Book Reviews: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Published in Books - 3 mins to read

I've been wanting to start reading Russian literature for many years, largely for pretentious and narcissistic reasons. Dostoevsky seemed like a good place to start, in part because I enjoyed Richard Ayoade's film adaption of 'The Double' and because he is often cited by Jordan Peterson as a significant influence on his thinking.

This book made me feel... dumb. Which was good, and somewhat refreshing (apologies for the arrogance). To really understand what Dostoevsky was getting at, I think would require especially diligent reading, and perhaps I will read through it again at some point in the future, to see if I can extract anything more from it.

I won't try to analyse the book in any great detail because I would surely only embarrass myself. I will say the book is certainly worth reading for the concepts contained within - Dostoevsky's ideas about society and human nature are thought provoking at the very least. Delivering his commentary on political and existential philosophy through the form of satire serves the author well, making the dense topics more relatable, and also allowing the reader to find his own way along the trail of breadcrumbs that Dostoevsky has carefully laid out. That way, I felt like I had actually come upon some of the notions about the nature of humanity of my own accord and volition, even though that clearly wasn't the case.

One of the images that struck me most was that of society and the anthill, and the protagonist's detestation of London's Crystal Palace. He postulates that humans are like ants, constantly working on and improving our anthills. The ants aren't entirely sure why they do so, they are compelled by some unknown force to toil away. They don't enjoy it, they just do it. Were they ever to finish the anthill, such that it were perfect, the ants would surely feel directionless and simply lay around in the sun until they eventually died, more of boredom than any other cause. This is why the Crystal Palace is viewed as an abomination; because it represents the pinnacle of human achievements. It is perfect, nothing can surpass it - it is a finished anthill. And what if, after its completion, humanity no longer has anything to strive for? If no further improvements can be made to our race, what is there to do? There is nothing, the author postulates, but to wait for our death.

This concept hit close to home. I spend much of my life searching for enlightenment, in one way or another, under the assumption that enlightment will be blissful. I will feel pure peace and serenity. But what if that is not the case? What if I feel empty, lost, trapped in a void of my own design. Striving for something does seem important to me, both for myself and for people in general. Realistically, I will never attain enlightenment anyway, so it's something of a moot point, but Dostoevsky points out the irony in this - as humans, we are bound by our nature to constantly work towards something that we don't want. In fact it would be hell for us. We spend our lives desperately trying to construct our own Gehenna, and by some truly unimaginable stroke of luck, we are unable to ever finish our infernal project.

9/10, read the damn book.

Books read this year: 2/52

Next book: The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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