There are few books in my life, maybe even none at all, that I can truly say they changed my life after reading them. I know that’s such a cliche thing to say, as, it’s cliche to say things like “this book changed my life”, but after reading Notes from Underground, by Dostoevsky, and it’s a short book (about 100 pages), it sincerely did change my life.
And, it’s not to say that prior to reading this book, and then, after reading, I’m a different person, no it’s not that at all. It’s more like, after reading this book, reading the inner workings of the mind of a literary genius, I have a better understanding of the world we live in, the world away from the “underground”.
I do urge you to read this piece, but I want to give caution, as, it’s not to be casually read. Like I mentioned, it’s only about a hundred pages, and, if not in the right state of mind, you could just as easily miss the whole message of the story altogether.
So, let me give you my brief analysis, and what it has to offer for all of us.
You can think of the whole book really just as an articulated case for free will, that’s the gist of it. But, that’s not all. It’s not only a case for free will, but an explanation for our desire for destruction, and even to why that is.
He puts a line beautifully here, which I’d like to start with:
But why is he so passionately fond of destruction and chaos? Now, then, tell me. But I myself want to say a few words about this separately. Isn’t the reason, perhaps, that he’s so fond of destruction and chaos (after all, it’s indisputable that he sometimes really loves it, and that’s a fact) that he himself has an instinctive fear of achieving his goal and completing the project under construction? How do you know if perhaps he loves his building only from afar, but not from close up; perhaps he only likes building it, but not living in it, leaving it afterward to the animals?
Like I said, a beautifully written paragraph. He says, is our only goal in life, not to complete the goal, but to merely have goals? And, say we achieve our desired goal? Who’s to say we aren’t apt to just destroy it all, just so we’re to have something to do again? To have another goal? So then, if our goal is to have goals, what goal should we have? Is that our free will, to have goals and achieve them?
It’s not only a case for free will, but a case against communist Russia, as well. During this time, Russia started to play around with socialist ideas. And, like many have said before me, Dostoevsky, he was no fool, he knew that if you give a man everything he wants, give him his “freedom”, and let him have nothing to do but sit around and worry nothing but to eat cake and reproduce, what’s to say, the first thing he wouldn’t do is try to destroy it all, if not merely to show that he can?
That’s what he does in this short novel. He writes of this man, this man from the “underground”, whose only goal is to use the little power he had to cause whoever he interacted with worse off than before, and simply, just because he can.
But this man, he knows he’s a reprehensible man, and describes it in great detail. He goes off to tell of two experiences, leading up to a final one. The first, it is the account of an officer he met in an area of St. Petersburg. During his first encounter (which is quite an odd one), he noticed, while passing through a doorway, an officer, seemingly, walks past him, as if he didn’t even notice him, as if he was an insect, which deeply disturbed him. Seems trivial, right?
The doorway was only wide enough to fit one man, and as he was leaving, and they were about to pass through, the officer neither yielded nor acknowledged the existence of this underground man. Though noticed by the man, the officer, when confronted by someone of obvious higher status than himself, say, a general, he yielded. He even made a great effort to allow this general to pass, infuriating the underground man, the level of contempt.
It’s actually a hilarious story. The man goes off to ask for an advance in his salary, and even a loan, all in an effort to dress as if he was “higher status” so the officer would yield to him, rather than the opposite. It all leads up to this big finale where they simply bump shoulders. Although somewhat underwhelming, the message I believe Dostoevsky was trying to get across was how engaged we can be in a goal, regardless of its absurdity.
The second story is much longer, but I won’t go into a lot of detail. Essentially, he meets a few of his old classmates and quickly finds out they’re planning to celebrate the going away for the “star” of school.
It was the kid who had everything going for him: great looks, intelligence, and all the opportunities in the world. Again, this infuriated the underground man. It’s not that he thought it to be unfair, but like the officer in the first story, the former classmate believed himself to be like a god among men, and the men ought to worship at his feet. He describes this individual as trapped in the world of money, false power, and arbitrary goals to impress others.
Anyways, the underground man took on a new goal to pursue. He wanted bring his former classmate down to his level, to show him he’s not so high and mighty as he believes. His goal, if not to destroy him with his words, was to break him in spirit, if that only be a slap on the face, just to show he was still a man who could, indeed, be slapped. He was not untouchable.
This pursuit leads him to a brothel of sorts, where he meets a girl. After an awkward introduction, and he learns a bit about the girl, the man speaks.
He goes on to tell her the life she thinks she’s livings, it only a lie. She thinks she’s free, that she’s being provided a “way out”, but it’s only a twisted trap, that she’s a slave to her “madam”, and will just as easily be tossed out, once the opportunity arises. It sort of plays on same story we live every day, us normal people, but a much more extreme case. We don’t work in brothels, but we have jobs, and the same sense of security, the same sense of “freedom” we think we have, it’s all a lie.
He goes on to give a rather emotional sermon to her about love, of all things. He says, think of the family you want to raise, the husband who will be there to take care of you. How sweet would that be? He paints a beautiful scene in her mind, slightly hinting that he could be that “way out” for her.
He later reveals that the whole speech was a futile effort in an attempt to redeem himself. He was trying to right the wrongs he had done to his former classmate, to that officer, and to the people whose lives he made worse.
In the end, he reveals this to the girl. He takes the growing optimistic spirit inside of her and crushes it.
He ends the book, the “notes from underground”, stating he feels “more alive” than any of the people of this world. He does all the things people are too scared to do, too scared because they’re afraid of what they might become. He says that most people, they live their lives thinking they’re “good people” not because they are truly good, but cowards instead, with no idea of how truly malevolent they actually are.
And this ties in quite nicely with Carl Jung’s idea of the Shadow. It’s something like, we think we’re good people, and even other people think we’re good people, but we don’t know what we’re capable of. We live our lives in somewhat of a lie. We must face our shadow, face the underground.
Now, he does pose a question that is embedded in this paragraph. Although, not explicitly stated as a question, here it is:
Why we don’t even know where this “real life” lives nowadays, what it really is, and what it’s called. Leave us alone without books and we’ll get confused and lose our way at once—we won’t’ know what to join, what to hold on to, what to love or what to hate, what to respect or what to despise. We’re oppressed by being men—men with real bodies and blood of our very own
I think what he’s trying to say is, what have we come to? Why do we think we can, so easily, predict the desires of men? Even better, why are so many of us predictable? And more so, why do we oppress those who try to go against the crowd, to become blood of their very own?
He states, this way of living, it is not “real life”. Once we lose the ability to carve out our own path, we become lost, like he suggests, we don’t know what to hold on to, what to love, what to hate, what to respect or what to despise. We lose our divine ability to be an individual.
We become a simple piano key, where two times two makes four. But I say, I am a man with free will, and I say, two times two makes five, and I will make it so.
Thanks for reading,