Notes from the Underground - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - ebook

One of the most profound and most unsettling works of modern literature, Notes from Underground (first published in 1864) remains a cultural and literary watershed. In these pages Dostoevsky unflinchingly examines the dark, mysterious depths of the human heart. The Underground Man so chillingly depicted here has become an archetypal figure -- loathsome and prophetic -- in contemporary culture.This vivid new rendering by Boris Jakim is more faithful to Dostoevsky’s original Russian than any previous translation; it maintains the coarse, vivid language underscoring the "visceral experimentalism" that made both the book and its protagonist groundbreaking and iconic.

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Notes from the Underground

First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri



*The author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course,imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the writerof these notes not only may, but positivelymust, exist in oursociety, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of whichour society is formed. I have tried to expose to the view of thepublic more distinctly than is commonly done, one of the charactersof the recent past. He is one of the representatives of ageneration still living. In this fragment, entitled "Underground,"this person introduces himself and his views, and, as it were,tries to explain the causes owing to which he has made hisappearance and was bound to make his appearancein our midst. In thesecond fragment there are added the actual notes of this personconcerning certain events in his life.--AUTHOR'S NOTE.


I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractiveman. I believe my liver is diseased. However,I know nothing at allabout my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don'tconsult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respectfor medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious,sufficiently so to respect medicine,anyway (I am well-educatedenough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, Irefuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will notunderstand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can'texplain who it is precisely that I ammortifying in this case by myspite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" thedoctors by not consulting them; I know betterthan anyone that byall this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if Idon't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well--letit get worse!

I have been going on like that for a long time--twenty years.Now I am forty. I used to be in the government service, but am nolonger. I was a spiteful official. I was rude and took pleasure inbeing so.I did not take bribes, you see, so I was bound to find arecompense in that, at least. (A poor jest, but I will not scratchit out. I wrote it thinking it would sound very witty; but now thatI have seen myself that I only wanted to show off in a despicableway, I will not scratch it out on purpose!)

When petitioners used to come for information to the table atwhich I sat, I used to grind my teeth at them, and felt intenseenjoyment when I succeeded in making anybody unhappy. I almost didsucceed. For themost part they were all timid people--of course,they were petitioners. But of the uppish ones there was one officerin particular I could not endure. He simply would not be humble,and clanked his sword in a disgusting way. I carried on a feud withhim for eighteen months over that sword. At last I got the betterof him. He left off clanking it. That happened in my youth,though.

But do you know, gentlemen, what was the chief point about myspite? Why, the whole point, the real sting of it lay in thefactthat continually, even in the moment of the acutest spleen, Iwas inwardly conscious with shame that I was not only not aspiteful but not even an embittered man, that I was simply scaringsparrows at random and amusing myself by it. I might foam at themouth, but bring me a doll to play with, give me a cup of tea withsugar in it, and maybe I should be appeased. I might even begenuinely touched, though probably I should grind my teeth atmyself afterwards and lie awake at night with shame for monthsafter. That was my way.

I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official.I was lying from spite. I was simply amusing myself with thepetitioners and with the officer, and in reality I never couldbecome spiteful. I was conscious every moment in myself of many,very many elements absolutely opposite to that. I felt thempositively swarming in me, these opposite elements. I knew thatthey had been swarming in me all my life and craving some outletfrom me, but I would not let them, would not letthem, purposelywould not let them come out. They tormented me till I was ashamed:they drove me to convulsions and--sickened me, at last, how theysickened me! Now, are not you fancying, gentlemen, that I amexpressing remorse for something now, that I amasking yourforgiveness for something? I am sure you are fancying that ...However, I assure you I do not care if you are....

It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I did not knowhow to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascalnor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am livingout my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful anduseless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anythingseriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything. Yes, a manin the nineteenth century must and morally ought to bepre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, anactive man is pre-eminently a limited creature. That is myconviction of forty years. I am forty years old now, and youknowfortyyears is a whole lifetime; you know it is extreme old age.To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral.Who does live beyond forty? Answer that, sincerely and honestly Iwill tell you who do: fools and worthless fellows. I tellall oldmen that to their face, all these venerable old men, all thesesilver-haired and reverend seniors! I tell the whole world that toits face! I have a right to say so, for I shall go on living tosixty myself. To seventy! To eighty! ... Stay, let metake breath...

You imagine no doubt, gentlemen, that I want to amuse you. Youare mistaken in that, too. I am by no means such a mirthful personas you imagine, or as you may imagine; however, irritated by allthis babble (and I feel that you are irritated) you think fit toask me who I am--then my answer is, I am a collegiate assessor. Iwas in the service that I might have something to eat (and solelyfor that reason), and when last year a distant relation left me sixthousand roubles in his will I immediately retired from the serviceand settled down in my corner. I used to live in this cornerbefore, but now I have settled down in it. My room is a wretched,horrid one in the outskirts of the town. My servant is an oldcountry-woman, ill-natured from stupidity, and, moreover, there isalways a nasty smell about her. I am told that the Petersburgclimate is bad for me, and that with my small means it is veryexpensive to live in Petersburg. I know all that better than allthese sage and experienced counsellors and monitors.... But I amremaining in Petersburg; I am not going away from Petersburg! I amnot going away because ... ech! Why, it is absolutely no matterwhether I am going away or not going away.

But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure?

Answer: Of himself.

Well, so I will talk about myself.


I want now to tell you, gentlemen, whether you care to hear itor not, why I could not even become an insect. I tell you solemnly,that I have many times tried to become an insect. But Iwas notequal even to that. I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious isan illness--a real thorough-going illness. For man's everydayneeds, it would have been quite enough to have the ordinary humanconsciousness, that is, half or a quarter of the amount which fallsto the lot of a cultivated man of our unhappy nineteenth century,especially one who has the fatal ill-luck to inhabit Petersburg,the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrialglobe. (There are intentional and unintentional towns.) It wouldhave been quite enough, for instance, to have the consciousness bywhich all so-called direct persons and men of action live. I betyou think I am writing all this from affectation, to be witty atthe expense of men of action; and whatis more, that from ill-bredaffectation, I am clanking a sword like my officer. But, gentlemen,whoever can pride himself on his diseases and even swagger overthem?

Though, after all, everyone does do that; people do pridethemselves on their diseases, and I do, may be, more than anyone.We will not dispute it; my contention was absurd. But yet I amfirmly persuaded that a great deal of consciousness, every sort ofconsciousness, in fact, is a disease. I stick to that. Let us leavethat, too, for a minute. Tell me this: why does it happen that atthe very, yes, at the very moments when I am most capable offeeling every refinement of all that is "sublime and beautiful," asthey used to say at one time, it would, as though of design, happento me not only to feel but to do such ugly things, such that ...Well, in short, actions that all, perhaps, commit; but which, asthough purposely, occurred to me at the very time when I was mostconscious that they ought not to be committed. The more conscious Iwas of goodness and of all that was "sublime and beautiful," themore deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink init altogether. But the chief point was that all this was, as itwere, not accidental in me, but as though it were bound to be so.It was as though it were my most normal condition, and not in theleast disease or depravity, so that at last all desire in me tostruggle against this depravity passed. It ended by my almostbelieving (perhaps actually believing) that this was perhaps mynormal condition. But at first, in the beginning, what agonies Iendured in that struggle! I did not believe it was the same withother people, and all my life I hid this fact about myself as asecret. I was ashamed (even now, perhaps, I am ashamed): I got tothe point of feeling a sort of secret abnormal, despicableenjoyment in returning home to my corner on some disgustingPetersburg night, acutely conscious that that day I had committed aloathsome action again, that what was done could never be undone,and secretly, inwardly gnawing, gnawing at myself for it, tearingand consuming myself till at last the bitterness turned into a sortof shameful accursed sweetness, and at last--into positive realenjoyment! Yes, into enjoyment, into enjoyment! I insist upon that.I have spoken of this because I keep wanting to know for a factwhether other people feel such enjoyment? I will explain; theenjoyment was just from the too intense consciousness of one's owndegradation; it was from feeling oneself that onehad reached thelast barrier, that it was horrible, but that it could not beotherwise; that there was no escape for you; that you never couldbecome a different man; that even if time and faith were still leftyou to change into something different you would most likely notwish to change; or if you did wish to, even then you would donothing; because perhaps in reality there was nothing for you tochange into.

And the worst of it was, and the root of it all, that it was allin accord with the normal fundamental laws of over-acuteconsciousness, and with the inertia that was the direct result ofthose laws, and that consequently one was not only unable to changebut could do absolutely nothing. Thus it would follow, as theresult of acute consciousness, that one is not to blame in being ascoundrel; as though that were any consolation to the scoundrelonce he has come to realise that he actually is a scoundrel. Butenough.... Ech, I have talked a lot of nonsense, but what have Iexplained? How is enjoyment in this to be explained? But I willexplain it. I will get to the bottom of it! That is why I havetaken up my pen....

I, for instance, have a great deal of AMOUR PROPRE. I am assuspicious and prone to take offence as a humpback or a dwarf. Butupon my word I sometimes have had moments whenif I had happened tobe slapped in the face I should, perhaps, have been positively gladof it. I say, in earnest, that I should probably have been able todiscover even in that a peculiar sort of enjoyment--the enjoyment,of course, of despair; but in despair there are the most intenseenjoyments, especially when one is very acutely conscious of thehopelessness of one's position. And when one is slapped in theface--why then the consciousness of being rubbed into a pulpwouldpositively overwhelm one. The worst of it is, look at it which wayone will, it still turns out that I was always the most to blame ineverything. And what is most humiliating of all, to blame for nofault of my own but, so to say, through the lawsof nature. In thefirst place, to blame because I am cleverer than any of the peoplesurrounding me. (I have always considered myself cleverer than anyof the people surrounding me, and sometimes, would you believe it,have been positively ashamed of it. At any rate, I have all mylife, as it were, turned my eyes away and never could look peoplestraight in the face.) To blame, finally, because even if I had hadmagnanimity, I should only have had more suffering from the senseof its uselessness. I should certainly have never been able to doanything from being magnanimous--neither to forgive, for myassailant would perhaps have slapped me from the laws of nature,and one cannot forgive the laws of nature; nor to forget, for evenif it were owing to the lawsof nature, it is insulting all thesame. Finally, even if I had wanted to be anything but magnanimous,had desired on the contrary to revenge myself on my assailant, Icould not have revenged myself on any one for anything because Ishould certainly neverhave made up my mind to do anything, even ifI had been able to. Why should I not have made up my mind? Aboutthat in particular I want to say a few words.


With people who know how to revenge themselves and to stand upfor themselves in general, how is it done? Why, when they arepossessed, let us suppose, by the feeling of revenge, then for thetime there is nothing else but that feeling left in their wholebeing. Such a gentleman simply dashes straight for his object likean infuriated bull with its horns down, and nothing but a wall willstop him. (By the way: facing the wall, such gentlemen--that is,the "direct" persons and men of action--are genuinely nonplussed.For them a wall is not an evasion, as for us people who think andconsequentlydo nothing; it is not an excuse for turning aside, anexcuse for which we are always very glad, though we scarcelybelieve in it ourselves, as a rule. No, they are nonplussed in allsincerity. The wall has for them something tranquillising, morallysoothing, final--maybe even something mysterious ... but of thewall later.)

Well, such a direct person I regard as the real normal man, ashis tender mother nature wished to see him when she graciouslybrought him into being on the earth. I envy such a man tillI amgreen in the face. He is stupid. I am not disputing that, butperhaps the normal man should be stupid, how do you know? Perhapsit is very beautiful, in fact. And I am the morepersuaded of thatsuspicion, if one can call it so, by the fact that if you take, forinstance, the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man ofacute consciousness, who has come, of course, not out of the lap ofnature but out of a retort (this is almost mysticism, gentlemen,but I suspect this, too), this retort-made manis sometimes sononplussed in the presence of his antithesis that with all hisexaggerated consciousness he genuinely thinks of himself as a mouseand not a man. It may be an acutely conscious mouse, yet it is amouse, while the other is a man, and therefore, et caetera, etcaetera. And the worst of it is, he himself, his very own self,looks on himself as a mouse; no one asks him to do so; and that isan important point. Now let us look at this mouse in action. Let ussuppose, for instance, that it feelsinsulted, too (and it almostalways does feel insulted), and wants to revenge itself, too. Theremay even be a greater accumulation of spite in it than in L'HOMMEDE LA NATURE ET DE LA VERITE. The base and nasty desire to ventthat spite on its assailant rankles perhaps even more nastily in itthan in L'HOMME DE LA NATURE ET DE LA VERITE. For through hisinnate stupidity the latter looks upon his revenge as justice pureand simple; while in consequence of his acute consciousness themouse does not believe in the justice of it. To come at last to thedeed itself, to the very act of revenge. Apart from the onefundamental nastiness the luckless mouse succeeds in creatingaround it so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts andquestions, adds to the one question so many unsettled questionsthat there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew, astinking mess, made up of its doubts, emotions, and of the contemptspat upon it by the direct men of action who stand solemnly aboutit as judges and arbitrators, laughing at it till their healthysides ache. Of course the only thing left for it is to dismiss allthat with a wave of its paw, and, with a smile of assumed contemptin which it does not even itself believe, creep ignominiously intoits mouse-hole. There in its nasty, stinking, underground home ourinsulted, crushed and ridiculed mouse promptly becomes absorbed incold, malignant and, above all, everlasting spite. For forty yearstogether it will remember its injury down to the smallest, mostignominious details, and every time will add, of itself, detailsstill more ignominious, spitefully teasing and tormenting itselfwith its own imagination. It will itself be ashamed of itsimaginings, but yet it will recall it all, it will go over and overevery detail, it will invent unheard of things against itself,pretending that those things might happen, and will forgivenothing. Maybe it will begin to revenge itself, too, but, as itwere, piecemeal, in trivial ways, from behind the stove, incognito,without believing either in its own right to vengeance, or in thesuccess of its revenge, knowing that from all its efforts atrevenge it will suffer a hundred times more than he on whom itrevenges itself, while he, I daresay, will not even scratchhimself.On its deathbed it will recall it all over again, withinterest accumulated over all the years and ...

But it is just in that cold, abominable half despair, halfbelief, in that conscious burying oneself alive for grief in theunderworld for forty years, in that acutely recognised and yetpartly doubtful hopelessness of one's position, in that hell ofunsatisfied desires turned inward, in that fever of oscillations,of resolutions determined for ever and repented of again a minutelater--that the savour ofthat strange enjoyment of which I havespoken lies. It is so subtle, so difficult of analysis, thatpersons who are a little limited, or even simply persons of strongnerves, will not understand a single atom of it. "Possibly," youwill add on your own account with a grin, "people will notunderstand it either who have never received a slap in the face,"and in that way you will politely hint to me that I, too, perhaps,have had the experience of a slap in the face in my life, and so Ispeak as one who knows. I bet that you are thinking that. But setyour minds at rest,gentlemen, I have not received a slap in theface, though it is absolutely a matter of indifference to me whatyou may think about it. Possibly, I even regret, myself, that Ihave given so few slaps in the face during my life. But enough ...not another word on that subject of such extreme interest toyou.

I will continue calmly concerning persons with strong nerves whodo not understand a certain refinement of enjoyment. Though incertain circumstances these gentlemen bellow their loudest likebulls, though this, let us suppose, does them the greatest credit,yet, as I have said already, confronted with the impossible theysubside at once. The impossible means the stone wall! What stonewall?Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of naturalscience, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance,that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling,accept it for a fact. When they prove to you that in reality onedrop of your own fat must be dearer to you than a hundred thousandof your fellow-creatures, and that this conclusion is the finalsolution of all so-called virtues and duties and all suchprejudices and fancies, then you have just to accept it, there isno help for it, for twice two is a law of mathematics. Just tryrefuting it.

"Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting:it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask yourpermission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether youlike her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as sheis, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is awall ... and so on, and so on."

Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature andarithmetic,when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the factthat twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through thewall by battering my head against it if I really have not thestrength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled toit simply because it is a stone wall and I have not thestrength.

As though such a stone wall really were a consolation, andreally did contain some word of conciliation, simply because it isas true as twice two makes four. Oh, absurdity of absurdities! Howmuchbetter it is to understand it all, to recognise it all, all theimpossibilities and the stone wall; not to be reconciled to one ofthose impossibilities and stone walls if it disgusts you to bereconciled to it; by the way of the most inevitable, logicalcombinations to reach the most revolting conclusions on theeverlasting theme, that even for the stone wall you are yourselfsomehow to blame, though again it is as clear as day you are not toblame in the least, and therefore grinding your teeth insilentimpotence to sink into luxurious inertia, brooding on thefact that there is no one even for you to feel vindictive against,that you have not, and perhaps never will have, an object for yourspite, that it is a sleight of hand, a bit of juggling, acard-sharper's trick, that it is simply a mess, no knowing what andno knowing who, but in spite of all these uncertainties andjugglings, still there is an ache in you, and the more you do notknow, the worse the ache.


"Ha, ha, ha! You will be findingenjoyment in toothache next,"you cry, with a laugh.