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Truth and Lies: Reflections on Roger Scruton’s Notes From Underground, An Anti-Totalitarian Novel Par Excellence

Truth And Lies: Reflections On Roger Scruton’s Notes From Underground, An Anti-Totalitarian Novel Par Excellence

Notes from Underground. Roger Scruton. Beaufort Books, 2014.


Through the publication of Gentle Regrets (2005) and Conversations with Roger Scruton (2016), we have learned a great deal about Roger Scruton’s “work on behalf of the dissidents of Eastern Europe during their communist enslavement”, as his interlocutor Mark Dooley puts in the latter of these two works. Scruton has been honored by the governments of both the Czech Republic and Poland for his “intellectual courage and friendship” to both nations during the period of communist captivity. Along with Barbara Day and others, he was a crucial conduit to the intellectual underground in both countries (he was eventually prohibited from returning to Czechoslovakia, as it was then known). Notes from Underground, published in English 2014 and in Czech two years later, is, as Dooley puts it, a remarkable and remarkably successful effort “to evoke the strange, threatening and often surreal atmosphere of life under communist rule.” And as Dooley also notes, “his experience of those times clearly shaped his consciousness,” and I would add his political philosophy, “in an unusual way.”

In the beginning of that work, Scruton observes (in his “Author’s Note”) that this is a “story about truth” even if most of the characters (“with a few obvious exceptions”) “are fictions” (Notes From Undergound, p. vii, hereafter just the page number). It is an effort to utilize literary art to convey the surreality of an ideological regime founded on lies that are simultaneously ontological, metaphysical, human, and political (or, more precisely, anti-political). Through the organized negation of truth, on a truly systematic and unprecedented level, one (paradoxically) rediscovers the primordial human imperative to “live in truth,” to acknowledge that human beings are above all persons to be respected, and not playthings to be endlessly manipulated by ideologues, technocrats, and bureaucrats. The work is set in Prague in 1985, just as the regime of the Lie is to begin its descent into oblivion. And, yet, to almost everyone who lived in this phantasmagorical world, where the meaning of words was seemingly forever lost, it was destined to last forever. Only one character, Betka Palková, sees the end coming, and does her best to prepare for a post-communist future. But, as we shall see, her means of doing so are by no means beyond moral reproach.

The protagonist of the book, Jan Reichl (or “Honza” to use the widely used Czech nickname), is completely alienated from the sordid world of lies surrounding him. He belonged to the “underground” in the literal sense of the term, riding the Prague metro morning and afternoon and observing a world of silence and sartorial conformity that is marked by grayness and the seeming obliteration of human spontaneity. He observes others in their silence but makes no contact with them. He writes up his thoughts in a samizdat volume called Rumors, published under the pseudonym “Comrade Underground” (p.241). This book will ultimately bring him to the attention of the semi-official “underground,” the world of long-haired dissidents, underground priests, unofficial rock bands, as the author puts it. His book will later be praised—by Betka no less—as a masterwork of “phenomenological realism,” (p.239) a true guide to the degraded soul of man under “really-existing socialism.” His book was clandestinely published by his mother.  She runs a samizdat press, Powerless Press, named after Václav Havel’s famous 1979 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” an enduring guide to understanding the nature of the Lie and how a totalitarian or post-totalitarian regime makes everyone complicit in the lies and illusions it imposes on the world of common sense and common experience (p. 21). Mother, in her own way, wished to contribute to the restoration of Reality, of a public world, or res publica.

After following a striking young woman to her home, an act of non-conformity if there ever was one, Jan makes the crucial mistake of leaving a copy of Rumors on the city bus. In his mind, the woman he followed was indeed Betka Palková, whom we shall hear a great deal more of in the course of our presentation. But this is an illusion that only becomes apparent in the final pages of the book. This mistake leads the secret police, the StB, to his mother’s (and Jan’s) one-room apartment where his mother produces elegant samizdat volumes from materials illegally provided to her by her employer. Confronted by a policeman, Mrs. Reichl (“Mother”) rightly denies all mercenary motives—she does what she does “for love” (p.3). Her denial is incomprehensible to an agent of a regime which cannot begin to fathom truly higher human motives. As for Jan, whose voice and thoughts inform the narration, Rumors has led him “to gain a life” (p. 24). But it also had led his mother to lose one. Such is the drama, so freighted with consequence, that sets this tale in motion.

Early in the book, we learn much about Jan and the Reichl family. His father had initially held out hopes that Czechoslovakia could follow a path of modern “progress.” He was not a Communist, but a ‘forward-looking’ Left-liberal who soon grew disillusioned with the new order.  He was no bold dissident but he took the initiative to organize a reading club where Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, and the Czech classics held pride of place. To a thuggish and intellectually corrupt regime, this was interpreted as “subversion in collaboration with a foreign power” ( p. 5). Sentenced to five years of forced labor, father ultimately perishes in a mine collapse. The village the family lives in is subjected to socialist reconstruction, an Orwellian term for its thoroughgoing destruction. Relocated to a once beautiful Prague, the family now lives in “an undivided space with a toilet and kitchen” (p. 6) in the soulless housing projects known throughout the Communist world.

Mother works in a paper factory and gets paid very little for producing very little—the socialist way, as the narrator notes. Jan and his sister are perceived as ideologically suspect and receive a minimal high school education. His sister proceeds to work in a shoe factory in the Pardubice region; Jan becomes a street sweeper who dreams away amidst very little required work. Jan’s discovery of his father’s copy of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground allowed him to diagnose his own alienation (p. 8).  He now saw the slavery of the Czech people as largely self-imposed, “a disease of the will,” “a kind of self-entrapment” where subjects of the invidious tyranny held on to false hopes and “an irrational belief in miracles.”

The Encounter with Betka

Mother’s arrest and Jan’s encounter with Betka would, however, change everything. Betka, and others such as Father Pavel, will introduce him into the underground “polis” that fragilely persists beneath the negations of the totalitarian regime. The mysterious Betka attempts to return a copy of Rumors just after Jan’s arrest and immediately discerns that he is “Comrade Underground,” the writer/observer who had captured the deep angst of the soul of man under totalitarian socialism. Impressed by the book, she ends up holding on to it. Betka sets in motion contact with figures from the Western embassies, contacts who can help liberate Mother from hopeless anonymity and bring her fate to the attention of the Free World.

The conversations that Jan had with Betka “were the first real conversations” (p. 50) in Jan’s life. She was erotically enticing, and sufficiently cultured to discuss literature and music at a high level, even if at first she only listened sympathetically to Jan’s discourses about Dostoevsky and Kafka. They had “fallen” into each other’s worlds, and Betka uttered his name, “Jan,” as if she was “baptizing” him (p. 50). Amidst the spiritual and linguistic degradation all around them, soul met soul. As Scruton has elsewhere observed, things happened like that in that strange, deformed, surreal world. There is no doubt that Jan was utterly enchanted by Betka and that the enigmatic Betka loved Jan, “her “mistake” as she often called him, in her own way. In the coming weeks, they would meet, always at her prompting, at places designated by her and never by Jan. And their erotic encounters occurred in a charming little flat provided to Betka by Vílem, a fellow classical Czech musician with some “official” connections of his own.  Initially, Betka insisted that she and Vílem were merely friends.  Yet they were more than that.  In the privacy of this flat, Betka introduced Jan to official dissident literature, a terrain she was already studying and mapping out in order to become the authority on the subject once the madness around them had passed into history.

Betka soon belonged to Jan but, alas, to many other worlds as well. Later we learn that she has a young daughter Olga who is seriously ill. Betka works part-time as a nurse in no small part to get care for her beloved daughter. Betka belongs to many overlapping concentric circles…Jan’s discovery of new worlds, of an underground that could liberate and not merely reinforce alienation, is coextensive with his encounter with the mysterious if benevolent Betka Palková. This encounter is the heart and soul of the Scrutonian version of Notes from Underground.

From the moment that Jan met Betka, she had raised the vital practical question, “What are we going to do with your (Jan’s) mother?” (p.33). Betka, who attempted to live in “the real world” that the Communists “abolished…long ago,” (p. 35) knew that “private criminals,” the Winston Smiths of the world, were doomed to harassment, arrest, oppression, and worse. If they did not publicize their deeds, they could perish without anyone knowing their fate. But raising their visibility, she insisted, would raise the cost of crushing them. The “one path to safety” (p. 37) was becoming visible to the West, first to Western embassies, and then to being mentioned on BBC and Radio Free Europe. Being part of a larger public movement such as Charter 77 (which fought for fundamental human and civil rights guaranteed by the Helsinki Agreements of 1975) would be even better. First Betka would make Jan, “Comrade Underground” of his samizdat pamphlet, visible to the entire dissident community. And then Mother’s arrest would become a scandal known to informed Western public opinion. Everyone was “massively threatened,” as the narrator puts it, and the resort to the Western “human rights machine” thus made perfect sense. The problem was that the chief representative of that ‘machine’ in Prague, Bob Helibronn, a press attaché at the American embassy, understood neither the logic of totalitarianism nor the true grounds of resistance to it. He comes across as a cartoon character of sorts, a perfect representative of limitless Western incomprehension about Communist totalitarianism.

Bob Heilbronn or the Incomprehension of the West

Heilbronn’s job was to turn the case of every victim of totalitarian repression into a cause célèbre in the West. Betka, who seemingly travelled effortlessly between the ‘official world’ and the world of dissidence, knew that there were real heroes among the dissidents—genuinely great people such as Havel, Kanturkóva, and Vaculík (p. 95). But she saw failures in their midst, too, and not a little boasting and pretense. In some ways, her restrained coolness mixed with unequally restrained sympathy toward the dissidents was marked by cynicism and a faux ‘realism.’ Betka seems to lack moral clarity and sympathy for those in grave danger. But she nonetheless did what she could to help Mother by introducing Jan to Heilbronn. For all her compromises, Betka was not ultimately on the side of the oppressors.

Heilbronn could only think (much like contemporary mainstream ‘political science’) in superficial terms about democracy versus dictatorship. Ideological despotism was an insidious tyranny over the body and soul about which Heilbronn, and other sophisticated Westerners, knew nothing. His sociology of the ‘people’s democracies’ was both beguilingly simple and beyond simplistic: in his world, there were three classes, “the oppressors, the dissidents, and the silent majority” (p.106). He failed to see what Havel had taught in his great dissident essays: everyone was complicit in the web of lies at the heart of ideocratic despotism. External coercion was matched by an inner tyranny that suffocated the soul and humankind’s natural moral conscience. But Jan, to his credit, saw that real human beings “refused to be categorized” (p. 99). His Dad, who had died at the hands of the regime, was neither ‘silent’ nor a dissident—he attempted to commune with deeper realities through his local reading group. He and his friends found solace in the works of Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, Dostoevsky, and the Czech classics. Mother, with her underground “The Powerless Press” lovingly typed and produced samizdat books (nine papier-mâché copies at a time) out of fidelity to her husband and a love of truth. These acts of love were never part of an explicitly political struggle for “human rights.” Mother’s actions were pre-political, spontaneous revolts against suffocating lies.  Jan could not recognize his world in the terrible simplifications put forward by Heilbronn. He protested that “my mother’s case is not really about human rights at all” (p.99). His mother and father were attached to “realities” at the heart of the Czech experience and not to the bloodless political “abstractions” put forward by Heilbronn and his ilk. Where were love, trust, and fidelity in the cold world of “human rights,” seemingly shorn of affection and relational duties? How could Heilbronn understand so very little (the same could be asked of the Western journalists and academics as a whole) about the totalitarian assault on the human soul?

In response to Jan’s objection, Heilbronn swiveled his glasses and interjected “Trust me. It is about human rights” (p.99). Heilbronn would play a key role in elevating Mother’s profile and thereby minimizing the time she would ultimately spend in a Communist prison cell. But Heilbronn—and the other denizens of the “human rights machine”—appreciated nothing deep or fundamental about the love for home, family, truth, and the Czech lands that ultimately motivated the Reichl family. Heilbronn lived in a world of kitsch, not “kitsch with teeth” (p.117) like Communism, but a world of illusions and self-deception nonetheless that was bereft of notions of love and sacrifice. Scruton makes the essence of the underground world come alive in a way that ‘political science’ or hackneyed journalism could never do.

Rudolf’s Seminar

One of Betka’s great gifts to Jan was to introduce him to the official world of dissidence, represented and embodied by Rudolf Gotthart’s seminar. The seminar would meet on most Fridays at 6:00 pm. Surrounded by a conspicuous secret police presence, those committed to the stubborn if fragile reality denied by the ideological world all around them would scatter across the carpet on Rudolf’s apartment floor. They whispered greetings and searched for solidarity with other souls in search of truth. Rudolf’s seminar was an example of the “parallel polis” theorized by the great Czech Catholic dissident Václav Benda in a famous samizdat essay by that name. It was a “true place of refuge,” a “temple where ancestral gods kept vigil over (the) collective soul” (p.55). On the margins of a decaying totalitarian society, these lost souls found strength and pride and solace in the “solidarity of the shattered.”

Jan found spiritual strength in this new setting. He could now come out of the less visible underground where he wrote as “Comrade Underground.” Betka was a benevolent presence among Rudolf’s dissidents, almost a “guardian angel,” who seemed “cool,” “calm,” and distant in Jan’s estimation. In some ways, this new setting, so exhilarating and liberating for Jan, was “nothing special for her” (p.57). She was a cool cat, a person who reflected fathomless moral ambiguity combined with genuine generosity.

In an earlier private conversation with Jan, Betka expressed reservations about Jan Patočka, the courageous Czech philosopher and phenomenologist who was the first spokesman for Charter 77. He died in 1978 after several intense and grueling interrogations from the StB. Betka could find in Patočka’s  profound and haunting Heretical Essays, published in the West and samizdat, only “pretty unreadable stuff.” Jan countered: “he wrote that way because he was wrestling with darkness” (p.49). Betka somewhat cynically replies that the darkness he was wrestling with was “his own darkness” (p.49). Rudolf, in contrast, leads his seminar through Patočka’s “drastic words,” full of philosophical technicalities and “frightening evocations” that announce the destruction of Western civilization. Rudolf rightly sees in Patočka’s tragic message a path (and call) to unite sacrifice and freedom. “Out of the prison of the everyday,” through the darkness of the enforced Lie, Patočka announces the perennial human duty to “care for the soul,” the foundational experience of the true polis. Patočka theorized the “solidarity of the shattered” which became a palpable, if ever threatened, reality in the Czech underground (see p.58 for the aforementioned quotes).

Looking back from his university post in Washington DC twenty years later, Jan compares the superficiality of democratic freedom, “where friends come and go with easy hilarity and where fear is a specialist product,” to the world of the seminar where “friendship had the furtiveness of sin” (p. 58). While Betka is suspicious of an impenetrable darkness at the heart of Patočka’s philosophical reflections, Scruton, as Mark Dooley’s reports in a crucial chapter on Eastern Europe in his indispensable Conversations with Roger Scruton, was “very inspired” by Patočka’s writings. He even played a small role in bringing it to the West. All of us moderns are, Patočka argued, “fragmented and threatened,” not simply those who live under the tyranny of the totalitarian Lie. The need for community and truth are perennial.  We are obliged to put ourselves and our polis back together again. Patočka’s “care of the soul” beckons all who are not content with the death, or eclipse, of the “ancestral gods.” His is a philosophy that speaks to the enduring needs of the soul—and the polis. It is a modern manifestation of Platonic and phenomenological wisdom, of old verities whose truth became self-evident in the struggles of the Czech underground.

Jan Reichl left his first encounter with Rudolf’s seminar “as though walking on air” (p.61).  The seminar would become an essential part of his new life, where he, too, experienced the “solidarity of the shattered.” Through it he would discover those like Karel, the pseudonymous Petr Pius, who would expose “the deep torment of our torment” through brilliant musings on the linguistic “regime of nonsense.”  Such linguistic tyranny mocked everything that “cannot be bought and sold: Love, honor, duty, sacrifice.” Communism, Karel showed, was a “world of falsehood” and “kitsch of a new kind: kitsch with teeth” (pp. 116-117). Through the seminar Jan would also meet Father Pavel who, like Betka, opened new and liberating paths of the spirit to him. Scruton, the artful philosopher-novelist, makes the things of the spirit, so fragile in the kingdom of falsehood, palpable. The inner life of totalitarianism, of logocratic or ideological tyranny, comes alive. It is vivified through literary art, and becomes open, as Havel would say, to the truth that inheres in “personal experience.”

Personal experience is not mere “subjectivity,” not to mention subjectivism. Rather, it is the world of the soul, of responsible personhood, that scientism in all its forms refuses to recognize or acknowledge. And Communist totalitarianism is perhaps the most extreme form of the scientistic denial of the soul’s search for meaning and truth. Notes from Underground contributes so effectively to philosophical and political understanding precisely because it allows what Edmund Burke called the “moral imagination” to uncover and reveal the most foundational truths about the human person and the world. Jean-Paul Sartre, unlike Scruton, was an indefatigable defender of Communist totalitarianism. But like Sartre, in so many other ways Scruton’s nemesis, Scruton fully appreciates how literature gives a concrete texture to, and reveals the human meaning of, the indispensable philosophical examination of the human condition. Sartre, however, shamelessly succumbed to moral nihilism, illusions about Historical Necessity, and to a cult of authenticity that could never adequately distinguish between good and evil, truth and falsehood, and freedom and totalitarian subjugation.  In The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1961), this man of immense talents paid tribute to the gruesome chimera that was “fraternity-terror,” in truth, a negation of everything real and humane.

The Mystery of Betka

Betka is at the same time the most enticing, luminous, enigmatic, and morally ambiguous figure in Notes from Underground. She has made troubling compromises in order to maintain contact with reality in an ideological world marked by pretense and deception. She is cultivated and aloof and will do what she has to do to protect her sick daughter Olga, and to build a future for herself in the coming world beyond Communism. Of all the characters in the book, she is most aware that the ‘kingdom of falsehood’ is on the verge of imploding and that new possibilities will emerge for her (and Olga) if only if she begins to prepare the way. She thus accepts the patronage of Vílem and makes deals with unsavory types she despises such as Professor Gunther. Yet she has opened new worlds for Jan and keeps alive a ‘home’ uncontaminated by the mendacity around her. It is not only Jan who has come to love her. The author of Notes from Underground is clearly smitten by her capacity, as the narrator puts it, to acquire “a home in the time of our nation’s homelessness” (p. 151). Finding and sustaining a home worthy of free and responsible persons is perhaps the Scrutonian theme par excellence. Betka semi-miraculously represents that possibility amidst the rubble of a ‘political’ order (actually no polis at all) that has declared war on the very possibility of home.

Betka’s spiritual achievement becomes truly luminous in chapters 17 and 18, the central chapters of the book.  Betka opens herself up, like never before, by bringing Jan to what was once Czech Sudetanland. Here she has built a home that is impervious to the moral and physical blight all around her. In the train carriage on the way to this furtive home, Jan sees the concentric circles of destruction wrought by a regime that only knows how to negate and tear down. There are desecrated farms where “the indigenous gods had retreated” (p. 141), and scarred hills without trees or grass. Churches and villages were dilapidated and abandoned. What passed for industrial modernism, for socialist ‘progress,” was in fact a dirty, concrete, and polluted world in which the face of the landscape “had been eaten away” (p. 142). But as Betka and Jan approach the old Sudentan countryside, traces of an older, more human and sacred way of life begin to emerge.

Betka’s Home

Jan is taken to a world on the edge of a forest, a world where nature still reveals her beauty, and where the remnants of old peasant homes and peasant churches begin to revivify the senses and the soul. Betka and Jan experience the hospitality of an old woman, Mrs. Nemčova, who greets them with endearments and an old-fashioned hospitality. She clearly loves Betka and is a crucial part of her ‘home.’ Living outside the world of the collective farm, Mrs. Nemčova reveals the charms, the ‘unsought grace of live,’ as Burke called it, of “a nineteenth-century fairy tale” (p.144). In this little cottage on the edge of the forest, Jan practiced what Father Pavel called the “gymnastics of attention,” taking in the attractions of a peasant world that “stood near the source of Betka’s life” (p. 144).  Proceeding to Betka’s own half-hidden home, Jan would see the tomb-like remains of the “communist war on property,” on “the pests” (p.145), the God-fearing Sudentan peasants who had truly inhabited these lands. Betka tellingly relates how this land “was stolen from the people who made it.” Gottwald and his Communist thugs lead a war against the Czech German peasants, not only for the crimes of Hitler and his minions, but even for the seventieth century “Battle of the White Mountain,” “when the old Czech nation was destroyed” (p. 146). Betka’s own lovely home (her “autarkic kingdom” [p.148]) with its rubble, plaster, oaken tables and chairs, Czech and German books, and upright piano were the result of a prior dispossession. Her cottage, the remnant of an older and more humane world, had the character of a “shrine maintained, with impeccable taste, to a life that had gone” (p.149). This is a manifestation of the “sacred,” as Roger Scruton understands it, of what is truly holy or blessed, consecrated to the gods, amidst the mundane realities of the temporal world.

But this shrine, this home would not exist without a founding crime of the most invidious character. Betka relates that her grandfather had come “to this place at the end of the war” (p.153), the Second World War. He was part of a thuggish and chaotic band of partisans who accompanied the victorious Red Army to this part of Czechoslovakia. They murdered and pillaged the people of this land with impunity. The local Czech Germans were forced to wear armbands with the latter N for Nazi. Their land, their homes, their tools, and their animals were shamelessly stolen from them. Men and women who had led blameless lives were held responsible for the crimes of others. Betka describes a brutal “nightmare” where children were mercilessly deprived of their inheritance. The home she had lived in until she set out for Prague at nineteen to pursue her studies was in truth other people’s property given to her rapacious grandfather by a cruel and thuggish Communist regime. In a sense, it was not her home at all. But Betka, in semi-Christian tones, came to see it as a place “entrusted to [her] by suffering” (p. 154). In that sense, it was indeed her home, her trust, surrounded by the tombs of hardy and decent souls whose subterranean presence truly blessed this plot of land.

Betka displays perfect clarity about the evil that propelled these Communist “witch-hunts.” She knows good from evil. But she also appreciates the mysterious ways in which God’s hand continued to “invisibly” mark these lands. The Communists, the most extreme of modernizers, could only persecute and kill those who had originally “consecrated” it and then “cover it with rubbish” (p. 146). In that, they were moderns par excellence. This sordid story is essential part of her life but also of all the Czech people.  For all her troubling compromises, Betka lives a life of expiation and sacred trust. The trip to her home, in a forgotten part of the Czech lands, is one of Betka’s greatest gifts to Jan and he views it as such. “For the first time since Dad’s arrest,” he reflects, he “had a vision of home, and it was a home that she conjured from a ruined way of life and a pillaged countryside” (p.147). This was Betka’s greatest achievement, the sacred revelation at the heart of the book. The author of Notes From Underground clearly believes that it excuses, or at least compensates for, the compromises she has made to live relatively freely in an unfree land, to find a home in a world of massive homelessness. Yet this reader is not so sure. Betka, for all her luminous gifts to Jan and the reader, remains enigmatic, enticing, and morally troubling. She is the mystery at the core of this enchanting and illuminating book.

Becoming a Disciple of Father Pavel

If Jan’s profoundly personal, intellectual, and erotic encounter with Betka opened up for him a new way of relating to himself, others, and the world, his encounter with Father Pavel Havranék is almost as transformative. He met Father Pavel at Rudolf’s seminar, the place where “the solidarity of the shattered” manifested itself with a luminous mixture of grace and barely concealed excitement. The fragile men and women whom Jan met at the seminar, all of whom are “massively threatened,” refuse the ideological negation of the real. They listen with rapt attention to philosophical, political, literary, and spiritual discussions that allow them to experience once again that they are beings with souls. They experience a kind of underground polis where Patočka’s “care of the soul” becomes meaningful once again, the only kind of polis possible under conditions of totalitarianism.

Like Betka, Pavel is a mysterious soul; he never reveals the full truth about himself. But he is undoubtedly in touch with the things of the spirit, helping give Jan access to those intimations of the transcendent that can still be experienced at “the edge of things” (to use one of Scruton’s favorite expressions). Pavel feels, more deeply than most, the absence of God’s presence, what he also calls “the void.” But he refuses to succumb to nihilism or unbelief.  He sees into “unacknowledged parts” (pp.190-191) of Jan’s soul, piercing through his deeply ingrained Czech skepticism. Where others see the void, Pavel experiences God’s silence, which is still a form of grace and revelation. He does his best to convey these mysteries to Jan.

Jan sees in Pavel a “spiritual being” who incarnates a “presence” all his own. Pavel helps Jan to see a holiness, a sacredness, in ordinary things, from a “rough cloth on which to kneel” to the “cracked porcelain cup which served as a chalice” (p.86) in Father Pavel’s underground church. He allows Jan—and the reader—to grasp that there is no yawning abyss separating the natural and supernatural. Both are in some mysterious and ineffable way “one and the same” (p.86). His message and personal bearing resonated with Jan and allowed him to see “the supernatural as an everyday presence, folded into the scheme of things like the lining of a coat” (p.86). Pavel saw the truth of the Christian religion in its divestment of power (most imperfectly achieved in a fallen world, of course) and in its willingness to “suffer and forgive” as did Christ the Redeemer. The Son of God is also the Suffering Servant. Father Pavel revealed many truths to Jan, undermining his skepticism and religious indifference without making Jan a believer. Like Betka, he “did not wish to be entirely known, not even to those he trusted” (p.93), such as Jan. Jan respected him for this since Pavel’s way of relating to those who were close to him “conveyed an experience of the world that had the authenticity of suffering” (p. 93). Like Betka, Pavel touches deep recesses of the soul and puts one in touch with enduring mysteries.

In a surreal ideological world dominated by a tyrannical logocracy as the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz helpfully called it, Pavel lived by the truth of Christ’s light that is paradoxically revealed in his freely chosen suffering and death. Betka admired Pavel but never forgot that he was a priest who wanted to hear your confession, as she put it, to bring you to the silent God who still calls your name. But Jan literally came out of the underground to the anti-totalitarian polis to which Betka introduced him. With Pavel, too, he went “to places that he “had never imagined to exist.” He listened to music that could not be openly performed, read books that could never be legally published, and sat in underground churches where courageous men, the clergy of the underground, whispered “old and forbidden” truths. The narrator eloquently highlights the importance of Father Pavel to Jan’s discovery of a truth. “Father Pavel, like Betka, knew people with keys to secret places.” These keys gave one access, perhaps for the first time, to the real, to the soul, to the “solidarity of the shattered.”

As the Czech dissident, diplomat, and Havel biographer Michael Zantovsky has written,  Scruton’s remarkable book reminds one that amidst all the suffering and repression in the totalitarian East, “there were rewards  to living the life of a second-class citizen in a world of cruelty, cynicism, and neglect—rewards in the form of the strength of human relationships and loyalties, and in the heightened awareness of beauty, truth, and love.” Jan experienced all of this in different ways: with Betka and Pavel and through the “solidarity” of Patočka’s polis as made manifest in and by Rudolf’s embattled seminar. Faced by the unrelenting totalitarian juggernaut, Father Pavel evoked the soul— duse in Czech (p. 191). Jan recognizes that Pavel believed in another, deeper, more responsible Jan, one who is capable of responding to the silence of God through reflection on his “eternal destiny” (p.191). Jan feared that he and Pavel were perched on a “precarious ledge above the abyss of nothingness” (p.191). However, he also began to see, or at least speculate, that God’s withdrawal from the world (and the temporary victory of evil) by no means meant that God was dead. It was too facile to say that the Good was without transcendental support. The narrator, speaking for Jan, conveys the theology of presence and absence common to Father Pavel and Roger Scruton: “Father Pavel’s God had withdrawn from the world, but as the sea withdraws, leaving behind it these little pools of clear water in which the spirit still lives. And whatever our condition, however tainted we were by those sordid calculations by which we were forced to live, we could bathe in these secret waters and be refreshed” (p.194).

The “death of God” is another grand lie or deception since it ignores the things of the spirit that still grace a fallen world where shattered men and women cry out for light and truth. The ideological Lie denies the truth of the person and the truth of a human freedom that finally escapes all determinism and necessity. Paradoxically, through its negation of the Real, it also provides powerful evidence that we continue to live in a world of persons. The best of these will resist, however haphazardly and incompletely, all efforts to define them out of existence. Scruton the critic of totalitarianism is also the critic of every form of scientistic reductionism. As Mark Dooley has written, the person, freedom, and the sacred (understood in a most capacious way), remain the English philosopher’s three great transcendental features of human experience.  This triad cannot be explained away by pseudo-science or scientism or deterministic ideologies that ignore the personal experiences at the heart of the human soul’s experience of the world. The more we succumb to what the political philosopher Eric Voegelin has called “modernity without restraint,” the more the chilling gap between modern ideology and personal experience becomes humanly untenable. It entails a forced, nihilistic denial of the soul and of the God who reveals himself at “the edge of things.” Father Pavel represents or embodies some of Roger Scruton’s deepest “personalist” convictions, indebted as they are to the Christian faith, the philosophy of Kant, and the experience of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. In his fictional writings, Scruton conveys the ineffable that is experienced at the edge of things, something which is beyond the capacity of nearly all academic philosophizing.

The Odious Professor Gunther and the Response of Father Pavel

Father Pavel does more than poetically evoke the presence of a silent God in a world where technique, pseudo-science, and totalitarianism have blocked direct contact with the deepest recesses of the human soul, and the accompanying intimations of Transcendence. He is repulsed by Professor Martin Gunther, the New York University Professor (with a more than passing resemblance to the legal theorist Ronald Dworkin) who comes to Rudolf’s seminar only to lament the repression of “marginized groups” (minorities, homosexuals, feminists, etc.) and to praise “abortion rights” as the fundamental human right (p.170). Abortion had been imposed on the peoples of the Eastern bloc as a means of eliminating unwanted children rather than caring for them. The public discussion of the matter was skewed by Communist doctrine and the enforced silence of the Christian Churches. Pavel is sickened by what the “human rights machine” in the West has defined as fundamental liberties. He sees the rights defended and promoted by Gunther as “the privileges of comfortable people” (p.173) who give little sustained thought to the moral grounds of human dignity. They defend a conception of rights, full of subtle, abstract arguments, that forget the obligation of the strong and powerful to do no intentional harm to the weak and vulnerable. Pavel simply cannot abide “impeccable arguments for thinking that the unborn can be disposed of according to our inconvenience” (p.173). Father Pavel speaks in a Christian idiom that has not lost touch with the indispensable connections between right, justice, and truth. That connection, at the heart of an older Western and Christian civilization that Pavel still represents, has no meaning for the insidiously clever Gunther. But Gunter’s soulless conception of human rights, informed by ideological clichés, and bereft of serious moral content, is a portent of a future (Czechoslovakia’s post-Communist future and the West’s present) where human rights are more or less severed from perennial human obligations, from the experiences that give rise to moral and civic responsibility.

In one conversation, Father Pavel tells Jan Reichl that the Communist regime asks much more than that its oppressed subjects “live within the lie.” Going beyond Václav Havel’s justly famous formulation, Pavel tells Jan that They, the regime, the authorities, and the purveyors of ideological mendacity want every subject of the totalitarian state to create a life “in which truth and falsehood are no longer distinguishable” (p.190). In such a world, raw self-interest, a concern for mere survival, would trump all. Instead of creating a New Man, the totalitarians recreate the “state of nature” and the dreadful war of all against all. Their victory demands a massive moral regression, a radicalization of the Old Adam. Theirs is an anti-polis without love, fidelity, trust, mercy, forgiveness, and truly shared projects and enterprises. Such is the faux reality that Pavel and Betka, Rudolf, and Karol attempt to resist in their richly specific and idiosyncratic ways. They are partisans of Reality, of the right of the soul to breathe freely. Without that elementary freedom, no polis or civic realm is possible. Nor is authentic personhood. Much is at stake in the ruminations of the underground.

In the course of the novel, we learn more about the inner and outer lives of Betka and Pavel, its two most enigmatic and alluring characters. It turns out that Father Pavel Havranek had served as Betka’s parish priest in the old Sudentenland, where Betka had made a splendid home for herself amidst the dislocations of modern Czech life. He had served his congregation from 1969 to 1971, and again between 1975 and 1979, “when presumably arrested and the church was finally closed” (p.227). And now the narrator brings all the connecting threads together: “Father Pavel was her priest, her mentor, and surely her lover and the father of her child” (p.227).

Later when Betka goes to New York University and takes up a position at the invitation of the distasteful Professor Gunther, Professor Palková, as she is now known, dedicates her book on the world of Czech dissidence “To Pavel, and in the memory of our dearest Olga.” Things here come full circle. To be sure, the coming together of an underground priest and a half-dissident and half-collaborator was not so strange in a world marked by incomprehensible moral ambiguity. These were surreal times that made strange and unfathomable connections possible. We will return to this theme shortly.

The Edifice Collapses

By now, Gorbachev, the reformist Communist is in power in Moscow, and things begin to change in the eastern satellites. Jan’s Mother is home from prison. In this new, comparatively ‘liberal’ atmosphere, Rudolf aspires to emigrate, and Karel, the linguist who so powerfully exposed the langue du bois was “emerg(ing) from his boiler house.,” the boiler house being a typical fate for so many Czech dissidents who were spared prison terms. Igor (most probably modeled on Václav Benda) wished “to be either Pope or President” (p. 230), a rather harsh judgment, one might conclude, despite Benda’s unbending self-assurance). In the midst of these new dislocations and emerging hopes, Jan has a new job where he does his best to forget Betka while “making use of all the things” he had learned through her (p.230).

Prague is soon transformed.  The heroic Havel is now President, catapulted by his books and his dissident essays. Tourists are everywhere as are fast-food restaurants. And, of course, there is that seedy undercurrent of late modernity, pornography. The old Prague of churches and culture, of dissidents and the “solidarity of the shattered,” is destined to be eclipsed yet again. The narrator’s conclusion is not reassuring: “The slaves had been liberated, and turned into morons” (p.234).

There is one curious passage near the end of the book that speaks volumes about the soul of the new Prague and the liberated Czech lands. Jan passes a meeting where a person resembling Father Pavel, dressed in a suit, is repeating clichés about “a new kind of politics, an ‘anti-politics,’ which would permit us to be no longer slaves but citizens, enjoying our freedom and rights.” The narrator, Jan in this case, comments acerbically that this speech “could have been scripted by Professor Gunther, so replete was it with clichés, and so far from the mysticism that had waken in me the frail spirit of discipleship” (p.232). Who knows if this is really Father Pavel? But undoubtedly Jan’s thought that it might be him reflects the new clichés which had replaced the language of soul common to Patočka and Father Pavel. But these slogans are still much better than Gunther’s.  So too are the linguistic ticks of the post-1989 Havel, transforming the elevating analysis of his 1979 essay “The Power of the Powerless” into slogans, still informed by thought, that could perhaps guide, sustain, and elevate a democratic people. Jan’s instinctive response to this encounter seems unduly harsh and pessimistic. Reality will always be more prosaic than poetic as all of us in the “Free World” should already know. It takes spiritual strength not to have mere contempt for the more prosaic aspects of ordinary experience that Heidegger, from his Olympian philosophical heights, called “average everydayness.” The “average everydayness” of bourgeois civilization has its decencies but it is never spiritually sublime. There is no “solidarity of the shattered” in the new world of consumerism, ever more insistent rights, and a materialist cornucopia accompanied by public corruption and a drift toward moral nihilism. No wonder that the “dissident experience” has been reduced to clichés about “anti-political politics” and “politics, morality, and civility” (clichés that dominated Have’s public addresses and writings after 1989). Those clichés reflect the real experiences of a polis that had emerged in the underground of a decayed and decaying totalitarian regime. Can some of that experience be passed on to the decidedly unheroic consumer democracy that emerged after the fall of Communism? Scruton has his doubts. Such a polis, too, survives, if it is capable of surviving, on the edge of things.

A Postscript: In America

This book ends, not without a touch of sadness, with both Betka and Jan settled in the United States fifteen years after the fall of European communism. Alzbêta Palková has written her widely praised book on the Czech dissident culture. In it, she lauded the heroism of “those forced by their love of books to live in the catacombs” (p.239), but also highlighted their self-deception. Her austere distance from those dissident struggles remains. She is under the patronage of the hideous Martin Gunther at a New York university that also publishes her book. Betka’s book makes generous references to Rumors by Soudruh Andros, which is singled out for its “way of combining stark objectivity with a suffering inwardness” (p.239). This is a beautiful description, indeed. A single footnote identifies Jan Reichl as the author of the book.

Betka, it seems, has made a conventional home for herself in the American academy. Her sublime intelligence and her preternatural sense of home are hardly needed in a free world where soul rarely meets soul, and where the dangers are superficial. Jan, too, is an academic at Wheaton College in Washington, DC. He was welcomed there in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1989, but no one is now much interested in hearing about a tyrannical world beyond all comprehension, and one from a seemingly distant past. Jan’s scholarly publications never came to fruition and he experiences a new solitude where the “bright exterior” (p. 239) of American life conceals the paucity of anything resembling an inner life in the true sense of the term. Dismissed from his job at Wheaton College, Jan receives a package from Betka with the only extent copy of Rumors to have survived. If he had looked closely, he would have realized that the copy Betka sent him had the tiny marks in it that he had made before leaving it on a city bus. Betka had not borrowed a copy from Mother, as she claimed. Rather, it had been put in her hands by the police. Her freedom, her flexibility, her mysterious distance from both the dissident world and the official world of violence and lies was made possible by unsavory collaboration with the secret police.

The most luminous figure in this book undoubtedly had many such assignments in the past. On this one, she fell in love with Jan and would henceforth do everything to protect him (and to help Olga get treatment for her illnesses). Betka is drawn to the dissident culture but cannot truly be a part of it. She wants to rise above the sordid reality of totalitarian mendacity but willingly serves the official machine of repression and deception, for reasons we all readily understand. Does working for the secret police negate her obvious grace and independence of spirit, and her love and generosity towards Jan? The author of the book does not seem to think so. But every reader must make this vexing, and not so obvious, judgment for himself.

An Anti-Totalitarian Classic of the First Order

Roger Scruton’s Notes From Underground is in keeping with a small group of classics that truly get to the heart of the totalitarian negation of the real. These are works that deftly combine literature and philosophy, and sometimes theology, too, and speak to the soul as it confronts the demons of modernity. These books include Solzhenitsyn’s magisterial The Gulag Archipelago, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and Alain Besancon’s The Falsification of the Good, which gets to the heart of the totalitarian and ideological project to falsify the Good with the help of George Orwell, the author of 1984, and Vladimir Soloviev, the great Russian Christian philosopher and theologian. All of these memorable books confront, with rare philosophical depth and a literary art that captures the greatness and misery of the human soul, the capacity of life and truth to resist a nothingness that is surely demonic. To resist the ideological lie is thus to restore truth—and hope—to their central places in the economy of human things. Notes From Underground is an achievement of the first order.


Sources and Suggested Readings  

All references to Roger Scruton’s Notes From Underground: A Novel (New York: Beaufort Books, 2014) are cited internally in the body of the text. In the course of my reflection on this work, I have consulted thoughtful reviews by John O’Sullivan, Flagg Taylor, and Robin Ashenden that appeared in The New Criterion, (March 2014), Law and Liberty (July 8, 2015), and at CEEL.ORG.UK (October 7, 2015), respectively.

Michael Zantovsky’s elegant reflection (“Message in a Bottle”) on the stunning veracity of Scruton’s book appeared at Standpoint on April 29, 2014.

For helpful background on Scruton’s engagement with the intellectual underground behind the Iron Curtain, especially in Poland and the Czech lands, see chapter 5 (“Eastern Europe”) of Conversations With Roger Scruton, by Roger Scruton and Mark Dooley (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 65-83. I have cited pp. 65 and 66 and made reference to the discussion of Jan Patočka’s works on pp. 77-80.

For an introduction to Jan Patočka’s thought, see Erazim Kohák editor, Jan Patočka : Philosophy and Selected Writings (University of Chicago Press, 1989); Patočka’s Plato and Europe, translated by Petr Lom (Stanford University Press, 2002); and Patočka’s Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, translated by Erizam Kohák (Open Court, 1999). The latter work contains the seminal discussion of the “solidarity of the shattered.”

Václav Havel’s most profound essays, “The Power of the Powerless,” and “Politics and Conscience,” can be found in Havel, Open Letters: Selected Writings: 1965-1990, translated by Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), pp. 125-214, and pp. 249-271, respectively. Roger Scruton is the co-translator of “Politics and Conscience,” an essay which originally appeared in The Salisbury Review in January 1985.  These essays contain profound critiques of the ideological Lie and a bracing call for “living in truth.” Havel’s defense of truth and civility in human and political life takes on a more formulaic character in Havel, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, translated by Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).  But the best of these latter essays are still very much worth reading.

Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is the most powerful indictment of totalitarianism ever written. In forceful and eloquent prose, it exposes the “lie as a form of existence.” Its central sections explore the complex and paradoxical ties between “the soul and barbed wire.” This magisterial work does full justice to the claims of both political liberty and the human soul. The best available edition was republished by Vintage in the fall of 2018 (on the 50th anniversary of the book’s completion and the centennial of Solzhenitsyn’s birth) with a penetrating “Foreword” by Jordan B. Peterson. For a fuller discussion, see Daniel J. Mahoney, “Solzhenitsyn: Politics and the Ascent of the Soul,” Modern Age (Spring 2019), pp. 17-23.

Roger Scruton played a key role in the publication of an English-language edition of Alain Besançon’s The Falsification of the Good: Soloviev and Orwell. Matthew Screech’s translation of the book was released by Claridge Press in 1994. This powerful if little known work originally appeared in French in 1985. It is a masterpiece of theological-political reflection that, as profoundly as anything ever written on the subject, exposes the demonic nothingness at the center of ideological despotism.  The French edition, La falsification du bien: Soloviev et Orwell, has been republished in Alain Besançon, Contagions: Essais, 1967-2015 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2018), pp. 643-785.


Daniel J. MahoneyDaniel J. Mahoney

Daniel J. Mahoney

Daniel J. Mahoney is a Board Member of VoegelinView and holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College in Massachusetts. He is the author of The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron (Rowman & Littlefield, 1992); The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order (ISI, 2011); The Other Solzhenitsyn (St. Augustine's Press, 2014); and The Humanitarian Subversion of Christianity: Why the Christian Religion is Not the Religion of Humanity (Encounter Books, forthcoming).

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