Notes from Underground and Sartre’s Philosophy: Existentialism Arisen from Conscious Inertia
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.
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