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Mina W.

Wardakhan 110023488 HU51001 Applying Critical and Cultural Theory SEM 1 11/12

Fyodor Dostoevskys Notes From The Underground; A Reading in light of Marxist and Psychoanalytic theories

The will to power gives the impetus to mount, and pitiful indeed is the timid man who does not dare to use it. False humility keeps his soul enslaved, taking a morbid satisfaction in his wretchedness. This is the putrid virtue of mediocrity.1 Isha Schwaller De Lubicz, The Opening of the Way.

Dostoevskys Notes from the Underground is well know in literary circles and amongst its readers and fans to be a multi-faceted well knit novella that brings together philosophical, psychological, sociological, and political themes. Whole books can be written around it, whether in interpretation, appraisal, elucidation, or as a launch pad for new novels and philosophies. In this essay we look at certain parts of the novel in light of Marxs theories and ideas, and others we look at with respect to psychoanalytic theory. Karl Heinrich Marx and Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky were born and lived roughly in the same era and for nearly the same

From the start of chapter 14 entitled The Pendulum

number of years. While Marx is categorized, among other things, as a philosopher, Dostoevsky is in the category of a novelist. Truths within each exist but are expressed differently; here as ideology, political, or social theory and commentary, and there as a fragmented narrative forming a short novel. In 1864 Dostoevskys novella Notes from the Underground2 was published. While Marxist philosophy can be applied to the whole novel, focusing on certain areas of the text in light of Marxs writings, and writings in relation to him, will show how it elucidates the novel. In isolation the novel is more than capable of standing alone, as it does, but Marxist theory and the person of Karl Marx are undeniably at the foreground of critiquing it. Common interpretations of Notes from the Underground show the characterization of the underground man (thereafter referred to in this essay as UGM) as a spiteful man, based on his own testimony of himself, as a bored, oppressed member of a society, which for the most part ignores him, and he feels alienated. The UGM is always focusing on the darker side of things, on spite, remorse, abusive moaning, filth, being trapped; in short, the effects, emotions and affectations he is complaining about and those which bother him most find him stuck amidst all of them with no way out and no alternatives. This is simply his human condition, which he is at times acutely aware of and which he revolts against, and at others just floats on amidst it all, half conscious or in the grip of insomnia. He is continually banging against an immaterial wall, a restless soul. But his restlessness is not like that of a heros, or a rebel, or revolutionary like Karl Marx, but more like that of a mouse, hiding and wallowing in apprehension. The UGM is writing these notes, according to the author, to

The version of Notes from the Underground used throughout this essay is made available by Project Gutenberg. In text citations are followed by the page number as paginated in the version available here,

explain his situation as well as in order to state, I am, I exist acknowledge me. Seen from another perspective it is also a cry for help, and acceptance as such. The novel is dubbed an Existentialist novel, the traditions first according to many scholars, such as JeanPaul Sartre. The protagonists experience of philosophy, or even being over-philosophical, is a result of repression. As he puts it, a result of 40 years underground! (Dostevskyi 19). Marxist ideas are apparent throughout, including alienation, class struggle, and, although Marx does not actually mention it using the same terms3, false consciousness. The UGM is evidently, and in accordance with his own view of himself, an educated man with a clear idea of what is going on around him with respect to his immediate circle of contacts as well as in the rest of the world. Evidence of this is found in his awareness of overseas issues such as the SchleswigHolstein question occurring in Denmark. He also makes many remarks with regards to progress and European civilization, besides his love for all which is sublime and beautiful (Dostoevskii 10, 14). The UGM talks about the pain, hurt, contempt, and endless spite of a mouse. He mentions the example of a man with a toothache whose moans of pain are humiliating to him and to others, besides being intentionally abusive and spiteful. This might be best interpreted as his revenge, if only symbolic, on his societal sphere and, through the novel, on the world at large. The UGM is neither a man with a toothache nor is he a mouse, yet he includes these as analogies with which he corresponds, without an immediate relation. From one perspective they all share a false consciousness, as well as an experience of frustration and alienation.

See Joseph McCarneys article Ideology and False Consciousness. Available online,

The UGM describes a category of Man he calls the man of action, also calling such a man the normal man. He envies the latters position in society and his course of life, and while wishing he could be one, he continues to identify with the mouse and the moaning man and suffers thereof. He contrasts men of action to what he calls the man of acute consciousness, and it seems that he puts himself in the same basket as the latter. The man of acute consciousness looks on himself as a mouse; no one asks him to do so4 He is afflicted by nature itself, which the UGM finds to be rather insulting, and compares the laws of nature to a wall of stone. Unlike Marxs views5 on making use of nature such as raw material, natural forces, clearing as workspaceetc this mouse adds to its predicament, its already unfavorable state as a mouse in the world, and the luckless mouse succeeds in creating around it so many other nastinesss in the form of doubts and questions, adds to the one question so many unsettled questions that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew, a stinking mess, made up of its doubts, emotions, and of the contempt spat upon it by the direct men of action who stand solemnly about it as judges and arbitrators, laughing at it till their healthy sides ache. (Dostoevskyi 7). In short the mouse is the UGMs prime example of obsession and yearning and he uses it as an allegory of his own situation. The only way out for the mouse, also known as the man of acute consciousness, is through rebirth, if such a concept actually exists and goes beyond the realm of hope and motivation.

See Not to Be a Man Anymore, On The Heights of Despair, E.M. Cioran. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago & London, 1992, Pp 68.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, in Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek, Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, pp 69-71

While the similarities go deep between the UGM and the mouse, differences are present too. Marx points out, men themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation.6 This quote also shows why the UGM mentioned certain facts about his life such as that he was a Collegiate Assessor, and that he did that job only so that he, might have something to eat (and solely for that reason), quitting once he got a sum of money from a relative (Dostoyevskyi 4). He doesnt try to convince himself or us that he had a passion for his work or that he did it from a desire to serve and help people. The mouse continues to wallow while the man with a toothache moans not only as a man suffering from physical pain, but as a man affected by progress and European civilization (Dostoyevskyi 10). It is all moaning albeit of different causes and his false consciousness lies in the fact that he does not seek to solve his toothache, but, like the mouse, piles sorrow upon sorrow while pervertedly enjoying the moaning that ensues. What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply INDEPENDENT choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice. (18) Marx recognizes this and he says, But worth can be assured only by a profession in which we are not servile tools, but in which we act independently in our own sphere.7 This can be extended to other

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 'Capitalism and the Modern Labour Process', in Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek, Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, pp 66-71

Reflections of a Young Man on The Choice of a Profession. Karl Marx. Available on

aspects of life, not only with regards profession. The UGM however would still be insulted, and in contempt even if he were to experience some freedom of choice. His philosophical views demand that one has total freedom of choice whatever the circumstances, which is echoed in discordianism, anarchy, and other similar attempts at becoming the chaos one finds so unbearable.

Perhaps Engels would sympathise with the UGM whose hope in recognition, and in being seen in his right place lies not in the course of his life but he is offered this all the more so by being the protagonist of a novella which has survived to this day in the course of history. Quoting Engels from a letter to Franz Mehring, history will set all this right in the end and by that time one will be safely round the corner and know nothing more about anything. (2) The UGM, however, makes even this possible lifeline more inaccessible by seeing himself not as an undefined member, nor one who is misplaced, but as a spiteful, diseased, sick man who wont even go to see a doctor. Lets take a look at Marx now, bones in a coffin six feet under; himself a man underground regardless of his philosophy that lives on. While living he was of better disposition than the UGM, being born into an upper middle class family and later on had the help of Engels with regards expenses. Erich Fromm wrote, Marx was the productive, nonalienated, independent man whom his writings visualized as the man of a new society.8 This is quite in contrast with the life of the UGM. However, after his death Marxs thought and personality have been severely misinterpreted as attested to by Fromm among others. Perhaps he is like the UGM, glad to be resting in peace underground

from Erich Fromm 1961 Marx, the Man. Also available through

away from the affectations of interpretation. Of course, the amount of peace is incomparable! The UGM s attitude is indicative of an awareness of false consciousness. In fact he is so aware of false consciousness and insists on standing his ground, his beloved-but-stinking corner of a room in a city he is advised not to live in on an economical basis, since he does not have sufficient income to support it. His awareness of such false consciousness is on the basis that while he may be living a mess of a life this is no justification for someone else to go around poking their nose in it, such as might be interpreted if someone were to present the UGM with some of Marxs writing. In the latter case he might throw the book away or even go so far as to critique it, as for the case with the effects of progress and the European civilization, the vagueness is more than he can handle and it pains him, constituting part of the stone wall he is faced with. The mouse whose will it is to eat, to mate and overall to survive would rather find some sustenance amidst a pile of rubbish and filth than consume a morsel of tasty nutritious cheese that would land him in a cage and condemn him to death, physical for the mouse, but metaphorical for the UGM. Marx writes, In direct contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, or imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men and on the basis of their real life process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process.9 One must remember that the UGM is a quasi-real character, one that is inspired

Karl Marx, Critique of Hegels Philosophy in General. Available with a large selection of other Marxist and Marx related texts on

by reality as it is to the author but one who is, nonetheless, imaginary. The approaches of Marx and Dostoevsky are very different in this regard. It will take more than this to budge the UGM, to change him without rocking his boat, which is, as a result of his acute consciousness, quite difficult. As for acute consciousness, opium mightve helped, or religion, both of which the UGM has no interest in, at least none which is mentioned explicitly in the Notes. He does, however have interest in the sublime and the beautiful, which can be used in effect as opium or religion. Looking at his isolation, stubborness and illness, the sublime and beautiful such as is found in art must have offered a doorway of change such that he is better suited to the changing times. Then again, that is why the underground man prefers the underground, where he is shielded to a greater extent from influences he would rather not be subject to. This reveals that the undergound mans lifestyle is itself a critique of Marxism, and in avoidance to it as far as this is possible. While Marx begins from the earth upwards the underground man avoids him; firstly by staying underground, and also by separating himself from men of action. In some instants the UGM is on the other side of the spectrum to Marxs Philosophy, in others he is contained within, described by and resonates with them, in others yet he may have in it hope of upward movement. But, and as he expresses in the second part, toward the end of the notes, while sitting with Lisa, he prefers a poor but honorable life thus dispelling any shadows of false consciousness that the UGM might have otherwise been accused of. As for his meeting with Liza, it might be seen as the climax of his failures and a precursor to the feelings he recounts in the first part.

He is only twenty four in this part and this is where he is first put up against a wall, of nothing or even worse, himself. Moving on from Marxism, a reading in light of Freudian terms10 will serve to elucidate this final part. Being aware of the danger of psychoanalytic criticism, Peter Brooks writes, The reference to psychoanalysis has traditionally been used to close rather than open an argument, and the text.11 And this with regards Notes from the Ungerground is quite useful since the text is open, too open, giving way for imaginings that are far removed it. While the readers imagination surely complements the text and enriches the reading experience12, a text as open to interpretation as this can be misleading, and in my experience often has been. Neither the text nor the theory have limits, and remain open so long as an active imagination, as is I daresay found in readers of a text such as this, exists. Replacing the readers imagination with a theory keeps things bound. With respect to Notes from the Underground this gives the reader an experience of being the protagonist, not permitted even his imagination amidst the wealth of readily available interpretations. The UGM writes about his meetings with his friends, and how he left angry and insulted at the manner by which they treated and dealt with him. He drives off in a horse-driven coach raving and ranting, imagining various scenarios for avenging himself. He writes,


the definitions of Freud I used here are the ones available on Dr. C. George Boerees website Dr. Boeree is a former professor of Psychology.

Peter Brooks, Psychoanalysis and Storytelling (Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994 )

More on this can be found in Milan Kunderas Art of the Novel.

Cold shivers suddenly ran down me. Wouldn't it be better ... to go straight home? My God, my God! Why did I invite myself to this dinner yesterday? But no, it's impossible. And my walking up and down for three hours from the table to the stove? No, they, they and no one else must pay for my walking up and down! They must wipe out this dishonour! Drive on! And what if they give me into custody? They won't dare! They'll be afraid of the scandal. And what if Zverkov is so contemptuous that he refuses to fight a duel? He is sure to; but in that case I'll show them ... I will turn up at the posting station when he's setting off tomorrow, I'll catch him by the leg, I'll pull off his coat when he gets into the carriage. I'll get my teeth into his hand, I'll bite him. "See what lengths you can drive a desperate man to!" He may hit me on the head and they may belabour me from behind. I will shout to the assembled multitude: "Look at this young puppy who is driving off to captivate the Circassian girls after letting me spit in his face!" Of course, after that everything will be over! The office will have vanished off the face of the earth. I shall be arrested, I shall be tried, I shall be dismissed from the service, thrown in prison, sent to Siberia. Never mind! In fifteen years when they let me out of prison I will trudge off to him, a beggar, in rags. I shall find him in some provincial town. He will be married and happy. He will have a grown-up daughter.... I shall say to him: "Look, monster, at my hollow cheeks and my rags! I've lost everything--my career, my happiness, art, science, THE WOMAN I LOVED, and all through you. Here are pistols. I have come to discharge my pistol and ... and I ... forgive you. Then I shall fire into the air and he will hear nothing more of me.... but when he arrives none of them are there and he lies on a sofa in a semi-dream state. In two hours time he awakens, recollects himself, and notices a girl next to him. He learns her name is Lisa and when she asks him how long he has been in the house, he replies, two weeks.

The conversation that ensues sees him as a father figure advising a girl gone astray, trying to show her that is is simply better for her to seek a different course of life than to continue with her current one. Instead of satisfying a sexual desire as is usual with a pay-girl, the man uses his energy and time in a long conversation during which he pours out advice as well as making suggestions that she adopt a life more widely accepted in society such as family, bringing up children, etc. What once appeared to her as phantoms, whispers of conscience, pangs of guilt, are there given voice and form in the character of the young UGM to be; a young man who ignores his sexual drive and focuses only on emotional and mental matters. He fails to satisfy his urge again in their second meeting, when she visits him in his mangy home, confiriming that he is experiencing a loss of libido which may well account for the irritability, and even hysteria, he exhibits while she is visiting him. The father figure breaks into hysterical sobs, and anger at his servant. Just as his advice from the session before might have come into fruition as she said, I want to... get away ... from there altogether," (referring to the brothel), he escaped, claiming he was taunting her all along and didnt mean a word he said. That she was a subject of entertainment to him, an opportunity to vent and little more. I had been treated like a rag, so I wanted to show my power..., he said. (Dostoyevskyi 84) Thus even his emotional and mental erections subside with no consumation or fruit of labour. If he is to be praised for anything at this stage of his life that would be his honesty, and unpretentiousness especially as he says, And do you know what has worried me particularly for these three days? That I posed as such a hero to you, and now you would see me in a wretched torn dressinggown, beggarly, loathsome. (Dostoyevskyi

85) An honesty she admired and saw a genuineness in, which touched her and in turn affected him and a new bond is discovered between them, She understood from all this what a woman understands first of all, if she feels genuine love, that is, that I was myself unhappy. He broke down after this and in another outbreak of hysteria found himself sobbing, face thrust in a pillow. The tables turned and she played mother to this wounded sobbing, wretched child twenty-four years old13. The narrative ends here, but the story goes on as it always does. Liza walks out, refuses the money he gave her as payment, and he goes on theorising, proposing what ifs and conjectures of possible worlds, which may sound like a false consciousness to us, but it isnt to him. I agree with the author that the protagonist of the novel surely exists14, though it is impossible to find an exact rendering of him. Whether through eyes tinted by Marxism, psychoanalysis, or other theories, surely everyone has in their experience seen aspects of the UGM, either in their own selves or in others. The limits of Marxist theory lie mainly in that the UGMs work and lifestyle are not within the category of labour, which appears to be the main focus of Marxs concerns. Other limitations are due to that Marxism is down to earth unlike the UGM (himself an imagination and one that produces further imaginings, and does not include in its analysis space for comparisons with a mouse.


The third phase of the pendulum is, mystically speaking, the compensation for the proud effort of power, namely absence of will, which means acceptance, not of impotence but of the vital law of alternation. From The Opening of the Way by Isha Schwaller De Lubicz pg. 56. 14 He says that in the authors note at the beginning of the novel.

As for the limits of psychoanalytic criticism, these are such that if the analysis were to go deeper it would constrain the novel and the reader in such a way as to make it seem shallow, and boring ridding the reader from a chance at a personal connection and analysis of it. While writing this essay, I came across many resonances, such as Kierkegaards exposition of despair in The Sickness Unto Death or E.M. Ciorans essays in On The Heights of Despair that echo the UGM in style and content15, and am doubtless that many more references would have been relevant. Perhaps this is in line with the words of Speed Levitch taken from his part in the film Waking Life, We are all coauthors of this dancing exuberance... where even our inabilities are having a roast. We are the authors of ourselves, co-authoring a gigantic Dostoyevsky novel starring clowns.16 At this point, I excuse myself and beg your pardon, partly because of my human condition, and otherwise because of the restrictions of time, which, echoing the underground man, certainly do insult me, and may eventually render me not.


See especially On Being Lyrical, On Not Wanting to Live, Total Dissatisfaction, On Individual and, Cosmic Loneliness, Not to Be a Man Anymore, Irony and Self-Irony, On Poverty, Subjectivity. The Heights of Despair, E.M. Cioran The movie was directed by Richard Linklater distributed by Fox Searchlight in 2001, and the script is widely available online.