Staying true to our genre of twenty-somethings spinning out theories of life, this post draws from my recent encounter with Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground, and goes on to question the need to be self-assured. Lately I’ve been exploring my various shadow selves, and am now comfortable enough to write about it in a somewhat objective fashion. Buyer beware: Notes is the one book you’re not supposed to read when you’re in despair. But fuggetaboutit. We’ve chosen to write for the damned anyways.
Conventional wisdom frowns on the self-assured individual. The person in the bar who dances like a jackass and yet, somehow, feels good about it. The person who has serious, visible issues and yet is self-confident in ways the average person can’t be. This contrast fucks people up. How can you be so terrible and yet be so happy? Why aren’t you on our train, chasing the promised dream?
Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. Notes is not just a book about the perils of not being self-assured. It also explores what happens when we take the so-called good things in life- being well-read, holding yourself and others to high moral standards, philosophizing- to the other extreme. It’s a classic case of too much of anything is bad.
Our underground man, our unreliable narrator, aims to present himself without a filter. Whether he succeeds or not is another question altogether, but I will tell you this: If you belong to that class of introspectors who think that anything that’s self-critical has to be true, this book is going to mess you up. Inside out. This book taught me that even self-criticism, when taken to the extreme, without any self-love, quickly becomes delusional and paves the way for spite and decay.
“To be overly conscious is a sickness.” There’s a thin red line between healthy self-consciousness and the kind that our man has. Reminds me of that David Foster Wallace quote: “There’s good self-consciousness, and then there’s toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness.” Maybe what we need is mindfulness, not hyper self-consciousness. Also, I think it’s kind of important to be super conscious of the world around us, instead of ourselves. I don’t matter as much as I think I do. This is water, this is water, I tell myself.
Or as one YouTube reviewer, Steve Santerre, pointed out, was the Underground Man better than us? He says: “As far as I myself am concerned, I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway, and, what’s more, you’ve taken your cowardice for good sense, and found comfort in thus deceiving yourselves. So that I, perhaps, come out even more “living” than you.”
And why can’t he love? Why can’t he see his pain and see that others have similar pains? And when he does see, why does he side with tyranny?
Here’s one for the book-nerd who thinks he can get away with not talking to people and learning from them: “I was so used to thinking and imagining everything from books, and to picturing everything in the world to myself as I had devised it beforehand in my dreams, that at first, I didn’t even understand this strange circumstance. What occurred was this: Liza, whom I had insulted and crushed, understood far more than I imagined;. She understood from it all what a woman, if she loves sincerely, always understands before anything else- namely, that I myself was unhappy.”