To Briefly Dwell in the Underground is to Yearn to Rise Abov

To Briefly Dwell in the Underground is to Yearn to Rise Above

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, a [i]deliberate[/i] 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.[size=85]1[/size] 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.

Work Cited
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Trans. Michael R. Katz. New York, London: W W Norton & Company. 2001

Good stuff. I think we agreed on the other thread that Dostoyevsky rebuts hostile ideas by means of his portraits of the characters presenting those views. Do you think that there is good reason to believe that there is some necessary connection between the views that the underground man presents and the type of person that he is? You say his views are adopted ‘after the fact’, intellectual creations designed to compensate himself for his inadequacy (this analysis is spot on, by the way). In this case is there room for the kind of disconnect between philosophy and person found in Hume, for example? Actually Hume is a great example of someone who through temperament was never driven to the kind of despair felt by philosophers working in what we could call the ‘literary tradition’.

What do the philosophical ideas presented actually amount to when removed from their rather frenzied delivery? Once we remove the ‘spin’ put upon them by the Underground man, do they not remain completely unrefuted? Is it not possible to accept the main tenets of existentialism (Sartre or Camus defined existentialism as working out a philosophy from a starting point of consistent atheism, which basically gives you what I would think of as these main tenets) but reject philosophies founded upon them as just so much meaningless babble? Which leaves Dostoyevsky able to rebut the constructions of the Underground man but not able to rebut what those constructions are based upon.

What I have said, I think, applies pretty much across the board in his books. The problem with arguing against intellectual positions by means of characters is that all that can really do is show that the particular characters views are unsustainable. As long as there is no necessity for the core beliefs involved to produce such a man (and I don’t see how Dostoyevsky can possibly claim to have shown that there is) not much has been achieved.

Straying a bit from your essay here but I’ve only read the Notes once so talking in generalities seems easier. I also felt I should give your essay a response, there is nothing worse than posting what you know is a good piece of work then getting nothing back.

I took a very long time to even attempt a response here, for Notes in particular and Dostoevsky’s other major work in general, has had a very deep hold on my psyche for many unfortunate years, and I needed to get away from the frenzy of it before I felt comfortable enough to dabble in the babble once again. For that, please accept my apologies.

I think the question largely entails the kind of philosophizing that one does. If it’s analytic philosophy, working in the domains of science, or even in the study of being, it is hard to foresee results having a significant psychological impact on the philosopher anymore than the results that mathematical equations have on mathematicians. Hume is one example, Descartes would be another. Descartes didn’t walk around doubting everything around him in “real life,” but in hyper-active consciousness, during his philosophical meditations, he was able to pursue ideas to the extent that he could follow their consequences. Yet, when the subject of philosophy is Man, and the philosopher combines his meditations - necessarily - with his life, then there is no room for a disconnect between one’s philosophy and one’s life. Just think of Socrates, the man who gave his life because of the convictions of his philosophy.

Despair, of course, is perhaps a more modern association with philosophy and philosophers, and it probably started with Schopenhauer. I don’t think we need to take a giant leap to see how a good portion of Schopenhauer’s philosophy was influenced by the solitary life he lead, and by the conflict between him and Hegel. He might make the case for being most illustrative of the philosopher who is susceptible to some of the Underground Man’s psychological compulsions.

The main philosophical idea in Notes, is the ability to will an action that is radically free. This action must meet the following conditions: it must be free from all logical necessity, psychological necessity, and social determinations. That’s a very tall order. The Underground Man believes that he can free himself from the notion: (held by intellectual’s in Dostoevsky’s age and by many people in ours) of always acting towards one’s own advantage. He doesn’t go into detail about psychological necessity, or social determinations (which only the reader is aware of) - but I would maintain that a radically free action would need to meet those conditions. And yet, if we simply go along with his idea: that all he has to do is act in a way that is not to his own advantage in order to be successful, then we end by stating that a sadomasochist refutes the idea that Man always acts to his own advantage. Of course, when we look closer, we know that a sado-masochist satisfies one part of himself - the sadist - meaning, he acts toward the advantage of the sadist, at the expense of another part of himself. In this example, our logic breaks down because the ‘self’ is not a cohesive, coherent whole.

The Underground Man wants to say that because Man is free to act on whim, as opposed to rational self-interest . . . “Hey, let me go gamble my life savings at the track today, betting on, the Naughty New-yorker, because I had a dream about her winning the race last night and this will prove that I do not always act in rational self-interest, but am able to act on whim…” that that proves that he is a free agent and not a cog, even if the machine is some beautiful enlightenment piano. My criticism, and I think a fair close reading of the text will yield the same result in all critics, is that the Underground Man completely neglects the psychological component in “whim.” Whether or not Dostoevsky strove to emphasize this and illustrate it, is a moot point because it’s in the text. And it is in every whimsical action anybody ever undertakes. On the Underground Man’s terms, him acting out of whim does free him from the idea that Man always acts in his own rational self-interest, but it does not free him - or anyone else - from psychological and social causes.

Let’s articulate some of the other hidden ideas here. The Underground Man believes that always acting rationally, or in rational self-interest, deprives man of his humanity. Meaning, that for a person to be a person, he or she must be able to will freely, to will from the passions rather than from reason alone. This, in turn, defines man as such and such a being that needs to act in such and such a way to be that being. Well, it is definitely true for me, and psychology confirms it for others as well: people need to enact their emotions, to cleanse in a cathartic manner, and they often do this through rituals like theater, festivals, dancing, and other mediums that allow the freedom for the Id and the stored emotions to express themselves in, or people’s emotions shall manifest themselves in neurotic behaviors or outright outbursts. But we are also rational animals - Logos is as much a part of our nature as are the passions; and in that strict sense, there isn’t anything inhuman in rationalism. The idea that man will rebel if he is forced to always act according to reason, is one of Dostoevsky’s greatest contributions to the world. He is right. The Underground Man is the extreme illustration of that rebellion. That doesn’t refute the enlightenment, though. It simply shows that man has a psychological need to feel free and autonomous, and to express his emotions and this need.

Now, the final idea is the one you raise, the existential one. It is the idea that an individual can be ‘born from ideas.’ The fact that man first exists, then essentially determines his own purpose in life. Man is what he makes of himself. Well, it’s a bit of a strange notion considering that man is born into history, culture, and comes packed with a host of biological determinants. It is true, man exists before he has an essence - this is the consistent view with atheism - but is the individual the source of the purpose that he inevitably assigns to his own life, or is it drawn out by the situation that he is in? It’s a fascinating question, one with which I’ve struggled for years, and continue to do so at this very moment. Let’s take Meursault as an example that we can study.

He lives on his own terms. He acts not the way his society expects him to act at his mother’s funeral, but the way in which he deems appropriate. He also does not give in at his trial to the judge, essentially, he acts against his own rational self-interest, namely, his self-preservation. Well here we have it. All three conditions have been achieved. Meursault is not determined by his society or by rational self-interest or by a fundamental aspect of his biology. He is the author of his own destiny; he owns his own life. Sure, some of his actions, like him killing the guy on the beach were due to the situation he found himself in - having the confrontation with the other guy, the glare of the sun, having the gun, - but the way he responded to the events that were out of his control were of his own volition.

Meursault is Meursault because of Meursault and no one else. He, ultimately, is the author of his own destiny. Of course, his relationship with his mom was what lead him to act the way that he did at her funeral. It is implied that he thinks he chose this line of action, as opposed to the line appropriate to the customs of his culture. But isn’t it fair to say, that his choice is appropriate to his character? And how do we know that he is responsible for his own character? In his case, being a literary character, with a little tongue in cheek we can say that Meursault’s essence preceded his existence, for his character was authored by Camus. But for real people, well… I can only speak for my own character, and after reflecting on it’s origins, I must confess that I do not know how I developed. And if I do not know where my own character came from, then I can definitively say that it did not come from me.

Life is paradoxical. Society fucks with individual human nature. People still take advantage of each other and submit to being taken advantage of. Tensions erupt like clockwork. This creates constant war and endless violence as a picture of reality. Life is one sad tragedy.

Moved from Essays and Theses.