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Dostoievski's Notes from Underground examines the advantages of remaining static and self-aware versus jumping into action

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Action versus Inaction in Notes From Underground

In Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the narrator, the Underground Man (UM), compares the “man of action” to the self-conscious intellectual. UM, a self-proclaimed ultra-conscious intellectual, characterizes the mentally superior individuals by identifying his own personal traits. The “man of action” is the antithesis of the intellectual; they are the average person, possessing ordinary mental capabilities and levels of consciousness. According to UM, while the “man of action” makes decisions and is an active participant in life, the intellectual is far too self-aware to make choices that cannot be justified; and since no choice can actually be justified, the conscious man makes no decisions at all. The Underground Man examines, in both ironic and straightforward ways, the theoretical issue of action versus inaction and how consciousness ties into this concept, while simultaneously failing to realize that choosing to remain static is still qualifies as making a choice.

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Throughout Part I of the novella, UM emphasizes that being conscious is an illness, yet is an illness that he would not want to live without. He knows that being less self-aware would make his life easier, but he enjoys the pain that his mental superiority inflicts upon him. At times he is envious of the simple life of the average men, but still notes the stupidity of these individuals. UM says to his readers, “I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness – a real thorough-going illness. For man’s everyday needs, it would have been quite enough to have the ordinary human consciousness, that is, half or a quarter of the amount which falls to the lot of a cultivated man of our unhappy nineteenth century… It would have been quite enough, for instance, to have the consciousness by which all so-called direct persons and men of action live.” In the social climate of nineteenth century St. Petersburg, an average level self-awareness and consciousness would be adequate for UM. He would be able to grow and make decisions, however, he would have to surrender his intellectual superiority and become one of the average men, which is something he is unwilling to do. When comparing the average man to the intellectual, UM states, “And I am the more persuaded of that suspicion, if one can call it so, by the fact that if you take, for instance, the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of acute consciousness, who has come, of course, not out of the lap of nature but out of a retort.” He feels that the self-conscious intellectual is the universe’s response to the average man. The typical man takes action without thinking; the overly-conscious individual thinks without taking action.

Within Part I, UM describes himself as a man of great intellect and inaction. He makes it clear that these two traits work hand in hand. People of mental acuity are not people who are able to easily make decisions; they are too doubtful of themselves to do so. UM states, “Oh, gentlemen, perhaps I really regard myself as an intelligent man only because throughout my entire life I’ve never been able to start or finish anything.” He knows he is perceptive because of the pattern of inaction throughout his life. UM sites his inertia as proof of his mental capabilities. Being too self-aware leads one to be unable to make decisions because they spend too much of their time thinking about the outcomes of possible action. Regarding UM’s inertia, he proclaims, “And the worst of it was, and the root of it all, that it was all in accord with the normal fundamental laws of over-acute consciousness, and with the inertia that was the direct result of those laws, and that consequently one was not only unable to change but could do absolutely nothing.” It is easier to be confident in one’s decision when they are less conscious. Intellectuals spend their time trying to justify their actions, and since they also know that no action can truly be justified, they choose to be stagnant.

In Part II of the novella, the audience sees how UM’s life reflects the ideas he theorizes about in Part I. The concept of action versus inaction manifests itself in UM’s life story, especially in his brief relationship with Liza. When UM meets Liza and learns about her circumstances, he expresses his desire to save her from her unfortunate life. After his first encounter with Liza UM says, “I even sometimes began dreaming, and rather sweetly: I, for instance, became the salvation of Liza, simply through her coming to me and my talking to her …. I develop her, educate her.” He imagines what it would be like to be Liza’s savior and what being loved by someone would feel like. UM believes that his intellect and words alone can uplift her and force her to become completely devoted to him. In UM’s relationship with Liza, the audience sees how his life mirrors the idea of inaction versus action that is discussed in Part I. Although he spends much of his time fantasizing about what his future with Liza could be like, when the chance for him to sweep her off her feet arises, UM does not take advantage of the situation. Liza storms out of UM’s apartment when he offends her and instead of chasing after her and attempting to correct the situation, he hesitates and spends the rest of his life focusing on his failures. UM says, “So I dreamed as I sat at home that evening, almost dead with the pain in my soul. Never had I endured such suffering and remorse, yet could there have been the faintest doubt when I ran out from my lodging that I should turn back half-way?” Losing Liza causes him to be in so much emotional pain, yet he does not doubt that he made the right choice by not chasing after her. He is not a “man of action” and will never be the hero; he can only ever be the man who occupies all his time dreaming about being the hero.

Although UM thoroughly examines the contrast between action and inaction and reflects upon how this concept manifests itself in his life, he ironically fails to acknowledge that choosing to not take action is still making a choice. UM’s claim that the self-conscious intellectual spends more time thinking about action than participating in life has validity; yet the notion that not choosing to take action qualifies as not making a choice is unsound. He says that an intellectual knows that no act can be justified, therefore they take no action.

This retort-made man is sometimes so nonplussed in the presence of his antithesis that with all his exaggerated consciousness he genuinely thinks of himself as a mouse and not a man. The base and nasty desire to vent that spite on its assailant rankles perhaps even more nastily in it than in l’homme de la nature et de la vérité . For through his innate stupidity the latter looks upon his revenge as justice pure and simple; while in consequence of his acute consciousness the mouse does not believe in the justice of it. (5)

Only person lacking consciousness could act without thinking. However, since taking no action results in an effect in the same way being active does, they are still making a choice that has consequences. This is demonstrated through Liza and UM’s relationship. When Liza runs off and UM does not follow after her, he claims that he is refusing to make a choice and take action. “Why? To fall down before her, to sob with remorse, to kiss her feet, to entreat her forgiveness! I longed for that, my whole breast was being rent to pieces, and never, never shall I recall that minute with indifference. But–what for? I thought. Should I not begin to hate her, perhaps, even tomorrow, just because I had kissed her feet today?” By going home instead of trying to apologize to her, he is making the active decision to give up on her.

In Notes From Underground, through the perspective of the nineteenth century intellectual, Fyodor Dostoyevsky presents the theoretical issue of the “man of action” in comparison to the ultra-conscious individual. This idea is expressed through the reflections of UM’s life and is shown in both ironic and straight-forward ways. The complexity of the concept is shown by the paradoxical nature of choosing to not make a choice.

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