The Underground Man continues to describe himself. He is “overly conscious,” a “developed man” who possesses far more consciousness than is necessary for survival in the nineteenth century. Narrow-minded, active people, in contrast, have the perfect amount of consciousness of reality to go about their daily lives. The Underground Man explains that he does not mean to deride these active figures by suggesting that they are not as conscious as he is, but then he immediately admits that he takes pride in his “sickness” of consciousness. He describes how his consciousness, which makes him aware of “everything beautiful and lofty,” somehow inevitably drags him into corruption and “blight,” a blight in which he has gradually learned to take a sick pleasure.
The end result of this consciousness is always inertia. The Underground Man believes that degradation is inherent in his nature and therefore impossible to change, which affords him a degree of satisfaction. Another kind of strangled satisfaction comes from the fact that the Underground Man, even though he despises himself, considers himself more intelligent than everyone around him, and therefore feels responsible for everything that happens to him. This sense of responsibility, of course, also increases his misery, and makes his pride in his own intelligence a source of shame.
The Underground Man further explains his inability to act in any directed fashion, whether magnanimously or vengefully. Once again, the problem is rooted in his self-consciousness. Normal men act immediately and blindly upon their instincts. In contrast to this kind of man, whom the Underground Man considers stupid but manly, the highly conscious Underground Man is nothing more than a mouse. While the normal man can perceive an act of revenge as an act of justice, the Underground Man, when wronged, is too conscious of the complexities of revenge to retaliate with genuine faith and confidence. Therefore, he ends up slinking back into his underground hole to dwell on whatever wrong has been done to him until it has almost consumed him.
A man of action follows his desire to act only until he is faced with definite impossibility, at which point he is reassured by the fact that further action will be useless. The Underground Man, however, claims that conscious men refuse to be reconciled with the laws of nature, science, and mathematics that other men take for granted. Even though the Underground Man is conscious of the reality of these laws, he refuses to agree with them if he does not like them.
“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 Underground Man continues to illustrate the aesthetics of misery, demonstrating how the educated, conscious man of the nineteenth century can find pleasure even in a toothache. This pleasure comes from the unnecessary, almost artistically embellished moans and groans that the man uses to signal to his family and friends that he has a toothache, as well as from his awareness that his family is disgusted and irritated with his displays of agony. After making this argument, the Underground Man responds to the laughter that he imagines he has elicited from his audience, and explains that his jokes are in bad tone because he does not respect himself: “[H]ow can a man of consciousness have the slightest respect for himself?”
When the Underground Man implies that his great intelligence and heightened consciousness prevent him from being an “active man,” saying that active people are always “disingenuous,” he is rationalizing his inability to act. However, the fact that the Underground Man deludes himself about the source of his alienation does not mean that Dostoevsky necessarily wants to glorify the “man of action.” Indeed, the novel criticizes equally those people who spend too much time contemplating the “beautiful and lofty” and those people who act decisively but blindly.
In Chapter II, the Underground Man essentially divides the world into two groups. The first group contains people who are both “disingenuous” and “active.” These people are not necessarily stupid, but they are at most half as “conscious” as the Underground Man. Because they are unable to analyze every decision they make, they are able to make these decisions painlessly. They do not analyze obstacles any more than they analyze their own motives, so when they come to an obstacle they stop in their tracks without any concern. The second group that the Underground Man envisions contains educated, conscious people like him. These individuals spend all their time contemplating their own degradation.
This distinction between the two groups foreshadows the existentialist philosophy of writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, who considered Notes from Underground the first existentialist novel. Sartre believed that every human being is totally free and completely responsible for every choice he makes. In Sartre’s work, those characters who become aware of the terrible responsibility that accompanies every choice they make often are unable to bring themselves to do anything. Like the narrow-minded men in the first of the Underground Man’s two groups, the only people who act with total confidence in Sartre’s works are those who are not conscious of their freedom and responsibility. Nonetheless, Sartre believes that the conscious man must act, however little the idea appeals to him.
It may seem odd that the Underground Man aligns the laws of science and mathematics with the less intelligent men, as we usually think of those disciplines as requiring education and intelligence. However, for the Underground Man, a conscious man is someone who questions and analyzes everything, even the validity of so-called natural laws. Someone who has blind faith in everything, even in logic and reason, fits the Underground Man’s definition of an unconscious man. This definition allows the Underground Man to include some of the most prominent intellectuals of the era in his criticism, and paves the way for his upcoming critique of the “rational” theorists in Chapter VII.
Of course, the Underground Man considers his consciousness a curse even as he takes pride in it. This masochistic idea becomes literal when he discusses the pleasure that a cultured man can find in a toothache. Though the Underground Man is ashamed of this pleasure, as he is ashamed of anything he finds enjoyable or worthy of pride, he believes it is the only kind of pleasure available to the truly developed man in the nineteenth century. This moment is one of several instances in the novel when Dostoevsky’s message likely differs from the Underground Man’s: we see the toothache as an example of the absurdity that arises when intelligence and sensitivity are unaccompanied by action.