Armed with a view that strongly opposes the ideas presented by rational egoism, Fyodor Dostoevsky conducts an all-out assault against the theory in his 1864 novella, Notes from Underground. The narrator is a sick, pessimistic man who remains nameless throughout the course of his ranting. Without any recognizable respect for his own health and well being out of pure spite, he is the perfect character to illustrate Dostoevsky’s argument against the theory of rational egoism. The narrator decides upon actions that may directly oppose his true interests for the sole reason of proving that he is an unpredictable man who enjoys his own free will and ability to make voluntary decisions of his own, without being restrained by the ideas of rationality and reason.A particular advantage is revealed in the narrator’s philosophical ranting that describes man’s ability to decide to act in an unpredictable manner. The narrator challenges the definition of advantage, saying, “What is advantage? Will you take it upon yourself to define with absolute precision what constitutes man’s advantage?” (Dostoevsky 15), and continues by introducing his idea of an overlooked advantage that is so important that all the other advantages rely upon it. He describes this masochistic advantage, questioning “And what if it turns out that man’s advantage sometimes not only may, but even must in certain circumstances, consist precisely in his desiring something harmful to himself instead of something advantageous?” (15). This abnormal advantage refers to an individual’s freedom, the ability to choose, when given multiple options, a detrimental course of action over a more favorable option with the intention that one may demonstrate their free will, in order to express that they are unpredictable and refuse to be easily categorized and stereotyped by others. The common, clichÃ©d desires such as prosperity, wealth, freedom, and peace (15) cannot possibly describe the complex needs of the human mind, and if there was a way to study desires in such a complex method, it would severely limit the feeling of free will and personality that an individual possesses, as the narrator states:”Well, after all, what if someday they really do discover the formula for all our desires and whims, that is, the thing that governs them, precise laws that produce them, how exactly they’re applied, where they lead in each and every case, and so on and so forth, that is, the genuine mathematical formula-why, then all at once man might stop desiring, yes, indeed, he probably would. Who would want to desire according to some table?” (19)When physiological science starts to break down what affects the human condition, people lose their feeling of freedom, and will act in any self-destructive way in order to preserve what free will they have left. Speaking on this subject, the narrator claims that “If you say one can also calculate all this according to a table, this chaos and darkness, these curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all in advance would stop everything and that reason alone would prevail-in that case man would go insane deliberately in order not to have reason, but to have his own way!” (22). The mathematic properties that have been set as law are restraining people’s free will, and people will go crazy just to retain it. The narrator describes this in his two times two analogy, “But gentlemen, what sort of free choice will there be when it comes down to tables and arithmetic, when all that’s left is two times two makes four? Two times two makes four even without my will. Is that what you call free choice?” (23).In order to demonstrate his discretion and unpredictable nature, the narrator suddenly bewilders his audience by announcing that what he stated before had been nothing more than a poor attempt at a joke. He states, “Gentlemen, I’m joking of course, and I myself know that it’s not a very good joke; but, after all, you can’t take everything as a joke” (23). It is not known exactly how much information he had been joking about, possibly the two previous chapters, four chapters, or the entire work. It can even be speculated that the narrator was never actually joking, but isn’t confident enough to admit to the claims that he has made. Either way, his shot at humor, though hard to understand, humanizes him; and it exhibits yet another contradicting statement.The narrator leads into another confusing announcement when he proclaims “Why, here’s what would be better: if I myself were to believe even a fraction of everything I’ve written. I swear to you, gentlemen, that I don’t believe one word, not one little word of all that I’ve scribbled. That is, I do believe it, perhaps, but at the very same time, I don’t know why, I feel and suspect that I’m lying like a trooper.” (27). By combining this with the previously mentioned joke statement, and assuming that both statements are meant literally, they create a double negative, canceling each other out. This reverses everything that he has claimed. Why would he do this? Would this be no more than another example of the “advantage” he previously described? Is this his self- sabotaging method of being unpredictable? Without jumping to conclusions, a following passage illustrates how the narrator believes a reader might react to his writings. In it, he includes, from a reader’s perspective, “There’s some truth in you, too, but no chastity; out of the pettiest vanity you bring your truth out into the open, into the marketplace, and you shame it… You really want to say something, but you conceal your final word out of fear because you lack the resolve to utter it; you have only cowardly impudence” (27). By now, the narrator may seem that he is cowardly in coming out and saying exactly what he wants to, and instead dances around it by distracting his audience with statements to detract from the serious nature of his arguments, and the reader’s response only furthers that theory. Through this interpretation, the previous areas where the narrator proclaims that he is either joking or lying are rendered meaningless. So why would he include statements to intentionally mislead the reader? For no other reason than to demonstrate his free will. All that he writes are his, and only his, writings and he is free to do whatever he pleases with them. If he wants to deliberately include passages that contradict what he has already stated, he may do so. This freedom he shows in his writing is directly related to his idea of the free will advantage that he deems so important. Obviously, just the fact that the narrator includes such a response to his writing within his argument proves this to be correct.There is a popular phrase that states “The ends justify the means”, an excuse used often by individuals whose motives may be questioned. Through his method of writing, the narrator renders this phrase ineffective, while raising a question of the phrase itself. Why do the means even have to be justified at all? The narrator shows that he can decide upon actions that may oppose his interests to prove that he is an unpredictable man with a free will and ability to make voluntary decisions of his own, without the need to justify them with reason.————————————————Works CitedDostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes From Underground. New York: Norton, 1989.
The most gripping aspect of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writing is his characters’ compelling internal struggle. No matter how shocking or far-fetched his characters’ struggles may first appear, one quickly discerns that these struggles are precisely those with which we all continually grapple. Dostoevsky’s depiction of these struggles, however, are taken to the extreme, making them initially appear incomprehensible. The Underground Man himself is a metaphor for one who is suffering from a hyperconscious state of mind who endures a vicious circle of logical to illogical thinking. He vacillates between being a superior thinker to being as insignificant and invisible as a creeping insect. As noted in class, Plutarch writes that “You are a God only insofar as you recognize yourself as a man”. This reinforces society’s general conception that one who lives as a bookworm comprehends nothing about real life. Likewise, some people hold that one who experiences life actively but has no book knowledge is missing out on the finer (that is, intellectual/philosophical) things of life. Therefore, as Plutarch and Dostoevsky suggest, one must live amongst one’s fellow man and have healthy interaction with others as a prerequisite for gaining any ground toward self-transcendence or ‘godliness’. The Underground Man delves into the question of how much control each individual has over his/her freedom, including freedom of choice. Victor Frankl maintains that freedom is a choice that can be cultivated; correspondingly Davis postulates that radical reflexivity can ensure the fruition of personal self-enlightenment and emancipation. Along this same line of thinking, the Underground Man alludes to the fact that there is an important purpose to his taking up pen and paper: “…Why, why exactly do I wish to write? If it’s not for the public, then wouldn’t it be possible to remember it all in my head without transferring it to paper?” (Dostoevsky, 39). His persistent questioning points to the possibility that he does have a desire to change, to achieve moral understanding through having healthy human relationships. Taylor believes “…that we can grasp our lives in a narrative” (Taylor, 47). He expounds further along this vein: “…Making sense of one’s life as a story is also, like orientation to the good, not an optional extra; that our lives exist also in this space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going” (Ibid.). According to this viewpoint, each person has the potential for personal growth, change and development. Most notably, each of us may choose to seek out this growth and development. If one chooses to live in isolated complacency and not seek out personal betterment, like the Underground Man, then that person will only ever know perpetual, cyclical stagnation. The Underground Man’s personality is paradoxical. On one hand, he feels a need to be a part of a positive social camaraderie, even to have love. At the same time he loathes others and strongly conveys that people, in general, are a waste of his time. The Underground Man relays a clear contrast of his own thinking pertaining to the power (or lack thereof) of love: “…When there is love, you can carry on living without happiness. Even in grief life is good, it’s good to be alive in the world however you live” (Dostoevsky, 88-9). In the very next breath, he continues to say “You and I…we came together…just now, and during all that time we didn’t exchange a single word, and afterwards you started looking at me like a [scared] wild animal; and I did the same to you. Is that really the way to love…it’s simply repugnant, that’s what” (Dostoevsky, 89). The Underground Man is oscillating between having faith and not having faith in the power of human relationships and/ love, unable to let himself fully trust in the goodness of others for fear of being disappointed beyond recovery. The ideas noted above point to the fact that a person cannot live with his/her head always in the clouds anymore than s/he can live a wholly unreflected life. This hypothesis is not new. In the Torah (Old Testament), for example, it is written that Jacob stood out as the best model for future generations. More than his father or grandfather before him, Jacob was able to maintain a strong sense of identity as well as an unfaltering faith in God and his fellow man. He was able to achieve this faith not only when living within his own community, but also when he lived as a stranger in an unfamiliar land as an advisor to the Pharaoh. Despite the fact that there are moments wherein the Underground Man is close to self-transcendence, as when his “…heart turned over” (Dostoevsky, 117) upon Liza’s offering him a generous, forgiving love without expecting reciprocation (in parallel to God’s love for mankind), he is not able to let himself love or be loved, falling back into his status quo. Even though the character of the Underground Man may seem unrealistically extreme, the paradoxes and internal wrestling he deals with are very similar to the conflicts that many of us take entire lifetimes to sort out. his same conflicting contrasts, paradoxes, and internal wrestling are those that many of us take a lifetime to sort out.
The central characters in the film Fight Club and Dostoevsky’s novel Notes from Underground attempt to manage a serious psychological estrangement from society, each with a strategy that ultimately directs outward aggression inward. Fight Club’s nameless narrator suffers a kind of masochistic schizophrenia rooted in his total disdain for society, as it effectively deems him a “nobody”; Dostoevsky’s leading man – also nameless, also mentally afflicted – attacks society within the realm of his own person, taking pleasure in self-inflicted pain. The endless series of parallels between these two works eerily reinforces a shared theme, with each character a “nobody” crouched within an imposing universe of overly-extensive artificiality; the Underground Man must be a copy of the creator of Fight Club, who indeed resents most that he is “a copy of a copy of a copy.”Interestingly, Fight Club’s narrator oddly resembles Dostoevsky’s typical low-ranking civil servant; his disturbingly dry occupation – until he quits – mirrors the triviality to his obsessive accumulation of material things, none of which make evident anything substantial about his character. Not only does this narrator’s lack of individuality exist as the product of modern society’s structure, but the schizophrenic aggression he suffers is due to what seems to be a hyper-extension of his stifled individuality – screaming and kicking until it results in multiple aggressive “people” within the psyche of the narrator.It is undeniable that each of these men are utterly alienated, but what is most important is that, against all reason, it is each man that forcefully removes himself from the “reality” of society. The Underground Man spends a life’s length of suffering for anger and fear of the world outside. Similarly, the narrator’s self-imposed aggression in Fight Club can only be attributed to a woeful resentment of society’s values, and thus, a fear of drowning in impenetrable artificiality. This fear that simmers inside each man is not unfounded; Dostoevsky’s novel, together with Fight Club, makes the point that one’s reclusive nature in modern society results directly from the impossibility of integrating individuality into the systematized atmosphere of a metropolis. The parallel characters’ retreats from society represent both a seditious rejection of modern life and a fundamental human need for identity despite an environment run spiritually dry.If the cities that find each of these narrators can be considered comparable to one another, it can be said that the world depicted by Fight Club is a kind of St. Petersburg plummeted into the future. The Underground Man’s angst in the name of action, for identity, and for meaning is nonetheless timeless, but we find that Tyler Durden’s (and Edward Norton’s, etc.) struggle deals with problems that soar through philosophical dissention and into such concrete and immediate realities as mass consumerism, and, moreover, the nature of compliance imposed on us, and expected from us, by society through the ceaseless advertising of actions and thoughts that promote vast complacency with the baseness of modern living. Tyler Durden lives in the most inner point of the narrator’s intellect; unquestionably, he is an anarchist who’s “got it all figured out.” The idea which he, “Jack,” and the unnamed narrator devise, the perfect system, is one of complete chaos – the exact opposite of today’s organized, pre-packaged, airtight corporate world, for as far as the narrator has found it to be, his hard-earned valuables do nothing to solidify his existence as a person. Because the Underground Man is similarly seeking something above the safety of “the system,” and because his affinity for lofty ideals outweighs his need to live in accordance with day-to-day rigors, the shared theme of Notes from Underground and Fight Club actualizes the disturbance that the modern age causes in a human soul. The Underground Man and all the associates of “Jack” recognize modernity’s rhythmic threat on the vitality of the human spirit.Neither of these intensely psychological plots means to deal with violence or aggression per se, but rather focuses on resentment for society’s imminent threat on the person. This arguably suggests that modern egocentricism itself aggravates the desperation of a lost soul. The compulsive need to be what Dostoevsky calls a “man of action” shines forth in the monotonous motion of the urban, scheduled life. From birth, we are told that violence is wrong and fighting is not the way to solve problems. Fight Club and Notes from Underground are rare examinations of the truth of human nature: violence serves not as a means of solving problems, but as an aggressive method of “mayhem” for verifying one’s own existence. The works dare to portray violence not as life’s completely horrible or ugly reality, but as something that strangely purifies the soul of human subsistence.
In Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the Underground Man proposes a radically different conception of free action from that of Kant. While Kant thinks that an agent is not acting freely unless he acts for some reason, the Underground Man seems to take the opposite stance: the only way to be truly autonomous is to reject this notion of freedom, and to affirm one’s right to act for no reason. I will argue that the Underground Man’s notion of freedom builds on Kant’s, in that it requires self-consciousness in decision-making. But he breaks from Kant when he makes the claim that acting for a reason is not enough, and only provides an illusion of freedom. When faced with the two options of deceiving himself about his freedom (like most men) or submitting to ìthe wall,î (a form of determinism), the Underground Man chooses an unlikely third option – a ‘retort’. I will conclude this paper by questioning whether this ‘retort’ succeeds at escaping the system of nature he desperately seeks to avoid.I will begin by explaining how the Underground Man’s argument builds on Kant’s notion of freedom. Throughout the work, the Underground Man speaks of consciousness. He claims that consciousness is an illness, and that most men are (thankfully) not fully conscious (10). This constant reference to consciousness is reminiscent of Kant’s notion of autonomous action. Kant believes that humans decide which actions to perform as a result of self-conscious reflection. That is, when they have a desire, they must first step back from that desire, examine possible courses of action, and then endorse the desire as worthy of satisfaction before they can act on it. If people acted without this type of reflection, then their actions would not really be free – freedom depends on conscious endorsement by the individual, a temporary removal from one’s immediate desires.So far, the Underground Man and Kant are in agreement. However, Kant believes that the endorsement of desires consists of having a reason to act on that desire, a reason based on what we perceive as some good. The type of good is unspecified – it could anything from the satisfaction of egoistic aims to the betterment of the human race. What is important is that we establish for ourselves what type of good on which to base our reasons. Free action is impossible unless we formulate our reasons independently; more specifically, we must decide for ourselves what is a good reason for acting. Although the Underground Man agrees that we must formulate our own reasons, he rejects the notion that reasons based on any concept of a perceived good can ever really be our own.This rejection of reasons as a basis for autonomy stems from his belief that freedom is virtually impossible in a largely deterministic and evolutionary universe, where everything is determined by the ‘laws of nature’ to which he constantly refers. The Underground Man believes that the feeling of freedom engendered by acting for a reason as opposed to acting blindly is an illusion. He says of men with limited consciousness that ìthey take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in this way they are more quickly and easily convinced than others that they have discovered an indisputable basis for their activityî (19). In other words, these ‘men of action’ convince themselves that their choices are based on a higher faculty, on reasons they formulate independently (primary causes). However, their action is really based on causes determined externally, by their instincts, biology, etc. (immediate or secondary causes). If we had the intellectual capacity, all of human reason and desire could be predicted beforehand, ‘calculated on paperÖaccording to various laws of nature that man will never discover’ (28).He describes these men of action as those ‘arisen from the bosom of nature’ (13). The Underground Man believes that anything we perceive as ‘good’ was intended by nature for the preservation of the species, survival of the individual, or other natural aim. Thus, although we may feel that our reasons are a result of a higher faculty, this feeling is an illusion. Nature provides us with this illusion because, as individuals with higher consciousness, we do not want to realize that all our actions are determined by reasons beyond our specific existence. As the Underground Man describes it, ‘Man has been continually proving to himself that he’s a man and not an organ-stop’ (31). That is, man wants to believe that freedom is possible, that he is not just an instrument to preserve the species or to act as nature intended. However, most men have ‘limited consciousness,’ and easily succumb to the illusion of freedom – they do not examine their reasons sufficiently rigorously, and are quickly convinced that their reasons are their own. He often compares man to an animal: ìThis sort of gentleman heads straight for his target, like a maddened bull with his horns loweredÖî (13). Men of limited consciousness are able to convince themselves that reasons aim at some good beyond that intended by nature. This is how nature intended, because if men were to realize the futility of their action, they would be paralyzed. They would no longer act in a way that would preserve the species, and the species of man would die out – hence a higher level of consciousness is an ‘illness’.Such is the malady which consumes the Underground Man, who ‘has not arisen from the bosom of nature but from a retort’ (13). Having a higher level of consciousness, he sees that the ultimate causes of all reasons are external. As a result, he has two choices – he can deceive himself about his freedom like others do, or he can submit to the laws of nature and acknowledge that freedom is illusion. The first option is clearly impossible, as his heightened consciousness ‘succeeds in piling up around him so much additional disgust in the way of questions and doubtsÖthat he has willy-nilly gathered around himself some kind of fatal bog’ (14). However, he also refuses to submit to the laws of nature, to act unconsciously and respond immediately and unthinkingly to all desires or whims. Therefore, he makes a desperate attempt to exert his freedom in the only way he sees possible: by acting deliberately contrary to any reason which can be perceived as ‘good’. In doing so, he hopes to achieve the highest good, man’s ‘most advantageous advantage’: his individuality and autonomy (23).But what exactly does this activity consist of? How does the Underground Man frame this ‘retort’? He does not give many specific examples of truly free action, but defines it mainly as a negative concept. He views the retort as acting against anything he thinks nature intended – he takes any impulse which people most often avoid and attempts to gain pleasure from it (such as in the midst of a toothache, or by being humiliated). Thus, not only does he act contrary to nature, but he derives pleasure wherever it seems most improbable.But one must wonder whether this type of action is truly autonomous. In his very specific attempts to defy nature, his actions seem to have sole basis in the natural causes which he so despises. He reminds one of a jealous ex-lover who, in his attempts to prove his lack of interest in his old flame, deliberately flirts with other women in his ex-lover’s presence, gives her dirty looks, and refuses to return her calls. Similarly, the Underground Man tries to prove he is not subject to the laws of nature by acting deliberately and consciously against them. In neither case are we fooled: both examples reveal that the actor is still subject to what he seeks to avoid, insofar as all of his actions are determined by and dependant on the original factor.Thus, it is difficult to see how the Underground Man’s retort could be an example of autonomous action. He rejects the Kantian notion of autonomy because he does not believe that people really determine their own reasons. However, it seems that he is falling into the trap that he wants so desperately avoid: his reasons are still determined by something external to himself, i.e., the laws of nature. Although they might be a direct negation of these laws, the more directly negated they are, the more closely they are guided by them, because they are completely determined by them.The Underground Man may reply that, although he may not be acting completely autonomously, at least he is not passively succumbing to the laws of nature. He succeeds in that he is able to escape the system, and do something that is unprecedented, does not promote the survival himself, the human race, or anything nature intended. In this way he avoids the fate of others. In addition, although the bulk of his actions may not be free when framed as a ‘retort,’ at least some part of his action may be autonomous: the very decision and initial execution of his plan to defy nature, to refuse to accept reasons as the basis for action. This one act of defiance may succeed in allowing him to assert himself as more than a ‘piano stop.’However, it seems that the Underground Man does not succeed in his ultimate goal. If his decision to refuse to act in accord with nature really does represent his one instance of free action (which, of course, it may not – for example, it could be determined by nature that he is not fit to survive, so this decision would allow him to perish more quickly, which may even be better for him ultimately), it seems that he should commit suicide immediately after. Indeed, there is evidence throughout the text that he is keenly aware of the futility of his situation, and goes back and forth between supporting and mocking his own statements. His position is nicely summed up in the following statement, ìOf course, I won’t knock this wall down with my head if in the end I haven’t got the strength to do so, but I won’t submit to it simply because I’m up against a stone wall and haven’t got sufficient strengthî (15). And in the end, it seems that he really is just a man up against an enormous stone wall, but will spend his life banging his head against it until he collapses.
On the surface, it appears that the Underground Man is no more than Dostoevsky’s attempt of a fascinating and contradictory refutation of Chernyshevsky’s proposal of rational egoism as a solution to an emerging hyperconscious culture. Fascinating in the sense that the Underground Man refuses to subscribe to the construction of the idealistic ‘crystal palace’ through his innate belief in free will, and contradictory in the sense that his own state of hyperconsciousness pushes him deeply into a place of what he describes as ‘conscious inertia,’ or a state of inaction- which is ironically what rational egoism exists to solve. The Underground Man, if without realizing it, exhibits many of the same traits as an existentialist, including a belief in some kind of inherent radical subjectivity that is bound to humanity, and refuting the notion that human reason can be reduced to pure mathematics, as he thinks that humans derive their essence through their actions. Yet his existentialist nature is stymied as he recognizes the futility of his position: he is trapped in ‘conscious inertia,’ which leads to what philosophers such as Sartre coin ‘despair.’ This status, which remains with him throughout both parts of the novel, emerged as a result of Dostoevsky creating his character to be a perversely extreme version of the hyperconscious being, one who fails to realize that his reality is shaped by his actions. His subconscious, however, yearns for the human contact and unity that Dostoevsky champions. Quite symbolically this desire manifests itself with the prostitute Liza, but no matter how hard his subconscious has a desire to connect, Dostoevsky engineered his warped existentialist nature to preclude any chance of human connection.
Part I of Notes from Underground best represents the existential nature of the narrator, which is perhaps most obvious through his refutation of Chernyshevsky’s rational egoism, a main tenet of which is the ‘crystal palace,’ described by the translators as ‘the ideal living space for the future utopian communist society.’ Its construction is incredibly offensive to the Underground Man, because he believes it robs not just himself but society of their free will by reducing their wants and desires to mere calculations. It is one of the main points of Chernychevsky that if only these calculations can be made known to us, they can surely enlighten humanity according to what brings us the most ‘profit,’ which typically converges with reason in order to improve our wellbeing or economic status. The Underground Man refutes this idea, claiming it is reductionist in nature, and he vehemently disagrees with it: “One’s own free and voluntary wanting, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness- all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted ones which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil” (Dostoevsky 25). The ‘most profitable’ profit, in his mind, is the simple ability for man to want and desire completely independently. He disregards any systems or theories that want to blatantly show or even compel man to do what is best for him, rational egoism being his (or Dostoevsky’s) main opponent. It should be stressed how especially important to the Underground Man that not only his but all of humanity’s’ desires are their own, any kind of external pressure or attempt to define profit is totally absent.
To the Underground Man, reason and rationality is so insignificant compared to free will that exercising one’s’ right to the latter is justified “even in the case when it is obviously harmful and contradicts the most sensible conclusions of our reason concerning profits – because in any event it preserves for us the chiefest and dearest thing, that is, our personality and our individuality” (29). To clarify this last thought, he is claiming that practicing our free will in any manner we wish preserves our essence as humans. This line of thinking echoes philosopher Sartre’s’ mantra of ‘existence precedes essence’ in his book Existentialism and Human Emotions: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (Sartre 15). If man is only what he makes of himself, he must be the sole determinant of his being and his essence- not some “average of statistical figures and scientifico-economic formulas” (Dostoevsky 21), which, according Dostoevsky, unfairly reduce and simplify human essence while creating a warped version of his harmonious utopian society, a dystopia that forces unity upon us, rather than allowing us to arrive there of our own free will. Regardless of the philosophical implications, nearly one thing is certain about The Underground Man after considering his attitude about the possibility of an external determinant in humans: he exhibits many of the same traits as Sartre’s existentialist, one who is extremely radical in his belief in free will. The Underground Man’s beliefs in free will are characterized quite obviously through the use of his many metaphors and his demena: “two times two is four,” the construction of the “crystal palace,” and even his disgust in classifying humans as “a sort of piano key or a sprig in an organ.” But his understanding of the radical responsibility that accompanies free will is definitely harder to find traces of because of the convoluted nature of his speech. Sartre extends his definition of existentialism by claiming: “…the man who involves himself and who realizes that he is not only the person he chooses to be, but also a lawmaker who is, at the same time, choosing all mankind as well as himself, cannot help escape the feeling of his total and deep responsibility.” He calls this feeling ‘anguish,’ and its description sounds awfully familiar in the context of Notes from Underground.
Through the entirety of Part I, even from the very first line, the Underground Man has been telling us that he is sick, that he is wicked, and that his sickness is derived from his hyperconsciousness. According to Sartre, his suffering is nothing more than the feeling of anguish, resulting from the realization of his deep responsibility not only for his own actions, which accompany his free will, but for his fellow man as well. This anguish results in conflicted, ambivalent feelings towards others who are not in the same hyperrational state he is. He envies them for their ability to act with such certainty, while simultaneously loathing them for their ignorance and insulting their intelligence. Consider how the Underground Man himself acknowledges the futility of action: “How to explain it? Here’s how: as a consequence of their narrow-mindedness, they take the most immediate and secondary causes for the primary ones, and thus become convinced more quickly and easily than others that they have found an indisputable basis for their doings, and so they feel at ease; and that, after all, is the main thing. For in order to begin to at, one must first be completely at ease, so that no more doubts remain” (Dostoevsky 17). Their narrow-mindedness allow them to take action, because they mistake inferior causes for being the primary one. But in the Underground Man’s radically subjective world, there can never be a truly primary cause that can motivate any action- it simply doesn’t exist. Rather, if it does exist, it would take an infinite amount of time to arrive at it.
In addition to just choosing the path most readily available and logical in the moment, one reason why most men aren’t hyperrational like the Underground Man is because they let their emotions distort their rationality and judgement, namely, their passion triumphs over their reason. This is a huge mistake according to Sartre, because it allows men to abstain from responsibility for their actions: “…he is responsible for everything he does. The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse” (Sartre 23). The Underground Man falls into yet another definition of the existentialist because he believes in blaming himself, or responsibility. He abstains from passion and emotion by remaining in his isolation in the underground, and he claims that his intelligence causes his utter and total responsibility for not only his actions, but for the actions that affect him, as with the case of the example of him being responsible for someone slapping him. He is masking his ‘anguish’ for the responsibility he feels as an existentialist by calling it a sickness and even going so far as to take pleasure from it. It’s clear that he’s proud of his status of hyperconsciousness even though he envies those without it; to him it’s both a blessing and a curse- in any event, it distinguishes him from others and makes him different. As a consequence of his hyperconsciousness, he is condemned to a life of inaction and passivity. Passivity develops into stillness, stillness leads to isolation, from isolation develops indifference, and as evident with the Ridiculous Man, indifference precedes apathy, which Dostoevsky connotes with death and sin. Of course, he agrees profoundly with the idea the Underground Man champions, which is clearly at this point free will, but his excess of consciousness still leads to his downfall, as we observe most obviously in Part II.
The Underground Man prides himself on his independence from others, but in reality he succumbs to societal pressure quite frequently. One instance of this is when he visits some old friends, and more or less invites himself to their going-away party: “‘Why twenty-one?’ I said, somewhat agitated, apparently even offended. ‘If you count me, it’s twenty-eight roubles, not twenty-one.’” (Dostoevsky 64). Offended at what? At having been forgotten. He feels entitled to being invited to a social gathering even though he despises the people who will be present – he describes their appearances with total loathing. This sense of some unrealized desire to actually have human connection with others climaxes the next night, when he arrives at a brothel and pays a prostitute, Liza, to sleep with him. One small interesting detail was the way he described the brothel itself: “During the day it was a shop; and in the evening those who had references could come and visit…In front of me stood a person with a stupid smile, the hostess herself, who knew me slightly” (86). The Underground Man has been here before, it is not his first time paying someone for sex, which in and of itself is symbolic of his subconscious yearning for any kind of human connectedness. However, his conscious inertia, his anguish, his despair, is developed enough at this point to prevent him from consciously acknowledging this yearning.
The Underground Man is feeling a spiritual pull to unite and connect with others, but attempting such a thing with a condition such as his is totally futile. Dostoevsky demonizes the conscious inertia that the Underground Man finds himself in, and without the realization that actions shape the reality around him, he can only struggle and sink deeper into the isolation that is the underground. Sartre addresses this problem beautifully, in a quote that encompasses the Underground Man’s fatal flaw: “A man is involved in life, leaves his impress on it, and outside of that there is nothing. To be sure, this may seem a harsh thought to someone whose life hasn’t been a success. But, on the other hand, it prompts people to understand that reality alone is what counts, that dreams, expectations, and hopes warrant no more to define a man as a disappointed dream, as miscarried hopes, as vain expectations” (Sartre 33). There is no reality without our actions, and so it follows that there is no reality in the Underground Man’s conscious inertia. He fails to understand that even though there might not be a primary cause for our actions, that humanity must act anyway. His desire for the interconnectedness that is Dostoevsky’s unity is a pointless one, one he will never reach because he fails to act. To conclude, the Underground Man exhibits many of the same traits as an existentialist, one who has a radical belief in the freedom of choice, even if it is detrimental one’s own health, economic status, or psychology. The act of rebelling against the laws of nature for the sake of doing so is highly respectable in his mind. This refutes Chernyshevsky’s idea of rational egoism, but along with radical freedoms comes responsibility not only for one’s own actions, but a responsibility for guiding the whole of humanity into a place shaped by those actions.
Anguish and despair are terms used by Sartre to describe the emotional reaction the Underground Man has upon having a realization of such a magnitude, and thus the existentialist plunges deep into uncertainty. How can one determine the primary, true cause of one’s actions when there is so much subjectivity in the world? Some, like the Underground Man, decide to opt out altogether, remaining perpetually ‘inert.’ However, Sartre maintains that regardless of the futility of rational action, it is vital to understand that our actions shape the world we live in, lest we delve into the same dilemma as the Underground Man.
Within the first few sentences of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky introduces the protagonist of the story, an unnamed man who narrates his life, as a bitter and emotionally distant man. These long-standing feelings and self-isolation are in part a result of the man’s rejection from society. However, his isolation comes largely as a result of misanthropic mindset and superiority complex. Throughout much of Dostoyevsky 19th century text, the man portrays himself as an intelligent man who rises above others. Combining a sense of superiority with a lack of reasonable self-analysis, the man develops himself in relationships as the dominant one. Through both his inner monologue and conversations he has with other characters, the man attempts to create dominance over the reader, his coworkers, and even his school day friends by formulating a majority of conversations around his esoteric ideas and values.
As the primary narrator, the man establishes an intimate relationship with the reader. By recognizing the reader’s involvement in the novel, the man establishes a preaching role as he begins to share his stories, anecdotes, and jokes with the audience. Throughout the beginning of section four, the man begins to establish a rapport with the audience as he states, “Why, it’s a calling, a vocation, a career, ladies and gentlemen! Don’t laugh, it’s the truth” (Dostoyevsky 98). As the underground man addresses the audience, he is formulating a one sided relationship in which he holds the upper hand. By addressing the audience one on one, Dostoyevsky makes it apparent that the man recognizes his influence on others and their inability to respond. By formulating an upper hand with the readers, Dostoyevsky begins to establish dominance the man holds throughout his life, evident in the dominance he holds over us all, his readers and servants to his word.
In addition, Dostoyevsky begins to establish the man’s character through his workplace habits and position. After detailing his physical ailments and characteristics, the man begins to touch upon his professional life over two decades prior. Towards the very first two pages of Dostoyevsky’s classic novel, Notes from Underground, the man begins to detail his prior experience as an officer worker. He states, “I used to be in government service, but I’m not anymore. I was a nasty official. I was rude and enjoyed being rude…I felt indescribably happy whenever I managed to make one of them feel miserable” (Dostoyevsky 85). The man makes it clear that despite his prolonged solitude, he often worked to provide financial assistance, however, as dancers continued to find comfort in a solo or a duet number, many felt at ease with the notion of dancing.
Towards the middle of Dostoyevsky’s novel, the underground man begins to tell a story about an experience he had when rekindling a relationship with his school day friends. The underground man invited himself to his “friend’s”, Zverkov, farewell dinner at Simonov’s, another schoolmate, house. From the moment the man walked into the party, the power dynamics had already been established as the man states, “I was something like a housefly in their eyes” (Dostoyevsky 133). However, the underground man does not respond well to being the man of lower rank within a crowd. This immediate establishment of the underground man as lesser than his former classmates served as a catalyst for his disruptive behavior throughout the dinner. For example, amid cheers and toasts, the underground man states, “I want to make a speech of my own, then I’ll drink it” (Dostoyevsky 147). By projecting his thoughts upon the crowd of unwilling audience members, the man proves himself to be the man in power. He overrides their evident unhappiness with his presence and unwillingness to communicate with him by forcefully placing his ideas upon the crowd of old friends. This instance serves to prove that the underground man must always maintain a position of power in order to come out of solitude and communicate openly with others.
The underground man suffers from emotional distress and prolonged isolation, which both leads to and are contributing factors to a worsened case of uneasiness and daily trepidation. After undergoing social rejection for years, if not decades, the man is tired of being marginalized by a select few, thus prompting his desired rise about to power and express his superiority to others. Through distinct word choice and actions, the man finds comfort in garnishing power as a result of relationship with others. The man finds favor as he rises above the hectic matters of life around him to rise into his own world: the world inside his mind. Alone, the man has all the power he may ever need and it comforted by his own actions.
Notes from Underground, completed in 1864, is considered one of Dostoevsky’s most deviously insightful works, famous for its gloomy description of not only the dark historical period but also the dark environment in which the protagonist lives. This is a novel that attacks moralism, rationalism, utilitarianism and utopian idealism. After a thorough reading, one can locate abundant clues and evidence to support that one of the core themes of Notes from Underground is the fight against the world that people would call civilized, i.e. the ideal world that people are longing for, and the world that “I”, the protagonist of the story, will deny.
The opening paragraphs of the story clearly convey the protagonist’s view of life, personality and the status of his rationality. Almost immediately, we learn that the protagonist is afflicted by illness but refuses to receive medical treatment. He says, “My liver hurts; well, then let it hurt even worse”(3). He interprets medical treatment as “harming only myself and no one else.” This reveals how clearly he understands his illness. That he chooses not to see a doctor proves the protagonist’s advocacy for free will and the power of this free will could make him choose to tolerate the pain rather than seek a cure. Well-being and happiness are desirable goals, and also the features of the utopian world, but he chooses to deny these notions and suffer in order to prove his views. Furthermore, his monologue also implies his championing of rationality over morality and how he escapes from the control imposed by morality. He says: “What was the main point about my wickedness? The whole thing precisely was … that I was simply frightening sparrows in vain, and pleasing myself with it.”(4) This excerpt shows how powerfully moral judgment suppresses a person’s anger. It changes a person in rage into a timid sparrow.Moreover, simple comfort like a doll or sugar could assuage him. Closely following the above quote is the protagonist’s confession, “an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure – primarily a limited being” (5). When everybody is calling for a higher standard of morality, the protagonist expresses the idea that morality makes people characterless. When morality is considered a social progress towards utopian idealism, the protagonist chooses to avoid it and live out his life outside of this movement, behaving in a way that society would deem wicked. He dislikes society, so he stays away from it, and he remains “wicked” so as not to become characterless.
The protagonist clearly knows that he could not blend in with society because of his wickedness, but upon facing their derision, he could do nothing but fight back in protest. This is illustrated by his encounter with an officer in the street. In thinking about how to deal with the superior officer, he says, “it tormented me that even in the street I simply could not be on an equal footing with him.” (48) He thought it humiliating and unequal that he would have to step aside in deference to the officer even though the man had no authority on the street. He even imagines, “what if I meet him and do not step aside? Deliberately do not step aside, even if I have to shove him?” (48) The key word here is equality, in that the protagonist does not want to exist in a system where an officer is perceived to have more value than the common man. He just would not swerve to obtain his sense of being treated equally, and all the theory of equality comes from western enlightenment. As an intellect influenced by it, he becomes oversensitive after he spends too much of his energy focusing on it.Equality is a concept that exists in the description of ideal interpersonal relationships and, crucially, in the utopian world. It is a social state that everybody desires. However, that he emphasizes the notion of equality with such vehemence indicates that it has influenced and changed his personality and social behavior, which implies that he is a rebel of idealism.
Ultimately, the narrator rejects blending in with society, and does not seek the same sense of happiness that others yearn for. His love affair with Liza is another example that proves he avoids the notion of happiness as interpreted by others. In chapter six, he says, “I grew up without a family: that must be why I turned out this way…feeling” (84). This personal judgment of himself prepares him for his later escape from Liza. His emotional confession of his situation touched his sensitive nerve to love, but as his confession echoes Liza’s misfortune, Liza started to pay special attention to him. However, after “seeing her suddenly blush” for what could happen next, he abruptly starts to defend himself by saying, “I am not ashamed of my poverty,” “I look upon my poverty with pride” (106) Poor but noble – this is his self-evaluation which reveals his sensitiveness. Then he “jumped up and ran to Apollon,” and he thinks he “had to vanish somewhere” (106). His sudden departure finally ends his love of Liza, which also proves that he is not only sensitive but also lacks confidence. He is poor, but he finds reasons and defends his poverty, which proves that he is afraid of his future with Liza. Because love is considered a blissful thing and a symbol of an ideal world, he chooses to avoid it and escape.
The “Underground Man’s” failed relationship with Liza, when considered together with his attitude of his life and his social behavior helps to conclude that he staunchly refused to pursue what others would perceive as an ideal world. Everything that marks idealism and betterment he choose to escape from in order to preserve his worldview of free will over happiness. As a philosophical and psychological statement, Notes from Underground expresses an anti-utopian tendency.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes From Underground. New York: Bantam. 1983
In all of modern literature, there are few protagonists as self-effacing, miserable, indecisive, or morally contemptible as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. Given the Underground Man’s interminable Hamlet-like meanderings, one might surely conjure up the Dostoevsky-influenced likenesses of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa or any number of characters by James Joyce, but the Underground Man’s truest literary match is not found in the loosely-packed language of prose; rather, the Underground Man can best be seen through the anguished eyes of T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock as he sings his infamous love song.
Although Prufrock and the Underground Man were created during fundamentally different literary movements—Prufrock is the universally recognized embodiment of Modernism, whereas the Underground Man represents Russian Realism—their methods of approaching desire are strikingly similar, especially as this understanding relates to anonymity and the desire for recognition.
The reader is first introduced to the Underground Man not with the lyricism that is found alongside Prufrock, but, rather, by a series of grievances. Some of his complaints, such as those involving his work in civil service, are philosophical in nature. Others, most noticeably the pain in his liver, are entirely physical. What unites his grievances, however, is their impermanence. The Underground Man is conflicted with an insatiable appetite for reversals, such as when he sardonically states,“I lied about myself just now when I said I was a wicked official. I lied out of wickedness. I was simply playing around both with the petitioners and with the officer, but as a matter of fact I was never able to become wicked. I was conscious every moment of so very many elements in myself most opposite to that” (5).Although his attitude in this passage indicates cavalier playfulness, the Underground Man remains first and foremost honest in his shortcomings. He repeatedly issues a veneer then a reversal without ever hiding his original thoughts. He is a man at war with both society and himself, never being able to truly separate the two, except for brief moments which are quickly denied. This unity, though recognized by the Underground Man, remains indicative of man’s inability to remain autonomous in an increasingly urban world, a common theme among Modernist literature and something fully realized in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Another element seminal to understanding the paradoxes and insecurity of the Underground Man (and also appearing later in “Prufrock”) is an inability to adequately express oneself. Although he remains “conscious [of] every moment of so very many elements,” the Underground Man is still unsure of how to convey his understanding of the world. For example, he reveals to his readers that something explosive occurred in his past regarding a superior officer, but it is not until forty pages later that the audience discovers the nature of the encounter. This withholding of information, which is foundational to the narrative, appears controlled—that is, the narrator paces out the information—however, given the Underground Man’s inability to speak without personal hindrance—be it the physicality of “catch[ing his] breath” (7) or his philosophical “magnanimity” (9)—it is much more likely that the explosive encounter with a superior officer presented in section II of the novel is withheld from the audience simply due to the narrator’s inability to express himself. His nihilism has become so entrenched into his psyche that it is corporeal, suggesting that he is physically incapable of having a concrete opinion. This lack of cogency is typically representative of an unreliable narrator; however, the Underground Man’s unreliability becomes a literary device used to add depth to his character. Essentially, the Underground Man is indecisive because decisiveness in an age of moral turpitude is an impossibility.
Much like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock is a font of indecision who prefers withholding information to stating an actual opinion. After introducing his love song with the emotional anesthesia of an “evening” that is analogized to “a patient etherized upon a table” (lines 2-3), Prufrock quickly poses the idea that the ominous nature of the city, including “hotels,” “restaurants,” and “streets” (lines 4, 6-7), will lead the reader to “an overwhelming question” (line 10). Prufrock piques the reader’s interest by suggesting something life-changing, then quickly withdraws the information necessary to achieve pleasure from such a revelation. This absence, which is rivaled in the titillating preface to an encounter with an officer in Notes from Underground, reflects Prufrock’s inability to achieve his own desires. The audience understands this notion as they, too, are introduced to something desirable, then, just like Prufrock, stripped of any desirable outcome. That Prufrock’s narration is given so matter-of-factly suggests a commanding breed of misery. Prufrock does not appear to be morose about his endeavors; rather, he speaks of his longing then tells the audience not to “ask, ‘What is it?’ (lines 11) while subsequently and passionately welcoming the audience to join him in making a “visit” (line 12), which suggests the fleeting nature of passion, itself. Prufrock’s fleeting admissions are near perfect parallels to the reflections of the Underground Man, whose constant reversals form myriad philosophical “visits.”
The common thread of brevity in Notes from Underground and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” does not present itself negatively. Instead, brevity only comes retrospectively, as though experience, in hindset, is something overly “beautiful and lofty” (7) and submissive to the more refined conscious mind. Brevity, in the form of visits or philosophical musings, also refers to life and aging in the context of each narrative. The Underground Man states the “romantic” occupies himself with “lyrical verses, [while] at the same time [trying] also to preserve ‘the beautiful and lofty’ […] till his dying day” (46). The romantic attempts to “preserve himself […] in cotton wool, like some little piece of jewelry” (46). The Underground Man attributes this artificial preservation of beauty to the intelligence necessary to be a modern romantic, and the audience sees the same attributes play out in “Prufrock,” even if in a much different manner.
Rather than preserving any physical or emotional beauty, Prufrock spends his days callously contemplating his age. His mortality, however, is not something that is anticipated; rather, it is something violently thrust upon him through the recognition of clothing-related social conventions. This sudden realization is evident when he writes that the “eternal Footman hold[s] his coat and snickers” (line 85). Additionally, at the end of the poem, he says, “I grow old…I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (lines 120-121). His trousers, which might otherwise indicate movement, life, and a general sense of action, are now merely a facet of his dying “face,” which must always be “prepare[d] to meet the faces that [he] meets” (line 27). This preparation is not limited to his mortality (and therefor his trousers); Prufrock mentions the implications of one’s wardrobe throughout “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In line 42, he mentions his “morning coat” and his “collar mounting firmly to the chin.” In line 72, he muses about the “lonely men in shirt-sleeves” who watch smoke rising from pipes. The significances of these two wardrobe-related observations pale in comparison, however, to “perfume from a dress” (line 65), the “arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl” (line 67), or “one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl” (line 107), the latter of which appearing to be at the height of all of Prufrock’s desires. Because everything around him—the fog, streets, pipes, etc.—is indicative of an industrial urban environment, his entire universe is governed by the idea of transition and change. Clothing, to Prufrock, is something determinate, and thus decisive. One’s wardrobe is a perfect mélange of the indecision-induced voyeurism that plagues his existence and the physicality of experience, two ideas heavily present throughout Notes from Underground.
Though the Underground Man, discussing the intelligent romantic, remains derisive toward those who are keen on preserving the “lofty and the beautiful” through their clothing, he, like Prufrock, also uses clothing to “prepare a face” before the explosive encounter with the superior officer. Rather than confront the superior officer on the street in a coat that features raccoon, the Underground Man attains a loan so as to purchase “a handsome beaver” (54), for “at the time of the performance one had to look as decent as possible and see to one’s attire” (53). That one must see to one’s attire in the face of a social encounter could be considered perfectly acceptable, even in relation to the Underground Man’s aforementioned philosophies against the artificial preservation of beauty; however, that he considers it a “performance” suggests artifice and anonymity. It is not, after all, the Underground Man who is set to have the encounter; rather, it is the Underground Man playing the social role of someone who is truly vindictive and seeking retribution. As in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” faces must be artificially prepared not only to remain socially acceptable in the presence of other, more venerable persons, but also to shield the reality of one’s existence, which, in both texts, is anonymity.
Both the Underground Man and Prufrock develop physical and philosophical disguises to make their anonymity more palatable toward reaching some seemingly indefinite goal. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the audience is never told what his goal is; however, through the context of the situation, readers can piece together that he is in a place frequented by people of a similar disposition. His social environment features “women [that] come and go” (line 13, 35) and “skirts that trail along the floor” (line 102), suggesting a milieu at once both sexual and sophisticated. Although his “overwhelming question” (line 10, 93) might be something as serious or “universe-disturbing” as a marriage proposal or general affair, it is just as plausible that his love song takes place in a brothel or other social environment, and the “overwhelming question” plaguing his existence is regarding a meaningless and anonymous sexual encounter. The thrown-off shawl from line 107 might suggest the fruition of this sexual exploit, and the reader—along with Prufrock—remains entirely void of resolution, which is paralleled in the similarly anti-climactic encounter of the Underground Man in Book II of Notes from Underground.
The principal difference between the Underground Man and J. Alfred Prufrock is that the Underground Man successfully accomplishes his chief desire, whereas Prufrock’s situation remains static and unfulfilling. In Book I of Notes from Underground, the reader learns about something life-altering for the Underground Man: an insulting encounter with a superior officer. The audience is given little information until Book II, where the Underground Man reveals that he was simply moved by a superior officer. The Underground Man, preferring a quarrel to the passive aggression demonstrated by the officer, furiously says, “I simply could not forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me” (49). The frivolity of the encounter—a simple movement so that the officer could pass—is heightened to the level of an existential crisis by the Underground Man, who so fears his status in society that any gesture proclaiming his anonymity is an insult the very idea of existence. Such a feigned sense of importance is also present throughout the entirety of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as Prufrock continually wonders what others think of him, such as when he voices the opinions of anonymous women proclaiming “How his hair is growing thin!” (line 41) and “How his arms and legs are thin!” (line 44). The Underground Man, unlike Prufrock, does not appear to be worried that people think negatively of him; however, he is frightened by the idea that people might not notice him altogether.
That the Underground Man values his existence above the opinions of others is his sole redeeming attribute and the catalyst that sets him apart from the more squeamish Prufrock. Unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, who is physically incapable of making a decision based on what others think—he’s constantly wondering, ‘“Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’” (line 38), as well as “And should I then presume? / And how should I begin?” (lines 68-69)—the Underground Man is able to make a decision upon the matter. After another series of reversals about exacting revenge upon the superior officer, he “unexpectedly decide[s]” to bump into the officer “shoulder against shoulder” (55). The wording of “unexpectedly decided” suggests two important distinctions about the Underground Man. The first distinction is that his ability to act upon a matter is unexpected, implying an innate determination to fulfill his desires. The second distinction is that his actions, no matter how rushed or unexpected, are still decisions. Unlike Prufrock and his Modernist persona, the Underground Man is in control of his fate, however feeble that fate might be.
Even though Prufrock and the Underground Man each deliver interminable lamentations on the morality of their respective ages, the Underground Man is still able to act upon his grievances with society. Instead of continually addressing an inability to achieve a goal, such as with Prufrock, the Underground Man issues a series of philosophical reversals and paradoxes that ultimately end in the fulfilment of his desire. The Underground Man, unlike Prufrock, attributes his initial appetite for meandering philosophy merely to “boredom” (17). Each protagonist naively believes he can “see everything, and […] see often incomparably more clearly than [their] very most positive minds do” (46) through a clear conscience of their surroundings. They believe such a cognizance approaches greatness, or, as Prufrock so aptly summarizes, each protagonist wonders whether or not he dares to “disturb the universe” (line 46). Unbeknownst to the Underground Man and Prufrock, such a universal disturbance is well beyond their capacity. They are undoubtedly destined to live in misery until “human voices wake [them]” (line 131) from the shackles of anonymity.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, and Richard Pevear. Notes from Underground. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print.
Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Waste Land and Other Writings. 2002 Modern Library Pbk. ed. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 3-7. Print.
There has been a lot of critical investment on the lines of drawing parallels, comparisons and contrasts between Notes From Underground and Chernyshevsky’s sensationally Utopian novel What Is To Be Done?, but the primary importance of Dostoevsky’s novel can also be traced from the perspective of how its protagonist, the Underground Man, has become a point of convergence — an emblem, if we may say so from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, for a number of traits characterizing the so-called Modernist movement. Dostoevsky, however, despite his individual brilliance, was evidently a product of his time. Virginia Woolf opined in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’ that the “most elementary remarks upon modern English fiction can hardly avoid some mention of the Russian influence” (Woolf 57). There are many reasons why the “Russian influence” in general, and Dostoevsky’s influence in particular, was readily felt by many Modernists.
If the disintegration of the personality and society, that marks the boundary of the modern age, was triggered in much of Europe by the First World War, in Russia it had been sensed and expressed fifty years earlier with the Emancipation of the serfs in 1861 (Russell 211). Moreover, a prevalent socialist ethos in Russia attracted the attention of many European Modernists who sensed it to be a viable alternative to the crisis of capitalism in the early twentieth-century. In Notes, on another level, there can be located a discernible metatextual element at moments such as the one when the obsessively self-reflexive narrator professes: “I didn’t know how to speak except ‘like a book’” (Dostoevsky 72). The Underground Man’s literariness is thoroughgoing (as is his cultural erudition that pans global literary boundaries), and as such, his notes might tell much about Dostoevsky’s own literary standpoints. His revolt against a sterile predictability of reason can make him be seen as presciently anticipating a formal revolt against rational masculinity that calibrated much of the formal divergence of Modernist literature. Indeed, it might be safely asserted that no book or essay on the situation of the modern culture would be complete without some allusion to Dostoevsky’s figure (Frank 1). The long stretches of interior monologues by this introspective, spitefully polemical, questioning and tentative “anti-hero” that Dostoevsky deploys, function not just as caricaturist subversions of various scenes in Chernyshevsky’s novel, but usher the sinister spatial location from where they are being delivered — i.e., the “Underground” as the underbelly of every city life — into the anxious arena of Modernist literary compositions. In this light, St. Petersburg here characteristically provides the backdrop both for horrified fascination and a sense of lurking danger as the anonymous city space that entraps as well as enraptures the Underground Man’s imagination. As Robert Russell points out, “from Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman (published in 1841) onwards, St. Petersburg has been presented in literature in terms of the juxtaposition of opposites, struggle, contradiction, lack of certainty, madness: a place where the strangest things can and do occur” (212). He goes on to note that this “spectral” metropolis, a place which the Underground Man describes as “the most abstract and intentional city in the world” and which Dostoevsky himself referred to as “the most fantastic city,” was for many Russians and visitors to that country the physical embodiment of modernity, the symbol of a break with the past (Russell 211-12). From these it becomes apparent that spatial verisimilitude for Dostoevsky is not just a realist exigency but a reflector of the psychological coordinates of the characters’ minds.
The use of snow in Notes at once strikes us as a realist topographical detail and an existential trope signifying the psychic frigidity of the Underground Man. The anonymity of city scenes finds consequential ramifications in matters of readability too, an issue which increasingly shapes the insidious narrative movement. The restlessly agitated half-confessional and half-polemical structure of the work strikes a new relationship between the reader and the author that is remarkably efficacious in dismantling traditional authorial control as such: much of the story unfolds as dialogic reactions anticipated or assumed by the author, though the idea of any real readership is denied vehemently; also denied is any real agency of the reader. But such denials are paradoxically pivoted at the centre of “a vicious circle of dialogue which can neither be finished not finalized” (Bakhtin 155). Sometimes the narrator is afraid that the reader will find that he is “joking” (Dostoevsky 33), sometimes he is afraid that he might be seen as an entertainer; at other times he debunks the authors of romantic morality by parading a structured approach calculated to elicit the right response from Liza, who in this instance becomes reader surrogate for his “book”. This ironic reversal and parody of the sentimental social Romantic cliché of the Forties (Frank 24) satirizes the theme of rescuing fallen women by equating it with a mere rhetorical exercise — rather, a dialogic perpetuation of a conversation simply for moral triumph. Both within and without the text, an anxious awareness of the readability of the word, of the human face, or of reality, inform Dostoevsky’s novel — which is suspicious even of its status as a novel — such that the narrator complains: “a novel needs a hero, whereas here all the traits of an anti-hero have been assembled deliberately” (Dostoevsky 91). These nagging concerns make him vulnerably dependent on an imaginary other’s response which further traps him, as “[He] fears that the other might think he fears that other’s opinion” (Bakhtin 154). When the Underground Man claims “I’ve only taken to an extreme that which you haven’t even dared to take halfway” (Dostoevsky 91), he talks mostly about performing an act of self-scrutiny taken to acute extremes. The range of emotions he explores is common enough; they appear bizarre because they have been calculatedly blown out of proportion so that otherwise imperceptibly weak strands of thought get amplified enough to be closely analyzed.
The second part of the work substantiates the ideas spitefully expressed in the first part, in a way that the reader can relate to the illogic of human behavior, which stems from dichotomously alternating alienation from and attraction to the society. The duality of contrary pulls can be felt at every level in the narrative. For example, the bitter awareness of having committed some revolting act in a “disgusting Petersburg night” finally turns into “some kind of shameful, accursed sweetness” and “earnest pleasure”, because “the most intense pleasures occur in despair, especially when you’re very acutely aware of the hopelessness of your own predicament” (Dostoevsky 6-7). In a learned way, in what comes across as a most direct criticism of Chernyshevsky’s rational egoism, the narrator problematizes the concept of linear progress in history and the doctrine of the “human advantage.” Progress of civilization has not brought with it a cessation of war, as Buckle argued in his History of Civilization in England (Dostoevsky 16-17). Instead, anticipating afin de siècle reaction against the positivist ethos, Dostoevsky maps out the power of the unconscious unreason that could counteract all notions of human advantage and seek “one more advantageous advantage . . . on behalf of which, a man will, if necessary, go against all laws . . . reason, honour, peace, prosperity” (Dostoevsky 16). In this connection, it can be said that the Underground Man in a way hints at something like the failure of the conscious mind to either understand or control the unconscious drives, which Sigmund Freud would later diagnose. Chernyshevsky’s “crystal palace” too can turn into a boring breeding ground for sadomasochist tendencies. Not just actual historical wars; for Dostoevsky, war is psychological. In the modern space, even social alienation can escalate quickly into a war; apparently innocuous farewell parties can turn into battlefields. Apparently small decisions (and indecisions) assume disproportionately weighty consequences as every single thought is given an overwhelming political edge.
Dostoevsky begins his parody of Nihilism by having the Underground Man use Chernyshevsky’s deterministic philosophy as an excuse for his moral flaccidity (Frank 8). Caught in this vortex of determinist solipsism, moral considerations become all but impossible. “Stifling” and “stabbing” the pain in his heart, he broods that his ill-treatment and insult of Liza will finally “elevate and purify her” (Dostoevsky 90) in the novel’s climactic moment of his ultimate retreat into his shell. The notion of freedom, it would appear, appears in many shapes and forms in the novel. In his numerous attempts to set himself free by revolting against all forms of compulsion — social, or ideological — the Underground Man time and again ends up reinforcing the very menacles that he wishes to proves worthless. This dialectic of failure makes Turgenev comment that he is the ultimate Hamlet-type, as it were, in his revolt accompanied by an innate inability to belief in any viable alternative. The clarity of his dissent, though lacks a firm resolve in the opposite direction, spells out an yearning of a soul in pain in a language all too transparent to be misunderstood. All this chaos actually gravitates towards an overwhelming question around which all the incidents gyrate. If “people like the author of these notes not only may, but actually must exist in our society” (Dostoyevsky 3), then is there any way out for such self-immured underground prisoners? Or is it really worth escaping if the other option comprises of rakes like Zverkov? When mathematical certainties like “twice two is four”, enlightened self-interest, or “laws of nature” all collapse together, what can satisfactorily fill the void? Clearly, the Underground Man’s doctrine that what a man needs is simply and solely independent volition — whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead — goes kaput in the light of his disastrous experiences which epitomize his utter inability to live up to his ideal in this social scenario. As an answer to these problems, Dostoevsky’s original manuscript version reportedly incorporated a “necessity for faith and Christ” (Dostoevsky 96) whose deletion was bitterly lamented by him in a letter to his brother.
It may be that Dostoevsky — a highly mystic and tormenting religiosity was always one of whose essential parts — wants the Underground Man’s tragic plight to demonstrate our need to choose God over self (Barstow 32). However, despite his displeasure at the bewildering omission by the censor, no change was made by Dostoevsky in subsequent editions of the work. Though the reason why he chose not to change anything remains unknown, his decision has added to the work’s delicious ideological complexity and richness by incorporating a certain degree of open-endedness to the Underground Man’s acerbically-blurted-out discourse. This loophole in the text, this lack of a centred discursive structure, even if accidentally induced at first, was maintained as a conscious choice, and has finally immortalized the Underground Man by leaving his questions unanswered. Efforts at filling the void shall continue and the ideological battleground inaugurated by Dostoevsky shall continue to witness newer methods of combat. Notes merely acted as the first novel where Dostoevsky found his true vein as a writer of the novel of ideas. Its relevance has not diminished even one bit as the unfinished project of Modernism keeps on inventing newer strategies. The Underground lives on in the consciousness of every cosmopolitan individual.
Bakhtin, M. M. “Discourse in Dostoevsky.” Notes from Underground: An Authoritative Translation, Backgrounds and Sources, Responses, Criticism, 2nd ed., Norton, 2001, pp. 152–61.
Barstow, Jane. “Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes from Underground’ versus Chernyshevsky’s ‘What Is to Be Done?’.” College Literature, vol. 5, no. 1, 1978, pp. 24–33. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25111196.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground: An Authoritative Translation, Backgrounds and Sources, Responses, Criticism. 2nd ed. Trans. and ed. by Michael R. Katz. W.W. Norton& Company, 2001. Norton Critical Editions.
Frank, Joseph. “Nihilism and ‘Notes from Underground.’” The Sewanee Review, vol. 69, no. 1, 1961, pp. 1–33. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27540632.
Russel, Robert. “The Modernist Tradition.” The Cambridge Companion to the Classic Russian Novel, ed. V. Jones Malcolm and Robin Feuer Miller, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 210–229. Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 53–58.