To Briefly Dwell in the Underground is to Yearn to Rise Above
Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, a deliberate anti-hero by his own admission, forces his readers to follow through their imaginations what it means to be estranged from real life, real life as opposed to the life of consciousness (91). In the very process of reading the text, entering a fictional world while leaving real life behind – the body sitting in its inertia and the mind hyper-actively contemplating, almost, hypnotically, the Underground Man’s deliberations. In such a state, readers are forced to endure the depravity and sickness, the alienation and misery, of an overly-acute self-consciousness in part I, and the burdens and travails of interaction with the other in part II.
Through examining the Underground Man readers are led to examine themselves and such experiences can be quite unsettling. For if a person seeks out books and their heroes and heroines to identify with, to fantasize with and about, and, ultimately, to escape real life, then such a reader will be shaken wild by the Underground Man’s narrative, as precisely such escapism is mocked in Notes, for it is not living but dreaming – dreaming, paradoxically, just like the narrator. To be antagonized by Dostoevsky who makes one aware of similarities between the Underground Man and the reader, when they both exclusively engage only in conscious ‘de - liberations,’ as the one writes and the other reads, and then to show the Underground Man’s aching tooth, his pain and misery, is to ideally push the reader away from the underground, toward real life - toward action.
Dostoevsky’s attempt is futile, however, if one truly accepts the Underground Man’s arguments in part I against action: certainty of primary causes must precede an individual’s actions before s/he may act in good conscience (a theory which is only given any serious opposition by the American Pragmatist philosophers, whom, to be sure, the Underground Man would call cowards) (13; 91).
If one goes along with Dostoevsky though, in what is here argued as an attempt to shock readers out of inertia and hyper-consciousness, to free them from what the Underground Man calls, “[...] the direct and single vocation of every intelligent man [...] consists in babbling, that is, in deliberately talking in endless circles.” (13), then Notes is like giving the reader a mirror to hold up to one’s face . . . here, take a look! If one thinks that they are comfortable living in such an individuated state that rejects all affiliation with the other . . . then this is what one is beneath . . . what one is underground.1 And surly it is not a pleasant sight.
To read Notes is to listen to a man screaming with a toothache for the sheer joy of antagonizing those listening. But nobody is supposed to be listening, and that is the key. The Underground Man is not supposed to have readers; in this context, if one accepts that the notes he writes will never be read, except for Dostoevsky’s arguably blasphemous breach of his character’s will, then readers are offered a side-glance into the psyche of what is truly an exceptionally honest attempt, in spite of the constraints of actually possessing the ability to write without vanity and lies, of a man who is pursuing freedom and all things individual even if he fails. The readers of Dostoevsky’s Notes, however, not the narrator’s, obtain insight – truly, inner sight – at the theoretically mangling horrors and the treachery of trying to will completely independently, utterly free and unfettered.
Dostoevsky means to teach his readers of the hideousness and tragedy that befall such ideologies through the psychology of the Underground Man. Even unbeknown and unrecognized in the Underground Man’s notes, or at least, unstated (given that the notes are incomplete it may not be ruled out that the narrator may become aware at a later date) is that the Underground Man is a slave to freedom. All of his actions of part II and all of his thoughts of part I, can be traced back to the pathological pursuit of the idea of freedom, “I’m standing up for . . . my own whim and for its being guaranteed to me whenever necessary” (25). In his attempt toward freedom, the Underground Man, though a greatly flawed and troubled character, is heroic, at least to the existentialists to the degree that human freedom is one of their highest values (with the burdensome caveat that freedom necessarily entails responsibility for the other, as, for example, Sartre argues), but at the same time, paradoxically, he is anti-heroic for he absolutely fails and remains a slave. Given an existential reading, the Underground Man himself hints at the heavy burden and responsibility that freedom ultimately entails, “Give us, for example, a little more independence; untie the hands of any one of us, broaden our sphere of activity, relax the controls, and . . . I can assure you, we’ll immediately ask to have the controls reinstated” (91).
Now, if an individual is no more than a cog in a machine, even a cog in a shiny-marble ebony black piano, then what a joke it is to call the said individual an “individual.” Ah, but to be free, completely free, boundless like Whitman’s type sauntering across the Americas as it embraces its own contradictions, is the dream of the sad and spiteful man who has fled society into the underground. Tormented, the sad cog cannot rid itself of the inner goblins gnawing from the inside-out, probably near the liver. Oh, those “Other people,” whatever should one do? How is one to free oneself from the gravity of the socio-historical circumstances that one is born into, and how, to free oneself from all of the consequential forces that will determine one’s fate; two plus two is four and even an eagle must rest its wings. Such is the Underground Man’s intellectual and emotional plight, his “super-consciousness” and “introspection” of internal motivations have led to a philosophy that demands freedom at any cost, even one’s own self-interest, which, in the liberal intellectual circles of the 1840s, is the law of reason.
A radically free individuality must be the product of an individual’s own being, that is, his or her own desire (own whim in the Underground Man’s case), free from all logical necessity, psychological necessity, and social and historical determinations. The extreme embodiment of the radically free individual, in its ideal form, is a failure of the Underground Man for a multiplicity of factors. At the end of Notes, after it becomes evident to the close reader of part II that the Underground Man fails, in exasperation he proposes, “Soon we’ll conceive of a way to be born from ideas,” which is, remarkably, just where existential philosophers like Sartre begin (91).
In the Underground Man’s case, the problem is that his idea’s seed is planted in his head by the society that he is a part of, rather than through his own volition. Though he claims, “[…] (this [the idea of necessarily acting against one’s own advantage] is now my idea),” it derives from the motivation for freedom which grows out of an emotional reaction to his society (19). To rebel against one’s society is to be determined by the very society that one rebels against, and so the individual remains bound and determined by that very society, as Krishnamurti points out in many of his various lectures and books on freedom, while Nietzsche presents the same idea somewhere in his philosophic canon. The Underground Man’s response to such an objection is a very revealing ellipsis (19). He has no response, and perhaps does not feel the need to respond given the irrationalist position that he adopts.
Unfortunately, his silence on the question, on the actual ability to have, generate, receive, a completely free desire (a desire ontologically free of external causality and internal rational laws) only demonstrates the fact that he has not fully determined its actual possibility, yet, nevertheless, clings to the underdeveloped notion of free-desire as a subset of acting according to one’s own whim – when, whim, it is very clear, is determined not by the Underground Man, but by the society that he whimsically reacts against.
The Undrground Man’s arguments are circular, and perhaps it is not reasonable to rationally refute an irrationalist, but if he is truly authentic to the views he holds he would not have to propose rational arguments to justify an irrational position, for that itself is too rational. To what extent is he then free from ideal systems of rational law, like always acting towards one’s own advantage? Free from justifying himself to the other? why, not at all. In fact, he is utterly bound by such laws, and by the other.
The Underground Man’s paradoxalist-self is a vicious ouroboros feeding off of itself. Observe that the Underground Man decides to act irrationally, perhaps, even go insane for no better alternative (22), rather than exist as a piece of machinery (an organ stop) operating by rational laws (23). What an excellent and rational reason for advocating irrationality. Anticipating this very rebuttal the Underground Man says, “only the devil knows—” a completely inauthentic surrender of his own volition to some unknown force that cannot be properly articulated (19).The Underground Man’s “philosophizing” is ultimately after the fact, it is a philosophy meant to justify and sooth his own . . . well, spite? conscience? anger? sadness? Does the reader really know? Even with all of the Underground Man’s introspection, does he know? What is known is that it is certainly some sort of determined emotional response to his society and other people.
To confront real life, one must confront the other. And as existential philosophers such as Sartre lament with phrases like, “Hell is other people,” in the sense that the other objectifies the self forcing the self to always be aware of its own flaws and limitations; real life, as a consequence, becomes exceedingly difficult to bear. The Underground Man is an excellent portrayal of self-image and worth derived from the other’s objectification. His obsession with the officer who does not notice him, his obsession with having an intelligent face, his estimation of dignity based on attire, and his ultimate contempt for Liza because she objectifies him in his vulnerability and dependence on another, reveal the psychological problems and compulsions that arise from having a social-self (37, 48, 88). They reveal the travails and failures of his inability to free himself, try as he might, in whim, action, or thought.
So is there an alternative to the social-self? As the Underground Man’s notes demonstrate an individual’s dependence on the other, even in isolation, the answer is a resounding no. The other is present even in his or her absence, as all of part II testifies to the Underground Man’s obsession with what occurred twenty years earlier. It is painful to endure the painstaking attempts that he makes in the very agonizing style that his notes adopt, continually referring to its readers, which it will not have, continually responding to memories of interaction with other people, twenty years removed, continually appealing to people, then, patronizingly bemoaning those very appeals (13, 19, 20 …).
Perhaps, to identify with the Underground Man, who speaks for himself but also avows to speak for all (91), is to connect with and refute the alienation that he suffers; to identify with him is to breach the barriers of human dividedness and in doing so, connect intersubjectively through empathy, while still maintaining otherness and difference as contemporary critic, Dr. Teikmanis, points out. Just the fact that readers in the twenty-first century can cross temporal and social boundaries to connect to a figure in the depths of some corner of St. Petersburg, tsarist Russia, demonstrates how connected humanity really is, though often the fact is overlooked much like the Underground Man remains invisible to the brazen officer as he walks down a crowded Petersburg street.
If Dostoevsky truly meant to show his readers through the Underground Man’s tragic case, that in attempts to individuate oneself people instead find connection, that in hyper-conscious consciousness people find nothing but misery and walls to bash their heads against, and, ultimately, a need for other people, then perhaps those still underground will yearn to rise above and try real life even if they are subject to play by certain rules. Surely it is better to walk down Boardwalk, even buy if one can afford than to rot away in some filthy corner on Baltic Avenue.
Had the Underground Man been keen enough to realize that his inaction is action, that his denial of the game was how he played the game, then perhaps he would not have led such a despicably egregious existence, and instead, would have had a chance to really live, despite what he claims (91) – and, maybe, through the process, learn that if Hell is other people, so is Heaven. To those readers still watching the game as others play, the Underground Man’s narrative is the example to get up and roll the dice. To rise out of the sad, damp catacomb, excuse me, underground, and play the game of life. This is what, presumably, is intended by the author of Notes, which is inadvertently taught through its narrator.
1. ‘Underground’ is treated here as a metaphor for what opposes real life, and alternatively, for the internal portrait of the Underground Man. It is acknowledged that these are not the only interpretations possible.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Trans. Michael R. Katz. New York, London: W W Norton & Company. 2001
Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality's dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind. Coleridge
"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant; we have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." Einstein