I'm a a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man. I am a most unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. Then again, I don’t know a thing about my illness; I’m not even sure what hurts. I’m not being treated and never have been, though I respect both medicine and doctors. Besides, I’m extremely superstitious—well at least enough to respect medicine. (I’m sufficiently educated not to be superstitious; but I am, anyway.) No gentlemen, it’s out of spite that I don’t wish to be treated. Now then, that’s something you probably won’t understand. Well, I do. Of course, I won’t really be able to explain to you precisely who will be hurt by my spite in this case; I know perfectly well that I can’t possibly “get even” with doctors by refusing their treatment; I know better than anyone that all this is going to hurt me alone, and no one else. Even so, if I refuse to be treated, it’s out of spite. My liver hurts? Good, let hurt even more!
I’ve been living this way for some time—about twenty years. I’m forty now. I used to be in the civil service. But no more. I was a nasty official. I was rude and took please in it. After all, since I didn’t accept bribes, at least I had to reward myself in some way. (That’s a poor joke, but I won’t cross it out. I wrote it thinking that it would very witty; but now, having realized that I merely wanted to show off disgracefully, I’ll make a point of not crossing out!) When petitioners used to approach my desk for information, I’d gnash my teeth and feel unending pleasure if I succeeded in causing someone distress. I almost always succeeded. For the most past they were all timid people: naturally, since they were petitioners. But among the dandies there was a certain officer whom I particularly couldn’t bear. He simply refused to be humble, and he clanged his saber in loathsome manner. I waged war with him over that saber for about a year and a half. At last, I prevailed. He stopped clanging. All this, however, happened a long time ago, during my youth. But do you know, gentlemen, what the main component of my spite really was? Why, the whole point, the most disgusting thing, was the fact that I was shamefully aware at every moment, even at the moment of my greatest bitterness, that not only was I not a spiteful man, I was not even an embittered one, and that I was merely scaring sparrows to no effect and consoling myself by doing so. I was foaming at the mouth—but just bring me some trinket to play with, just serve me a nice cup of tea and sugar, and I’d probably have calmed down. My heart might even have been touched, although I’d probably have gnashed my teeth out of shame and then suffered from insomnia for several months afterward. That’s just my usual way.
I was lying about myself just now when I said that I was a nasty official. I lied out of spite. I was merely having some fun at the expense of both the petitioners and that officer, but I could never really become spiteful. At all times I was aware of a great many elements in me that were just the opposite of that fact. I felt how they swarmed inside me, these contradictory elements. I knew that they had been swarming inside me my whole life and were begging to be let out; but I wouldn’t let them out, I wouldn’t, I deliberately wouldn’t let them out. They tormented me to the point of shame; they drove me convulsions and—and finally I got fed up with them, oh how fed up! Perhaps it seems to you, gentlemen, that I’m repenting about something, that I’m asking forgiveness for something? I’m sure that’s how it seems to you. …But really, I can assure you, I don’t care if that’s how it seems…
Not only couldn’t I become spiteful, I couldn’t become anything at all: neither spiteful nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now I live out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything and that only a fool can become something. Yes, sir, an intelligent man in the nineteenth century must be, is morally obliged to be, principally a characterless creature; a man possessing character, a man of action, is fundamentally a limited creature. That’s my conviction at the age of forty. I’m forty now; and, after all, forty is an entire lifetime; why it’s extreme old age. It’s rude to live past forty, it’s indecent, immoral! Who lives more than forty years? Answer sincerely, honestly. I’ll tell you who: only fools and rascals. I’ll tell those old men that right to their faces, all those venerable old men, all those silver-haired and sweet-smelling old men! I’ll say it to the whole world right to its face! I have a right to say it because I myself will live to sixty. I’ll make it to seventy! Even to eighty! …Wait! Let me catch my breath…
You probably think, gentlemen, that I want to amuse you. You’re wrong about that, too. I’m not all the cheerful fellow I seem to be, or that I may seem to be; however, if you’re irritated by all this talk (and I can already sense that you are irritated,) and if you decide to ask me just who I really am, then I’ll tell you: I’m a collegiate assessor. I worked in order to have something to eat (but only for that reason); and last year, when a distant relative of mine left me six thousand rubles in his will, I retired immediately and settled down in this corner. I used to live in this corner before, but now I’ve settled down in it. My room is nasty, squalid, on the outskirts of town. My servant is an old peasant woman, spiteful out of stupidity; besides, she has a foul smell. I’m told that the Petersburg climate is becoming bad for my health, and that it’s very expensive to live in Petersburg with my meager resources. I know all that; I know it better than all those wise and experienced advisers and admonishers. But I shall remain in Petersburg; I shall not leave Petersburg! I shall not leave here because…Oh, what difference does it really make whether I leave Petersburg or not?
Now, then, what can a decent man talk about with greatest pleasure?
Answer: about himself.
Well, then, I too will talk about myself.
"Notes from Underground"
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
translation by Michael Katz