Notes from Aboveground

A great rant by a wicked man:

“...to tell long stories of how I defaulted on my life through moral corruption in a corner, through an insufficiency of milieu, through unaccustom to what is alive, and through vainglorious spite in the underground - is not interesting, by God; a novel needs a hero, and here there are purposely collected all the features for an anti-hero, and, in the first place, all this will produce a most unpleasant impression, because we've all grown unaccustomed to life, we're all lame, each of us more or less. We've even grown so unaccustomed that at times we feel a sort of loathing for real "living life," and therefore cannot bear to be reminded of it. For we've reached a point where we regard real "living life" almost as labor, almost as service, and we all agree in ourselves that it's better from a book. And why do we sometimes fuss about, why these caprices, these demands of ours? We ourselves don't know why. It would be the worse for us if our capricious demands were fulfilled. Go on, try giving us more independence, for example, unbind the hands of any one of us, broaden our range of activity, relax the tutelage, and we... but I assure you: we will immediately beg to be taken back under tutelage. I know you'll probably get angry with me for that, shout, stamp your feet: "Speak for yourself and your miseries in the underground, and don't go saying 'we all.' Excuse me, gentlemen, but I am not justifying myself with this allishness. As far as I myself am concerned, I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway, and, what's more, you've taken your cowardice for good sense, and found comfort in thus deceiving yourselves. So that I, perhaps, come out even more "living" than you.”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground


These last ramblings of the underground man are perhaps the most disturbing of all his ramblings. Reading his notes produces feelings of disgust, contempt, pity, and finally, confusion and defensiveness. The underground man, more living than I? This man's notes are the pinnacle of egoism and selfishness. How could this man, who withers away underground in thoughts of spite and ill will towards his society, only coming out of his self-imposed exile to denigrate others and humiliate himself before retreating back underground, be more alive that his readers?


The title of his notes suggests a contrast between those underground, like himself, and everyone else. We can think of these others as 'aboveground': the ordinary person. From the underground's perspective, they (or we) are all the same. We all have something to do, somewhere to go; at least most of the time (this period in isolation may have buried us deeper underground than before). Our heads are usually aboveground where there are institutions and people. We have our private thoughts now and then, but we mostly follow the rules of decency and convention without question. We may even live our lives in joy this way, happy with our position in society and content with our relationships. The man underground looks at all this with a paradoxical combination of arrogant cynicism and desperate longing, simultaneously doing everything he can to make others’ lives miserable while wishing he could be accepted by them. With such contradictory desires, he cannot help but sabotage any aim or desire he has. When he invites himself to a reunion with old classmates, for example, he can’t stop insulting everyone, yet he can’t bring himself to leave. All the while, he is aware that he should leave, that he is only making things worse. He is always conscious of his self-sabotage but is powerless against himself.


As I read the last lines of Notes from Underground with this in mind, I thought of how I would respond to his accusation. Is he right in diagnosing himself as more alive than those aboveground? Or is this another pitiful attempt at excusing his own sorry condition on the pretext that it is somehow more truthful, more authentic than the lives of those he hates so much? I think both of these may be true, and it is worth taking the underground man’s accusation seriously if only for the purpose of avoiding his fate, however distant it may seem. Like many others who have read this book, I experienced uncomfortable moments of kinship with the underground man, and now I feel the need to justify my aboveground existence. So, here are my tentative Notes from Aboveground.


This project may be doomed from the beginning, as part of what defines the underground man, I believe, are his notes. Someone aboveground isn’t going to make notes justifying their existence; they’ll just live! As the underground man remarks: “…to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness. For man’s everyday use, ordinary human consciousness would be more than enough”. Just as athletes go through the motions of their sport best when they don’t overthink them, a person goes through life best without overthinking it: this appears to be the underground man’s reasoning. And certainly this seems true to an extent. But surely at least a partially examined life is permitted an aboveground man, and so a 'Notes from Aboveground' may well exist without contradiction (whether they are a wise undertaking, however, will be put aside for now…).


In fact, it could be precisely this partial consciousness which so animates the underground man when he claims, “I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway”, and this makes a kind of sense too. While aboveground, at times, I am conscious of a backdrop of unease and anxiety. For me it is usually accompanied with distractions: youtube videos or social media, the endless amount of TV shows I could watch; sometimes I feel I am constantly distracting myself, and I’ve forgotten what from. This is reminiscent of his claim that “we've reached a point where we regard real "living life" almost as labor, almost as service, and we all agree in ourselves that it's better from a book.” What was a book for him is now usually a screen for us, and it certainly is easier than real life in many ways. These distractions that populate the otherwise empty moments of the day seem to be mere relief from boredom, but I know they can quickly become relief from the burden of living. The underground man has simply carried this tendency to its rational conclusion, and avoided the burden of living wholesale. Not only does he avoid it, he despises it, and thus he inhabits the underground more completely.


“Go on, try giving us more independence, for example, unbind the hands of any one of us, broaden our range of activity, relax the tutelage, and we... but I assure you: we will immediately beg to be taken back under tutelage.” This also seems to be our state now. Paradoxically, we have more freedom than ever before, and yet we choose to do less than ever before. It’s not exactly clear what it is we want, and maybe having other things make that decision for us is an easier option. Perhaps the underground man recognizes this tendency in our society, the voluntary surrender of our freedom to forces which choose for us, and wants to rebel against it as hard as he possibly can. This is his self-appointed job underground, to rebel against the passivity he sees embodied in the new lifestyle in Russia in the late 19th century (and, I think, in our own modern lifestyles by extension).


Tragically, however, he is more a victim of inaction than anyone else. As the gentlemen interlocutors he made up remark: “You boast about consciousness, yet all you do is vacillate”. He doesn’t do anything with this awareness of freedom he supposedly has. Think of his pathetic attempt to bump into the officer Nevsky he frequently passed on the street: the amount of time spent obsessing, determining to viciously shove into him instead of letting him pass as usual, being made to yield to him and thus appear weak. The underground man was only successful in bumping into Nevsky after resolving not to worry about it anymore, losing that vacillating consciousness so characteristic of him before committing the act. He is not able to elevate himself above traditional morality, to have the strength to purposefully commit wrong: “I lied about myself just now when I said I was a wicked official...as a matter of fact I was never able to become wicked. I was conscious every moment of so very many elements in myself most opposite to that. I felt them simply swarming in me, those opposite elements.”


What are these elements? Well, it seems that the aboveground rests on an underground layer, analogously to how our conscious experience, with its traditional values and societal norms, rests above our unconscious thoughts and drives. What enables the underground man to claim himself more living than us is his awareness of this underground, with all of its dark and terrible qualities. I think this is also what contributes to his skepticism and condemnation of what he calls the “scientific-economic” conception of humankind, that our behavior and needs can be accounted for in a system of formulas or simple economic rules. This kind of utopian thinking is the ultimate manifestation of our delusion, our attempt to repress or distract ourselves from the underground, from our irrational, unconscious nature. The underground man firmly believes that this underground element in us will always throw a wrench in such a system. Hence the remark, “you've taken your cowardice for good sense, and found comfort in thus deceiving yourselves.”


Yet he is guilty of an even greater cowardice, in the opposite direction. Instead of ignoring the underground and leading a life of deluded ignorance, he ignores the aboveground and reduces human nature to the irrational, spiteful, and weak elements in the underground. And this justifies his own weakness, his own refusal to engage with society and the people in it. He is justified in his self-exile by this awareness of the underground in us all, but he does nothing about it except vacillate and wither away in self-loathing. He is aware of the opposite elements within himself, but he intensifies their struggle rather than make peace. So no, he does not come out more living than those aboveground except in a specific sense of heightened consciousness, which he outwardly curses while inwardly uses to claim superiority over those aboveground.


In the end, I feel the need to resist allowing the underground man to co-opt consciousness for the underground. Perhaps the aboveground and underground can be integrated somehow, maybe by bringing the unconscious to consciousness, to bring awareness to a dormant but influential element of our identity. This process wouldn’t be easy, and requires great care. It might not even be necessary for everyone, or be necessary to varying extents, I’m honestly not sure. But so long as there are significant competing elements in our psyche, it doesn't make sense to retreat into one at the expense of another; both ought to be brought into some kind of harmony. A full consciousness incorporates all elements of experience, not just the underground, or just the aboveground.


Thus, retreating into the underground is not a useful or even more truthful way of being, as we see the underground man’s only consistency is his inconsistency. It is as though the truth about his own underground character blinded him, and he lacked the integrity to overcome this initial shock. Interestingly enough, his learning is a symbolic reversal of the Platonic cave image: instead of being blinded by the truth of the sun aboveground, the truth lies underground in the dark, where you would be similarly disoriented. Just as the person coming out of the cave must let their eyes adjust before comprehending what they see, so too must the man let his eyes adjust to darkness to be able to avoid bumping into the cave walls. And our initial reaction to the underground man is just like the initial reaction of those in the cave being told their lives are a lie… Well, maybe the parallels stop there. The underground man reminds me more of someone who didn’t wait for their eyes to adjust to the dark (or light), and so got stuck in a brutal, unrefined perception of the truth, which is liable to be one-sided, warped, or twisted later.


This is what we aboveground should learn from his notes: the paralyzing power of the truth about our own self. Grasping this also gives us the recognition needed to respond to his last rant and accusation at the end. Yes, there is something, paradoxically, more alive about the underground man, and it consists in a consciousness of a part of human nature that we are usually ignorant of. It is this very understanding that also makes him less living than any of us, for he can’t turn his understanding into action; he can't return aboveground armed with a proper mind. The underground is not the whole truth, and there is no reason to believe it should be. We may have to go down there at some point in our lives, but we should never stay there. So, perhaps we can respond to his final accusation and justify aboveground existence by saying: there may be some truth beneath the floorboards, underground man, but there is also truth in the sun!

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