[P]erhaps I really regard myself as an intelligent man only because throughout my entire life I've never been able to start or finish anything.
The Underground Man describes his occasional bouts of repentance, tenderheartedness, and sentimentality. He feels these emotions frequently, and imagines that he is feeling them sincerely. However, he always ends up convincing himself that these moments are nothing but affectations and delusions. He explains that all of the emotional torment he has undergone in his life has been the result of boredom. In an attempt to make his life into something he could “live, at least somehow, a little,” he convinces himself that someone has offended him, or forces himself to fall in love. These ineffectual gestures toward living are the Underground Man’s compensation for the inertia his consciousness imposes upon him.
The Underground Man repeats his earlier point that only narrow-minded people can be truly active, because their lack of consciousness allows them the comforting belief that there are absolute principles upon which they can base their actions. The Underground Man, in contrast, has nothing solid to support his actions, not even pure wickedness. He analyzes his actions until the idea of cause and effect dissolves. Moreover, the Underground Man also overanalyzes his rebellions against this inertia—his blind attempts at love or anger—until he hates himself for forcing false emotions, and therefore feels paralyzed and becomes more inert than ever. He feels he is an intelligent man only because he has never been able to start or finish anything. In this regard, his inertia is a mark of his consciousness.
The Underground Man describes the difference between inertia and laziness. He defines laziness as a positive quality: a lazy person can be identified positively as a “lazybones,” whereas the Underground Man is identifiable only by qualities that he lacks. The Underground Man imagines himself as a “lazybones”: he would spend all his time drinking to the health of everything “beautiful and lofty,” and would convince himself that everything, even the ugliest things in the world, were “beautiful and lofty” so that he could drink even more. He would demand respect for his opinions and die in peace, extremely fat and “positive” from all of his drinking and eating, a “positive” in a “negative age.”
The Underground Man attempts to debunk the mid-nineteenth-century progressive idea that man, if he were to understand his own true interests clearly, would never do anything bad because it is most advantageous to him to behave rationally. The Underground Man, in contrast, believes that man consciously acts to his own disadvantage, simply to be obstinate. He questions the meaning of the word “advantage,” claiming that utilitarian theorists derived their list of advantages—prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace—from statistical figures and politico-economic formulas. The Underground Man suggests that there is one “strange advantage,” which he will explain later, that evades these classifications. This “strange advantage” explains why an enlightened man may suddenly and perversely act against what appears to be his own advantage.
The Underground Man goes on to claim that the rules of logic can never predict human behavior. He mentions the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle’s theory that civilization gradually softens men, making them incapable of waging war. This theory, while logically sound, is disproved by the fact that more blood has been shed in the ostensibly civilized nineteenth century than in more barbaric times.
The Underground Man predicts that man would grow bored in a society based on scientifically derived formulas for moral behavior. In the end, “ungrateful” men would welcome the chance to overturn logic and live according to their own irrational free will. The Underground Man thinks that man, under any circumstance, prefers to think he is acting as he wants to act, not as reason dictates. The “strange advantage” mentioned earlier is complete free will—even the choice to do something self-destructive. The most important thing to man is that his freedom of choice not be constrained by anything—even reason.
Who wants to want according to a little table?
The Underground Man responds to his imagined audience’s claim that free will is something that can be explained scientifically, just as every other human urge can be. He argues that science, regardless of what it might discover about the human will, cannot change the fact that man refuses to accept that his free will is subject to rules. Man, he contends, will do anything to demonstrate this independence of will. The only constants in man’s behavior are that he is ungrateful and refuses to be sensible. Man may even intentionally go insane, simply to prove that his free will is not subject to reason and that he may behave irrationally if he so desires.
This section addresses the tension between the ideologies of the sentimental and idealistic 1840s, when the Underground Man was a young man, and the more utilitarian and scientific 1860s, the time in which he is writing Notes from Underground. The Underground Man displays a mixture of contempt and longing for the ideal of genuine love. He displays the same conflicted attitude toward the sublime literature of the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, when everyone from the philosopher Immanuel Kant to the writer Victor Hugo celebrated the “beautiful and lofty.” The Underground Man is clearly familiar with the major writers of these periods, as he makes references throughout the novel to works by the French novelists Victor Hugo and Georges Sand, the English poet Lord Byron, and the Russian Romantics Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. The Underground Man’s attempts to “live a little” are, in a sense, attempts to experience the powerful emotions that the Romantic writers valued. Though the Underground Man prides himself on his ability to recognize the “beautiful and lofty,” his disgust with himself and with society has crushed any faith he may have had in Romantic ideals. As a result, he feels disgusted with himself whenever he feels strong emotions, and he mocks the idea of the “beautiful and lofty” when he imagines himself as an alcoholic aesthete-lazybones in Chapter VI.
The 1860s in Europe were marked by an increased interest in social reform based on scientific principles. Utopian thinkers believed that life could be perfected solely through the application of reason and enlightened self-interest. Any serious problems remaining in the world existed only because the scientific method for getting rid of them had not yet been discovered. One of the most prominent Russian proponents of these ideas was N. G. Chernyshevsky, who developed the theory of “rational egoism” and wrote a revolutionary novel called What Is to Be Done? in 1863. Dostoevsky, contemptuous of Chernyshevsky’s theories, frequently attacks and parodies the theorist’s ideologies throughout Notes from Underground. Among Chernyshevsky’s ideas, Dostoevsky found his theories of “rational egoism” particularly offensive. A character in What Is to Be Done? asserts that, in following his own desires, he will make other people happy; he ends with the question “Do you hear that, you, in your underground hole?” In many ways, Notes from Underground is the response from that underground hole, a long protest against the idea that a man must be happy merely because others want him to be.
The Underground Man resists the idea of rational egoism, believing man to be an inherently irrational creature. Man will always try to assert his free will, even if asserting this free will goes against reason and self-interest. The Underground Man believes so because he can think of no other explanation for the way others have treated him in his life. If human nature were inherently good, no one could ever act the way most people act toward him. However, the Underground Man, as he mentions in Chapter I, would prefer to have a rotting liver than bend to a doctor’s authority. He is clearly obsessed with free will, and seems to project this obsession onto others.
In these chapters, the Underground Man continues to use his intelligence as an excuse for his inactivity, and his inactivity as proof of his intelligence. He considers active men universally “dull and narrow-minded”—the very traits that allow them to act. In contrast, the Underground Man’s supreme intelligence does not permit him to assuage any of the doubts that encumber action. Every question that he begins to resolve presents him with new, unanswerable questions. In earlier chapters, he says that intelligence necessarily results in inactivity, but now he implies that inactivity is in itself an indication of intelligence. The Underground Man claims that it is possible that he only considers himself intelligent because he has “never been able to start or finish anything.”
Conversely, the Underground Man sees action as an indication of low intelligence. In Chapter VI, when he imagines himself as a “positive” man whose life has some kind of goal, the image that he creates is parodic and absurd. The goal he imagines for himself is the celebration of everything “beautiful and lofty,” and the image he creates—of a man with indiscriminate but strongly held opinions—is laughable. This example illustrates what happens when we place too much value on opinion for opinion’s sake. Taken in the context of the Underground Man’s comments about his own intelligence, it can also be read as a commentary on decisiveness in general. Indeed, the Underground Man’s main criticism of the rational theorists in Chapter VII is that they have chosen a system and decided to stick by it. These theorists’ refusal to allow the possibility that their laws are fallible puts them, in the Underground Man’s eyes, on par with the stupidest man in the world.