Notes From Underground Critical Essays On King
“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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In Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevski creates a character—the “underground man”—who is crucial not only to Dostoevski’s own best fiction but also to the whole of nineteenth and twentieth century literature. Indeed, some critics even date the beginning of modern literature from the publication of this short novel and identify the underground man as the archetypal modern antihero. At the very least, Notes from the Underground can be seen as the prologue to the five great novels that climaxed Dostoevski’s career: Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887), Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913), Podrostok (1875; A Raw Youth, 1916), and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912).
Some scholars and critics, however, have argued that Notes from the Underground is actually not a novel at all: The first part is too fragmentary and incoherent, the second is too short and arbitrary, and the relationship between the two is too unclear to allow the work that formal designation. In fact, the form and style of Notes from the Underground are as radical as its content and fuse perfectly to produce an organic, if unorthodox, work of art.
The first part (titled “Underground”) presents the underground man’s philosophy; the second part (“Apropos of Wet Snow”) recounts a series of early experiences that explain theorigins of that worldview while suggesting a possible alternative to it. Without part 2, part 1 is little more than the bitter rantings of a semihysterical social misfit; without part 1, part 2 is only the pathetic narrative of a petty, self-destructive neurotic. Together, however, the two parts combine into a powerful statement about the nature and situation of humanity in the nineteenth century and after.
In the first sentence of the book, the underground man states that he is sick, but he later defines that sickness as “acute consciousness”—a malady characteristic of the sensitive modern individual. This consciousness has made the narrator aware of the contradictions in his own behavior and the consequent impossibility of his acting forcefully and meaningfully in his society. He feels superior to his fellows, yet he knows he is incapable of dealing with them. He despises them, yet he obsessively wants their acceptance and approval. He acts spitefully toward them, yet he feels personally insulted when they ignore or berate him. He asserts his need for dignity and then forces himself into situations that can only end in his humiliation. The narrator is not the first Dostoevskian character to have such contradictory, self-defeating qualities, but he is the first to be aware of them and their sources, and so he represents a significant development in the novelist’s career.
Even the underground man’s attitude toward his own pain and humiliation is ambivalent. He does not actually enjoy his sufferings, and yet he takes satisfaction in them because they make him conscious of himself and give him a feeling of...
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