The fear of the coronavirus allows our governing bodies to keep us in isolation and the consequences of our permitting this act are more pernicious than we can imagine. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” has never appeared less fictional.
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? . . . 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.
The fictional story of a Russian recluse appears less fictional now. The Underground Man in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel tells us that he has willingly confined himself to a hermit’s life—out of spite. It is preferable to him to risk his own health than to consult a doctor; it is better to breathe the polluted air of St. Petersburg than to move elsewhere; it is preferable to tolerate a toothache because, he says, there is pleasure in pain—all out of spite. But, spite for whom?
For society. The narrator’s disgruntled tone and masochistic remarks convey a sense of existential indignation towards the world. Notes from Underground, moreover, published in 1864, is considered to be one of the first existentialist novels because of the protagonist’s peculiar outlook and attitude towards the world. We should actually call him the antagonist of the novel, where there seems to be no protagonist anymore. The Underground Man constantly contradicts himself, after all, revealing that he knows enough about his unfortunate (although self-inflicted) condition to recognize its atrophic impact on his health; yet is wicked enough to make the seemingly intentional decision to choose against his interest.
Is the Underground Man’s attitude truly of his own making? In other words, is he freely choosing to be a bitter old man without a care for himself or others? From a personal, subjective perspective of the character, we might say so, but there is hardly such a thing as a man whose person is completely isolated from the world. The society in which the Underground Man lived was hardly free, we must remember. St. Petersburg was plagued by monotonous bureaucratization and workers like the Underground Man did not make enough money to provide themselves a meaningful life. More importantly, they did not know how to find, much less feel, meaning.
A limitation on the choices and the quality of life that we are granted by our governments has an impact on our world outlook, this is the most protruding lesson from Part I: Underground. The reader may be led to believe that it is the Underground Man whom we are supposed to blame, or at least criticize, for his uncommon resentment and discomforting self-deprecation. I would argue that it is even more revealing to look at the Underground Man as a product of his society. To live in a society devoid of goodness, and—even worse—to know the good and realize it is beyond your reach because it is taken from you, can only antagonize a man’s heart. The Underground Man tells us so:
The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was “sublime and beautiful,” the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether. But the chief point was that all this was, as it were, not accidental in me, but as though it were bound to be so. It was as though it were my most normal condition, and not in the least disease or depravity, so that at last all desire in me to struggle against this depravity passed.
As men, we seek the sublime and beautiful, especially the more we know of it. It can be music, knowledge, art, family, love, freedom, faith—whatever we may believe to be truly good. The Underground Man admits that he has a sense of the good, and he knows that his depravity is not “accidental” in him but bounded due to circumstances outside of his own control. Helpless, he chooses the path of complacence. His situation is inherently tragic, since it seems that there is little that he can do in his society to rectify its deadening rhythm. He could be a hero—a protagonist—and live as a happy man in a bleak world, quixotically seeking the good where it is nowhere to be found, but is this a likely reaction?
Now, I know the reader might be anticipating a connection with the Underground Man’s society and our current condition in lockdown (perhaps the title gives it away). It might even seem an exaggerated comparison, and perhaps it is. Yet, reading about the Underground Man’s own suffering cannot help but make me reflect how we are morphing our own understanding of suffering. The fear of this sickness allows our governing bodies to keep us underground, as it were, and the consequences of our permitting this act are more pernicious than we can imagine.
We can see the result in Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, who chose his antagonistic course after a life in lockdown, after all. Let me explain. He may not have been given a government mandate to stay home, but his society has conditioned him to be idle, inert. Even the Underground Man himself tells us that he notices what has happened to him now that he has had his ability to choose taken from him. In Part I, the Underground Man chooses to do nothing about his condition. Inaction leads him to ruminate in general about the meaning of inertia, which he describes as the “legitimate fruit of consciousness.” This complacence comes in his older years, but he discloses to us in part two of the novel that he did try once to be a man of action.
In Part II: Apropos of the Wet Snow, we learn what happens to a man who no longer knows how to make choices for himself. The Underground Man is so desperate to have some freedom, that even making the wrong choices, such as going to a dinner where he isn’t wanted and trying to slap a man he envies, seem preferable to him than doing nothing at all. The culmination of the novel consists in following the Underground Man in his efforts to get revenge on a man who he believes has disrespected him, knowing full well that everything will end badly. His life is already a chain of wrong decisions and he believes it is too late to correct this course. But the Underground Man does not generalize his own, unfortunate case to everyone; quite the contrary, he appears to even warn his readers to not become like him. The Underground Man’s personality, then, is not the key element to understanding Notes from Underground; it is his message regarding control and freedom.
Our Underground Man doesn’t believe in utopia, for example. He knows that the government’s attempts at creating a perfect society, aiming to eliminate pain and suffering, only achieve these goals in an artificial manner that will deprive men of their freedom. A man of letters, he references the novel What Is to Be Done? and the author, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, to criticize Chernyshevsky’s utopian idea of what he calls the “Crystal Palace.” The passage below (from Part I) is his critique of the Crystal Palace. It resonates, I find, with my hesitations regarding the lockdown that has been imposed for several months now:
You, for instance, want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man’s inclinations need reforming? In short, how do you know that such a reformation will be a benefit to man? And to go to the root of the matter, why are you so positively convinced that not to act against his real normal interests guaranteed by the conclusions of reason and arithmetic is certainly always advantageous for man and must always be a law for mankind? So far, you know, this is only your supposition. It may be the law of logic, but not the law of humanity.
The law of humanity is a broad term, but the Underground Man differentiates it from anything that can be empirically known. Human action is unpredictable, which is to say that it is creative. As such, the law of humanity seldom fits any prescribed molds casted upon ideas of reformation or “improvement.” As men, we also are naturally made to plan and prepare for strife. It is in our nature to react—to fight or to flee—in the face of calamity. When this nature is repressed, we deprive people of the essential practices that are part of human nature: resourcefulness and choice. The Underground Man describes it the following way:
I agree that man is pre-eminently a creative animal, predestined to strive consciously for an object and to engage in engineering—that is, incessantly and eternally to make new roads, wherever they may lead. But the reason why he wants sometimes to go off at a tangent may just be that he is predestined to make the road, and perhaps, too, that however stupid the “direct” practical man may be, the thought sometimes will occur to him that the road almost always does lead somewhere, and that the destination it leads to is less important than the process of making it, and that the chief thing is to save the well-conducted child from despising engineering, and so giving way to the fatal idleness, which, as we all know, is the mother of all the vices. Man likes to make roads and to create, that is a fact beyond dispute. But why has he such a passionate love for destruction and chaos also? Tell me that!
The problems in the Underground Man’s society are not a direct translation to the problems in our society, of course. There are stark differences between Russia in the 19th century and America in the 21st. His emotions, thoughts, and frustrations, nonetheless, are human—universal. The epigraph of this essay is the Underground Man’s questions for us: “And why are you so firmly . . . 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?” I can only speak for myself when I say that my well-being is less important to me at the moment than being with my loved ones, from whom I am currently apart due to imposed travel restrictions, and there are countless stories of individuals for whom certain plans were cancelled, or problems extenuated, due to an arbitrarily prolonged lockdown. Some of these plans or problems that are personal to us—the control over which we’ve had to unwillingly abandon—can perhaps be postponed and repaired, but many, many cannot. The choice of sacrifice should be man’s to make, and the reasons for which he sacrifices his own. Notes from Underground serves as a reminder that an excessive acceptance of government-imposed isolation (life underground) deprives us men of living: Of choosing, of suffering, and of prevailing.
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Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Project Gutenberg.
The featured image is “Christ in the Gethsemane Garden” (1901) by Arkhip Kuindzhi (1842-1910) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.