Review: “Notes from Underground” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The seven deadly sins, it seems to me, were labelled as such more as a consequence of the society in which they were written than anything else. In nomadic, primitive, and tribal societies, the social was everything. If one was excommunicated, death was not far off. Those seven sins are the seven deadly sins of a society and of the men and women through whom the social occurs. This observation was made manifest in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.

In perhaps the deadliest account of Pride written since the Old Testament kings, Dostoyevksy masterfully accounts the inner monologue of someone known as “the underground man”. In two parts the author explores what pride can do to a man, his thoughts and actions, and the ways in which he perceives himself and the world. Part I is pure monologue, while part II is a short story. The book is considered a novella, but is not necessarily a quick read. The subject matter is about as deep as one could expect to find, and the reader is expected to dive into the psyche of the underground man. That means that the reader may have to stop quite often and think as if he himself is the underground man. This is where much of the brilliance in this book lies; the brilliance is in allowing the reader to realize how pride guides our wrongdoing in thought, thus leading us to wrongdoing in action. It is a deep psychological analysis of unwillingness (unwillingness being the fountainhead of pride). 

To begin, Dostoyevsky does not open with specifics about the character’s age, family, location, but rather with the deep and sweeping moral and psychological make up of the man. This is to show that the underground man is indeed representative of all men:

“I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. ”

Indeed, we are all sick and spiteful men to some extent or another, but the beauty in the underground man lies in the fact that he actively wonders why. It is this almost neurotic wondering that is shared with the reader through monologue. Dostoyevsky’s beauty is that his characters meditate and imagine with such depth and originality. So much so that if the reader dares to take the words seriously, the ills, ailments, and fallacies that riddle all men will all begin to make sense. The loftiest and most lasting of psychological questions raised by the underground man is one of becoming. 

Time makes fools of us all, this is true. Dostoyevsky’s underground man laughs at men. He seems to have done the impossible and sits above those who would otherwise outrank him in the social hierarchy; better looking men, more successful men, married men, are all objects of the underground man’s scorn. How? How has a spiteful and wicked man outshined his superiors?

That is just it, there is no outshining. He is underground, afterall. The act of subverting the hierarchy, of digging underneath it, that allows the underground man to circumvent typical channels of success to gain his own standpoint from which to criticize. What standpoint is that? The principal criticism of civilized man is of his desire to become. 

For the underground man, becoming is a fool’s errand:

“It was not only that I could not become spiteful, 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. Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature. That is my conviction of forty years.”

The active man is limited by virtue of facing his limits. A doctor quickly discovers he cannot save all men, women, and children. A lawyer soon finds he cannot save all innocent men from death. Even if the greatest undefeated boxer never meets a worthy foe, he will still wake up one morning, his bones arthritic, his mind hazy and lost, and will realize the limits of finite carbon. This is why the underground man hides from becoming. He loves too much the superiority he can gain from sitting off to the side mocking the fools that dare become. 

But why? 

Why does the underground man so worship this vantage point? Why does he cherish this, his most wicked of positions? It is because he is acutely conscious. 

Here, the author chooses to use the rationalist-materialists golden calf, being conscious, against them. Nearly one hundred and six years after publishing, this is where Notes from Underground still carries massive weight in terms of cultural significance. 

For those unfamiliar, the 21st century has seen the rise in popularity of a group called “The New Atheists”. In the interest of time I will not be going over the entirety of their beliefs (I will review some of their books in the near future). Instead I wish to bring up one line of thought a new atheist named Sam Harris has made a career on sharing. This line of thought is mocked mercilessly by the underground man one hundred years before Sam Harris was even born. 

Briefly, Sam Harris and his ilk wish to promote well being through reason, rationality, materialism and science. Simply put they want people to ditch dogma, belief in anything metaphysical, the irrational, and just be happy, rational beings. The issue often arises, though, with the question of whether or not the irrational tendencies in man are more akin to bad habits that can be unlearned, or something more a part of the depraved, sick hardware of man. 

Dostoyevsky is firmly in the camp of the believers in the depraved, sick hardware of man. His underground man confronts the rationalists with the barbarity of the past stating: 

“You will say that that was in the comparatively barbarous times; that these are barbarous times too, because also, comparatively speaking, pins are stuck in even now; that though man has now learned to see more clearly than in barbarous ages, he is still far from having learnt to act as reason and science would dictate. But yet you are fully convinced that he will be sure to learn when he gets rid of certain old bad habits, and when common sense and science have completely re-educated human nature and turned it in a normal direction. You are confident that then man will cease from INTENTIONAL error and will, so to say, be compelled not to want to set his will against his normal interests. That is not all; then, you say, science itself will teach man (though to my mind it’s a superfluous luxury) that he never has really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano-key or the stop of an organ, and that there are, besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature.”

No doubt, the underground man sees folly in hoping someday man will be guided purely by science and reason. 

The entire second half of Dostoyevsky’s work is a novelization of this philosophical and psychological framework set out in the first half of the book. The writing is engaging, original, and at times chilling. He ends his story attacking head on the notion that all we need is more freedom; all we need, they say, is freedom from bad ideas. Then and only then can man be what he is intended to be: purely rational. Dostoyevsky writes: 

“ Come, try, give any one of us, for instance, a little more independence, untie our hands, widen the spheres of our activity, relax the control and we … yes, I assure you … we should be begging to be under control again at once.”

This book was written one hundred and fifty years before the birth of the New Atheist movement. The real shame is that men like Sam Harris do not waste their time with literature. Maybe if they did they would have discovered that a dead Russian outlined the futility of their worldview a century ago. Has sixty years of ceaselessly expanding liberty and freedom made man more happy? Or is Dostoyevsky right when he insists too much freedom and independence will drive man madder than dogmatic Christians ever were?

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