Home / Arts / God’s Underground Men: Discussing Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver

God’s Underground Men: Discussing Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver

“I have no idea what will come of this; perhaps it will be bad art.”
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky to his brother Mikhail about writing Notes from Underground

taxi-driver-review-1Question: what does a 19th century Russian novella have in common with an American new wave noir film?
Answer: Nearly everything.

It was in 1864 that Dostoyevsky published Notes from Underground which is often considered as “the most important single source of the modern dystopia”[i], and in 1976 a modern interpretation of it was made without a single credit to the literary material responsible for most of it.
Taxi Driver was a masterpiece, hailed by both the public and critics. Everyone was completely preoccupied with praising its brilliance that no one bothered to search for its literary source, let alone mention it. Ironically, Taxi driver was not that original. As a matter of fact, Taxi driver was not original at all!

God’s Underground Men: Dostoyevsky and Scorsese

Written a few years after Darwin’s origin of species and a couple of decades before Nietzsche’s Gay Science and Thus spoke Zarathustra, Notes from Underground existed notes-from-undergroundright at the heart of modernism. Taxi Driver on the other hand is a postmodern pastiche incorporating elements from the French new wave, Hitchcock and even paying homage to American westerns, particularly John Ford’s The Searchers. Though Taxi Driver is often compared to The Searchers (1956) due to the similarities between their plots, it’s in fact Dostoyevsky’s Notes that hold the greatest resemblance to Scorsese’s film. In this piece I will attempt to draw parallels between the themes, character archetypes, mood, narrative & style of narration of the two works of fiction.

Notes from Underground, originally written as a critique of Chernyshevsky’s “What Is to Be Done?” consists of two parts. The first one which is arguably “the best overture for existentialism ever written”[ii] is a monologue recounted by an unnamed forty year old Russian man who, after inheriting a reasonable sum of money, retires from his civil service job. Part one is mainly concerned with the protagonist’s opinions of himself & his ideology. Part two however focuses on specific events from the underground man’s youth introducing the significant character of Liza. The Notes which are written in the form of a memoir do not have an ending, as it originally never had a plot. Instead, Dostoyevsky adds an endnote stating that the “paradoxalist” does not refrain from writing, yet we have to stop at that particular point. The paradoxalist being of course the underground man.

As for Taxi Driver, the protagonist this time has a name and his name is Travis Bickle, a 26 year old Vietnam veteran who suffers from insomnia. Tired of roaming the streets at night & taking pointless subway rides, he decides to take up a job as a taxi driver. Like Notes, Taxi Driver doesn’t have a plot. It just simply follows Travis through his everyday life until he literally dies.

The Searchers’ protagonist, Ethan (played by John Wayne) is very much like Travis as he is also a war veteran trying to save a young woman, yet Taxi Driver is quite different. For one, Taxi Driver is a first person narrative. The underground man tells his tale in a memoir, likewise Travis tells his tale through his journal entries & Robert De Niro’s Voice over.

Everything we are shown in Taxi Driver, we are shown through Travis’s eyes. For most of the film, the streets and the secondary characters are shot from inside the cab. The first time we are introduced to the character of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), Travis’ love interest, we see her in slow motion. Even the very first shot of Robert De Niro in the film is an extreme close-up of his eyes in the avant-titre, making it clear from the start that this is not an objective narration. In this sense, we are inside of Travis’ mind all the while during the two hours duration of the film, making Taxi driver an intimate portrayal of alienation which is something utterly different from the western classic The Searchers.

In his Flight beneath Earth thesis, Cyrus C. Washington argues that underground men, which are fictional characters acting in a narrative with an “underground” theme have four distinctive characteristics. A man of the underground is so because “first, he is the little man in society—if not poor, he is the level of affluence. Second, he seems to live his life in complete defiance of reason. Third, while his principal place of inhabitation is near a city, it is usually an alienated or isolated spot which lacks society’s attention. And fourth, he is the existentialist anti-hero.[iii]
It is worth mentioning that the underground here doesn’t refer to an underground location, rather a psychological realm. The underground men are characters who are morally confused & mentally unstable. They’re the outsiders, the broken, the isolated and, most of the time, the delusional. Dostoyevsky’s protagonist, the original underground man, and Travis Bickle are all of these things.

In part two of the novel, the underground man remembers certain events that occurred to him when he was 24, Travis is 26. The underground man lives in St.Petersburg, Travis in New York, both are of which are metropolises. The two men happen to possess very poor social skills which makes it harder for them to make friends, get into relationships or to connect as a whole. They’re overly conscious and because of this they feel superior to everyone else. They are disgusted by society yet they long to fit in it. They’re alone and lonely, something echoed in Travis’ famous lines:

“Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”

The underground man suffers from a toothache while Travis suffers from headaches & at some point thinks that he has stomach cancer. These physical aches are described by the underground man as “the consciousness that you have no enemy to punish, but that you have pain.[iv]

taxi-driver-review-2

In his review of Taxi Driver for newsweek, Jack Kroll wrote; “If the best actors inevitably reflect the psychic preoccupations of the time, then De Niro embodies the desire of people today to create authentic selves. His powerful and disturbing creation of Travis Bickle, a man who fits nowhere in society, becomes an emblem of all of those who are trying to become human beings while society lies in disarray.”

After being dismissed from the army, Travis loses or more accurately is stripped of his only identity. No longer a soldier, he begins a frustrating quest to acquire a new “self”. First he is the working class taxi driver. Then upon laying eyes on Betsy who works for a presidential candidate, he makes an attempt to be the romantic lead of his own life, at which he fails miserably. Thirdly, and in a bizarre irrational turn of events he changes skin from the brokenhearted romantic to an assassin, trying to shoot the presidential candidate that Betsy works for. At which, yet again, he fails. Finally he tries to salvage the 12 year old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from the evil hands of her pimp. Although he sets out to be a savior this time, he eventually ends up as a murderer.

All of these actions mark a distinct contrast between the underground man and Travis. The underground man is a man of thought more than action, something he addressed when he wrote; “You know the direct, legitimate fruit of consciousness is inertia, that is, conscious sitting-with-the-hands-folded.”[v] What creates this particular contrast are two things, the first is the nature of the medium. A novel is a great medium for expressing thoughts & feelings as it is dependent on the written word, while Cinema, no matter how many long takes one uses, still remains a medium of action & happenings. The second reason for this is the different historical and ideological context in which the novel and the film were written in.

The postmodern theory of identity suggests that the postmodern person is a hybrid. Their self & their identity are not fixed but continually in progress. This offers an explanation for the rapid shift between each “self” Travis becomes & his insatiability with every single one of them.

Writer Walter Truett Anderson suggests that “in the postmodern world, you just don’t get to be a single & consistent somebody.” Something which the film’s tagline “a nobody who dreams of being a somebody” seems to be derived from.

As for the underground man, he was equally lost:

“It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect.”[vi]

One of the greatest scenes of Taxi Driver remains the post-shoot out scene where the camera slowly tracks out of the doomed hotel, focusing on the blood, the guns & the dead bodies. Almost ironically Scorsese shows us exactly what it took to be that somebody, that authentic self at last, in the bitterest way possible.

“What a novel needs is a hero whereas here I have collected, as if deliberately, all the features of an antihero.” P202 of Notes from Underground

portrait-of-fyodor-dostoyevsky
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. by Vasily Perov – (Public Domain)

In his book, Michael Woolf claims that anti-heroes are largely the result of historical experience, through which individuals come to realize that their “capacity to effect change or to control the direction of their own experience was severely limited.”[vii] The anti-hero, a term that was coined long before Dostoyevsky used it, was made popular when the English Translation of Notes came out.

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell declared the archetype of the hero as someone who is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Someone who begins his own personal journey of development as somewhat flawed but ends up noble and selfless. The anti-hero is the complete opposite. The anti-hero is someone who wouldn’t hesitate to cause harm in order to achieve his own selfish goals, someone who is always going from bad to worse and from worse to doomed.

Thus, when Travis Bickle kills three men to salvage Iris, he’s not the hero he thinks he is; he is a murderer and a criminal. Another difference between the underground man & Travis is how they both dealt with the prostitute plot line, which is Iris in Taxi Driver and Liza in Notes.

When it comes to female characters, both Scorsese & Dostoyevsky have been called misogynists to say the least, as they are always undermining women, showing them as either too weak or too indifferent, and dismissing their points of view. In the two works of fiction the two lead men try to “save” two young prostitutes that didn’t ask to be saved in the first place. The underground man dealt with this by humiliating Liza while Travis used Iris so as to assert a false heroic masculine identity that conforms to his patriarchal opinions of society and women.

The underground man, though certainly not the first anti-hero in literature, was the first ironic anti-hero that was used by its creator as a social commentator on ongoing political and ideological events. This paved the way for other anti-heroes like Nausea’s Antoine & The Stranger’s Meursault.

Travis, who was based partially on Arthur Bremer, a man convicted of shooting a US presidential candidate, was used as a social commentator on his time by Screenwriter Paul Schrader. We find more often than not, Travis completely unable to accept the multicultural identities he watches from his cab. He doesn’t understand the decline of conservatism & patriarchy in 70s New York City, neither does he accept it. Along with other cab drivers (who happen to be his only acquaintances) they comment on America’s culture of consumerism& the recent rise of capitalism with lines as effortless as “you get a job, you become the job.”

Unlike Notes from Underground that was rejected by soviet literary critics due to its negative views on utopian socialism (which was an important ideal of socialist Russia), Taxi driver opened to commercial success. Understanding 70s America is essential to understanding this success. The sixties and the seventies in the US were crucial moments of social reform and turbulence. In addition to the return of soldiers from Vietnam, rise of women’s liberation movement, the formation of the black panthers, the Watergate case & the subsequent resignation of Nixon, the US was suffering from an economic recession; “the years were a mix of hope & despair,” as described by Katherine Brooks in the Huffington post.

As a result, when Taxi Driver opened in Cinemas, the audience did not only sympathize with Travis, they identified with him. Travis and the underground man are compelling in the sense that they can’t fit into a mould. They’re not the typical fictional characters that can be dismissed just by selecting few terms of this year’s edition of the American Handbook of psychiatry. Their paradox doesn’t end there or even like that.

As for mood, Taxi Driver was shot in a noir style. It could be suggested that the general mood for the Notes may have influenced this aesthetic choice, especially in passages like; “It was almost completely dark in the narrow, cramped, low pitched room, cumbered up with an enormous wardrobe and piles of cardboard boxes and all sorts of frippery and litter. The candle end that had been burning on the table was going out & gave a faint flicker from time to time. In a few minutes there would be complete darkness.” (p112)  It’s worth noting that noir is French for black or dark.

All in All, we can conclude that Travis is indeed based on the unnamed underground man and that as long as there are still souls out there troubled by their marginalized statuses within their metropolitan societies, the underground man shall never cease to be relevant nor significant.


Sources:

[i]Morson, Gary saul, “The Boundaries of Genre”, Northwestern University press, P130

[ii] Kaufmann, Walter, “Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre”, Plume Publishing

[iii] Washington, Cyrus C., “Flight Beneath Earth”, Atlanta University, p4

[iv] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, “Notes from Underground”, p18

[v] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, “Notes from underground”, p22

[vi] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, “Notes from underground”, p5

[vii] Woolf, Miachel, The Madman as hero in Contemporary American Literature, The oxford school, Padua

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