Human Inconsistency: Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground
Prof. Qasim Ghazanfar
Thesis: Dostoevsky’s manic and depressive episodes aided in his ability to properly illustrate the workings of the human mind, through his writing.
II. What is Manic Depression and Depression?
III. Other Writers with Mental Illnesses
IV. Dostoevsky’s Life
V. Analysis of Notes
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, author of several acclaimed books-including Notes From Underground-a semi-autobiographical story, introduced a new form of writing, stream-of-consciousness, to Russia and Europe. Soon, this form of writing that would become the mark of the Existentialist, spread to the America’s. Interestingly enough, the stream-of-consciousness that manifested itself in his writing was actually the product of a mood disorder, which can be characterized by intensely emotional thoughts. Caught in a rift of contrasting thoughts, the Manic-Depressive-commonly endowed with superior artistic abilities, can be very insightful to the ways of man.
Manic-depression can clinically be defined as a mood disorder with two contrasting states: mania and depression. There must be an occurrence of one or more Manic or Mixed episodes and often, the individual has also had one or more Major Depressive episodes in the past. In Manic-Depressive disorder, also known as Bipolar disorder, the manic and depressive episodes recur in varying degrees of intensity. The DSM-IV describes Manic and Depressive episodes as:
The essential feature is a distinct period when the predominant mood is either elevated, expansive or irritable, and when there are associated symptoms of the manic syndrome. These symptoms include hyperactivity, pressure of speech, flight of ideas, inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, distractibility, and excessive involvement in activities that have a high potential for painful consequences, which are not recognized.
The manual describes depressive episodes as: The essential feature is either a dysphoric mood, usually depression, or loss of interest or pleasure in most usual activities and pass-times. This disturbance is prominent, relatively persistent, and associated with other symptoms of the depressive syndrome. These symptoms include appetite disturbance, change in weight, sleep disturbance, psychomotor agitation or retardation, decreased energy, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, difficulty concentrating or thinking, and thoughts of death or suicide, or suicidal attempts.
Manic Depression is also due to a biochemical imbalance in the brain. These biochemical reactions include the increasing and decreasing of intra- and extracellular sodium, chloride, and potassium (Beck 65). The inclining and declining of these functions support the contrasting manic and depressive moods. The spirit of genius no free-floating, absolute power, but is strictly bound to the laws of biochemistry and the endocrine glands. This again credits the idea that manic-depression can stimulate artistry.
Though it is difficult to prove Manic-Depressive disorder among those who have passed away, the occurrence of this behavior and has been traced through letters written to friends and family, and personal accounts. Creative people, such as Keats, Woolf, and Dostoevsky, have been named among those who had this illness. Keats’s notes and letters were evidence of his violent mood swings; his surgery lecture notes, embellished with many impromptu sketches in the margins were evidence of his wide-ranging interests, and also of his mercurial nature. Woolf became violent and delusional in her manic episodes, and when she was in a depressive state, she barely spoke or ate, and attempted suicide.
Born in the hospital for the poor, Dostoevsky was the second of seven children. He led a happy and peaceful childhood where he held particular warm feelings towards his family. It is not abnormal for one with the Manic-depressive syndrome to live a life of normalcy that is, of course, until an element of unpleasantry enters his life (Ostow 82). His father, murdered by his own serfs, had a hot tempered and irritable state of mind. His mother, described as tender and sensitive with a literary and musical talent, died when Fyodor was fifteen-years-old. After graduating from St. Petersburg’s Academy of Military Engineers as lieutenant, he was assigned to a military department.
Dostoevsky worked there for one year before he realized that working in a department gave him no satisfaction, and that he wanted to write and work as an author. Later, he became acquainted with the utopian socialist group, for which he seemed to have become strongman. This association got him four years in Siberian prison. After a four-year stay at the Siberian prison, he married a widow and later regained his rights as a nobleman.
Periods of relative prosperity and happiness stopped abruptly Dostoevsky’s wife and brother died. He was left alone with his brother’s debts, and was resorted to gambling as a way out from economic difficulties. Except for the last ten years, the Dostoevsky family suffered from economical difficulties caused by brother’s debts, an always-begging stepson and Fyodor’s gambling spree. They also were extremely unlucky regarding their three children.
Like Dostoevsky’s life, his writing contained many avenues down which one could lose his- or herself. He begins his two-part Notes From Underground with a stream of ironies, a forewarning to the reader of what lies ahead. Seemingly unfocused and ambiguous, it is possible to see through his writing, and detect his manic-depression in his style. An obvious example of this is the terminal confusion in his writing:
I am a sick man… I am a week man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts. However, I don’t know a fig about my sickness, and am not sure what it is that hurts me. I am not being treated and never have been, though I respect medicine and doctors. What’s more, I am also superstitious in the extreme; well, at least enough to respect medicine. (I’m sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, sir, I refuse to be treated out of weakness.
This terminal confusion is reminiscent of human nature, and its never-ending cycle. Throughout calamity and affirmative events in human life, we, as human beings have the tendency to chase our thoughts, analyzing and dissecting them. Like those in the depressive state, Dostoevsky, who wrote in the same tempo as his thought patterns, basically illustrated the way our thought processes work.
As though in the midst of conversation, Dostoevsky assumes the reader’s irritability, what precisely am I? — then I will answer you: I am one Collegiate assessor. He refers to himself as his post. Dostoevsky’s depressive episode comes into play. During a depressive episode, feelings of detachment may be exhibited by the patient, as he may refer to himself in the third person or as an object (Ostow 128).
Likely, it is very much so like humans to refer to themselves as what they are capable of contributing to society. Detached and forlorn, depressives get lost in their own worlds. Frantically grasping for what is solid before them is, at times, the only thing that will keep them together. In this example, Dostoevsky referring to himself as his post is his way of affirming his humanity.
Dostoevsky was obviously very aware of his Manic-depressive disorder, He repeatedly points out that he is overly conscious, and that it is his sickness and a real sickness. Like some manic-depressives-those being few in number, he was somehow able to predict his mood changes and was able to make use of them accordingly. An example of a manic stream of consciousness is as follows:
To live beyond forty is indecent, banal, immoral! Who does beyond forty — answer me sincerely, honestly? I’ll tell you who does: fools and scoundrels do. I’ll say it in the faces of the elders, all these venerable elders, all the silver-haired and sweet-smelling elders quotation marks! I’ll say it in the whole world’s face! I have the right to speak this way, because I myself live to be sixty. A live to be seventy! I’ll live to be eighty!…weights! Let me catch my breath…
Extremely energetic and feisty, characteristic of a manic episode, Dostoevsky once again chases his tail, and we see into the mind of a human being. We have a front row seat of his hyperactivity rise to the point of exhaustion. He begins with tuning forty, and goes on to explain how aging beyond this would be indecent-a morbid thought. We see him quickly rise to the point of pure babble. Excessive speech is also characteristic of the mania syndrome. Woolf was known to speak on end, night and day for three whole days, unceasingly (Jamison 56).
Dostoevsky refers to himself a normal human being — one who is not overly conscious, as an insect. There should be no shock that one would think so lowly of himself. Behind the mask of the Underground Man, he examines his emotional stamina, referring to himself as an insect, or a low species of the living (Murry 3). According to Dostoevsky, not thinking and not being conscious, both internally and externally, is a luxury.
In Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky takes on a guided tour of the functions of the mind. Debilitating psychological illnesses can be held accountable for one compulsively questioning, and burdening themselves with existential thoughts. Dostoevsky’s Manic-depression gave him, ironically, this ability.