Provisionally accepting the world view according to which free will is governed by laws, and hence also the ethical view that we must voluntarily allow free will to be governed by laws, Dostoevsky considers the consequences of this position, until finally he is driven to the paradoxical leap of negating the whole thing all at once.

This is the final form of his resistance against scientific rationality and his confrontation with the principles of socialism. Given a single “base” desire, “all systems and theories will be exploded into smithereens.”



Behind all these ideas lies a metaphysics . Dostoevsky says that will normally contradicts reason, and that this is not only salutary but often admirable. A human being, he says, may even deliberately go insane to avoid giving the victory to reason. Will is opposed to reason because “two times two is four is no longer life but is merelythe beginning of death.” In other words, will to life stands opposed to reason. He writes of the “philosophy” of “the man who has lived underground for forty years” as fol lows:


Reason is an excellent thing, there is no disputing that, but

reason is only reason and can only satisfy man’s rational faculty,

while will is a manifestation of all life, that is, of all

human life including reason as well as all impulses. And although

our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless,

yet it is life nevertheless and not simply extracting square

roots. After all, here I, for instance, quite naturally want to

live, in order to satisfy all my faculties for life, and not simply

my rational faculty, that is, not simply one twentieth of all my

faculties for life. What does reason know? Reason only knows

what it has succeeded in learning (some things it will perhaps

never learn; while this is nevertheless no comfort, why not say

so frankly?) and human nature acts as a whole, with everything

that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and even if it

goes wrong, it lives. (VIII)



Those who “come out of the lap of nature,” we noted earlier, are called normal people, and rationality is the measure of their normalcy. Their nature is regulated by reason, such that they “easily justify” their actions, and on the basis of such justification are able to act at peace with themselves . To this extent they are covert idealists; should reason become self-conscious in them, and their activity self-conscious as the activity of freedom with an ideal, one could then speak of their idealism as overt .


Once reason is in full control of one’s nature, and necessity governs the soul systematically inside and extends to society and the world outside, then the socialist is able to appear on the scene as the realist bearing blueprints for the crystal palace. The socialist claims that there is freedom in the very act of erecting one’s own crystal palace and in submitting to the system of necessity. The transition from the idealism of the normal individual to the realism of the socialist is a natural shift, at least insofar as the control of reason or the enlightenment of the intellect is concerned. As a matter,of course, the normal individual “surrenders honestly.”


But when things get this far, the nihilist living in the underground steps forth to reject absolute surrender. For one whose home is the underground world within the heart, who knows what it is to live at the bottom of intensified consciousness and contemplate with the eye of nihility, the only path is to assert the right to thefreedom to will, even to will the absolutely absurd . Only in this way can one take sides with life “as a whole,” which lies beyond the pale of reason. The nihilist, a radical intellectual for whom the normal rationalist is obtuse, reveals himself as a champion of the “naturalness” of human activity as a whole against the radical rationalism of the socialists.

The intensity of intellect born of contemplation with the eye of nihility comes together with the totally irrational “will to life” at a point beyond all rationalism. This will to life may be called a feral health . It may be in their grasp of “life” at this fundamental level that the remarkable closeness between Dostoevsky and Nietzsche has its roots.


Reason, a quality of the progressive “person of the future,” is basically a thing of the past when compared the will within the phenomenon of life as a whole. It only “knows what has been learned up to now.” This kind of paradox, which applies to all forms of rationalism, highlights the difference between rationalism and nihilism. The nihilist takes a stand on a metaphysical nihility that is beyond all rationalism and yet manifests itself as a wil l to capricious freedom or wil l to life on this side of all rationalism. In the words of the underground man: “For men like us, capriciousness may be truly more advantageous than anything else on earth .”


Stavrogin in The Possessed conducts an experiment by suddenly grabbing a man by the nose at a social gathering and pulling him around the room. Such capriciousness bears witness to an inner abyss of nihility that can erupt into one’s daily life at any moment.


The underground man, too, exposed to humiliation when the woman he loves visits him for the first time, thinks to himself: “Shouldn’t I run away, dressed as I am in my dressing gown, wherever my feet may take me, and let come what may?” Caught in the entanglements of love, he reviles her with the words: “Let the whole world collapse as long as I get my tea every time.”


He orders her out: “As for me, I need peace” (Part Two, IX and X) . Her disappearance and his leaving the house in his dressing gown are two aspects of the same nihility, a nihility at the ground of “life .” To say that life is the point at which rationalism is broken through to a dimension where the inner and outer are one means that life itself is in continual process. Dostoevsky expresses the idea paradoxically:


perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving

lies in this incessant process of attaining, or in other words, in

life itself, and not particularly in the goal which of course mustalways be two times two makes four, that is a formula, and

after all, two times two makes four is no longer life, gentlemen,

but is the beginning of death . (IX)



Actually to attain the goal would be terribly comical. “Two times two is four” is an unbearable state of affairs which makes a mockery of human beings. Nonetheless, to orient oneself directly toward the goal is normal and peaceful and safe . From Dostoevsky’s perspective, human beings love suffering as much as peace and security.

The human being is a creative animal, but one that loves destruction and chaos. That life is process means that it continually disrupts its own stability and does itself harm. Moreover, if the goal of life is in life itself rather than something external to life-if its aim lies in the process itself rather than at its end-then the work of building life up like a “civil engineer” and the work of tearing it down are equal ly fundamental. Suffering belongs to the creativity of life, and self-consciousness depends on life’s being so structured .


Pain is the origin of consciousness; herein lies the fundamental unity, recognized by Nietzsche as well as by Dostoevsky, of the healthiness of life and the disease of consciousness. Dostoevsky thus comes to the problem of the origin of consciousness by his own path, a problem touched on by Fichte, Novalis, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and other recent “philosophers of life” in their respective ways. This “path” is the confrontation with the “crystal palace .”

 In the crystal palace suffering is even unthinkable; suffering

means doubt, means negation, and what would be the good of

a crystal palace if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I

am sure man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction

and chaos. Why, after all, suffering is the origin of

consciousness . . . .


Consciousness is the greatest misfortune

for man, yet I know man loves it and would not give it up for

any satisfaction. Consciousness, for instance is infinitely superior

to two times two makes four. Once you have two times

two makes four, there is nothing left to do or to understand .

There wil l be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and

plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness,

even though you attain the same result, you can at least

flag yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you

up . (IX)



“Contemplation with the five senses blocked” had been the heart of idealism from Plato to Hegel, but for the underground man who lives in the law-regulated heyday of science and socialism the technique represents a last resort for the resistance of self-consciousness- a radically paradoxical state of affairs.


Here self-consciousness arises from the bottom of nihility, of which neither normal individuals nor science nor socialism can be aware, a nihility in which both doing and knowing have corne to an end in the essential sense. The underground man calls the crystal palace an “ant-hill”, suited better for domestic animals (aux animaux domestiques): “I would rather my hand were withered than to let it bring a single brick to such a building” (X) .


The phrase recalls the remark of the nihilist Bazarov who tries to destroy the old social system and authorities but holds that “it is not for the gods to have to bake bricks .” His egoistic self consciousness planned a social edifice for himself and his followers, the new “gods,” with bricks which they had “fools” bake for them.


Self-consciousness in the underground nihilist, in contrast, counters this kind of edifice with contemplation through the eye of nihility and will to life . Here for the first time we see a truly nihilistic nihilism that leaps to a new dimension. Andre Gide was surely right in calling Notes from Underground the key to all of Dostoevsky’s works .


Earlier on in this chapter, holding up Turgenev’s Bazarov as a kind of prism, I attempted to analyze certain moments within the chaos that is Russian nihilism and provisionally distinguished four facets: the scientific spirit and its realistic worldview, socialist morality, egoism, and fanaticism. With Notes from Underground, however, we come upon a radical irony directed against all these elements . The scientific worldview and socialist morality try to transform people into piano keys and herd animals, as an ultimate resistance against which Dostoevsky proposes underground contemplation and absolutely irrational freedom of will.


With respect to fanaticism he points out the necessity for all actions to be reduced to inert inactivity. The egoism of the desire for power, the desire to become the gods of a “new society” by having others disappear, is negated by an egoism based on true “nihility.” In this manner the various facets of Russian nihilism that appeared in Bazarov are subjected to a paradoxical negation, resulting in a nihilism of greater and deeper proportions.


In the shift to a true nihilism which occurs within the protagonist of Notes from Underground, the escape from the world of iron laws through underground contemplation inhibits movement in the real world. The real world stands before the underground man as an obstacle, an impenetrable wall. Meantime, behind him the world of the ideal is no longer there to return to.


The basement of nihility can only be a dead-end of “inactivity.” The first step away fron nihilism as contemplative inertia and toward nihilism’s trying to assert itself through breaking the laws of the real world, seems to come with the “action” of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.


There nihilism leaps out from the underground and into the real world . Nihi lity takes on the positive meaning of negation of the world and its laws, and the nihi list comes to stand on a deeper egoistic “selfishness .” In other words, nihi lism becomes more selfaware.


At the same time, nihi lism becomes a problem for itself, appearing as a complex of deeper self-assertion and deeper selfdoubt, of limitless hope and despair, of an infinite sense of power and of helplessness .




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