Existentialism + Anti-Utopianism + Psychology = Notes from Underground

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“Man is so partial to systems and abstract conclusions that he is ready intentionally to distort the truth, to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, only so as to justify his logic.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky, p.23, Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky is simultaneously a psychological scrutiny of the illogicality of human nature and a bitter, self-contradictory narrative. The story centers around an outcast, misanthropic man who decides to pen accounts of his isolation. Considered the border of nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction and one of the earliest works of existentialism, Dostoevsky’s opus is often dubbed the most revolutionary novel ever written.

The story takes place in nineteenth-century Russia and, as aforementioned, centers around a bitter, misanthropic man. The first half of Notes will discuss revenge, pain, evil, corruption, superiority, and his contempt for science and mathematics and society. He is often loquacious with his narrations and believes that society should adhere to evil and corruption. He fancies that man’s sole desire is to exercise his free will and will go to extreme levels simply to prove his justification. He believes pain should be embraced pleasurably and discourages medical intervention. His savage and evocative sense of humor, coupled with his devastating anti-utopian ideologies, provoke good laughs more often than not.

The second half of Notes tells a story about the man’s social interactions with soldiers, schoolmates, and prostitutes. His interactions are often malicious and lead to self-humiliation. He is incapable of reacting benevolently with his interlocutors and often treats them with sheer contempt. He is so socially estranged that normal social interaction is impossible. The second half, personally, is more intelligible than the first half because his personal experiences add more significance to the ideologies set forth in the latter part.

Although Notes is only 130 pages, reading it takes patience, for it is dense and the ideas presented take time to digest. Notes serves as a wonderful introduction to Dostoevsky’s savage humor, psychological insights, and analyses of the causes of human suffering. I read the Vintage Classics edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, award-winning translators of classic Russian literature, including Dostoevsky’s magna opera Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. I felt this translation flowed smoothly and pleasingly, and the succinct introduction and comprehensive endnotes filled gaps effectively. In summary, Notes from Underground, while pithy, takes patience to read and digest; don’t be deceived by its size!

Click here to buy this magnificent introduction to Dostoevsky.

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