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Book Notes: Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Jan 8, 2007, 11:42a - Book Notes

Here's a collection of quotes from Notes from the Underground, a short 91-page novella. The book is broken into two halves, and I found the first half (a philosophical pondering) much more interesting than the second (a plot involving school-time enemies and a prostitute).

Overall, I highly recommend this book (and you can read it for free online). It is a cynical, bitter description of life. It discusses masochism and consciousness, and takes a strong stance against the mechanization of human behavior that seems to come along with further developments in science. Economists always like to talk about how self-interest dictates human behavior. Dostoyevsky takes an interesting point of view, arguing that the most important self-interest is to act independently and unpredictably, foiling such predictive theories. This seems insightful though contrarian. Personally, I'm often amazed at the confidence with which economists and other social scientists talk about understanding human behavior, given our generally poor ability for predicting it in any but the most simplest of circumstances.

PART 1: Underground

* "But yet I am firmly persuaded that a great deal of consciousness, every sort of consciousness, in fact, is a disease." (4)

* "But upon my word I sometimes have had moments when if I had happened to be slapped in the face I should, perhaps, have been positively glad of it." (5) I actually felt this way senior year of college, when my life began to numb for some reason. I remember asking Becca to slap me, and though she refused, Roy obliged most happily. Only recently, since taking a leave of absence from Google, has the numbness started to recede a bit, through much conscious effort of reminding myself that I am alive.

* "And what is most humiliating of all, to blame for no fault of my own but, so to say, through the laws of nature." (5) Dostoyevsky talks a great deal about how his weaknesses and other actions are not *his* fault but the result of "the laws of nature", and its a strong theme in this book.

* "I should certainly never have made up my mind to do anything, even if I had been able to." (6)

* "But perhaps the nomal man should be stupid, how do you know?" (6)

* "The enjoyment of the sufferer finds expression in those moans; if he did not feel enjoyment in them he would not moan." (9) Masochism is another strong theme in this story, and Dostoyevsky believes it to be a defining characteristic of humanity.

* "Can a man of perception respect himself at all?" (10)

* "All 'direct' persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited. How explain that? I will tell you: in consequence of their limitation they take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in that way persuade themselves more quickly and easily than other people do that they have found an infallible foundation for their activity, and their minds are at ease and you know that is the chief thing. To begin to act, you know, you must first have your mind completely at ease and no trace of doubt left in it." (12) The last statement isn't technically accurate, but I empathize with the overall sentiment.

* "Oh, gentlemen, do you know, perhaps I consider myself an intelligent man, only because all my life I have been able neither to begin nor to finish anything." (12)

* "And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous." (14)

* "The fact is, gentlemen, it seems there must really exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his greatest advantages, or (not to be illogical) there is a most advantageous advantage...which is more important and more advantageous than all other advantages, 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 - in fact, in opposition to all those excellent and useful things if only he can attain that fundamental, most advantageous advantage which is dearer to him than all...That man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated...One's own free unfettered choice, one's own caprice, however wild it may be, one's own fancy worked up at times to frenzy - is that very 'most advantageous advantage' which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms...What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead." (15-18)

* "The only gain of civilisation for mankind is the greater capacity for variety of sensations - and absolutely nothing more." (16)

* "I believe the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped." (20) So true.

* "I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!" (21)

* "But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it." (23)

* "Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness." (24)

* "Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing." (24)

* "Destroy my desires, eradicate my ideals, show me something better, and I will follow you." (25)

* "But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind. The more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind." (27)

* "I write only for myself, and I wish to declare once and for all that if I write as though I were addressing readers, that is simply because it is easier for me to write in that form." (27) I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, and I like to think that I write this blog more for myself than for everyone else. It is selfish, but it feels true - pleasing others is a tiring task esp. if it's at the expense of pleasing yourself.

PART 2: A Propos of the Wet Snow

* "I have never been a coward at heart, though I have always been a coward in action." (34)

* "The point was that I had attained my object, I had kept up my dignity, I had not yielded a step, and had put myself publicly on an equal social footing with him." (38)

* "With love one can live without happiness." (64)

* "Come, try, give any one of us, for instance, a little more independence, untie our hands, widen the sphere of our activity, relax the control and we...yes, I assure you...we should be begging to be under control again at once." (91)

* "Why, we don't even know what living means now, what it is, and what it is called? Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We are oppressed at being men - men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea." (91)

Read comments (1) - Comment

Buzz - Jan 8, 2007, 12:59p
You can read it free online, but the best translation is the one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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