Notes from Underground

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Notes from Underground
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Notes from Underground is a short novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky written in 1864. It is considered the world's first existentialist work. It presents itself as an excerpt from the rambling memoirs of a bitter, isolated, unnamed narrator (generally referred to by critics as Underground Man) who is a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg.
— Excerpted from Notes from Underground on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.


Part 1 Underground


   I am a sick man...I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have, thuogh I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" the doctors by not consulting the,. I know better than anyone that by all this I am not only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad. Well let it get worse!

I have been going on like that for a long time -- twenty years. Now I am forty. I used to be in the government service, but am no longer. I was a spiteful official. I was rude and took pleasure in being so. I did not take bribes, you see, so I was bound to find a recompense in that at least. (a poor jest but I will not scratch it out. I wrote it thinking it would sound very witty but now that I have seen myself that I only wanted to show off in a despicable way, I will not scratch it out on purpose.)

   When petitioners used to come to the table at which I sat for information, I used to grind my teeth at them and felt intense enjoyment when I succeeded in makling anybody unhappy. I almost always did succeed. For the most part they were all timid people -- of course the were petitioners. But of the uppish ones there was one officer in particular that I could not endure. He simply would not be humble, and clanked his sword in a disgusting way. I carried on the feud with him over that sword for eighteen months. At last I got the better of him. He left off clanking it. That happened in my youth, though.

   But do you know, gentlemen, what was the chief point about my spite? why the whole point, the real sting of it, lay in the fact that continually, even in the moment of the acutest spleen, I was inwardly concious of the shame that I was only not a spiteful but not even an embittererd man, that I was simply scaring sparrows at random and amusing myself by it. -I might foam at the mouth, but bring me a doll to play with, give me a cup of tea with sugar in it, and maybe I should be appeased. I might even be genuinely touched, though probably I sould grind my teeth at myself afterwards and lie awake at night with shame for months after. That was my way.

   I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite. I was siomply amusing myself with the petitioners and with the officer, and in reality I never could become spiteful. I was concious every moment in myself of many, very many elements absolutely opposite to that. I felt them positively swarming in me, these opposite lements. I knew that they had been swarming in me all my life and craving some outlet from me, but I would not let them, purposely would not let them come out. The tormented me till I was ashamed: They drove me to convulsions and sickened me, at last how they sickened me! Now, are not you fancying, gentlemen, that I am expressing remorse for something now, that I am asking for your forgiveness for something? I am sure you are fancying that...however I assure you I do not care if you are...

   It was not only that I could not become sptieful. I did not know how to become anything: neither spiteful nor kind, niether a rascal nor an honest man, niether a hero nor an insect. Now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful ad useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything. Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active manis pre-eminently a limited creature. That is my conviction of forty years. I am forty years old now, and you know forty years is a whole lifetime; you know it is extreme old age. To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral. Who does live beyond forty? Answer that, sincerely and honestly. I will tell you who do: fools and worthless fellows. I tell all old men that to thier face, all these venerable old men, all these silver-haired and revered seniors! I tell the whole world that to its face. I have a right to say so, for I sahll go on living to sixty myself. To seventy! to eighty!...Stay, let me take a breath...

   You imagine, no doubt, gentlemen, that I want to amuse you. You are mistaken in that too. I am by no means such a mirthful person as you imagine, or as you may imagine; however, irritated by all this babble (an d I feel that you are irritated) you think fit to ask me who I am -- then my answer is a collegiate assessor. I was in the service that I might have something to eat(and soelly for that reason), and when last year a distant relation left me six thousand roubles in his wil lI immediately retired from the service and settled down in my corner. I used to live in this corner before, but now I have settled down in it. My room is a wretched, horrid one in the outskirts of the town. My servant is an old country-woman, ill-natured from stupidity, and moreover, there is always a nasty smell about her. I am told that the Petersburg climate is bad for me, and that with my small means it is very expensive to live in Pteresburg. I knokw all that better than all those sage an experienced counselors an montors...BUt I am remaining in Petersburg; I am not going away from Petersburg! I am not going awayu because...ech! Why it is absolutely no matter whether I am going away or not going away.

   But what can a decent man speak of with the most pleasure?

   Answer: of himself.

   Well, so I will talk about myself.

II

   Now I would like to tell you, gentlemen, whether or not you want to hear it, why it is that I couldn't become an insect. I'll tell you solemnly that I wished to become an insect many times. But not even that wish was granted. I swear to you, gentlemen, that being overly concious is a disease, a genuine full-fledged disease. ordinary human conciousness would be more than sufficient for everyday human need -- that is, even half or a quarter of the amount of conciousness tht's available to a cultured man in our unfortunate nineteenth century, especially to one who has the particular misfortune of liveing in St. Petersburg, the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world. (Cities can ewither be premeditated or unpremeditated.)It would have been entirely sufficient, for example, to have the conciousness with which all so-called spontaneous people and men of actoin are endowed. I'll bet that you think I'm writing all this to show off, to make fun of these men of actoin, that I'm clanging my saber just like that officer did to show off in bad taste. But gentlemen, who could possibly be proud of his illnesses and want to show them off?

   But what am I saying? Everyone does that: people do take pride in thier illnesses, and I, perhaps, more than anyone else. Let's not argue; my objection is absurd. Nevertheless, I remain firmly convinced that not only is being overly concious a disease, but so is being coincious at all. I insist on it. But let's leave that alone for a minute. Tell me this: why was it, as if on purpose, at the very moment, indeed at the precise moment that I was most capable of becoming concious of the subtleties of everything that was "beautiful and sublime," as we used to say at one time, that I didn't become concious, and instead did such unseemly thingtaht...well, in short, proably everyone else does, but it semed as if they occurred to me deliberately at the precise moment when I was most concious that they shouldn't be done at all? The more concious I was of what was good, of everything beautfual and sublime, the more deeply I sank into the morass and the more capable I was of becoming entirely bogged down in it. But the main thing is taht all this didn't seem to be occurring accidentally;rather it was as if it all had to be so. It was as if this were my most normal condition, not an illness or affliction at all, so taht finally I even lost the desire to struggle against it. It ended when I almost came to believe (perhaps I really did believe) that this might really have been my normal condition. But at first, in the beginningwhat agoinies I suffered during that struggle! I didn't believe taht others were experiencing the same thing. Therefore I kept it a secret about myself all my life. I was ashamed (perhaps I still am even now); I reached the point where I felt some secret, abnormal, despicable little pleasure in returning home to my little corner on some disgusting Petersburg night, acutely aware that I'd committed some revolting act that day, that what had been done could not be undone, and I used to gnaw and gnaw at myself inwardly, secretly, nagging away, consuming myself until finally the bitterness turned into some kind of shameful, accursed sweetness and at last into genuine, earnest pleasure! Yes, into pleasure, real pleasure! I absolutely mean that...That's why I first began to speak out, because I want to know for certain whether other people share this same pleasure. Let me explain: The pleasure resulted precisely from the overly acute conciousness of ones own humiliation; from the feeling that one had reached the limit. That it was disgusting, but couldn't be otherwise. You had no other choice -- you could never become a different person; and taht even if there were still time and faith enough for you to change into something else, most likely you wouldn't weant to change, and if you did, you wouldn't have done anythingperhaps because there really was nothing for you to change into. But the main thing and the final point is that all of this was taking place according to normmal and fundamental laws of overly acute conciousness and of the inertia which results directly from these laws; consequently anot only couldn't one change, one simply couldn't do anything at all. Hence it follows, for example., as a result of this overly acute coiunciousness, that one is absolutely right in being a soundrel, as if this were some consolation to the scoundrel. But enough of this... Oh my, I've gone on a rather long time, but have I really explained anything? How can I explain this pleasure? But I will explain it! I shall see it through to the end! That's why I've taken up my pen...

   For example I'm terribly proud. I'm as mistrustful and as sensitive as a hunchback or a dwarf. . But in truth I've expereinced some moments when, if someone had slapped my face, I might even have been grateful for it. I'm being serious. I probably would have been able to derive a peculiar sort of pleasure from it -- the pleaasure of despair, naturally., but the most intense pleasures occur in despair, especxially when you're very acutely aware of the hopelessness of your predicament. As for a slap in the face -- why, here the coinciousness of being beaten to a pulp would overwhelm you. The main thing is, no matter how I try, it still turns out that I'm always the first to be blamed for everything and, what's even worse, I'm always the innocent vitim, so to speak, according to the laws of nature. Therefore in the first place, I'm guilty inasmuch as I'm smarter than everyone around me. (I've always considered myself smarter than everyone around me, and sometimes, believe me, I've been ashamed of it. At the least, all my life I've looked away and never could look people straight in the eye.) Finally I'm to blame because even if tehre was any magnamity in me, it would have only caused more suffering as a result of my being aware of its utter uselessness. After all, I probably wouldn't have been able to make use of that magnamity: neither to forgive, as the offender, perhaps, had salpped me in accordance with the laws of nature, and there's no way to forgive the laws of nature; nor to forget, because even if tehre were any laws of nature it's offensive nonetheless. Finally, even if I wanted to be entirely unmagnimous, and had wanted to take revenge on the offender, I couldn't be revenged on anyone for anything because, mnost likely, I would never have decided to do anything, even if I could have. Why not? I'd like to say a few words about that seperately.

III

Let's consider people who know how to take revenge and how to stand up for themselves in general. How, for example, do they do it? Let's suppose that they're seized by an impulse to take revenge -- then for a while nothing else remains hin thier entire being except that impulse. Such an individual simply rushes toward his goal like an enraged bull with lowered horn; only a wall can stop him. (By the way, when actually faced with a wall such individuals, that is, spontaneous people, and men of action, genuinely give up. For them a wall doesn't constitute the evasion that it does for those of us who think and consequently do nothingit's not an excuse to turn aside from the path, a pretext in which a person like me usually doesn't believe, but one for which he's always extremely grateful. No, they give up in all sincerity. For them the wall posesses some kind of soothing, morally decisive and definitive meaning, perhaps even something mystical...But more about the wall later.) Well, then, I consider such a spontaneous indiviidual to be a genuine, normal person, just as tender mother nature wished to see him when she lovingly gave birth to him on earth. I'm green with envy at such a man. He's stupid, I won't argue with you about that. But perhaps a normal man is supposed to be stupid -- how do we know? Perhaps it's even very beautiful. And I'm all the more convinced of the suspicion, so to speak, that if, for example, one were to take the antithesis of a normal man -- taht is, a man of overly acute conciousness, who emerged, of course, not from the bosom of nature, but from a laboratory test tube (this is almost mysticism, gentlemen, but I suspect that it's the case), then this test tube man sometimes gives up so completely in the face of his antithesis that he himself, with this overly acute coconciousness, honestly considers himself not as a person, but a mouse. It may be an acutely concious mouse, but a mouse nonetheless, while the other one is a person and consequently...and so on and so forth. But the main thing is that he, he himself, considers himself to be a mouse; nobody asks him to do so, and that's the important point. Now let's take a look at this mouse in action. Let's assume, for instance, that it feels offended (it almost always feels offended) and that it also wishes to be revenged. It may even contain more accumulated malice than l'homme de la nature et de la verite. The mean, nasty, little desire to pay the offender back with evil may indeed rankle in it even more despicably than in l'homme de la nature et de la verite because l'homme de la nature et de la verite, with his innate stupidity, considers his revenge nothing more than justice, pure and simple; but the mouse, as a result of it overly acute conciousness, rejects the idea of justice. Finally, we come to the act itself, to the very act of revenge. In addition to its original nastiness, the mouse has already managed to pile up all sorts of other nastiness around itself in the form of hesitations and doubts; so many unresolved questions have emerged from that one single question, that some kind of fatal blow is concocted unwillingly, some kind of stinking mess consisting of doubts, anxieties, and finally spittle showered upon it by the spontaneous men of action who stand by solemnly as judges and arbiters, roaring with laughter until thier sides split. Of course, the only thing left to do is dismiss it with a wave of its paw and a smile of assumed contempt which it doesn't even believe in, and creep ignomiously back into its mousehole. There, in its disgusting, stinking underground, our offended, crushed, and ridiculed mouse immediately plunges into cold, malicious and above all, everlasting spitefulness. For forty years on end it will recall its insult down to the last, most shameful detail; and each time it will add more shameful details of its own, spitefully teasing and irritating itself with its own fantasy. It will become ashamed of that fantasy, but it will still remember it, rehearse it again and again, fabricating all sorts of incredible stories about itself under the pretext that they too could have happened. It won't forgive a thing. Perhaps it will even begin to take revenge, but only in little bits and pieces, in trivial ways, from behind the stove, incognito, not believing in its right to be revenged, not in the success of its own revenge, an knowing in advance that from all its attempts to take revenge, it will suffer a hundred times more than the object of its vengeance, who might not even feel a thing. On its deathbed it will recall everything all over again, with interest compounded over all those years and...But it's precisely in that cold, abominable state of half-despair and half-belief, in that concious burial of itself alive in the underground for forty year because of its pain, in that poiwerfully created yet partially dubious hopelessness of its own predicament, in all that venom of unfulfilled desire turned inward, in all that fever of vacillation, of resolutions adopted once and for all and followed a moment later by repentance -- herein precisely lies the essence of that strange enjoyment I was talking about earlier. It's so subtle, sometimes so difficult to analyze, that even slightly limited people, ot those who simply have strong nerves, won't understand anything about it. "Perhaps," you'll add with a smirk, "even those whove never received a slap in the face won't understand," and by doing so you'll be hinting to me ever so politely that perhaps during my life i too have received a slap in the face and that therefore I'm speaking as an expert. I'll bet that's what you were thinking. WEll, rest assured, gentlemen, I've never recieved such a slap, althought it's really all the same to me what you think about it. Pewrhaps I may even regret the fact that I've given so few slaps during my lifetime. But that's enough, not another word about this subject which you find so extremely interesting.

   I'll proceed calmly about people with strong nerves who don't understand certain refinements of pleasure. For example, although under particular circumstances these gentlemen may bellow like bulls as loudly as possible, and although lets suppose theis behavior bestows upon the the greatest honor, yet, as I've already said, when confronted with impossibility, they submit immediately. Impossibility -- does that mean a stone wall? What kind of stone wall? Why, of course, the laws o nature, the conclusions of natural science and mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for example, that it's from a monkey youre descended, there's no reason to make faces; just accept it as it is. As soon as they prove to you that in truth one drop of your own fat is dearer to you than the lives of one hundred thousand of your fellow creatures and that this will finally put an end to all the so-called virtues, obligations, and other such simliar ravings and prejudices, just accept that oo; there's nothing more to do, since two times two is a fact of mathematics. Just you try to object. 
  "For good ness sake," they'll shout at you. "it's impossible to protest: it's two times two makes four! Nature doesn't ask for your opinions; It doesn't care about your desires or whether you like or dislike its laws. You're obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently all its conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall...etc, etc." Good Lord, what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic when for some reason I dislike all these laws and I dslike the fact that two times two equals four? of course, I won't break through that wall with my head if I really don't have the strength to do so, nor will I reconcile myself to it jsut because I'm faced with such a stone wall and lack the strength. 
 
     As though such a stone wall actually offered some consolatoin and contained some real word of conciliation, for the soel reason that it means two times two makes four. Oh, absurdity of absurdities! how much better it is to understand it all, to be aware of everything, all the impossibilties and stone walls; not to be reconciled with any of those impossibilities or stone walls if it so disgusts you; to reach, by using the most inevitable logical combinations, the most revolting conclusions on the eternal theme taht you are somehow or other to blame even for that stone wall, even though its abosolutely clear once again taht you're in no way to blame, and as a result of all this, while silently and impotently gnashing your teeth, you sink voluptuously into inertia, musing on the fact that, as it turns out, there's no one to be angry wit; that an object cannot be found, and perhaps never will be; that there's been a substitution, some slieght of hand, a bit of cheating, and taht it's all a mess -- you can't tell who's who or what's what' but in spite of all these uncertainties and slights-of-hand, it hurts you just the same, and the more you don't know the more it hurts! 

IV


Image:PD-icon.svg This work is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.
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