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Socially Constructed Reality And Meaning In Notes From Underground

1737 words - 7 pages

Socially Constructed Reality and Meaning in Notes from Underground

Just as the hands in M.C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands” both create and are created
by each other, the identity of man and society are mutually interdependent. According to
the model described in The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger believes that man externalizes
or creates a social reality that is in turn objectified, or accepted by him as real. This
sociological model creates a useful framework for understanding the narrator’s rejection
of ultimate reality or truth in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The reality
in which the narrator tries to live in part II, and the reality that he rejects in part I, are
both created and, as such, are ultimately meaningless. The underground man’s refusal to
objectify social reality causes a feeling of meaninglessness and raises a fundamental
question of purpose that confronts people of all dispositions.

Berger’s theory is based on a dialectical relationship between man and society. To
explain his theory he defines three terms. “Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of
human being into the world. Objectivation, the attainment by the products of this activity
of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than
themselves. Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality,
transforming into structures of the subjective consciousness,” (Berger 4). He believes that
society is a wholly human invention created by man’s tendency to externalize. This
created entity is then objectified by man, giving society and its features the appearance of
true reality. His newly created reality then acts upon and shapes man through
internalization. Man, his identity shaped by the newly internalized reality, completes the
cycle, by again externalizing and continuing to create society based on his new
conception of self and reality. Just as the hands of Escher’s illustration define each other,
man and society are in a constant process of mutual recreation.

Successful internalization is exemplified by the underground man of part II. In
this section, the narrator’s actions are dominated by a desire to fulfill his socially defined
roles. Often calling his actions “bookish,” the underground man tries to act out traditional
cultural relationships. In his relationship with Liza the narrator sees an opportunity to
fulfill the role of the hero, uplifting the poor, wretched prostitute. He asks her about her
home life and warns her about the sickness she could catch from her occupation, all in an
attempt to play the hero and save this dejected prostitute. The manufactured hero reflects,
“I began to feel what I was saying and grew excited. I’d been longing to expound these
cherished little ideas that I’d been nurturing in my corner. Something had caught fire in
me, some kind of goal had ‘manifested itself’ before me.” (Dostoevsky 65). These
“cherished little ideas” are the...

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