters (a device in Scorsese's Mean Streets and Raging Bull). Yet the camera of Taxi Driver does enter the diegesis, though not as a camera, in Scorsese's use of the camera to mimic Travis' eyes and vision. Extra-diegetic elements in film include the soundtrack, the lighting, and the camera when presumed not to be part of action of the film, and an extra-diegetic camera perspective can be seen as analogous to the illusion of the fourth wall in theater. The title sequence, a semiotically rich framing "prologue," creates the anxiety in the viewer by alternations between these two types of camera perspectives. First the taxi passes through primordial steam, and then Scorsese cuts to a shot of Travis' eyes. We next view the nocturnal city streets through a rain-- spattered windshield, in a montage applying various distorting effects, and finally return to Travis' eyes. Scorsese's editing transposes us into those eyes, so that we momentarily assume the eyes of Travis and look through his prism (cf. Kolker 230 and Boyum). However, the montage suggests a countervailing interpretation, and the narrative "framing" moves the viewer to an objective, extra-diegetic perspective, not of Travis' perceptions, but of Travis as he perceives.

THE focus on the internal and on the protagonist's engagement of the external naturally elevates the functions of setting and atmosphere. The settings in both works can be divided according to that which is "native" and internal, and that which is "alien" and external. The native settings consist of the protagonists' apartments and, in Taxi Driver, the front seat of Travis' taxi; figuratively, these settings become the "underground," the locus of isolation, and stand opposed to the space of society at large, an alien and hostile "aboveground." Simmel describes this psychological phenomenon: "[T]he metropolitan type-which naturally takes on a thousand individual modifications-creates a protective organ for itself against the profound disruption with which the fluctuations and discontinuities of the external milieu threaten it" (326). In both works, the protagonists construct the former space as a "shell" and a "case" protecting them from the broader setting of the city, and this "case" evokes the many cases of Gogol, such as Akaky Akakievich's apartment in "The Overcoat" and Poprishchin's asylum cell (5: 168; Notes 77). The "underground" constitutes most importantly a psychological and spiritual space, a projection of mental space into setting (Donald 13). The disjuncture between the hero and society is projected onto the hero's rendering of private and public settings-the compartment of the taxi and the streets on which it drives, for example. The Underground Man gives few details of his apartment, but he does describe it as "nasty, squalid" (drianaia, skvernaia; 5: 101; Notes 5) and laments its "destitution" (nishcheta). In Taxi Driver both Scorsese and Schrader devote significant attention to Travis' underground, his minimally furnished but cluttered apartment reflecting his mental disruption. Two "adornments" appear during the film, and each represents an idee fixe projected by the obsessive protagonist onto his underground. First, his infatuation with Betsy becomes manifest in a small sign that appears over Travis' table ("I've got to get organized") after such a sign was mentioned in a conversation with Betsy. Then numerous posters from Palantine's political campaign begin appearing and symbolize the assassination scheme emerging from his previously unfocussed, inchoate loathing. The first voiceover entry in Travis' journal accompanies a montage of his underground and shows well the linkage of physical and psychological space. It opens with a slow camera pan across the apartment, in which we see cracked paint, scattered books, a dangling and bare light bulb, a small table covered with pill bottles, and a metal cot. The voiceover from Travis' journal continues, and the montage moves to Travis' taxi and then to a second vision of the apartment. Now the camera tilts over Travis as he lies on his cot and stares at the ceiling. This vantage, coupled with the mounting disgust in Travis' voice and accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's ponderous score, renders an unsettling vision of the anti-social anxiety welling within this underground.

The movement from the native space of the underground to alien social space aboveground metaphorically represents an action of perception. In language which captures the nature of refracted perception and the "phantasmagorias" of private space (Benjamin 51), Dostoevsky's Underground Man describes his supposed dialogue with his philosophical adversaries of Part I: "Of course, it was I who just invented all these words for you. That, too, comes from the underground. For forty years in a row I've been listening to all your words through a crack. I've invented them myself, since that's all that's occurred to me" (5: 122; Notes 27). The character perceives his environment accurately at times, and the philosophical diatribe of Part I of Notes suggests a most astute and attentive listener behind his "crack." However, the Underground Man explicitly acknowledges the distortion that occurs as he fashions his dialogue with these words slipping through the crack and into his inner space, and one notes that the Underground Man, like Travis Bickle before the climax of Taxi Driver, does not present his ideological ventings to an actual listener but instead conjures an antagonist from the amalgamated "mass."

In Taxi Driver, the opening montage launches a series of optical motifs extending throughout the film, and the images of glass, mirrors, and eyes become linked to the protagonist's perception of this spiritually bereft, spiritually bankrupt world. Scorsese manages his camera angles and editing to emphasize Travis seeing the world through glass or mirrors, especially the windshield and rear-view mirror of the taxi, through which all major characters enter Taxi Driver: Betsy through the panes of an all-- glass office; Palantine through his rear-view mirror; and Iris and Sport in a fleeting glance in his mirror. Three other images in glass sequentially reveal the metamorphosis from nebulous metaphysical nausea into monomaniacal purpose. An unnamed passenger, played by Scorsese himself, tells of his unfaithful wife and shares his homicidal intentions with Travis, and in the staccato cadence of maddened speech, he sadistically poses a sequence of rhetorical questions on the violence inflicted on a woman by a .44 magnum revolver. In De Niro's rendering of this scene, in which Travis is virtually silent, vague hostility approaches violent intention in the eyes darting between the rear-view mirror and an objectified silhouette, a voyeuristic rendering of the wife, viewed through a scrim-- like drape and yet another window. Vision and violence in the images of glass and the .44 magnum, now a leitmotif as well, merge again as Travis meets with a black-market gun dealer, and in this scene the weapon literally becomes the organ of perception. The camera enters the diegesis, and Scorsese situates his camera on Travis' arm as that arm takes the weapon and slowly pans it across the window looking down on the street below. Finally, in the scene which has made Travis Bickle a cinematic icon ("Are you talking to me?"), the underground protagonist looks into his mirror, challenges imaginary adversaries, and draws his various weapons in assault. The ambiguity of the image is poignant: Travis looks into a mirror and makes a self-destructive gesture foreshadowing his attempted suicide at the climax of the film, and Travis peers through the looking glass and responds to a singularly inhospitable world. Selfloathing merges with sociopathic loathing.

Communication is the reverse action to perception and is likewise fraught with disruptions, especially in the disparity between the protagonist's thoughts and the (mis)understanding of him by others. These failures in communication return the protagonist to the underground where his feverish fulminations occur in the context of inaction. In an especially absurd example from Notes, an officer, against whom the protagonist plots revenge, has no knowledge whatsoever that a "dialogue" exists between himself and the Underground Man. The manifestation of the revenge, colliding shoulder to shoulder, is absurdly trivial when compared to the detailed planning and the weeks of preoccupation leading up to it. In Taxi Driver disrupted communication becomes the focal element of the mise-en-scene during a phone conversation between Travis and Betsy. Scorsese reveals to the viewer only Travis' portion of the conversation, as the camera pans slowly away from Travis to a shot of a long, empty corridor, a vision of external stasis and impotence contrasted with internal turmoil. Earlier, as Travis narrates a voiceover monologue on being nauseated by the "animals" of the night, Scorsese pans over the motionless "external" Travis who lies in his bed and stares at the ceiling. Although by the end of Taxi Driver Travis does become what the Underground Man terms a "man of action," a significant difference in the two works, the film largely focuses on the seethings of a paralyzed underground archetype. The direct "fruit of consciousness," writes the Underground Man, is inertia.

NOTES from Underground and Taxi Driver portray both "mental life" and "the metropolis," a dual nature noted in treatment of the works individually (Frank 310; Kael 132). In their depiction of the metropolis Dostoevsky and Scorsese create a world of spiritual bleakness, a world of depravity and degradation, with an atmosphere dominated by darkness and precipitation.9 These portraits of the metropolis depend largely on the "fantastic realism" so typical of Dostoevsky's fiction, and the analogous elements of film noir evident in Scorsese's oeuvre. Dostoevsky gives the subtitle "a fantastic short story" to his later stories, "The Darling" and "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man." His explanation in "The Darling" is revealing: "I have titled the story `fantastic,' while I consider the story to be to the highest degree real. But the fantastic here is entirely actual" (24 :5). In his examination of film noir, Paul Schrader applies a similar paradox to the noir mode of cinematic narrative; film noir "welds" the harsh realism of post-war narrative with the artificial chiaroscuro of German Expressionist cinema (Schrader on Schrader 83). As he acknowledges, Scorsese depends largely on the tradition of film noir in creating a forceful vision of the fabric of a corrupted society, and film noir informs Scorsese's New York generally, where he "grew up in a world that the images of film noir reflected" (The American Cinema).

In his introduction to the re-release of Force of Evil, a noir mainstay, Scorsese describes the depiction of New York as a "hyper-reality" displaying a "corrupted world collapsing from within. It is not just the individual who is corrupted but the entire system." Force of Evil shares little with Taxi Driver in terms of plot and characterization, and Schrader downplays the influence of film noir on his screenplay (Schrader on Schrader 127). Scorsese's comment nonetheless applies to the New York of Taxi Driver and reflects his shared sense for directorial composition, mood, and setting in his depiction of "the world I knew." In the spirit of fantastic realism, Scorsese casts the "world he knows" as a quotidian horror, which we wish were an oxymoron, with montages of grotesques, optical effects blurring and streaking the lights of a nocturnal New York, slow-motion footage of the streets' regular inhabitants, and artificial lighting in location shots, which tints vision in red tones.

In Notes, the fantastic realism appears in the stark, jarring images of the inhumanity inflicted by the metropolis on its vulnerable, forgotten denizens, and as Taxi Driver represents Scorsese's reading of Notes from Underground, his standards of the film noir representation of the city can be applied as a theoretical apparatus for examining Notes, much as the terms of the "fantastic realism" transfer from Notes to Taxi Driver. The application of film noir discourse to Dostoevsky is appropriate also because the atmosphere and psychology of film noir traces back to the mire of metaphysical uncertainty seen throughout Dostoevsky, via the likes of Fritz Lang, Herman Hesse, Bertolt Brecht, and Franz Kafka. So, like a director or spectator of film noir, we can assume the objective position of a camera to see the "hyper-reality" described by Scorsese in Petersburg, its crowds, and its misery. The use of precipitation, wet snow and rain, acts as an objective marker, a naturalistic detail signifying the oppressive dreariness of the objective setting (notes to Zapiski iz podpol'ia, 5: 385). Still more significant is the character of the prostitute, an archetype in her own right, as a composite portrait for the savage dehumanization engendered by this environment (Behrendt). We recognize a real social syndrome but only uneasily, for the recognition is made manifest by the ravings of an unstable underground man who suffers from his own syndrome. Other stark and symbolic images-the corpse of a woman being buried amidst the slush, and a woman's indignations in the recurrent epigraphs from Nekrasov's poetic laments-fill out the general noir tone of the work. The Underground Man, like Travis is drawn to the most sordid section of the city, also renders a literary analogue to a classic film noir image as he dashes to the brothel: "Lonely street lamps shone gloomily in the snowy mist like torches at a funeral." Like a camera effect, this simile makes a succinct, macabre grotesque of the commonplace. The Underground Man's awakening after his sexual encounter with Liza offers yet another noir touch; in the "narrow, cramped, low-ceilinged room" a candle burned and "flickered faintly from time to time, and almost went out completely. In a few moments total darkness would set in" (5: 151; Notes 59). Dostoevsky's narrative is the chiaroscuro spoken of by Schrader-a funereal darkness illuminated by isolated and distorting light images that flicker off snowflakes or the walls of a claustrophobic roomand the darkness will soon envelope the city, the room, and the protagonist. The scene clearly prefigures the noir tradition, and its composition suggests what cinematographer John Bailey terms the "signature" of film noir, the nocturnal contrast of light and dark in which "light sources themselves become part of the content of the scene" (The American Cinema).

The formal differences create different possibilities and different permutations in the presentation of the metropolis. In Notes our awareness of events and psychological motivation are entirely dependent on the voice of the Underground Man himself, who acknowledges tricking his reader, and consequently we face questions of narrative reliability with our narrator-protagonist as we move to an objective point of view only through inference. Through a montage of multiple points of view and with the use of simultaneous visual and the auditory components, film can move us into and withdraw us from the protagonist's world without disruptions to the narrative flow, and in Taxi Driver such modulations depict the duality of the metropolis and mental life. Returning to the central "scene" of Travis' journal, we realize that visually it is not one scene at all but rather three: Travis writing, then driving, and then lying on his cot. The auditory component, however, does comprise one continuous, narrative flow. The device of voiceover narration is a typical conceit of film noir; one recalls Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) narrating the events of Double Indemnity into a dictaphone or the more unsettling opening of Sunset Boulevard, where Joe Gillis (William Holden) directs the viewer's attention to his own corpse. In Taxi Driver we move from the visual and the auditory conjoined (Travis writing the journal as we hear him narrate those same words) to the parallel, simultaneous presentation of two discrete diachronic moments (Travis driving while the soundtrack continues his reading of the journal). In the former type of composition, the viewer focuses on the psychology of Travis, and in the latter composition the text of the journal melds with the image of the street. Moreover, when the auditory component delivers first-person narration while the visual component presents Travis from without, our viewing functions in simultaneous but contradictory layers. We have both intimate knowledge of the protagonist's "mental life" but also a more removed, perhaps analytical, perspective of the self that Travis presents to the metropolis. In both works-and here the comparative reading makes the point particularly tangible-the form generates a peculiar anxiety within us, a tension between our internal and external points of view, between proximity and distance, and between sympathy and critical distance.

Ultimately, the protagonist's descent into the bowels of the city figuratively renders a descent into a modern vision of hell. The opening vision of Travis' taxi, like the subsequent montage, establishes the infernal subtext of the film: steam rises from the street, and the taxi passes in slow motion into this world of shadow and mist.10 Even in the daylight hours, Travis leads us back into darkness, into a pornographic theater with its barely discernible faces of lost souls. Finally, the film climaxes with a hellish vision of corpses lying in yet another symbolic realm, a third-rate hotel operating as a marketplace for prostitution. Death and decay likewise signify an infernal descent in Notes from Underground, where one finds the damned in the viscera of the city:

"Today some people were carrying a coffin and nearly dropped it"

"A coffin?"

"Yes, in the Haymarket; they were carrying it up from an underground cellar."

"From a cellar?"

"Not a cellar, but from a basement . well, you know ... from downstairs ... from a house of ill repute... There was such filth all around .... Eggshells, garbage... it smelled foul ... it was disgusting." (5: 153; Notes 61)

Speaking of the prostitute's life in language with far broader metaphorical significance, the Underground Man asks of Liza, "What is there besides stench?" He expands his rhetoric to the infernal realm by arguing that Liza is selling her soul to the devil, and thus the purchase and sale of the flesh, the profit to be made on lust, and the dehumanization intrinsic to prostitution comprise the demonic. Much like Dante's hell, this hell exudes the pungent and nauseating stench of teeming humanity in decay. It is also a place of disequilibrium and a grotesque caricature of the ideal human environment, an inversion of Plato's polis, characterized by the vulgar rather than the noble and by filth rather than civic order.

In his preoccupation with the profligacy of the world and his modern harrowing of hell, the "hero" considers himself a spiritual crusader, a modern evangelical figure lashing out against unrighteousness magnified to an incomprehensible degree. This society with its stench of decay robs the world of its beauty and the innocent of their innocence. Such an inferno causes metaphorical pains, and both complain of nausea and a sharp abdominal pain, and in the Underground Man's case, a "toothache."" These aches are the metaphysical aches of modernity:

I beseech you, gentlemen, to listen to the moans of an educated man of the nineteenth century who's suffering from a toothache, especially on the second or third day of his distress, when he begins to moan in a very different way than he did on the first day, that is, not simply because his tooth aches; not the way some coarse peasant moans, but as a man affected by progress and European civilization, a man "who's renounced both the soil and the common people," as they say nowadays. His moans become somehow nasty, despicably spiteful, and they go on for days and nights. (5: 106-07; Notes 11)

The ache and spleen arise from a belief that he alone retains a sense for an ideal while all others have abandoned it, and this unappreciated moral superiority becomes a justification for solipsism. While society may dismiss the Underground Man as a "fly," he inwardly seethes, knowing himself to be "more intelligent than everyone, more sophisticated than everyone, nobler than everyone" (5: 132; Notes 36). Travis initially believes that one should not "devote his life to morbid self-attention, but should become a person like other people," but soon his credo evolves as his disdain for "other people" grows: "Here is a man who wouldn't take it any more, a man who stood up against the scum." "I'm God's lonely man," writes Travis; the underground archetype is justified by the realm above and isolated in the world below. 12

As "God's lonely men," the Underground Man and Travis undertake the "salvation" of an individual victimized by the degeneracy of society. Liza and Iris, both prostitutes, become symbols for the protagonists; each is a naive, feminine character manipulated by a demonic merchant profiting on her innocence. The contexts of these interchanges differ significantly as the Underground Man has two sexual encounters with Liza, indeed with an intent to humiliate her, whereas Travis displays no sexual interest in Iris. Yet in very similar conversations, each protagonist inquires about the prostitute's past life and attempts to persuade the prostitute with a vision of what life "should be"-a state of domestic tranquility, warmth, and love. By contrast, Liza and Iris have come to Petersburg and New York, the centers of what the Underground Man derisively refers to as "civilization." Their journeys metaphorically reflect a gravitational force of the metropolis, drawing characters into corruption. Each protagonist next casts the prostitute's life as infernal. "You've sold your soul," says the Underground Man, and in a moment of heart-rending eloquence, he unfolds the damnation awaiting Liza, a prostitute to be utterly forgotten and tormented in her grave (5: 161; Notes 70). Travis succinctly labels Iris' state in analogous terms, "You can't live like this. It's hell." "It's hell" resonates with the opening montage, and echoes the language of Liza "selling her soul." The infernal nature of Iris' situation becomes still more evident in a five-scene sequence documenting her world. First, Sport describes to Travis all of the perverse sexual acts a customer can perform with Iris. Travis then speaks with Iris in her room, and as he leaves, the shift in Herrmann's score clearly announces the return to hell with a mellow jazz saxophone fading to ominous pulsing tones. These tones, which have become a leitmotif for the seaminess pervading the film, accompany the old man, another profiteer in this prostitution, as he emerges from complete blackness into the narrow corridor, the same corridor of the carnage at the climax. After a scene between Travis and Iris in a coffee shop, we return to Iris' room. Sport has metamorphosed into the demon who seduces pubescent girls for his sexual gratification and for financial gain. Lest we doubt the hellish subtext, Scorsese shoots the scene with a conspicuous red lighting, as Sport entrances this child with his embrace and swaying dance.

The hero figuratively descends into an infernal realm in order to save a wayward feminine character (who is not even aware of the diabolic threat facing her), and the hero exposes evil and attempts to rescue the woman. The harrowing of hell, salvation offered to a prostitute, and a vengeful wrath directed against immorality suggest a hagiographic tone to the texts. This hagiography acquires even greater substance as the Underground Man invokes "faith, hope, and love" and speaks of stepping into "God's world, almost riding on a white horse and wearing a laurel wreath" (5: 132; Notes 39). As for Travis, Scorsese explicitly labels him "a would-be saint, a Saint Paul" (Friedman 67). Yet one instinctively recoils from these visions of an ersatz modern St. George or Paul because such heroes pervert the vision of the saintly hero even as they attempt to fulfill this role. In his most stinging insult, the Underground Man offers payment for services rendered when Liza comes in the name of love and thus becomes the "purchaser" of her soul. Travis evolves into a homicidal deviant plotting assassination.

Despite any legitimacy to their moral outrage, the Underground Man and Travis ultimately seethe with an insidious misanthropy and also selfloathing, which prevent them from becoming "heroes." The justified moral outrage begets effective satire on hypocrisy and sound invectives against vice, but the erosion to the fabric of society does not justify our archetype as he himself becomes anti-social. In reading Part I of Notes, one gravitates to the argument that the human individual gains "humanity" through beauty, love, and virtue, but such discourse then segues into an admission that he is far more apt to act "out of spite" than out of lofty nobility." "Spiteful" (or "nasty" or "evil"; zloi) and "repugnant" (skverno) recur so frequently that they become epithets for the Underground Man. In Taxi Driver Travis' elevation to a publicly admired hero depends on a bizarre and ironic accident, and his original scheme rests, in short, on repugnant spite. "I know now what I have to do," writes the "man who wouldn't take it any more." The irony, of course, is that for Travis "what I have to do" is commit a murder that would make him society's criminal and not its celebrated hero (cf. Schrader on Schrader 118-19).

The would-be savior for a prostitute paradoxically presents himself as an advocate for a romanticized sexual morality, but this ostensibly heroic effort contrasts starkly with the petty depravity and misogyny exhibited by the underground archetype. In both cases the crusade on behalf of the prostitute includes the restoration of sexual purity to the victimized innocent. Right after telling Liza that she is "enslaving her soul," the Underground Man continues:

Love! After all, that's all there is! It's a precious jewel, a maiden's treasure, that's what it is! . . . But what's your love worth now? You've been bought, all of you; and why should anyone strive for your love, when you offer everything even without it? (5: 159; Notes 68).

In the diner Travis delivers an analogous entreaty to Iris, though in markedly less grandiloquent diction: "You walk out with those f-ing creeps and lowlifes and degenerates out on the street, and you sell your, sell your little p-y for nothing, man! For some lowlife pimp!" The protagonists' deviant sexual disposition, however, becomes part of the "underground," and since this sexuality occurs in a state of misanthropic withdrawal, it principally consists of a perverse autoeroticism. Travis frequents the pornographic theaters just as he reviles the "scum" sitting beside him. He seems unaware of any irony to his participation in this world, and something akin to ingenuousness colors his purchase of Chuckles, a Clark bar, and Goobers to eat during his autoerotic indulgence. Later when Betsy, his would-be Dulcinea, refuses to see him, a paranoid misogyny appears in Travis' journal as she metamorphoses from "the angel" amid the "filthy mess" into a member of the despised "them": "I realize now how much she is like the others, so cold and distant. Many people are like that. Women for sure." The Underground Man more forthrightly acknowledges his perversion, and his frequent use of the word "perversion" (razvrat) makes it a norm of his discourse much like "repugnant" and "spite." His poetically inclined narrative voice revels in this word, using its verb form and even a pair of diminutives-- razvratik, a "little perversion," and the ironically affectionate-sounding razi,ratishko. The Underground Man admits both "shame" and "real pleasure," a delight in furtive masturbation and his "little perversion":

I sank into dark, subterranean, loathsome-not perversion, but a little perversion. My little passions were sharp and burning because of my constant painful irritability.... there appeared in me a hysterical craving for contradictions and contrasts, and so I plunged into indulging in perversion.... I indulged in perversion all alone, at night, furtively, timidly, sordidly, with a feeling of shame that never left me even in my most loathsome moments and drove me at such times to the point of profanity. Even then I was carrying around the underground in my soul. (5: 127-8; Notes 33; I have slightly modified Katz' translation)

He reveals his deviant gratification when speaking of his "little pleasure" (the diminutive naslazhden'itse) drawn from his "little perversion":

I was ashamed (perhaps I still am even now); I reached the point where I felt some secret, abnormal, despicable little pleasure in returning home to my little corner on some disgusting Petersburg night, acutely aware that once again I'd committed some revolting act that day, that what had been done could not be undone, and I used to gnaw and gnaw at myself inwardly, secretly, nagging away, consuming myself until finally the bitterness turned into some kind of shameful, accursed sweetness and at last into genuine, earnest pleasure! (5: 102; Notes 6)

The text links the return "to my little corner on some disgusting Petersburg night" and "shameful, accursed sweetness," and the diction thus associates perversion with the qualities seen previously in this archetype: the solitary, the nocturnal, the sordid. The isolation, darkness, and perversion, as well as the "earnest pleasure" taken in them, join with the overarching presence of the city to arrive at a nineteenth-century literary version of film noir, a narrative presuming that all the little perversions emerge at night. Or as Scorsese says, "The characters that come out at night are more fascinating, I think. That's really what it's about" (American Cinema).

THE Underground Man and Travis Bickle distort and parody numerous solitary, wandering heroes-medieval knights errant or peregrinating saints; Rousseau's "solitary walker"; the alienated but idealistic heroes of Romanticism; the coarse but honorable hero of the American West; and the cynical yet charismatic protagonists of modern urban narratives. The heroic predecessors appear grandiose in spite of their cynicism and flaws because they sense a call of honor, whereas the Underground Man and Travis Bickle appear vulgar and answer a call that is delusional. The parody of the hero might suggest folklore hero-fools or even Cervantes' Quixote, a protagonist much loved by Dostoevsky and clearly evident in his novel The Idiot.14 Yet the underground archetype lacks any of Quixote's innocence or purity of spirit, and his vulgarity and banality belie the potential honor and legitimacy to his calling, however quixotic. When compared to heroes who have become jaded, alienated and resigned to the pervasiveness of evil-whether the Promethean heroes of Romanticism or the wanderers of the westerns and urban film noir so influential for Scorsese-the underground protagonist realizes but a cruelly twisted version of such heroism. He displays neither terrible magnificence in his transgression nor an ultimately honorable adherence to an ideal, though perhaps grudgingly acknowledged, in this world of besmirched and obscured ideals. After his eloquent plea to Liza, the Underground Man realizes the "ugly truth" lurking behind his perplexity: this solitary walker is but a perversion of Rousseau, his "notes" but a parody of the Confessions. Travis does not make a similar realization, but the viewer certainly does as one surveys the sham of heroism evident in the film's epilogue sequence. In his closing monologue, the Underground Man penetrates to the heart of the new, spiritually crippled archetype as he describes the futility of the search for purpose in a world so beset by urban filth that obsessive spite and loathing subsume any hope for the pure and the beautiful. In words that could have just as easily appeared in Taxi Driver, he writes, "we've all become estranged from life, we're all cripples, every one of us, more or less."

This failed hero represents something more than social disenfranchisement and alienation, for "God's lonely man" languishes in metaphysical despair due to the emergence of a universe in which the True, the Good, and the Beautiful have not only lost their meaning but have evaporated altogether. The Underground Man and Travis Bickle are, in effect, prophets excoriating Babylon, but without any promise of deliverance; they are Theseus in the labyrinth of the city but with no Ariadne and no Olympus. In this state of "spiritual poverty" and "spiritual bleakness," which Jung anticipated that the hero would face (Jung 14-15), the protagonist retains an intuitive longing for the ideal but no longer possesses the capacity for identifying, exemplifying or realizing it. "Either a hero or dirt-there was no middle ground," writes the Underground Man. Indeed no middle ground exists for this archetype, nor does any distinction between the hero and dirt.


1) Lewis Mumford captures the nature of this phenomenon quite well, and he writes,

When the city ceases to be a symbol of art and order, it acts in a negative fashion: it expresses and helps to make more universal the fact of disintegration. In the close quarters of the city, perversities and evils spread more quickly; and in the stones of the city, these antisocial facts become embedded: it is not the triumphs of urban living that awaken the prophetic wrath of a Jeremiah, a Savonarola, a Rousseau, or a Ruskin. (Mumford 24)

2) Scorsese recalls, "I felt close to the character by way of Dostoevski. I had always wanted to do a movie of Notes from the Underground. I mentioned that to Paul [Schrader] and he said, `Well this is what I have-Taxi Driver,' and I said, `Great, this is it... (Kelly 90-91). Speaking to Schrader, he says: "We made that film because we felt somethingthe Notes from the Underground thing" (Schrader Taxi Driver screenplay, xiv). Despite this clear relationship, the topic received no significant attention until a brief but penetrating discussion in Friedman's excellent study of Scorsese (66-67). Kael mentions a similarity, but only in passing.

3) Chernyshevsky, a prominent literary critic and proto-socialist, presented an argument based on "rational self-interest"; the Underground Man responds with the argument that such a society deprives the individual of freedom and of free will. The dialogue interestingly prefigures Georg Simmel's arguments on socialism, freedom, and individuation.

4) He is here paraphrasing Siegfried Kracauer, whom he cites as a seminal figure in identifying the sociology of film as an urban art form. The observation is, of course, a standard both in studies of the metropolis and of film.

5) Citations from Notes from Underground contain two references, first to the volume and page number in Dostoevskii's Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii and second, labelled "Notes," to Michael Katz' translation. I cite this standard translation to allow Englishspeaking readers to find a passage in its context. Unless otherwise noted, citations from Taxi Driver are taken from the actual film dialogue, which varies from the original screenplay because of changes made during filming and also because of improvisations included in the final cut. Therefore these citations do not contain page references.

6) 1 do not mean to diminish the significance of Notes as a document of intellectual history but rather to elevate its status as a universal comment on the modem individual and as part of the tradition to include Nietzsche, Mann, and Sartre. Thus, Robert Louis Jackson, for example, invokes the names of Nietzsche, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Camus in the introduction to his Dostoevsky's Underground Man in Russian Literature before proceeding with an analysis of the specifically Russian tradition.

7) For study of Notes as a confession, see Axthelm 13-53, Coetzee 215-22, Bakhtin 304-18, and Howard. For an examination of Dostoevsky's relationship to Rousseau, see Coetzee and Howard; for a definition of the genre of "confessional novel," see the introductory chapter in Axthelm.

8) The line alludes to Thomas Wolfe, whose God's Lonely Man Schrader cites as an epigraph to his screenplay: "The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence" (xxiii).

9) All studies on Scorsese and Taxi Driver note the influence of film noir and expressionist cinema (see Kolker 224-27 and Friedman 84-85), and Palmer's examination of film noir includes Taxi Driver as a case study. For Scorsese's own commentary on film noir, see American Cinema.

10) A number of critics note the evocation of hell in the opening shot (Canby; Kael 133). Kolker disagrees, labelling the device "defamiliarization" (230), but his discounting of the infernal subtext is unconvincing, particularly when Scorsese has said, "My whole life has been movies and religion. That's it. Nothing else" (Kelly 6).

11) The suggestion of existentialism is obvious, and Schrader even observes that he had read Sartre's Nausea just before writing Taxi Driver (Schrader on Schrader 116). Lawrence Friedman notes the shared quality of "permanent dyspepsia" in these two works and connects it to Scorsese's claim that Travis is a "present-day saint" (66).

12) Jackson writes that the Underground Man, at his moment of confession, lives "at the periphery of society" and presents himself as someone who has "gained a special knowledge of the world that is contrary to what the majority thinks or wants to know" (219).

13) Cf. Jackson, Dialogues 220 and Frank 314-17. Frank emphasizes that too many readings cast the Underground Man as an ideological hero repudiating the philosophy of Chernyshevsky, and he underscores the satire on the Underground Man's "egoistic aspects."

14) Of Don Quixote Dostoevsky writes, "In the entire world there is nothing more profound and more powerful than this composition" (23: 92). I am partially indebted to an unpublished paper by Carl Brown for suggesting a relationship between Notes from Underground and Don Quixote.

Works Consulted

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American Cinema. Vol. 4: Film Noir. A production of the New York Center for Visual History, in Co-production with KCET and the BBC. Dir. Jeffrey Schon. 1994. Axthelm, Peter M. The Modem Confessional Novel. New Haven: Yale UP, 1967.

Bakhtin, M. Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo. Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1963. Behrendt, Patricia Flanagan. "The Russian Iconic Representation of the Christian

Madonna: A Feminine Archetype in Notes from Underground." Dostoevskii and the Human Condition after a Century. Ed. Alexej Ugrinsky and Valija Ozolins. New York: Greenwood, 1986.

Benjamin, Walter. "Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century." Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Times. Ed. Philip Kasinitz. New York: New York UP, 1995.

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Donald, James. Imagining the Modern City. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999. Dostoevskii, E M. Polnoe sobranie sochienii. 30 vol. Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-1990. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Trans. Michael R. Katz. New York: Norton, 1989.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation 1860-1865. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.

Friedman, Lawrence S. The Cinema of Martin Scorsese. New York: Continuum, 1997. Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Howard, Barbara F "The Rhetoric of Confession: Dostoevskii's Notes from Underground and Rousseau's Confessions." Critical Essays on Dostoevsky. Ed Robin Feuer Miller. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

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Kelly, Mary Pat. Martin Scorsese: A Journey. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991. Kolker, Robert Philip. A Cinema of Loneliness. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

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Copyright Marquette University Summer 2001

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