Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground
Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the most influential authors in world literature. This Russian author had written several remarkable novels including Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov. However, before the aforementioned novels were published, Dostoevsky had already gained critical acclaim and recognition for his work entitled Notes from Underground. This novel explores how the freedom of man is undermined by the atmosphere of rationality that dominated the 17th and 18th centuries.
Through the novel’s protagonist, the Underground Man, Dostoevsky illustrates how real freedom is manifested in the defiance of reason.
The period called the Enlightenment occurred throughout the 17th and 18th centuries (Marder, Meyer, & Wyshak, n.
d. ). During this time, reason governed over every endeavor, and was valued above everything else. The period left no room for superstition or foolishness; rationality reigned supreme (Marder, Meyer, & Wyshak, n. d. ). Reason was the means in which man and society can develop for the better.
European thought was dominated by materialism, liberalism and more importantly, utopianism (Marder, Meyer, & Wyshak, n. d. ). All of these movements were established on the belief that reasonable and natural-law theories could establish a perfect society (Emerson, 1992). Perfection was only attainable through the application of reason and the manifestation of “enlightened self-interest” (Marder, Meyer, & Wyshak, n. d. ). The prevalence of reason strongly influenced and inspired Dostoevsky to write Notes from Underground (Marder, Meyer, & Wyshak, n. d. ).
However, the novel did not convey a message agreeable to the intellectual milieu; instead, it served to criticize its very existence. Notes from Underground is actually a response to another text, entitled What Is to be Done? (Marder, Meyer, & Wyshak, n. d. ; Madden, n. d. ). It was written by N. G. Chernyshevsky and was published in 1863. Chernyshevsky was an advocate of “rational egoism,” a movement which fervently believed that perfection of life could be achieved through rationality and enlightenment (Madden, n. d. ). The “rational egoists” also upheld principles of natural law (Madden, n.
d. ). Dostoevsky disagreed with the belief that rationality and enlightenment were the keys to perfection. He strongly believed that the nature of man was beyond those two elements. He acknowledged man’s capacity for both the rational and the foolish; he even upheld that the irrationality of man was more definite, while the rationality was merely added (Marder, Meyer, & Wyshak, n. d. ). Moreover, Dostoevsky was convinced that laws of nature or the principles of reason were not capable of recognizing human individuality, personality, and more importantly, free will (Madden, n. d. ).
These beliefs are embedded in the novel, a text which Rozanov considers a critique of reason as a means to perfection (as cited in Marder, Meyer, & Wyshak, n. d. ). The novel, in the words of Wasiolek, showed how man can be both rational and irrational, as his actions are the result of the exercise of his own freedom (as cited in Marder, Meyer, & Wyshak, n. d. ). Hence, the theme of freedom in the novel is the utmost disregard for reason and natural laws. The protagonist of the novel is the Underground Man, a forty year old man who used to work in civil service (Dostoevsky, 1992).
For a protagonist, he is considered an “anti-hero” (Madden, n. d. ). He is also the antithesis of the time in which he lived; he disagreed with utilitarianism, which prevailed during the 19th century. Utilitarianism was characterized by utilizing “mathematical formulas and logical proofs” to equate one’s wants with his best interests (Madden, n. d. ). The Underground Man disagrees with this; he attests that man wants to exercise his freedom and could do so regardless if it agrees with his best interests or not. If it is man’s desire to act irrational, he could. Of course, acting irrational is not in anyone’s best interest.
However, by being irrational, he was truly able to exercise his freedom. Actions based on desires, instead of reason, enable man to be free. Freedom is thus associated with acting without reason. So in an era where reason dominated, the Underground Man was rather unreasonable. By being unreasonable, he was able to be truly free. In the novel, the Underground Man asserts that science deprives one of freedom. Dostoevsky (1992) writes, “Science has managed by now to anatomize man to such a degree that we already know that all your wishing, your so-called free will is nothing…” (p.
29). The Underground Man then begins his attack on utilitarianism: If someday they should really discover the formula for all our whims and wishes—I mean, what causes them, what laws they’re governed by, how they develop and where they lead in one case or another…in other words, an actual mathematical formula—why, then man will perhaps immediately stop wishing…Who wants to wish according to graphs (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 29)? “Whims and wishes” in this quotation refers to the desires of man. The principles of utilitarianism are marked by analysis of people’s desires.
These desires undergo scrutiny, as to determine if these desires agree with what is best for the people. However, the act of wishing does not involve analysis or scrutiny. One can desire something for no apparent reason. One may wish for something that may prove harmful in the long run. The exercise of freedom is spontaneous and non-regulated. If one has to base his or her desires from the graphs or formulas of science and math, they would no longer fall under the exercise of freedom. If one is to desire based on the graphs or formulas, it would not be an act of freedom any more.
This is because there is imposition involved; the desires are imposed upon by the requirements of science or math. In this situation, the desires of man are dictated by the principles of reason. Thus, freedom disappears upon the use of reason. In the words of the Underground Man, “For if desires are one day brought into complete accord with reason, then we shall reason instead of wishing” (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 30). The Underground Man continues his argument against utilitarianism by differentiating reason and desires. He states:
You see, gentlemen, reason is unquestionably a fine thing, but reason is no more than reason, and it gives fulfillment only to a 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 (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 31). In this quotation, the Underground Man affirms that while reason is important, it is not the most important thing. The desires of man, through which freedom can be exercised, have a much wider scope than reason. Therefore, the desires of man cannot be reduced to graphs and tables because it transcends them.
The Underground Man uses the piano key as a symbol of how reason curbs man’s freedom: He will insist on clinging precisely to his own fantastic dreams, his most vulgar folly, solely in order to confirm himself… that men are still men, and not piano keys, which may be played by the hands of natural laws themselves, but which are threatened by this very playing to be brought to a state where it will no longer be possible to wish a thing outside of graphs and schedules (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 34). Piano keys are pressed to make a sound in the process of playing the piano.
These keys cannot produce sound on their own; they need to be touched and pressed. The analogy between the man and the piano key is what Dostoevsky used to illustrate his point. By measuring man’s desires with the graphs and formulas to determine whether or not it is in their best interests, man becomes a piano key. This is because man comes under the mercy of reason which plays him. To be manipulated by reason is to be bound by its laws; therefore, it is not freedom. The Underground Man believes that humankind values freedom over reason and best interests (Madden, n. d. ).
Freedom means acting out of one’s desires or wishes whether or not the act spoken of is irrational or foolish. In the book, the Underground Man manifests his freedom through several examples. He had committed acts contrary to reason, making him a truly free individual. Hence, the Underground Man was successful in escaping the realm of reason he despises. The book starts with the Underground Man’s admission of a pain. He says, “I think that my liver hurts” (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 1). Anyone who experiences pain will surely resort to measures to eliminate that pain. This is because pain is suffering, and nobody wants to suffer.
In the instance that pain is felt, it is only reasonable that one seeks medical assistance by visiting a doctor. On the contrary, the Underground Man says, “No, sir, I refuse to see a doctor out of spite” (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 1). This decision is obviously irrational, because he does not want to see a doctor to deal with the pain. In addition, he does not have a valid reason not to go to the doctor. One would presume that he simply takes pleasure in his own pain. A rational man would find this decision as preposterous, as no one ever enjoyed suffering from pain (Madden, n. d.
). However, what appears to be a manifestation of masochistic tendencies is actually the Underground Man’s exercise of freedom. Reason dictates that when one feels pain, that person should visit the doctor. As was earlier discussed, the Underground Man believes that reason limits freedom, because it only acknowledges the desires that would be in one’s best interests. The tolerance of pain and the derivation of pleasure from it is the Underground Man’s way of breaking free from reason. Surely, it is a foolish thing to do, but he does not want to conform to the dictates of reason.
He values his freedom, so he refuses to act according to reason. He is a free man; he could do as he pleased. Even if it is contrary to his best interests in prolonging such agony, he still does it because he wished to do so. By tolerating pain and deriving pleasure from it, he successful avoids the system of reason. According to the Underground Man, “I know better than anyone else that I will only harm myself by this, and no one else. And yet, if I don’t seek a cure, it is out of spite. My liver hurts? Good, let it hurt still more” (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 2)!
The Underground Man proceeds with his painful endeavor, this time with a toothache. The fourth chapter of the book opens with his laughter: “Ha-ha-ha! You will find pleasure in a toothache next! And why not? There is pleasure in a toothache ache too” (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 14). Just like with the liver ache, the Underground Man allows himself to feel the pain of his tooth instead of seeing a dentist. He welcomes the pain, and refuses to seek treatment. A critic of the novel, Mikhaylovsky declares that the Underground Man “tortures because he wants to, he likes torture.
There is neither reason nor purpose here, and, in the opinion of Dostoevksy, they are not at all necessary, for absolute cruelty is interesting” (as cited in Marder, Meyer, & Wyshak, n. d. ). Indeed, this is true. The Underground Man does not subject himself to pain for a reason. In fact, he does so to do away with reason. He refrains from seeking medical treatment because he wants to. By indulging in his desire, he exercises complete freedom. Aside from the aforementioned tolerance of pains, the Underground Man had exercised his freedom through irrationality in other ways. He states:
I would feel a certain hidden, morbid, nasty little pleasure in the acute awareness that I had once again committed something vile that day, that what had been done could no longer be undone; and I would gnaw and gnaw at myself in silence…until the bitterness would finally begin to turn into a kind of shameful, damnable sweetness (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 7). In this excerpt, the Underground Man expresses how he had realized his evil ways by contemplating what he had done. However, instead of wallowing in guilt, the realization ends up being a source of pleasure. How did the Underground Man manifest his freedom through this?
The purveyors of rationality would insist that those who know what is in their best interests would not resort to baseness or frivolity. The Underground Man was aware of vileness of his actions; in a way, he was aware it was not in his best interests. However, he did not feel a sense of guilt. The realization of his action that started with bitterness eventually became that of sweetness. He knew what he had done was bad, but this does not change the fact that he derived pleasure from it. His reaction to such vile deeds set him apart from what reason dictates as proper.
Because he did not follow the dictates of reason, he had exercised his own freedom through defiance. Reason makes one feel burdened when one commits a nasty or vile action. It supposes that rational ways should be observed, and a nasty or vile action is never rational. He sights an example when one is forced to apologize for a nasty deed. The Underground Man says: Generally, I could never endure saying, “Forgive me, Papa, I won’t do it again”—and not because I was incapable of saying it, but, on the contrary, perhaps precisely because I was all too capable of it.
And how I did it (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 16)! In this passage, the Underground Man expressed disagreement with repentance. He believes that one should not apologize for doing something. He finds apologies as deceiving; the claim to never do an act considered vile again seems insincere. In our freedom, we are all capable of doing these acts. Regardless if they are rational or irrational, we all have the capacity to act according to our own free will. The claim “I won’t do it again” is quite fraudulent, as it is quite understood that anyone can do anything, according to their free will.
Thus, it is possible for one to exercise freedom and desire something which is not in one’s best interest. According to the Underground Man: And what if his advantage on a given occasion not only may, but must, lie exactly in choosing for himself the harmful rather than the advantageous? And if this is so, if there can be such an occasion, then the entire rule is shattered to smithereens (Dostoevsky, 1992, p. 22). The rule spoken of here is the belief that man would choose what is in his best interests. Again, the exercise of freedom lies in choosing or desiring something regardless of their nature.
In the above quotation, the Underground Man affirms that there will be instances wherein man will choose what is harmful, instead of what is useful, to him. The moment such situation arises, the principle of reason will be disproved. The Underground Man does not believe in the principle that man will act according to what is in his best interests. Neither does he believe that man’s desires can be reduced to graphs of science nor formulas of mathematics. The concept of freedom for the Underground Man is that which is contrary to the dictates of reason.
He does not acknowledge that man will commit acts that are in tune with his best interests. This would be a violation of his freedom, as the freedom presupposes one’s capacity for both the rational and the irrational. If one chooses to commit an irrational act, he is merely exercising his freedom. Did the Underground Man succeed in escaping the realm of reason he so despised? The answer is yes. His tolerance of pain and derivation of pleasure from suffering were direct defiance to reason. He had rendered himself completely liberated from the atmosphere of rationality.
He did and thought as he pleased, whether or not it was in his best interests. Indeed, he had escaped, and is completely free. REFERENCES Dostoevsky, F. (1992). Notes from Underground (M. Ginsburg, Trans. ). New York: Bantam. (Original work published in 1864). Madden, C. (n. d. ). SparkNote on Notes from Underground. Retrieved March 29, 2008, from http://www. sparknotes. com/lit/underground/ Marder, J. , Meyer, M. , & Wyshak, F. (n. d. ). Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground Study Guide. Retrieved March 29, 2008, from http://community. middlebury. edu/~beyer/courses/previous/ru351/novels/UGMan/ugman. html
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