“I am a sick man….I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man” ; and thereupon does Dostoyevsky begin his Notes from the Underground, a fictional account of an anonymous cynical-pessimistic man, who internalizes his vengeful actions whereupon unbridled spiteful emotions, and frantic outburst, rule and control the poignant anti-hero. Writing down recollections from various incidents in his life–for no one other than himself–that have plagued him hitherto, Underground Man opines: “But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure? Answer: Of himself. Well, so I will talk about myself.” And so ensues the introspective madness.
Underground Man reflects on the absurdity of society at large; viz., the overwhelming consensus that reason is the sole dictating and guiding force for all virtue, truth, and moral uprightness. What could be more absurd, his mind runs, than assuming that intellect can actually dictate virtue–for he is a man of chief intellect, yet notwithstanding such an intellectual caliber, is riddled and plagued with spite, envy, cynicism, and revenge. Underground Man attacks those who rely so heavily on reason, scientific naturalism, and those who see vice as merely an error of intellectual judgment, concluding that according to such a worldview consistent with their systematic ‘laws of nature,’ an argument ad absurdum only follows logically: “Thus, it would follow, as the result of acute consciousness, that one is not to blame in being a scoundrel.” He contends that what his mind procures, his actions do not follow; and what’s more, his heart is not utterly detached from his mind, but his mind even procures such evil and vile deeds–ones such as his vile heart could not even begin to think up–which he swiftly and decisively acts upon, knowing full well that his actions run contrary to reason sometimes only insofar as humans don’t want rational algorithms, but want freedom.
“What has made them concede that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.”
To be sure, he understands that there lies, within every human being, a dark, twisted, and vile insatiable desire waiting to be entertained–waiting to tear every human fiber into pieces, producing, simultaneously, loathsome conviction and shameful enjoyment that runs contrary to such neatly confined systems and what is deemed ‘advantageous’ to all; nay, his life reflects it existentially:
“The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was “sublime and beautiful,” the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether.”
But why is this not clear to the Age, he muses; why cannot they see that the world is much more than set naturalistic laws explaining all of reality? Can one dare question the Age of Modernism without ridicule?
“The impossible means the ‘stone wall!’ What stone wall? Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling, accept it for a fact. Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions!
Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? As though such a stone wall really were a consolation, and really did contain some word of conciliation, simply because it is as true as twice two makes four. Oh, absurdity of absurdities!”
Underground Man ridicules scientific dogmatism as if deductive observational laws can answer questions about the nature of reality and existence. He chides the systems of the systematizers, as if what was advantageous–and hence, what should be sought after according to the reason of man–such as “prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace–and so on, and so on” should be sought after by all men. And therefore “the man who should, for instance, go openly and knowingly in opposition to all that list would, to your thinking, be an obscurantist or an absolute madman: would not he?” He continues his diatribe:
“Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather, he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation. I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, à propos 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 enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!”
What reason had failed to do, in the mind of Underground Man, was construct something that actually corresponded to reality; fine and well with pen and paper, but how does this reflect how we humans actually operate? Do we operate rationally? Does our neatly trimmed dialectical understanding of history reflect it as it actually is? He muses, “In short, 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.” What Underground Man contends for is that mankind is not as rational as the scientists and mathematicians would have us believe; that it does not seek always what is seemingly advantageous for itself or the greatest good, as the ethicists and political theorists would hoodwink us into believing dogmatically. Brilliantly, as such, Underground Man constructs his philosophical understanding from his experience:
“And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive–in other words, only what is conducive to welfare–is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond as suffering? Perhaps suffering is just a great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately , in love with suffering, and that is a fact.”
And so Underground Man forthwith goes into his account of his spiteful hatred towards one police officer; he recounts his meeting with his childhood acquaintances, and the absurd and mad dinner that thereupon followed; his angry diatribe and hatred spewed towards the four after dinner; his journey to the brothel; his awkward encounter with Liza the young prostitute; her unwarranted attraction to his poignant cynicism towards humanity and its woes; and lastly, the terrible encounter with Liza when she arrives at Underground Man’s rancid and pitiful house in Petersburg.
Of these accounts, much can be said, but as it stands, I’ll limit my reflections simply to the first portion of Notes which is all of Underground Man’s philosophical speculation. It seems best to conclude that Dostoyevsky presents an attractive and enthralling case, à la his surrogate anti-hero the Underground Man, against the rationalism, positivism, determinism, egoism, and ridiculous Utopianism that was so pervasive throughout late-modernity in Russia. In short, Notes from the Underground is the most brilliant piece of existential literature hitherto. I’ve never been more excited about this journey into such a new and attractive realm of philosophy–I’ve never related, reflected, and personalized so much of Dostoyevsky’s thoughts as I have in Notes.
“Gentleman, I am joking, and I know myself that my jokes are not brilliant, but you know one can’t take everything as a joke. I am, perhaps, jesting against the grain.
Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes pleasant, too, to smash things.”
Post-modernism continues to push humanity into neat systematic soft-sciences; sociology, psychology, and anthropology–as it stands, we have created a man centered existence wherein we seek and forthwith obtain for ourselves maximal glory. What a sad state of affairs we find ourselves in–one wherein hot yoga, positive thinking, and naturalism are the norm; forsooth!–O LORD, please deliver us! Yea, to be sure, I want none of the aforementioned: I want to suffer. Wherefore? To know that I am alive.