Notes from Underground- Fyodor Dostoevsky
Notes from Underground is actually three parts, but it’s only the first part of the book that truly defines the arguments around which it revolves. The other two are the tales of the hideous self-sustaining weaknesses and complexities of the Underground Man character, in a brutal but apt depiction.
Apparently every writer on Earth, including Nietsche, Sartre and Virginia Woolf, (and if you can imagine a less likely combination of people, I’d be interested to hear about it) has written about this particular book. It deserves the attention. As a form of literature, it’s well beyond its time, and would be a challenging piece to write today, let alone in the dripping verbosity of the time it was actually written.
Dostoevsky himself is also a controversial figure, for his pan-Slavic nationalism, and his rather narrow Anti Semitism, which on the face of it seems to be not much more than the typical total failure of a non-Jew to understand what’s involved in being a Jew in any society combined with the ingrained habits of Christian orthodoxy.
As a writer, he’s suffered the indignity of being “revered” by modern literature. Notes from Underground is described by existentialists as the first truly existential novel. This is despite the fact that existentialism as such didn’t exist in 1864. Between Kierkegaard’s apparently endless references to God and Nietsche’s recycling of Plato, Dostoevsky could well have been the first actual functional existentialist.
(I should point out here that few things interest me less than existentialism, postmodernism, and similar intellectual groceries. I almost fell asleep reading a definition of postmodernism, and existentialism, as a similar description of the stupefyingly obvious, isn’t much better. Perhaps there were values in them once, but they’re empty packets now. I’m not about to hold it against Dostoevsky that he was held responsible for things far less interesting and much worse expressed than his book.)
Notes from Underground would have been a great literary work whether it was written by a saint or a squirrel, despite the enthusiasms of the literati and whether the second and third parts had been written at all. Part 1 is the incendiary core, a fury of first person monologue delivered in a logical sequence. The logic alone is worthy of acclaim, because this is human logic, that sad but absurd thing that limps through human minds and invariably trips over itself and anything else it encounters.
Dostoevsky says more in one sentence than most of human literature has ever managed to drag out of itself: “Reason is only reason”. Philosophy has never to my knowledge had the courage to admit that, even to itself. Humanity’s relationship with reason could at best be considered an unlikely, erratic acquaintanceship, and Dostoevsky hammers this point very efficiently.
In what must be one of the most effective metaphors ever written, (this isn’t gushing praise, it’s appreciation of technique) he uses “two times two” to explain human fear of absolute logic. It represents the inability of humans to change such absolutes. It’s portrayed as a threat. It’s also a quite unique representation of human relationships with things they understand only too well.
To give a further perspective, this is a true first person narrative, utterly uncompromising, and almost painfully human. Kafka must have read this book. The Burrow is at least a distant relative of Notes from Underground, in fact may have been deliberately written as one, if my suspicions about the various analogies in The Burrow are correct. The labyrinth in The Burrow is as complex as the mental labyrinth in Notes from Underground.
There’s a sort of “writer’s DNA” involved in this theory. Good writers have unique styles. Kafka is also one of the very few writers in history able to produce excellent first person characters. Many people try to write in this style, and few succeed, because it’s very hard work for writers. If so, Notes from Underground is The Burrow’s grandfather.
Dostoevsky effectively threw the literary rules away when he wrote this. It’s a matter of opinion how subjective a character can be. In most modern books, the deep moments of introspection are the highlights, the secrets of the character, and usually the main working machinery for storylines. In the past, only exceptional writers were able to illuminate these deep zones with good speeches in plays and good situational management.
The Underground Man is self-obsessed, a point philosophers and psychologists could hardly fail to notice. Everything is external to the Underground Man. This is actually a pretty accurate depiction of a person removed from the material world acting as an observer, the detached if obsessive commentator. The Underground Man is also a not very adept participant in the observed world.
Like his Underground Man, however, Dostoevsky doesn’t make it simple for his analysts. His view of himself is both witty and assertive. He inflicts his audience with points, and slides off and on them tangentially. He sideslips into a digression, and returns to his point having proven it. His logic is self serving, but contains a stream of accuracy which can be applied to anyone. The Underground Man in fact is a typical human, able to articulate his situation to his own tastes.
As a monologue, it’s unequalled. The solid torrent of narrative is quite unlike any other. In terms of intellectual content alone, it’s unlikely to be equaled any time soon. A speech writer couldn’t have written Notes from Underground.
I don’t know if any part of Notes from Underground is autobiographical. There’s a definite sound of some deeper authenticity, unmistakable, but it’s as hard to pin down as the Underground Man. The strangest thing to me is that at times Dostoevsky reminds me of one of my favorite English writers, Jerome K Jerome, with a definite sense of that odd 19th century decency which colors the best books of the later part of the century. Keep an eye out for it, it’s quite illuminating about the world before the 20th century horror story.
I refuse to tell anyone how to read this book. Just read it, and see if your mind can form a relationship with the Underground Man, and appreciate everything he says.