Fedor Dostoyevsky:
The Irrational Man

Valeria Sokolova

Even a toothache can become an enjoyment for one, although it might make no sense – attention here! – rational sense.

“The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was ‘sublime and beautiful’, the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether.”

What is it about? Whose and what kind of mire? It is the mire that we want to discover in this article, and for this purpose we will get acquainted with the narrative of Fedor Dostoevsky Notes from the Underground. The masterpiece that among certain philosophers and critics has become the first psychological work of fiction and stood by the origins of existentialism. Despite the fact that in his time Dostoyevsky was not perceived by his contemporaries as a philosopher simply because he had never received any specific philosophical education, neither had he designed nor given shape to his own philosophical system in relation to the formal approach of the German notion of philosophy, his contribution in psychology and philosophy was enormous. Dostoevsky is the master of people’s psychological portraits, that is: he adroitly and accurately shaped his figures, skilfully reached the depths of human souls and on that level delved into the most undercover and obfuscated corners of human existential nature. In the letter to his brother, Michael, from 16th August 1839 he wrote: “A human being is a mystery. This mystery must be unravelled, and if it takes you the entire life to unravel it, you ought not to say, you have wasted time; I am studying it, for I want to be a human.” To put in other words: the matter of human existentia and its unlimited manifestations in this world were Dostoevsky’s main concerns and interests. He strived to unveil and extract from the unknown the most complex dimensions of human ontological essence. One of those is the dimension of ‘underground’ – that very mire – that we will approach further on. 

The definition of underground presented by Dostoyevsky in the narrative is ambiguous. Its origins is taken from Alexander Pushkin’s drama The Covetous Knight, where a young knight Albert, deprived of his father’s financial support, says these words: “..let him force my father to keep me as befits a man, and not a mouse that gnaws at breadcrumbs in a cellar”. Here, the word ‘cellar’ in Russian means подполье, which is literally translated as ‘underground’. 


It is no coincidence that the protagonist of Notes from the Underground, an unnamed retired civil servant, calls himself an “acutely conscious mouse”, which is again a reference to the mouse from The Covetous Knight. In its primary meaning ‘underground’ denotes the image of being physically isolated from the rest of the world, e.g. simply any mouse living in a cellar. Its second meaning builds up as we get to know the main character from his own meditations about himself, where he appears before the reader as a conscious mouse in the underground that becomes a metaphor for the subconscious world of a person. However, these two definitions got so entwined with each other, his inner subconscious isolation directly depended on his physical isolation from others. He thinks of the world as something completely different from himself; as if he and the world consisted of absolutely dissimilar substances. That is what he declares as one of his main issues: there was no one like me and I was unlike anyone else. ‘I am alone and they are EVERYONE’”, in which he opposes himself to each and every human being on this Earth, thus plunging into his individual and so-different-from-others in his opinion world, his underground. 


This is the point where Dostoyevsky confronts the recently appeared and swiftly developing philosophical theory of rational egoism or rational selfishness. Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to be done? gave rise to this contemporary philosophical school. The essence of this teaching lies in a certain manner of behaviour, where one sets up priorities of their own interests over the interests of any other individual or social interests. Apparently the word ‘rational’ appeared in the title for the reason that without it one would be considered simply as impudent and indifferent. Thus, rational selfishness is a skill, according to Chernyshevsky, that allows one to live taking in account one’s field of interests but at the same time not conflicting with others. This, he thought, would become a basis for the development of socialism in future human society. 


Notes from the Underground is a two parts narrative. The first part is that the main character, for the first time after forty years of dwelling in his underground, allows himself to philosophise in a diary note style and reveals his observations about freedom, suffering and scientific discoveries to the reader. All this philosophising is given in the form of a confession that, in the second part, continues with certain examples of his encounters with ‘the others’ outside of his underground. 


And now to the next important point: Why is this narrative seen as a forerunner of existential thought in fiction? Dostoevsky was the first to place the responsibility of his characters’ lives into their own hands, in doing so he made every individual accountable for their own choices. He rebels against rationality that people use in order to describe the process of life, which, for him, ought to be irrational. That is what his unnamed protagonist tells us: “there is something that is dearer to almost every man than his greater advantages, or there is a most advantageous advantage for the sake of which a man if necessary is ready to act in opposition to all laws; that is in opposition to reason, honour, peace, prosperity.
Later on in the narrative this something is named an “independent choice” that in turn is the opposite of rationality. The rational is to be seen as something that is important for survival, e.g. the laws of nature. Dostoyevsky disagrees that all human existentia is bound by science and argues that a human being is not a piano-key, which motion can be entirely described by science, thereby refusing to shift the free will of a human simply to a scientific approach. From this follows that rationality contradicts the notion of freedom of choice, the absence of which deprives a human from being human. The question of survival, for Dostoevsky, is not related to the field of rationality and logic, on the contrary, irrationality and illogicality constitute the sense of absolute freedom that a human possesses: freedom to choose, the way to act in accordance with their desires and instincts. Even a toothache can become an enjoyment for one, although it might make no sense – attention here! – rational sense. 


This was the freedom – responsibility for making choices – that the existentialists like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre would be proclaiming during the 19th and 20th centuries. The rejection to let the individual be led solely by the ratio was an attempt to demonstrate the uniqueness and diversity of each person that has ever existed in this world. The reduction of human free will to the formula “twice two makes four” demolishes the notion of personhood as such, turns us into machines that work under the laws of nature: physics and mathematics. Here it became important that “twice two could also make five”. For the same reason Dostoevsky denies the notion of determinism, for he believes in the impossibility to predict or determine future because of that purely free nature of human behaviour. 


This was, indeed, a tremendous discovery of the 19th century. It gave so much free rein to humans to think of themselves as free creatures making a difference in this world. Today, it has not slowed down even by a second. The modern individual is still longing to demonstrate his or her so-different-from-others-difference and illogicality. Except for this significant distinction: now the individual is out of the underground and not hiding in their subconsciousness at all; the underground has come out with all its carefully accumulated treasures. Their individuality is shining so bright that its piercing light is blinding not only the others around them, but themselves first, thus removing the others out of sight. I would like to interrupt my thought here with one of the final cues of the last chapter, which our unnamed character closed his confession with: “Is the world to go to pot, or am I to go without my tea? I say that the world may go to pot for me so long as I always get my tea”.  

[3] Fedor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground. 1996, eBook. Translated by Constance Garnett. p. 7

[4] Ivi, p. 16

[5] Ivi, p. 16

[6] Ivi, p. 18

[7] Ivi, p. 10

[8] Ivi, p. 24

[9] Ivi, p. 92

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