Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This book is divided into two parts. The first part is theoretical; it’s a reflection of the narrator’s philosophical ideas. The second part of the novel is a story themed about the narrator’s guilt, shame, and divorce from the world. Commonly, the book’s narrator is referred to as “The Underground Man.”
In part 1, The Underground Man talks about his “disease,” which he states is his consciousness. His consciousness is a disease, because it separates him from the standard man, and it renders him inactive. He is unable to do anything because of his overactive conscious, which he refers to as acute consciousness. Always, he thinks about the ramifications of his actions, and spends all of his time thinking, rather than acting. The normal man acts, because he has a healthy dose of consciousness. This healthy dose of consciousness is opposed to the narrator, who claims to have too much consciousness. He also claims that consciousness is what separates us from the beasts. Consciousness is what compels us to rebel from society. I like the idea that there are varying levels of consciousness and intelligence. It’s a bell curve distribution. Most people fall within the average, but then there are a small group of people that are “diseased” with too much or too little. The too much people, such as The Underground Man, feel isolated from society. They do not fit the “norm.” I feel bad for people like the narrator and others, who themselves feel isolated from society, but I also appreciate their writings. They provide valuable insights and perspectives into the human psyche for the rest of us to enjoy and contemplate.
In many ways, I can relate to the narrator’s social separation. Often, I feel outcast and unconnected with the rest of society; I don’t feel “normal.” However, these feelings of exclusion do not prevent me from taking action. There must be a healthy balance between consciousness and action. The narrator leans too heavily towards consciousness, and he takes no action. If the narrator realizes his weakness, then why does he take no action to improve it? If he is truly as intelligent and conscious as he claims, then he should be able to compel himself to act.
To demonstrate the theme of inaction, The Underground Man uses revenge. The average man will seek revenge, and only stop seeking retribution when he runs into a brick wall. This man is stupid. On the other hand, an intelligent person, like the narrator, is more like a mouse. Instead of taking revenge, by taking action and running into a brick wall, he scurries into his mouse hole, and he hides. In the safety of his hole, he contemplates revenge and its ramifications, but he never acts. He thinks, but he does nothing.
I like the part where the narrator claims that stupid men blindly accept the assertion that we are direct descendants of the apes. An acutely conscious man will question and debate this assertion. I like this little section, because I see many people who blindly accept the rules and “scientific” conclusions. They mistake the laws established by broken humans as God-given law, and they disregard the actual God-given laws. They blindly accept nutritional recommendations from researchers. They never seek their own conclusions with independent thinking! They do not question. We should question our decisions, actions, and faith. How else are we going to gain wisdom? If God can be wrestled with, then so should humans. Question the decisions and recommendations made by humans. Sometimes, men make mistakes or misreport data. “It’s 2020. Why is skim milk still a thing?” Because people don’t wrestle with the truth nor seek wisdom.
Man wants to prove that his life in unpredictable, and that he is control of his own actions. His actions are not preordained to follow some mathematical formula. Sometimes, a man will act for no other reason than simply to demonstrate his freedom. The freedom of choice, according to The Underground Man, is man’s most advantageous advantage. Suppose that a man is given everything that he wants: a large house with a pool, the most choice foods, exotic cars, beautiful women, clothing, and entertainment. Despite satisfying all of his carnal desires, man will still rebel and release some curse upon the world, simply to prove that he is not a “piano-key.” Man’s life is not a mathematical formula; it cannot be simplified to a “two plus two equals four” expression.
In part 1, Dostoevsky babbles about many ideas. He says that babbling is like intentionally pouring water through a sieve. It’s fruitless. But being underground for 40 years, what else does one have to do? With nothing to do, the narrator thinks about life and mankind. He uses his reason to think and contemplate. At times, his thoughts get deeply philosophical, and at times they seem to ramble, but many of the ideas are thoroughly reasoned and worth considering. This is not an easy book. Many of the thoughts are long, complex, and psychological. I read many sections 2-3 times to comprehend the author’s point. It was also useful to re-read a second time to understand the ideas as part of the larger story. Let me try to explain some of the conclusions that The Underground Man babbles about.
His big conclusion is that it is best for man to do nothing, much like he did for 40 years while living divorced from the world. Interesting. From every one of my past novels, the conclusion is that it is better to do something, anything, than nothing. It is better to take some action, with the inherent risk of it being a wrong action. It is better to be wrong than to do nothing at all. But perhaps the narrator’s assertion to do nothing arises from the fact that he did nothing for 40 years and is trying to justify his situation. He thinks that he is more intelligent than other people in the world. He calls all gentlemen stupid. And since all other people are stupid, obviously the narrator’s lifestyle is superior to the lifestyle of the stupid people. Since he was living underground, while other people were living “normal” lives, it can be concluded that living underground and doing nothing is better than acting with stupidity, like a “normal” person. Doing nothing is the superior approach to life. Is the narrator arrogant? Yes! Is he right? No. Arrogant and wrong – that’s a sad combination.
One of the author’s main points is that man is meant to strive, to prove to himself that he is not simply a “piano-key.” Man wants to prove to himself that he is not simply a mathematical formula. He can act independently. He can make choices that either align with his desires and caprices, or alternately he can make choices that are in contrast to his desires, just for the purpose of proving his independence. The course of a man’s life cannot be plotted by some master formula or algorithm. Men have an innate desire to create, strive, and work. Men will pursue riches and material possessions, and upon acquiring those things, they will progress to the next challenge. It is all about the conquest and proving to oneself that he is capable of reasoning. I must agree completely. I find more fulfillment by completing goals and completing work, than I find in the material rewards that I receive for those actions. It is more about the act/the conquest itself, than the reward. This is true for everything. Being a Christian, the conquest is to make disciples, and the reward is heaven. Although the reward is sweet, the actual fulfillment of one’s life is the act of making disciples. Like Dostoevsky asserts, men are creatures that are made to work, create, and strive. It is natural - it is a God-given desire to want to create.
I enjoyed the ending of part 1, where The Underground Man explains why he is writing. He’s not expecting any person to read his words, but writing adds a bit of formality to his thoughts. It forces him to filter his thoughts. It allows him to view, criticize, and improve his own thinking style. Moreover, writing provides relief. Writing is also a form of work, and work shapes a man’s character for good. Work is good. Writing is good. Before proceeding to write about his most oppressive memory, the narrator speaks about lying. You see, we all have memories. Some memories, we only tell to our friends. Some memories, we only tell to ourselves. And then there is a third class of memories that we don’t even admit to ourselves. We all have memories that we lie to ourselves about. Since we will lie to ourselves, it is impossible to write a true autobiography. An author will always write the memories and stories that illustrate the persona he wishes for others to perceive. It is not possible for a man to be wholly truthful in his autobiography, because he will always wish to brag. But The Underground Man claims that he is above these lies. He is not writing for an audience, and he is not a decent man. The more decent a man is, the more that man will lie about his memories. In the past chapters, the narrator hopes that he has convinced his imaginary reader about his indecency. And because of his indecency, he can be expected to tell the truth. He has no reason to lie. At this point, the narrator wishes to rid himself of a memory that has been oppressing his mind recently. He will not lie to himself while recollecting this memory. These are some great concepts about memory and lying. Do not lie to yourself! Dang, this is deceivingly hard. Through these journaling exercises, I have learned that the temptation to lie to yourself is absolutely real, and if somebody argues with this, then I don’t think that they’ve reflected deeply enough on their thoughts and emotions. Apart from this blog, I have a journal, and in this personal journal, my resolution is that I will not lie to myself. To satisfy this resolution, I have firmly decided that nobody else will ever read it.
That concludes part 1. Part 2 is The Underground Man’s story. It’s about his memory of past events that still elicit strong negative emotions when he recalls them. Hence, he hopes that by writing down his story, he can work through these negative emotions and become more integrated with the world around him. It is in part 2 that we learn the “underground” man is not actually under the ground in a prison cell of basement or locked in a cave or captivity. Rather, “underground” refers to the narrator’s divorce from the world. He is not a part of the world, but he desires to be.
The story in part 2 is about the separation that The Underground Man feels from the world, his shame about his deplorable situation, and how he handles that shame. The primary tale is about the narrator’s evening with his classmates, celebrating Zverkov, and about the narrator’s interaction with the prostitute, Liza.
After his evening with Simonov and Zverkov, which went exceedingly poor, The Underground Man resolves to write a letter to them to accept responsibility for last night’s actions. In the letter, he both condemned himself and defended himself. He was very pleased with the tone of the letter. It was “gentlemanly, good-humored, candid, tactful, and without superfluous words.” He took much pride in the letter. “I am an intellectual and cultivated man!” he exclaimed about himself. I find it funny that an intellectual man finds pride in a letter that is addressed to non-intellectuals and will clearly not be appreciated. Simonov, who is not an intellectual, will not glean the good-humored, tactfulness from the letter that the narrator is so boastful about. It’s humorous. The Underground Man claims to be an “intellectual”, yet he is disconnected and naïve to the world around him. He acts in ways that regular men jest about. His actions are the brunt of many jokes, and he fails to see why. He simply believes that he is more intelligent than regular folks. He is absurdly arrogant. I laugh at his blindness.
Direct action is impossible for a man of acute consciousness. This is the narrator’s theme during dinner and drinks with his classmates. They ridicule him and make comments that flaunt their superiority. The Underground Man does not act, and the situation gets progressively worse throughout the night. He is divorced from the world of common man. At the end of the night, he enters a brothel and sleeps with a prostitute. When he wakes the next morning, he learns that her name is Liza. The Underground Man feels shame from being ridiculed last night, and as a result, he seeks to dominate and tyrannize Liza with a conversation. He embarks on a lengthy narrative about her pitiful life and situation. By elaborating on the disparity of her status as a prostitute, he makes himself feel superior. By belittling her, he flaunts his intellect. Because he was humiliated by his classmates, he wanted to humiliate her. During his book-like speech, Liza sees the truth in his words and realizes that this man is deeply hurting. Liza has compassion for the Underground Man; she feels his pain. From the truthfulness and bluntness of his words, she is attracted to him. The Underground Man in turn, is attracted to her. He both hates her and loves her. Then, he realizes that he has never been able to love and that he never will. In all relationships, he wants to be a tyrant. He is dominated by intellect, whereas Liza is dominated by compassion. The Underground Man cannot love because he is fearful of his weaknesses. He’s scared to communicate his weaknesses, and he’s scared to be open, because too often his friends ridicule him for his oddities. Basically, he does not know how to express his emotions. Liza, on the other hand, has simple, compassionate love. In terms of human compassion, she is more in touch with humanity than him. Because he must maintain an aura of superiority, he refuses to accept Liza’s love, and he forces her away. The Underground Man, dominated by intellect and refusing to confront his weaknesses, will never know how to love. That sucks. This demonstrates how important it is for humans to have compassion. A life without love is miserable. A life without love is synonymous to living life in the dark, dank, dreariness of the underground.
There are two other books, where Dostoevsky explores the mind of the intellectual types, who are devoid of compassion. They are The Brothers Karamozov and Crime and Punishment. I look forward to reading these novels and getting a deeper understanding of Dostoevsky.