Joseph Frank, in his exposition of Notes from Underground, has laid bare that in the u.m. with which I so identify. In the end, it is simple. Painfully so, as in Foucault’s Pendulum.1
Vanity. I am incredibly vain. I am constantly self-conscious and concerned over how I am perceived by others, and concerned that I be seen as more discerning, more elevated, more spiritual than they—whoever is “they,” whoever is there to see me, to praise me, admire me.
The underground man’s vanity convinces him of his own superiority and he despises everyone; but since he desires such speriority to be recognized by others, he hates the world for its indifference and falls into self-loathing at his own humiliating dependence.
There is one more passage by Frank that is significant.
For one moment he had caught a glimpse of how to escape from the dialectic of vanity: Liza’s complete disregard of her own humiliation, her whole-souled identification with his torments—in short, her capacity for selfless love—is the only way to break the sorcerer’s spell of egocentrism.
Wherever I may go and not be perceived in the light in which I wish to be perceived, I do not go except by necessity. And as no one sees me as I wish to be seen, I go nowhere and limit my interactions to those I have accepted, and with whom I feel safe if not admired. With these is some mystery which does not exist elsewhere—love, but even here the simple is mixed up with the complex—domination, authority, the demanding of respect which elsewhere I must earn.
I was thinking of the following:
Incredulity doesn’t kill curiosity; it encourages it. Though distrustful of logical chains of ideas, I loved the polyphony of ideas. As long as you don’t believe in them, the collision of two ideas— both false—can create a pleasing interval, a kind of diabolus in musica. I had no respect for some ideas people were willing to stake their lives on, but two or three ideas that I did not respect might still make a nice melody. Or have a good beat, and if it was jazz, all the better.
“You live on the surface,” Lia told me years later. “You sometimes seem profound, but it’s only because you piece a lot of surfaces together to create the impression of depth, solidity. That solidity would collapse if you tried to stand it up.”