So, if you’ve read any of the other blogs I’ve written on Existentialism, you might have wondered at the absence of one very important name from my mentions of existentialists. Widely regarded, by literature students and tutors alike, as one of the first existentialist writers, the unforgettable Fyodor Dostoyevsky should have been dominating my existentialist ramblings – that is, ramblings on existentialism, not necessarily ramblings from an existentialist perspective; don’t worry about it.
However, as students of philosophy are more likely to know, Dostoyevsky himself was certainly not even close to the archetype of the existentialist – unless we go into the whole Punk Rock rejection of Punk Rock type thing, which ends up with Johnny Rotten selling butter for fuck’s sake.
Why Wasn’t Fyodor Dostoyevsky An Existentialist?
Existentialists are rebels, apparently – which in of itself is a major chain around the neck of the philosophy, but it will do for now – they believe in themselves and nothing else and sometimes they don’t even believe in that. Whilst some of Dostoyevsky’s characters may well have displayed Existentialist tendencies, good ol’ Fyodor was actually dedicated to religion and mysticism and not actually “radicalistic” personal tendencies towards choice and free will.
Also – and I’m going to take this opportunity to get this off my chest cos’ it really pisses me off – existentialism should not mean depression or being addicted to the darker sides of the human psyche; i.e. suicide, self-harm, alcoholism, et cetera. Whilst, yeah, I’m not going to argue that Dostoyevsky wasn’t obsessed with the more miserable half of the human spectrum of emotions and the miserable perceptions of free will, that doesn’t make him an existentialist.
If anything, it makes him a killjoy. I mean, yeah, he was a really great writer, but he could’ve done with cheering up once in a while. Negativity has its place in literature, but a long, drawn out misery isn’t relevant to the western audience, especially in an age of instant entertainment. In my opinion, joy always makes the misery seem that much worse – the storm always looks shittier after the sunlight.
With that being said, he didn’t have that great of a life, really, so I guess we can let him off.
Existentialism In Notes From The Underground
There are several examples of Existentialism in Dostoyevsky’s first published work – the novella Notes From The Underground – even the first chapter features something as simple as “I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite” which effectively sets up the absurdist, illogical reasoning that Albert Camus would build a career upon.
Another quote, from later in Notes, reads; “Another circumstance, too, worried me in those days: that there was no one like me and I was unlike anyone else. “I am alone and they are everyone,” I thought – and pondered.” This is one of the points that Sartre would raise in Nausea and other texts – the idea that everyone sees themselves as a subject, as the only subject, and everything else is an object.
Although there are many more examples of existentialist thought throughout the piece and, indeed, throughout his entire career, there are far more qualified people to direct you through his thoughts and deeds than I. It is worth mentioning, of course, that the unnamed narrator is not meant to be Dostoyevsky himself but is, instead, often referred to as the Underground Man.
In the same way, he is not what Dostoyevsky believed the human race should become, which is something of a trend in other existentialist works, but rather an example of what Dostoyevsky believed that the world, with society and the human condition as the contributing factors, was creating.
If you’ve got the time, you should check out an in-depth video on Notes from Dr. Sadler, who is extremely good at taking complicated ideas and making them simple to understand for people who haven’t the time to pick apart entire texts to get to the hidden meaning.
Besides that, what do you think? Do you believe that Dostoyevsky was actually an existentialist himself, or was he merely adept at think about ideas which would eventually lead into existentialism? Do you think that you need to be an existentialist in order to effectively, truly, write about existentialism?