Reading Russia: Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground

Posted by @ 1:40 am on April 17th, 2009

1As you may already know, this summer I’ll be traveling to Russia for a week. Because of that trip, I decided to read as much Russian literature as I could. I even blogged about my plans over at Conversational Reading. But so far, I haven’t read much; it’s taken me longer than I expected just to get through Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the UndergroundThe Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. What follows are some brief thoughts (perhaps too personal?) about Notes; look out for more posts on the next few books. Read on if you’re interested.

Okay, this was the second time I read Notes from the Underground. The first time I read it, I was a sophomore in college and I existed in a little, selfish world, and I lacked any sort of awareness of how I fit into a greater world populated by other emotionally active young adults. This lack caused me to act upon many poor decisions that directly affected the others around me. As a result of this lack, I honestly have no memories of reading Notes from the Underground. I know I read it, and I know it was on the course syllabus, but I do not remember reading it. It did not affect me at all.

But I decided to read it after Christmas last year, because we were in the early stages of planning this trip to Russia, and I had a copy, and I thought I ought to read it, and oh boy, here we go. I read the entire book during the two hour van ride from my parents’ house in Chattanooga to the airport in Nashville. Despite the driver’s tuning the radio to some awful country music station, I managed to get through the book. I recall having tears in my eyes at one point during the van ride.

Listen, this book is very important to me – “I am a sick man…” – and I can’t help but feel as though many of the narrator’s thoughts reflect some of my own. Reading this book was frightening to me not because I was so disturbed by the narrator’s ideas, but because I recognized much of what he said as things I had witnessed in my own head; I doubt this is a very unique experience, and I’m very interested to hear what others have felt in response to this book.

Here are some excerpts below that are particularly important to me and why:

Now tell me this: why has it happened, as if deliberately, that at those very – yes, at precisely those very – moments when I was most capable of comprehending the whole subtlety of ‘all that is beautiful and sublime,’ as we once used to say, I would not only fail to comprehend it but I would do such unseemly things, the sort of things that … well yes, in short, that perhaps everyone does, but which came to me, as if deliberately, precisely when I was most aware that I absolutely ought not to be doing them?

I chose this passage because of two things: 1) I am destroyed by the phrase “I fail to comprehend it”; when I read that phrase, I can’t help but reflect on how often I fail to comprehend things that I know in my head I should comprehend. I don’t mean that I am bothered that I cannot comprehend why something is beautiful to me, but that I often can’t even comprehend that something is beautiful to me, if that makes sense. It makes me terrified a little that I am missing out on so many things. And 2) The passage helps a little bit my understanding of the Karamazovian nature: my ability to hold simultaneously two directly opposed values and not immediately die of self-cancellation.

Read this also (emphasis mine):

Let me explain: in this instance the pleasure stemmed directly from being too clearly aware of one’s own humiliations; from feeling that you’ve gone too far; that it’s foul but that it can’t be otherwise; that you’ve no way out, that you’ll never change yourself into another person; that even if you still had enough time and the faith to change yourself into something else, you probably wouldn’t want to change yourself; and that if you did want to you would still do nothing because in the end there’s maybe nothing to change yourself into.

I am occasionally pleasantly undone by the worry that I have somehow ruined my life, merely because I made a decision, and that decision forever shut off the possibility of doing something differently with my life. I can never be not-me. I feel stupid for writing this.


But just try letting yourself be carried along blindly by your feelings, without reason, without first principles, banishing consciousness at least for the time being; hate or love, anything rather than sit with folded arms. The day after tomrrow, at the very latest, you will begin to despise yourself because you have knowingly fooled yourself.

There are moments when the purest, most irrational parts of me sneak out into the world and do things with my body against my will. Holding inane, but pleasant conversations with complete strangers in the post office is one example. Writing this silly post is another. And feeling unabashed terror while resting in my bed late at night, my wife sleeping beside me, is yet another. I regret all. Please forgive me.

And finally:

Suffering is indeed the sole cause of consciousness. Even if I declared at the beginning that in my opinion consciousness is man’s greatest misfortune, I know that man loves it and will not exchange it for any other form of satisfaction. Consciousness is, for instance, endlessly superior to twice two.

I have never enjoyed mathematics.

Thank you for reading my thoughts on a book that is important to me. The next few posts will (hopefully) consist of my thoughts on The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. That is all I’ve read so far in this project.