Notes from Underground
If philosophy among other vagaries were also to have the notion that it
could occur to a man to act in accordance with its teaching, one might
make out of this a queer comedy.
—Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Few works in modern literature are more widely read than Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (Zapiski izpodpol'ya) or so often cited as a key text revelatory of the hidden depths of the sensibility of our time. The term “underground man” has become part of the vocabulary of contemporary culture, and this character has now achieved—like Hamlet, Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Faust—the stature of one of the great archetypal literary creations. Most important cultural developments of the present century—Nietzscheanism, Freudianism, expressionism, surrealism, crisis theology, existentialism—have claimed the underground man as their own or have been linked with him by zealous interpreters; and when the underground man has not been hailed as a prophetic anticipation, he has been held up to exhibition as a luridly repulsive warning. The underground man has thus entered into the very warp and woof of modern culture in a fashion testifying to the philosophical suggestiveness and hypnotic power of this first great creation of Dostoevsky's post-Siberian years.
Notes from Underground attracted little attention when first published (no critical notice was taken of it in any Russian journal). In 1883, N. K. Mikhailovsky wrote his all-too-influential article, “A Cruel Talent,” citing some of its more sadistic passages and arguing that the utterances and actions of the character illustrated Dostoevsky's own “tendencies to torture.” 1 Eight years later, writing from an opposed ideological perspective, V. V. Rozanov interpreted the work as essentially inspired by Dostoevsky's awareness of the irrational depths of the human soul, with all its conflicting impulses for evil as well as for good. No world order based on reason and rationality could possibly contain this seething
1 N. K. Mikhailovsky, “Zhestoky talant,” in F. M. Dostoevsky v Russkoi kritike, ed. A. A. Belkin
(Moscow, 1956), 306–384.