Father Schall reflects today on what Dostoevsky’s underground man foretold, that soon (and already, for us) man “shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea.” And he asks in what today’s “underground” consists.

Schall imagines himself writing as part of it — his essay is titled “Note from the Present Underground.” Schall concludes that “[t]he ‘underground’ today is that explication of being and living that is specifically rejected by the politicized culture.”

Pace Father Schall — who may be one of the very few for whom my comments do not apply — I think there’s more to the story. A whole lot more, actually.

If Schall’s conclusion is taken to mean that the modern “underground” is inhabited mainly by Catholics — especially in virtue of their orthodoxy, traditionalism, and conservatism — it flies in the face not only of experience, but even of Dostoevsky’s original purpose. (The image associated with Schall’s essay of Lenepveu’s painting, The Martyrs in the Catecombs, implies such a reading.)

Dostoevsky says quite a bit more in the final lines of Notes from the Underground than merely that man will contrive to be born of an idea. He also explains how that could be possible: 
Why, we don't even know what living means now, what it is, and what it is called? Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We are oppressed at being men — men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea. But enough; I don't want to write more from "Underground."
What, according to Dostoevsky, is the singular source of this coming confusion, of Schall’s depiction of our “present underground”? Only to be alone without books.

If ever there were a damning case against the social media age, this is it. For a literate culture to be “alone without books” is, for Dostoevsky, the absolute height of decadence. And we live it, we indulge in it.

Another Jesuit priest, Walter J. Ong — a student of Marshall McLuhan — philosophized about this phenomenon in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. His study was on the shift of cultures, from oral to literate; and more recently, of literate cultures in various phases. Ong proposed that electronic media in the late twentieth century produced a type of “secondary orality” that emphasized sound in ways similar to, but more discarnate than, older oral cultures.

But this idea of “secondary orality” would be stretched thin by email, text messaging, and other phenomena. In 1996, during a late-in-life interview, Ong proposed a new term, “secondary literacy,” to account for what he saw on the horizon. He conceived of a mode of communicating where “textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange.”

Ong didn’t develop this theory. But I’d propose that the effects of “secondary literacy” are the same as Dostoevsky fears from a world “alone without books.” What’s more, Ong’s sterile, scientific approach does not allow us to cheat by importing assumptions of who’s permitted to inhabit the “present underground” and who isn’t. Faithful Catholics — no matter their orthodoxy, traditionalism, or conservatism — are, in places where “secondary literacy” thrives, almost categorically part of the “politicized culture” that Schall names as the oppressor of “underground” ideas.

“We can,” writes Schall, “only whisper these truths in the present underground.” And here I think he’s right. But whispering is inconsistent with the medium of “secondary literacy,” where things seem to have “the temporal immediacy of oral exchange” but really are not immediate at all. Books, on the other hand, whisper magnificently — they are taken for what they are, and sitting with a book produces the silence necessary for a whisper to be heard.

Schall is an inhabitant of the “present underground,” I have little doubt. Not because he is an orthodox, traditional, or conservative Catholic, but because he is a man attuned to silence, immersed in ‘primary’ literacy. The same, sadly, is almost assuredly not true for most of his readers. I suspect Dostoevsky and the original underground man would agree.

Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.