Russian Writers

Unsettling Chapters: Notes from Underground

“I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.” Is there a better opening line in literature?

Most importantly, this sentence establishes the tone that defines Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Considered to be the first modern novel, there is no other work that as deftly captures the anxiety of despair and inadequacy.

Our narrator, the Underground Man, guides us through a dark and unpleasant world, recounting his drab civil servant’s life and the many insults that have shaped his misanthropy. Through this, he unearths the philosophy of the underground. It is a grim, but honest view, and with no connection to the surface world, the Underground Man simmers in his despair.

Actually, I’m not sure “simmer” is a strong enough word. The Underground Man doesn’t experience pain so much as he consumes it. He recalls past injustices when there is no fresh ones to sustain him. Misery exudes from his pores, his breath, his clothes, and rather than opening a window, he basks in the stench of his humiliation.

But his ordeal has only begun.

We come to section two, “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” in which the true horror is set in motion. Here, we get more action and less confession. Following a series of insults, the Underground Man encounters a young prostitute, Liza, and for a time, redemption—and through redemption, meaning—seems possible.

Inevitably, though, you remember that you’re reading Dostoyevsky, and things become even darker than they were before. Watching the Underground Man abase himself is one thing. Watching him do it to another is harder to bear.

But of course, this is necessary to Dostoyevsky’s theme. Denigration is a team sport, and it relies on the consent of both victim and aggressor. That’s why, sadly, in the cycle of abuse, victims become abusers. We need Liza in the story to serve as witness to the Underground Man’s suffering. We need her to offer him redemption, or else he remains only a victim (which would be neither believable nor compelling). Ultimately, he is a conspirator in the surface world that has forced him underground.

And with true Dostoyevsky flair, Liza reminds us that there is no bottom. We meet the Underground Man, and we believe him to be the nadir of humanity. And then he meets Liza. We can only imagine what other characters are waiting offstage, unseen, but their suffering no less palpable.

So, this book may not be everyone’s mug of Russian Caravan, but it should still make your to-read list (especially if you’re a fan of unsettling literature). Notes from Underground is a link to the past, as it shows us that modern anxieties aren’t so new. It’s a classic work of existential philosophy. And artists and analysts alike should read this as a guidebook to the darkest shadows of the subconscious.

Notes from Underground is available as a free ebook through Project Gutenbeg.

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Unsettling Chapters: Madness

For me, the most unsettling type of literature deals with mental illness or cognitive degeneration. Internal threats are always more terrifying than those coming from outside. Self-inflicted wounds cut the deepest, and loss of cognitive faculties is perhaps worse than death.

That’s why many of the books we’ve discussed, thus far, have concerned mental illness. And it’s a topic that has fascinated many great writers. Today, I’ll look at works from three legendary authors—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol and Lu Xun—that are each unsettling in their own way.

First, Tolstoy’s “The Notes of a Madman,” his short story based on a real-life panic attack he experienced in 1869.

What I find interesting about Tolstoy’s story is that mental illness is not a major theme, and he’s not making a grand statement about either insanity or the health care industry. Rather, his story is describing what we today know as depression and dissociation. It’s interesting to read a work that presages what we consider to be a modern malaise.

It’s also interesting to consider how the story would read if written today, with therapeutic language in common usage. As this story predates the official advent of psychotherapy, Tolstoy uses more everyday expressions to describe his panic attack: “At last we came up to a small house with a post beside it. The house was white, but appeared terribly melancholy to me, so much so that I was even filled with dread.”

This feeling of dread results in a dissociative moment, and ends with a suffocating awareness of death—not the narrator’s impending death, but the fact of life’s cessation. “A cold shudder ran down my back… I saw and felt the approach of death, and at the same time I felt that it ought not to exist.”

He traces this feeling back to his childhood, in which a similar fear overtook him when he was told stories of Jesus and his suffering. We now know that early childhood traumas establish patterns and plant seeds of self that often bloom as we approach middle age (the narrator is 35).

It’s easy to think of our modern anxieties as unique to our time or our culture, and yet this story reads like a contemporary work (horse-drawn carriage and candle lighting aside). In this way, and not necessarily by intention, Tolstoy reveals the universality of anxiety, depression and dissociative episodes.

Tolstoy’s brilliance is his ability to deliver his account as a first-person narrative. True, impaired characters tend to be unreliable narrators, but what is gained with this POV is the personal detail of the panic attack, which is vivid and horrifying. Tolstoy reminds us that self-awareness is common in these types of episodes, which is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this story—not that we experience madness, but that we are fully aware of what’s happening.

Gogol took a farcical approach in his story, “The Diary of a Madman.” This is a first-person account of a Russian civil servant, Poprishchin, who winds up in an asylum.

Told in diary format, Gogol is able to develop conflict, desire and even self-description—a tricky proposition with an unreliable narrator.

Poprishchin is a low-ranking clerk who feels looked-down upon by his superiors and fails to project the same superiority over his subordinates. He is a man relegated to performing menial tasks with no sense of purpose or respect, and certainly not social status.

Here, Gogol taps into a human universal: The need for self-actualization. A sense of purpose, a belief that our work, no matter how undesirable, has a bigger meaning.

In lieu of that, Poprishchin would settle for a meaningful romantic relationship. But he’s past 40, and he pines for his boss’s beautiful, young daughter, with whom he stands no chance of notice. Eventually, Poprishchin spirals out of control. He believes he is privy to a conversation between two dogs (and that they are corresponding via letters and making fun of him). He stalks his boss’s daughter, an act which seems perfectly reasonable to him. And he is so troubled by the absence of a king in Spain that he convinces himself that he is the king of Spain. He asks, “How can a throne be vacant?… A state cannot be without a king.”

Finally, there is Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary.”

The misconception some people have is that mental illness is simply a break from the commonly agreed-upon narrative of reality. But people dealing with mental distress are also living within a personal narrative that is every bit rooted in common sense and, more importantly, cause and effect as ours. What may seem disjointed to the group may seem perfectly linear to the individual.

The challenge is capturing that experience in fiction. Lu Xun employs two common devices, both of which, while effective when this story was published a century ago, would be difficult to get away with in modern literature. He starts with the voice of reason: a man introduces the diary of a friend who suffered from paranoid delusions, ostensibly for the purpose of medical research. Then we receive the voice of the narrator through a series of diary entries.

What I like about Lu Xun’s approach is that he puts us in the mind of the mentally distressed. Xun’s narrator begins with a common anxiety that others are looking at him strange, perhaps joking about him in the street and planning to harm him. Some local children laugh when they see him, and he deduces that they must have been instructed to do so from their parents.

Then, he overhears a story about a nearby village where cannibalism is still practiced. This manifests as an obsessive fear of being eaten, and soon he believes that the children, his brother and the whole of the town intend to kill him and eat his flesh. This escalates into more dire theories.

When we write about the mentally ill, there is tendency to reduce them to the “other.” Going first-person, seeing through their eyes, offers some insight, but is still limited if we meet them in what we perceive to be a static state of being (e.g. sane vs. insane). But following the narrator’s descent illuminates the insidious nature of mental illness and distress. Lu Xun does a great job of capturing that in this classic tale.

And there are certainly others we could discuss, perhaps in future installments. But for now, these are three classic takes on mental illness that have much to offer to the conversation of madness in literature.

Unsettling Chapters: Lolita

When I think of what was controversial in the 1950s, I think of Elvis being filmed from the waist up. So, I went into Lolita thinking it couldn’t possibly be as scandalous as advertised nearly six decades later.

Wrong. Lolita makes To Catch a Predator seem like child’s play (so to speak). As oddly hilarious as it is disturbing, Nabakov’s classic is one of the most insightful accounts of pathology (what many refer to as Humbert’s unreliability) I’ve ever encountered, and still has the power to make the most hardened reader (i.e. me) queasy.

Reading this through the lens of a literary representation of mental illness, it’s easy to see Humbert’s source for pedophilia — his stunted sexuality from an age-appropriate childhood romance left unconsummated and forever associated with death and loss (and run-on sentences).

More subtle, though, is Humbert’s troubled conscience, which vacillates between self-awareness and self-fulfillment. Through carefully dropped hints, we realize that he is aware of Dolores’ vulnerability and her lack of interest in their adult activities. He knows what he’s doing is damaging the poor girl, but more often than not, his needs hijack his decisions.

The consequences fall squarely on the not-so-frail shoulders of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, who endures his abuse into her teen years. (Side note: Through Lolita, Nabokov paints a clear portrait of borderline personality disorder, which makes her story even more tragic.)

Still, through Humbert’s rationalizations, however twisted or self-serving, he does try to protect his stepdaughter in his own clumsy way. While his selfishness trumps all, his moments of lucid affection make him as close to sympathetic as can be (sympathetic enough that we’re rooting for him in his showdown with creepy Quilty).

What a tremendous book, and perhaps the greatest work of transgressive fiction. Nabakov’s play with language is remarkable (especially considering English was his second tongue), and the pain and desperation sweating through the pages of this novel make it timeless.

Troubling, complicated and a work of genius, this is an unsettling read for the ages.

Unsettling Chapters: Institutionalization

A timeless trope of horror media is the mental institution, be it Halloween’s Smith’s Grove, Alice Cooper’s From the Inside, Dr. Seward’s sanitarium in Dracula or any of a thousand basic cable ghost-hunting shows. And it’s not difficult to understand why.

There isn’t any part of a mental institution that can’t be manipulated to induce terror. Of course, there is the fear of the inmates, but also the fear of the doctors or the administration (see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). And a rundown asylum serves as an excellent backdrop in any creative work.

But my diagnosis is that the greatest fear we have of institutions is something more primal. It’s not the fear of the inmates or the caretakers or the troubled spirits that haunt the Rubber Room. It’s much simpler than that. It’s the fear of confinement, the horror of institutionalization.

That’s probably not much of a newsflash. Shocker: most people are afraid of being locked up in a tiny cell and treated like they’re criminally insane! But I think what I’m getting at is the universality of mental illness and its close relationship with horror. I bet that more people are afraid of losing control of their faculties than are afraid of death.

I would also guess that a fair number of horror writers and readers can credit their love of the genre to their own struggles with inner demons. (For a great social history of institutionalization, read Foucault’s Madness and Civilization.)

Prior to becoming a journalist, I worked for seven years at an inpatient detox facility in Boulder, Colorado. My experiences there were ineffable, and from the time I started as an addictions counselor to the present, I have tried to write about events there through both fiction and nonfiction.

Every attempt has been a false start.

Turns out, it’s a tough world to describe without becoming sensationalistic, sappy or overly scientific.

However, there are two writers who capture the horror of institutionalization in a magnificent way: Russian heavyweights Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Let’s start with Chekhov’s novella, Ward No. 6, which draws us into this world almost as if the reader were an incoming patient. The first four chapters provide an overview of the institution and introduce its inhabitants. We meet the main character, Dr. Andrey Yefimitch, in chapter five, and here, we gain fresh perspective. We switch from patient to doctor as he becomes our lens through which we view the mentally ill, most strikingly through his interactions with Ivan Dmitritch. Yefimitch evolves through their awkward meetings. We feel his internal struggle with life both inside and outside the ward, and watch him blur the ever-permeable line between the diagnostician and the diagnosed.

It’s not surprising. In the high-stress environment of an institution, it is inevitable that one becomes part of the environment. As Yefimitch says, “‘I am not ill at all, it’s simply that I have got into an enchanted circle which there is no getting out of.’”

This gets at what I believe lies beneath the surface of every creative work featuring an
institution, be it a mental hospital, a prison, a nursing home. We’re not afraid of the inhabitants. We’re afraid of joining them.

On par with Ward No. 6 is Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, which is based on the author’s four years incarcerated in a Siberian work camp. Here, Dostoyevsky gives us one of his darkest and most direct novels.

The first thing that strikes me is that The House of the Dead begins not with the institution, but with the setting around it. We get an idyllic description of Siberia, which is hardly what one would expect with a Russian prison narrative. And like Chekhov, Dostoyevsky provides us with a guide: Alexandr Petrovitch Goryanchikov.

We meet the city on page one, the protagonist on page two, and through the latter we enter the prison itself.

Another daring decision Dostoyevsky makes concerns the narration. Despite being told through the lens of an inmate, the narrator is not telling his own story. Instead, the novel consists of pages retrieved from Alexandr Petrovitch’s notes, as discovered by the narrator and offered along with his comments and perceptions.

There are two advantages to this that I see. The first is that the distance allows for dispassion. By serving as a filter between us and Alexandr Petrovitch, the narrator avoids sentimentality and sensationalism. The second is that by using the found manuscript, we still have the thrill of suspense. If the narrator were telling his own story, we’d at least know that he is alive at the time of the telling. But with a found manuscript, we’re wondering throughout what may or may not happen to its author.

The manuscript also gives us a segmented view of Petrovitch’s life in prison rather than his entire incarceration story. While there is a linear flow to the book (beginning with Petrovitch’s entrance to prison and concluding with his release), the arranging of the book by themes allows Dostoyevsky more freedom when fictionalizing his incredible experiences.

Both books weigh heavy on the reader, but this does not, I believe, imply despair. At once dreary and hopeful, the texts blur the line between inside and out, and cause the reader to reconsider preconceived notions of institutions. In Ward No. 6, we see the institution as a reflected image, as those on the outside find themselves drawn inward. In The House of the Dead, we get a first-hand account of the lives of the incarcerated. Though describing the outcast, Dostoyevsky startles the reader with a milieu that’s surprisingly familiar.

It leaves one rethinking the nature of institutions and builds on our fear of captivity. What role would we assume in a Dostoyevskian drama? Are we the doctor? The visitor? The inmate?

Sure, the traditional horror memes are nice, but true terror oozes from the pages of Ward No. 6 and The House of the Dead. These are heavier reads, and you might not finish them by Halloween. But for my money, there aren’t many settings more frightening than a 19th century Siberian prison.