Fyodor Dostoevsky has never disappointed me in his ability to write an entertaining and thought provoking story. Notes From Underground, one of his shorter stories, is certainly no exception. I picked this book up largely because I have enjoyed reading his previous works (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov, The Idiot) and because Russian literature (at least that prior to the Revolution) tends to be amazing. These people knew a thing or two about human suffering, both from poverty and from an identity crisis. To continue being Russia, to Westernize, or some sort of mix was a problem that vexed the Russian intelligentsia during the 19th Century.
It was with a bit of surprise to learn that this particular book was largely a critical response towards another Russian book I have read and enjoyed, Nikolia Chernishevsky's What Is to Be Done?, a book I had the pleasure of reading for a Russian history college class oh so long ago. Having read Dostoevsky's book, I cannot be surprised that the Soviets who would later rule Russia would be naming their books after Chernishevsky's title rather than Dostoevsky, as the latter annihilates the basic assumptions of all Utopian philosophies.
The Underground Man is a disgusting creature. He is vain, confused, prone to hating people for their success or for his failures. Nobody should read Notes From Underground and believe the narrator is in any way of creature to be emulated or maybe even really understood; the point is, he exists. This man exists all too often. His traits exist in all of us at some point.
Dostoevsky challenges those who seek to marshal men into a "better" society: this is your building material. Good luck creating your socialism, your rational egoism, your communism with such men.
"One's own free and voluntary wanting, one's own caprice, however wild, one's own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness - all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil.
"You shout at me (if you do still honor me with your shouts) that no one is taking my will from me here; that all they're doing here is busily arranging it somehow so that my will, of its own will, coincides with my normal interests, with the laws of nature, and with arithmetic.
Eh, gentlemen, what sort of will of one's own can there be if it comes to tables and arithmetic, and the only thing going is two times two is four? Two times two will be four even without my will. As if that were any will of one's own!"
This is the point people who desire to "fix" society miss. We live to be happy, to fulfill our own needs, however we may define them. Those needs and wants are different from person to person and even within the same person from time to time. The will of mankind will never fit into an equation. All attempts to force them into such neat equations will fail or lead to the mass deaths of those who do not fit. The result is never, ever, a paradise on Earth or even an improved society.
Ironically enough, this point has been made fairly recently in the worst of the Matrix Trilogy. The Architect, one of the most annoying characters ever written, gives a bombastic speech explaining why the Matrix exists. He had attempted to create a perfect society so as to preserve their own power source, but all attempts that denied mankind a measure of choice in determining their own futures failed miserably. The needs of mankind are, frankly, beyond the ability of mankind to truly understand.