Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote Notes from Underground in 1864 which is considered to be one of the first existentialist works, emphasising the importance of freedom, responsibility and individuality. It is an extraordinary piece of literature, social critique and satire of the Russian nihilist movement as well as a novel with deep psychological insights on the nature of man, it is no wonder that Nietzsche wrote:
“Dostoevsky, the only psychologist from whom I’ve anything to learn… he ranks amongst the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life.”
Dostoevsky’s most sustained and spirited attack on the Russian nihilist movement is voiced by one of the darkest, least sympathetic of all his characters – the nameless narrator and protagonist known as the Underground Man, revealing the hopeless dilemmas in which he lands as a result.
Notes from Underground: Historical Context and Themes
Notes from Underground attempts to warn people of several ideas that were gaining ground in the 1860s including: moral and political nihilism, rational egoism, determinism, utilitarianism, utopianism, atheism and what would become communism.
As we’ll see, many of these themes are alluded to in the novel. But before delving into Notes from Underground, we must first observe the historical context in which it was written, in order to better understand Dostoevsky’s warning.
In 1862, Ivan Turgenev published one of the most acclaimed Russian novels of the century, Fathers and Sons, where the characters talk about a strange new philosophy called “nihilism” which became popular with the Russian youth. It had previously been synonymous with scepticism, which transformed into moral and political nihilism:
“A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.”
The nihilist characters defined themselves as those who deny everything, representing the negation of all pre-existing ideals. Rational egoism emerged as the dominant social philosophy of the Russian nihilist movement, proposing that we are only rational if we maximise our own self-interest, sharing similarities with utilitarianism, which seeks to maximise utility, such as well-being or happiness for all individuals. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, actually came up with a mathematical formula to calculate happiness called the hedonic calculus, to measure the amount of pleasure and pain any given action would result in, in order to predict human behaviour merely by rationality.
Dostoevsky saw the rise of rational egoism as a genuine danger, because by glorifying the self it could turn the minds of impressionable young people away from sound values and push them in the direction of a true, immoral, destructive egoism. The following line perfectly captures this mindset:
“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.”
After his trip around Europe, Dostoevsky wrote that what predominates in the Western culture is a:
“principle of individuality, a principle of isolation, intense self-preservation, of personal egoism, self-definition in terms of one’s own I, in placing this I in opposition to all nature and all other people, as an autonomous, independent principle completely equal and equally valuable to everything that exists outside it.”
In contrast to this, Dostoevsky calls for a “return to the soil”, emphasising the value of family, religion, personal responsibility and brotherly love – in which each individual feels himself a part of all and is ready to sacrifice himself for the other. Dostoevsky champions this conscious self-sacrifice, which cannot spring from any calculations of self-interest.
The Underground Man is under the influence of egoistic individualism, considering himself as an “educated man, a modern intellectual” who has lost all capacity for selfless moral feeling. As he writes in the footnote appended to the title of his novel:
“Both the author of the Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictious. Nevertheless, such persons as the author of such memoirs not only may, but must, exist in our society, if we take into consideration the circumstances which led to the formation of our society.”
Notes from Underground was written as a response to the spokesman of Russian radicals Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who wrote a novel entitled “What Is to Be Done?” in 1863. In the novel, he shares Rousseau’s idea that despite man’s flaws, he is innately good and amenable to reason, but is somehow corrupted by society. So that, once enlightened as to his true interests, reason and science would ultimately enable him to construct a perfect society. That is, a society created out of sheer rational calculations of self-interest would lose the very possibility of doing evil. Thus, rational egoism is the basis for the development of a Utopian society.
Their dream is to build a well-ordered society for predictably acting human beings. This utopia is symbolised by the Crystal Palace which represents the quintessential achievement of humanity, where all problems will be solved. Chernyshevsky writes that if we all followed the radical socialist way, we could turn society into a Crystal Palace. He also proposed a belief in absolute determinism (or lack of free will) which Dostoevsky brilliantly criticises with his Underground Man.
In Chernyshevsky’s novel, while talking about the greatness of rational egoism, one of the characters asks rhetorically, “Do you hear that, in your underground hole?” One year later, Dostoevsky published Notes from Underground.
Dostoevsky believed that man was innately irrational, capricious and destructive and not reason but only faith in Christ could ever succeed in helping him to master the chaos of his impulses. Atheism was on the rise and Dostoevsky saw this as disastrous for society, emphasising the necessity of belief in Christ.
After his death, what he had warned us against had become a reality, foreseeing the rise of the totalitarian state, which he also discusses in his novel Demons, an allegory of the catastrophic consequences of political and moral nihilism that were becoming prevalent in his time.
The ideology of Marx gave way to communism, implemented by Lenin and Stalin, making people believe that it was possible to create a perfect society without God, a Golden Age, where everything is provided in abundance and equally for everyone, eliminating suffering once and for all. The totalitarian states ended up justifying murder in the name of their ideology, leading to the bloodshed of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, we have not learned from our mistakes. As Hegel wrote:
“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Today we are plagued with a mass mania in the West, where crimes against humanity are hidden under the often attractive cloaks of “progress”, attempting again to create a utopia.
Notes from Underground: Introduction
The Underground Man is the quintessential anti-hero, a bitter, lonely and self-hating 40 year old retired civil servant living underground. Or as in the original Russian text, in a sort of crawl space, not big enough for a human and where bugs and rodents roam. This explains why he calls himself a mouse. Here he has been staying for years listening to people through a crack under the floor, writing these notes from “underground”. However, the underground can best be seen as a metaphor representing his profound alienation from society. He lives locked away underground, and these are his confessions.
“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man… I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased… No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. My liver is bad, well – let it get worse!”
We are introduced to the strange behaviour and psychological distress of the Underground Man right from the start. He calls himself sick, then spiteful, then unattractive and finally says that he has a liver problem. He is constantly revising himself in order to please his imaginary audience but is unable to characterise himself properly. We can see, however, that he is not acting to promote his own best interests as dictated by rational egoism.
“In reality I never could become spiteful. I was conscious every moment in myself of many, very many elements absolutely opposite to that… I knew that they had been swarming in me all my life and craving some outlet from me, but I would not let them… purposely would not let them come out. They tormented me till I was ashamed: they drove me to convulsions and – sickened me, at last, how they sickened me!”
The Underground Man seems to be nothing more than a chaos of conflicting emotional impulses; and his conflict may be defined as that of a search for his own character – his quest to find himself, as he does not know who he is. This plagues him, however, he knows that this is his normal condition, and that there’s no way to escape it.
As such, he tries to detach himself from reality in the world of literature, spending most of his time reading and being utterly disappointed when facing the real world, as he says:
“I could not speak except as though I was reading from a book.”
At other times, he gives incredibly lucid insights into the human psyche:
“Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind. The more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind.”
Man of Action vs Man of Acute Consciousness
Dostoevsky distinguishes between two types of men: the man of action and the man of acute consciousness. The Underground Man is extremely envious of the man of action, he who lives life without ruminating too much on his thoughts. He has a lower intellectual capacity that frees him from the questions and torments of one’s consciousness, while the Underground Man is paralysed by his thoughts.
Dostoevsky gives us an analogy with the Stone Wall, which represents scientific determinism. One has to accept these laws as the truth without questioning them. Two times two makes four and anyone who says otherwise is foolish. This represents a barrier to one’s free will.
When faced with revenge, the man of action dashes straight for his object like an infuriated bull with its horns down, for he seeks justice. But when he stumbles upon the stone wall, he is genuinely surprised and unable to speak – the wall is not an evasion, it is simply what renders his activity impossible.
The Underground Man, on the other hand, tries to come up with all sorts of tricks, and instead of admitting defeat and turning around, he smashes his head against the wall, while knowing the futility of his actions.
“Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength. As though such a wall really were a consolation…”
Every course of action seems insufficient and so he is paralysed, or as Dostoevsky puts it, he finds himself stuck in a state of inertia, only able to think but unable to act. He suffers the greatest ailment of all, consciousness. To think too much is a disease. This best describes the Underground Man’s state of mind, he is stuck in his own reflective hyperconsciousness, thus creating a greater accumulation of spite than in the man of action. The result is that the intellectual is unable to do anything and is thus characterless. He writes:
“I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything.”
He is aware of his flaws, while the man of action is content in his foolishness and believes that he is great. The Underground Man finds solace as he is smarter than all of the people he meets but socially they are all well above him. His vanity convinces him of his own intellectual superiority and he despises everybody; but when he realises that he cannot rest without their recognition of his superiority, he hates others for their indifference and falls into self-loathing at his own humiliating dependence.
The Underground Man considers the man of action as the real normal man, while he sees himself as a product born out of a test tube. He calls himself a mouse, though nobody tells him he is one, it is as if he has constructed a hell out of his own internal ruminations:
“The luckless mouse succeeds in creating around it so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts, emotions, and of the contempt spat upon it by the direct men of action… Of course the only thing left for it is to dismiss all that with a wave of its paw, and, with a smile of assumed contempt in which it does not even itself believe, creep ignominiously into its mousehole. There in its nasty, stinking, underground home our insulted, crushed and ridiculed mouse promptly becomes absorbed in cold, malignant and, above all, everlasting spite. For forty years together it will remember its injury down to the smallest, most ignominious details, and every time will add, of itself, details still more ignominious, spitefully teasing and tormenting itself with its own imagination.”
The Underground Man essentially buries himself alive with spite, but there’s a twist. He goes on to say that in that state of despair, dissatisfaction and hopelessness, is precisely where he finds his enjoyment. Although he notes that people most likely won’t understand anything of it. He thinks that man is cursed with consciousness, but at the same time it is what allows free will and individuality. With consciousness, man must suffer, but without consciousness, man will never be free, a clear critique of determinism.
“Whatever happened, happened in accordance with the normal and fundamental laws of intensified consciousness and by a sort of inertia which is a direct consequence of those laws, and… therefore you could not only not change yourself, but you simply couldn’t make any attempt to.”
Irrational Pleasure in Suffering
The Underground Man finds an irrational pleasure in suffering, even in his painful toothache – which makes him moan maliciously in order to make other people around him suffer, giving him pleasure. Not only is he a sadist, but he also confesses his masochism:
“I felt a sort of secret, abnormal, contemptible delight when, on coming home on one of the foulest nights in Petersburg, I used to realise intensely that again I had been guilty of some dastardly action that day… and inwardly, secretly, I used to go on nagging myself, worrying myself, accusing myself, till at last the bitterness I felt turned into a sort of shameful, damnable sweetness, and finally, into real positive delight! Yes, into delight! … The feeling of delight was there just because I was so intensely aware of my own degradation.”
The essence of his activity is simply the result of being plagued with boredom. And with a heightened consciousness, he cannot stop thinking.
“I invented adventures for myself and made up a life, so as at least to live in some way. How many times it has happened to me – well, for instance, to take offence simply on purpose, for nothing; and one knows oneself, of course, that one is offended at nothing; that one is putting it on, but yet one brings oneself at last to the point of being really offended.”
Critique of Rational Egoism and Utopianism
While the Underground Man is committed to the principles of rational egoism, he is simultaneously an opponent of it throughout the whole novel. His conflict arises from the clash between human nature and the laws of nature. While his reason assures him that there is nothing he can really do to change for the better, he refuses to abdicate his consciousness to determinism, he wants to preserve his individuality and go against the comfortable predictability of life.
“What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger… And what if it so happens that a man’s advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases, what is harmful to himself and not advantageous.”
The Underground Man writes that man is by no means a rational animal, and that he will always rebel against the idea of a utopia, to act in a way that goes against his self-interest, simply to validate his existence and confirm his individuality.
Man is monstrously ungrateful. In fact, he writes that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped. But that is not his worst defect, his worst defect is his constant deviation from moral order. One should only take a quick glance at the history of mankind to observe this. He writes:
“One may say anything about the history of the world – anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational.”
The Underground Man says that man would sacrifice all his advantages just to be independent and choose for himself, and only the devil knows what he’ll choose. Man would even desire what is injurious to him, what is stupid, very stupid – simply in order to have the right to desire for himself. This caprice of ours, may in reality, be more advantageous for us than anything else on earth. He calls it our most advantageous advantage (which does not fit in any system), and for which one even sacrifices happiness, health, prosperity and security simply in order to preserve for us what is most precious and most important, that is, our personality, our individuality. He writes:
“Apropos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: ‘I say, gentleman, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!”
The Underground Man does not criticise reason per se, but rather a completely one-sided rationalistic view of the world, which does not satisfy one’s impulses and desires, that form a realm much wider than reason and much closer to the human condition. A person always and in every way prefers to act in the way they feel like acting and not in the way that their reason and interest tell them.
“Shower upon 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… simply in order to prove to himself – as though that were so necessary – that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.”
Dostoevsky attacks the idea that greater rationality leads to greater human progress and happiness. It is an attempt to see life as a mathematical formula to be followed, in order to align man with society’s best interests. Man is not a piano-key. He cannot simply discover the laws of nature so that he will have found all the answers to his problems, a world in which everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that choices would cease to exist. Life would become extraordinarily dull, and man will act against reason in order to prove his free will, so that two times two equals five. And if he does not find the means he will contrive destruction, chaos and sufferings of all sorts.
If one says that this, too, can be calculated and tabulated, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point.
Dostoevsky observed this madness first-hand in his fellow prisoners when he was sent to a prison labour camp in Siberia, he describes a prisoner’s sudden violent outburst as:
“Simply the poignant hysterical craving for self-expression, the unconscious yearning for himself, the desire to assert himself, to assert his crushed person, a desire which suddenly takes possession of him and reaches the pitch of fury, of spite, of mental aberration, of fits and nervous convulsions.”
Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead
The rational egoists would have to admit that human action is radically unpredictable and that their program is doomed to failure.
“Man likes to make roads and to create, that is a fact beyond dispute. But why has he such a passionate love for destruction and chaos also? … May it not be that he loves chaos and destruction… because he is instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing? Who knows, perhaps he 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 fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all…”
This edifice refers to the Crystal Palace, to reach the literal end of history when all further striving, struggle and inner conflict will have ceased. He writes:
“I rejected the Crystal Palace myself for the sole reason that one would not be allowed to stick out one’s tongue at it.”
The Value of Suffering
Dostoevsky says that man will never renounce to suffering, destruction and chaos, and that it is also sometimes very pleasant to smash things.
“Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately in love with suffering: that is a fact.”
We want happiness but we have a special talent for making ourselves miserable. Man is like a chess player who loves the process of the game, but not the end of it. Trying to abolish suffering and replace it with everlasting happiness only sinks us deeper into it. Man needs suffering as much as he needs happiness.
“Which is better: cheap happiness or sublime suffering? Well, come on, which is better?”
The Underground Man – Dostoevsky’s Warning to The World
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote Notes from Underground in 1864 which is considered to be one of the first existentialist works, emphasising the importance of freedom, responsibility and individuality. It is an extraordinary piece of literature, social critique and satire of the Russian nihilist movement as well as a novel with deep psychological insights on the nature of man.