Notes from Underground (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

The Underground Man is the original emo kid, a snivelling and hopelessly pathetic figure — but there is something disturbing and off-putting about his character and presence in this novel. Dostoevsky prefaces the book with a note claiming that of course the figure is imaginary, but “nevertheless it is clear that such persons … not only may, but positively must, exist in our society.” That figures like the Underground Man exist is Dostoevsky’s explanation for why the great projects of humankind will remain unfinished, its utopias unbuilt. There is, in all of us, and in some wholly, a perverse, absurdist core, a tangled mess of contradictary and insane, self-destructive desires that themselves make up human psychology.

Indeed, as the preface informs us (I don’t own the copy pictured, but a 1945 anthology of Dostoevsky’s short novels with a preface by Thomas Mann), Nietzsche regarded Dostoevsky as the only “psychologist” from whom he had anything to learn (and let us not forget Freud’s debt to Nietzsche), and Mann identifies the Nietzschean concepts of the “super-man” and “eternal return” of having, if not origins in Dostoevsky’s novels, then uncanny parallels. As Mann writes:

… no one seems to have noted that the idea of the Eternal Return is also to be found in [The Brothers Karamazov], in Ivan’s dialogue with the Devil. “You’re always thinking of our present earth!” says the Devil. “But our present earth has repeated itself, possibly billions of times; it would become senile, turned to ice, broke in two, fell apart, resolved itself into its elements, once more there was water ‘over the firmament,’ then the comet, next the sun, and finally, out of the sun, came the earth — this process has perhaps repeated itself times without number and each time in the identical manner down to the last tiny detail … isn’t that the most unspeakably indecent boredom!”

Through the mouth of the Devil Dostoevsky designates as “indecent boredom” what Nietzsche hails with Dionysiac affirmation, adding “For I love you, Eternity!” But the idea is the same (xiii-xiv)

Dostoevsky’s marriage of complex, philosophical ideas with compelling, engrossing narratives is in fact the best reason to read him. Many novelists stumble or even fall flat upon their faces when attempting to thrust forth, directly, some insight, but in Dostoevsky’s hands these moments are not only always motivated and tied to characters but often cutting. The first half of Notes from Underground is a philosophical monologue, in which the Underground Man ridicules the notion of human progress towards utopia and proceeds to minutely analyze himself — the section contains almost no backstory or details regarding his life (these are revealed in the latter half of the novel) and contains almost no action whatsoever. But it is nonetheless gripping. It’s an almost-impossible trick to pull off.

Indeed, Dostoevsky presents his “thesis” in the book’s first part, the philosophy of the Underground Man, and then “applies” it in the book’s second part, to show the ruin of a life lived in this manner. Yet because all of the philosophizing comes from the Underground Man himself, as does the narration, and because we sense that this character is NOT a mouthpiece for the author, although perhaps some affinity exists, it’s possible for us to marvel at, and revel in, the ruin of this man’s life and thought, rather than despise this edifice. We’re invited also, though never directed, to compare ourselves to this man — can we recognize something of ourselves in this wretched creature, a self-destructiveness, a pathetic contrariness, conflicting desires? The emo kid inside?

It’s a difficult thing, as a writer, to try and inject your work with ideas without letting the ideas take over. Dostoevsky is, for me, something of a paragon in this regard — by always grounding himself in the story, and its characters, and in craft, he’s able to let the story speak and thrust forth concepts in a way that seems elegant and natural rather than awkward and forced.

— Jonathan Ball

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