On Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation
I’m also reading Thacker’s Infinite Resignation right now, and his pessimism has permeated my responses to everything else I read. Gloom and doom—and even more so the paralysis they can induce—have never struck me as so inevitable, so rational, as they do now. In one of that work’s early aphorisms, he writes, “To really end things, to really cease to exist, one would have to resign from life, not end it.” Suicide is an act like any other, and one that requires more courage than most. To give up is not to quit, but to stagnate—to exist in misery in a dead-end job, a failing relationship, a home that is no longer one’s home. The most insidious element of serious contemplation is the inaction it is almost certain to compel. Rarely is the safe choice, in the end, to open oneself: to love, to subsequent hurt, to a deepened despair. Better to exist in a pit (or, a “mousehole,” as Notes from Underground’s narrator would put it), to satisfy oneself upon shafts of filtered light, than to attempt to follow this light to its source.
Notes from Underground, the first of Dostoyevsky’s existentialist novels, locks us within the mind of a narrator whose defining characteristic is his capacity for misery. The text’s first half (appropriately titled “Underground”) consists of a monologue delivered by this unnamed man. In it, he lays out his reasons for the ills he perceives as endemic to 1860s Petersburg. People, by his estimation, are largely stupid, unthinkingly cruel, thoughtlessly awful; ergo, all this unhappiness. Where he spends the bulk of his thought, though, is upon people like him, whose intelligence traps them in the same cycle of suffering as their self-unaware peers. Like him, these masochistic bedfellows are aware of their misery, are equally aware that to complain of it serves only to spread it to others—and yet they complain nonetheless. They know of their and each others’ loneliness, but, out of spite, they do not reach out. Asserting their free will, they act directly against their own interests, spurring on their self-destruction for no other purpose than to prove themselves real.
The result of all this is the resignation of which Thacker so bluntly speaks, and which the three sections of Notes from Underground’s second half (“Apropos of the Wet Snow”) serve as supporting evidence for. At the end of all the narrator’s thinking—of all any intelligent person’s thinking, as he claims—he is only more terminally trapped: “bad as it is, it cannot be otherwise… even if you had enough time and faith left to change yourself into something different, you probably would not wish to change… even if you did wish it, you would still not do anything, because in fact there is perhaps nothing to change into.” And so we see the narrator, as a young man of twenty-four, work himself up to bumping into (and thereby revenging himself upon) an officer who once insulted him in a pub, only for this man to pay him no mind. We then see him, some weeks after this, attend the going-away party of an old classmate, Zverkov, with the sole intention of souring his fellow alumni’s joy. Finally, we experience, through him, a glimpse of the light he claims all intelligent people are denied. He opens himself to Liza, a young sex worker he’s recently slept with. In a monologue rivaling in length the novel’s first half, he paints a picture of her (and, indirectly, his) untended, unvisited grave. They begin to develop a strange, painful sort of love—and then he pushes her away. He remains, as he puts it, “no good.” His inertia is complete. He is unable to change.
Held up against Karen Russell’s 2014 novella Sleep Donation, which concerns itself with similarly unanswerable questions of ethics and logic, I find I prefer Dostoyevsky’s much earlier work. The dilemma, in Russell’s story, is a familiar one: is the sacrifice of one justified by the salvation of many? In a world plagued by insomnia, is it worth it to redistribute the peaceful sleep of an infant, not knowing what consequences this procedure may have on the child down the line? The economy and insight with which she builds this world are characteristically breathtaking—we learn of virulent nightmares and black-market sleep aids without blinking an eye—but it was the narrator’s more familiar form of sleeplessness that kept me rapt. Here Trish is, peddling the death of her sister in order to obtain sympathetic donations. Here she is, complicit with the Harkonnens in the theft of their only child’s dreams. And here is what she tells herself to get herself to sleep: “Our work really does save lives. Nobody can deny that extraordinary fact.” Hers is a failing, falling world—but she remains an essentially decent person in the midst of it. And she is doing her best to hold on.
Both works deal with a character at war with themselves: an anti-hero doing their best to overcome their own uncertainty, effect a change in themselves and the world. Both demonstrate the difficulty of acting in such a way: Notes from Underground’s narrator struggles to escape the maze of his mind, while Sleep Donation’s Trish wanders through an external world in which clean solutions do not exist. What only Dostoyevsky does (not only here, but across his oeuvre) is demonstrate the remarkable ability of the mind to fashion its own prison. In the absence of external barriers, one creates walls for themselves. Even if a path to happiness exists, one will block it off, insist upon its immitigable difficulty, convince themselves that it’s better to remain in uncertain stasis, to succumb to inertia, than to leap.
The most frightening thing about Notes from Underground is that its narrator, by the end of the novel, remains trapped. The only thing preventing him from acting is himself, and still, he does not act. Grace is possible—even Trish, despite the dystopia she’s inherited, finds an incomplete sort of peace—but it is not the birthright of all. I forget where I heard it, but one of my favorite lines of thought re: mental illness runs more or less thus: “It is not your fault, but it is your responsibility.” There are those who will stand by one’s side, but one’s mind is one’s own to save. And some, like Dostoyevsky’s narrator, do not. And others—the brave, the fortunate—do.