“Which is better: cheap happiness or sublime suffering? Well, come on, which is better?”
Notes from the Underground published in 1864 is considered to be one of the first works of existentialist literature. In this work Dostoevsky attempts to justify the existence of individual freedom as a necessary part of humankind. It presents the story of a bitter and isolated retired civil servant known as the Underground Man, who has been living “underground” or in his own reflective hyper consciousness for 40 years and has written these Notes from the Underground.
The Underground Man is the quintessential anti-hero, the nastiest, stupidest, absurdest and most envious worm on earth, who does not even compare himself to an insect, which is worth more than him. He feels acutely envious of the ordinary man “the man of action”, who possesses little intellectual capacity and who is free all the from doubts, questions and resentments that are part of his subterranean consciousness.
But on the other hand, he finds solace in his sense of intellectual superiority. This differentiation is similar to Nietzsche’s differentiation of the slave morality (people who feel morally superior because they don’t do what they want) and the master morality (people who do want they want).
Throughout the novella the Underground Man is constantly thinking about his superiority or inferiority with respect to the people around him. It becomes clear that he is living in a kind of hell constructed of his own internal ruminations, especially how he stands hierarchically with respect to other people.
He goes against everything that society stands for. We seem to search for happiness, rationality and what is advantageous to us, why is there then so much suffering, pain and misery? We want happiness but we have a special talent for making ourselves miserable.
“Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately in love with suffering: that is a fact.”
What if we could find a secret formula for all our desires with all human actions being tabulated according to these laws mathematically? Life would be dull because of its extraordinary rationality. And boredom will eventually lead man to do without this ultra-rationalism, preferring to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage is dictated, man wants to be independent.
Man does not want what is disadvantageous to him, but man desires freedom more than happiness, the ability to do what one desires, even when it does one harm. And there is no guarantee that humans will use freedom in a constructive way. The evidence of history suggests that humans seek the destruction of others and of themselves. One may say anything about the history of the world, the only thing one can’t say is that it is rational.
“Shower upon him (man) every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface, give him economic prosperity such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick.”
Men still are men, and not the keys of a piano (or a kind of robot). Man is not reasonable, he is human all to human. And even if he were to be reasonable, he would get out of his way to do something perverse, he would be begging to be under control once again.
Man likes to make roads and to create, but he also has a passionate love for destruction and chaos. Perhaps man only loves that edifice from a distance, and is by no means in love with it at close quarters, perhaps he only loves building it and does not want to live in it. In other words, he loves the journey, but not the end.
Notes from the Underground launches an attack on all ideologies of social progress which aspire to the elimination of suffering, solving one problem and directing our nature to become unhappy in other ways. Ideologies that seek to improve the world always contain a flaw, they won’t eradicate suffering, but rather change the things that will cause pain. Thus, life can only be a process of changing the focus of pain and there will always be something to agonise us.
Suffering is part of the human condition, and we would be much happier embracing reality as a whole.
As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.