Dostoevsky’s Underground Man: Prophet or 19th-Century Incel?

There are many, many embarrassing photos of me during my teen years, but one of the biggest was ironically the one I loved the most at the time. Being antisocial and contrarian, I did not want to go through the ritual of senior photos. I did so on the condition that I got to do one of my own choosing. In that self-designed photo I am wearing (because it is 1993) light washed baggy jeans and a black denim shirt. I am sitting on a stool, before a backdrop of painted bookshelves. I hold the thinker’s pose, and in my hand is a Bantam paperback copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground

I would say that was the high point of my pretentiousness, but then again, I would grow up to become a grad student.

I had picked the book up that summer while at a scholar’s camp at the University of Nebraska. I would not have been able to purchase such an obscure text at the bookstore or find it in the library in my rural hometown. (That same summer I had the store order Kerouac’s On The Road for me, one of the few times as a teenager when I thought I was cool.)  The inspiration came from a mentor of mine, a philosophy student at the local college who had turned me on to existentialism. 

I had already been checking out Camus and Kafka from the school library. Notes From Underground was something else entirely because the book’s narrator spoke to me like no other had before. Kafka’s protagonists were intentionally remote, and I found Mersault in The Stranger to be repugnant. Underground Man (he has no name) seemed a whole lot like me, despite the gulf of time and culture between 1993 Nebraska and 1864 Russia. 

Underground Man is a retired low-level civil servant in St Petersburg in his 40s who spends the first half of the short book discussing his isolation from the modern world, and the second recounting an embarrassing incident that cemented his desire to stay “underground.” I was a very socially isolated teenager obsessed with things my peers cared nothing about, like philosophy, independent movies, and the Velvet Underground. These things were very difficult to access in rural Nebraska before the internet. As you could imagine, my cultural pretensions also made me more than a little insufferable. The more people saw me as a weirdo, the more I doubled down. The Underground Man, who reveled in his unloveable nature, was a perfect companion for me.

I’ve got it all!

The character’s voice is arresting from the beginning. He starts by saying “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man” He says his liver hurts, but he doesn’t want to fix it in order to spite the medical profession. It is obvious that he has spent a lot of time “underground,” cut off from family or friends.

The rant that follows sums up a lot of Dostoevsky’s critiques of modern Western society circa 1864. Russia was in flux following the Great Reforms and end of serfdom, with Western ideas, both liberal and radical, challenging old orthodoxies. The rant is one of the all-time great sermons against the Enlightenment, which the religious and traditionalist Dostoevsky was naturally skeptical of. He is particularly scathing of what modern economists call “rational choice theory,” the Panglossian idea that people’s choices can be predicted by looking at their rational self-interest. The Underground Man deems this ridiculous naïveté. He laughs especially hard at the idea that people do bad things because they simply do not know any better, or that “civilization” makes people behave better. This particular passage had quite a strong impact on me in that regard:

And what is it that civilisation softens in us? The only gain of civilisation for mankind is the greater capacity for variety of sensations — and absolutely nothing more. And through the development of this many-sidedness man may come to finding enjoyment in bloodshed. In fact, this has already happened to him. Have you noticed that it is the most civilised gentlemen who have been the subtlest slaughterers, to whom the Attilas and Stenka Razins could not hold a candle, and if they are not so conspicuous as the Attilas and Stenka Razins it is simply because they are so often met with, are so ordinary and have become so familiar to us. In any case civilisation has made mankind if not more blood-thirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty. In old days he saw justice in bloodshed and with his conscience at peace exterminated those he thought proper. Now we do think bloodshed abominable and yet we engage in this abomination, and with more energy than ever. Which is worse? Decide that for yourselves. 

“Civilization” simply means more sophisticated ways of killing, and what the Underground Man says here sounds an awful lot like a hidden commentary on nineteenth-century imperialism — or a prophecy of Europe’s twentieth century to come. 

Underground Man’s skepticism extended to those who felt that an ideal society could be constructed upon “rational” lines. At its core the book was a response to Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What is to Be Done?, the guiding text of the “nihilist” movement among Russian radicals published the year before. Nihilism in this sense meant not believing in anything supernatural, but only in scientific principles. This was a worldview very different than Dostoevsky’s, which was rooted in Orthodox Christianity. Both writers had spent time in Tsarist prisons and were highly critical of the society they lived in, but came to opposite conclusions about what path needed to be taken. 

While Lenin and other Marxists would be inspired by Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky through the Underground Man mocked the notion of the creation of an ideal society with human reason. That “crystal palace” — a reference to the 1851 world’s fair in London — would end up getting smashed to pieces by humans incapable of living in such an ordered, boring, “rational” way. Why? Because humans do not act according to “rational choice,” as the nihilists and economists would have it, but according to their own desires. He summed it up thusly: “One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy — is that very ‘most advantageous advantage’ which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms.”

My high school newspaper published “senior quotes” from each of the graduates, and that was the quotation that I chose.

I was a strange teenager to find the Underground Man’s rantings so inspiring, especially considering my self-described identity as a “socialist” and belief that the world could indeed be made a better place. However, I did not feel Underground Man’s words with my head so much as with my heart. The Underground Man knew that so many people who thought they knew so much were just stupid. He was saying that human beings are screw-ups in a kind of frustratingly beautiful way, and that they thus could never be machines. Most importantly, he was saying that modern “progress” was bullshit. Knowledge did not make people better, as the Enlightenment presupposed; it only allowed them to be more horrible but in more “civilized” ways.

Coming off victories in the Cold War and Gulf War and seeing the start of an economic boom, America in 1993 was a place where few questioned the status quo. When I went to college the next year I expected to join up in political ferment and social movements, but my peers were mostly interested in drinking Zima and going on to get a “good job.” In that context, Underground Man’s musings felt refreshing. 

Dostoevsky: Zomething Different

The second half of the book, titled “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” moves from a rant to a reminiscence. The snow outside reminds him of a night in his youth where he tried to go out with some of his old schoolmates. They did not want him there, and once he realizes this he becomes more annoying, in a bid to spite them. His mates respond by intentionally leaving him behind and going to a brothel. Once he finds them he strikes up a conversation with a prostitute named Liza, forming an unlikely connection. But when she comes to his shabby apartment later, he intentionally alienates her to drive her away. Writing years later, he laments this action, acknowledging that the night of the wet snow had been the moment when he gave himself over to solitude. 

As a teenager I was entranced by this story. I too had been cast out of my group of “friends” (which luckily led to me abandoning role-playing games and comic books for music and philosophy) and had, shall we say, a difficult time in the romance department. I later realized that there were girls who liked me, but I was too obtuse, anxious, and buried in books at the time to act on that reality. Like the Underground Man, I had embraced solitude, and was trying hard to justify the decision despite how little happiness it brought me.

I revisited Notes From Underground in grad school to read the newer and acclaimed translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I loved the new translation, but while reading it realized how wrong my teenaged self had been about the book. The Underground Man seemed truly pathetic, and I was ashamed to have identified so strongly with him. While he railed against modern life, he was also held up by Dostoevsky as an example of the wreckage of modernity. The new ways of being led many people to become like the Underground Man, cut off from others and railing futilely in solitude. It was especially embarrassing to realize that the reader was meant to laugh at, as much as with, the Underground Man. 

Nowadays I find Underground Man to be ever more relevant. He has many descendants in our current version of modernity, lots of angry young men living alone but connected online, ranting against the world and resentful of being alone. If Underground Man were alive in today’s America would he be calling himself an “incel”? The fact that Liza is drawn to him after telling her all his critiques of society seems like the ultimate male pedant wish fulfillment. Considering Dostoevsky’s cultural nationalism, would the present day Underground Man be a hateful xenophobe? Instead of defending traditional Russian life would an Underground Man in modern America use the coded language of “Western Civilization”?

Of course, there’s no way to know. I still love Notes From Underground for its critique of the Enlightenment and for how fully realized the Underground Man is as a character. I also know that I owe the book a huge debt. It has saved me from crass scientism of all varieties, from libertarian ideology to the vulgar strands of Marxism to Steven Pinker. In fact, if you know anyone who takes the latter’s theories seriously, chuck a copy of Notes From Underground at their head.

However, I read it now with a dose of dread. Modernity creates Underground Men, and in this day and age they are doing so much harm. I look back at who I used to be, and shudder a little. Had I been given access to the internet circa 2019 back in 1993, would I too have fallen down the rabbit hole? Unlike Russia in the 1860s, America in the 2010s has weaponized resentment to a murderous extent. In any case, I am glad that my teen angst led me to the Beat writers, punk rock, the Underground Man, and eventually to an ability to relate to my fellow human beings. That seems to get harder with each passing year. 

This piece is part of this year’s Dog Days Classics, a series every August when authors revisit and reconsider works that they loved or influenced them in years past. See Alex Cummings on the film Winter Light and Murray Browne on Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, as well as many other entries in the series.