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When you have read Part I and the first part of Frank’s article, then familiarize yourselves with Existentialism (Wikipedia believe it or not is good place to start). So armed re-read the footnote in Frank drawing on Hirsch’s definition of “meaning” and “significance.” Since Frank attempts to provide the meaning of the text, let your own response be to its significance for you. The Underground man desires a debate-give it to him. You can accept or refute his assertions on “two times two,” “The Crystal Palace,” “the toothache,” “the anthill,” “free will,” or whatever other topic might strike your fancy.  (300 words is plenty-we do want to discuss the text!)


18 Responses to “Notes from the Underground”

  1. Laura Howard says:

    « And why are you so convinced, » the Underground Man asks, « that only the normal and the positive – only what is conducive to welfare – is for the advantage of man ?” (pg 23). Maybe, according to this man, someone (such as himself) might enjoy, or be fond of suffering. It so follows that if ignorance is bliss, then a happy person must be a fool. The narrator has made it clear to the reader that he is not a fool – that he enjoys suffering too much to be a fool. Suffering, especially in terms of a toothache, is the author’s means for experiencing life.

    In more existential terms, we are nothing until we have experienced life. If one only experiences happy things, one’s intelligence will be severely curtailed, and that person will not achieve the same level of thought that the narrator has achieved through experiences such as a toothache. “An educated man of the nineteenth century” who moans on the third day of his toothache will moan in a way that shows that he has been “affected by progress and European civilization,” which for him is a manifestation of “voluptuous pleasure” (pg. 10). He doesn’t moan like a peasant does – he makes noise to make a point to the world about his own existence. A toothache, then, far from positive, makes for a painful experience that asserts that person’s existence. For that person, the fact that he has suffered is to his advantage because it means he has lived. A wise Country singer once said, “I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all.” Apparently, the Underground Man feels exactly the same.

  2. Romany Redman says:

    The underground man is searching for truth. However, objective truth evades him with the realization that everything he knows is subjective. Even science, scientific method, and empirical thought simply contribute dimension to his subjective perspective on what is and what isn’t.
    We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about ‘and.’
    —Sir Arthur Eddington
    There are long and tedious proofs of 2+2=4, which involve hundreds of sub theorems working their way backwards towards an axiom. While the underground man might acknowledge efforts of mathematical proof, he might point out that the proof all stems from acceptance of a rational and logical world.
    The “opposite elements” in the underground man reflect the fluctuation between doubting his own existence and asserting that by virtue of doubt, he also is validating his existence. And not simply is own existence but that of everything. For at this level, acknowledging oneself and everything is one and the same.
    I disagree with Margaret’s conclusion that the existence of people who may not contemplate fundamental questions of nature to this degree discredit the underground man’s philosophy. For one, how can we say that anyone does not contemplate these ideas? We have a subjective view of them and their actions, including those that are deemed handicapped in some cultures. (In some cultural traditions, mental handicap, on the contrary, is defined by a unique connection to the spiritual and philosophical world that defies “normalized” socially-constructed rationality in powerful ways.) Second, because our view of others is subjective, this subjectivity only serves to support the philosophy of questioning central to the underground man’s struggle for clarity in a world of ambiguities (even if those ambiguities are self-induced).
    Free-will is also debated in the underground man’s soliloquy and not a given.
    The fascinating part of this whole internal debate is that existentialism plays a part, if only by virtue of the passion with which the underground man toys out empiricism and romanticism and the meaning of everything.

  3. Margaret Fulford says:

    On the topic of free will, the capability to make an independent decision, being the “most advantageous advantage” or mankind’s deepest desire: while I do not wholeheartedly agree with the underground man’s argument, I think that he makes some interesting points. I am of the opinion that children inherently crave the capacity to express their free will, and they may protest even if they want the same thing you want them to do/say/eat/etc, just to do so. Our society seems to work most smoothly, at least for the people in power, if people are trained in docility; that fact that we must do this from an early age, through the public education system and sharing of our culture’s apparent values, suggests that to be not-docile is, in fact, the natural state of man. We want to reject the top-down power structure, for to lose our free will is to lose our dignity and even if we are given all the wondrous things to be had in the world, if we have not our own free choice we may in fact be discontented.
    I think that there is something to be said for those humans who don’t appear to adhere to this standard, though. Some people can be truly happy in what others would deem an oppressive environment, all thanks to the kind of mindset they have developed over a lifetime. It sometimes seems that the more intelligent and curious someone is, the more likely they are to value their free choice as a source of happiness rather than more superficial things. But that mentally handicapped or people who don’t really care to know every detail about existence, exist, throws a wrench in the cogs of the underground man’s argument on this topic.

  4. Vanda Gaidamovic says:

    “After all, two times two makes four is no longer life, gentlemen, but the beginning of death. “
    Dostoevsky wrote in the era of transformations. The rise of scientism, rationalism, Darwinism and other modern cultural productions in Europe weakened the role of the Western Church, and Dostoevsky was afraid of the equivalent processes swarming into Russia. His Notes from Underground was a response to Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? The fourth dream of Vera Pavlovna in the formerly mentioned novel presents a world which Chernyshevsky viewed as an ultimate goal of humanity – a hierarchy-less social utopia, in which people join in labor, or “movement”, are happy and live in aluminum castles and crystal palaces. This is the world of two times two is four – the world of reason and logic in which everything is predictable and scientifically calculated. In such world free will is a freedom to submit, not to deny, defy or refuse. In such world “he [a man] himself is nothing more than a kind of piano key or an organ stop”. Thus, the elements of fate, faith and imagination are completely deprived of any meaning and the human life ends with the biological death.

  5. Russell Jacobs says:

    “Man likes to make roads and to create, that is a fact beyond dispute. But why has he such a passionate love for destruction and chaos also? Tell me that!”

    This is one of those central questions about civilization with which any theist or, more central to the text, any believer in the notion that humanity is consistently moving towards something greater, must wrestle. It’s also one of the points on which I find myself quite taken by the underground man and his argument. The “two twice is five” riff is not, I think, quite so literal. It is, rather, a contention that perhaps our systems for rationalizing the universe are insufficient and fail to take into account a basic part of human nature, namely the “dark” side. It is the underground man, we are told by the author in an opening note, a sort of Sophoclean justifier of misery through the very “reason” he attacks, who “not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed.” There are necessarily those who, so burdened with their own understanding of the world, have no choice but to turn on it. When we see things like natural disasters, it’s hard to feel like our systems for maintaining our own well-being are as transcendent as we like to believe. When the systems themselves, though, turn to atrocity, what can we say? That mass ethnic cleansing is all part of some mandate of the laws of mathematics as humanity marches towards something “greater”? I believe the underground man makes a good case, at least, for the less-than-solid footing of science as a tool for explaining humanity.

  6. Sarah Bellingham says:

    “To begin to act, you know, you must first have your mind completely at ease and no trace of doubt left in it.” (12)

    No, you don’t. You could, but you certainly do not have to. I completely disagree that the only way for action is to be certain of your actions. You do not have to be “direct” or “stupid” in order to act quickly (6). While people who act quickly may be acting thoughtlessly, quick action does not necessitate idiocy. I agree, however, that a form of idiocy might be implied by rash actions. It is “normal” to act quickly and stupidly all the time (6). You are saying that the only ways to put your mind at ease enough to act is to either be ignorant, or to have spent time consciously putting yourself at ease.

    Actions can be made without a person being at ease. Plenty of actions that would not be deemed “stupid” were made at the spur of the moment—decisions to take jobs, to grab a hold of unexpected opportunities. A person might not be entirely at ease when they make these decisions. They may doubt themselves. However, taking action is still entirely physically possible. Saying otherwise is simply excusing yourself from your responsibility for your actions. It is an excuse not to act on the pretext that you are not “at ease” with “no trace of doubt”.

  7. Alexandra Siega says:

    “I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.”

    Here, the underground man is providing the reader with the possibility to think beyond the boundaries of what is proven by science and is part of the fundamental fabric of the universe. He thinks he’s clever and it’s true: what says that the statement twice two makes four absolutely true?

    Science, math, rationality, reason says that twice two cannot make five. Say that I, as a reader, would follow the train of thought of the underground man and wish to combat this fundamental point. My argument would begin: Why does twice two make four? Science would explain. I could say: But what of other possibilities? Why can’t twice two also make five? Again, science has the upper hand. But then, following the logic of the underground man, I would deny that science should be viewed as the absolute truth. At that point, the argument loses all of its purpose. If we can’t rely of natural fact—things that we know to be true, fundamental components of nature—then what good is any sort of argument? It would just turn into a battle of one view against another, with no common ground as a basis and with no right or wrong.

    In this situation, I feel that the free will that I and the underground man exercises is completely pointless, and therefore I have to disagree that attaining free will should be man’s primary goal. Man needs a both moral and a rational code to guide his decisions. Otherwise, if every man acted for himself outside of society, the world would remain at a stasis: in utter anarchy. Can you imagine a society in which everyone does whatever he or she wants? Imagine for a moment that it is so. But say, for example, that no one wants to grow food: it is too time-consuming and too difficult. How will anyone eat? Well, it is not the responsibility of one person to provide food for the rest: only for himself. There would be no system of incentives because there would be no point: everyone is merely doing what he wishes. So, to survive, you would need to grow your own food, but what if you don’t want to? You’d starve.

    The quality of life in a world where all men attain free will would decrease dramatically. He may be happy whilst making all of his decisions, but by focusing only on personal will lead to the crumbling of the collective. Of course, the underground man doesn’t seem to hold much weight on the collective…

  8. Brandt Silver-Korn says:

    I am especially intrigued by what Frank calls the Underground Man’s “strange state of moral impotence” in which the UM masochistically enjoys his own degradation (210).

    It seems to me that on the UM’s journey to discover a purpose in life, he has stumbled upon the conclusion that a fully conscious man must understand his own morality to be content (if a fully conscious man even has the capacity to be content). However, because one can never achieve moral perfection, he will constantly be testing and questioning the extent of what he should and should not do. That is why he finds enjoyment in accepting his undeniable and irrevocable degradation: “one has reached the last barrier…you could never be a different man” (5). This point that once you recognize yourself as a depraved individual and can no longer hope to be anything else provides comfort for an individual, and in a twisted way, I can understand this (although like Frank mentions, the UM also “despises” this notion – but how can he not? The UM contradicts everything).

    We see this further in the “toothache” portion of the Notes, when the man enjoys the idea that his family “listen to him with loathing” and believe his moaning is intended to directly infuriate them. The man likes this idea because he is no longer trying to live up to the unattainable title of a “hero,” but must be regarded as “simply a nasty person” (10). This man recognizes his inability to affect what is natural in life, and thus – he enjoys the thought of just being a depraved human who need not defend his actions apart from his natural sadistic inclinations. Surprisingly, as I thought about this point (in all its cynicism), I see its merit. If you accept yourself as depraved, you enjoy the fact that there is no turning back, and that your life is defined in at least one way.

  9. Bryanna Kleber says:

    “Why, when they are possesses, let us suppose, by the feeling of revenge, then for the time there is nothing else but that feeling left in their whole being.”
    I agree with this statement that the Underground Man makes.
    The Underground Man calls the “normal man” one who can act on instinct. If someone feels wronged, they will respond in a fashion as to evoke a feeling of vindication. Nothing will stand in the way of this “normal man’s” revenge. The Underground Man expresses his desire to be like the normal man, who he also call “stupid.”
    The Underground Man then presents the antithesis of the “normal man,” who he associates with a mouse (he is the antithesis). The difference between the mouse and “normal man” is that the mouse is more conscious of the consequences of revenge. This leads the mouse to enter a horrible state of hatred and self-loathing. The mouse can’t believe that the revenge will provide justice, so he doesn’t take the revenge. The mouse brushes off the thing or person who wronged him and put on a façade of forgiveness. But, underneath this façade there is a storm brewing. The situation escalates and details become skewed and he really cannot put the situation to rest. This situation consumes him and impacts his life in enormous ways.
    This analysis of a revenge situation is too true in society today. Although, I would not agree that it is the common thing for a man to revenge without thinking and just acting on instinct, although it does happen. People want to feel justice if they were wronged, and I think that is just human nature. It’s very often that people don’t have the courage to stand up for themselves or others, and then the situation escalates exactly as the Underground Man explained.

  10. Melody Wang says:

    It is the “acute consciousness” of the Underground man that makes him aware that the laws of nature and free will are contradictory, and therefore, cannot take revenge on a toothache, because it is suffering according to the inevitable laws of nature. So one can only moan with malignancy and perverse sense of self-pleasure. I accept Frank’s argument that the only way to express a human reaction to the law of nature is the refusal to submit silently to despotism by : insisting on moaning needlessly and pointlessly about a toothache. Just as Frank argues, despite the Underground man’s convictions of his reason, “he refuses to surrender his right to possess a conscience or an ability to feel outraged and insulted.” Just as from the Notes, if the laws of nature exist and man recognizes such existence, then the man must lives his life in accordance with the laws. Yet at the same time, living in accordance with these laws will restrain the man from acting in any other way, then it follows that he does not have free will. The man become self-delusional if he still insist on inserting his own free will while simultaneously acknowledges the existence of law of nature.
    I understand and accept Frank’s notion that “the underground man’s refusal to see a doctor about a toothache is because that the laws of nature has reduced the individual to complete helplessness”. The sense of helplessness emerges from the Underground man’s acute consciousness of the existence of laws of nature, but at the same time, his defiance marks is his only weapon against the laws of nature, which attest to the Frank’s notion of the underground man’s paradoxical spiritual health. And since the Underground man does not want to be defined, he has to consistently react against any definitive laws/nature.

  11. Katherine Burdine says:

    The Underground Man suffers from hyperconsciousness. His intellect makes him incapable of wholehearted belief, and ends by paralyzing him. Unable to act, he merely stews in his Underground, mind going this way and that.

    On the one hand, he seems to want to believe in the sort of determinism advocated by Cherneshevsky. He says of the Crystal Palace that he feels compelled to mock, “I would let my tongue be cut off out of gratitude if things could be so arranged that I should lose all desire to put it out” (25). In other words, he would love to be able to take the idea of the Crystal Palace seriously, to believe in it wholeheartedly However, he realizes that no matter how wonderful the Crystal Palace, its inhabitants free of all doubt and negation, that people would just as soon choose chaos and destruction over such sterile perfection.

    The Underground Man believes that what people most desire is the exercise of free will; to be free to be happy and free to suffer. Even though the Crystal Palace represents perfect joy and peace, it also represents a loss of free will, since its inhabitants CAN’T be sad or negative or destructive. So the Underground Man, despite wanting to believe the contrary, is convinced that people would rather be free to suffer than be limited to being happy.

  12. Juan Machado says:

    “He loves the process, but he’s not so fond of the achievement, and that, of course, is terribly amusing.”

    I agree with Anna Mackey’s comment that once you know that two and two make four, there is nothing more left to do with that. The underground man points out the irony that man, being “a frivolous and unseemly creature,” will constantly strive for different things and never be content.

    A depressing existence, but by realizing life’s frivolity, the underground man is partly capable of escaping this situation. He doesn’t have to accept that two and two make four and in fact he takes a sadistic pleasure in denying it, in affirming that two and two could make five. He seems to amuse himself frustrating the obvious, what is expected of him.

    His behavior is in no way logical, and he is driven not by rationality, but by what he calls spite. He is spiteful towards all, including the reader. He writes, for example, that “I don’t believe one word, not one little word of all that I’ve scribbled.” He constantly toys with his reliability as a narrator, and the reader is left very confused. That is a feeling that he loves provoking and tricking the reader.

    Also, I couldn’t help but… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lstDdzedgcE

  13. Kelsey says:

    “I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!” (p.21) Thus declares the underground man in the middle of a long struggle to determine why man desires what he desires and why this is in contrast to rationalism so often. After arguing over why man will act against almost every apparent advantage to him, why he would abandon rationalism, happiness, and meaning, it becomes apparent that the underground is not only an existentialist, a ironically angsty one at that, but entertains questions that consider concepts traditionally explored by major religions, such as the role of suffering and the general meaning of life. The underground man seems to think that this struggle between rationalism and everything else that drives the inner workings of humans is an all or nothing war. As Flora suggested, I think an existentialist focus on the individuality and subjectivity of the human condition is best anchored by a recognition and an acceptance of the laws of nature. Twice two producing five may be equally as charming as twice two equaling four, but I find a rather stupid example to try to use to prove the existence of free will. As the underground man discusses on page 8, laws of mathematics, like laws of nature, does require humans’ wishes or permission. What modern scientists find so reassuring, that faith is not required to experience and observe the world, the underground man and fellow existentialists find disturbing, as it makes them realize their own insignificance. This whole first part is a treatise on insignificance, I think, along with the burden of consciousness and what constitutes real enjoyment.

  14. Anna Mackey says:

    “I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.”

    The Underground Man is saying that life ends once concrete answers are reached; that real living is in the process of answering a question or solving a problem, but once the answer is reached, he no longer has a purpose and “there will be nothing for him to look for”. He says once you know that two and two make four or that humans evolved from monkeys, that is the end and there is nothing left to question. However, science itself is just as malleable and time-specific as human emotions or reactions. The earth was supposed to be flat, Pluto was supposed to be a planet, and spontaneous generation was once totally accepted. There never really is scientific fact, simply scientific theory that is only validated through mass belief and constantly changing with time. I agree that the process of attaining is the essence of life, but I do not believe anything can ever fully be acquired. Therefore nothing is holding humans back from constantly making their own meaning; they are free to interpret and reinterpret all they experience and know.

  15. Rouan Yao says:

    Our narrator suggests the masochism in his character when begins delving in detail about the ability for a conscious man to find pleasure in misery. He first preempts his audience’s reaction:

    “’Next you’ll be finding pleasure in a toothache!’ you will exclaim, laughing.
    “And why not? There is also pleasure in a toothache,’ I will answer.”

    The narrator then goes on to explain that a toothache can be embellished so that a man can take pleasure from the occasion to which he administers the pain, as well as taking pleasure in the annoyance of the people around him as he makes his pain known. He also goes on to assert that his moans are those of a ‘conscious’ man, and is different from the moans that would be made by a normal person.

    The concept that something even as trivial but annoying as a toothache can bring pleasure to a man such as the Underground man, while he rejects things which others might describe as “beautiful and lofty” confounds me, and further illustrates the complexity of his character. As Joseph frank stated, although the Underground man can be categorized as a nihilist, his beliefs and actions, unlike those of Bazarov, can be construed as perverse, not straightforward. Instead of believing nothing, the underground man believes in ideas so far apart from each other that he cannot write without contradicting himself many times. He also rejects reason completely, completely forgoing the use of doctors or medicine to care for his ailing health.

    The narrator’s keen desire to remain “conscious” but irrational is a strange decision, as he explains it with an overwhelming sense of rationality. In this way, we are shown another one of many contradictions which the Underground man reveals.

  16. Emily de Koning says:

    The laws of nature are not absolutes and in no way do they come in as a “stone wall”. They are simply observation of recurring patterns that appear within a specific set of conditions. There are to many variables in life that cannot be controlled and though we may be able to predict things theoretically it does not mean that they will correspond exactly to experimental values. Even our most fundamental laws such as that of gravity is a subjective concept that depends on our physical sensation of the ground pushing against us.

    We come up and rely on these observations and predictions because our survival as a species depends on our ability to do so and ultimately we end up depending on our own acceptance of these laws of fundamental truths. We can predict for example that touching a red hot iron will burn us if we touch it though we have not actually touched it. We base this assumption on previously acquired knowledge, on information we have acquired through observation.

    Ultimately, however our senses are not always reliable. As humans we are all aware that we have limits, especially when it comes to the reliability of our observations. And hence we should accept them with a grain of salt, acknowledging then as highly probable but ignoring them when they become obstacles to our development.

  17. Flora Weeks says:

    The underground man writes, “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” (18). This line is in the conclusion of the seventh chapter, and the eighth chapter then opens, with him fabricating both sides of an argument with himself between free will and rationality. This argument is one of the underlying principles of existentialism. Existentialists believe that even though science is attempting to explain everything about human life, there is actually plenty of emotion and feeling in our actions contrary to that which science explains. Frank argues that Dostoevsky is writing of the preservation of free will as man’s one “most advantageous advantage” (216). In this idea, the underground man, existentialist thinkers, and Dostoevsky all argue for free will over rationality, but isn’t it possible that that we can have both free will and rational thought? Can humans make decisions based on their own emotions and feelings, but with rational thought factored in? In this sense, I argue that there are times when our emotions and feelings are directed by the rational choice. Because we know what the rational decision would be, there are times when we are unlikely to ignore that choice, and so act rationally. However, humans will also at times understand the rational choice and consciously decide that they must act instead based on their feelings and emotions. I agree that man wants an “independent choice,” but I also think that man wants full information and understanding of rational thought in order to better make his independent choice and to make this choice without bias.

  18. Ben Kingstone says:

    “I agree that two times two makes four is a splendid thing; but if we’re going to lavish praise, then two times to makes five is something also a very charming little thing” (24). This passage presents the basic problem the narrator faces. The Underground Man becomes gradually slower to accept ration (or “material determinism” as Joseph Frank notes) as he allows his natural impulses (like spite and revenge) to take over. However, for the most part he remains paralyzed in the “Underground” by these opposing impulses.
    In our world, it is necessary that two times two make four; numbers and figures represent our society’s building blocks. Without numbers, we can’t construct houses or run cars without accurate calculations. For the narrator, concrete life is also important; numbers, in their abstract representation of rational actions that would lead to a “normal” lifestyle, would invariably pull him out of the Underground. These numbers represent standards. The narrator needs a job, for one, in order to maintain the agency he desires. (Because that is what it is all about—the Underground Man wants to follow his natural impulses; unfortunately, they happen to be destructive impulses.) And though “consciousness” (25) may appear infinitely higher than two times two, the world functions on the accepted concept that two multiplied by two will always equal two. So it may appear temporarily fun, inventive and rebellious to follow an independent stream of logic, it remains indulgent to pretend that naive dream will sustain a human in a world that loves order. While I don’t believe in Chernychevsky’s reductionist belief in concrete figures to predict an ideal future, I do know that the Underground Man needs to reel in his unharnessed impulses (his id) in order to survive. Because we might assume that he would come to a very poor end if this story were much longer.

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