I recently read Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky. This is the second book I read of Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment was my first. This is surprisingly a small around 120 page book, but contains a lot of practical philosophy, which I admit that I couldn’t grasp on my own when I read it. YouTube reviews on the book helped me understand things that I missed when I read it first. Nevertheless, there are some good things which I learned from the book. I am not sure if Dostoevsky’s intended to tell those, but I will write them down here anyway.
I am not a fan of fiction books. I generally read non-fiction. But I really enjoyed reading Crime and Punishment a lot. From then on, I got interested in Dostoevsky, and planned to read more of his works. The best thing I felt about Dostoevsky was that he address more of problems that are practical and mostly due to things happening inside human mind. It is not just circumstances around, but the tenets of Dostoevsky’s characters seem to be the main cause of actions. For example, Raskolnikov in C&P commits murder, not mainly because of his poverty but mainly because he believes that he has the moral right to(I concluded this from Raskolnikov’s theories on types of people - One like Napoleon and the other like rest. Raskolnikov believed he belonged to the former). Most of the mess, we face is because of how we view things inside our mind. Like Seneca said,
We suffer more often in imagination than reality
And I feel Dostoevsky was very well aware of this. I believe that this awareness has come from the suffering that he faced at the Siberian prison camp. It is in suffering that humans come to understand a great deal about reality and themselves. Victor Frankl’s work Man’s search for Meaning made me think so.
I wish to conclude that Dostoevsky’s philosophy is more like Psychology of Human mind. In fact, Friedrich Nietzsche popularly said
Dostoevsky,the only psychologist from whom I’ve anything to learn.
So, if you are reading abstract philosophy or philosophy that says life is beautiful, people should be happy to live a good life and other straight forward things which only sound good, its time to face a deeper reality, start reading Dostoevsky soon!
On Notes from Underground
The most interesting things I learned from the book were about irrationality and over consciousness(hyperconsciousness is actual word!), and how these 2 things are related. The protagonist in this book is a man, who is over conscious about his actions and intentions, a very rare thing. Most of us, react on our sudden impulses and hardly are aware of what we do and why we do. So it may seem that this underground man is some philosophically rich guy with a clarity on life and lives a happy life. But that’s not the case at all.
He life is a mess. He abandons his friends, rudely addresses the girl who came to love this man and is inconsiderate to his servant. The question that arose in my mind was how can someone who can think so deeply face misery. But according to Dostoevsky, it is people who are hyper-aware of themselves end up doing nothing because all they do is think and think but don’t act
But what can one do, if the only straightforward task of every intelligent man is pointless chattering, the deliberate pouring out of emptiness?
A normal man, can instead skip all things and proceed to act. If you are overly aware of yourself, you are more likely to be in dilemma than clarity
Last of all, gentlemen: it is best to do nothing! The best thing is conscious inertia! So long live the underground! Although I have said that I am green with envy of the normal man, I wouldn’t like to be him in the circumstances…
Read the second part of the book to completely be get a better clarity on how hyper-consciousness of this underground man messes up things around him.
But does it mean one must act on impulse, rather than reflect on his actions. After all, aren’t we superior among all creatures because we have this ability to think about our own thoughts and think about those thoughts further. I personally believe that thinking about our actions makes us what we are. One must be aware of what one is doing and why is he/she doing! If not, what better are we from a machine then?
My take away from this book lies not from things I wrote above, but are in the details of the book. The details in thoughts of the underground man. Problems arise because the underground man always considers thinks his actions, with other people’s reaction in mind. He does things because he wants to feel superior, he wants to have morally upper hand, he consider himself more intelligent than the rest. Here are some lines from the book which depict that
The following is just a subset of complicated thoughts, just because a officer in tavern moved him by his shoulders without noticing him
I could have, forgiven him for striking me, but I couldn’t forgive that moving me from place to place without even seeing me.
It was torture to me that even in the street I could not manage to be his equal. ‘Why are you invariably the first to give way?’ I nagged at myself sometimes, hysterical with rage, when I woke up at three o’clock in the morning. ‘Why is it always you, not him? There’s no law about it, is there? nothing on the statute-books?
. ..I composed a really beautiful and charming letter to him, begging him to apologize; I hinted pretty plainly at a duel if he refused. The letter was couched in such terms that if the officer had the slightest understanding of ‘the highest and the best’ he would come running to me at once, fall on my neck and offer me his friendship. And how splendid that would be. We should begin a new life, and what a life! ‘He could protect me with his influential position, and I could develop his better qualities with my culture and… well, my ideas, and all sorts of things could happen!’…
What sought of guy, takes such things seriously???
Even when he meets a beautiful girl at a brothel, and tries to warn her that how her future might be miserable if she continues her job, because he was really moved. And he also, gives her his address so that she could visit him when he had changed his mind. But when she finally do visits him, his false sense of superiority makes him behave rudely towards and ultimately leaves him. In spite of this, the underground man hesitates to apologise.
…To fall in front of her, burst into repentant sobs, kiss her feet and beg her forgiveness. That was what I wanted; my heart was torn, and never, never, can I remember that moment with indifference. But – to what end? I thought. Should I not begin to hate her, the very next day, perhaps, precisely because I had kissed her feet today? Could I possibly give her happiness? Had I not recognized my own true value today, for the hundredth time? Could I avoid torturing her?
This echoes the idea of All problems are interpersonal problems from the book Courage to be Disliked. We suffer in our thoughts mostly because we are concerned about our image in other people’s minds.
When you enter into interpersonal relationships, it is inevitable that to a greater or lesser extent you will get hurt, and you will hurt someone, too. Adler says, “To get rid of one’s problems, all one can do is live in the universe all alone.” But one can’t do such a thing.
From Courage to be Disliked