Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground

Notes From UndergroundIn 1849, when Fyodor Dostoevsky was approximately my age as I write this, he was arrested as a political subversive and dragged before a firing squad. The late arrival of a letter from Tsar Nicholas I interrupted the execution and commuted the sentence to eight years of hard labor in Siberia, but for a brief moment the young Dostoevsky, enamoured of the socialist ideals of Charles Fourier, quite literally stared down the barrel of a gun. To what extent this grim experience shaped his later turn from idealism is a matter of speculation, but Notes From Underground, published for the first time in 1864, announces this transformation in the loudest possible terms.

The novella is focused entirely on its nameless narrator, the eponymous “Underground Man,” of whom we know precious little: he is a retired bureaucrat, a recluse, living with one servant and subsisting on money left to him by dead relatives. He has no friends, no social life and no ambitions, and heaps scorn on those who do – and yet, at the same time, he is hopelessly self-conscious and lonely. His monologue is divided into two parts, the first a kind of extended meditation on suffering and what he views to be the pretensions of Western philosophy: its focus on the individual and its unflinching faith that the moral problems of the world have rational solutions waiting to be discovered; the second an account of three events in his life that have contributed to his isolation. Trapped in thoughts, Dostoevsky’s underground views consciousness as a curse, one that leads inexorably to inaction. “I am at fault for being more intelligent than anyone around me,” he proclaims, and some time later he will speak of being “crushed by inertia.” It is best not to view “intelligent” as being synonymous with “knowledgeable,” for what he really means by intelligence is an awareness of the possibilities (“I was aware at every moment of many, many altogether contrary elements”). Dostoevsky’s Underground Man cannot match Hamlet for wit or charisma but he shares his capacious consciousness, and with similar results. “And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything; that only a fool can become something.” Emil Cioran, himself a philosophical descendent of Dostoevsky, famously called all thinkers “action’s eunuchs,” and the Underground Man is the perfect case study.

For the direct, inevitable, and logical product of consciousness is inertia – a conscious sitting down with folded arms. […] all direct and active men are active precisely because they are dull and limited. How can this be explained? Well, it’s this way: because of their limitation, they mistake the most immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and so convince themselves that they have found a firm, incontestable basis for their activity. This puts their minds at ease, and that, after all, is the main thing. For, naturally, to enter upon any course of action, one must be completely reassured in advance, and free of any trace of doubt. And how am I, for instance, to put my mind at ease? Where are the primary causes I can lean on, where are my basic premises? Where am I to find them? I exercise myself in thought, and hence, within my mind, every primary cause immediately drags after itself another, still more primary, and so on to infinity. Such is the very essence of all consciousness and thought.

This is the essence of Hamlet’s dilemma and the spur that would animate Dostoevsky’s contemporary, Nietzsche, in such works as “On The Use And Abuse Of History For Life.”

It is easy to sneer at Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, to diagnose him or prescribe some course of action intended to cure him of his malaise, just as so many read Hamlet and feel no sympathy for his delays. But to such people and such prescriptions the Underground Man has a simple answer: “Destroy my desires, eradicate my ideals, show me something better, and I will follow you. You may say I’m not worth bothering with; in that case, I can say exactly the same to you. We are talking seriously. And if you do not deign to give me your attention, I will not bow before you. I have my underground.” The Underground Man, like Hamlet, will live life on his terms or not at all.