Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1850) (read in 2017)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is a short book, split into two main parts. The first part is a cry of anger at society, spit out at the world from “underground” by the narrator. It is delivered in a nearly stream-of-consciousness form and opines on all sorts of social and philosophical issues—often winding back on itself to second-guess or to revise. The attached notes give abundant examples.

The second part is told by the same author, but in a more refined tone. It seems to describe an incident of mortifying self-awareness and banal evil that seems to have been the trigger for the previous narrator’s (same person, but 20 years later) having turned his back on society. The young man was exceedingly poor and exceedingly proud and took out his frustrations on an even poorer and more unfortunate young woman, destroying her feelings. All the while, he was completely aware of what it cost her and what it would cost him, but his brutal honesty in his internal—and, often, external—dialogue, didn’t allow him to stop himself.


“But if you saw how proud is that mighty spirit who created this colossal setting and how proudly convinced this spirit is of its victory and of its triumph, then you would shudder for its pride, obstinacy, and blindness, but you would shudder also for those over whom this proud spirit hovers and reigns.”
Location 98-100

I am more likely to reject religion than to try to reconcile it as intrinsic to the human condition.

“This mighty spirit is the spirit of industrial capitalism, and the crystal palace is its temple.”
Location 101-101
“The two time periods of the novel represent two stages in the evolution of the Russian intelligentsia: the sentimental, literary 1840s and the rational and utilitarian 1860s; the time of the liberals and the time of the nihilists.”
Location 103-105
“Indeed, there could hardly be a more thorough denial of artistic unity than this last quoted passage. The naive blitheness of its expression is characteristic of Chernyshevsky and thinkers like him (utilitarians, nihilists; then Lenin, Lunacharsky, the theorists of “socialist realism”).”
Location 156-158

That’s what Peterson is.

“before we celebrate that at least eere not doing THAT think hoe much misery our own system produces killng souls rather than bodies”
Location 163
“Giftlessness, as Dostoevsky feared and Nabokov knew, became the dominant style in Russia; it eventually seized power, and in the process of “making people happy” destroyed them by millions, leaving its vast motherland broken and desolate.”
Location 161-163
“In this respect the greatest foresight was shown by long-eared Shigalyov, the radical theoretician in Dostoevsky’s Demons: “I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea I start from. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution to the social formula, there is no other.””
Location 168-171
“He recognized that his opposition to the “Chernyshevskians” could not be a struggle for domination, that what was in question was the complex reality of the human being, the whole person, the “thing itself,” and that a true articulation of that reality could only come as the final “gift” of an artistic image.”
Location 173-175
“1840s and 1850s: Slavophile versus Westernizer debate among Russian intellectuals. Westernizers advocate progress by assimilating Western rationalism and civic freedom. Slavophiles assert spiritual superiority of Russia to the West and argue that future development should be based upon the traditions of the Orthodox Church and the peasant commune or mir.”
Location 314-317

Fuck you. are we seriously still fighting the exact same ideological battle 200 years later?

“swear to you, gentlemen. that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness. For man’s everyday use, ordinary human consciousness would be more than enough; that is, a half, a quarter of the portion that falls to the lot of a developed man in our unfortunate nineteenth century,”
Page 4
“not believe itself, slip back shamefacedly into its crack. There, in its loathsome, stinking underground, our offended, beaten-down, and derided mouse at once immerses itself in cold, venomous, and, above all, everlasting spite. For forty years on end it will recall its offense to the last, most shameful details, each time adding even more shameful details of its own, spitefully taunting and chafing itself with its fantasies. It will be ashamed of its fantasies, but all the same it will recall everything, go over everything, heap all sorts of figments on itself, under the pretext that they, too, could have happened, and forgive nothing.”
Page 8
““For pity’s sake,” they’ll shout at you, “you can’t rebel: it’s two times two is four! Nature doesn’t ask your permission; it doesn’t care about your wishes, or whether you like its laws or not. You’re obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently all its results as well. And so a wall is indeed a wall … etc., etc.” My God, but what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic if for some reason these laws and two times two is four are not to my liking?”
Page 10
“Formerly, he saw justice in bloodshed and with a quiet conscience exterminated whoever he had to; while now, though we do regard bloodshed as vile, we still occupy ourselves with this vileness, and even more than formerly. Which is worse? – decide for yourselves.”
Page 19
“that now, too, though man has learned to see more clearly on occasion than in barbarous times, he is still far from having grown accustomed to acting as reason and science dictate. But even so you are perfectly confident that he will not fail to grow accustomed once one or two old bad habits have passed and once common sense and science have thoroughly re-educated and given a normal direction to human nature.”
Page 19
“And it is then – this is still you speaking – that new economic relations will come, quite ready-made, and also calculated with mathematical precision, so that all possible questions will vanish in an instant, essentially because they will have been given all possible answers. Then the crystal palace will get built.”
Page 20

This reminds me of V by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

“And all this for the emptiest of reasons, which would seem not even worth mentioning: namely, that man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere liked to act as he wants, and not at all as reason and profit dictate; and one can want even against one’s own profit, and one sometimes even positively must (this is my idea now).”
Page 21
““Hm …” you decide, “our wantings are for the most part mistaken owing to a mistaken view of our profit. We sometimes want pure rubbish precisely because, in our stupidity, we see this rubbish as the easiest path to the attainment of some preconceived profit. Well, but when it’s all explained, worked out on a piece of paper (which is quite possible because, after all, it’s vile and senseless to believe beforehand that there are certain laws of nature which man will never learn) – then, to be sure, there will be no more so-called desires. For if wanting someday gets completely in cahoots with reason, then essentially we shall be reasoning and not wanting, because it really is impossible, for example, while preserving reason, to want senselessness and thus knowingly go against reason and wish yourself harm … And since all wantings and reasonings can indeed be calculated – because, after all, they will someday discover the laws of our so-called free will – then consequently, and joking aside, something like a little table can be arranged, so that we shall indeed want according to this little table.”
Page 22
“But I repeat to you for the hundredth time, there is only one case, one only, when man may purposely, consciously wish for himself even the harmful, the stupid, even what is stupidest of all: namely, so as to have the right to wish for himself even what is stupidest of all and not be bound by an obligation to wish for himself only what is intelligent. For this stupidest of all, this caprice of ours, gentlemen, may in fact be the most profitable of anything on earth for our sort, especially in certain cases. And in particular it may be more profitable than all other profits even in the case when it is obviously harmful and contradicts the most sensible conclusions of our reason concerning profits – because in any event it preserves for us the chiefest and dearest thing, that is, our personality and our individuality.”
Page 23
“Now I ask you: what can be expected of man as a being endowed with such strange qualities? Shower him with all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness completely, over his head, so that only bubbles pop up on the surface of happiness, as on water; give him such economic satisfaction that he no longer has anything left to do at all except sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the noncessation of world history – and it is here, just here, that he, this man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer lampoonery, will do something nasty. He will even risk his gingerbread, and wish on purpose for the most pernicious nonsense, the most noneconomical meaninglessness, solely in order to mix into all this positive good sense his own pernicious, fantastical element.”
Page 25
“But where is man to go? Something awkward, at any rate, can be noticed in him each time he achieves some such goal. Achieving he likes, but having achieved he does not quite like, and that, of course, is terribly funny.”
Page 28
“Two times two is four has a cocky look; it stands across your path, arms akimbo, and spits. I agree that two times two is four is an excellent thing; but if we’re going to start praising everything, then two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing.”
Page 28
“Now look: if instead of a palace there is a chicken coop, and it starts to rain, I will perhaps get into the chicken coop to avoid a wetting, but all the same I will not take the chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude for its having kept me from the rain. You laugh, you even say that in that case it makes no difference – chicken coop or mansion. Yes, say I, if one were to live only so as not to get wet.”
Page 29
“once saw a girl there, alone, by the door, on New Year’s day. Her own people had kicked her out for the fun of it, to cool her off a bit, because she was howling too much, and locked the door behind her. At nine o’clock in the morning she was already completely drunk, disheveled, half-naked, all beaten up. Her face was powdered white, and her eyes were black-and-blue; blood was flowing from her nose and teeth. some coachman had just given her a pasting. She sat down on the stone stairs, holding some kind of salted fish; she was howling and wailing something about her ‘miserble lot,’ beating her fish against the steps. And coachmen and drunken soldiers crowded around the steps, teasing her.”
Page 89
“Our silence had already lasted some five minutes. The tea sat on the table; we didn’t touch it: it went so far that I purposely refused to begin drinking, so as to make it still harder for her; and it would have been awkward for her to begin. Several times she glanced at me in sad perplexity. I was stubbornly silent. The chief martyr, of course, was myself, because I was fully conscious of all the loathsome baseness of my spiteful stupidity, and at the same time I simply could not restrain myself.”
Page 106

Such utterly manufactured and nonetheless uncomfortable tension.

““Why did you come? Answer! Answer!” I kept exclaiming, all but beside myself. “I’ll tell you why you came, my dear. You came because of the pathetic words I used with you then. So you went all soft, and you wanted more ‘pathetic words.’ Know, then, know that I was laughing at you that time. And I’m laughing now. Why do you tremble? Yes, laughing! I’d been insulted earlier, at dinner, by the ones who came there ahead of me. I came there to give a thrashing to one of them, the officer; but I didn’t succeed, he wasn’t there; I needed to unload my offense on someone, to get my own back, and you turned up, so I poured out my spite and laughed at you. I’d been humiliated, so I, too, wanted to humiliate; they’d ground me down like a rag, so I, too, wanted to show my power … That’s what it was, and you thought I came then on purpose to save you, right? That’s what you thought? That’s what you thought?””
Page 107

So unbearably evil and at the same time honest. accepting that he himself is irredeemable. refusing even to try.

“And all the rest of the time she listened to me with open mouth, with wide open eyes, and trembling in terrible fear. The cynicism, the cynicism of my words crushed her …”
Page 107
“But maybe I’m worse than you are. Why didn’t you fling it in my mug when I started reading you my oration: ‘And you, what did you come here for? To teach us morals, or what?’ Power, power, that’s what I wanted then, the game was what I wanted, I wanted to achieve your tears, your humiliation, your hysterics – that’s what I wanted then! But I couldn’t stand it myself, because I’m trash, I got all scared and, like a fool, gave you my address, devil knows why. And afterwards, even before I got home, I was already cursing you up and down for that address. I already hated you, because I’d lied to you then. Because I only talk a good game,”
Page 107

Thoughts become words with him. no filter.

“But can you possibly not have realized even now that I will never forgive you for having found me in this wretched dressing gown, as I was hurling myself like a vicious little cur at Apollon? The resurrector, the former hero, flinging himself like a mangy, shaggy mutt at his lackey, who just laughs at him! And those tears a moment ago, which, like an ashamed woman, I couldn’t hold back before you, I will never forgive you! And what I’m confessing to you now, I will also never forgive you! Yes – you, you alone must answer for all this, because you turned up here, because I’m a scoundrel, because I’m the most vile, the most ridiculous, the most petty, the most stupid, the most envious of all worms on earth, who are in no way better than I, but who, devil knows why, are never embarrassed; while I will just go on being flicked all my life by every nit – that’s my trait!”
Page 108

A pitiless level of self-awareness.

“By tomorrow I’d have already dirtied her soul with myself and worn out her heart. But now the insult will never die in her, and however vile the dirt that awaits her – the insult will elevate and purify her … through hatred … hm … maybe also forgiveness … Though, by the way, will all that make it any easier for her?” And in fact I’m now asking an idle question of my own: which is better – cheap happiness, or lofty suffering? Well, which is better?”
Page 113
““Excuse me, gentlemen, but I am not justifying myself with this allishness. As far as I myself am concerned, I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway, and, what’s more, you’ve taken your cowardice for good sense, and found comfort in thus deceiving yourselves.”
Page 115