Dostoevsky’s liver

I am a sick man…I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.

Bar none, that is one of the best openings ever. Well, at least on of my favorites. But we would expect nothing less from Fyodor Dostoevsky and his existential novella, Notes from Underground.

As the title suggests, the unnamed narrator isolates himself from society because of his inability to conform to its values. He goes “underground” to hide from the society that he feels rejects him. He makes himself a prisoner of his own ego, thoughts and suffering. Sounds like fun, right? Actually, for the reader, it is.

One of the things I like about this novella is the humor. If you have read any Dostoevsky’s typical fare, one thing you can usually say is that they are not particularly heavy on the humor. Also, they are not short. That’s why Notes from Underground is a bit refreshing. The humor lightens the existential load even though we clearly see some of his recurring themes: man’s free will as a defense against a Socialist or Marxist regime, the influence of the West and man’s level of consciousness and his ability to question reason and law.<

For if wanting someday gets completely in cahoots with reason, then essentially we shall be reasoning but not wanting, because it is really impossible, for example, while preserving reason to want senselessness and thus knowingly go against reason and wish yourself harm…And since all wantings and reasonings can indeed be calculated–because, after all, they will someday discover the laws of our so-called free will–then consequently and joking aside, something like a little table can be arranged, so that we shall indeed want according to this little table.

Dostoevsky goes on to take Reason to task and it is compelling and witty. And quite right because free-will cannot be minimized to fit into a table or a chart. So, Socialism and Marxism are flawed in their assumptions on how individuals actually behave.

And let’s face it, Underground Man is a miserable human being. Which he enjoys thoroughly. He has a toothache, he humiliates himself, he alienates himself, his liver hurts, etc. He uses masochism to great effect–he shows us it’s artifice in the extreme in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to the reader. Who would enjoy a toothache? Their liver aching? Perhaps a developed individual under the influence of European society and the advances of the West might best understand the purpose of suffering. Dostoevsky does not want the Fatherland to fall prey to the power of European society and lose the traditional value of it’s own culture.

Thus, Dostoevsky puts to us his love-hate relationship with Russian society and politics. This novella was a precursor to some of the French writers and philosophers who followed, like Jean-Paul Sartre and so I felt a certain duty to give hommage to this particular work of Dosoevsky’s.

I would be terribly remiss if I did not mention the new and wonderful translation by Dostoevsky gold star translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Dostoevsky is not easy in any language and this team consistently delivers the best to us.

Notes from Underground
By Fyodor Dosoevsky
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Vintage Classic
160 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-679-73452-9

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