Notes from the underground

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Paper Book, 1992


Classic Literature. Fiction. HTML: Notes from the Underground is Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1864 masterpiece following the ranting, slightly unhinged memoir of an isolated, anonymous civil servant. A dramatic monologue in which the narrator leaves himself open to ridicule and reveals more of his weaknesses than he intends, this influential short novel lays the ground work for the political, religious, moral and political ideas that are explored in Dostoevsky's later works..



Call number



New York : Dover, 1992.

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Wow, talk about your unreliable narrators. The underground man presages later existential heroes (which probably by definition means antiheroes), but he's not just arguing a case like Meursault, or trying to drown out his own nobler impulses like Yossarian, or clacking his horrible mandibles
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together and going "LLLOOOOVVVVVEEEEEE SSSSAAAAAMMMMMMSSSSSSSAAAAAAAA" like Gregor Samsa (and, as I've read Nabokov used his lepidopterist skills to establish, never realizing that he had turned into a bug that had wings under its shell and could just buzz off into the sky and let his bug flag fly. But Nabokov also thought Dostoevsky was boring and derivative, so who cares what he thinks?). The underground man is doing all these things, and there's a bushel of straight nihilism in his Notes to boot, but mostly what he's doing is fucking us around. Not leading us down the garden path to cause us to come to the same conclusions about human worthlessness and venality that he has; leading us down the garden path to make us think that's what he's doing, when really he just wants to dick us around. "You despise me, vividly and at length?" he cries? "Well, I gave you that me that you despise. I told you about him. He is a straw man and I gave you the words you used to despise him, to boot, ass."

He's Ambrose Bierce without the relish, and the only thing that can rescue a narrative from that much self-loathing is a healthy dose of clinical honesty. Which is a big problem for the first half of this book, the "essay". Because one true thing about the UM is that he needs us to know how smart he is (that's part of what ultimately salvages the book from the brink of failure); so he makes sure we know right from the start that he is capable of saying savagely perceptive things in a surgically precise way. But then he wastes that talent--hacking down 19th-century positivism, utopian socialism, enlightened self-interest, other ideas which I'm not going to suggest don't deserve hacking down, or which to portions of Dostoevsky's 1860s audience it might not even have been revelatory to see hacked down, but which to a book as many lightyears ahead of its time as this one is it's a waste of time to even bother with. It's like Gilles Deleuze (who ever would have thought, Deleuzie, when I gave your What is Philosophy two stars in a LibraryThing review in 2007 that you would come to be my go-to example of a forwardthinker for this review less than four years later?) spending time dismantling Descartes instead of nurturing rhizomes; or to take a real example instead of a hypothetical one, it's the was psychology as a profession is so fixated on the ghost of Freud and the shadow he casts over them that every textbook spends time attacking him and thus validating his continued relevance as a pole of debate via the good ol' Oedipus complex (kill your fathers!) instead of letting him be and going about their fMRIs.

Phew! What I'm saying here is that hacking on the absurdity of the safe little herd beliefs of the herd is boring, and people have always believed stupid shit and who gives a shit, and if it's the beginning of, like, a sociological investigation into the negative effects of said beliefs, or a psychological sketch of how the personality that attacks them with so much rage and yet such palpable self-loathing also comes to be, then fine, but here it's not--or the first half's not. It's just venom, and every time the UM gives us a premise or principle or alludes to a fictional event that might serve for orientation, he then moves the goalposts on us, reminds us that he's fucking us around, and so what good is he then? We're willing to believe for the moment that life is hell, but then he refuses to help us derive meaning from that, even nihilistic meaning/lessness; we want Virgil in Hell and we get the Joker in Arkham.

The intro to my edition of Notes from Underground states that each section makes the other magnificent. Certainly that's not true of the first. As discussed, I find it on its own to be practically worthless, although exquisitely done; but the melting-snowflake sadness that suffuses the second half, the "story", is nowhere present in the "essay". The "story" makes the essay make sense--the pointless seething spittard that we see in the first half is revealed as someone very lonely and sad, who finally wants to be loved and esteemed but is far too clever and aware of his defense mechanisms to ever be able to dismantle them. You see how Dostoevsky was on his way to religion of a very true and hardheaded sort--on his way to the conviction that the fundamental crisis of human life isn't human corruption or venality or selfishness, but human pain. A totally unlovable man is obsessed with the officer who once moved him dismissively out of the way. He plots his revenge in a way too pathetic to be disguised by all his cleverness (but of course he is still feeding us our material, and the fact that only by presenting his ugliest self can he get us to feel sorry enough for him to love him may well be his last trick on us and himself). It gives him a reason to live, this revenge, for a couple of weeks at least, and he prepares for it like his wedding day. Even as your lip curls in scorn you wince at how he hits the tender places--the piece of each of us that feels fundamentally unloveable and yet like we have to trick someone into loving us as is because we're the only us we've got. The beaver collar was the most devastating detail for me.

And when he makes his big move it's meaningless, of course, but he pretends it isn't--diffidently, desultorily--as an excuse to keep going. To keep sneering after love. The party scene is excruciating (although it does bring up a sliver of doubt I have about this messy thesis as well, the way it reminds me of a thirteen-year-old nerd's birthday party. Are any adults like this? No, and the UM's got that covered, right at the end when he reminds us that he has presented us with the deliberate collection of all the traits necessary for an antihero. But still--you could argue that he is a psychological representation of all the ugly cravings and tantrums that grown-ups hide away, but I think what grown-ups do is actually much healthier for the most part--they learn to garner love by being loveable, to the degree they can--funny, reliable, affectionate, whatever it is. Anyone gonna argue that fifty-year-olds on average are more selfish than fifteen-year-olds? More spiteful, maybe, with heads fuller of bad memories, but I truly think that we overcome demons, as an aggregate species, faster than new ones are spawned. Moral arithmetic).

And all the cruelty and pathos of the UM's encounter with Liza at the end, the way he toys with her and drives her away and blames literature for his problems and then himself and then us--it's heartbreaking but also so predictable, down to the big tease-reveal that it was five rubles he pressed into her hand, making her back into a prostitute (called it). The second half of the book is called "Apropos of the Wet Snow", and I'm maybe trying to cut a Petersburg knot by making "the need for love" my keyword for this text in toto (in which case consider this meandering review to represent also my prior attempts to untie it), but what else makes the icy malice and slushy yearning and grey despair so touching instead of repugnant? The first half of Notes without the second half would be pointlessly unpleasant, a slapup of laughable, spiteful, adolescent nonsense; the perfect, tragic-in-the-most-exact-sense second half would, okay, exert somewhat less fascination without the extensive preparation of the first. Fine, Dosty knew what he was doing.
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LibraryThing member StephenBarkley
I've met the underground man before. After years of pastoring, I've seen traces of him in all sorts of people—even myself. I've witnessed the painfully thorough introspection that causes otherwise rational people's thoughts to cycle through an internal feedback loop. I've been privy to the
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inflated sense of pride that imagines absurd revenge scenarios in response to the slightest unintentional personal infraction. There's plenty of underground man in our world today.

It's uncanny how a nineteenth century Russian man is reflected so clearly in our capitalistic western culture. Perhaps the rejection of any sort of utopian vision is the common thread. The idea that the world isn't getting better and better draws strange people together.

This was my first foray into Dostoyevsky (I'm ashamed to say). He's created a compelling character that elicits empathy while simultaneously thoroughly frustrating the reader. This sort of tortured complexity will keep me coming back to Dostoyevsky for a long time.
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LibraryThing member BenDV
I'd been really looking forward to reading some of Dostoevsky's works, and I still am to some extent. It's just a shame that my first experience with his work is such a disappointment. Notes from the Underground starts off well, with its rather enthralling first Part, where the bitter, miserable
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Underground Man rails against certain types of rationalist thinking. He says a lot of rather insightful things; a lot of it wasn't that eye-opening to me, but it was a very good expression of familiar ideas. It's just a shame that in the second half the book becomes such annoying rubbish. Part Two consists of a story in which the Underground Man does nothing except exhibit the sort of stupid misanthropic behaviour and thinking I was guilty of when I was about 14 (though he does many more extreme things). It's not entertaining or even remotely interesting, it's just boring and irritating. I understand Dostoevsky is making a point and doesn't agree with what this guy says, but that doesn't make it an engaging read. I skimmed through the last few chapters because I'd got so angry at this guy and his general uselessness. However, I've heard a few Dostoevsky fans express similar thoughts about this book, so I've not been too discouraged. Might take a while for me to pick up another one of his books though, because this one has left a seriously bad taste.
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LibraryThing member atomheart
This book is broken into two parts.

The first part is the journal to the underground man - it completely blew me away... At times I would laugh at out loud at the madness of his logic, while other times I would be dumbfounded by his incredible line of thinking and view on the world/life.

Very few
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books make me question the way I think/rationalize like this book succeeded in doing.

The second part is a story of the underground man, showcasing his thoughts/actions from his journal in story form. I found this part to be a tad boring and drawn out, but interesting as it still held the same logic from the first part.

Overall, its verbiage is tough to read depending on the translation you get, and you have to pay extremely close attention - I had to re-read things multiple times to 'get it.' But this is not a book that you just want to finish, you really do want to 'get it.' So take the time to read it slowly, and find a quiet coffee house with minimal distractions, cause it will be worth it.
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LibraryThing member MissTeacher
I have virtually no idea why this book is considered a classic. More of a "personal manifesto" than an actual story, this is a disjointed reasoning of why the narrator feels and acts so outlandishly. Though I can sympathize with some of his emotions on my very worst days, 'Notes' as a whole left me
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feeling exhausted and a little dull. The second part of the book does try to assume some semblance of a story, yet the other characters are hardly developed, the plot is weak, and the climax is wholly anticlimactic. The only saving grace is the scene with the prostitute, yet even that promise is not only not fulfilled, it is swept with disgust under the carpet.
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LibraryThing member bbbart
This is an amazing monologue by a protagonist we all have so much in common with. Only, in this novel, all the things we share with the narrator are precisely the things we are not proud of, don't want to acknowledge or don't even understand.

Dostoyevsky wonderfully describes the all too human
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desire to sometimes wreak havoc upon ourselves, fully understanding that our choices are the wrong ones and even more revelling in the knowledge that we will feel debauched and guilty afterwards. If not pure free will, then what is it that leads us to these desires? A rather beautiful way of putting it, isn't it? :-)

In the paradoxalist main character, self-awareness and intelligence lead to passiveness and self-loathing. This is a man that cannot love himself and therefore not love anyone or anything else. I think Dostoyevsky might have meant this as a warning to all his readers.
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LibraryThing member Mary_Overton
"Even now, so many years later, all this is somehow a very evil memory. I have many evil memories now, but ... hadn't I better end my "Notes" here? I believe I made a mistake in beginning to write them, anyway I have felt ashamed all the time I've been writing this story; so it's hardly literature
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so much as a corrective punishment. Why, to tell long stories, showing how I have spoiled my life through morally rotting in my corner, through lack of fitting environment, through divorce from real life, and rankling spite in my underground world, would certainly not be interesting; a novel needs a hero, and all the traits for an anti-hero are EXPRESSLY gather together here, and what matters most, it all produces an unpleasant impression, for we are all divorced from life, we are all cripples, every one of us, more or less. We are so divorced from it that we feel at once a sort of loathing for real life, and so cannot bear to be reminded of it. Why, we have come almost to looking upon real life as an effort, almost as hard work, and we are all privately agreed that it is better in books." location 1651
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LibraryThing member AliceAnna
What a horrible person -- sad, sick, poisonous. If this guy is supposed to be a metaphor for modern man, what's the point of going on?
LibraryThing member Ljrei77
This is a fantastic book that addresses the question of "what is the self?". The underground man can only represent us who find ourselves lost and unsure yet despised by our own ineptitude. For those who have not yet to begin exploring "what a self is" or "what and why makes the self?" I highly
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suggest you start here.
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LibraryThing member rickstill122
" Suppose all man ever does is search for this 2 times 2 is 4; he crosses oceans, he sacrifices his life in the search; but to search it out, actually to find it - by God, he's somehow afraid. For he senses that once he finds it, there will be nothing to search for. Workers at least, when they're
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done working, get their pay, go to a tavern, then wind up with the police - so it keeps them busy for a week. But still, 2 times 2 is 4 is a most obnoxious thing. 2 times 2 is 4 has a cocky look; it stands across your path, arms akimbo, and spits. I agree that sometimes 2 times 2 is 4 is an excellent thing; but if we're going to start praising everything, then 2 times 2 is 5 is sometimes also a most charming little thing." Dostoyevksy, his mordacity fresh from 4 years stay in a Siberian labor camp, is howling across the vast steppe towards Eastern Philosophy. But alas and alack! Fyodor can't Google the nearest Yoga class, he's only got his pen and his tea. I wish he were alive, I'd love to hear what he'd say to "Mrs.Starbucks" review beneath me, which gives Notes 1 star and comedian Steve Martin's "The Pleasure of My Company" 3 stars. "It's not a good book via structure and moralizing"? Talk about 2 times 2 is 4!!! When Dostoyevsky's coming in, you gotta swing the door wide open!!!!
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LibraryThing member GTWise
Notes from Underground is a distinctly Russian novel, it deals with a Russian character facing a Russian problem. I did not notice this my first time reading it, however, because the Underground Man's spite and resentment transcends his particular Russian situation and can be applied to anyone who
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is out of step with his culture and times. It should be noted, though, that the particular problem that the Underground Man faces is that his view of life is derived from European romantic literature – which of course is literature and not real life. A distinctly Russian problem in that he is trying to lead a Russian life according to the fantasies and emotions of Western European authors (perhaps a modern day analog would be American teenagers who lead their lives with values and fantasies they get from Japanese anime – although somehow that feels insulting to the Underground Man and to European romanticism). He cannot be the man he wishes to be or lead the life he wishes to live because both cannot be found in the real world, certainly not the practical Russian society he rails against.

In the first half of the book, the Underground Man rails against both himself and his times. He rails against modern science and the effect that determinism has on free will. He rails against utopianism and the idea that reason and science will one day build a “crystal palace.” He rails against himself for being “too conscious” which leads to a kind of paralysis and both praises and condemns the men of action who, while less aware than him, are productive and able to attain their ends in the world. He is indeed a spiteful man who realizes (or at least perceives) that there is no way to get society and reality to work the way he wants it to, but refusing to reconcile himself to that fact, preferring instead to be spiteful. It is tempting to judge the first half of the book as a work of philosophy, which it is to an extent except that it is a fictional work of philosophy, it exists to give insight into the Underground Man's character not to genuinely critique anything (of course, that's my conclusion. Make your own).

In the second half of the book – Apropos of the Wet Snow – the man tries unsuccessfully to live real life according to the rules of romantic fiction. He imagines an epic confrontation between himself and a soldier who has disrespected him, he imagines a duel to the death with an old classmate of his to defend his honor, and he imagines himself saving the soul of a diamond-in-the-rough prostitute. All tropes of romantic literature, and all ending in failure when the Underground Man tries to live them out in real life – particularly his attempts to save the prostitute's soul when she instead becomes the one to help him, leading him to become spiteful toward her. He has grand visions and grand dreams for his life, but he can't get anyone else to play along with him. They go about their lives in a practical way, and he is just left being ridiculous and, at best, a minor irritant.

Even though the particulars of the man's situation are Russian, the feelings and attitudes the man has belong to humanity in general. The essential feeling the book deals with is that spite one feels when one knows that things will not go their way, but they refuse to get on board with the rest of society. It's self-destructive, it's senseless, but there's something (I say) noble in preferring to be oneself and miserable than to allow oneself to adopt the prevailing hopes and values in hopes of being united with everyone else. Surely everyone has felt it at one time or another, and for that reason I say that this book has universal appeal. It is also a short read, which lends itself easily to contemplation, re-reading, dissection, and enjoyment. Highly recommended to anyone and everyone.
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LibraryThing member beentsy
You know those times in your life when you retreat from the world? Stay home **way** too much, read deep & thoughtful books, inspect every dark corner of your soul, stay up for days on end, eat bad food, get a bit twitchy, question the motives and intelligence of everyone - except yourself, when
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you're not too busy hating yourself.

Yeah. That.
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LibraryThing member gmillar
I can see what it is that literary critics like about this book but I found that it required a bit more concentration than I was willing to give it.
LibraryThing member JonArnold
For such a short work I was finding this hard going until I realised the problem was with my mindset and over reverent reading of Russian literature. When I realised it was a comedy and worked out something of the Russian sense of humour it all clicked - it's viciously funny enough to anticipate
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the satire boom of the mid 20th century. Still have problems with the sort of existentialist viewpoint presented here, but at least Dostoyevsky's wit makes it enjoyably palatable.
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LibraryThing member mkfs
Seems to be pretty standard for Fyodor's protagonists to confuse agonizing and obsessing over things with being intelligent and cultured.
LibraryThing member leslie.98
This rating is provisional - I'm going to need some time for this novel to stew before coming to a final decision. I read this as part of a challenge to read cult classics which seemed a good opportunity to read a famous Russian author whose work I have been avoiding since attempting Crime and
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Punishment as a teenager.

If you, like myself, are coming to this book knowing little about it, a word of advice - don't let the first part make you quit! I disliked it and found it boringly pretentious; at this point I was sure I was going to hate the book and was tempted to stop. The second part I found much more interesting; although the neurotic narrator was just as pretentious, the overall style was more accessible.
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LibraryThing member samatoha
In this book dostoevsky historicly draws the line between nihalism and existentialism.The 1st part is almost pure philosophical:the author/hero write his thoughts about the confused,and over-knowledged modern man, that results a negative modern human being.Kafka and Musil took that example and
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developed it,the existentialists tried to solve the problem aroused.
The 2nd part is the prose story and it's magnificent.
Dostoevsky is not the best user of words in fiction, but he is genius regardless - describing human nature,both psychologiclly and philosophiclly.
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LibraryThing member willnapier
Typically Dostoyevskian black humour and sense of angst. Themes of the admiribility of conscienceless evil, and free will. His protagonist insists that we do not operate by some calculus of our best interests, and that it is an essential part of being human that we exercise our right not to operate
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in such a mathematical way.
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LibraryThing member hellbent
My favourite Dostoyevsky and have read several times.
LibraryThing member poetontheone
Dostoevsky's novella is part narrative and part manifesto, all awash in anguish. The book is the indelible cornerstone of existential literature, being a violent confrontation with the human condition and the nature of life. There are a number of quotable passages here, and the writing is smooth
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and digestible in contrast to the narrator. He is not likable, though he is interesting in much the same way as a car crash or the aftermath of disaster, and it is probable that most readers can relate to his bitterness, though maybe not at such extreme levels.
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LibraryThing member 391
There are some truly brilliant moments in the book that took me completely by surprise, and I was always excited when I had the chance to pick it back up to read after having to put it down.
LibraryThing member mrs.starbucks
I wish I could rate books with question marks...not for lack of understanding, but rather a lack of surety on the part of my own feelings.

"a novel needs a hero, and all the traits for an anti-hero are EXPRESSLY gathered together here"

I couldn't agree more. Part I of the book is
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barely-comprehensible rambling that is absolutely painful to read. Dostoyevsky, or the narrator, has a much stronger gift for storytelling than philosophizing. Even so, let it be said that there isn't anything resembling a structured plot...rather a random sampling of recollections that all end with an inane predictability. By the time you get to Part II (the more narrative section), the narrator's ramblings and actions become so repetitive that it's positively trite.

Whatever brilliant passages and lines there are to be found (and there are quite a few), they do nothing to redeem the narrator, mainly out of a sense that if given half the opportunity he would instantly change his mind about whatever he just said. Perhaps we can count that as phenomenal the 2 dimensional sense.

But as I said, there are some ideas and some passages that are worth taking note of, so I can't call it a total loss. Yet it's not a good book via structure or moralizing...which is why I can hardly bring myself to give it any rating. I don't feel indifferent about it, nor do I feel anything as strong as love or hate. What more can I say?

Read it if you dare?
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
This summer, while carrying my edition of the Great short works of Dostoyevsky on holiday, a sly compromise to my partner who forbade me to bring more that two books, I reread Notes from the underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

My first-time reading gave me the immediate sense of dealing with a top
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piece of literature, but I was nonetheless nonplussed as to the meaning, and before reading the book a second time this summer, I could not remember a single scrap about its contents. This second time round, my understanding and appreciation of the work is greatly enhanced by reading it within the context of several other works by Dostoevsky, all complex and rather depressing.

Dostoevsky has this predilection of choosing to focus on characters who a clearly defective in society, as the main character of this novel is clearly a "loser". The first part consists of that type of person's typical self-accusatory ramblings, expressing his misery and self-contempt. The second scene shows him to be a social misfit, rejected, and for good reason, by his former classmates, while in the last scene he reveals himself as a cruel sadist in relation to a girl, who is worse off than he himself.

The novel is somewhat difficult to read, because the characters' frame of mind is based on conventions in nineteenth century Petersburg, and not all allusions and references are immediately clear or understandable to the modern, foreign reader. However, the true nature of this anti-hero shines through so clearly, that we cannot mistake the basic meaning of the novel upon close, reading, which may need to be repeated.
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LibraryThing member heidilove
literature of alienation at its best.
LibraryThing member michaelbartley
I loved this book, especially the first part. the writer, the underground man see that the old ideas and values no longer offer the lessons we need to live life in a honest and full way. However the undergrond man also sees that the "new age" approach is no better. He hopes of a soluntion but is
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afraid there is no solution
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