In various works, Rene Girard analyzes the “underground” of Dostoevsky, most elaborately presented in Notes from Underground. The underground is both a psychology and a metaphysics.
The psychology arises from the dynamics of mimesis and rivalry that are Girard’s key themes, which lead to alienation of frustrated resentment, ressentiment. This is linked to underground metaphysics, which involves the idolatry of the model or mediator, the one from whom we derive our desires.
Thus the underground man in Dostoevsky’s novel models himself after the Russian officer who ignores and humiliates him, and wants to be invited to a reunion with his former schoolmates. On the one hand, he wants to become the officer, who is his rival and model, and wants to be invited to the party. At the same time, he despises both the officer and his schoolmates, because others are always objects in the way of the fulfillment of his desires. The underground man considers himself a victim of their success, even as he attempts to model myself after their success.
Insofar as the desires of the model become his own, insofar as he model himself after his mediator and yet fails to match his model, he is full of self-hatred mixed with admiration for the other. If he can become like his model, then his masochism inverts into sadism, and he abuses those who are weaker, even as his model has abused him.
Thus, sadism and masochism are the twin results of the underground condition. The double mind of modernity – absolute autonomy, absolute determinism – intensifies the dilemma, leading to irrational expressions of freedom, and to sadism and masochism as twin expressions of resentment at his isolation and victimization.
In his Resurrection from Underground, Girard writes: “The masochist always ends up encountering a sadist and the sadist a masochist. Each confirms for the other and for himself the double illusion of grandeur and baseness; each supports and precipitates in the other one the coming and going between exaltation and despair. Hateful imitation is further extended and sterile conflicts provoke others. Everyone cries out, with the underground character, ‘I’m all by myself and they are everyone.’”
He develops the point at greater length in his early book, Desire, Deceit, and the Novel. Why, he asks, “is subjectivity so charged with self-hatred?” The underground man himself explains that he hates himself for not living up to the high standards he sets: r”a cultivated and decent man cannot be vain without setting a fearfully high standard for himself, and without despising and almost hating himself at certain moments.”
This is the source of underground masochism. Initially, the subject “believes he is infinitely far from the supreme Good he is pursuing; he cannot believe that the influence of that Good can reach as far as himself. He is thus not sure he can distinguish the mediator from ordinary men.” He is only confident of his self-evaluation, and he evaluates his value as “nil.”
Having judges himself as nothing, he judges others by their ability to discern his nothingness: “he will reject those who feel tenderness and affection for him, whereas he turns eagerly to those who show, by their contempt for him, real or apparent, that they do not belong, like him, to the race of the accursed. We are masochists when we no longer choose our mediator because of the admiration which he inspires in us but because of the disgust we seem to inspire in him” (178).
But, as noted above, this masochistic self-hatred inverts into sadism. In Dostoevsky’s novel, “The underground man strives in a grotesque fashion to copy the impudent boasting of the [Russian officer] who insulted him. . . . After the banquet [with his schoolmates] at which he has degraded and humiliated himself, where he thought he was tormented by petty persecutors, the underground man actually tortures the unfortunate prostitute who falls into his hands. He imitates what he thinks was the conduct of [his classmates] toward himself; he aspires to the divinity with which in his anguish he has clothed his petty fellow actors in the previous scenes” (68).
More generally, Girard remarks that “Sadism is the ‘dialectical’ reverse of masochism. Tired of playing the part of the martyr, the desiring subject chooses to become the tormentor. The triangular conception of desire reveals the relationship of the two attitudes and their frequent alternation. . . . The sadist wants to persuade himself that he has already attained his goal; he tries to take the place of the mediator and see the world through his eyes, in the hope that the play will gradually turn into reality.”
Underlying this, Girard discerns a religious aspiration: “The sadist’s violence is yet another effort to attain divinity. . . . The sadist cannot achieve the illusion of being the mediator without transforming his victim into a replica of himself. At the very moment of redoubling his brutality he cannot help recognizing himself in the other who is suffering. This is the meaning of that strange “communion” between the victim and his tormentor so often observed” (184-5).
According to Girard, this underground psychology is a kind of inversion for Christianity. It resembles Christianity in its imitation of a model, in its stress on self-sacrifice, in its demand for atonement; but it is idolatrous, since the model to be imitated is not God but another human being, and this distorts Christian atonement and sacrifice into masochism and sadism.