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notes from underground

I am a sick man... I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.

These opening statements set the tone for what must be one of the most savage rants in world literature. Fyodor Dostoevsky's 'Notes from Underground' (1864) presents the rambling account of an anonymous narrator, a minor civil servant in St. Petersburg who has been hiding "underground" for twenty years, brooding in a paralyzing mixture of shame and spite.

This underground man, as he came to be called, is one of the first literary anti-heroes, in the original sense of the term: a non-hero, an utterly unsympathetic creature who at turns lashes out at the reader with a harsh arrogance, and engages in even harsher self-examination with an almost masochistic pleasure. As he himself remarks, he is so ashamed by his own story, "it's no longer literature, but corrective punishment."

Though 'Notes from Underground' doesn't make for very comfortable reading - the experience is more like bathing in vitriol - it does contain deep psychological insight in the 'condition humaine' of the modern man trapped in his own consciousness. The book was praised by Nietzsche and Freud, and has often been cited as the first example of existentialism, influencing Sartre and other 20th century existentialists, all the way to Paul Schrader in writing 'Taxi Driver'.

I would now like to tell you, gentlemen, whether you do or do not wish to hear it, why I never managed to become even an insect. I'll tell you solemnly that I wanted many times to become an insect. But I was not deemed worthy even of that. I swear to you, gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness. For man's everyday use, ordinary human consciousness would be more than enough; that is, a half, a quarter of the portion that falls to the lot of a developed man in our unfortunate nineteenth century...

In a sense, the underground man's situation is even more pathetic than Kafka's Gregor Samsa: his world is not even absurd enough to escape being human. There is only the sickness of being overly conscious, which makes him perceive the meaninglessness of his own situation so clearly, while at the same time making any other situation, and indeed all action to change his situation, equally meaningless. It is this kind of argument, a dialectic which doesn't manage to arrive at any synthesis but instead spirals into meta-arguments and into utter relativity, that is perhaps the clearest symptom of his sickness. The result, as he states with maddening lucidity, "the direct, lawful, immediate fruit of consciousness is inertia -- that is, a conscious sitting with folded arms."

The underground man's notes are full of these contradictory, or rather spiralling arguments. For example, though he says his notes are not meant to be read by anyone, he still imagines a public, and constantly addresses them, in a fiercely antagonizing tone, as if he were engaged in a gloves-off polemic with the "gentlemen" he is talking to. Then he starts arguing with these imagined readers, stating that "even if I write as if I were addressing readers, that is merely a front," and shrugs off the paradox.

The book's curious structure can be interpreted in this way too. The first part, titled 'Underground', is one long ranting apology of the underground man's current situation. In the second part, 'Apropos of the Wet Snow', he describes a series of extremely embarrassing events from twenty years ago, which eventually led to his going underground. By the end, we can indeed imagine him brooding over his own complete failure in life until he finally releases all his pent-up frustrations on paper. Which brings us back to the first part, so that even though the events of the first and second part are separated by twenty years, they are directly connected. His recollection of past events causes him to write his angry notes, which in turn keeps his recollections alive as the source of his own anger. It's like an itching wound he can't resist scratching until it bleeds, not allowing it to heal, and then hating himself for his own behavior, but somehow, masochistically taking pride in it too.

"Ha, ha, ha! Next you'll be finding pleasure in a toothache!" you will exclaim, laughing.
"And why not? There is also pleasure in a toothache," I will answer. I had a toothache for a whole month; I know there is. Here, of course, one does not remain silently angry, one moans; but these are not straightforward moans, they are crafty moans, and the craftiness is the whole point. These moans express the pleasure of the one who is suffering; if they did not give him pleasure, he wouldn't bother moaning.

With these "crafty moans" his argumentation gets complicated further, as in the existentialist void one thing does remain clear: the conscious man has a free will. His heightened consciousness might make it virtually impossible to decide what to do with his free will, but even inertia, and failure and pain, can be decided upon consciously and recalcitrantly. So why would a man allow his entire life to be a failure? Because he can. Because he has exercised his free will, no matter how irrational it may sound.

This is the obscure pride that is reflected when, near the end, he addresses the reader (who seems to be present after all!) directly:

...I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway, and, what's more, you've taken your cowardice for good sense, and found comfort in thus deceiving yourselves. So that I, perhaps, come out even more "living" than you.

Quotes are from the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The full text (in a different translation) is available at Gutenberg.

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