How is it possible to describe Dostoevsky’s great but sometimes neglected novel, Notes From Underground, without provoking repugnance for the nameless anti-
hero whose voice dominates its pages? He is, as he announces in the opening lines, “a sick man…a spiteful man,” yet for all his insight into the nature of his own malady, he is, like Oedipus, sicker than he knows. Published in 1864, this seminal work is divided into two distinct parts. The first is a philosophical rant, compelling in the way that a person undone by a fit of hysteria in public is compelling. The second part introduces a series of characters with whom the narrator interacts, revealing the underlying dimensions of his sickness. The stature of this work rests upon Dostoevsky’s profound psychological insight into a disorder that is at once mental and moral—the disease of consciousness.
The novel’s Underground Man suffers from what he calls the disease of “being too acutely conscious.” He is inordinately proud to be a man of “great sensibility” who can perceive the “sublime and the beautiful.” Yet, in the quest for these exalted mental states unavailable to the “natural” man, he is driven to commit perverse and shameful acts, such that shame itself becomes a “damnable sweetness.”
This perverse pleasure arises in part from his fatalism. He feels that the possibility of becoming...