Liberation or Entrapment? The Psychology of Ressentiment and Dostoevskij’s Notes from the Underground

Alina Wyman, University of Chicago

Dostoevskij’s Underground Man is petty, malicious and utterly devoid of those noble virtues that are traditionally associated with an authorial mouthpiece, and yet he expresses some of Dostoevskij’s most cherished convictions. An ardent spokesman for the sovereignty of human will, he seizes every opportunity to dominate the wills of those vulnerable enough to succumb to his petty tyranny. An enemy of every kind of determinism, whose life is a relentless crusade against “the stone wall” of natural laws, he becomes hopelessly entrapped in the circular logic of underground revenge.

The question of the Underground Man’s ambivalent position in Dostoevskij’s hierarchy of values as both the author’s mouthpiece and an anti-hero, a seeker of absolute freedom, and an actor in a predictable play of vanity will be central in my discussion of Dostoevskij’s novel in the light of Nietzsche’s concepts of “ressentiment” and “the revaluation of values.” I will respond to Bernstein’s, Weisberg’s, and Šestov’s treatment of the “ressentiment” theme in Dostoevskij, arguing for a less literal application of Nietzsche’s ideas to the work of the Russian thinker.

Both Michael André Bernstein’s assessment of the Underground Man as one of Dostoevskij’s abject heroes in Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero and “The Poetics of Ressentiment” and Weisberg’s discussion of the character’s flawed concept of freedom in The Failure of the Word are based on the equation of underground ideology with the ressentiment worldview. On the contrary, in “Dostoevskij and Nietzsche: the Philosophy of Tragedy,” Lev Šestov implicitly suggests that the Underground Man’s rejection of the sham values of socialist humanitarianism is indicative of his liberation from the ressentiment delusion. While Bernstein’s and Weisberg’s questioning of the value of underground freedom raises an important philosophical issue, the complete identification between the underground psychology and ressentiment implied by the critics is problematic. On the other hand, although Šestov is correct in acknowledging a kind of “revaluation of values” that takes place in the novel, he fails to notice to what great extent the rejected values continue to dominate the Underground Man’s life. To elucidate the problem of free will in Notes from Underground, I propose to reexamine the relationship between underground psychology and ressentiment, supplementing Nietzsche’s concept with the theory of ressentiment developed by Max Scheler, whose endorsement of Christian love as a means of overcoming ressentiment suggests an affinity with Dostoevskij’s own deeply religious worldview.