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Notes from Underground (1864) - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Related: Fyodor Dostoevsky - irrationalism - novel - unreliable narrator - 1800s literature - 1864 - existentialism

Notes from Underground (1864) - Fyodor Dostoyevsky [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Notes from Underground (1864) is widely considered the world's first existentialist novel. [Apr 2006]

The protagonist of Notes from Underground (1864) is a prime example of an unreliable narrator. Because the whole novel is told through his skewed and irrational perspective, we cannot take his depictions of events and characters at face value. [Apr 2006]

The narrator does nothing because he considers "men of action" to be stupid. He also disagrees with the notion that two times two equals four. [Mar 2006]

The “Palace of Crystal” to which Dostoyevsky refers is Paxton's Crystal Palace of the 1851 UK Great Exhibition; it stood as a symbol of progress and reason and Dostoyevsky had visited it in 1862. This is the same building German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk uses as a metaphor for the European project. [Jul 2006]


Notes from Underground (also translated in English as Notes from the Underground or Letters from the Underworld) (1864) is a short novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It is considered the world's first existentialist work. It presents itself as an excerpt from the rambling memoirs of a bitter, isolated, unnamed narrator (generally referred to by critics as Underground Man), a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. The narrator does nothing because he considers "men of action" to be stupid. He also disagrees with the notion that two times two equals four. Spoiler warning: Plot or ending details follow.

The novel is divided into two rough parts. Part 1 falls into three main sections. The short introduction propounds a number of riddles whose meanings will be further developed. Section two, three and four deal with suffering and the enjoyment of suffering; sections five and six with intellectual and moral vacillation and with conscious "inertia"-inaction; sections seven through nine with theories of reason and advantage; the last two sections are a summary and a transition into Part 2. Part 2 focuses on three incidents. The first ,the incident with the officer on the Nevsky Prospect illustrates the narrator's theories on insults and suffering; the second, the farewell dinner for Zverkov is clearly connected with vacillation and "inertia"; the third and most crucial episode, that with the prostitute Liza, is the extension and embodiment of the narrator's theories on reason and advantage, and of his views on the nature of man.

Like many of Dostoevsky's novels, Notes from Underground was unpopular with Soviet literary critics due to its explicit rejection of socialist utopianism and its portrait of humans as irrational, uncontrollable, and uncooperative. Many existentialist critics, notably Jean-Paul Sartre, considered the novel to be a forerunner of existentialist thought and an inspiration to their own philosophies. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notes_from_Underground [Feb 2005]

Notes from Underground was first published in January and February of 1864 as the featured presentation in the first two issues of The Epoch, Dostoevsky's second journal of the 1860s. --http://www1.umn.edu/lol-russ/hpgary/Russ3421/lesson8.htm [Aug 2004]

"I am a sick man. ... I am a spiteful man."

"I am a sick man. ... I am a spiteful man."

That is the opening line of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground (1864), to which Dostoyevsky adds this disclaimer as it were:

"The author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the writer of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed. I have tried to expose to the view of the public more distinctly than is commonly done, one of the characters of the recent past. He is one of the representatives of a generation still living. In this fragment, entitled “Underground,” this person introduces himself and his views, and, as it were, tries to explain the causes owing to which he has made his appearance and was bound to make his appearance in our midst. In the second fragment there are added the actual notes of this person concerning certain events in his life." —Author’s Note.

From part I

"I am a sick man. ... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can’t explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “pay out” the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well—let it get worse!"

From part IX

"And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death. Anyway, man has always been afraid of this mathematical certainty, and I am afraid of it now. Granted that man does nothing but seek that mathematical certainty, he traverses oceans, sacrifices his life in the quest, but to succeed, really to find it, dreads, I assure you. He feels that when he has found it there will be nothing for him to look for. When workmen have finished their work they do at least receive their pay, they go to the tavern, then they are taken to the police-station—and there is occupation for a week. But where can man go? Anyway, one can observe a certain awkwardness about him when he has attained such objects. He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd. In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all. But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.

And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive—in other words, only what is conducive to welfare—is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact. There is no need to appeal to universal history to prove that; only ask yourself, if you are a man and have lived at all. As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things. I hold no brief for suffering nor for well-being either. I am standing for ... my caprice, and for its being guaranteed to me when necessary. Suffering would be out of place in vaudevilles, for instance; I know that. In the “Palace of Crystal” it is unthinkable; suffering means doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a “palace of crystal” if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction. Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice two makes four. Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing."

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