Study Guide

Notes from the Underground Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and 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 man is pre-eminently a limited creature. (1.1.6)

When the Underground Man speaks of "the intelligent man," he means a man of the same sort of hyper-consciousness as himself. A hyper-conscious person is never sure of his motives and so he doesn't feel comfortable taking action. Thus, according to him, if one can't act, one can never become anything.

I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness – a real thorough-going illness. For man's everyday needs, it would have been quite enough to have the ordinary human consciousness, that is, half or a quarter of the amount which falls to the lot of a cultivated man of our unhappy nineteenth century, especially one who has the fatal ill-luck to inhabit Petersburg, the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrial globe. (There are intentional and unintentional towns.) It would have been quite enough, for instance, to have the consciousness by which all so-called direct persons and men of action live. (1.2.1)

The Underground Man seems to flip-flop between a desire for half-consciousness and the insistence that his way of life is superior.

Tell me this: why does it happen that at the very, yes, at the very moments when I am most capable of feeling every refinement of all that is "sublime and beautiful," as they used to say at one time, it would, as though of design, happen to me not only to feel but to do such ugly things, such that ... Well, in short, actions that all, perhaps, commit; but which, as though purposely, occurred to me at the very time when I was most conscious that they ought not to be committed. The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was "sublime and beautiful," the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether. (1.2.2)

It looks like the Underground Man is justifying his desire for self-inflicted pain. Happiness, he says (or at least "the sublime and beautiful," which is the closest this he gets to happiness) is an excuse for sinking into mire – so he's setting up a vicious cycle. He's disallowing himself any opportunity to be normal.

I got to the point of feeling a sort of secret abnormal, despicable enjoyment in returning home to my corner on some disgusting Petersburg night, acutely conscious that that day I had committed a loathsome action again, that what was done could never be undone, and secretly, inwardly gnawing, gnawing at myself for it, tearing and consuming myself till at last the bitterness turned into a sort of shameful accursed sweetness, and at last – into positive real enjoyment! Yes, into enjoyment, into enjoyment! I insist upon that. I have spoken of this because I keep wanting to know for a fact whether other people feel such enjoyment? I will explain; the enjoyment was just from the too intense consciousness of one's own degradation; it was from feeling oneself that one had reached the last barrier, that it was horrible, but that it could not be otherwise; that there was no escape for you; that you never could become a different man; that even if time and faith were still left you to change into something different you would most likely not wish to change; or if you did wish to, even then you would do nothing; because perhaps in reality there was nothing for you to change into. (1.2.2)

The Underground Man's enjoyment of degradation is simply a result of his masochism (his desire to inflict pain on himself), but he tries to justify it in grand and literary terms.

And the worst of it was, and the root of it all, that it was all in accord with the normal fundamental laws of over-acute consciousness, and with the inertia that was the direct result of those laws, and that consequently one was not only unable to change but could do absolutely nothing. (1.2.3)

The Underground Man can't justify his actions, so he chooses not to act. But this argument supposes that it is possible to do nothing. In fact, by not choosing, the Underground Man is still making a choice.

And I am the more persuaded of that suspicion, if one can call it so, by the fact that if you take, for instance, the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of acute consciousness, who has come, of course, not out of the lap of nature but out of a retort (1.3.2)

How interesting that the Underground Man calls the conscious man the opposite of the normal man. Not only are they opposites in nature, he says, but the conscious man exists as a retort to the normal man. The Underground Man's narrative technique of argument and imagined counter-argument seems to rise largely out of this duality.

This retort-made man is sometimes so nonplussed in the presence of his antithesis that with all his exaggerated consciousness he genuinely thinks of himself as a mouse and not a man. It may be an acutely conscious mouse, yet it is a mouse, while the other is a man. […] The base and nasty desire to vent that spite on its assailant rankles perhaps even more nastily in it than in l'homme de la nature et de la vérité . For through his innate stupidity the latter looks upon his revenge as justice pure and simple; while in consequence of his acute consciousness the mouse does not believe in the justice of it. (1.3.2)

When a man is conscious, the argument goes, he realizes that no act can be truly justified. Therefore, consciousness leads to inertia. But take a closer look at the Underground Man's first claim: no actions can be truly justified. Consciousness makes us doubt what we do. If a man acts, it must be because he isn't conscious. The Underground Man has ignored a key possibility here: a man who is conscious, who knows his actions aren't justified but who acts anyway. The "false premise," then, is that action requires the belief of justification.

I invented adventures for myself and made up a life, so as at least to live in some way. […] I tried hard to be in love. I suffered, too, gentlemen, I assure you. In the depth of my heart there was no faith in my suffering, only a faint stir of mockery […], and it was all from ennui, […]; inertia overcame me. You know the direct, legitimate fruit of consciousness is inertia, that is, conscious sitting-with-the-hands-folded. (1.5.1)

The Underground Man sees all his actions as "faking it," so he doesn't see a point in changing anything about himself. Regardless of his motives, however, his actions have real consequences. If he sees inertia taking over his life, it is because he chooses to keep things as they are.

Oh, gentlemen, do you know, perhaps I consider myself an intelligent man, only because all my life I have been able neither to begin nor to finish anything. (1.5.1)

Again, we have to remember that all the definitions we're working with have been crafted by the Underground Man. According to him, intelligence = hyper-consciousness. Since hyper-consciousness = inertia, any intelligent man is stuck the way he is. But all the narrator has really done here is to define the intelligent man as a version of himself. Tricky.

Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction. Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice two makes four. Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing. (1.9.3)

Earlier, the Underground Man claimed that consciousness was what allowed man to enjoy suffering. Here, he adds another claim: suffering causes consciousness. He then goes on to say that consciousness is better than the laws of nature, since consciousness allows for suffering. The waters are a little muddy here; it seems the most we can conclude from all his arguments is that suffering and consciousness are inextricably tied. Since he is a self-proclaimed man of over-consciousness, he must also be a man of hyper-suffering.