Notes from the Underground

notes from the underground fyodor dostoyevskyNotes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Constance Garnett, 3/5

Part I of this short work is a thought-provoking but extremely depressing philosophical rant that seems to have two main focuses: 1. the inertia, unhappiness and tendency to wallow in degradation that seems to accompany the “over-acute consciousness” (5) of the too-intelligent and 2. the human need for the freedom to make decisions that are willfully illogical and are not in the maker’s best interest.

Much of Part I resonated with me because it describes a phenomenon I have noticed and experienced: the “stupid” and optimistic are happy and productive, while the “intelligent” and analytical are unhappy and paralysed by their own thought processes.

You know the direct, legitimate fruit of consciousness is inertia, that is, conscious sitting-with-the-hands-folded.  […]  I repeat, I repeat with emphasis: all “direct” persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited.  How explain that?  I will tell you: in consequence of their limitation they take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in that way persuade themselves more quickly and easily than other people do that they have found an infallible foundation for their activity, and their minds are at ease and you know that is the chief thing.  To begin to act, you know, you must first have your mind completely at ease and no trace of doubt left in it.  Why, how am I, for example to set my mind at rest?  Where are the primary causes on which I am to build?  Where are my foundations?  Where am I to get them from?  I exercise myself in reflection, and consequently with me every primary cause at once draws after itself another still more primary, and so on to infinity. […]  Oh, gentlemen, do you know, perhaps I consider myself an intelligent man, only because all my life I have been able neither to begin nor to finish anything (11).

Unfortunately, the limit of Dostoyevsky’s insight is to describe the psychological horror experienced by an unlikeable, miserable narrator, not to offer anything of help or comfort.

Part II reads like the ravings of someone who is mentally-ill and, besides providing insight into the mental processes that could possibly motivate the actions of a social misfit, I could find little connection to Part I and little of interest or value.  The tone is very dark and unusual in that the narrator seems to be a despicable person, not a character at all calculated to engage the audience’s sympathy or respect.  Notes from the Underground is strangely modern (it does not feel like a book from the 1860s) but overall, I am really not sure what the point of Part II is and am now off to read the book’s Wikipedia article in hope of enlightenment.

[Why I read it: I recognized the title while browsing books at the thrift store.]


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