Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground: Confession of a Madman

The memorable words “I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man” introduces us to the bitter and misanthropic narrator of Notes from the Underground. Through this underground man, Dostoyevsky warns against the influence of western enlightened thoughts on Russia. The unreliable narrator, a veteran of the Russian civil service, through his distorted ramblings, criticizes logic and reason and enlightened self-interest. This reflects Dostoyevsky's turning away from such ideas after his arrest and imprisonment in Siberia. For the underground man, freewill will triumph over determinism as dictated by logic and reason. And a person will act illogically just to show that she is human and she has a choice.

When an officer moves him out of the way, the underground man becomes a non-being, an object in the path, which is confirmed when he later confronts the officer and the latter doesn't recall what happened. In the eyes of his friends, he is also nobody. They changed the time of the farewell party for one of them but doesn't tell the underground man. And later when the underground man looks for them in a brothel, they have retired with the prostitutes and again he realizes he is a nonentity. Even when he tries to be a hero to the prostitute Liza, he ends up mistreating her and invalidating his own existence.

St. Petersburg (Photo: Graham from London, UK)

The underground man believes he is miserable because he is intelligent and well-read.  He can appreciate beauty, but his reason and knowledge show how unprofitable it is to cling onto such outdated ideals, ideals contrary to logic and maximum utility. He despises utilitarianism but after understanding it, can't get rid of it. Like after being infested by the plague, he will have suffer it until death.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

During the second half of the nineteenth century, most of Europe was worshiping reason and science and so Dostoyevsky seemed like a madman calling out from the wilderness. But today we have seen how reason and science can fail us and we can appreciate Dostoyevsky's warning though it would be as foolish to abandon reason and science and return to pre-modern society. We have moved beyond either/or and in the post-modern world we must grapple with the dialogue between romanticism and utilitarianism, between truth and beauty, between faith and reason, between the individual and the community. Pluralism but not total relativism.

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