Notes From Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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.

In this slim book, not even 200 pages long, Dostoevsky turned a corner in his writing. Without Notes from Underground, Crime And Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot would not have been possible. Dostoevsky, for the first time, sets out his ideas in no uncertain terms, his philosophical system, but he does so in a ruthless unblinking manner (he would not be stopped) and, to top it all off, he filters it out to us through a crazily intense and raw first-person narration (the book opens with him stating: “I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man”).

Good times, good times.

Put Notes From Underground side by side with Seymour: An Introduction (my thoughts here), and you’d swear the authors were contemporaries. I have read Dostoevsky’s “big” books, but this one I had missed. I read it on vacation. It was great because Siobhan and Ben had both just read it, coincidentally, so I had people to talk to about it. It was so fun.

The small book is in two sections, the first being a ranting interior monologue of the “spiteful sick man”, and then the second is a memory of a terrible couple of days he had had twenty years before, with a group of awful friends and a whore named Liza. Dostoevsky had a better understanding than most writers (hell, most people) of what is now known as the “anti-hero”. He knew, from the inside, what it meant to feel outside. He understood isolation better than most. Psychological, emotional, spiritual isolation. His life experiences had set him up that way: he was not like other men. Thank God he put it all into his writing, otherwise he totally could have ended up a Raskolnikov, and I think Dostoevsky understood that in his bone marrow. He knew what a close shave he had had. His books tremble with that knowledge. But self-knowledge has led the narrator of Notes From Underground into a contemptuous and spiteful stance, something he cannot and will not shake. He says:

… excessive consciousness is a disease.

His intelligence also means that he knows all of the arguments against what he is saying, so the text is peppered with defensive and haughty statements, shooting down all of your arguments before you even have a chance to say them. He already knows what you are going to say, so don’t even try. Don’t even try, CHiPs. He is smarter than you, never forget that. He holds you in contempt. But he holds himself in MORE contempt. Life is an unbearable affair. How does one get this way? And what does it mean to live that way?

He has an answer for everything, and he seethes with cynicism and anger, but although he is obviously on the edge of insanity, much of what he says makes the ultimate sense. Most people live with a series of distractions (some trivial: hobbies, activies, some non-trivial: domestic life – wife/kids, career). But if you have no distractions, and if you suffer from “excessive consciousness”, then daily life can seem like you are staring directly at the sun at all times. All doors of escape are closed. This becomes even more acute when your reasoning gets circular, as it does for the narrator of the Notes. No matter how far he goes into his criticisms and observations, he always comes back to himself, including himself, lacerating himself.

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. We’re back, then, to the laws of nature. And what is the ultimate result? Why, the same thing again.

Around and around and around.

Despite his obvious neurotic self-absorption, he is at the very center of a truthful outlook, that midday glare, he cannot help but see it, and that is why he is a very uncomfortable companion, and has no friends, and lives in isolation. He is an exhausting person, that is clear, he has no ease with himself, and therefore has no ease with others. Yet he clings to whatever he is, whatever he feels he is, because for him it is the only way. There is no other choice. This is, again, such a 20th century sensibility, that it is startling to find it here. Especially in the expression thereof: first-person, rambling interior monologue. The book could fit in well with any of the anti-establishment books in the 1950s and 60s, where the artist (ie: the individual) bucked up against the pressure to conform. Our narrator refuses to conform, even though it dooms him to misery. But here he puts out one of his more brilliant concepts and thoughts:

Oh, tell me who was the first to declare, to proclaim, that man does vile things only because he does not realize his true interests; that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his true, normal interests, he would immediately cease committing abominations but would immediately become good and noble, because, being enlightened and understanding his true advantages, he would inevitably see that only goodness is to his advantage, and everybody knows that no man will knowingly act against his own interests? Consequently, he would of necessity, as it were, begin to do good. Oh, child! Oh, pure, innocent babe! Who has ever, in all these millennia, seen men acting solely for the sake of advantage? What’s to be done with the millions of facts that attest to their knowingly – that is, with full awareness of their true interests – dismissing these interests as secondary and rushing off in another direction, at risk, at hazard, without anyone or anything compelling them to do so, but as if solely in order to reject the designated road, and stubbornly, willfully carving out another – a difficult, absurd one – seeking it out virtually in the dark? … Are there, perhaps, advantages which not only don’t fit, but cannot be fitted, into any classification?

Ken Kesey couldn’t have said it better. It is interesting to note, as well, that Dostoevsky’s words here (and elsewhere in the book) could be construed as a direct and prescient critique of the upheavals of Communism 50 or so years later. I am not entirely convinced of the altruistic nature behind Communism. I’m with Orwell and Koestler and the others: I think it was a lot of fancy words to justify a giant power grab for a minority of individuals. That the end result of Stalin was the point in the first place. HOWEVER: let’s take the philosophy of Communist at its word for a second: It assumes that man will willingly give up his own advantages for the good of the group. This, perhaps, could only really work in small societies, ie: tribes, where the numbers are controlled, as in groups who lived in desert oases, and things like that. Regardless: The assumption that “enlightenment” will then somehow change human nature into something more altruistic and good is a philosophy we still live with today – and it comes from both sides of the political fence – those who dream of a Utopia in the future (man is perfectible, someday we all will hold hands and sing Kumbaya), and those who look backwards to some mythical (imaginary) Utopia in the past: where people were good and moral and right and families had meaning and movies were good, and whatever else these a-historically minded people believe. The Enlightenment didn’t quite hit Russia the way it did Europe, but Dostoevsky’s critique of Enlightenment Rousseau-esque thinking, here and elsewhere, is shattering. Society and civilization does tame man, to some degree. But there will always be those wild cards, and Dostoevsky seems to, if not celebrate, point out the wild cards amongst us, the ones who don’t fit, the anti-social isolated Travis Bickles, who will never ever take the straight and narrow path: sometimes because they flat out can’t, but other times out of pure contrarian-ness. Because human nature is what it is, and will never change to the degree that we will all become uniformly good. At least, we all should HOPE that that day shall never come to pass, because then that would mean there would be no more art, no more stories to tell, no more interest in the world, no possibilities for growth and understanding. Wishing everyone behaved well all the time is like wishing you lived in the world of Demolition Man.

The Underground narrator says:

I suspect, gentlemen, that you look upon me with pity. You repeat to me that an educated and enlightened man – in short, man as he will be in the future – cannot knowingly desire something disadvantageous to himself; that this is mathematics. I entirely agree – it is indeed mathematics. But I repeat to you for the hundredth time: there is only one occasion, one only, when may purposely, consciously choose for himself even the harmful and the stupid, even the stupidest thing – just so that he will have the right to wish the stupidest thing, and not be bound by the duty to have only intelligent wishes. For this most stupid thing, this whim of ours, gentlemen, may really be more advantageous to us than anything on earth, especially in certain cases. In fact, it may be the most advantageous of all advantages even when it brings us obvious harm and contradicts the most sensible conclusions of our reason concerning our advantage. Because, at any rate, it preserves for us the most important and most precious thing – our personality, our individuality.

Them’s fightin’ words, Fyodor, then and now. Watch your back!

The first section of the book takes a hectoring tone, as though he is lecturing a group of people in person whom he knows to be his adversaries. He talks back to them, he laughs in their faces (literally: sections start with the words, “Hahaha”), he addresses them directly trying to cut them off at the pass … It reminds me of some political bloggers who seem to talk only to their “foes”. I put that in quotation marks because honestly: Foes? Really? You’re gonna row to Weehawken at an appointed hour and shoot each other across a vast plain? Or are you going to …. sit at your keyboard and type feverishly about what a badass you are? (One of my observations is that there is a certain mindset today that moans, “People are so sensitive nowadays”, meaning: people should not be so easily offended, people shouldn’t be so litigious when their feelings are hurt. I can get behind that to some degree. My argument is with those who feel it’s worse NOW than it was in the past. It’s worse NOW than it was at every other time in history, when people would “demand satisfaction” from one another because so-and-so insulted his lady-friend or someone referred to him disparagingly as a “conceited popinjay” or didn’t bow properly to him in the street? We’re more sensitive NOW? Uh-huh.) The type of political-hectoring I am talking about is when bloggers repeatedly and obsessively address their adversaries, and whether or not I agree with their points is irrelevant: I learned in high school how to write a theme paper, and you start with a thesis statement and then you back it up with examples. That’s it. There is “opinion” writing, as well, but the best op-ed columns state the opinion and then let the chips fall where they may. A theme paper on The Great Gatsby, written in the style of the political bloggers of today, would start off with something like:

I know there are a lot of morons out there who don’t feel that this is a good book, but I find you guys laughably unserious.

It’s uncomfortable to read, because you feel that you are reading a writer whose eye is completely on his audience, not on how to form his own opinion. He races to beat his critics to the punch, which gives his prose a messy unfocused aspect, and, frankly, it’s boring. But seen in the context of Notes From Underground, that same consciousness is present but 1. It’s Dostoevsky and 2. It’s helping to make a psychological point. The narrator lives in a heightened state of awareness. He knows all the arguments pro and con, he cannot even convince himself of his own rightness, and yet at the same time he knows he is smarter than everyone, and loves to beat them at their own game. Dostoevsky’s use of the asides (“gentlemen”, and “haha”, and all the rest) are an emotional device, thoroughly modern, so that the piece reads like it could be read out loud at a poetry slam in the East Village. It’s emotional, it’s a VOICE. Dostoevsky is diving into deep deep waters here, and he seems set free as a writer in that first section. He knows where he is, he knows who he is, he knows how to write like this.

The second section, detailing a day in his life 20 years back, moves into more slapstick ridiculous territory, and while it is horrible, much of it, there were moments when I found myself laughing out loud (the descriptions of his servant, and how the narrator refuses to pay him, just to see what will happen, just to show him who’s boss, the rowdy awful group of friends and why on earth would he even want to hang out with such a terrible group, his roller coaster back and forths with the poor prostitute Liza, who probably is left so disoriented by her encounter with this man that she flees into the night without looking back). He wants to prove himself: to his friends, his servant, his girl, the world … and yet he hates himself for wanting their approval, and works himself up into a veritable frenzy about seemingly miniscule moments: paying for his share of dinner, the stain on his pants, the “insult” given him by a Commander in the army and how he obsesses on revenging himself for YEARS … and how brilliantly Dostoevsky sets all of this up. It has a totally different feeling, the second section, and plays like a bat out of hell, fast and furious: you’re with the friends, then you’re back in time at the billiard hall, then you leap forward and he’s in bed with Liza, then you zoom back in time to his plotting his revenge on the poor unknowing Commander. Insults pile upon his head, imaginary and real, making life unbearable, and not only that: making him lose perspective. He loses himself in his desire to prove himself, but then, when the smoke clears a bit, he looks at himself in the mirror, and sees all of his flaws, and wondered what on earth he must have looked like, sitting in the restaurant the night before, dressed like that.

He bursts into tears in front of Liza, and cannot stop crying. She shows up at his house, and he is horrified, because although he has hatred for his own servant, he cares DESPERATELY what the servant thinks of him.

Around and around and around. The doomed inevitable result of a man who is aware of himself, in relation to others, to himself, to the world at large.

Written in 1864, Notes From Underground is, to this day, one of the most modern books ever written. It will always be ahead of its time. We will never catch up to Dostoevsky.

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2 Responses to Notes From Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  1. george says:


    Love this post.

    Dostoevsky is so tuned into everything that makes humans human that, had I not the concept of ‘God’, I’d swear he created them/us.

    Notes From the Underground and the Grand Inquisitor episode from <Brothers Karamazov are so thoroughly mesmerizing that I find myself, in the midst of reading them, wanting more and, at the same time, feeling ‘gawd, I can’t take anymore of this’.

    ”For this most stupid thing, this whim of ours, gentlemen, may really be more advantageous to us than anything on earth, especially in certain cases. In fact, it may be the most advantageous of all advantages even when it brings us obvious harm and contradicts the most sensible conclusions of our reason concerning our advantage. Because, at any rate, it preserves for us the most important and most precious thing – our personality, our individuality.”

    It’s great you make mention of Communism. It, and most of the other -isms are the certain cases FD alludes to, I think. I’ve always believed, even before reading Notes’ that humans were endowed with a natural contrariness which made them, at times, unfit for human company but in the worst of times served to keep them sane and ready to fight. I believe this contrariness is codified in our DNA. The scientists may have a term for it but I’ve always been partial to the ‘fuck you’ gene. Thankfully, Dostoevsky came along to explain it all and make me feel better about myself, and my stupid whims.

  2. sheila says:

    George – thank you for the great comment. I love your thoughts on the “fuck you” gene, and think you’re right: that it is that in us that RESISTS the group that must be cherished and celebrated. But there’s that fine line – which Dostoevsky walks – of the random loner – isolated from the world – and God help us all if such an individual wants to take revenge. But that’s the thing that is so brilliant about Notes From Underground: how he states, in no uncertain terms, that it is his RIGHT to have a stupid wish if he wants to have one. And who is anyone else to tell him different?

    Utopias are AWESOME, if they don’t involve actual human beings.

    I think of the re-creation of the world in Stephen King’s “The Stand” – how the human race is wiped out and everyone congregates in Colorado and for a brief millisecond, there is hope that things will better “this time”, that the survivors will work together, and all will be well … but then, if I’m remembering correctly, very shortly after the convergence of them all – people are speeding their cars down the empty streets, and it becomes clear that SOMEONE needs to tell them to not do that … there need to be laws … People, as a whole, are incapable of policing themselves. There are those who will always drive the speed limit, and obey laws – but then there are those who, given the opportunity (like looting during a blackout), go hogwild. There has to be some restrictions. People cannot be trusted with unlimited power. Ever!

    I thought King was making a very insightful point there about mankind and Utopias.

    I felt exactly the same way you did reading the Grand Inquisitor scene in Brothers K. I think it took me about a week to finish it, because I just couldn’t take it in one huge dose. I had to keep putting the book down.

    I will always wonder what it was actually like inside Dostoevsky’s head. How he saw things, and what it was like for him.

    Loved this book!

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