Dostoevsky, finding meaning in suffering and the irrational man
“To care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
The narrator of Notes from Underground is a rather unpleasant, spiteful man who lives by himself in St. Petersburg, the capital city of Russia, in the 1860s. The novel is made up of of the “notes” that the man writes, a muddled and often contradictory set of memoirs or confessions explaining his isolation from modern society.
The notes are confessions of the evil he has done in his past; it is his attempt to counsel himself, to seek justification for his history. He understands that it is futile and that he is wasting his time. But, he takes, it seems, immense pleasure in sharing his horrid past.
The Underground Man is “a sick man . . . a wicked man . . . an unattractive man” whose self-hatred and malice has corrupted him. He is obviously an intelligent and educated man, but he believes himself far too conscious for his own good. Indeed, he blames this intense awareness for making him so miserable.
Part two, entitled “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” describes events in the Underground Man’s life in the 1840s, when he was just twenty-four years old. In the following chapters, the civil servant shares specific experiences that reveal his evolution from his youthful, romantic perspective, when he was influenced by the “beautiful and the lofty”, to his current cynical and nihilistic approach to the world.
The civil servant is resentful, irrational, and angry with everybody around him. He chases after confrontations, he gets in rows with colleagues and he reminds those around him how much he despises them. He works to make life worse for everyone, to make each person he meets as hopeless as he is.
Later in the book, the story cuts to Liza and the Underground Man lying silently in the dark together. Liza believes in a brighter future; she thinks she can rise in the brothel and earn a good living.
She holds dear to this Utopian dream. There are no other options for her. However, Liza, the civil servant reasons, is blind to the irrationality and corruption of society and other people. She is a romantic — she only sees the beautiful in everyone. The Underground Man argues that her gilded understanding of the world will eventually destroy her.
He delivers emotional, flamboyant speeches about the terrible future that awaits her if she continues to sell her body. He pretends to be her saviour, her guardian angel, a champion of good and evil.
But, when Liza comes to him for the help that he promised, after sacrificing a great deal and making her situation worse, the Underground Man swears at her and takes back everything he said, saying he was, in fact, only emphasising the truth of her miserable life.
“If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated — chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point! I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!”
Chapter eight, Notes from the Underground
Fyodor Dostoevsky uses the character of the Underground Man to celebrate liberty. The Underground Man embodies the freedom to choose — to choose suffering over health, horror over delight and immorality over morality. He has devoted his life to a perverse idea of rebellion whereby he continuously throws himself into bonfire in the hope that someone will notice him. He commits violence upon himself to show others of the violence they are doing to themselves.
It is the existence of the irrational that the Underground Man is trying to expose. His life is a performance; he is acting as a mirror, presenting to his audience the side to them that is illogical. For man is far too unpredictable and inconsistent to reduce itself to that which is rational, moral, reasonable and logical.
To purposely be offensive, foul, rude and arrogant, to be as irrational as one can be, is an act of rebellion against a system that believes people are mere straight lines.
He strives, against the disbelief of those around him, to become ever more so angry, isolated and unhappy — he is committing mutiny only to demonstrate to his audience what it is like to be chucked off the ship and into the ocean.
He hopes to insult his audience, to show them how pathetic they are for trying to control the little world around them.
The people have a great many schemes and plans that they hope will end their suffering, yet, once heaven appears on the horizon, they hunch over again and discover something else to be miserable about. When they are in Naples, they dream they are in Rome, as Emerson wrote. The Underground Man understands this, he has seen it before many times, over and over again:
“But if he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.”
Chapter eight, Notes from the Underground.
This is the nature of man. But, if you believe in the rationality of man, then how do you justify the history of the world? For history is a great catastrophe, an endless cycle of betrayal and misery where there are no victories or triumphs.
A person of modern-day rationality must either look away or squeal in horror. Because history is not rational, it is not even sensible, but, instead, a chaotic mess defined by extraordinary acts of horror and cowardice. There is no end to the immense amount of suffering we have caused ourselves. Why, then, do people continue to believe that the future will be different?
Notes from Underground is an attack on the ideologies that seek to end suffering, namely Marxism and utilitarianism. Dostoevsky argued that despite humanity’s attempt to create the “Crystal Palace,” an all-inclusive utopia, one cannot avoid the truth that people do not always want to act in their own self-interest; the attraction to protest the rational is a part of our natural energy even if it is harmful.
People are always struggling for freedom, and for a chance to declare themselves as independent from the platoon. Indeed, reason and comfort have attracted the horde. But, sometimes, someone will step aside from the crowd just to hear their own voice again even if that means crime or drudgery.
Humans do intend to be good, but they do not wish to be perfect. Sometimes they want to see what it is like to be terribly bad, to feel the vibrations of chaos and watch the way the cards flutter as they fall.
No one deserves to be a saint, but no one wants to be one either. And, here lies, Dostoevsky wrote, the problem with progressing towards a utopia — nobody truly wants what they seem to seek. Dostoevsky argues this brilliantly in Notes from the Underground:
“Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick.
He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element.”
Note from the Underground, Chapter eight
Give people exactly what they want, the rationalist argues, and the pain suffered because of the shortage will disappear. But, there is no reason to believe this to be true. Solve all the difficulties in the world, and we will not simply put our hands together and admire our shiny new world, but only create, from thin air, more problems, more worries, more uncertainties.
People want to feel alive, they want to discover who they truly are, what makes them gasp, what makes them bleed. Sometimes they tear the hairs from their arms just to feel the pain. Sometimes they swear at those they love just to feel the grief.
But, they commit these crimes only to prove that they are man and not machine, that they are powerful, and that they do indeed have a choice, a great ability to choose between an infinite number of possibilities. And, how they adore the shaking tension before making such a decision!
This irrationality, this darkness cannot be calculated — it is born from the madness of free will. No amount of reason and logic will ever straighten the molecules of our genes. And, even if we were to succeed in our schemes to reinstate reason and logic, it would not be long before we would lose our minds only for the purpose of discovering that we have one.
“Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering…”
Notes from the Underground touches upon a peculiar truth about the nature of man. That is, man needs suffering to be fulfilled. He does not actually wish for what he seems to pursue. Rather, he would not know what to do once he has achieved it. No, instead, what he genuinely wants, what he, perhaps unknowingly, is seeking is a meaning to his days on Earth. And so, the question arises, what if being dissatisfied makes you satisfied?
It seems people are not capable of perpetual contentment, of spending their days doing nothing at all except eating cakes and sleep. People are far too restless, ungrateful, foolish and illogical. Their only trick is that they can invent a reason to suffer under every season and weather.
This is what the Underground Man is trying to show the reader — suffering will always pursue us because we are pursuing a meaningful life. And, you cannot live meaningfully without suffering. For man only treasures that which has been struggled and fought for.
It is, then, precisely our irrational, ungrateful and stupid character that makes people valuable and worthwhile. Life, by its very nature, is never free from suffering because we do not actually wish to free ourselves from suffering. We are unable to take away pain entirely, only change the instrument that is causing the pain.
Dostoevsky was encouraging his readers to lean into their suffering, to embrace the pain, to even love it. Because when you hold dear to the present and wish nothing was different, when you endure suffering rather than escape it, here you discover the sincerity that is the source of your gifts.
You will be breathing your truth and not hiding in fear, wishing for a sunnier future. It is suffering that paints on the canvas, bleeds words into rhyme, builds skyscrapers and disciplines the army. And without suffering, without our irrational tendency towards pain, we would be rather lost indeed.
“To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”
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