Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground focuses on the ramblings of the “underground man” as a stand-in for Russian alienation at the turn of the century. The most poignant aspect of his rambling is underground man’s depression and his alienation. He sees himself as both elevated above the rabble of humanity, but also completely at odds with his fellow human beings to the point of depression and self-imposed isolation. His self-deprecation is both humorous and deeply disturbing. For example, in the very first page we learn that his liver is causing him pain but that he refuses to receive any medical help to spite the doctors. We do we make of this type of man?
We are bound to feel sympathy for this character that does not even know himself and fails to be reconciled to his own desires.
However, I find it interesting, from a biographical perspective, that Dostoevsky spent time in Siberian prison camps. This event in his life clearly triggered some deep contemplation that would eventually lead to the thoughts that we encounter in Notes. A state of deep reflection as a result of time spent in harrowing prison camps is actually quite common in the literary canon. We have Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Night by Elie Wiesel, and Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning that all follow this tradition. Some more well-known examples could be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, following his imprisonment, or Oscar Wilde’s beautifully tragic De Profundis after his incarceration due to the breaking of Victorian-era indecency laws.
All these examples reveal the same despair found in the human spirit: that we are bound to rage when forced into cages and inhumane conditions.
The human spirit is bound to be free, and yet the sheer fact of imprisonment highlights how at odds reality is from our innate human desires.
I believe this is largely one of the reasons for Dostoevsky’s clear hatred of the “Crystal Palace”. Through his mocking of “sticking out his tongue”, we see a clear contempt of anything that would remove his agency. It is far better, according to the underground man, to revel in the irrationality of freedom than to succumb to a prescribed, yet placid, life.
We see the same idea rise again, to great prominence, in Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning(1946). Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist by trade, spent WWII imprisoned in Auschwitz, and after his miraculous release, he set to write an autobiographical account of his imprisonment as well as the psychological insights he gained as a result of his ordeal. The main takeaway from his careful self-reflection was the necessity for freedom in the human spirit, particularly to how we react to stimuli in our surrounding. Frankl, reiterating the underground man, places agency and self-autonomy as the principal instrument to discover meaning in life. It is not enough to believe you are free, you must act free in all circumstances to be fully integrated into your person. I believe Dostoevsky, and the underground man, would agree with Frankl’s poignant analysis.
If you have the time I strongly recommend adding this book to your list. It is by far one of the most psychologically impactful books I have read in my life and beautifully works in tandem with the ideas presented by Dostoevsky.
Notes From the Underground: Dostoesky
Viktor Frankl: Man’s search for meaning
The Gulag Archipelago: Solzehnitsyn
De Profundis: Oscar Wilde
Letter from a Birmingham Jail: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.