Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This 1864 novella is usually considered the prelude to Dostoevsky’s greatest novels, the first work that expresses both his mature philosophical concerns and perfects the tone of pathetic-grotesque hysterical frenzy that will characterize his most renowned books. The back cover of the Vintage edition, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, further claims that Notes from Underground is “one of the most revolutionary novels ever written” because it “marks the frontier, not only between nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction, but between the two centuries’ visions of the self.”
A footnote from the author on the novella’s first page informs us that its narrator-protagonist, the nameless Underground Man, is “one representative of a generation that is still living out its life.” Here is the authoritative voice of 19th-century fiction and of 19th-century social thought—of Balzac or Tolstoy, of Hegel or Marx—the omniscient realist as social historian documenting with cool command the social panorama of the times. But the novella’s first sentence, “I am a sick man…I am a wicked man,” exposes us to 20th-century vertigo, the world of Freud and the modern novel, of unstably complex social orders, of fragmented and unknowable selves. Nietzsche famously called Dostoevsky “the only psychologist…from whom I have anything to learn.” Dostoevsky’s commitment to dramatizing the teeming inner life, often without moral constraint, anticipates modernist stream-of-consciousness narration. In her essay “The Russian Point of View,” Virginia Woolf wrote,
Indeed, it is the soul that is the chief character in Russian fiction. […] The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills, we are drawn in, whirred round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.
Notes from Underground, with its raving monologuist at war with himself and his society, inspires an entire line of later novels spanning the globe, all of which might share its title: Hunger, Nausea, The Stranger, Molloy, No Longer Human, Invisible Man, and various works by Philip Roth and Thomas Bernhard. Given the Underground Man’s reference to himself as “a mouse and not a man”—Nabokov, who disliked Dostoevsky, claimed the title might better have been translated Memoirs from a Mousehole—Kafka’s Metamorphosis can be read as a more literal rendering of the narrator’s dilemma.
Dostoevsky didn’t intend, however, to inspire the amoralist vitalism of Nietzsche, the secular psychology of modernist novels, or the dark humor and despair of Existential fiction. That he did so was an accident of censorship. Richard Pevear explains in the introduction to his translation:
When the first part [of the novella] appeared in Epoch, Dostoevsky complained in a letter to his brother that the tenth chapter—“the most important one, where the essential thought is expressed”—had been drastically cut by the censors. “Where I mocked at everything and sometimes blasphemed for form’s sake—that is let pass; but where from all this I deduced the need of faith and Christ—that is suppressed.”
The first part of the novella does not read like fiction at all; it resembles what it would go on to influence, Nietzsche’s brand of philosophizing: a treatise collapsing into self-mockery, sardonic aggression against imagined interlocutors, and gleeful contradiction. The Underground Man is 40 years old, a lower-level civil servant in Petersburg recently retired after receiving an inheritance. Living alone, isolated from society, he writes his testament to an audience he addresses as “gentlemen,” who stand in for the normative, bien-pensant educated Russians of the 1860s. He attacks their prevailing belief system: their faith in progress, science, and utilitarianism to rationalize their backward society. His polemic gains further impetus from its setting, Petersburg, smothered under dirty wet snow, that capital city of the Enlightenment, which did not grow organically over centuries but was rather forcibly built by conscripted serfs on a swamp, a deliberately erected outpost of European Enlightenment in what some might rather call Eurasia.
Everyone always congratulates Dostoevsky for his prescience, and in our era of the social credit score, the lockdown, and the metaverse, we have to regard Notes from Underground as prophetic. The Underground Man unerringly traces the logic by which scientific rationalism unavoidably becomes technocratic dictatorship. If humanity is nothing but a mechanism whose laws of operation are discoverable by empirical investigation, then we will be as easily regulated and controlled as the external nature that 19th-century Europe with its railroads and factories and telegraphs was enchaining to man’s will:
these laws of nature need only be discovered, and then man will no longer be answerable for his actions, and his life will become extremely easy. Needless to say, all human actions will then be calculated according to these laws, mathematically, like a table of logarithms up to 108,000, and entered into a calendar; or better still, some well-meaning publications will appear, like the encyclopedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so precisely calculated and designated that there will no longer be any actions and adventures in the world. […] Then the crystal palace will get built.
The crystal palace—the 1851 iron-and-glass showpiece of Victorian industry, later used as a symbol of scientific utopia by the Russian nihilist Chernyshevsky—stands in Dostoevsky’s vision for the dystopia of the total technocracy, which the individual can’t even resist because of its basis in the scientifically-discovered laws of nature: “you can’t rebel: it’s two times two is four!”
Yet just as the Underground Man later notes that swampwater wells up in Petersburg graves, so too does humanity’s incorrigible perversity arise to rebuke the rational: “two times two is no longer life, gentlemen, but the beginning of death.” People will rather destroy their very lives than act in their own self-interest if it means demonstrating their free will, their irreducibility to a grid of predictable stimulus-and-response: “the whole human enterprise seems indeed to consist in man’s proving to himself that he is a man and not a sprig!” The Underground Man also denies the myth of progress that underlies the promise of scientific rationality. Even in the progressive 19th century, he notes, “blood is flowing in rivers”—as examples, he gives the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the American Civil War, and Prussia’s war with Denmark—and predicts that “man may even reach the point of finding pleasure in blood.”
With this grisly prophecy, looking forward to Crime and Punishment and even more relevant about a century later in the era of Hitler, Stalin, and the atomic bomb, Dostoevsky warns us not to glibly celebrate the return of the repressed, as if wanton butchery and bloodless technocracy were our only alternatives. “Consciousness, for example, is infinitely higher than two times two,” writes the Underground Man, and “consciousness” evokes not the eruption of unpredictable barbarism but some more comprehensive experience.
The novella’s second part, a more conventionally narrated flashback to the Underground Man’s early 20s, when he was a young Romantic, even gives us an indelible portrait of someone demonstrating his innate human perversity only in the most destructive and self-destructive ways. The basis of the Underground Man’s character is what Nietzsche, inspired in part by Dostoevsky himself, would later label ressentiment: a morbid self-consciousness of his own powerless before the world, a concomitant secret pleasure in aggrandizing his ego by martyrizing himself as ultimate victim, and a desire to accomplish some revenge on those he sees as his unjustly elevated superiors.
Dostoevsky dramatizes ressentiment first in two brilliantly comic set pieces focusing on the Underground Man’s rivalries with a brawny officer he doesn’t know—he eventually steels himself to bump unswervingly into the man on the street, as if to demonstrate his own strength and fearlessness—and with some old friends from school who dislike him. Even the severe Nabokov had to praise the latter episode as a masterpiece of Dostoevskean humor. In one scene, the Underground Man, having insulted and been insulted by his old schoolfellows, refuses to leave the restaurant where they’re drinking and dining; instead, he paces back and forth in front of them for three hours, sullenly calling attention to himself by ignoring them, in a bathetic gesture reminiscent of how an aggrieved child would act.
Finally, the Underground Man ends up in a brothel, where he torments with a vision of her grim future the young prostitute, Liza. In a moment of pity, he gives her his address before he leaves, but when she comes to his dingy apartment four days later—perhaps imagining he’ll rescue her from her miserable life—he first breaks down into weeping hysterics, then seduces her, and finally insults her by offering her money for her sexual services. She walks out and he fails to follow. He confesses: “I was no longer able to love, because, I repeat, for me to love meant to tyrannize and to preponderize morally.” Drunk on the Romantic literature of the period with its vapid ideals, the Underground Man is unable to realize any actual love or beauty, as Liza can when she selflessly tends him during his breakdown.
His morbid self-consciousness, his masturbatory pleasure in self-laceration, and his overly acute awareness of where he stands in the world’s hierarchies—all these wild irrationalisms imprison him no less than would the crystal palace of the rationalists. Dostoevsky seeks not rationality or irrationality but “consciousness,” presumably the consciousness of “faith and Christ” eliminated from the novella by the censors’ shears. With this resolution amputated from the text, we are left with a negative example, a vision of man without God, as the narrator himself understands:
a novel needs a hero, and here there are purposely collected all the features for an anti-hero, and…all this will produce a most unpleasant impression, because we’ve all grown unaccustomed to life…
It is this implicit leap toward a holistic vision encompassing both the stuff of life and the spirituality that animates and redeems it that Georg Lukács had in mind in the conclusion of his Theory of the Novel when he praised Dostoevsky for writing not novels—stories of alienated individuals—but the integral epics of the future:
It is in the words of Dostoevsky that this new world, remote from any struggle against what actually exists, is drawn for the same time as a seen reality. This is why he, and the form he created, lie outside the scope of this book. Dostoevsky did not write novels, and the creative vision revealed in his works has nothing to do, either as affirmation or as rejection, with European nineteenth-century Romanticism or with the many, likewise Romantic, reactions against it. He belongs to the new world.
Shortly after writing this, Lukács would convert to Marxism, a 19th-century progressive doctrine par excellence that disparaged Dostoevsky as a reactionary irrationalist—not without merit, given the writer’s adoption of an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, Russian imperial chauvinist vision of the Orthodox faith, a vision reflected less in the crystal palace that was the Soviet Union, perhaps, than in the court philosophy of Putin’s expansionist Russia today.
Yet Dostoevsky’s ability to inspire later writers of quite different sensibilities and ideologies from his own tells us that literature is not simplistic propaganda. The Underground Man is most compelling not as a doctrinaire philosopher but as a living voice, the broken voice of a human being struggling under the weight of his and the world’s own hypertrophic loveless mind.
I write in a moment when Dostoevsky was almost stricken from at least one university’s curriculum—if not for the sheerly mindless reason that he represents Russia, then maybe for the only slightly more persuasive warrant of his imperial Slavophilia. Yet if the putatively liberal west (albeit looking more and more like the crystal palace every day) wishes by this and other anti-Russian proscription to mark its difference from its authoritarian enemy, it’s hard to imagine a more futile and self-defeating act.
How was Dostoevsky handled, in contrast, by western critics in the Cold War? He was reimagined as the liberal of liberals, author of heterogeneous texts bristling with unfinished and unfinishable dialogues, Athenian tragedy and Jerusalem Talmud rising from the rubble of what had been intended as the gospel of the Third Rome. This is what literature exists to do, and what Notes from Underground consummately does: not to show us the only true social or intellectual good, but to create living representations of the self that surges below and above the merely social, the merely intellectual, on its quest for what alone can prevent the social and the intellectual from dooming us to the crystal palace or to the mousehole, a quest object that, if named in bare words—love, for example, or soul—would fall back into the killing verbiage of the times. The processes of writing and reading, and the resultantly open-ended work, are, therefore, the only salvation a secular world may know.