The active and ingenuous man sincerely folds before a wall. The wall: laws of nature, conclusions of natural science, mathematics.
For the over-sensitive, overly cultivated man, the folding is a deflection.
- Normal man, born of nature
- Retort man, born of alchemy; i.e. reason
The retort man folds before the normal man as a mouse before a man.
Dostoevsky goes on to describe the mouse man, retort man in the depth of his insincerity. He wears contempt on his face, but it is merely masking shame. The normal man wants revenge as a form of justice—the mouse meditates on offenses done to him and fantasizes about revenge which he’ll almost never seek.
Dostoevsky gives us the perfect image of a man eaten from the inside out, who thrives on “this fever of hesitations, of decisions taking forever, and repentances coming again a moment later…”
The underground man is familiar. Too familiar—he is I. This complex inner dialog which creates turmoil, confusion, doubt—I don’t know about the voluptuous pleasure of it, but I know the addictiveness of it.
Interestingly, the u.m. goes on to describe a rebelion against natural law, science, and mathematics which brings to mind Settembrini’s1 rebelion against the vulgarity of nature.
The u.m. says that these walls are a comfort to the man with strong nerves (the active and ingenuous), but not to he.
To be sure, I won’t break through such a wall with my forehead if I really have not got strength enough to do it, but neither will I be reconciled with it simply because I have a stone wall here and have not got strength enough.2
He goes on—the most revolting conclusions may be reached with irrefutable logic and there may be no one to blame and no hope of change—but “it still hurts!”
He’s right about that much. Irrefutability does not translate to comfort.