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Notes From The Underground Essay, Research Paper

Notes on Notes from Underground


In the context of works we read in Liberal Studies, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground strikes a new and very dissonant chord, although (as I shall mention later) the sound is one we should recognize clearly enough, if we are at all familiar with some of the more important “heroic” figures from twentieth-century literature. For in this work Dostoevsky is holding up for our inspection and appreciation (if that is the right word) his vision of modern heroism or, more precisely put perhaps, his vision of what heroism has become in modern times. The central thrust of the work is designed to force us to recognize some significant transformations in the ability of human beings (including, most importantly, ourselves as readers) to construct good lives for ourselves, lives, that is, worthy of the sort of admiration and respect traditionally reserved for heroic individuals.

Before exploring in more detail just how Dostoevsky’s narrative does this, however, we might pause briefly to recall a few very general features of heroic conduct as that is defined by the tradition. After all, Dostoevsky is writing very much in response to that tradition (both in history and in fiction) and is clearly counting on the challenge to that tradition to provoke his readers.

Cultural heroes–from history or fiction–as we have encountered them so far, have virtually all had a few qualities in common. First and foremost is their ability to act in the world, to make decisions, carry those out, deal with the consequences. They might not always succeed and in some cases might be horribly wrong and suffer greatly and die for what they have chosen to do, or they might have to adjust, apologize, learn from mistakes. Their efforts to confront life may defeat them, or they may emerge as triumphant revolutionaries, as sturdy defenders of traditional values, or as quiet middle-class wives and mothers, fathers or children.

The key element is their ability to initiate action or respond to the actions around them. They operate, to use Dostoevsky’s key metaphor, above ground, people interacting with people in the market place, council chamber, living room. And they can do that because they bring to life three important qualities: they have strong feelings about life (though they may often be confused), a desire to act on those feelings, and a sense of themselves, an identity, which prompts them to action in the service of something they believe. That sense of themselves may be fiercely independent, something which defies all social conventions, or it may be a closely intertwined with the values of their community, with revolutionary religious doctrine, or a preference for private over public life. It might even change from one to the other in the course of their story.

What makes these people heroes is that sense of taking charge, in action, of their lives, based on some faith in their own capabilities and often in some wider context of belief. Those qualities link figures as different as, say, Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels, and Emma in Austen’s Emma.

Underground as Metaphor

Dostoevsky’s narrator at once announces to us how different he is from such traditional notions of heroism. And the key metaphor declaring this difference is his own: he is an underground person. He does not live in the world where actions matter. And he lives there by choice, a willed refusal or inability to engage with other people in any significant way. This choice does not satisfy him, but (and this is the crucial modern element) he has no intention of doing anything about it.

Dostoevsky structures his story in two parts: in the first we get a long, detailed look at the mature personality of Underground Man; in the second we get a story from his youth, an insight into his psychological background (but, it is important to note, told to us from the mature man’s perspective). This structure has the effect of inviting us to see in the mature Underground Man some important problem, the nature of that sickness he announces in the opening lines, and then, in the retrospective glimpse into his youth twenty years before and (even more importantly) in his attitude now to those distant events to find some clue as to why he should have turned out that way.

Following that structure, I propose to say a few things about the mature Underground Man, to attempt a partial diagnosis of his “sickness.” Having done that, I’d like to explore what that odd story might reveal about the sources of his difficulties. Finally I’d like to look ahead at another well-known underground figure we are going to meet.

The Mature Underground Man

The immediate factual details about Underground Man are significant: he is forty years old, well educated, literate, and financially independent. He lives in a modern urban environment, Petersburg. He used to work, but remembers that time with so special affection. He now lives alone and, again by choice, in a place he describes as unattractive (”dismal, squalid, and on the very edge of town”). He is cut off from family and friends, without a name or any particular group he can identify with. All this, we are given to understand, he has chosen for himself and there is no sense that he is ambitious to change anything.

These details are important because they indicate that, whatever is troubling Underground Man, it has nothing to do with an oppressive work situation, lack of money, or an absence of opportunities for social interaction. He has time, money, and opportunity. And he is surrounded by a complex social environment. In that sense, he has, on the surface at least, achieved two of the most important ideals of the Enlightenment: he is free and independent.

His problem, we quickly learn, has nothing to do with his external circumstances and everything to do with what’s going on inside him. His disease stems from the fact that he doesn’t feel healthy, complete. There may be a good deal of specific medical talk about doctors, medicines, bad livers, and so on, but it’s clear that the real problems are emotional. In fact, the entire first part of the story is an invitation to us to explore the specific emotional symptoms characteristic of this invalid.

About the nature of Underground Man’s ailment there has been and continues to be much discussion. That, after all, is the major focus of the story. And one can enter it almost anywhere to seize upon significant elements. So let me here offer an overall diagnosis, in a series of observations (starting with the most general).

1. Underground Man is radically dissatisfied with the conditions of life itself. There is no one particular element which he defines as the principle cause. True, he says repeatedly (at the beginning) that the heart of the problem is consciousness, “excessive consciousness is a disease–a genuine absolute disease” (5), and he demonstrates in his remarks about science and all the optimistic hopes of the rational reformers an intellectual’s scepticism about the robust claims of the most ardent Enlightenment spirits. But his malaise does not stem from the intellectual inadequacy of science, but from his sense that it doesn’t meet the demands of his spirit. Such rational constructions (the Crystal Palace) always leave something out of account, the desire to defy them. Hence, they cannot adequately account for the full expression of the human spirit.

This point is important to grasp, because many commentators have suggested that the real issue here is freedom from the oppression of science. But that’s not the case. Underground Man makes it clear that he has a certain faith in science and would welcome a fully determined existence, but only if it answered to his full desires. So he’s not repudiating science; in fact, in many ways his intellect has fully accepted material determinism. But (as I mentioned) such a view leaves some of his feelings about life unaccounted for. Deterministic science can never satisfy those feelings, simply because Underground Man senses that there is always a residual desire, what he calls a whim, the desire to affirm that two and two equals five. The issue here is not freedom from determinism but authenticity, the desire to be as fully human as one can be, to have one’s desires most satisfactorily fulfilled in action, because the essence of human life is desire, not reason.

You see, gentlemen, reason is no more than reason, and it gives fulfillment only to man’s reasoning capacity, while desires are a manifestation of the whole of life–I mean the whole of human life, both with its reason and with all its itches and scratches. . . . I quite naturally want to live in order to fulfill my whole capacity for living, and not in order to fulfill my reasoning capacity alone, which is no more than some one-twentieth of my capacity for living. (31)

It’s worth noting the radically individualistic stance of Underground Man. He demonstrates no interest whatsoever in social causes, justice in the wider community, and so on. His objections stem from his sense of himself, and that sense does not include any link to other people, individually or in groups, or to social and political ideas. In that sense, we can locate his most basic urges in the Romantic quest for self-fulfillment. Part of his discontent with science (which his reason accepts) is that it subsumes him under rational formulas, puts him in a predictable box, something his moral-emotional self will not agree to.

[Parenthetically, one might observe that Dostoevsky himself had intimate personal knowledge of the ways in which rational calculation or reasonable experience could never capture all the elements of human nature, because he was an inveterate gambler. No human activity more immediately reveals human beings' refusal to be guided by the authority of mathematics or the results of experience, both of which indicate to anyone who thinks for a few moments about the subject that casino gambling is a self-defeating activity, not suitable for those who cannot afford to play a game where the result is so clearly stacked against them. Nonetheless, gamblers, then and now, continue to rush to the betting tables.]

2. But when he looks around him, Underground Man sees nothing answering to his desires. His intelligence tells him that simple actions in the modern world are stupid, that the laws of nature stand around him like stone walls, determining the physical world, explaining the evolutionary origins of human life, that the human beings around him are preoccupied with trivial things. He sees nothing outside himself to which he can attach himself: no family, no significant environment (here the notion of Petersburg as an “intentional” city is important the urban environment brings with it so sense of a long historical identity, no unique cultural tradition, nothing he can call his own), no personal past, and (most important) no governing idea, no framework of belief. Hence, he is driven inward, ceaselessly exploring his own nature, the only world in which he has any interest or with which he has any intimate contact.

Another way of expressing this point is to say that Underground Man has nothing to attach himself to, in the context of which he can understand himself or the world around him. He has no ideals which are holy to him, so his thought processes are affirming and tearing down at the same time (see Jones 59), in a never-ending restlessness. His life is thus characterized only by an inner turmoil, with no obvious hope of external help.

One should note here that the disbelief that Underground Man expresses is very different from, say, the urbane and earned skepticism of Montaigne, who can urge us to enjoy the delights we have around us and practice the customs of our surroundings because there is no final answer to anything. Underground Man cannot achieve this sort of equanimity, because he cannot repress his deep unhappiness, his discontent with the situation in which he finds himself. Ironies do not console him; they eat away at his consciousness. The most remarkable feature of his tirade against his audience and the world he lives in is how much it indicates his loathing of himself and his inability to reconcile himself to that state of affairs (more about this later).

[If we're looking for earlier parallels in the reading in Liberal Studies, we might like to make a comparison with Hamlet. I have no wish to explore that here, but it might be useful to point out that Hamlet's similar turmoil stems from a very particular set of family circumstances and from the pressure, as a prince and son, to carry out decisive action in the political world of Elsinore. Dostoevsky's Underground Man has no such distinctive position or lineage: he is very much a product of his modern surroundings in the large, bureaucratic city, and his place is something he has chosen, not a part of his inheritance]

That emerges clearly in the early discussion of revenge, one of the most basic and long-lasting of human feelings and absolutely fundamental to any sense of justice (it’s no accident that many of our most important heroes, in high and low culture, are central figures in revenge narratives, since those stories almost invariably link the most powerful human feelings about others to an understanding of the nature of justice and personal responsibility). Stupid people (in his view) are capable of acting on their feelings directly, in taking revenge or asserting themselves. Underground Man envies them this ability (9), but he himself is so caught up in all the doubts, qualifications, and complexities of consciousness that he cannot follow their example. Lacking the emotional strength and the intellectual conviction of a traditional revenge hero, he thus is forced into a life in a “loathsome, stinking underground hole,” where his existence is no better than that of an animal (the imagery is important in bringing out this element of self-loathing: insects, rodents, and so forth). There he spends his time resenting his situation, hatching elaborate revenge plots but never acting on them.

[Of course, the animal imagery here is, from one perspective, inappropriate because Underground Man cannot be a fly or other insect, precisely because he has consciousness, yet the imagery does illuminate his frustration at being unable to work out the contradictions he feels like an insect (and there may be an element of wishing in this image, just as there is with J. Alfred Prufrock and Gregor Samsa to be an insect at least relieves one of living with the constant awareness of one's own limitations and one is therefore permitted to simply give up)].

3. It is also made clear to us that as a Romantic hero, Underground Man is a complete failure. Much of his discussion about science comes from a fairly standard Romantic standpoint. But Underground Man is not repudiating science out of a strong sense of his own personality, out of a desire to move out from under natural laws, out of some passionate faith in anything, least of all in the transforming power of his imagination. He’s quite aware that the Romantic views he possesses are derived from books, that they are naive and thin. The opening of the second part of the story explicitly condemns Russian Romanticism for its failure to transform any individual’s life: it is something that goes on inside, without providing the spiritual energies necessary to engage the real world with courage and conviction. That’s why he can say “Every decent man of our time is and is bound to be a coward and a slave. This is his normal condition. I am deeply convinced of that” (51). At the same time, of course, because of his heightened Romantic sensibilities he can set himself above “normal” people and, when forced to think about dealing with the “real” world derive a sense of what he will do from sentimental Romantic fictions.

4. The result of all of this is the picture of a personality hopelessly at odds with itself. The most obvious feature of his personality is its instability. Even his attempts to explain to his readers the nature of that instability are constantly shifting. We are not dealing here with what one might call an integrated character, someone who has a firm sense of what he wants and how to set about achieving it. His feelings are always at odds: the men he despises he envies; what most disgusts him about himself gives him pleasure; he prides himself on his intellect and reveals his frustrations that it leads him nowhere; the aggression in his desires is thwarted all the time by his physical inertia; he has a compulsion to talk about himself but is unable to say anything firm; he is filled with contempt for his readers yet is desperate that we understand; he reads widely, but finds such writing shallow: the social thinkers are superficial optimists, the Romantics poseurs (though he’s not above using either style himself); he longs to collide with reality and is unable to do so. His emotional life, like his writing, is “babbling–in other words, deliberately pouring water through a sieve.”

It might be worth pausing for a moment to wonder about one point: How are we supposed to take this man? Is he a wretched victim of social injustice, someone we should feel sorry for? Is he really what he says he is, some higher, more intelligent being, who has glimpsed something acutely present in modern life? Or what?

On this opinions will differ, but I think we are meant to see Underground Man as ridiculous (intelligent and pathetic, yes, but also ridiculous), as a satiric portrait of the modern urban educated consciousness. He has many of the immediate advantages of the modern middle class but his deficiencies can be summed up in one phrase: he lacks eros. He has in him none of the powerfully motivating love of life, the irrational joy in existence (and in other people’s existence), something which might motivate him to do anything. Lacking that, he is paralyzed by his inner contradictions, different fragments which do not add up to a coordinating unity.

He has gone underground by choice because he has no idea how to deal with life other than to sit on the sidelines with a sneer. He picks away at the sources of his discontent, the limitations of others and his own degeneracy, because, as he tells us, at least that reminds him that he’s alive. I hate, therefore I am. From that he can derive his definition of a human being: “a biped, ungrateful” (32). If we have to put some sort of label on him, he’s a nihilist, and Dostoevsky’s portrait invites us to recognize the foolishness in such a stance (on this point see Joseph Frank’s essay, which places the emphasis in the right place, although with too much special pleading about the context).

[It's interesting to note, in this respect, that many traditional heroes go underground retreating into madness or descending to Hades but with them the experience is a temporary stage, often a necessary one on their road to a fuller understanding (as with, say, Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, or Dante). The point of the trip is to learn something to take back into the world, so that one can re-engage life more fully. In Dostoevsky's story the Underground is a refuge from the world, deliberately chosen as a permanent fort from which one can safely take pot shots at what lies beyond. This underground is a poorly furnished room in a poor district, with a door behind which the Underground Man can totally control his own environment. It functions as a protection against having to learn anything.]

Underground Man, however, does have one quality which, if it does not redeem him, at least indicates that he is not entirely subterranean: he still has not lost the desire to find some overall meaning to what he perceives as the cruel game of his life:

Oh, absurdity of absurdities! But how preferable it is to understand everything, to be aware of everything, of all impossibilities and stone walls, and yet refuse to reconcile yourself to a single one of those impossibilities and walls if it sickens you to submit to them; how preferable to reach, by the most irrefutable logical combinations, the most revolting conclusions on the eternal subject that you are somehow to blame even for the stone wall, though, again, it is entirely obvious that you are not to blame at all; and, in consequence of all that, to sink into voluptuous inertia, silently and impotently gritting your teeth and wallowing in the idea that, as it turns out, you don’t even have anyone to rail at; that you can’t find any object of blame and may never find one; that all this is some sort of sleight of hand, a sharper’s trick, a swindle, a plain mess in which it is impossible to tell who’s who or what’s what. And yet, despite all the uncertainties and confusions, you are still in pain, and the more uncertainty, the more pain!

. . . I’d gladly let my tongue be cut out altogether, from sheer gratitude, if things could be arranged in such a way that I myself would never have the wish to stick it out any more. What do I care if this is impossible to arrange, and we are expected to content ourselves with apartments? Why, then, was I endowed with such desires? Can it be that I was made this way simply so that I’d come to the conclusion that my whole way of being is nothing but a fraud? Can this be the sole purpose of it? I don’t believe it. (42)

In the context of this quality we can understand the delights he takes at times in his own pain, that curious strain of masochism running through his personality. It is hardly a moral sense, as Frank calls it (41), for it does not enable him to make any significant moral judgments. But it is something of an indication of a moral potential. He will, in the midst of his own confusion, degradation, and inertia try to hang onto some sense of himself, some sharply individualized feeling that he is still alive, still capable of being somebody and perhaps finding something. He has not entirely given up on his desires for fulfillment, even if he has no idea of what to do in order to make that remotely possible..

We know from Dostoevsky’s letters that this element in Underground Man’s personality was originally given more prominence in the story, for evidently the author provided more emphatic indications of how his fragmented consciousness might heal itself, specifically in a turn to Dostoevsky’s vision of Christianity. Inexplicably, the censors removed these passages, and Dostoevsky never put them back. Hence, we have little sense from the story as it is that Underground Man is going to find some form of redemption, even if we can see, in moments like the ones I mention above, a glimpse of the emotional foundations for such a change.

On the Occasion of Wet Snow

The second part of Notes from Underground takes us back twenty years, to a few incidents in the young life of Underground Man, told to us by the mature narrator. I don’t propose to review the details of this interesting story, but I would like to make some suggestions about links between these events and the mature personality we have met earlier.

One central issue in this story is Underground Man’s futile attempts to make contact with other human beings (something which the forty-year-old man has given up on, other than through his writing). At this stage in his life he has clearly not yet abandoned his ambitions to have some sort of social life. The fact that he fails miserably, both with his old school chums and with Liza, provides the most important indication as to why he has become the mature personality he is.

The reason is relatively easy to discern, at least its most obvious characteristics. Young Underground Man has what we would call a completely false consciousness or, drawing on our reading of Rousseau, he is so full of amour propre, that he is incapable of entering into the simplest social activity, a conversation with friends. To these encounters he brings such a strongly perverted ego, combined with a humiliating sense of how others see him, that his attempts to make contact defeat themselves.

For he is filled with a na ve Romantic sense of his own value, his superiority over others, and yet he cannot tolerate the thought that they might think ill of him. In other words, his Romantic assertiveness, largely derived from sentimental fictions,

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