On the Practical Application of Nihilism in
Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground
Neither the cheap happiness nor lofty suffering of the life of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is better than the other. Lofty suffering is the cheap happiness of the masses. Each exists in each of our lives, but does not cycle, wax, nor wane; but both are ever-present and simultaneous. As members of this, our most human of species, we find no greater conflict than that of attempting to reciprocate the intimations of happiness and of suffering with the force which presents both to us. That force is termed by men Existence and is inescapable, and despite efforts at reciprocating its malignant influences of both bittersweet and cheap happiness, and too, its lofty suffering, we will forever be unable to make Existence feel the hurt itself inflicts upon us.
In his Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky wears the mask upon which is caked the cosmetic of his nameless creation’s confessions. As an admission of received revelation, the confessional structure of Notes is its mechanization. At its root, the book is not a chronicle of any journey, or progressive at all, and is the stagnation of Thought, levied by its own tumult. The experience of Life is merely illusory and it is but illusion which pervades any substance of plot in the Underground, and that illusion is the telling, uninhibited confession of the Underground Man. The act of confession is itself a form of motion and a motion begat of stationary mysticism embodied in revelation. One must not move to receive revelation, but must be active in confessing the change inspired by that revelation—indeed; only by confessing the revelation can one incite any change. This idea of motion, partnered with the harsh tumult of Thought, is the cornerstone upon which must be built the remedy of lofty suffering: that it is our happiness. It is the only motion rampant between the vignettes given us by the author. The only guarantee of life is that we are each slave to it; everything else is pure theory.
If the law of the matter is that lofty suffering is our cheap happiness—that the former begets the latter, and that the latter is the former—then the hypothesis which generated it is tumult of Thought. In its torrents of fitful Ideas, Thought brings each Thinker the pain of a single memory; primitive and primordial, this memory is that of Existence. “Indeed,” Dostoyevsky describes such an experience through the mouth of his nameless creation, “even while I dozed there had remained a kind of fixed point in my mind, never wholly forgotten, round which my sleepy imaginings revolved heavily” (Dostoyevsky, 85). And yes, even while we doze it is there; the notion of Existence from which springs the ills of its primary manifestation: Survival. Survival, whose own maladies are legion, taking the bitter shapes of comparison, aggravation, competition, and aggression, is the totality of Escape, which is the sum of these parts, each of which are the offspring of the carrion Desire. When we realize that we have not generated ourselves—that we are not the products of our own intent—then we recall our own doubtful guest that is our existence. To compensate for this travesty of Nature’s creation, we allow an urge to overcome us and we succumb to Desire.
If alike everyone else in that we are not our own creations, then willing ourselves to be unique in that we may be superior to others is not so bad an idea. It is not an acceptance of our condition, but rather an attempted escape from it; it perturbs us that our sole state of equality lies in our subjectivity to enslavement; manipulation from an external source which defines us. Falsely, we aspire to equalize life and make statements that we are all the same and just as unique—and what a penultimate contradiction: equality of peculiarity—but we will always look up to those who can in the least, appear to be equal with the author of life—the Creator, the Artist. A preoccupation with the observation of others around us and the obsession with which we assign importance to such perceptions is now our modern raison d’être. “Observing . . . fed the fires of my resentment, and . . . resentfully . . . [i]t was torture to me that even in the street I could not manage to be . . . equal” says the Underground Man, starting to realize it is not equality with one another that we seek, but a comparable ability (Dostoyevsky, 55).
In that street, the Underground Man could not even become an expression of himself, despite his best efforts; the street—symbolic of public spectacle—is the venue whereat man can theoretically showcase whatever symbol he wishes at the time to be; but, the nameless protagonist cannot even accomplish this, and in that failure, comes to the revelation that sparks his confessions, and permits him the only transcendental motion possible. We aspire to be able to create ourselves, in every facet. We wish to beget ourselves, design, calculate, and manufacture our personalities, and in so doing, become equal to what history has called God—essentially, the Artist who fashioned the Universe as an expression of himself. This gives rise to another spectacle in our illusory existence and is its thesis: the dualism of happiness and suffering. Industry emerges from this dualism in the form of Entertainment, among many other examples, and celebrities become to us the archetypes whom have, in our perception, come closest to the Original Artist. That we perceive some others to be able to create and express—exist as Artists—is what makes us experience pain as pleasure, and pleasure as pain. It is the tumult of Thought which leads us each to this miserable dilemma, and Existence which thrusts itself into our consciousness, as Dostoyevsky shows us through channeling his unnamed sir, saying “it does us obvious harm and contradicts . . . what is dear and extremely important to us, that is our personality and our individuality” (Dostoyevsky, 36).
Though Thought brings to us in its tumult a sordid pain, from this pain comes a revelation, and it is in the inaction caused by that pain that this revelation emerges. Inaction beckons it, but action distributes it. The only true way a revelation can be shared is through confession, and confession is it’s only practically manifestation. Now, the importance of revelation, and its extolling through confession, lies not in some overcoming of the misery of our too human condition, but in perpetuating the dualism of Existence’s pitiless vocation. Now, it is the idea of this motion and not the motion so much itself which makes cheap happiness remain at the same level as lofty suffering. The notion that a sense of gratification can be received so instantly and with no effort, such as when a revelation appears in human life of its own volition with no human action, is the dynamism of the dualism in question.
This is precisely how the force termed Existence operates; its speed is instant, unwavering, and constant. Suffering is cheap happiness. We love nothing more than to observe, and to observe especially, suffering. What we feel at such a sight we may erroneously attribute the names of pity, empathy, sympathy, shame, or embarrassment to, but ultimately, it is satisfaction—cheap happiness. A weight is lifted when lofty suffering—suffering so great it induces martyrs to be made, saints to be canonized, and celebrities to be idolized, mechanical lovers to be remembered, and the likes of other painful trivialities—is presented before us. This delusion can be said to be an illusory escape from our own misery. We chalk it up sheepishly to relation or equal feeling, but we are equal only in that we can not any of us control our lives.
I was of course the greatest sufferer myself, because I was fully conscious of the sickening baseness . . . [e]ven my heart ached with pity for her clumsiness and needless honesty. But something inside me instantly choked all pity, and even egged me on still further” (Dostoyevsky, 114).
The Underground Man, not only because of the revelation he has received as to the nature of Existence, but exemplifying the motion with which the above-quoted confession flows, comes to derive a cheap happiness from the lofty suffering of the prostitute which features in one of the last episodes of the book. Simultaneously, the Underground Man confesses, he is both horrified—suffering—on account of making the prostitute miserable, as well as cheaply thrilled by the power he is finally exerting over another human being. It is a power comparable to that of the Original Artist—the ability to create, to stir to a manipulated sense you calculated of your own accord. The Underground Man sought to upset the prostitute and stir her to lofty suffering, and in so doing, experienced cheap happiness, as well as his own lofty suffering. It can not be reciprocated with Existence, but only with one another; only suffering and happiness are reciprocal in life. Canceling each other out in severity and influence, happiness and suffering are neither better nor worse than one another, but the very dualism—the bittersweet amalgam—which glues Existence to its foundation, and the human soul to the experience of its life. As Dostoyevsky expressed, it is an empty question, but one the contemplation of which always leaves the Thinker feeling even emptier than when he began.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Notes from underground. Trans. Jessie Coulson. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2003.