Yesterday I attended my library’s Great Books discussion. We talked about Fyodor Doestoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is a troubling book to read but a terrific book to discuss. The narrator is neurotic or possibly psychotic. He introduces himself saying:
“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. However, I don’t know beans about my disease, and I am not sure what is bothering me. I don’t treat it and never have, though I respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, let’s say sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I refuse to treat it out of spite. You probably will not understand that. Well, but I understand it. Of course I can’t explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case by my spite. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “get even” with the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t treat it, its is out of spite. My liver is bad, well then– let it get even worse!”
Part One of the story continues with this tone as the narrator, whose name we never learn, rants and raves about society. He’s a 40-something civil servant who delights in being rude to the public he’s supposed to serve. (Haven’t we seen those types in government offices and private sector customer service desks?) He has no filter and like a Russian Trump will call a spade a spade, the stupid, stupid.
In Part Two, Doestoevsky switches from a monologue to a narrative and goes back in time to when the narrator was 20. He’s (no big surprise) alienated from his peers, unhappy with the world, which fails to see how brilliant he is, and manages to misread every social situation and make problems spread and grow.
Now why would anyone want to read about such a misanthrope?
The answer’s because Doestoevsky makes us think and delights us with fine prose. He poses interesting questions:
“And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive–in other words, only what is conducive to welfare–is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact.”
His book still is relevant as it shows the shortcomings of “enlightened self-interest” or rational egoism, philosophies that aren’t quite dead, that fail to show the need for sacrifice and empathy and the limits of rationality on its own.