Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground is often considered an early example of existentialism, and a particularly influential one. Although written in the mid-nineteenth century, it easily invites comparison to twentieth-century works such as Albert Camus’s The Stranger and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Certainly, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man is comparable to the disaffected heroes of Camus’s and Salinger’s stories. The specific qualities of existentialism that tie the novel to a movement it predates are the lack of meaning in life, an absurdist take on the world, and the isolation of the main character. Upon closer examination, the existentialist elements in Notes From Underground stem from its lead character’s self-hatred. Thus, the Underground Man’s existentialist crisis is created rather than inherited. In creating an existentialist environment for himself, the Underground Man perpetuates his own skewed perspective on “reality.”
The notion of “reality” is perhaps the most intrinsic to existentialism. In this school of thought, humans simply exist. Any meaning that existence takes on is simply an attempt by people to create significance where none is or can be. The pursuit of any kind of meaning is absurd. In other people’s reliance on order, structure, and especially religion, the existentialist sees a willful self-delusion. People look for happiness in government, money, family, and religion. For the existentialist, these are merely structures created by humankind to brainwash itself into a kind of forced sense of fulfillment.
In Dostoevsky’s novel, the Underground Man finds himself in a unique, if hypocritical, position. On one hand, he clearly despises the people and the world around him. His work as a civil servant is just one of many kinds of suffering, and he loathes his coworkers. From another perspective, however, the Underground Man defines himself by his opposition to these people and institutions. If not for them, to whom or what could he direct his vitriol? The Underground Man must create a “reality” where he is in opposition to the world to find some kind of reason for his self-hatred. In doing so, he is breaking the very existentialist tenets he professes to uphold. The Underground Man may be mocking others’ false realities, but in doing so, he has created one of his own.
To reinforce this skewed reality, Dostoevsky uses a number of structural tools. First and most importantly, the story is told from the Underground Man’s perspective. Like The Stranger’s Meursault and The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, the Underground Man is our sole window into this world. As a result, we only get his skewed take on the “reality” in which he lives. Key to this reality is the Man’s status as “underground.” He identifies himself as underground for two main reasons. First, it establishes him as an outsider, and although this status is the source of much misery, it is essential for the reality he has created for himself. Second, it hints at the notion of revolution: there might be other Undergrounders out there waiting to unite against the oppression of their everyday lives. Ironically, the Underground Man is too apathetic to seek out other Undergrounders, creating further dissatisfaction in himself.
What also makes his narration unique is its almost Brechtian sense of distance. The Underground Man frequently interrupts himself to editorialize upon his thoughts and actions. At one point, when lamenting his conflicts with Liza, he admits that he was going to lie but instead stopped himself....
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“I want to test whether it’s possible to be entirely frank at least with oneself and dare to face the whole truth.”
Anyone who has attempted psychotherapy after a traumatic event in his or her life has probably had a thought similar to this comment Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man makes to himself at the end of his opening Notes and immediately before he begins his ruminations about incidents in his past that might have led to his present despair, self-loathing, and complete alienation from society. Preceding, by fifty-some years, Freud’s talking cure as a means to self-discovery and a better life, Underground Man’s desire for honesty includes certain traditional suppositions: that some sort of determination or resolution to be honest can, in fact, locate truth; that there is a whole truth lying about somewhere to be found and then faced; and that finding and facing it involves courage. “Dare” implies all of these; with such language, Underground Man transforms himself into a hero—an individual going against the odds even while he harangues himself as “spiteful,” “sick,” and “unattractive.” In seeking and confronting truth, he becomes a man with a mission; yet in lacking traditional heroic virtues and in conflict with a world whose values he rejects, Underground Man presents himself more exactly as an antihero.
Traditional epistemology argues that “truth” is knowledge that is independent of subjectivity; this kind of truth is located, for instance, in Plato’s forms or arrived at through Aristotle’s logic. Some contemporary paradigms of epistemology, however, envision truth as dependent upon one’s positionality. According to this argument, one’s race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, class, and all the experiences shaped by these will inform the truth that one discovers in his or her life. In addition, some philosophers, such as Lorraine Code in What Can She Know, would argue that seeing society from the point of view of its margins rather than its center provides a useful view. According to this idea, a disenfranchised person living in the margins of society—such as, perhaps, a woman on welfare—would be able to understand the dynamics of the national economy in a way those in more powerful positions in the center of society—such as politicians—would not. When life is looked at from the margins, understanding shifts, offering insight beyond the range of vision limited by views from the center.
Underground Man anticipates this contemporary construct of epistemology by choosing a position of marginality, not necessarily to gain more knowledge but because of the knowledge he believes that life has already given him. He asserts that in this position he has an authority to speak truths otherwise unspoken but experienced by many. He, unlike they, can see such truths because of his position underground; he, unlike they, can speak them because of his position underground; and he, unlike they, has the courage to do both because, antihero that he is, he has claimed the position of living underground. That he understands his position as one of privilege can be seen in his derisive tone toward his audience. “That is something you probably will fail to understand,” he says condescendingly to his audience of “gentlemen” and “sirs.” He knows “better than anyone” because he is underground, which is circular to the fact that he went underground intentionally because of the insight he gained above ground. Although he constantly derides himself, he simultaneously praises himself for daring to live underground, where he can see and speak truth.
“Underground,” therefore, acts as a privileged site of knowledge, and the person speaking from underground gains heroic stature in daring to go there. In addition, underground functions as a metaphor for interiority, alienation, and radical individualism. In going underground, the narrator not only turns inward toward himself to massage and inflate his ego with what he knows, but he also looks outward from this position to criticize those who live “above ground” for capitulating to the hegemony of what he both embraces and decries: reason. People above ground—all those gentlemen and sirs—believe in the supremacy of rationalism and insist that culture, acting on the basis of reason, necessarily and naturally improves itself. In arguing this, Underground Man protests against the values of the Enlightenment initiated in the century before him by the philosophers Descartes and then Kant, which resulted in positivism and “laws of nature, the conclusions of natural sciences, [and] mathematics” contemporary to his creator, Dostoevsky.
Descartes’ celebration of rational thought and the understanding of humanity based on such thought—that one is human because one reasons—is condensed in his famous statement “I think, therefore I am.” For Descartes, knowledge can be objectified and indeed must be to locate it; one must separate reason from emotion to discover what is true, and this action defines the possibilities for improving society. Just as Lorraine Code argues that truth is never fully objective in this way, so Underground Man disdains Descartes’ assertion. For Underground Man, this law of the Enlightenment leads to the demise of human possibility; for him, reason does not take into account all the things one does that are not reasonable yet nevertheless lead to knowledge in the fuller sense, which is something that embraces all aspects of human behavior. It is not reasonable to find pleasure in pain, and the “lofty and...
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