Analyzing Dostoevsky’s Underground Man based on Kierkegaard’s Discussion of Despair

dostoevskyIn the Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard explains that man is “a synthesis of the finite and the infinite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” The components of these two parameters (the finite and the infinite) need to be in a sort of equilibrium through repeated self-reflection “grounded” in the reliance on God to abolish despair. He says that there are two forms of despair: the despair of not willing be one’s          Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881)                   own self and the despair of willing to be                                                                                          one’s own self.

As he explains, the despair of willing to be one’s own self, Kierkegaard uses the example of an individual suffering from vertigo to show that refusing to recognize one’s reliance on the “Power” (or God) through repeated self-reflection causes the self to be out of balance, which in turn leads to despair. So he believes that willing to be one’s own self without relating to the intrinsic God in us through defiance results in further despair. In his words, if “by himself and by himself only he would abolish the despair, then by all the labour he expends, he is only laboring himself into a deeper despair.”

He explains the despair of not willing to be one’s own self through the examples of a young women with  a broken heart and an ambitious man with the motto, “Caesar or nothing.” He explains that when this ambitious man doesn’t become “Caesar”, he becomes unhappy because the self that didn’t become Caesar bothers him and not the fact that he didn’t become Caesar. In the case of the young girl in despair due to a broken heart, he again emphasizes that she is in despair over “the self” that she associated strongly with a lost love.

In my opinion, Dostoevsky’s underground man (from Notes from Underground) exemplifies a combination of both the forms of despair discussed by Kierkegaard.

The underground man is clearly in the aesthetic stage of existence that Kierkegaard explores in Either/or. The underground man states that “one’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy- is that very most advantageous advantage which we have overlooked.” He backs his belief in free will by saying that “the whole work of man” is to prove to himself that “he is a man (with free will) and not a piano key.” He notes that if twice two makes four without his will, it is an example of the lack of free will. He thereby repeatedly emphasizes the importance of his abstract freedom where he does things simply to exercise his free will.

He is evidently in the despair of not willing to be his own self. There are numerous passages where the underground man has a self-deprecating and envious tone. When he goes into a tavern seeking a fight upon seeing a man thrown out of the tavern window (due to his caprice), he is really troubled by the fact that an officer he runs into simply sets him aside in the tavern. His self (that he consequently perceives as threatened with apparent insignificance) troubles him so much that he goes through great trouble and elaborate preparation to simply bump into the officer much later. The underground man’s contempt for his friend Zverkov seems to be rooted in envy (which indicates he isn’t happy with his own self). The book is replete with such examples of how the underground man isn’t really happy with his perception of his “self.”

He notes that he could not become anything by saying that he is “neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect.” He goes on to say that he is “eking out his days in a corner, taunting himself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.” This statement clearly indicates that he thinks he has an understanding of the self which caused him to conclude that he cannot become anything.  He indicates that his “intelligence” and “consciousness” will lead him to stay as “nothing.” One can relate Kierkegaard’s despair of defiantly wanting to be oneself to these assertions of the underground man. Kierkegaard would obviously contest that an intelligent man would be able to become something (ie end the spiritual sickness of despair or being nothing) through the self reflection of the synthesis of the infinite and finite components of the self “posited by the Power.” So Kierkegaard would assert that “to be overly conscious” isn’t a “real thorough sickness” as a consciousness of the synthesis (between the finite and the infinite) grounded in God would lead one to recognize that one can actually be liberated from spiritual despair, which is the true sickness unto death.

2 thoughts on “Analyzing Dostoevsky’s Underground Man based on Kierkegaard’s Discussion of Despair

  1. Tanuj Solanki


    I had these thoughts (not so cogently argued) when I googled ‘notes from the underground Kierkegaard.’ I am grateful for this essay. Thanks a lot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *