Notes from Underground By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part 1: Section 5

Summary

Continuing with his question, the narrator wonders if a man who takes pleasure from degradation can ever respect himself? And where does respect enter into emotion? Many times, he says, he has simply pretended to be offended, but as he relives the situation, he comes to the point of being really offended. And what is the cause of this play-acting? "It was all from ennui," because the man of acute consciousness is prevented from action; therefore, he becomes bored and inertia is his constant state. In contrast, the "direct" person, or the "man of action," is "active just because he is stupid and limited." Before beginning to act, a man's mind must be totally free of doubt and the man of consciousness can never remove doubt from his mind. The active man can revenge himself because he uses justice as the primary cause of his revenge, but the Underground Man can see neither justice or virtue in revenge because his acute consciousness knows the complexities of the nature of justice.

Even if the man of consciousness were to abandon himself, to act "without reflection," to accomplish something — to actually hate or to actually love — he would end by despising himself for having consciously deceived himself.

Analysis

When Sigmund Freud was investigating man's psychological impulses and behavior, he constantly turned to literature to illustrate his various points and the writings of Dostoevsky proved to be exceptionally fruitful for his investigations. (See Freud's book on Dostoevsky.) In this chapter, for example, the Underground Man records one of the quirks of human nature — that is, the penchant to over-exaggerate the degree of insult which a person feels, and then, later, relishing the insult to such a degree that one actually feels offended. This, the Underground Man believes, happens most frequently to a person of acute consciousness since the man of direct action is too involved, too busy even to have the time to allow such imaginary feats to occur. Consequently, the Underground Man realizes that his own boredom and inertia are the direct result of his being a man of acute consciousness; conversely, just the opposite is true in that "all direct persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited." Again he emphasizes that action is correlated with stupidity, and inaction is the result of a self-conscious awareness.

The Underground Man maintains that action can occur only when a man's mind is completely without doubt. The intelligent man, however, is never without doubt; therefore, he can never act. Revenge requires a firm sense of the nature of justice and no intelligent man would ever assume to know anything conclusive about the true nature of justice. The intelligent man is aware, for instance, that the philosophical concept of "justice" has been under constant investigation since the time of Socrates. Therefore, he is aware of the subtle distinctions concerning this concept and consequently he is rendered inactive. The ironic paradox is that if a man is able to complete an action which he initiates, then that man is stupid. But, then, not even the Underground Man wholly accepts this idea because it would be, as he says in the next section, too easy an excuse for being inactive.

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