The precursor for Existentialism and influence on Friedrich Nietzsche, the underground man described by Fyodor Dostoyevsky suffers from acute consciousness.
The unnamed narrator of Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a social anomaly because of his inability to fit into society. He possesses acute consciousness and therefore offends the very fabric of social order, which demands dull compliance. And because of his overwhelming consciousness, he complains of mental anguish.
The Underground Man Reflects on his Illness
The narrator tries to grasp his suffering by likening it to a physical pain that he decides to live with rather than seek treatment for. His prolonged monologue consists of a critique of himself and society. Analogous to moans, the monologue stretches out and vocalizes the narrator’s pain so that he can reflect on it and realize that it is all he has. Everything else is dull and relatively meaningless, but the potency of pain makes the narrator feel more alive and independent. Lofty ideals are like a dream one must awaken from, and the underground man hates the aftereffect of filling his disillusioned, empty consciousness with lies.
The Effects of Acute Consciousness
But the narrator cannot decide whether he admires or despises himself. Since he carefully dissects every thought that enters his mind, he cannot feel good or bad about his condition because he does not know its cause. While others are happy to live and act according to secondary causes – abstract principles such as justice or honor – ideals they have accepted blindly, the underground man is in a state of inertia because he cannot behave according to false causes.
The narrator asks, “How can a man of consciousness have the slightest respect for himself?”. He is easily embarrassed by his pettiness and cowardice in real life, but wonders why others are not also embarrassed by their actions.
The underground man realizes that his moaning will only make people loathe him, but he delights even in his embarrassment if it distinguishes him from those who cannot feel embarrassment, or experience real living at the threshold of pain.
The underground man, having been blessed and cursed with the heightened awareness of his insignificance, realizes the impersonal nature of existence. But he is not the hero for his discovery. Instead, he is the actor who stumbles on stage and cannot follow his lines; the sleepwalker who has awakened in a strange room and lost touch with his enchanting dream. He is paralyzed in inertia because of the bright stage light of his own consciousness, which makes him constantly aware of his every move and fallacious thought.
Consciousness and the Freedom of the Existentialist to Rebel
Dostoevsky contends, by introducing the underground man, that people will defy every system created to predict their behavior. In other words, no system can accurately categorize humans because there will always be the few who will act out just to spite the sterile system.
The narrator’s consciousness breaks through the mechanical social formula to irritate social order and allow for independence, regardless of whether that independence leads to admirable or detestable deeds. He revels in his pain and mental anguish because it is the means through which he experiences freedom from systemic control.
The underground man does not know how far the tunnel of independent consciousness goes, or to what it leads; he only knows that it is all that matters. And it is important for him to express his pain to the world so that he upsets the calculable and gives voice to the irrational, the yawning abyss, the idiot nearing the end of his scripted – though badly followed – act.
But by not following his script, he has veered into a niche all his own. The niche is that of consciousness, all alone, circling and dissecting itself anew, for the audience that is not there.