Who wants to want according to a little table?See Important Quotations Explained
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.