Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND, has held many labels, such as being a case history of neurosis or a specimen of modern tragedy. The most popular label it has obtained however is being the author’s defense of individualism.
The novel is written as a performance, part triad, part memoir, by a nameless personage who claims to be writing for himself but consistently manipulates the reader–of whom he is morbidly aware– to the point where there seems to be no judgment the reader can make which has not already been made by the writer himself. The underground man is represented as a product of individual pathology or a biographical accident.
He is “one of the characters of our recent past,” part of a generation that is living out its days among us. Internal evidence makes it clear that his generation is of the 1840s. He shows the fate of the isolated petty clerk and Dostoevkian dreamer twenty years after, surveying his wasted life in the new spiritual climate of the 1860s and at the same time finding justification for his own grotesque being in the simplistic views of the human nature now current.
IN the first part of the novel, the underground man describes himself and his views, and attempts, as it were, to clarify the reasons why he appeared and is bound in our midst. The mention of himself and his views raise the question of how the two are related. Are we to understand his views as the product of his wasted life or independently?
There are also the same views that are bound in the paradox. He dismisses the “laws of nature” and willfully denies that twice two is four. Common sense even today with his views–but it underlies most of the art we think of as “modern”: “And why are you so firmly, so solemnly convinced that only the normal and the positive–in short, only well-being–is to man’s advantage?…After all, man may be fond of only well-being. And man is sometimes extremely fond of suffering too.
And here there is no need to consult world history; ask yourself, if you’re a man and have lived at all. As for my personal opinion, it’s even somehow indecent to love only well-being.” Now don’t confuse this idea with suffering. Here he is simply touching on a quest in which pleasure is of no use–it is the quest for self-determination and self-affirmation.
Underground, the man seeks truth, setting “authenticity” above goodness or happiness as he reopens the question of what it means to be human. This is what he seeks the answer to in dangerous and repugnant regions. The paradox is used as a contradiction in the underground man’s “confession”, fired by passion with generalizations that seem liable, as well as, hyperbolic.
He craves isolation, yet thirsts for human contact. He rejects the “laws of nature,” yet explains his inertia has its inevitable product. He seeks the reader’s sympathy, yet he does all he can to preclude it. He suffers and proclaims pleasure in it. “Reason accounts for twenty-second of human thought,” he declares. Now, take, for example, his often-cited arguments about freedom and individuality. He makes an outstanding case against social utopias as denying “the most important thing– our personality, our individuality.”
And how is the latter expressed? As a spontaneous desire, even caprice: “One’s own free, untrammeled desires, one’s own whim’ no matter how extravagant, one’s own fancy, be it wrought up at times to the point of madness–all of this is precisely the most advantageous of advantages which are omitted, which fits into no classification, and which is constantly knocking all the systems and theories to hell.”
He speaks of wanting to live “in order to satisfy my whole capacity for living and not just my reasoning capacity alone.” And he speculates that striving may be more important to a man than achieving, the journey more important than the arrival at the goal.