The “Most Advantageous Advantage” of the Notes from Underground
Sometimes regarded as a classic of modern literature due to its very experimental and unusual form and style, ingenious portrayal of character psychology, and literary complexity. “Notes From Underground” is considered one of Dostoevsky’s most influential and unique piece’s of work. The novella consists of letters on the experiences and ideology of a retired Russian man living alone in St. Petersburg. “Notes From Underground” is able to fuse together many different aspects of life from psychology to politics. Throughout the novella the Underground Man writes of his idea of “freedom” and how he views society even referring to it as the “most advantageous advantage” but is the Underground Mans views true? is freedom truly an advantageous advantage? and at what cost does it take to achieve it?
Part one shows the Underground Man’s opinions and morals. One of the ideas talked about is the Crystal Palace as a metaphor for the utopianism the nineteenth century Europe has tried to achieve. Later in part one, the Underground Man writes, “Take the whole of the nineteenth century in which Buckle lived. Take Napoleon–the Great and also the present one. Take North America–the eternal union. Take the farce of Schleswig-Holstein”(16); this shows the Underground Man ridiculing the idea of the search for a perfect life by arguing that our history has shown that Human beings do not always do what is in their best interests. Instead, they often risk their lives in the search for something different.
The Underground Man opposes outsiders by expressing the problems with an idealistic society. In a utopia, everyone always knows exactly what action they should take that would be in their best interest. There is never a choice of actions since, given two actions, there is only one that can be taken that would make sense. The only way to be truly “free” is to do the opposite action, to do something contrary to one’s own beliefs. Even though it would seem wrong to do something that isn’t beneficial, this is the only way that one can exercise one’s freedom. And even though civilization is viewed as a good, it brings many negatives with it. The Underground Man writes that “the only gain for mankind is the greater capacity for variety of sensations and absolutely nothing more. And through the development of this many-sidedness man may come to finding enjoyment in bloodshed… Have you noticed that it is the most civilized gentlemen who have been the subtlest slaughterers… civilization has made mankind if not more bloodthirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty” (16). even though civilization may seem to be in our best interest, it’s not always true because the factors brought by it oppose our interests and beliefs. The “outsiders” believe that our interests are peace, prosperity, wealth, and freedom. It is clear, however, that in the past humanity has often taken actions that contrast all self-interests. Even if all of society is presented with many advantages, there is something that cannot be presented because it opposes all the other interests.
Freewill. The Underground Man describes freewill as “something that is dearer to almost every man than his greatest advantages, or … a most advantageous advantage … which is more important … than all other advantages, for the sake of which a man if necessary is ready to act in opposition to all laws.” These laws are “in opposition to reason, honor, peace, prosperity–in fact, in opposition to all those excellent and useful” (15).“man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated”(15). “one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests, and sometimes one positively ought. One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, which comes under no classification” (17). The Underground Man believes that one’s desire to be free is stronger than the ideas of the “Palace of Crystal.” While honor, peace, and prosperity are advantageous, the Underground Man believes that freedom is more of an advantage than the other factors of utopian society. The Underground Man writes: “what man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead” (18). He thinks that man make actions that go directly against their own interest, and that freedom is a stronger motive that brings man to oppose their own interests. The Underground Man calls freedom the “most advantageous advantage” because it is the strongest motive. Freewill brings humanity to take any action, even if it is not in his best interest and goes against anything that is constructive, honorable, and peaceful. The Underground Man also emphasizes the force of such a desire by not only mentioning that it opposes one’s interests but by also writing that this desire is as universal as humanity and that every human, everywhere, whoever he or she may be, desires it.
Since the Underground Man is a Human, he must practice his own “ideology” The Underground Man shows his desire to be free when he opposes his own interests. For example, in Part II the Underground Man does multiple actions that he believes shows his freedom, while in actuality he brings shame to himself, consequently, acting in opposition to his interests in order to practice his freewill. First, he attempts to get thrown out a bar when sees this happening to another man: “I actually envied the gentleman thrown out of the window–and I envied him so much that I even went into the tavern and into the billiard-room. ‘Perhaps,’ I thought, ‘I’ll have a fight, too, and they’ll throw me out of the window’” (33). The Underground Man respects such a man because the Underground Man believes that the other man has the freedom to oppose what everyone believes to be dignified by being thrown out the window, while the Underground Man feels he does not have this freedom. Next, the Underground Man fights with a officer on the Nevsky Prospekt. He spends months planning the incident only to fail in getting the attention he thought he deserves (35-38).
This demonstrates the extent of humiliation that the Underground Man will go in order to practice his “most advantageous advantage.” Furthermore, his desire to exercise his “ideology” increases as he invites himself to Zverkov’s dinner and challenges him to a duel as the confrontation between them builds (43-55). Before going to dinner, the Underground Man thought: “‘what possessed me to force myself upon them?’ I wondered, grinding my teeth as I strode along the street, ‘for a scoundrel, a pig like that Zverkov! Of course I had better not go’…And there was a positive obstacle to my going: I had no money. All I had was nine roubles, I had to give seven of that to my servant, Apollon, for his monthly wages” (45). Even though the Underground Man knows that going to that dinner was disadvantageous and would impact his life negatively, he still went to dinner regardless. He wrote: “I should make a point of going,” and that point, of course, is that he is free to do as he pleases regardless of his interests. He also tries to make a point when he decides to withhold Apollon’s wages; he protests: “I simply won’t pay him his wages, I won’t just because that is ‘what I wish,’ because ‘I am master, and it is for me to decide’” (79). However, since Apollon does not ask for his wages and stares at the Underground Man for long periods of time, the Underground Man calls Apollon “a torturer all the same! a torturer!”(81). The Underground Man thinks that by not paying Apollon, he is practicing his freedom. On the other side though, because the Underground Man fails to pay Apollon in a timely manner, he is negatively impacted by Apollon’s reaction, which is caused by the Underground Man’s “most advantageous advantage.”
All of these events, the Underground Man’s attempt to be thrown out of a bar, the clash with the officer, the challenge against Zverkov, the abuse of Apollon, and even the seduction of Liza pushes the limits of humiliation further. In each event, the Underground Man becomes increasingly helpless. He constructs a sequence of events in which, as he states earlier in the novella, “each step will be more contemptible than the last” (40). These steps of violation of morals is what the Underground Man considers to be one’s “caprice.” All of the conflicts the Underground Man got into formed a boundary to be violated for the sake fulfilling the Human desire to be free even if it is against one’s best interests. In the end, the Underground Man proves that he knows the difference between the “beautiful and sublime” when he presents the question, “which is better–cheap happiness or exalted sufferings?” (90)
Taking this into consideration, the Underground Man may not be seen as acting “out of spite” but from the principle that one must assert the freedom of will for its own sake, even when doing harm to oneself in a world where good action is universally regulated by the appeal to “advantage” or “self-interest.” The Underground Man’s ironic “individualism” is not about satisfying his own needs but fulfilling the idea of individualism for his own sake, even in the case of his own self-interests being ruined by his actions. The Underground Man still promotes individualism without egotism. in which case, it is a very convincing argument. Because as the Underground Man shows the morals between advantages and the “most advantageous advantage,” his actions caused him to be shamed and humiliated for who he was. Causing him to lose his ego in the process. This is why in the beginning of the novella, the reader would agree with his ideas and proposals, but later on in the novella, the reader becomes repulsed by almost every action the Underground Man takes as he fails to function as a Human in society. The contradiction between the two parts causes me to rethink and redefine my own definition of freedom. The Underground Man proposes that one’s desire for freedom and the need to achieve it always oppose one’s interests. Who defines one’s personal interests though? common response is society. While that may be true, each individual is free to either conform or not conform regardless of who sets the standards of “self-interest.”
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