Patrick Maxwell

Notes from Underground and Dostoevsky’s existentialism

Dostoevsky’s literary legacy lies not so much in the style of his novels as in the characters that inhabit them. His characters drive narrative forwards and fulfill their plot function yet are also miraculously idiosyncratic. It is this which makes them so resonant: their apparent freedom of will that so often leads to tragedy.

Whether it is the Byronic heroism of Raskolnikov or the troubled Ivan Karamazov, Dostoyevsky is interested in egoism and irrationality in the human condition. Both characters’ ideologies lead them to folly and are further surrounded by a world of torment. Yet they are almost each the hero of their story: for example, ‘Mitya’ Karamazov wins the moral victory in The Brothers Karamazov, admitting to killing his father – a crime he never committed – simply because he had the thought of doing so. Repentance is the only path to redemption (or any form of fulfilment) and escape from ideological dogma, Dostoevsky’s fiction seems to say.

Baseness, deep irrationality and constant vehemence are traits also shared by the narrator of Notes from Underground (1864). The Underground Man, a former civil servant living in self-imposed exile, delivers the most direct attack on civilisation and its discontents that Dostoevsky ever wrote. It reads like the self-hating, nihilistic tirade of irreligious assuredness that Dostoevsky spent much of his writing life putting into disrepute. The translated title, which suggests a secret organisation or figure (‘to go underground’ is to hide from the authorities), is not entirely misleading. The Underground Man has made himself secret from society; he blocks himself off, in mind as well as action, from any semblance of Russian or Western civilisation. Anger at their representation – people, institutions, buildings – forces the character to inhabit what amounts to a literal and ideological subterranean world.

The Underground Man is an absurd character – perhaps the most absurd yet in Western literature when the book was first published. His supposed freedom and ostracisation are the result of revolt, liberty and passion, the trinity of Camus’ theory of the absurd. In Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942), Camus takes Kirillov from Dostoevsky’s Demons as his example. Krillov proclaims himself ready to commit suicide to further the revolutionary cell. Yet the Underground Man, as a character, seems to embody Camus’ theory with a revolt, liberty and passion more absurd in his escape into exile rather than from life altogether. Camus is interested in the individual’s assessment of the futility of life, whereas Dostoevsky is interested in accepting human fallibility to create a more fulfilled, cohesive society. The novel explores alienation but promotes the fervent belief that we are each a single strand in the web of society, albeit a society that Dostoevsky saw as deeply flawed and increasingly degrading.

After visiting London in 1862, Dostoevsky wrote of the city’s political under-class, ‘abandoned, banished from the human feast, shoving and crushing each other in the underground darkness into which they have been thrown . . . a final, despairing effort to form to form their own group’. As in many of his other works, Dostoevsky is fascinated with the left behind. In Russian, the ‘Underground’ of the novel’s titles describes the small spaces between the floorboards, areas we always ignore. It points us to those who have slipped through the cracks, a powerful metaphor for the unnerving solitude and conviction the Underground man represents: absolute freedom of will, or polnaia volia.

The novel’s beginning is one of the most captivating in Dostoevsky’s work which does away with lengthy Dickensian exposition:

I’m a sick man, … I’m a spiteful man. I’m an unattractive man. I think there’s something wrong with my liver. … I’m refusing treatment out of spite … if my liver hurts, let it hurt even more.

The first pages evoke the narrator’s dominant feelings and hatreds; he frequently returns to physical and spiritual sickness and his struggle to escape. He is ‘educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious’. Self-hating and crude, he speaks – or more so shouts – to us as if in a rabid frenzy. The Notes are seemingly exactly that: the crazed jottings of a man who releases his psychic energy, thoughts and prejudices onto the page, stripping away all layer of narration and its claim to reliability.

This was startling to an audience of the time and a whole new way of storytelling, one which mirrors the polarisation of the body politic. The novel was in part a response to the rabid revolutionary activities of Chernyshevsky, Nechaev, and the growing utopian socialist movement in Russia during the 1860s. Nechaev and his destructive, murderous activities (explored in Demons) were ahead of him, but the intellectual premise for the later work is in many ways here. Dostoevsky reserves his most vengeful character for a vociferous attack on the problems he saw rising out of the torpor of Czarist Russia. Notes from Underground is in many ways an effort to cement himself onto the pedestal as the most virulent anti-nihilist writer on the literary scene by viciously satirising a character who espouses the most extreme of nihilist beliefs.

When Turgenev had published Fathers and Sons in 1862, a year after the Emancipation (although the novel is set two years before that event), he had been attacked for his supposed sympathy for whichever side of the debate they were against, as he failed to decry the cool hatred in Bazarov or attack the effete reactionism of his friend’s father, the former radical of twenty years earlier. Dostoevsky knew that he couldn’t make the same mistake, and indeed his fervor was stronger than Turgenev’s, antagonised by the years spent in Siberian imprisonment, longing for the spiritual exegesis that his later works would produce. Notes from Underground marks the first work that directly takes it on, presenting the main character so brutally for the first time, in the same way that he would in later works; Raskolnikov is the most obvious example of the anti-heroes that he crafted.

Just as the Underground Man drags himself down into the murkier realms of society, so Dostoevsky brings us into that same world, of the hidden and the dirty, that lies away from the busy streets of St Petersburg.. Entering his world has been characterised as walking into the ‘world of the slap’, physically and metaphorically. And this perception is most evident in the Underground Man’s attitudes towards himself. In the midst of his ‘cold, loathsome half-despair’ he shares the ‘cold pleasure’ of ‘a toothache’. He shares the rational egoism of Turgenev’s Bazarov, rejecting the arts for the hard certainty of science, while remaining indifferent to the ‘stone wall’ of logic that ‘twice two is four’. He knows this but still maintains that ‘I won’t capitulate simply because I’m confronted with a stone wall’ and defies the most obvious logic. His absurdism is impenetrable, obtuse and incandescent.

Yet what is surprising about Dostoevsky’s portrayal is his pursuit of a character whose mindset he so violently opposes. Camus explores this point, agreeing that, in The Brothers Karamazov, ‘he is on Ivan’s side’, recalling that when his last work was written ‘the affirmative chapters took three months’ of efforts, whereas ‘the blasphemies’ (as he put it) were written in three weeks in a state of excitement.’ Dostoevsky revels in the horror and absurdity of his characters, which helps him to reveal their darker psychology and innate sensibilities.

His last work was a sermon in praise of theism and against its defacement. Dostoevsky wrote best about those who opposed many of his most central beliefs and their internal struggles. The main reason for this is clear: their struggle was his, as it is ours. The Underground Man is, as Dostoevsky says, a figure who ‘not only can but must exist in our society’, as ‘a representation of a generation that has survived to this day.’ Dostoevsky’s genius in this work is to take the ideas he saw, with the characters that prompted them, and fuse the two into the ultimate figure of resistance: a person who can survive only on the singular condition of his absurdity.

Notes from Underground is often credited as the first real existentialist novel, one which shows how free will and feeling dictate human action. This stands in contrast to the burgeoning Marxist dialectic of the time which attributes it to socioeconomic forces. In theorising Sisyphus’s never-ending struggle, Camus borrows heavily from Dostoevsky, affirming the fundamental liberty and passion of human existence that continues our will to live. And after the internal struggle, ‘thus Kirillov, Stavrogin, and Ivan are defeated’ and Dostoevsky’s religious orthodoxy wins out. It is the will of feeling that prevails, the freedom to exercise one’s agency to its fullest extent.

Dostoevsky, the theist who believed in a supernatural authority, may despise the characteristics of his creation in Raskolnikov’s nihilism and self-hatred, but he saw the virtue in the statement that ‘All man needs is independent volition, whatever that independence might cost and wherever it might lead.’


Patrick Maxwell is an English writer on politics, literature and music, based near Oxford. He is the editor of Gerrymander, and a writer for many other publications, such as Comment Central and Backbench.

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