The Underground Man, and How He Got There
Jordan Hylden


Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God!"

As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

"Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves."

- Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Gay Science”

 

***


Given the current state of American culture, it may seem that such melodramatic reports of God’s death are much like those of Mark Twain’s demise: greatly exaggerated. We just witnessed a presidential election pitting Altar Boy against Born-Again, in which each candidate seemed bent on proving the veracity of John Knox’s old dictum: “One man with God is a majority.” Indeed, in some ways, God seems to be more popular than ever. American churches are filling up faster than contractors can build them, movies about crucifixion have become Hollywood blockbusters, and even Ashton Kutcher wears T-shirts declaring that Jesus is his homeboy. Superficially, at least, it seems very difficult to make the case for God’s death: if anything, he seems to be quite spry in his old age.

But perhaps Ashton Kutcher’s wardrobe is not the best place to look for the Almighty. God, if he is real, should surely have more impact on our lives than that. He should be more than an idea that stubbornly clings to the minds of the backwards and the uneducated; he should be more than the organizing principle behind presidential elections and shiny new suburban megachurches. These things, finally, prove very little about God. For many of us, the words of Nietzsche’s madman hit home, far too close to our hearts. Many of us are no longer sure about God anymore. Our families are, but we are not. We have grandfathers that were preachers, uncles and aunts that were religious leaders, mothers and fathers with faith that can move mountains, even brothers and sisters who love the Lord with all their hearts, but to us, the faith of our fathers no longer makes any sense. At times we wish—no, we long—that it would, but it does not. God is intangible, ineffable, inscrutable, and perhaps even impossible. We go home for Christmas, and sit next to our grandparents in church, and wish that the joy they so earnestly feel and the faith they so deeply possess could be ours. But it is not, and we fear that it can never be. The madman speaks to our hearts, for we know what it is that we have lost, and despair of ever getting it back.

The main character of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Notes From Underground felt much the same way, for he struggled with the same dilemma that many of us know all too well: how, in a rootless world where we feel as if we are straying as through an infinite nothing, we are to face life. How, without God, are we to go on? The intensity of the underground man’s struggle can be felt from his very first words to us: that he is “a sick man… a spiteful man.” For page after page of impassioned narrative, the underground man breathlessly pours forth his invective at the world, screaming laments about the pointlessness of it all, all the while knowing there is no one at whom to scream. Perhaps better than any other book, Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground gives us a portrait of what it is to live without God. We are told, in fact, by the author that the underground man, though a fictional character, “not only may, but indeed must exist in our society, considering the general circumstances under which our society was formed… He’s a representative of the current generation.” While these words were of course penned not in 21st century America but in 19th century Russia, they may indeed have a great deal of applicability to our own time. It may be true that the underground man is, as he himself asserts, someone who has “only taken to an extreme that which you haven’t even dared to take halfway,” and when we find him at the end of his Notes, twenty-four years old and standing alone in the wet, dreary snow of St. Petersburg, we may find more of ourselves standing there with him than we had ever dared to dread.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The underground man, as Dostoevsky implies, did not go underground, as it were, by his own volition: he was driven there. Something, he asserts, about modern society made him possible, and in fact necessary. He is, he tells us, a “representative of the current generation.” Dostoevsky is pointing us towards something radical, something drastic, that shook at the roots of the underground man’s world, and that by implication has shaken the roots of our world as well. If you are clever, you will have already figured it out—he is pointing to the massive changes in European thought that occurred in the 19th century, such that prior to 1859, the underground man’s existence would not even have been possible, but afterwards, was made necessary. Since these changes have much to do with the nature of our own society, and since many of the questions that they raise remain current today, it is worth our time to briefly look back at how the underground man found himself where he was.

The world that gave birth to Dostoevsky’s underground man and Nietzsche’s madman was something altogether new in European history. The idea of God had long been the capstone of Western thought, which since the conversion of the emperor Constantine had been popularly expressed through the Christian religion. As the intellectual historian James Turner points out, the very idea of atheism would not have made sense to the average European man or woman for over a thousand years. God was, so to speak, a part of the air they breathed. Even when they were not particularly pious (and many Europeans were far from holy), they regarded God and his Church as an essential part of their societal fabric. Europeans were possessed of a sense of place, the importance of which Romano Guardini explains: they looked up at the stars, and knew that they were God’s stars. They looked around at the world, and knew that it was God’s world. They looked at themselves, and knew that they were God’s people. Their lives were endowed with purpose; their actions had eternal import; their souls were immortal. They knew that life at times may not make sense, and indeed, often would not: wars raged, plagues ravaged, and thieves plundered throughout their difficult lives. But suffering was eventually to be redeemed; in fact was redemptive, for so it had been made by Christ’s suffering on the cross. In this world they would have trouble, but they did not fear, for they knew that Christ had overcome the world. By faith, they were sure of what they hoped for, and certain of what they did not see; this defined their lives, and anchored their world.

But as beautiful and as comforting as all this was, it was not to last. Changes came to the European psyche, which were to forever change the way in which they saw the world and their place therein. In the High Middle Ages, the theological certainty of St. Thomas Aquinas had reigned supreme: all truth was God’s truth, and all the world was God’s. By the 19th century, however, the rigid proofs and postulates of Aquinas had long been a thing of the past. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution had all burst upon the scene with their freewheeling, freethinking ideas. Religious doctrines were no longer secure, and even God’s existence was very much in doubt. Rival philosophical schools had for centuries attacked each other’s pet proofs of God’s existence, with the ultimate effect of dismantling all but the biological argument from design. This line of reasoning for a time seemed secure, as even the most inveterate atheist could be silenced by simply pointing to the apparent providential design of nature.

The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, however, dealt this argument a fatal blow. God was no longer necessary to explain the origin and intricacy of nature, with the result that God was no longer needed to explain anything at all. God was not even needed to explain the human soul—Herbert Spencer, in his widely influential Principles of Psychology, asserted that our minds were nothing more than stimulus-response machines created by the process of evolution. Evolutionary psychologists confidently stated that our so-called “souls” were really nothing more than physical functions caused by simple chemical reactions. It is difficult to underestimate the seismic shift represented by all of these changes—the idea of God, which had been the capstone of Western thought for centuries, was suddenly gone. No longer were the stars God’s stars; no longer was the world God’s world; no longer were we God’s people. Our lives were not endowed with purpose; our souls were not immortal, nay, did not even exist; and God, who had benevolently watched over us all these long years, was dead. And so it was, finally, that in the latter half of the 19th century, an entire culture strove to come to grips with the death of God. Many wondered, as did Nietzsche’s madman, if all of Europe was now “straying as through an infinite nothing.”

This was the new world about which the madman prophesied; this was the world that drove the underground man underground. Those who heeded the madman’s words struggled to redefine the very foundations of their lives: if we were not made by God, then why were we made? If the cosmos itself is purposeless and our very existence no more than happenstance, where does that leave us? Do our lives have meaning? Can we invest our lives with moral purpose without a transcendent moral standard? Do any of our choices even matter? Indeed, can we even speak of “choice” and human emotions like “love” in a mechanistic universe, where our “souls” are no more than highly advanced stimulus-response machines? All of these questions troubled 19th century Europe, as indeed they trouble many of us today. Dostoevsky, in his Notes from Underground, does not offer us answers: rather, he presents to us a man who attempts to live his life in the face of the unanswerable. It is because of this that the underground man, like Nietzsche’s madman, hits us where we are: the answers to these questions are so far beyond our ken that, indeed, “we must ourselves become gods” to answer them. The underground man knows they are unanswerable, and given the death of God and of the soul, is concerned only about finding a way to live. In the end, is it possible at all? This is the ultimate question that the underground man sets out to answer, and so with the same question in mind, we turn now to him, to find out, as it were, if life underground is worth the living.

 

***

 

When first we come upon the underground man, he has been living in self-imposed exile for twenty years, alone and unemployed in a squalid apartment on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. He is quick to tell us that he was not always this way; that at one time he was employed as a civil servant, and before that a student. But no longer: now, he is alone. He quit work years ago, since he had been given a small inheritance and did not see the point in it, and avoids all but the most superficial human contact. It is tempting to write him off as a lunatic—his frantic prose does not always seem like that of a sane man (as we understand sanity), and it is at first difficult to understand why he has chosen to live a life of solitude. It becomes clear, however, when we listen to him carefully, that he is not in fact a madman. Rather, he is completely sane: his life in the underground, miserable as it may be, is driven by his unshakeable belief that life is pointless. For the underground man, life cannot possibly have meaning unless we are endowed with the ability to make free moral choices, and to have those choices correspond with transcendent values, like love. But both of these things, he believes, are not possible, given the death of God and the human soul. Some people may not realize this, he says, but for those of us who know that free will is an illusion and love a farce, there can be no other choice than the underground. We are mice, and not men, he argues, and so cannot honestly, without denying our conscious knowledge of the futility of life, live anyplace other than a mouse-hole.

Central to the underground man’s despair is his belief in what he calls the “wall.” The wall, he writes, consists of “the laws of nature, the conclusions of natural science and mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for example, that it’s from a monkey you’re descended, there’s no reason to make faces; just accept it as it is.” The mechanistic universe of Darwinism, he believed, left no room for free choice. “Science itself” has taught man, he tells us, “that in fact he possesses neither a will nor a whim of his own, that he never did, and that he himself is nothing more than a kind of piano key or organ stop; that, moreover, there still exist laws of nature, so that everything he’s done
has been not in accordance with his own desire, but in and of itself, according to the laws of nature.” Since God did not endow us with souls, and since our minds (as Spencer was to point out later) are nothing more than highly evolved stimulus-response machines operating by means of chemical reactions, the underground man was unable to conceive of free choice. In theory, then, man’s desires and actions could be predicted “according to these laws, mathematically, and will be entered on a schedule… so that there will be no actions or adventures left on earth.” This “wall,” the underground man believed, was completely destructive of our humanity, which to him only made sense in the context of free choice. “Man needs only one thing,” he asserts, “his own independent desire, whatever that independence might cost and wherever it might lead… What is man without desire, without will, and without wishes but a stop in an organ pipe?” It is for this reason that the underground man calls us “mice,” and not men. While the uneducated “men of action” act as if their choices matter, we who are conscious know that they do not. We know, he tells us, that they are not really even our choices at all, and so we are robbed of the ability to have and act upon independent desires and wishes, which of course are essential characteristics of personhood.

Furthermore, given the excision of free will from humanity, the underground man believed that altruism was, as a result, impossible. Although we appear, at times, to act out of love for our fellow man, these actions are illusory. According to Darwinian evolution, all organisms act out of a selfish desire for their own preservation, disregarding the interests of others. Acts that appear to be altruistic are not, since they are actually done in the expectation of receiving personal benefit somewhere on down the road. As the underground man noted, referring to this doctrine of natural science:

As soon as they prove to you that in truth one drop of your own fat is dearer to you than the lives of one hundred thousand of your fellow creatures and that this will finally put an end to all the so-called virtues, obligations, and other such similar ravings and prejudices, just accept [it]…

The “so-called virtues” did not make sense to the underground man, for science had given them definitions far, far different from their traditional meanings. Concepts like friendship, compassion, and love were rendered meaningless to him: if people could no longer truly care for one another, what good was friendship? And if science had reduced love to a transactional relationship, what was the point in pursuing it? What does love matter if we can no longer truly love one another? This, finally, is what drove the underground man underground. He could not “conceive of love in any way other than a struggle… it always begins with hatred and ends with moral subjugation.” The underground man knew that this was not love; it was power, and he found himself, in the end, unable to live without love.

His last chance at love came from an unlikely place: a brothel. Fresh from a humiliating encounter with his friends, in which he had destroyed every shred of respectability he had left to him, he stumbled into a brothel from the cold St. Petersburg night in a frenzy, bent on taking whatever pleasure he could from whomever he could find. It is there, in that place, that he met Liza, a young woman with “something simple and kind in her face.” He did not talk to her for the first two hours, and in fact made a point of not looking into her eyes, but when the time came for him to leave he found that he could not. His feelings towards Liza, which at first had been based upon nothing more than a naked desire for power, had turned into shame. “I’d suddenly realized,” he tells us, “how absurd, how revolting as a spider, was the idea of debauchery, which, without love, crudely and shamelessly begins precisely at the point where genuine love is consummated.” They begin talking, haltingly at first, in what is, for him, a rare attempt to show kindness towards another human being. The twenty-year-old Liza soon reveals that she has been separated from her parents, and was forced to work in the brothel to make ends meet. As a result, she is sick, and depressed. Sick and depressed himself, the underground man empathizes with her, almost despite himself.

This commendable goal, however, quickly metamorphoses into his old habits of relational subjugation. He soon writes that “it was the sport that attracted me most of all. Something had suddenly caught fire in me, some kind of goal had ‘manifested itself’ before me.” Forgetting his good intentions, he brings her dormant fears to the surface and presents himself as a sort of personal savior, inviting her to his apartment, ostensibly with the magnanimous goal of removing her from the squalor of the brothel. Realizing his subjugation fantasies, he imagines telling Liza that “you’re mine, you’re my creation, you’re pure and lovely, you’re my beautiful wife.” Even as his desire for power comes to the surface, however, one can detect an undercurrent of something else: perhaps affection, perhaps compassion, or perhaps even love. After he leaves the brothel, he muses that “she really did interest me,” and wonders if maybe “it wasn’t only the sport” that had attracted him. In the interval before their next meeting, he works himself into a frenzy, warning himself that at their next encounter he’ll “once again put on that dishonest, deceitful mask,” then countering immediately with the objection, “Why deceitful? Yesterday I spoke sincerely. I recall there was genuine feeling in me, too…” The tension between his desire for love and his belief that it does not exist builds before their next meeting, giving him one final chance to reject his philosophical beliefs and accept the love that he so desperately desires.

When Liza appears on his doorstep, he is immediately ashamed of himself and bursts into tears. After regaining his composure, however, he launches into a tirade against her, telling her not quite truthfully that he had only seemed to care about her, and had only “craved the sport.” He ends in tears, calling himself “a scoundrel and a bastard,” and screams “Why are you here? Why don’t you leave?” But instead of taking offense or becoming angry, Liza instead embraces the underground man and weeps with him. Taken off guard, he stammers out “They won’t let me… I can’t be… good!” and collapses in hysterics.

The selfless act of Liza represented the last best chance for the underground man to understand love: it was a gift, it was completely undeserved given his actions, and, as a pure action, it came without any of the philosophical baggage of language that might have served as a detriment. Because it was selfless, it was an act of love, but also because it was selfless, he could not understand it. “After all,” he tells us, “I couldn’t live without exercising power and tyrannizing over another person…” Finally unable to understand love, he reverts back to his old methods of relational subjugation, having sex with Liza out of nothing more than a desire for power, once again feeling only “hatred” and “revenge.”

We are not told what awful thing he does to Liza; we only know that a mere fifteen minutes later she is sitting on the bedroom floor, her head leaning up against the bed, and sobbing. “She fully understood now,” he writes to us, “that I was a despicable man, and, most important, that I was incapable of loving her.”

This finally is the end of life for the underground man: he could not understand love, and so he could not live life. He “could no longer love,” he explains, “because for me love meant tyrannizing and demonstrating my moral superiority… all my life I could never even conceive of any other kind of love.” He had grown, he says, “unaccustomed to living life… real life oppressed me, so unfamiliar was it, that I even found it hard to breathe.”

Liza left his apartment, with one last long, sad look back at her almost-lover, and walked out into the snowy winter night. The underground man could not even let her go without one last, terrible cruelty, which he tells us came “not from my heart, but from my stupid head.” To drive home the (false) notion that he had never loved her, he thrust a five-ruble note into her hand as she left; the old exchange of the brothel; the only exchange he ever understood. Not able to look her in the eyes, he turned and let her walk away—no last looks, and no last goodbyes. But even then, his heart cried out one last time, rebelling against the “wall” of science that would not let him feel. He ran out into the cold St. Petersburg night, crying her name, frantically looking for her footsteps in the dim and dusky light. But it was not long before he stopped. Although his “heart was being torn apart,” he knew that he could never love her; that he would surely grow to hate her, even “perhaps as soon as tomorrow.” He could not understand love, and so knew that he could never love another human being. In the last glimpse we get of the underground man, we see him walking slowly back to his apartment, the wet snow of St. Petersburg falling all ‘round him, his heart made cold and his soul made dead. We are told that he retreated then into the underground, for he was unable to live the life of the living. He speaks to us from there, crying out that he is not the only one who dwells under the earth:

We’ve all become estranged from life; we’re all cripples, every one of us, more or less. We’ve become so estranged that at times we feel some kind of revulsion for genuine ‘real life’… we don’t know ourselves. What concerns me in particular, is that in my life I’ve only taken to an extreme that which you haven’t dared to even take halfway; what’s more, you’ve mistaken your cowardice for good sense; and, in so deceiving yourself, you’ve consoled yourself. Just take a closer look! Why, we don’t even know where this ‘real life’ lives nowadays, what it is, and what it’s called… We’re even oppressed by being men—men with real bodies and blood of our very own. We’re ashamed of it; we consider it a disgrace and we strive to become some kind of impossible ‘general-human-beings.’ We’re stillborn; for some time now we haven’t been conceived of living fathers; we like it more and more. We’re developing a taste for it. Soon we’ll conceive of a way to be born of ideas. But enough; I don’t want to write any more ‘from Underground…’

 

***

 

The underground man is different, profoundly different; so different as to be unsettling. We look at him, and turn away, for he shows us something we do not want to see—in the end it is not his otherness that unsettles us, but instead his sameness. He struggles with the same questions that we struggle with, faces the same existential crises that we face, and yet while we live here in the aboveground, with our schoolwork and friends and hopes and dreams, he dwells in the underground, without friends, without purpose, and without love. This unsettles us, because we do not want to end up where he is. We are afraid to look deep down into the recesses of our souls, for fear that we shall find there only an abyss.

The abyss, however, is what the underground man shows us. Emptied of freedom and robbed of love, our souls have been replaced by nothingness. Life has become impossible: the abyss has bored into our very souls, emptying them of all that once had made them human. We are not men: we are mice; we are organ stops; we cannot love, and we cannot live. Faced with the abyss, the only option left for us is the retreat underground, to dwell under the earth among the shadows of men who once were alive. We cannot fulfill the prophecy of the madman, he tells us: God has died, and we cannot replace him. We are doomed, like Sisyphus, to forever roll our stones up the mountain, but we cannot smile. What is the point? And how can we smile, when we know what it is that we have lost? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves?

The underground man cannot give us an answer, because he does not have one. The world in which he was born did not give him one, and neither can the world of today. Spencer has been replaced by new apostles, and our souls still dwell beneath the earth. There are some who do not heed the cry of the madman, and refuse to stare into the abyss, but for those of us who do, there can be no solace on this earth. God is dead, and we have died with him.

Our hope, if it is to come, must come from beyond this earth. God has died here, but there may yet be a chance—oh, and if there is only a chance!—that he is still living elsewhere. Faith, if it is possible, may yet save us. Dostoevsky speaks of this in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov: the good priest, Father Zosima, is asked a question that many of us know all too well:

You see, I close my eyes and think: if everyone has faith, where does it come from? And then they say that it all came originally from fear of the awesome phenomena of nature, and that there is nothing to it at all. What? I think, all my life I’ve believed, then I die, and suddenly there’s nothing, and only ‘burdock will grow on my grave,’ as I read in one writer? It’s terrible! What, what will give me back my faith? Though I believed only when I was a little child, mechanically, without thinking about anything… How, how can it be proved? I’ve come now to throw myself at your feet and ask you about it. If I miss this chance, too, then surely no one will answer me for the rest of my life. How can it be proved, how can one be convinced? Oh, miserable me! I look around and see that for everyone else, almost everyone, it’s all the same, no one worries about it anymore, and I’m the only one who can’t bear it. It’s devastating, devastating!

And Father Zosima, old and full of wisdom, replies:

No doubt it is devastating. One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced… by the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of God and the immortality of your soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul… I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching… whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science. But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment—I predict this to you—you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you. Forgive me for not being able to stay with you longer, but I am expected. Goodbye.

 


Works Cited:

1. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes From Underground. Trans. Michael R. Katz.
New York: Norton, 2001.

2. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa
Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002.

3. Guardini, Romano. The End of the Modern World. Trans. Elinor C. Briefs. Wilmington:
ISI Books, 2001.

4. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York:
Random House, 1974.

5. Turner, James. Without God, Without Creed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1985.

Jordan Hylden ’06, Editor-in-Chief, is a Government concentrator in Currier House.


>