Universal truth is an outdated concept. Traditional philosophers explained reality through a single system of precepts which, though often abstracted to the point of meaninglessness, provided the singular satisfaction of complete and absolute truth. Modern thinkers are skeptical of such grand unifying theories. To them there is no one objective vision of reality, only various perspectives, all equally valid and limited.
Wendy Doniger applies this pluralism to the concept of identity. In her essay “Many Masks, Many Selves,” she discusses various historical figures, from the “acting President” Ronald Reagan (62) to the notorious transvestite Chevalier d’Eon (64), whose public masks were so tangled with their private personae that the ostensibly objective self became nebulous. From this Doniger concludes that there is no fundamental self, rather “a polythetic clustering of resembling selves . . . sufficient to create an enduring sense of self” (70). The absence of an absolute identity does not trouble her though, as it validates a plurality of masks. This relativism is liberating in a world that demands many identities, allowing a career woman to change from doting mother, to cutthroat capitalist, to sultry temptress without undermining any of her masks (68). Freed from the obsolete notion of the soul, Pluralistic Man defines himself as he wills.
The Underground Man, the anti-hero of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Notes from the Underground, is the epitome of Doniger’s personality masquerader. Throughout the novel, the Underground Man deliberately assumes identities ranging from debauched aristocrat (99) to radical social critic (122), culminating in his stirring sermon on vice and redemption to an enraptured prostitute, which is ultimately revealed as a cynical intellectual self-indulgence with no true pathos (144). He takes Doniger’s advice to “wear as many [masks] as possible, realize that we are wearing them, and try to find out what each one concerns and reveals” (70). Yet it is this very realization of the mask that undermines his masquerade. His awareness of the contradiction of his masks does not “allow paradox to thrive” (Doniger 70), rather it reveals the phoniness of his personae and his terrible disconnection from his true self, in which Dostoevsky, unlike Doniger, fervently believes (201). Dostoevsky employs the Underground Man to prove that the individual who “knows thyself” cannot comfortably wear Doniger’s masks.
The vestment of the sanctimonious is the most uncomfortable mask for a self-perceptive person because an honest preacher, who is constantly aware of his own sins, hesitates to cast the first stone. Dostoevsky demonstrates this with the Underground Man’s failed speech during the goodbye dinner of Zverkov (119–120), a successful army officer and former school mate. The protagonist prefaces this episode by describing his childhood jealousy and hatred of Zverkov, a typical aristocratic philistine blessed with beauty, moral indifference, and social graces (95). This last attribute particularly vexes the Underground Man, as that is what he lacks and longs for most. To prove his moral superiority and disdain he decides to don the smirking mask of satire and interrupt the dinner with a diatribe that will shatter Zverkov’s conceit. In the middle of his philippic, though, he is struck by the hypocrisy of his cynicism. After all, he invited himself to the dinner originally out of a vain attempt to ingratiate himself with the very men whose vanity he is attacking. Crippled by this revelation, his tirade trickles into confused and sentimental rambling, which only fuels his opponents’ contempt (124).
Seen through the lens of Doniger’s infinite selves, the Underground Man’s moralizing is defensible. His supposedly sinful true self is no more fundamental than the righteous persona he adopts, so the latter is not hypocritical, but merely different. A pluralistic self that wears conflicting masks is no more duplicitous than a single actor who plays separate conflicting parts in the same eternal play.
Doniger’s carefree possessors of antithetical ethics are acknowledged by Dostoevsky. He longingly describes the “rogue [who] can be absolutely and loftily honest at heart without in the least ceasing to be a rogue” (72). Yet such innocence is limited to those who have “a faculty . . . for the most contradictory sensations” (71): i.e. the unreflective layman. The perceptive man’s visceral aversion to conscious hypocrisy cannot be assuaged by an intellectual recognition of the plurality of self. Doniger’s “Venn diagram” (70) of selves is as “Zen” (70) as she describes, in that it can only be achieved through unthinking.
The self-aware individual’s comprehension of the artificial source of his mask inhibits his ability to naturally masquerade, as Dostoevsky exhibits again with his hapless protagonist. In a surge of anger, after being humiliated at the dinner party, the Underground Man imagines an elaborate revenge involving an honorable dual, years of stoic suffering in Siberia, and finally a climactic confrontation with the grand perpetrator, Zverkov, whom the Christ-like hero magnanimously forgives, attaining absolute moral revenge (130–131). The integrity of this mask of righteous anger is quickly undermined, however, by the Underground Man’s understanding that the entire revenge fantasy is merely a trite rehashing of plots lifted from Pushkin and Lermontov (131).
Doniger agrees that masks are typically appropriated from art, as in Reagan’s channeling of his WWII film hero past to enhance the verisimilitude of his Normandy speech (62). The externality of such masks does not bother her though, as she denies the existence of a wholly internal mask. “We are never ourselves to ourselves, but always in relation to others” (Doniger 67), so the difference between the Underground Man quoting Pushkin versus Pushkin’s original exhortations themselves is just a matter of degree.
To Dostoevsky though, this matter of degree is crucial because the wearer of the mask is conscious of it. All ideas may be necessarily external because they are ultimately an amalgamation of reactions to others’ ideas, but they do not immediately appear so to their conceivers, even those who are perceptive. Conversely, when the Underground Man copies directly from Pushkin, since art is artificial by default, he is unavoidably aware that he is uttering artifice. Again, the confidence of the masquerader is determined by his awareness of the masquerade, not the theoretical validity of the mask.
A mask worn in its proper scene can appear as authentic as Doniger desires; during the transition between scenes, though, the absurdity is naked. Dostoevsky illustrates this with the Underground Man’s final interaction with Liza, the aforementioned prostitute. The penitent harlot comes to his house seeking the holy man who had lectured her on sin. Although her savior begins his address appropriately, sanctimoniously extolling his humble abode, he is soon distracted by his hated manservant and starts squabbling with him over some petty misdeed. Pathos turns to bathos, and the Underground Man is reminded once more of the silliness of his masks. Note that moral hypocrisy is not the issue here. The manservant may have deserved a tongue lashing as much as Liza merited more flowery words. It is the awkward juxtaposition that undermines each persona.
This damning disparity is not just apparent during abrupt switches. No matter how brief and fluid the transition, the perceptive individual will always note the momentary non sequitur. Even Doniger’s model career woman, coming home from a day of merciless layoffs to bake cookies for her children, would be disquieted by the contrast of her masks.
Both Doniger and Dostoevsky have their consolations. Doniger does not believe in a single fundamental identity, but effectively replaces it with her conception of the pluralistic self. Dostoevsky denies the feasibility of this pluralistic self, but believes in an ultimate authentic identity: a soul. Although the Underground Man may have lost his soul through “lack of fitting environment, through divorce from real life, and rankling spite,” (201) his Notes serve as “corrective punishment” (201) for himself, the reader, and perhaps even the author, urging them to avoid his mistakes and return to their real selves (210–203). When viewed through each other’s lenses though, these consolations cancel out. The Pluralistic Underground Man can neither blithely exchange masks, nor piously pursue the sacred aspiration of the non-existent true self. He is the tragic archetype of modernity: Mastery of reasoning has allowed him to penetrate the mind’s substrata of comforting delusions and fantasies, only to find nothing beneath. Doniger optimistically assures him that “as we strip away masks, or faces, each time we see more in the hall of looking glasses” (70). The Pluralistic Underground Man only sees infinite reflections of his plastic face, endlessly mocking him.
Doniger, Wendy. “Many Masks, Many Selves.” Daedalus 22 Sept. 2006: 60–71. Web.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground. Trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew. New York: Signet Classics, 2004. Print.