Friday, January 1, 2010

310. Notes From Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky

History: Published in 1864, it is considered by many to be the world's first existentialist novel..
Plot: The book consists of an introduction, three main sections and a conclusion. The short introduction propounds a number of riddles whose meanings will be further developed. Chapters two, three and four deal with suffering and the enjoyment of suffering; chapters five and six with intellectual and moral vacillation and with conscious "inertia"-inaction; chapters seven through nine with theories of reason and logic; the last two chapters are a summary and a transition into Part 2.
War is described as people's rebellion against the assumption that everything needs to happen for a purpose, because humans do things without purpose, and this is what determines human history.
Secondly, the narrator's desire for pain and paranoia is exemplified by his liver pain and toothache. The main issue for the Underground Man is that he has reached a point of ennui and inactivity. Unlike most people, who typically act out of revenge because they believe justice is the end, the Underground Man is conscious of his problems, feels the desire for revenge, but he does not find it virtuous; this incongruity leads to spite and spite towards the act itself with its concomitant circumstances. He feels that others like him exist, yet he continuously concentrates on his spitefulness instead of on actions that would avoid the problems he is so concerned with. He even admits at one point that he’d rather be inactive out of laziness.
The first part also gives a harsh criticism of determinism and intellectual attempts at dictating human action and behavior by logic, which the Underground Man mentions in terms of a simple math problem two times two makes four He states that despite humanity’s attempt to create the "Crystal Palace," one cannot avoid the simple fact that anyone at any time can decide to act in a way which might not be considered good, and some will do so simply to validate their existence and to protest and confirm that they exist as individuals. For good as a general term is subjective and in the case of the Underground Man the good here he's ridiculing is enlightened self interest (egoism, selfishness). It is this position being depicted as logical and valid that the novels protaganist despises. Since his romantic embracing of this ideal, he seems to blame for his current base unhappiness. This type of rebellion is critical to later works of Dostoevsky. As this type of rebellion is used by adolescents to validate their own existence, uniqueness and independence. Rebellion in the face of the disfunction, disorder of adult experience, that one inherits under the understanding of tradition and society.
The second part is the actual story proper and consists of three main segments that lead to a furthering of the Underground Man's super-consciousness.
The first is his obsession with an officer who physically moves him out of the way without a word or warning. He sees the officer on the street and thinks of ways to take revenge, eventually deciding to bump into him, which he does, finding to his surprise that the officer does not seem to even notice it happened.
The second segment is a dinner party with some old school friends to wish Zverkov, one of their number, goodbye as he is being transferred out of the city. The underground man hated them when he was younger, but after a random visit to Simonov’s, he decides to meet them at the appointed location. They fail to tell him that the time has been changed to six instead of five, so he arrives early. He gets into an argument with the four after a short time, declaring to all his hatred of society and using them as the symbol of it. At the end, they go off without him to a secret brothel, and, in his rage, the underground man follows them there to confront Zverkov once and for all, regardless if he is beaten or not. He arrives to find Zverkov and company have left, but, it is there that he meets Liza, a young prostitute.
The story cuts to Liza and the underground man lying silently in the dark together. The underground man confronts Liza with an image of her future, by which she is unmoved at first, but, she eventually realizes the plight of her position and how she will slowly become useless and will descend more and more, until she is no longer wanted by anyone. The thought of dying such a terribly disgraceful death brings her to realize her position, and she then finds herself enthralled by the underground man’s seemingly poignant grasp of society’s ills. He gives her his address and leaves. After this, he is overcome by the fear of her actually arriving at his dilapidated apartment, and, in the middle of an argument with his servant, she arrives. He then curses her and takes back everything he said to her, saying he was, in fact, laughing at her and reiterates the truth of her miserable position. Near the end of his painful rage he wells up in tears after saying that he was only seeking to have power over her and a desire to humiliate her. He begins to criticize himself and states that he is in fact horrified by his own poverty and embarrassed by his situation. Liza realizes how pitiful he is and they embrace. The underground man cries out “They – they won’t let me – I – I can’t be good!” After all this, he still acts terribly towards her, and, before she leaves, he stuffs a five ruble note into her hand, which she throws onto the table. He tries to catch her as she goes out onto the street but cannot find her and never hears from her again. He recalls this moment as making him unhappy whenever he thinks of it, yet again proving the fact from the first section that his spite for society and his inability to act like it, makes him unable to act better than it.
Review: Notes From Underground is timeless - it was written in 1864 but is still highly relevant to modern times since the narrator concerns himself with the subject of human psychology.
The first part of the book is a rant, questioning himself as he writes his notes as to whether what he's saying (or trying to say) is quite right. Dostoevsky describes very accurately the psychological games people play - the pecking orders, passive aggression, the subtle behaviors deploying disrespect only visible to the intended target - it's all stuff we suffer through, and worry about, in 2010.
There's a fine line between philosophies that offer insight, and ones that are deep and meaningless. I would put Dostoevsky firmly in the former category. He doesn't mince his words, and this "Underground Man" is likely Dostoevsky himself speaking from the heart.
Opening Line: “I am a sick man… I am an angry man.”
Closing Line: “Devil take the underground!”
Quotes: "....we've reached a point where we regard real "living life" almost as a labor, almost a service, and we all agree in ourselves that it's better from a book. And why do we sometimes fuss about, why these caprices, these demands of ours? We ourselves don't know why. It would be the worse for us if our capricious demands were fulfilled. Go on, try giving us more independence, for example, unbind the hands of any one of us, broaden our range of activity, relax the tutelage, and we... but I assure you: we will immediately beg to be taken back under tutelage."
Rating: Difficult

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