‘I am a sick man…I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.’
This wasn’t easy to summarise. On the surface it is a novel, but at heart it is more of a philosophical text, with several overlapping themes which are still relevant today. It is a story in two parts. The first consists of a monologue by the anonymous narrator, the ‘underground man’, in which he sets out his personal philosophy. He is literally underground, writing from within his cellar in his self-imposed twenty-year exile from the world. His is a vitriolic view of humankind and the world.
‘But I will explain myself. I’ll go on to the end. That’s why I took up my pen…’
In part two we are transported to twenty years previously, and to a series of events, each increasingly more absurd, which perhaps go some way to explaining the anger and pessimism which informed his worldview as outlined in part one. In the first event, the underground man is slighted by an army officer’s indifferent refusal to step aside whilst walking past him on the street; in the second, he attends a dinner with a group of reluctant acquaintances, whom he alternately berates and flatters; and finally, a patronising encounter with a prostitute.
‘Where did all the sages get the idea that a man’s desires must be normal and virtuous? Why did they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable? What a man needs is simply and solely independent volition, whatever the independency may cost and wherever it may lead.’
In each instance he acts ridiculously and often irrationally. And that’s the theme of the book: a man’s freedom – what differentiates us from machines – is our ability to willingly, and against all logic and self-interest, act irrationally.
And before you scoff, we’ve all done it to a lesser or greater degree: that fifth shot of tequila; dropping a month’s pay on new wheels for our ’93 Camry; replying to that midnight text message from an ex. And do we also not see this in the popularity of YouTube videos and Instagram accounts of ‘fails’ and ‘morons doing things’? Okay, so I’m being flippant with my examples. But you get the point
‘…it seems to me that the whole business of humanity consists solely in this – that a man should constantly prove to himself that he is a man and not a sprig in a barrel-organ. To prove it even at the expense of his own skin…’
‘Come on gentlemen, why shouldn’t we get rid of all this calm reasonableness with one kick, just so as to send all these logarithms to the devil and be able to live our own lives at our own sweet will?’
Obviously, in referring to ‘logarithms’, Dostoevsky could have had no notion of artificial intelligence, at least, not as we conceive of it. What he is referring to is a 19th century trend towards the rationalising of human behaviour.
‘You see, gentlemen, reason is a good thing, that can’t be disputed, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s intellectual facilities, while volition is a manifestation of the whole of life…And although in this manifestation life frequently turns out to be rubbishy, all the same it is life and not merely the extraction of a square root…’
He goes on later:
‘Ah, gentlemen, what will have become of our wills when everything is graphs and arithmetic, and nothing is valid but two and two make four? Two and two will make four without any will of mine!…twice two is four is not life, gentlemen, but the beginning of death’
Perhaps taking Dostoevsky’s notion of free will further, in George Orwell’s novel 1984, the main character is forced by the totalitarian state to admit that “2 + 2 = 5”.
As we’ve seen already, Dostoevsky frequently contrasts man’s capacity for irrational behaviour against the mechanical workings of a musical instrument. Here he is again:
‘It is precisely his most fantastic daydreams, his vulgarest foolishness, that he wants to cling to, just so that he can assert that people are still people and not piano-keys…’
Today we would use the term ‘machine’ or ‘robot’ or – increasingly - ‘AI’.
There are a few more applications to the modern world which I could pick out. But this isn’t a thesis. I’ll be surprised (yet grateful) if you’ve got this far. What I’ve tried to demonstrate is that because great literature contains ideas, it continues to be relevant if you read it with an open mind.
‘Which is better: a cheap happiness or lofty suffering? Tell me then, which is better?’
Notes from Underground - Thug Notes Summary and Analysis