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Notes From Underground

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I cannot stand this book. After a few chapters, I just cannot keep up with the deliberate self-contradictions and all of Dostoevsky's attempts to confuse the reader. I cannot tell what the hell is going on, what is meant to be satire, what is meant to mean what.

Can someone please help me understand this book? What do you do when trying to understand something that is designed to be so bloody incomprehensible?

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I have only read Part One, but I didn't take it to be notably incomprehensible. I actually thought it to be an interesting and entertaining read. Part One is, in essence, the core of later existentialist thought, from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, to Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre. Dostoevsky, as the subsequent existentialist philosophers did, saw most of Western philosophy as a sort of futile groping for an understanding which cannot be reached (sort of like Dr. Pritchett at a party in the early parts of Atlas Shrugged):

Man has such a predilection for systems and abstract deductions that he is ready to distort the truth intentionally, he is ready to deny the evidence of his senses only to justify his logic.

Also in the tradition of later existentialists, Dostoevsky abhors reason, and sees some sort of "will" to be the defining feature of man. ("Reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man's nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses.") He doesn't really idealize individualism like Rand, rather portrays it as miserable. But his claim is that individualism, while being awful, is also the highest good:

Man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated...One's own free unfettered choice...is that very "most advantageous advantage" which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms.

Of course, he is a bundle of contradictions. But, like I said, I still think he is an entertaining read. I'll get around to reading Part Two sooner or later.

Edited by adrock3215

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It's that he seems to say things that don't really go anywhere, which are non sequitur or just contradictory. I mean, I really can't put it any better than that. The sentences kind of flow, with no real meaning behind them, followed by some random outburst about his liver and how it is wicked and how he won't treat it, and then he says he won't take medicine and then he goes on for a while later about how only wicked people live to any old age or something, then talks about how he was a bitter civil servant but he wasn't that bitter, but maybe he was, but he won't tell you. It just goes on like this for pages, with no central theme except 'Oh look! The ramblings of a crazy person!"

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It just goes on like this for pages, with no central theme except 'Oh look! The ramblings of a crazy person!"
Dostoyevsky is really good at that though, except that I wouldn't call them "crazy". Maybe "irrational" person would be a good generalized approximation. He does the same thing in "Gambler" and "Crime and Punishment" -- takes you inside a "crazy"/"irrational"/"evasion-ridden" guy's head.

I too put "Notes from Underground" down about half-way through, because I too thought it was going nowhere; but, I actually found myself fascinated by the author's skill.

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Its not really meant to 'go anywhere', its more of a psychological study/social commentary rather than a plot-based novel. The second half of the book does have something resembling a plot though, but its still quite loose. Enjoy it for the brilliant writing/phrasing/ideas rather than the story!

I wouldnt say its a study of a crazy person though; its more a picture of a certain aspect of the human psyche, taken to its extreme and painted in very strong colours. While there are some subjective aspects, a lot of it also seems to capture a general attitude, rather than just being idiosyncracies of the particular character being described.

Edited by eriatarka

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I could go take a wander around Bethlam hospital (it's actually very close to my house, about 15 mins drive) if I wanted to get observe some horrible human psyches. See, I wouldn't mind it if he actually goes some length in making some profound philosophical point about the basis of this character, but there is no explanation, just show and tell.

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Tenure:

If you haven't read it already, you have got to read Woody Allen's short piece, "Notes from the Over-fed", which Allen says was inspired after reading Dostoevsky and a copy of Weight Watchers magazine on the same flight. Hilarious!! <_<

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Tenure, what was your attitude going into reading this book? I've never read Dostoyevsky, but given that you've said before "Rand basically said everything that really needs to be said, so why bother reading others?" I suspect that going into this you may have already decided how it was going to turn out.

Your post number 4 really popped out at me, because I'd had reactions just like that before, but they were always when my mind wasn't willing to really consider the thing to which I was reacting. For example when I went to see Blue Man Group, I later told a teacher that they'd had no unity to their performance and it was just a bunch of random stuff thrown together (with I'm sure a bit of disgust in my voice). She pointed out a theme that did in fact unify the performance. I've realized that it wasn't that the performance was not unified, it was that I wasn't open to seeing the unity.

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I've been learning Objectivism for 10 years now and only in the last year have I gotten into Dostoevsky and Existentialism. Several years ago, Crime and Punishment was hard to read, because it was a clear reminder of all my past mistakes, it was cathartic. But it seems that I will never escape the evil of this Machiavellian world that we live in. They will always keep on trying, they can't help it. So I need to understand this modern world, and Dostoevsky is a great observer, a great novelist, a great influence , and as Ayn Rand pointed out a great guide for walking through the "chamber of horrors".

To like Notes From The Underground, consider what Dostoevsky wished to accomplish by it, what his purpose was. At this moment I don't know. Search it and you'll probably find the answer. Does he succeed at achieving his purpose? If so, then you must enjoy the work at least on that level. Notes is written in the first person, which is not my favorite format, but certainly Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot (which I am reading now), were and is entertaining. I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens. And I'm also impatient to start Brothers Karamazov to finally witness the Grand Inquisitor scene which is so famous.

I think Dostoevsky can be a more enjoyable read if you read him in the light of his historical context and his influence on subsequent thinkers and writers.

I personally find Dostoevsky and Existentialism enjoyable now because I'm almost decided on creating an Existentialist Godfather, but that isn't totally decided yet.

Anyways ...

Edited by AMERICONORMAN

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The only Dostoevsky I've read are Crime and Punishment, The Possessed (aka, The Demons), Notes from the Underground and a few shorter works.

I'd like to read C&P again, but, for me, The Possessed will require a second reading; I had practically no idea as to the significance of the characters' actions and dialogue in the book. But then, when I first read it, I was expecting an experience like I would get from other Romantic novelists: one of exaltation and uplift.

It looks to me, however, that one does not read Dostoevsky for the experience, though his work may be artistically integrated (I believe it is). That can give a reader an experience, but of a different kind. It seems Dostoevsky is mainly to be read for his insight, particularly into the nature of human evil, and that can be of tremendous value. For instance, with C&P, the value to me is understanding how a criminal mind--a mind with the premises Petrovich spots in Raskolnikov's crime essay--responds to his circumstances and his environment. For The Possessed, it is grasping the process by which a nation or culture allows itself to be corrupted by outside influences (Stavrogin and his friends are all educated abroad, mainly in Switzerland, as I recall). For NFTU, it's observing how someone's constantly second-guessing himself and self-suspicion can drive him insane.

One doesn't "enjoy" Dostoesky--one learns from him.

(Incidentally, Woody Allen's "Notes from the Overfed", his parody of NFTU, can be found in his book Getting Even.)

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Can someone please help me understand this book? What do you do when trying to understand something that is designed to be so bloody incomprehensible?

See, you should have taken Lisa Van Damme's Russian Short Stories class at OCON.

She explained how one can hate a book and still value it. She claimed she thought that Tolstoy was a masterful writer (one of the best ever) even though she wanted to throw Anna Karenina across the room 100 pages in. She highly recommended Peikoff's The Survival Value of Philosophically Wrong (Evil? Corrupt? I don't remember) Fiction, and his Eight Great Plays for a discussion of how this can be done. btw, I believe he states in the course that Tolstoy is one of his favorite authors, and I know he is one of hte most philosphically and consistently repugnant authors. But I see the point now.

No, I won't give you the secret! It's a bit like finding your chi or breaking boards. Magic! :fool:

The alternative is to run out of good heroic literature, and wallow in bad comic book movies simply because they try to depict a hero.

Edited by KendallJ

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See, you should have taken Lisa Van Damme's Russian Short Stories class at OCON.

She explained how one can hate a book and still value it. She claimed she thought that Tolstoy was a masterful writer (one of the best ever) even though she wanted to throw Anna Karenina across the room 100 pages in. She highly recommended Peikoff's The Survival Value of Philosophically Wrong (Evil? Corrupt? I don't remember) Fiction, and his Eight Great Plays for a discussion of how this can be done. btw, I believe he states in the course that Tolstoy is one of his favorite authors, and I know he is one of hte most philosphically and consistently repugnant authors. But I see the point now.

No, I won't give you the secret! It's a bit like finding your chi or breaking boards. Magic! :P

The alternative is to run out of good heroic literature, and wallow in bad comic book movies simply because they try to depict a hero.

Kendall has been spying on me :fool:

Notes from Underground, as I've just started reading it 2 days ago, is pretty good. I'm not expecting something that would change my perspective on things from Fyodor, though.

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From speaking with a friend of mine about this book, I found that he wrote a paper with the thesis that Dostoevsky's Underground Man is really a satire of philosophical nihilism. He informed me that there are some literary critics who have approached the text from this angle (as opposed to the common existential approach). I have not read any of Dostoevsky's other novels, but the same friend told me that the Underground Man is a common character in his literature. I was listening to a Rand interview on ARI's site where she stated that Dostoevsky was valuable because he portrayed man "as he might be and ought not to be."

I'm going to do a bit of searching around for those criticisms. Moreover, I need to read some of Dostoevsky's other literature. If I find something of interest, I will surely post it here.

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