Notes from the Underground
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Notes from the Underground Literature and Writing Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Part.Chapter.Paragraph). We used Constance Garnett's translation.
Then I should have chosen a career for myself, I should have been a sluggard and a glutton, not a simple one, but, for instance, one with sympathies for everything sublime and beautiful. How do you like that? I have long had visions of it. That "sublime and beautiful" weighs heavily on my mind at forty But that is at forty; then – oh, then it would have been different! I should have found for myself a form of activity in keeping with it, to be precise, drinking to the health of everything "sublime and beautiful." I should have snatched at every opportunity to drop a tear into my glass and then to drain it to all that is "sublime and beautiful." I should then have turned everything into the sublime and the beautiful; in the nastiest, unquestionable trash, I should have sought out the sublime and the beautiful. I should have exuded tears like a wet sponge. An artist, for instance, paints a picture worthy of Gay. At once I drink to the health of the artist who painted the picture worthy of Gay, because I love all that is "sublime and beautiful." An author has written As you will: at once I drink to the health of "anyone you will" because I love all that is "sublime and beautiful." (1.6.1)
The Underground Man imagines for himself a life as a professional aesthete, where his sole occupation would be to enjoy works of art. Great, except in doing so he imagines himself as a fat and lazy man. It's also interesting that he imagines what his life would be like if steeped in art and literature, and from what we'll soon see, this is already the case (because of the dramatic, romantic notions he applies to his interactions with others).
In the first place I spent most of my time at home, reading. I tried to stifle all that was continually seething within me by means of external impressions. And the only external means I had was reading. Reading, of course, was a great help – exciting me, giving me pleasure and pain. But at times it bored me fearfully. One longed for movement in spite of everything, and I plunged all at once into dark, underground, loathsome vice of the pettiest kind. My wretched passions were acute, smarting, from my continual, sickly irritability I had hysterical impulses, with tears and convulsions. I had no resource except reading, that is, there was nothing in my surroundings which I could respect and which attracted me. (2.1.10)
Compare this passage to the moment in the end of Part II when the Underground Man sees the crumpled five-rouble note left behind by Liza. In Liza, finally, he finds "something which [he can] respect" – something in another human being and not just in the world of literature. Of course, he manages to drive her away because of his own "literary concerns" (i.e., he gave her the note in the first place because it was a contrived and literary cliché to give a prostitute money at a moment like that).
What I was afraid of was that everyone present, from the insolent marker down to the lowest little stinking, pimply clerk in a greasy collar, would jeer at me and fail to understand when I began to protest and to address them in literary language. For of the point of honour – not of honour, but of the point of honour ( point d'honneur) – one cannot speak among us except in literary language. You can't allude to the "point of honour" in ordinary language. I was fully convinced (the sense of reality, in spite of all my romanticism!) that they would all simply split their sides with laughter. (2.1.19)
The Underground Man suffers from an inability to reconcile two different worlds: reality and the world of literature. He operates under the rules of the latter but finds that they frequently come into conflict with people in the former. To some degree, he knows how foolish his romanticism is – but rather than admit this, he simply labels the majority of men as uncultured fools.