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Book Review: Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground

Sophia Ash explores the dark image of human nature crafted by Dostoyevsky in one of his most influential works.

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Image Credit: Alma Books (UK), 2014

Told through a darkly confessional narrative, Notes from Underground is a brutal examination of human existence, exploring the struggles that stem from its interaction with society. Through a consistently bitter voice, Dostoyevsky explores notions of reason and irrationality, along with human dignity and degradation, displaying the interior conflict of a man grappling with a moral and spiritual crisis. It is a tale of man’s disfiguration in a society that denies his need for self-expression, becoming one of the first existential texts to influence generations of writers and philosophers to follow.

Notes from Underground opens with a man’s voice. He is nameless and companionless, slowly fermenting in the bitter resentment he senselessly pins onto the world. “I am a sick man, a spiteful man, an unattractive man…” he mutters in a scathingly sour tone, revealing himself as a man estranged from society, a bitter observer silently loathing the world he is condemned to.

The first part proceeds in the endless digressions and lyrical outbursts of this ‘underground man,’ displaying the image of an individual without faith and foundations, driven into a kind of extremism verging on insanity. Dostoyevsky depicts this man as a product of a collapsing world, divorced from natural roots and faith, though tragically striving for some kind of moral foundation.

And yet he seethes within himself, insisting on man’s fundamental irrationality, seeming to detest the world he is condemned to. Throughout the first half of the novel, this underground man enters a strangely philosophical interior dialogue, engaging in a dialectic between a severe conscience and a drive for irrationality. “I was always conscious of the abundance of elements within me that were diametrically opposed,” he proclaims, “I felt that they were literally swarming inside me, those warring elements… begging to be set free, but I wouldn't set them free, oh no, I wouldn't, I deliberately wouldn't set them free.” It seems that the underground man is acutely aware of the contradictions within himself, even more so of the need to “set them free” in an act of self-expression, though he appears intent on keeping them imprisoned there.

Perhaps what Dostoyevsky is aiming to illustrate is a tragic inversion of man’s quest for self-expression, where the suppression of this basic drive of human nature results in a kind of strained protest that he acknowledges, though refuses to resolve. His ravaged mental processes reveal themselves through this confessional rant that permeates the first part of the text. He acknowledges that “the pleasure I experienced came directly from being too vividly aware of my own degradation, from the feeling of having gone too far.” It seems that the underground man takes a strange pleasure in his own despair, appearing to revel in the madness and excess that emerges from his disfigured condition.

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This ‘underground’ world that Dostoyevsky crafts is acknowledged to be reflective of the collapse of moral boundaries and the diminishing value of religion in 19th century Russia. It is the epitome of the vast moral and intellectual confusion that afflicted those lacking ‘spiritual foundations.’ This spiritual crisis and societal disarray meant that the need to affirm and distinguish oneself manifested itself crudely and savagely in this unstructured state of society, to the extent that reason becomes irrational, especially where impulses are suppressed.

The underground man appears acutely aware of this. However, rather than striving to surpass the seemingly inevitable disfiguration in this collapsing society, he sinks deeper into his degradation, clinging to his own ignominy is a strange inversion. “To be excessively conscious is a disease,” he proclaims, “a real, full-blown disease.” He seems to possess a heightened consciousness, in that he is aware of the tragedy of his situation, though lacks the resolve to prevail over it.

He instead maintains the belief that he lives in a faithless, godless, fate-ruled world in which his eventual disfiguration is an inevitability that cannot be avoided. He likens the human condition to a musical instrument, describing people as mere “piano keys upon which the laws of nature themselves are playing.” It seems that, to the underground man, people become mere objects whose only agency lies in their awareness. It is an existence that is stifled and horribly limited. He admits that he “invented a life to at least exist somehow,” illustrating the constrained nature of his condition, where there begins to emerge a kind of tragic idealism which is set in diametric opposition to his wretched reality.

The underground man, perhaps subconsciously, strives for an ideal, hinting towards his urgent need for some kind of foundation to ground him.  In his world, every attempt to affirm his individuality only deepens his sense of humiliation, leading to a tragic chain of actions that culminates in the episode with Liza, a soul who is just as wretched as him. In a sobbing confession, we are confronted with his spiritual paralysis and acute awareness of his own degradation, though even more so, we see his inability to take responsibility for his shameful existence, where he instead insists upon perceiving it as the inherent state of man.

In a sobbing bout of hysteria, he confesses to Liza that “I shall never forgive you for the tears I could not help shedding before you just now, like some silly woman put to shame! And for what I am confessing to you now, I shall never forgive you either!” In his humiliation, he irrationally turns on her because she has borne witness to it and so, as well as berating himself, he feels the need to weigh her down with the same shame that is self-directed. He goes on to describe himself as “wretched, beggarly, and loathsome,” illustrating the profound discontent he harbours over his own image. In Dostoyevsky’s depiction, human awareness and individuality are far from being idealised; they are instead tragic and shameful. Through the episode with Liza, he emphasises this disjunction between the Romantic perception and the reality of an irrepressibly bitter man that confronts his self-directed shame by trampling on his own idealism. It is a brutal examination of human existence; a profound psychological portrait that uncompromisingly confronts the tragedy of our condition.

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Throughout Notes from Underground, as in the majority of Dostoyevsky’s work, a tragic image of human nature is crafted, confronting the flaws inherent to mankind in an incredibly raw and brutal manner. Characters like the underground man seem to represent philosophical viewpoints, though simultaneously resist categorisation, offering three dimensional, polyphonic depictions that revel in the uncertainty and unpredictability inherent to mankind.

Despite Dostoyevsky’s devout Christian faith, it doesn't mean he has to close his eyes to the horrors and outrages of the world. His writing is pervaded with a sense of the extreme, united with the idea that you can't begin to understand humanity unless you understand the thread of irrationality that runs beneath it. According to the underground man, as humans we subconsciously “create chaos and destruction and devise various modes of suffering in our insistence on having things our own way.” It is this kind of tragic individualism that is at the centre of this novel, forming a brutal examination of man’s irrationality and the unsparing consequences that follow.

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