An Introduction to Dostoyevsky: Notes from the Underground

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The Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, who was born in Moscow in 1821 and died of epilepsy 1881. We will tackle on his philosophy and theology from one of his most famous works, and some of the influences of his life. Tackling on the latter, we shall address the practices and beliefs of his religion, wherein he was the son of a doctor and his devout wife who both raised him in the learning of Russian Orthodoxy. He actively participated in the church for the first twenty-four years of his life, until 1845 where he drifted from Orthodox practices and became involved with a group of rebels called the Petrashevsky Circle which got him arrested to be executed by a firing squad until the reprieve at the last moment. During the time of his imprisonment in a labor camp and his five years of service in Siberia, he was able to recover his Orthodox devotion by reading the New Testament. He was married in 1857 to Marya Isaeva until she died in 1864. Although he did not attend Mass regularly from 1845 until the year after his wife died, he continued his devotion to Christ, until the year 1867 when he married Anna Grigorevna Snitkina who was able to bring back the order and practice of the Orthodox faith fully into his life.

Dostoyevsky was probably most famous for his novels such as his works Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. However, it was his short work, Notes from the Underground, which was first published in 1864, that was to have a particularly significant impact on later existentialist philosophy and is considered to be an outstanding existential work in its own right. Existentialism is a philosophical movement concerned with the humanity of the individual which can be seen through an individual trying to comprehend his own being in a universe that cannot be comprehended since this philosophy pulls away from logical existence and strives to attain understanding through comprehending what it means to exist in the universe. Existentialist thinkers seek to define the individual and to find his independent existence. In simpler terms, it is basically formed around the idea that first, a person is existing in the universe, and therefore, they must seek to define who they are in order to truly appreciate the nature of life and humanity. The philosophy is more concerned with “being” rather than just simply “existing.” The philosophical movement revolves around the proposition that the individual is fully responsibility for creating the meaning of his life. Only the individual dictates his existence, and so takes responsibility for his actions. This can cause anguish and foreboding, which eventually leads the individual to the discovery of the true nature of his essence. The building blocks for Notes from Underground come from these fundamental truths of existentialism.

Notes from the Underground is a short novel written in 1864 that attacks scientific determinism and rationalistic utilitarianism as it encompasses the life and thoughts of a lonely, vindictive, sickly man, the narrator of the story who is referred to as “the underground man,” who apparently, is ranting into a journal. The rants we read are brutally honest and strongly independent seeing as how he is an estranged youth who feels bound to conform to the patterns brought by the economic and social forces of his urban society which are taught to be scientifically unalterable and obligatory. Dostoevsky skillfully illustrates through this book a fundamental paradox that is faced by all of humanity as it illustrates the existentialist thought through the existence of an individual, who in the midst of his infinite failures struggles to exist, and to define himself by defining the universe and how to belong to it. Jean-Paul Sarte wrote in his work, a provocative philosophical analysis entitled “Existentialism and Human Emotions” that “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and defines himself afterwards.” The anti-hero of Dostoevsky is doing just that, struggling to develop an understanding of the nature of his being, and the nature of the universe around him. The book shows his journal entries which illustrate his depression and disparity. He, a cardinal symbol of existentialist philosophy, is lonely, and isolated and the only hope to truly understand his own presence in the universe is through introspection. In one of the most famous passages of the novel, he states “I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man” which immediately sets the tone for self-deprecating thought wherein he insists on painting himself as petty, angry, and hateful. The underground man affirms his rebellion by jolting into people on the street and by pointlessly snubbing mathematical. He denies the forces of Enlightenment rationalism as he affirms how human dignity should have free choices, even if it may be irrational. This power of free choice is to be the most important human property, rebelling against the utilitarian belief that one should choose what is the most advantageous for oneself, which is presented in two parts: the first, a long, ranting pronouncement of his philosophy and the second is shown through a series of encounters where the anti-herp insults others and rejects love simply to show his power to express free choice. In an excerpt from “Being and Nothingness” Sartre theorizes that in order to make the negative a part of their subjectivity, some men “establish their human personality as a perpetual negation.” The underground man does exactly that as he exists in a perpetual state of self-negation. The individual attempts to define himself in some way and concludes that he cannot, (“the consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only a fool who becomes anything.”) He is in a world he cannot define and more so, as a person he cannot understand; he is a being conscious of the nothingness of his being.

The Spectre of Socialism

Dostoevsky’s brand of existentialism would come into the limelight a few years later on in Russia. Socialism had become an appealing ideology for a lot of nations. Dostoevsky first encountered socialism when he had heard of the French revolution. He saw the need of the people for change and agreed with it. At the same time, however, he was deeply perturbed by the possibility that it could become an enemy of Christianity, which was, as we all know, a big player in his existentialism. It would take years for that possibility, to become a reality.

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Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Tsars, had proven to be an ineffective leader. What's more, the people had become weary of the extravagant lives the tsarist family and regime lived. To add insult to injury, there were growing concerns about scandals surround the Tsar's wife within the Kremlin's walls involving one Grigori Rasputin, more known as the Mad Monk. Tensions between Russia's government and citizens rose, they were not going to have any of it anymore. And so, the revolution began. The Tsar would not have any of it and was forced to let go of his position. Leaving Russia without a leader. Because of this, Russia's government underwent a radical change where it had to be divided into two parties: the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks (who are important to this story). Following this, members of the Bolshevik party seized the Tsar and his family and held them for days in a secluded house which was also where they would forever be immortalized as victims of a murder that until this day sparks controversy among historians.

Fast forward years later, the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin would overpower the Mensheviks in what would now be known as Red October. This was hugely made possible because of massive support from the people who were still starved from the former Tsar's mishandling. These people did not know the costs that would come with this support.

With the Lenin and his Bolsheviks in place, they would become major players in the propagation of Marxist ideas in Russia. Its tenets would be applied aptly into a form of government that would soon birth the USSR. Under Stalin's rule, plenty were starved, deprived of individual belongings and religion. In the entire span of Stalin's 32-year rule, unjustified blood was shed, and citizens were starved of food and right. Billions of lives were lost to an iron hand led by a utopian delusion.

In Soviet Russia, people were expected to support the government and anyone who would have anything to say against it would be punished capitally. Not only that, they were deprived of the right to private property: everything was the state's property. In the end of this, everyone was the state's property as well. The socialists' denial of private property was, to Dostoevsky, a violation of a being's individualism. As people know, the things they own or aspire to own or consume become an extension of their identity. In this uniformity, life would be grey and dull, and no sense of individualism would exist if every single being was the same.

This also branches out into socialism's denial of religion. Marx once famously quoted 'Religion is the opiate of the masses' as a call for free thinking. A justifiable reason but not without its own flaws and offense against a number of existentialists (save for Nietzsche), Dostoevsky counted. Despite the two often being tagged as enemies, Dostoevsky was one of the few who happened to make the two meet and he was not happy about it being dismissed by socialism. How furious he would have been if he had lived in the reign of the USSR. To him, religion was a major player in an individual's sense of morality, a belief shared by Kierkegaard. To have that taken away would mean a gap that should be filled, and every other source of morality was simply not enough for Dostoevsky.

In a nutshell, Dostoevsky, despite his outlook of being anti-poverty, was completely against socialism. There were just one too many things about it that did not sit well in his stomach. From the moment he had learned of its tenets, until his death, Dostoevsky remained an opposing voice to socialism. He would never agree with its lack of individual property and expression and he would most certainly never agree with its indifference towards religion in every form. Luckily, during the period that the Man of Steel (Stalin, not Superman) reigned, plenty of other Russian authors and freethinkers, such as Mikhail Bulgakov, would outwardly critique the ideology. To make all things discussed meet, my last message would be that there is truly nothing human that isn't flawed because we ourselves are flawed. Whatever ideology, belief or government it is we trust or place our mind on, there will always be a flaw to draw it back. There is no perfection in our existence, there is only being and the end.

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