Study Guide

Notes from the Underground Suffering

By Fyodor Dostoevsky


…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 fondness for suffering explains the whole endeavor that is his Notes from the Underground; speaking to his imagined audience is an act of self-inflicted torture, since it forces him towards a higher level of consciousness (and, as he established, consciousness and suffering go hand-in-hand).

"Ha, ha, ha! You will be finding enjoyment in toothache next," you cry, with a laugh.

"Well, even in toothache there is enjoyment," I answer. I had tooth-ache for a whole month and I know there is. In that case, of course, people are not spiteful in silence, but moan; but they are not candid moans, they are malignant moans, and the malignancy is the whole point. The enjoyment of the sufferer finds expression in those moans; if he did not feel enjoyment in them he would not moan. (1.4.1-2)

The Underground Man makes a decent point. We all have to admit that "misery loves company" is difficult to refute.

What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, willfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. (1.7.1)

As soon as we stop drooling over this prose, we'll get a thought to you. Okay. The Underground Man highlights people's tendency to dive headlong and consciously into the unknown, even at their own peril and risk of suffering, just because they dislike the "beaten path."

They say that Cleopatra (excuse an instance from Roman history) was fond of sticking gold pins into her slave-girls' breasts and derived gratification from their screams and writhings. (1.7.1)

The Underground Man thinks that humans are not only masochistic (they take pleasure in their own suffering) but also sadistic (they take pleasure in the suffering of other people). Yikes.

Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then. (1.7.2)

Previously, the Underground Man has offered suffering as the means to prove free will. But here, he offers it as an alternative to boredom.

Man likes to make roads and to create, that is a fact beyond dispute. But why has he such a passionate love for destruction and chaos also? Tell me that! But on that point I want to say a couple of words myself. May it not be that he loves chaos and destruction (there can be no disputing that he does sometimes love it) because he is instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing? (1.9.1)

This is a great explanation for why the Underground man cannot bring himself to finish his Notes.

And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive – in other words, only what is conducive to welfare – is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact. There is no need to appeal to universal history to prove that; only ask yourself, if you are a man and have lived at all. As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it's good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things. (1.9.3)

The Underground Man now asks us to assign an intrinsically positive value to suffering. Now he doesn't justify this claim with reasons; suffering isn't valuable because it alleviates boredom or because it proves free will – it's just plain enjoyable for its own sake.

And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. […] If you stick to consciousness […] 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)

The line "suffering is the sole origin of consciousness" is just one of several supporting arguments the Underground Man gives to support the claim that suffering and consciousness goes hand in hand. He also claims that suffering is only enjoyable if one is conscious of it, and that consciousness is the cause of his suffering.

I chanced to look into the glass. My harassed face struck me as revolting in the extreme, pale, angry, abject, with dishevelled hair. "No matter, I am glad of it," I thought; "I am glad that I shall seem repulsive to her; I like that." (2.5.26)

The Underground Man starts torturing Liza even before they have sex the first time; he takes an obvious pleasure in making her miserable.

Which is better – cheap happiness or exalted sufferings? Well, which is better? (2.10.21)

How odd that the Underground Man doesn't take as hard and fast stance at the end of Notes as he did at the beginning. After all, he's been praising the benefits of suffering since the whole thing began, and now he's going to start doubting?