The Underground Man’s Rational Misery and Kierkegaardian Redemption as embodied by Lisa : A philosophical analysis of Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes from Underground’

“Good heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two make four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!”- Underground Man, p. 47

In ‘Notes from Underground’, Dostoevsky paints a picture of his ‘modern man’ from a first person perspective. Just like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this modern man is defined by his inability to act due to his inner turmoil. He writes notes from the ‘underground’, his small impoverished ‘ home’ (which is as much a metaphysical as a physical place) isolated from society, where he is locked in a seemingly eternal circle of simultanious self-glorification, self-hate and resentment. The book is built up of two parts: the first a monologue introducing the underground man and his inner struggle, and the second part are his most vivid memories before he went ‘underground’.

Although the book is by no means autobiographic, Dostoevsky does use the Underground Man as a vessel to bring forth his own political criticisms and philosopical concepts. Central in this monologue is the conflict between the roots of the Underground man in the romanticism of early 19th century writers and the rise of science and Material Realism around him. The ramblings of the underground man are a direct criticism on Utopian political works emerging at the time, most notably Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “What is to be done”. The Underground man violently rebels in his mind against the idea that human happiness can be reduced to physical circumstances. Much has been written on this element of the monologue, instead I want to focus on Underground Man’s belief that happiness itself is in conflict with human desire, and the paradoxical relation between rationality and free will that emerges from it.

The entire mind of the Underground Man as an unreliable narrator is paradoxal in nature. He is a ‘wicked, wicked man’ with both an adoration and mocking contempt for all that is ‘lofty and beautiful’. Within the ten pages he writes exposes his central contradiction: the more aware of what good and just is, the less he is able to act according to it:

“Tell me this: why does it happen that at the very, yes, at the very moments when I am most capable of feeling every refinement of all that is ‘lofty and beautiful,’ as they used to say at one time, it would, as though of design, happen to me not only to feel but to do such ugly things, such that … Well, in short, actions that all, perhaps, commit; but which, as though purposely, occurred to me at the very time when I was most conscious that they ought not to be committed. The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was ‘lofty and beautiful,’ the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether.”

He goes on to describe his hypothetical reaction to getting slapped as an infinite vicious cycle of shame for not responding and guilt for simeltaneously still fantasizing about revenge. A man with consciousness, he asserts, could just as well be a mouse as a bull, because he can spend his entire life reflecting on an event without ever taking action. How much better would man be, he ponders, if he was more stupid, like a bull running into an inmovable wall till he crumbles up.

He then realizes that a man with conciousness can do this, and that in fact, he is doing this very thing: running pointlessly against a wall. This wall is his metaphor for the reality presented by modern science. The reality now unearthed is a wall to him, something that is impossible to deny based on rational thought. Underground Man argues that such truths impose on human nature, and in his most clear attack on Material Realism he argues that even if we found out exactly what man’s place in the universe is, and even if we knew exactly how to act and achieve perfect happiness we would still destroy it:

Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself — as though that were so necessary — that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point.

To make his point even more explicit he follows up with:

“Good heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two make four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!”

And thus the paradox emerges: Man’s ability to reason, which was bestowed on him by consciousness, is what drives him to be irrational. Because what is the value of free will if we reduce life to a simple equation. Even if we could reduce happiness to a formula, even if we knew what set of actions would lead to happiness as certain as we knew that two plus two is four, we would not do it, because it would no longer be a choice. If we simply do the most rational, most just thing in every situation, we are nothing but cogs in a machine, utterly predictable.

The Underground man goes on to describe another, more subtle but more important form of pleasure than happiness:

“I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too. 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.”

The origin of this love of suffering, he argues, lies in man’s fondness with consciousness and the romantic free will that comes with it. Allthough “consciousness is the origin of suffering and suffering is the origin of consciousness” (clearly alluding to Genesis, where the fruit from the tree of knowledge led man to self-awareness), it is the only thing that places him above animals, and the only thing that gives meaning:

“Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction. Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice two makes four. Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, 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.”

Misery, to the underground man, is a form of rebellion. He uses his ability to reason to act unreasonable, because his freedom to make choices is no freedom at all to him if it makes his life nothing but a formula. He seems to believe his conscious movement into deeper and deeper misery as both a rejection of natural law and reason and a logical result of human nature simeltaneously. Even his irrationality is therefor rational, and it is this prison of thought he rages against, because he knows he cannot get out of it. No matter what he does and no matter how much he glorifies and despises it, his consciousness and freedom of will can never escape from the formula of reality. He might just as well be happy, but he won’t, because the struggle means too much to him, even though he realizes it is a vicious cycle.

This would all be horribly depressing if there was not at least some allusion to a solution. Like all works by Dostoevsky, the characters and events are depressing and grim, but the totality of the work doesn’t just provide a darkly humorous outlook on life, but also a hint towards an option for redemption.

Unfortunately, like with many of his works, large parts were scrapped by publishers and the original texts are nowhere to be found. Dostoevsky was particulary enraged about the scrappings in ‘Notes from Underground’ because publishers had no problems depicting prostitution and the painful, dark monologues of the protagonists, but erased the conclusion that faith was necessary to overcome the miserable prison of rational thought it’s protaganist was in. While the general public was deeply religious in Russia at the time (something that Dostoevsky, just like Tolstoy, deeply admired and saw as a necessity to deal with the hardship of life) but both the intellectual elites and the higher royal classess here entranced by newly emerging philosophy and rejected the beliefs of the massess.

Despite this, a form of redemption does present itself in the form of the character Lisa, a young girl sold into prostitution. We meet her in the second part of the book where, after Underground Man invites himself to a party held for an old classmate that he detests (where he makes a fool of himself and drowns in both feelings of superiority and shame), ends up sleeping with her in a whorehouse. When he wakes up, he sees in her an empty canvas that he can paint his vision of all that is lofty and beautiful on. In a long conversation where she barely speaks, he paints her a hell and a heaven. First he describes her downfall, and degredation if she stays in the whorehouse: how she will never pay off her debt, slowly loses value and descends to worse and worse places, till she dies alone after a long life of suffering and abuse. After he realises he has completely broken and destroyed her, and she is left shuddering and crying, he tries to comfort her. He asks if anyone loves her, and when she shows him a letter from a young man, the Underground Man pities her naivity, but still paints a picture of the alternative: the simple life with a husband and child that brings such real happiness, no matter how simple. When she respond simply with “But… That sounds like something out of a book” (exemplifying how the Underground Man’s visions don’t confirm with reality), he is slightly offended but still sees the opportunity to finally be appreciated for how beautiful his mind is, and invites her to his home.

The underground man waits for her multiple days, both anxious for her showing up and not showing up. When she finally arrives, he destroys her completely in a vile and mean monologue that echos his paradoxical visions. Lisa can’t follow his arguments, but she does seem to understand him in a way that he doesn’t, and comforts him even while he keeps villifying her. After he kicks her out of his house, and pays her for her time in a final attempt to humiliate her and shame himself, he tries to run after her, but can’t find her, and the novel ends.

While at first I had great trouble understanding the ending and finding nothing but despair, I was lucky to have just started reading Kierkegaard’s ‘Fear and Trembling’ and the ‘Concept of Fear’ as assigned by a course on Anthroplogical Philosophy, and I suddenly felt how Lisa’s character signified a chance for redemption. Dostoevsky somehow managed to let her naivity shine through as something noble and pure, even through the toxic rambling from the perspective of the Underground Man, and it seemed to almost completely reflect the leap of faith as described by Kierkegaard in ‘ Fear and Trembling’. She is fully aware of the hopelessness of her situation and of the reality of the Hell the Underground Man painted for her, yet could still find joy and beauty in his Heaven. In this act she completely embodies both Kierkegaard’s definitions of belief and redemption.

According to Kierkegaard, belief is to know rationally that something cannot be, and to completely resignate to this suffering, while simultaniously believing that the alternative can happen. It is the most noble and impossible act, and it cannot be understood.

Lisa also embodies redemption in Kierkegaardian terms. 
In ‘The concept of Anxiety’ Kierkegaard describes anxiety as a prerequisite of Sin: while Adam and Eve had no knowledge of good or evil before tasting the tree of knowledge, they were still afraid of it, because God told them it was not allowed. Even without the concept of right and wrong, the fact that it was prohibited already meant that it was a choice, and this choice is the origin of fear. Therefor, fear is both an origin and a result of freedom of choice. It is this fear that can drive us to sin (because if we did not have the fear their would not be the choice), but it is also the source of redemption: it enables us to be truly self-aware and make the right choices based on more than just rational thought.

The Underground Man knows shame and guilt, pain and jeaulousy. But he does not know fear, while Lisa trembles. Hell and Heaven are nothing but phrases to rationalize around and to kill time for the Underground Man, while they are nearly tangible for Lisa.

The underground man’s ability to reason couldn’t grasp her belief and mistook it for stupidity, and it couldn’t see her fear as anything but paralysing. This is the origin of his suffering and the flaw that keeps him in his vicious cycle: he is unable to believe. That is why he was unable to recognize Lisa as redemption. When he first met her he was able to finally craft his world of ‘lofty as beautiful’, because her belief was strong enough for him to believe and bridge reason as well, but when he started to analyse and rationalize her, she became nothing but a fool to him. He sees her as lacking consciousness, and thinks that she does not understand the darkness of her fate, while in fact she does, and manages to believe in spite of it.

The Underground Man rejects reality and runs from fear and thus becomes enslaved to it, while fully Lisa embraces it and manages to rise above it.