Joking with Clenched Teeth: The Politics of Modern Alienation in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s literary style separates yet unifies fiction and non-fiction literary genres in order to critique modern political discourse.  It does this from the point of view of modern alienation in the voice of the Underground Man.  By situating the novella in the space of pure imagination, Dostoyevsky encourages students of politics and literature to contemplate the origins of both modern political philosophy and it’s alienated other in terms of abstraction and imagination.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground offers students of politics and literature an entertaining and philosophically pointed read.  Notes from Underground was written ten years after Dostoyevsky was released from a convict prison in Siberia, a sentence he received from the Russian Tsarist regime for his involvement in the Petrashevsky Circle.[1]  Accordingly, Notes endeavors to capture, in the form of literary fiction, the influence of modernity on Russian politics in the mid-19th century.  In other words, the novella should be read as a work of fiction and as a piece of political philosophy.  Once understood thusly, Dostoyevsky’s Notes may be read as a critical analysis of political modernism.  Central to Dostoyevsky’s criticism is modernity’s discourse of alienation and its inability to, identify, define, and account for alienation.  Consequently, Notes from Underground illustrates alienation’s resistance to symbolization within the symbolic order of modern political philosophy.  As Dostoyevsky demonstrates through the narrator’s (Underground Man’s) philosophical reflection about his condition (of alienation), this symbolic impossibility is exposed as being a consequence of modernity’s reliance on the ordering principal of natural law doctrine.  Once Dostoyevsky’s political philosophy is identified in Notes, reintegration of the fictitious dimension is crucial to summarizing Dostoyevsky’s overall critique political modernism.  This critique concludes that modern political thought, together with the alienation it fails to symbolize, is authored by, and founded in, imagination.

Dostoyevsky encourages his audience to read the novella as both a work of fiction and a piece of political philosophy when, in the introductory paragraph, he disclaims that “The author of these Notes, and the Notes themselves, are both, of course, imaginary.  All the same, if we take into consideration the conditions that have shaped our society, people like the writer not only may, but must, exist in that society” (13).  Dostoyevsky further describes his imaginary author as “a more striking [than usual] character belonging to the very recent past, a representative figure from a generation still surviving” (13).  The Narrator and author of the Notes becomes Dostoyevsky’s mouthpiece for a political philosophy of modern alienation, a character that “not only [seeks permission], but [demands to] exist in that society,” as if by necessity (13).  Additionally, the Narrator is an imaginary specter of the past, alienated from all things present yet “still surviving” (13).  Dostoyevsky concludes his introduction with his signature, a gesture which separates it from the rest of the novella. This is important because the reader must choose either to include the paragraph as a part of the fiction itself, thus subjecting it to the rules of imagination, or consider it in isolation as Dostoyevsky’s non-fiction introduction to his fictional story.[2]

The introductory paragraph of Notes from Underground situates alienation within a context of modern political philosophy by distinguishing “the very recent past” as something different from the conditions of the modern present.  Furthermore, it accentuates the tensions inherent in the differences between a theory of society-by-permission and that of society-by-necessity through Dostoyevsky’s movement from “may” to “must.”    Consequently, Dostoyevsky’s narrator (the Underground Man) articulates his theory of alienation in the present tense throughout chapter one,[3] thus taking place within the horizon of modern political philosophy, allowing Dostoyevsky’s novella to be both critical and loyal to political modernism.  The Underground Man and the (fictitious) existence of the underground, in general, imply a state of alterity[4] from, presumably, that which is not underground.  The character of this alterity, the foundation of alienation, stands or falls with the political philosophy of permission or necessity and their opposites, forbiddance and accident.

The politics of alienation, then, in Dostoyevsky’s Notes consist of a theory of time and incommensurable theories about the nature of inclusive/exclusive societies.  Subsequently, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man articulates this incommensurability in order to expose alienation as a discursive consequence of modernist political philosophy, a consequence of its reliance upon natural-law-discourse as the bond that holds its symbolic order intact.  Although the Underground Man attacks law-of-nature discourse throughout chapter one, he best summarizes his criticism in chapter one, part seven.[5]  In the words of his imagined antagonist, he says “that the laws of nature still exist on earth. So that whatever man does he does not of his own volition but, as really goes without saying, by the laws of nature” (32).  The laws of nature (its political variant), according to the Underground Man’s imagined interlocutor, align with man’s self-interest “when he is enlightened and understands what will really benefit him” (29).  The schism arises, or modern alienation emerges, when the Underground Man asserts that “it is indeed possible, and sometimes positively imperative…to act directly contrary to one’s own best interests” (33).  But furthermore, “The main thing is that, however you look at it, it always turns out that you are chiefly to blame for everything…innocently to blame, by the laws of nature, as it were” (19).

Dostoyevsky’s critique of natural law ascribes the Underground Man’s otherness (alienation) to a state of willful ignorance.  This otherness is contrasted against, presumably, necessary intelligence.  At the same time, it leaves unresolved the philosophical quagmire between volition and necessity, a function of modern critical analysis.  In other words, natural law modernism attempts to account for alienation without explicit articulation.  On the one hand, it solves the inclusion-by-permission problem by stating inclusivity in terms of an open invitation with the caveat of knowledge of the laws of nature, leading to the discovery of man’s self-interest thus the cessation of evil.[6]  On the other hand, it dismisses alienation as a knowledgeable act of unnatural irrationality.  Political modernism is unequipped to identify and thus define alienation, it resists positive symbolization.  Dostoyevsky illustrates this quality when his Underground Man says “even if it was only laziness; I should have…one positive quality of which I could be sure.  It would mean being positively defined, it would mean that there was something that could be said of me” (28 emphases original).

As follows, a defining characteristic of the opposition between the Underground and its associated discursive chain of signification is the distinction between the political value of thought and/or action.  The Underground Man identifies these distinct spheres throughout chapter one and identifies himself with the sphere of thought/inaction.  He says “Last of all gentlemen: it is best to do nothing!  The best thing is conscious inertia! So long live the underground” (43)!  Similarly, “to them a wall is not a challenge, as it is to us, for example, men who think and therefore don’t do anything” (20).  The qualifying agent of the natural-law-inclusionary discourse is knowledge about the laws of nature.  The Underground Man has been “living like this for a long time now—about twenty years” (15).  Dostoyevsky’s theory of alienation banishes the Underground Man into a sphere of pure abstraction where he can think long and hard about his condition in relation to the laws of nature.  In other words, alienation and thought assume the character of a corrective measure where the Underground Man is physically confined yet intellectually unbounded.  Notes from Underground assume this form in chapter two when the Underground Man recollects a “particularly [oppressive]…ancient memory” (46).  Dostoyevsky moves from the present to the past, a move foreshadowed in his introductory paragraph.  The Underground Man’s retrospection depicts a history of social awkwardness and frustrated goals.  He indeed seems physically confined, by the laws of nature, as it were, within a narrow sphere of action.[7]

During the Underground Man’s chapter of retrospection, Dostoyevsky illustrates that the Underground Man indeed confidently identifies the social means necessary to achieve his desired ends.  He thus severs the causal link between the rational (knowledgeable) identification of social means and successful ends—the Underground Man always fails.  For instance, the Underground Man rationally plans all of the activities involving interaction with contemporaries yet his efforts result in continuous bungling.  In other words, the Underground Man is excluded by necessity/permission even though he participates in the discourse of modern political philosophy—he participates in identifying his self-interest and the means by which his self-interest should be satisfied.  This memory is crucial to Dostoyevsky’s critique of political modernism and its reliance on knowledge as a means of political efficacy.  He questions not only the truthfulness of knowledge as a measureable predictor of successful action, but also the very possibility of knowledge as an ideal antecedent to action.

Dostoyevsky’s critical technique of blurring the lines between literary genres (fiction and non-fiction) allows him to separate the activities of political philosophy and story-telling.  The very possibility of this separation, however, suggests its own impossibility.  In other words, the act of separating political philosophy from story-telling effectively implies that the two are originally intimately connected.  Similarly, Notes from Underground blurs the lines between modernity and it’s alienated other, suggesting that the very possibility of this separation implies its own impossibility.  This impossibility is expressed in the schism created when natural law attempts to account for its otherness in terms consistent with its symbolic order, as told through the Underground Man’s narrative.  Dostoyevsky’s method of genre blurring and juxtaposition parallels that of modernism’s discursive attempt at fusing a political theory of permission with that of necessity.  Notes from Underground is founded upon the discourse of the imaginary and unfolds in a sphere of pure abstraction where action is restricted by modernism’s participation in knowledge about the laws of nature.  In the Underground Man’s alienation, the laws of nature (in particular) and political modernism (in general) reach their full expression (logical conclusion/consequence) in the Underground Man’s imagination.


[1] The Petrashevsky Circle was a group of intellectuals persecuted by the Tsarist government.

[2] A similar move is made in the story itself, when the underground Man moves from his philosophical self-portrait to his “historical” recollection.  Additionally, Dostoyevsky takes his place as the unreliable narrator, mirroring the discursive position of the Underground Man.

[3] The Underground Man describes his present condition as one of “extreme old age…unseemly, disgusting, [and] immoral” (16).

[4] Alterity denotes “otherness” or “alienation” while at the same time implying a mutual conceptual necessity for identity.

[5] (29).

[6] “[M]an will cease to do evil and at once become virtuous and noble, because when he is enlightened and understands what will really benefit him he will see his own best interest in virtue…” (29).

[7] For instance, he is relatively weak (in relation to the officer he picks a fight with), poor (in relation to his contemporaries from whom he seeks inclusion), incapable of love (as shown with his interaction with Liza), and unable to command his servant.

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About Thomas Hobbes Jr.

Scientist of the soul, of the City. Anxious political theorist and social media gadfly, who refuses to engage without immediate internet access. Becomes especially aroused by, and is particularly adept at sniffing out, weak arguments in foreign policy and international relations. Likes to hide behind the quotes and texts of great writers, political philosophers, and other figures in the history of political thought.

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