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Notes from Underground - Dostoevsky

Updated: Jan 5, 2020

Russian authors are the easiest way to flex a little pseudo intellectual muscle. A Russian name has gravitas for the average Westerner, they sound heavy, they’re difficult to pronounce and spell, immediately knocking you off your pedestal.

Ego’s aside, they really know how to write, Russia picked up where Greece left off in terms of modern thinking, walk passed the strings of consonants into a world of character study and get to know the Self (with a big S).

'Notes from Underground,' like much of Dostoevsky’s work, is a study of character. An exploration of neuroses, a passage into the psyche, exploring dark and dusty chambers, it would be a pitiful cliché to say that Dostoevsky’s ‘characters come to life’ rather life is gifted them, they are not flat, they have dimensions, they are observations of living people let loose on a page, stretched to their limits.

In his final work ‘The brothers Karamazov,’ often considered his most profoundly philosophical, Dostoevsky gives the brothers and their father conflicting outlooks on the world. Often he would make a character that he personally disagreed with the most powerful, in an effort to push the ideology as far as possible, to explore the depths of opposing ideas, this is certainly true in ‘The brothers Karamazov’ where theism, atheism, morality and intellect are scrutinised.

‘Notes from Underground’ presents a first person diary-style narrative, or rather defence, of one unnamed character. He is a bitter, isolated person, having lived ‘40 years underground’ he explains in metaphorical terms, he is a rat, a subhuman lowlife, but he feels. What he feels is generally envy, jealousy, spite, hate for his fellow man and their successes, a sneering disgust for the weakness of others and himself. It is an exploration of the darkness that dwells within and what can happen should we indulge it, he feels self pity and it possible to share in his reasoning, before he acts upon it, doubling down, going deeper and deeper into his own darkness the reader is left uncomfortably following behind, looking back over their shoulder for a sign of light. The horrifying thing about ‘Notes from Underground’ is that it is so human, the anti-hero is flawed and desperate, his constant apologising and self-deprecation remind us of this fact, but his actions so full of loathing and later absolute disdain for being, as he tortures the weakest character he can get his wretched hands on, force the reader to feel disgust and pity simultaneously. It holds a mirror to humanity, there are vital questions, some of them asked and even answered by the narrator himself, but whether he has learnt anything from them is to be seen in his continued actions.

‘Notes from Underground’ is a startling warning of what can happen when we do nothing, when we are static as the world moves around us and allow our souls to dwell underground, surviving on scraps discarded by others, a self-imposed, miserable existence. For just how dark and depressing that may sound, there is a lightness in this narrative, we are superior by virtue of being the reader, although he may demonstrate traits and ideas we have thought about or even acted upon, with hope we can never be as pitiful as this underground rat. To live underground is to go blind, to live underground is to become one with the darkness.

Can be enjoyed with tea or straight vodka.

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