“Notes from Underground” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This is one of the hardest books I’ve had to read so far, in quite some time. While there are some 500 or so page books that can easily be read, books like this one, less than 120 pages, will be quite exhausting. I usually read my books on my way to and from somewhere, in the bus or in the subway, but I soon realized I could not do that with this one. I thus sat down at my desk, pen in hand and ready to take notes. I guess I shouldn’t have taken anything written by Dostoevsky for granted.

Where to begin with this review? This book offers so many layers of philosophical thinking that I wouldn’t know where to begin and how to end, and fear that the review is just going to be going back and forth from one point to another… which, in a way, actually quite fits with how this book itself is structured.

I was told that this book would be quite depressing, and my first thought was ‘Why, surely, the title gives it away. They are notes from ‘underground‘. How more depressing can it be?’ And yes, the fact that the narrator is rambling on about life and human from underground is indeed quite depressing, but what I found even sadder than the setting of this book is how much I shared the narrator’s point of view on humanity. As a response to Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “What Is To Be Done?” (damn Russian authors and their names), Dostoevsky argues against the inherent ‘good’ of human beings and thus the possibility of a social utopia. For him, people are not rational and it is hence difficult for them to act as ‘good beings’. Yes, we may know what is best of us and what works to our advantage and act upon it (which is one of the definitions of being rational), but what we value more than rationality is our freedom and our free will, even if it means that we are free to do things that we know are harmful to us (history is in fact, a proof of such tendency I believe). We are thus torn between knowing what is right and good and knowing that we have the freedom to do entirely the opposite. The Underground Man illustrates this point more specifically in the second part by going back to when he was young and with his encounters with, on the one hand, his school friends, and on the other, with Liza, a prostitute.

In the second part of the novella, the readers face an almost bipolar narrator. He abhors and is disdainful towards his school friends who have made it to the top, often through the help of certain ties (family, money, etc), and mocks their hypocrisy and superficial attitude towards life. And while he takes comfort in the fact that he has the knowledge and ability not to act like them because he has superior intellect, he cannot help himself but to make a fool out of himself because he so desperately wants to be loved and acknowledged within that ‘inferior’ group. His bipolarity is also shown in his attitude towards Liza, the prostitute he finds himself with after the drunken mishap he has had with his ‘friends’. His demeanor towards her is not much different from the one he thinks his friends display. His hatred, contempt and despotism are clearly shown in how he treats her because he sees her as an inferior human being, which however are soon met with his desire to differentiate himself from his friends and be understood by this woman.

I believe that in a way, we often have such bipolar moments like the Underground Man, and while he has had the ‘courage’ (or the folly, it depends on how you see it) to go underground so that he would not go through this inner conflict, we, the ordinary people, choose to live ‘above ground’ and be torn on a daily basis.

(Of course, I understand that some may see him as the epitome of cowardice, since he chooses not to act upon any of his ‘superior’ thoughts and to live forever hiding. However, from his point of view, that may actually have been his ultimate act of courage.)

Like the narrator, we often see the nastiest and most despising traits in others and secretly look down on them for who they are; and I believe such inclination is more so because we know that these are the very traits we know we also possess (No? Is it just me? Yes? OK…awkward). And we also still want to be acknowledged as significant parts of the bigger groups, whichever they may be (work, friends, acquaintances, etc), although it is sometimes hard to stand them.

Well, I guess I’ve clearly made my point that us, as human beings, are not born good, like Rousseau believed…

Anyways, one thing this book has made me realize is that I need to read, from time to time, more books like this one that make me think harder. I’m not saying that the books I am currently reading are not stimulative to my so-called intellect, but well, they are not as difficult as this one, honestly. And yes, that was a very nerdy conclusion.

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