Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: Notes from Underground

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat if the opening paragraphs to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.

Today we will reimagine the opening paragraph of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Notes from Underground. This novel was Dostoevsky’s response to the western influence on Russia which he felt was destructive and undermined traditional Russian values rooted in the lower classes. In the first paragraph, Dostoevsky introduces the reader to a well-educated but sick, self-loathing narrator, the Underground Man, who is disillusioned with the absurdity and predictability of modern society. He eschews utopian socialism and utilitarianism, believing instead that man truly desires to exercise free will — even when it runs contrary to society’s or their own best interests. Thus man engages in behavior that is unproductive or destructive, or takes pleasure in illness or misery to assert his free will. His contempt for himself is only exacerbated by his crippling lethargy — something we can relate to in the age of coronavirus:

I am a sick man…. I was diagnosed with the coronavirus last week. I am a resentful man… this pandemic could have been diminished back in January. I am an unattractive man (to give you an idea, just picture senior policy advisor Stephen Miller with long, filthy uncombed hair). I believe my lungs are compromised by COVID-19. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and the medical experts at WHO do not know for certain why the virus kills some patients and spares others. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have — I lost my medical plan last year thanks to the callous Republicans who are hellbent on repealing Obamacare — though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). I also believe in conspiracy theories, like the one that claims that Trump is Putin’s spineless, brainless puppet so that Russia can divide America and ultimately take over the world. Or the one that asserts that the coronavirus was China’s bioweapon to infect the world, topple the financial markets, then emerge as an economic powerhouse by making money off the pandemic and purchasing companies that recently lost value. But I digress… no, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand, especially if you are healthy and have a decent private medical plan. Well, I understand it, though. Despite a culture that has digressed to tribal, cult-like discourse and the manipulation of truth into fake news, I still retain the greatest benefits of my college education: independent, critical thinking. Of course, I can’t explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “pay out” the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My lungs are bad, well — let it get worse!

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