An Underground Man Emerges from Down Under

Julian Assange is not a unique phenomenon. To understand him we have to go back to late nineteenth-century Russia where a new type, known as the “superfluous man”, appeared, usually a male thinker lacking a useful profession, disenchanted with society and living outside it, at least in his mind.

The first great literary expression of the type is the “hero” of Dostoevsky’s early novella Notes from the Underground. The title refers to one who lives under the floorboards, in a small basement nook (today he might inhabit an embassy cupboard). Symbolically the title means one who has haughtily withdrawn from mainstream society, because he believes he clearly sees its defects. His aim is to justify himself, which he does by revealing society’s stupidities, like the anti-heroes of many modern novels, such as Camus’s Outsider and Boll’s Clown. He is an intelligent, isolated male, in whom all experience is refracted through the prism of his critical consciousness, the jumbled thoughts coursing uncontrollably through his brain.

The Underground Man is self-obsessed, is subject to frequent mood-swings and suffers from a heightened consciousness, a too-fervid imagination. He engages in an argument with himself, but it is also a dialogue with an imagined interlocutor. He is an adept thinker who can handle complex ideas; he anticipates any objection to his flow of thought and readily counters it. He enjoys this argumentative mode, as he is seeking to persuade the interlocutor/reader of the justice of his arguments.

All possible contingencies, and every possible (and self-serving) reply to them, are thought up by him, but the self-referring dialogue (half confession, half accusation) has little necessary relation to reality. It is dictated primarily by his personal urges, and is imposed upon reality. He plays the roles of both tormentor and victim in the dramas being acted out in his own mind. By undergoing all situations and emotional states, by living dangerously, he understands them when they occur in others, and can therefore exploit their weaknesses. This is a dress rehearsal for gaining wider power. His consciousness, which alternates between spasms of passion and boredom, gratifies him, as he finds the contemplation of his own tortuously brilliant “logic” the greatest satisfaction of all.

He sets it down because it relieves him to do so. He is not so much self-questioning as self-lacerating. He has discovered a truly novel paradox (he is, Dostoevsky tells us, a “lover of paradox”): the more he is humiliated, degraded, wronged and made abject, the more he can take advantage of the situation and become dominant (in the past a person would have felt incapacitated by depression and slunk away). He gets a sort of sadistic pleasure in putting others, but especially himself, through the wringer: “I derived pleasure precisely from the blinding realisation of my degradation.” The speaker is prey to various mood swings. One minute he is dominant, the next submissive, he is happy then sad, confident then depressed, meek then aggressive, powerless then powerful, and so on. These quick irrational shifts reveal a fluid character, one able to employ sudden changes of mood to manipulate his adversary or interlocutor.

He develops a mode of ideological thinking which is very difficult to defeat on its own terms, since it can always produce arguments to justify itself, the more daring and breathtaking the better. The arguments have no stable, objective “content”. It’s a very dangerous game he’s playing, but in the end, with all his mental gymnastics and attempts to ensnare others, it may be only himself that he is bogging down. For example the realisation that “it will hurt himself a hundred times more than it will hurt the one against whom revenge is directed” is one of the lessons the hero learns in his attempt to humiliate his acquaintances. With others he plays a taunting game. His aim is to achieve psychological mastery of any situation by a complicated game of self-abasement. He wishes to torture others by humiliating himself—“humiliation is purification”. His basic method is to establish at the outset his victim status—apparently inferior, vulnerable and powerless—to disarm people with this perception, and to then use it in a takeover operation. He understands emotions such as shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment, since he undergoes them himself, and uses them to get control over others.

In one episode the Underground Man deploys these tactics at a party of his old schoolfellows, into whose company he insinuates himself. He dominates the evening for his own ends, imposing his own agenda on it, in the process destroying it as a festive occasion. On the evening before the party, he disorients his former colleagues by his self-invited presence. Naturally tolerant and polite, their inability to exclude him at the start incapacitates them later in taking any action against him. He turns the evening into a power struggle between himself and a past acquaintance, Zverkov, and as a result ruins the evening (“It was always within my power to start trouble”). He contrives to make himself, not the guest of honour, Zverkov, the centre of attention. He uses controlled mood swings—alternating between self-abasement and derision of others—to destabilise his fellow guests. He insults Zverkov and then profusely apologises—the carrot-and-stick method of breaking human resilience, familiar from later brainwashing episodes. He implicates others in this charade so they in turn play out the roles of both aggressor and victim. As he understands the “contemptible stratagems” of his opponents, he acts with great daring or chutzpah, as when he asks a colleague, Simonov, for money at the end of the party in order to prove his psychological triumph, to show that he has broken him. His school friends have no ability to mount effective resistance to him. All this is not done purely by previous design—as the event unfolds he feels driven to more devilish heights by his self-destructive bent. He despises ordinary bourgeois people like his former school friends. They are people who, in his mind, aren’t daring, who don’t have heightened consciousness. During an episode later that evening with the prostitute Liza he plays the same taunting game—he wishes to dissolve her stable sense of herself by suddenly alternating his moods.

In modernist literature the liberated hero feels he lives under no thrall, countenances no taboos, and acknowledges no domain outside his own resources. Arrogant, paranoid, perverse, sadistic and self-pitying, he egoistically expands his own personality to fill the void. This leads to narcissism and the wish for power for its own sake. The Underground Man is an early example of the adversary thinker—he wishes to destroy whatever is a going concern. His is potentially a takeover operation, but in this particular case Dostoevsky’s hero wants only to destroy others temporarily (“already a tyrant at heart”), not to control them permanently. He is only playing with personal power. He discloses no wider designs, no yearning for a better social order. His desire for temporary personal tyranny is a new form of domination, which involves the perpetrator as victim too.

In this early novella Dostoevsky explored mechanisms of personal domination. But he was interested even here in the wider connections between civilisation and tyranny: “Have you noticed, for instance, that the most refined, bloodthirsty tyrants, compared to whom the Attilas and Stenka Razins are mere choirboys, are often exquisitely civilised?” Dostoevsky later expanded these early insights in one of his major novels, The Devils, where the same drives to domination are now deployed on a wider political canvas. In its society-wide manifestation the engorging hubris of the Underground Man leads to megalomaniac state control, which appropriates to itself all rights, meanings and controls. The combination of an adversary personality with the ability to gain political control later led to totalitarian rule, which Dostoevsky was one of the first to foresee. The Underground Man exhibits a proto-totalitarian personality.

Like many of today’s common-or-garden, would-be revolutionaries, the antics of Julian Assange bear an uncanny resemblance to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. To understand this we need to go, not to Wikileaks, but to Wikipedia, which defines the “superfluous man” as 

an individual, possibly of talent and capability, who does not fit into the state-centered pattern of employment … He can often be seen as a nihilist or fatalist. This is supported by the fact that superfluous men participate in risk-seeking behavior. Their actions can be attributed to their self-destructive nature and their disregard for the social values and standards of the time. The consequence is a character bored with life, cynical and withdrawn, often causing distress to whatever occupies his attention, which is often women.

Julian Assange presents a persona carefully self-created in virtual reality, and then enhanced by a postmodernist media. He is too slippery to be ever pinned down, presenting himself as a victim one day, yet appearing as a threat the next, warning he will unleash damaging files if corralled. He has multiple, sliding personalities—the journalist, the whistleblower, the IT whiz kid, the guru, the mystery man, the leaker, the underground man, the media star, the CEO of Wikileaks, the victim of the legal system, and so on. People mistake him for some species of libertarian, but his aggressive-defensive switching of roles reveals no firm values except to help the inexorable rise to power and influence of Julian Assange. Scratch his libertarian exterior and we find a control freak.

When he is answering questions the cogs in his brain work out what particular identity he is going to present that day, and which of his multiple strategies he is going to deploy. He composes an autobiography, then repudiates it, thus giving it, like all his activities, a deliberately ambiguous status. He makes deals with progressive newspapers like the Guardian and the New York Times, then falls out with them as they are not pure enough for him. When unredacted files, which put lives at risk, are released by Wikileaks, he comes up with a convoluted explanation of stuffs-ups for which he was not to blame.

Assange always travels light, always the outsider, with no national attachments, no fixed place of abode, living off others, with no permanent loyalties (we are reminded of the lifestyles of the early Stalin in Tbilisi or Hitler in Vienna). He doesn’t play by the normal rules or acknowledge societal conventions. He purges his own close friends and acts as absolute ruler of his own domain.

As Assange emerged from his warren and became a public figure, journalists underwent a collapse of morale by championing him as one of their own. They embraced him as a culture hero rather than seeing him as a danger to their profession, which some are now beginning to realise. He is not, as he claims, a journalist, who reports on events, but a purveyor of stolen IT goods originally sourced by hacking. The media that embraced him is the same media that threw up its collective hands in moral outrage when some Murdoch employees were also found to be hacking. Assange is a creation of the media, yet part of the media itself. He is obsessed by the media, who are in turn obsessed by him. Reality finds it hard to get a look in. Who is creating whom? Is he the conduit or the message itself? These roles are deliberately confused, yet journalists let him get away with it, to the degradation of their own profession.

Others have to be absolutely transparent but not himself, as he is above the ordinary rules—Wikileaks is a paradigm of an opaque institution. Governments, we are told by his supporters, are not to be allowed to keep their files private, but he can keep his. An endless series of rationalisations are at hand to disguise his stratagems from his targets. Though no overall aim is ever enunciated, Assange clearly has grandiose ambitions: he wants to destabilise the Western system, especially the most open society on the globe, United States. There is no sign of Wikileaks exposing closed authoritarian regimes like Russia, China, North Korea or Zimbabwe; on the contrary he agreed to run a show on Putin’s state-controlled television.

Assange presents himself as extremely modest. But in contrast to this modesty he shows signs of mania—grandiose future plans, libertine behaviour, lavish money-making projects. He wants the destruction of the present system, but, like Marx, proposes nothing to replace it.

A few years ago when Wikileaks released the US files, Assange was in confident, dominant mode; now, confined to limbo in an embassy room, he is in victim mode, blaming the US and Swedish legal systems, the Australian government, anyone but himself, for his present impasse. He has failed to admit to himself, as the Underground Man does, that his behaviour “will hurt himself a hundred times more than it will hurt the one against whom revenge is directed”. Assange is a prototype of a certain power-driven personality common in our age.

Patrick Morgan, a contributor to Quadrant since the 1960s, lives in Gippsland.


Leave a Reply