Achingly powerful existentialist literature. Somewhat uncharacteristically, Dostoyevsky takes care to qualify at the very start of the story that it represents the point of view of the protagonist, not the author, though that wouldn’t stop the very Christian Dostoyevsky getting labelled nihilist even today.
The Underground Man’s analysis of society and humanity are uncomfortable, as expressed in the first part of the book, “Underground”. There’s absurdity there, but undoubtedly some truth too. Striking how timeless a lot of the observations are; Dostoyevsky really was a master of psychological insight and plumbing the depths of the unchanging aspects of human nature. His insight on the inherent self-destructive nature of humanity here is sometimes chilling in how accurate it feels.
The second part of the book, “Apropos of Wet Snow” interestingly subverts a lot of the intellectual insight of the first part by showing the man who wrote it. The Underground Man is an absolute mess. Whatever insights he’s gleaned onto the increasing artificiality of humankind, of the increasingly synthetic nature of consciousness, he’s ridiculous and contemptuous. The introduction to my copy of the book, by Robert Louis Jackson, proposed that Dostoyevsky felt the Underground Man’s philosophy (and perhaps nihilism, and existentialism to a degree, in general) are “incomplete” in that they miss what can ground the formlessness and unnaturalness of life, namely a moral and spiritual component.
The Underground Man lacks any such side. For all his criticisms on the synthetic and artificial nature of modern life and society, the speeches he gets so worked up on delivering are criticised for sounding “bookish”, for regurgitating other writers. In some moments of keen self-awareness, he realises his actions and fantasies are just attempts to replicate scenarios and interactions in media he’s consumed.
The few moments of humanity and compassion he engages in are quickly undercut by him engaging in spiteful and self-destructive behaviour. Rather than serve as a model for how an existentialist may survive in society, he’s an example of some of the worst observations on society he himself makes in the first section of the book. In this sense, some of his observations can be read as projection, as the Underground Man displacing his own self-loathing and mindset onto humanity as a whole. His keen criticisms of Utopian society are in part correct because men like him exist, but is it true that, as he proposes, all humans deep down are like him?
While I’m sure nearly everyone could empathise and relate with parts of him (some of the socially awkward moments in the second section of the novel, occasional self-destructive acts, feelings of alienation), I believe as perhaps Dostoyevsky himself seemed to – there are ways to overcome some of humanity’s inherent failings. Whether that’s necessarily a spiritual component is debatable, and it’s questionable whether humankind as a whole could ever overcome their failings collectively, but I think it’s certainly possible for individuals and small groups.
The Underground Man’s intellectual arrogance is fascinating. He simultaneously wants to be “normal”, to have friends, to enjoy social engagements, to fall in love and marry a woman, but he constantly overanalyses, judges, and engages in self-destructive behaviour preventing him from achieving these goals. He proposes that humans deep down love to suffer, and their self-destructive nature is the outlet for this, but must he suffer so much, so needlessly? He clearly misreads social situations extensively, in favour of constructing bizarre, labyrinthine plots in his head. His anxiety is narcissistic in its presumptuousness.
“Notes from Underground” lacks the coherency of a didactic moral thesis, but that was never what Dostoyevsky was going for with it. As a work of literature in its own right, a semi-satirical breakdown of society by an unreliable narrator, it excels. I give it four cups of cold tea, and some biscuits.