Thursday, 1 May 2014

Notes from Underground [ Fyodor Dostoevsky ]

Notes from Underground is a novel written by the great Russian novelist Dostoevsky. His most popular novel is Crime and Punishment. It is considered as the first Existentialist novel which has two parts. This novel presents itself as a part of an underground man’s diary. The man is a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg, Russia. The first part of the novel is told in monologue form or the underground man’s diary and attacks the Western philosophy, especially Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “What Is to Be Done”. The second part of the story is called “Apropos of the Wet Snow”, and describes certain events that are destroying and sometimes renewing the underground man, who acts as a first person narrator.
The novel consists of an introduction, three main sections and a conclusion. The short introduction speaks about a number of riddles whose meanings will be later developed. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 speaks about suffering and the enjoyment of suffering. (2) Chapters 5 and 6 speak about intellectual and moral issues and with conscious “inertia”-inaction. (3) Chapters 7 to 9 with theories of reason and logic. The last two chapters are a summary and a transition into Part 2 of the novel.
War is described as people’s rebellion against the belief (assumption) that everything needs to happen for a purpose, because humans do things without purpose, and this is what determines human history.
Secondly, the narrator’s desire for happiness is exemplified by his liver pain and toothache. This is similar to Raskolinikove’s behaviour in Destoevsky’s later novel, Crime and Punishment. The protagonist in the novel says that, due to the cruelty of society, human beings only moan about pain in order to spread their suffering to others. He builds up his own paranoia to the point he is incapable of looking his co-workers in the eye.  The main issue for the Underground Man is that he has reached a point of ennui and inactivity. Most people always act out of revenge because they believe justice is the end, but the Underground Man is conscious of his problems, feels the desire for revenge, but he does not find it virtuous; this confusion leads to spite and ill will and spite towards the act itself with its circumstances. He feels that others like him exist, yet he continuously concentrates on his spitefulness instead of on actions that would avoid the problems he is so concerned with. At one point he says that he’d rather be inactive out of laziness.
The first part of the novel also gives a harsh criticism of determinism and intellectual attempts at dictating human action and behaviour by logic, which the Underground Man mentions in terms of simple math problem two times two makes four. He also says that humanity tries to create the “Crystal Palace”, one cannot avoid the simple fact that anyone at any time can decide to act in a way which might not be considered to be in his or her interests. Thus the Underground Man speaks about free will, egoism selfishness etc.
In other works, Dostoyevsky again confronts the concept of free will and constructs a negative argument to validate free will against determinism in the character Kirillov’s suicide in his novel “The Demons”. “Notes from Underground” marks the starting point of Dostoyevsky’s move from psychological and sociological named novels to the novels based on existential philosophy and general human experience in crisis.
Part 2: is titled “Apropos of the Wet Snow” The second part is the actual story and consists of three main segments that lead to a furthering of the Underground Man’s consciousness. The first is his obsession with and officer who physically moves him out of the way, seemingly without noticing his existence.  He sees the officer on the street and thinks of ways to take revenge, eventually deciding to bump into him, which he does, finding to his surprise that the officer does not seem to even notice it happened.
The second segment is a dinner party with some old school friends to wish Zverkov, one of their number, goodbye as he is being transferred out of the city.  The underground man hated them when he was younger, but after a random visit to Simonov’s, he decides to meet them at the appointed location.  They fail to tell him that the time has been changed to six instead of five, so he arrives early.  He gets into an argument with the four after a short time declaring to all his hatred of society aznd using them as the symbol of it.  At the end, they go off without him to a secret brothel, and, in his anger, the underground man follows them there to confront Zverkov once and for all, whether he might be beaten up or not. He arrives to find Zverkov and company and have apparently already retired with prostitutes to other rooms. He then encounters Liza, a young prostitute, with whom he goes to bed.
When the underground man and Liza lying silently in the dark together, he speaks to Liza about her future and at first she is not bothered about his talk about her, but  finally she realizes the plight of her position and how she will slowly become useless and will descent more and more, until she is no longer wanted by any one.  The thought of dying such a terribly disgraceful death brings her to realize her position and she then finds herself attracted by the underground man’s seemingly poignant grasp of society’s ills. He gives her his address and leaves.
After this, he is overcome by the fear of her actually arriving at his dilapidated apartment after appearing such a “hero” to her and, in the middle of an argument with his servant, she arrives. He then curses her and takes back everything he said to her, saying he was, in fact, laughing at her and reiterates the truth of her miserable position. Near the end of his painful rage he wells up in tears after saying that he was only seeking to have power over her and a desire to humiliate her. He begins to criticize himself and states that he is in fact horrified by his own poverty and problems of painful situation. Liza realizes how pitiful he is and tenderly embraces him. The underground man cries out “They -  they won’t let me-I-I can’t be good”
After all this, he still acts terribly towards her, and, before she leaves, he stuffs a five ruble note into her hand, which she angrily throws onto the table. He tries to catch her as she goes out onto the street but cannot find her and never hears from her again.  He tries to stop the pain in his heart by “fantasizing” He says, “And isn’t it better, won’t it be better?....Insult­ – after all, it’s a purification; it’s the most caustic, painful consciousness!. Only tomorrow I would have defiled her soul and wearied her heart. But now the insult will never ever die within her, and however repulsive the filth that awaits her, the insult will elevate her, it will cleanse her….”  He recalls this moment as making him unhappy,  whenever he thinks of it, yet again proving the fact from the first section that his anger for society and his inability to act like it makes him unable to act better than it.
The concluding sentences recall some of the themes explored in the first part, and the work as a whole ends with a note from the author that while there was more to the text. “it seems that we may stop here.
Literary significance and criticism
Like many of Dostoevsky’s novels, “Notes from Underground” was unpopular with Soviet literary critics due to its clear rejection of utopian socialism and its portrait of humans as irrational, uncontrollable, and uncooperative animals.  His claim that human needs can never be satisfied, in spite of technological progress, also goes against Marxist beliefs. Many existentialist critics, notably Jean Paul Sartre, considered the novel to be a forerunner of existentialist thought and an inspiration to their own philosophies.  The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Dostoevsky “the only psychologist, incidentally, from whom I had anything to learn” and that “Notes from Underground” cried truth from the blood.”
 Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” which has themes of existential anguish in the black American experience, uses a protagonist-narrator inspired by Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” –

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