This piece experiments with Dostoevsky’s style in the opening of Notes from Underground, using it to interrogate the chaos and contradictions of the post-truth era and the contemporary states of anxiety and existential distress that have become a feature of internet culture. While the searching, contradictory language in Notes From Underground is clearly prescient in the age of Trumpism, also interesting is the narrator’s distracted rant (about the Crystal Palace), which calls to mind impassioned posts on platforms like Reddit. In this way, the underground man chimes amusingly with the modern figure of the basement dweller, the forty-year-old internet troll who ruminates, remonstrates and regrets, living beneath the floorboards. In an era of excruciatingly curated Instagram feeds, using Dostoevsky to explore the fringes of society – to explore someone trapped inside themselves, hopelessly performing their way through a cycle of humiliations – is valuable and intriguing.
There are thousands of things that I could’ve done with the time I’ve had so far. If I’d not wasted any time, if I’d used every single second to do something constructive, then I would now be able to do all of things that I want to do, I would have the skills I want to have, the lifestyle, the money or the self-esteem or whatever else. None of this is actually true, obviously there is no way that I could have used every second constructively, or consistently known what a constructive usage of those seconds would’ve been at the time. But I still feel a certain way, and that way is that I could always have used some of the time, or actually maybe a lot of the time, I’ve been given in a much better way. It’s a suffocating preoccupation and it’s hard to tell how much sense it makes outside of the dampened walls of my own mind sometimes, although I secretly know that I am manufacturing that doubt because I’m afraid that without doubt, the idea makes rather a lot of sense.
Who are you addressing here? Why are you telling me this? Well reader, by way of a explanation, let me say this: I don’t experience time correctly. It doesn’t flow in a predictable way for me, perhaps because of the way my memory works. I cannot make sense of things in the same way that other people seem to be able to. I cannot construct a sensible story from my past, I can’t reconcile it with who I am in the present. Every one of my past actions, everything I have ever done or said up until this very second, are to me, my present self, the actions of a (deeply) flawed Other, a separate person whose behaviour I can clearly see as stupid and idiotic and worthless and my present self is therefore loaded with an ever-increasing burden to rectify and re-invent the absurd character that he has inherited and begin to live his life as he can see he ought to, in a way that to him seems obvious.
And then I continue to waste time because for the most part I still can’t get a proper sense of it. I might do something right, but then I’m overcome by the ease of it and the confusion overwhelms me. This, actually, is what seems to be somewhere near the root of the existential conflict that occupies so much of my energy, the trigger, if we could sum it up in a question – why aren’t I truly the person who got this right? Or why does the past tell me that I am someone else? Or how can I so clearly see that I am someone else? Followed by: I know that person, he is a man who cannot possibly have got this right. I can’t have got this right. I cannot continue to get this right. Why haven’t I got this right all along? It’s already too late to start getting things right, I should’ve been getting them right all along
Small, unimportant detail: When I drink and take drugs this neurotic, circular pattern of thought vanishes briefly. My mind quietens, or I become deaf to it squabbling with itself. For some reason I don’t feel as though I am addicted or close to being addicted to drugs or alcohol. Even further than I might have been in the past. Perhaps this is because I have a healthy fear of the next day. I always feel pathetic and alone and frightened and overwhelmed with hatred for myself the next day. I do think increasingly about medication, however.
I’m sorry for straying from the point, I honestly don’t mean to try your patience. So, to return to it, or rather to skip ahead slightly, I don’t remember things. I have a decent enough memory to serve the average enough intelligence that I have, but my recall, my sense of my life having happened within a linear narrative, the sequence of events, the important details, they’re a haze. The life behind me is sort of a jumbled fog and all I really know for sure is that I have lived thirty-two years of it so far, I know certain events have taken place, I can recall important occurrences, how I felt for certain periods, interactions with people I know. Mostly, I think about mistakes that I have made.
And problematic thought patterns that hamper my confidence and thus my creativity and productivity and continue to perpetuate the cycle follow me everywhere because they arise from something I am always doing, more or less, which is thinking about who I am or what I have done during my life (I am always, always, evaluating. This is not a good thing, this is not a sign of intelligence. It is a major flaw and a long, boring, waking nightmare). The overall impression of the way I have acted is mostly that I have always been an idiot. I think about the things I have done, and I know that I feel embarrassed about a lot of it, I remember my humiliations most acutely. As a result, with everything else fading, (perhaps because fear, excitement, pride, achievement and happiness are emotions that have a fatally diminished impact on my memory when compared to shame, regret, embarrassment, self-loathing, self-rejection – physical sensations that my mind is very keen to savour) a sort of relief map appears, a hilly landscape formed chiefly from my failings and humiliations. My regrets are so disproportionately profound. Am I repeating myself?
Moving on: I think I have had for a very long time a sense of this (let’s call it) existential dissonance I mentioned earlier, which, to zoom out a bit here, is essentially a creation (or result) of a collision between 1. extreme self awareness and 2. a desire to throw off an appearance of that self awareness. The result is that I am often watching myself and/or my image in the eyes of others, knowing the exact nature of flaws that they can see, knowing how odd I must seem, understanding how badly I’m being perceived and feeling unable to do anything about it. Feeling embarrassed by oneself is probably very common, but I feel as though my critical (true) self is not the person that I frequently, somehow involuntarily, portray myself as. I know exactly how strange and unappealing I am (or seem to be) at times and yet I remain sure that I am not that person somehow. I have complete understanding but with no control, I am me but somehow I know that I am not. I know that everybody has a number of personae, and yet I feel my ‘inner self’ tainted by an external one that it simply does not like or respect. It’s a strange sensation. I can listen to myself speak to another person and portray myself as a complete idiot, see the recognition of an idiot in their eyes and understand it completely myself, while observing said idiot, helplessly, from the inside. I find it hard to adequately explain how this feeling goes beyond simple low self-esteem and social anxiety, or at least seems to from within the pathetic chaos of my own mind. Perhaps all of this is simply the sense of disconnection, a warped echo, distorted feedback that is simply generated because I live inside a human being I am forced to accompany everywhere and he is someone I do not like, understand, empathise with or feel any interest in. I feel little besides a hazy sort of familial contempt for him. Perhaps I am just just stupid enough to be stupid, but just, only just intelligent to know about my own stupidity. Perhaps that is the squawking magnetic loop that has been created here.
Listen, I’ll try to say it properly. Combined with my poor sense of what has happened to me and what I have been and what I have done there, this sense of being trapped in a room with a buffoon for whom I am wholly answerable extends to how I view my past and how I examine the way I have lived and in turn how my flawed choices have led to the flawed man with so much of him missing, so much that ought to be there. I am mostly gaps. That’s the other thing. Great, handsome chunks are missing. And so I think about time and the time that I have had at my disposal and how much of it I know I have wasted doing pointless things like looking at the wall or repeating myself out loud, staring into space and obsessing, idly masturbating or throwing hours away at a some job that does not suit me nor I it. All of this is connected in the ways that I have made clear but the most brutish connection (which I should not even bother to point out) is that all situations I find myself in are ones that have arisen due to bad decisions I made earlier. So my options are limited, I suppose, but my original failure. I’d like to pinpoint that, one day. That’s a project of mine, when I manage it will be a breakthrough for everybody, not just me. But it is hard. I don’t know enough about the time that I have consumed to evaluate my own actions properly, or to really, properly examine what I’ve done and how well I’ve served my current self because practically so little of it still exists. I don’t remember things very well. In fact I think that my mind is more active than it is intelligent. Perhaps real ability, the thing that those impressive people have, is less sheer brilliance and more a decent balance between intelligence and an efficient sort of mental metabolism. Mine is too fast. Or possibly too slow. Or actually, yes, probably both simultaneously. Maybe my long-term recall is bad in some way due to this problem. There we are! An answer, of sorts. I told you that it would be worth it!
And so time is a problem and memory is a problem and self-image is a problem. I am helpless, lost in a fog of clarity. People like me, by the way, should be kept a very close eye on. We really are the ones you want to look out for! If you could only ask us a few things and try, really try to not only listen but hear! Put your ear to the ground and tune yourself in to the creaks and the rumblings, have patience! Of course you cannot see that I am currently smiling, I invite you to smile along with this little joke. But please, do not smirk or laugh when I am speaking to you, however absurd I am, however excitable. I hate that more than anything. Please be kind, that’s all I really ask.
In this piece, Caitlin Ingham explores the literary concept of the double, rewriting passages from Dostoevsky’s The Double in the style of Nabokov’s The Eye and Flann O’Brien's The Third Policeman. It represents an effort to emulate the writers...