Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

“set down / This set down / This”: a complete misreading of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground

Posted by Ronak M Soni on February 11, 2010

My Edition: Translator Mirra Ginsburg, Publisher Bantam Classics

He is a sickened man … he is a spited man. An unattractive man. He thinks he is a “sick man … I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man.”

In truth, he is neither sick nor spiteful.

Well, one Thursday, unable to endure my solitude any longer and knowing that Anton Antonych’s doors were shut on Thursdays, I thought of Simonov. As I climbed to his fourth-floor apartment, I was thining that this gentleman found my presence irksome and that I should not be going there. But since such thoughts would always in the end goad me still more irresistibly, as though in spite, into dubious situations, I went in.

That’s only how he acts. He is endowed with the intellect of an intelligent man who has never been able to relate to people.

He is not unattractive because he is ugly. He is, in fact, unattractive because he is unattracted.

No, in truth, he is not unattracted. He is merely scared of being attracted, of being attracted and finally rejected, scared merely because he can’t possibly see it coming.

I have in my own life merely carried to the extreme that which you have never ventured to carry even halfway

That is true, for isn’t he but the modern version of a character from a Greek morality play, a tragic character not because of what happens to him but because of who – what – he is?

Isn’t it, after all, true that the only way to explain this man, in all of his contradictory facets, is to name the character that he is?

… This little runt of an essay is, I believe, the centrepiece of my method of understanding this book (revealing the understanding itself, in my opinion, would be spoiling the goods).

I began planning to portray this beautiful and poignant novella, how it went from an extended whine to parody during its course, how I love Eliot (quoted at title) because he sounds good but Dostoevsky because he goes so deep into what life is, but soon found that my writing skills weren’t up to the job (it’s certainly a pity that writing has become, for me, the major channel for catharsis). To be honest, even Dostoevsky’s weren’t; didn’t this book, after all, begin as a negative review, a negative review supposedly of a book but actually of a genre, a genre that was basically a mindset? If Dostoevsky needs a hundred pages, how can I be expected to do it in a few hundred words?

Final note: My compliments to translator Ginsburg’s endnotes, which were both endlessly illuminating as well as view-of-the-book shaping.


8 Responses to ““set down / This set down / This”: a complete misreading of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground

  1. margaret said

    Just so you know: Eliot was quoting Shakespeare – Othello. I liked Notes, too.

  2. S M Rana said

    I once started Notes but did not proceed appreciably…Crime and Punishment, read ages back was a spellbinder and Karamazov is lost in dusty oblivion…

  3. What’s interesting about Notes from Underground is that the first half is an essay rallying against people who think that they can predict human behavior in various situations (the belief was that, someday soon, scientists could predict human behavior with complete accuracy). Dostoevsky’s argument is that since human beings can behave irrationally, logic can’t describe behavioral patterns with complete accuracy. The second half then deals with an irrational man…or so he would seem to these same scientists.

  4. […] take Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I wrote a little piece on it, and followed it up with this: This little runt of an essay is, I believe, the centrepiece of […]

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