Notes from Underground

This is a story by the classic Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. It is written as a first-person narrative, by a man who seems to be a poor bureaucrat in some government office. He has a ‘heightened consciousness’ which drives him to inspect and evaluate and reconsider every action, and brings an interesting viewpoint to the table. The action centers on a couple of brief encounters — one with old classmates that he weasles himself into, and one with a woman Liza. Written by Hemingway, this would be a two-page book. Dostoevsky, however, explores ideas of free will, intent, emotion, perception vs reality, and a wide range of perspectives through these relatively minor events.

The takeaways for me break down into two categories: philosophical and practical. For the philosophical, I think the primary point of insight is saying that if someone could design an algorithm to predict every single action and thus negate free will, he proposes that humans would simply destroy things randomly to reclaim some version of agency. He postulates that one of the reasons for humans to continue war and battle is because life gets so much more interesting through these epic events. It’s a fascinating take, and worth keeping in mind when considering people who always seem to have drama around; perhaps they’re creating it to keep life interesting. For the practical, the lesson I’ve drawn is that while it can be interesting for a person to live in this ‘heightened consciousness’, it is far better to engage with the world. His few human interactions are pitiful, and caused me to ponder what his life is for, if most of his experience is simply in his head. It pushes me to get into the world more and think/ponder/consider less, to make an impact on others and help advance the human race in some small way. If Aristotle said that the unexamined life is not worth living, then I think this book offers the idea that the unengaged life may not be worth living either.