Notes from the Underground
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Notes from the Underground Part 1, Chapter 9 Summary
- The Underground Man starts Chapter Nine by admitting that, actually, he's joking.
- But then he goes right back to his old argumentative self. This time, he wants to talk about being tormented by profound questions.
- Here is one such question: most normal people want to reform man to act according to science and good sense. But how do we know that this project will benefit man? How do we know he needs to be reformed at all?
- It may be that logic dictates such a reforming, but humanity certainly doesn't.
- He explores this further. Man, he says, is a creative being. He builds roads because it's in his nature to build things. BUT, sometimes, man will swerve off these roads. Why? Because he wants to prove his freedom. (Same old song and dance here.)
- The next point is subtler and a bit tricky: man also swerves aside because he knows that the road, no matter where it goes, must go somewhere. And man realizes that his goal isn't to get somewhere, it is to build the road in the first place. This is because everyone's goal in life is to avoid being idle, which is apparently the mother of all vices. The idea is that men swerve off the road because it will keep them busy, keep them building new roads, and keep them from ever getting to the end point and then having nothing to do. Make sense?
- But besides loving to build roads, man also likes to destroy them. Why? Because, once again, he is afraid of completing whatever he happens to be building. If he ever does finish building, let's say, a house, he will leave it for his pets to live in instead of living in it himself.
- Ants, he says – boy, they really have it figured out. Ants spend their whole lives building anthills. They never stop to revel in completion, they just keep building.
- So man is interested in playing the chess game, not in capturing the king piece, to use yet ANOTHER metaphor. The Underground Man makes the point that life is in the striving, the working, the struggling, and not in the attaining. He then admits that this is quite absurd.
- He adds that, just as man is afraid of the endgame, he is also afraid of mathematical certainty, such certainty as our good old friend 2+2=4. Such certainty is "the beginning of death."
- So, he says that while 2+2=4 is very nice, 2+2=5 can also be very nice.
- But now he'd like to get back to this issue of man and well being. How do we know that man loves contentment? Doesn't he equally love suffering?
- Yes, according to the Underground Man, he does. (Actually, the line is, "It is sometimes very pleasant to smash things.") But he realizes that in many circumstances, suffering has no place. In the Crystal Palace, for example, you could never have suffering.
- Still, man will never try to get rid of suffering. Suffering, he argues, "is the sole origin of consciousness."
- And while he started off this whole mess by saying that his hyper-consciousness was the bane of his existence, he admits now that, actually, consciousness is not only a misfortune, but also great and necessary. Man wouldn't give up consciousness for all the cakes and 2+2=4s in the world.
- Besides, he concludes, mathematical certainty leaves you with nothing to do, and consciousness at least lets you flog yourself once in a while. (We're not kidding. But he might be. You never know.)
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