Notes from Underground
I found that I had posted several entries about The Notes from Underground in association with other works, but I had never given this work its own posting. So, I decided (being lazy) to gather together the various comments I had made to see if I could make something coherent about this very complex work.
The first part consists of an extended passage in which the underground man (UM) reveals himself. He is a civil servant who has come into a small inheritance and has retired. He is an outsider with no friends or relatives. He lives in isolation. He sneers at society, but at the same time longs to join them, to be one of them. It is also a philosophical rant against those who think that human behavior will eventually be completely explainable and predictable by the immutable laws of science. In addition the narrator contends that there are two types of people: the doers and the thinkers or the intellectuals. Everything that is accomplished is done by the doers, because the thinkers are paralyzed when they attempt to handle all the ramifications of acting.
The second part shows our reclusive narrator in action and supports both of the arguments put forth in the first part. In the second part, the UM forces himself upon some former student acquaintances who are giving a going-away party for one of the students. The UM insists on attending the party, while mocking himself and eventually the others. He desires to be one with them, but actively works to make this impossible.
The UM also meets a prostitute in the second part; the UM persuades Liza to escape from the life of a prostitute. However, when Liza appears at his apartment several days later, telling him that she wants to escape, he rejects her and sends her away.
This is one of Dostoyevsky's most unusual works. It was while I was reading it, for the third or fourth time actually, that I began to see some similarities between Dostoyevsky's short novel and Poe's short story, "The Imp of the Perverse." "The Imp of the Perverse" is another of Poe's first person confessions--the individual attempts to explain why he committed his act from a jail cell, with a gallows outside awaiting him.
One of the similarities is the format: both begin with lectures on one or more topics which are of considerable length in comparison to the work which is then followed by an incident that exemplifies the topic(s) discussed in the first part. Poe's lecture is solely on the nature of perverseness in human behavior while Dostoyevsky's contains several themes, only one of which is perverseness.
One of Dostoyevsky's first examples of perverseness is that at times he is sick but doesn't go to the doctor out of spite. Who is he injuring--himself. He knows he should go because he is "only injuring [himself]...My liver is bad, well--- let it get worse." He is knowingly acting against his own best interests. Later he speaks of a "friend" of his:
"When he prepares for any undertaking this gentleman immediately explains to you, elegantly and clearly, exactly how he must act in accordance with the laws of reason and truth. What is more, he will talk to you with excitement and passion of the true normal interests of man; with irony he will upbraid the shortsighted fools who do not understand their own interests, nor the true significance of virtue; and within a quarter of of an hour, without any sudden outside provocation, but simply through something inside him which is stronger than all his interests, he will go off on quite a different tack--that is, act in direct opposition to what he has just been saying about himself, in opposition to the laws of reason, in opposition to his own advantage, in fact in opposition to everything..."
Poe advances a similar argument about perversity: "Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say through its promptings we act, for the reason we should not." In other words, we act because we know we shouldn't.
Dostoyevsky here, like Poe, argues that humans will act at times in direct conflict with what they know to be their best interests.
Dostoyevsky postulates an advance in science which might provide accurate prediction of human behavior while Poe points out a combination of phrenology and metaphysics that attempts do the same. Both then attack the possibility of a completely accurate science of predicting human behavior.
Dostoyevsky says, "science itself will teach man that he never 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. consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will not longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms..."
And then, when complete rational harmony and prosperity is established, someone will stand up and say that we should "'kick over the whole show here and scatter rationalism to the winds' ... [and] he would be sure to find followers--such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning; that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated."
Again, we do things simply for the sake of being perverse or because we know we shouldn't.
A Side Note:
There are some subtle comic comments buried within the text. The UM seems such a humorless person in much of the work, I wonder if he understands what he says here.
". . . I began to feel an irresistible urge to plunge into society. To me plunging into society meant paying a visit to my office chief, Anton Antonych Setochkin. He's the only lasting acquaintance I've made during my lifetime; I too now marvel at this circumstance. But even then I would visit him only when my dreams had reached such a degree of happiness that it was absolutely essential for me to embrace people and all humanity at once; for that reason I needed to have at least one person on hand who actually existed. However, one could only call upon Anton Antonych on Tuesday (his receiving day); consequently, I always had to adjust the urge to embrace all humanity so that it occurred on Tuesday. . . .The host usually sat in his study on a leather couch in front of a table together with some gray-haired guest, a civil servant either from our office or another one. I never saw more than two or three guests there, and they were always the same ones. They talked about excise taxes, debates in the Senate, salaries, promotions, His Excellency and how to please him, and so on and so forth. I had the patience to sit here like a fool next to these people for four hours or so; I listened without daring to say a word to them or even knowing what to talk about. I sat there in a stupor; several times I broke into a sweat; I felt numbed by paralysis; but it was good and useful. Upon returning home I would postpone for some time my desire to embrace all humanity."
Is he being ironic?