Nietzsche’s Ubermensch by Yuki Iwama

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (directly translated as ‘Overman’) is a theory that rejects the sedentary, cushioned modern man, and encourages us to overcome our current state of being to something immeasurably higher. First publicly appearing in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche, speaking through the titular character, introduces to us the Ubermensch – the future of humanity. The Ubermensch is not within us, waiting for us to ‘find’ our inner superman; rather, it is something that must be attained (Safranski 2003, p.259). In this essay I will attempt (to the best of my abilities as a cushioned modern man) to uncover how to become Nietzsche’s Ubermensch; what this superman is; and the consequences of becoming.

From the ashes of inherent and transcendent morality, Nietzsche birthed the Ubermensch. His critique and rejection of the categorical imperative asserted his position on the life-affirming, “yes”-saying superman who the modern man should be striving to become. We are, at the moment, between ape and the Ubermensch – it is up to us whether we enforce our will to power and transcend from our current state of being.

So how do we do this? First, we must try and understand Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. The eternal recurrence theory was not unfamiliar to Nietzsche during his life, beginning from his early roots reading Schopenhauer to rediscovering it in his later writings (Safranski 2003, p.225). To Nietzsche, “the world of forces” could not possibly run by a linear existence, since it would have already reached the end; therefore, “the world of forces” is eternal, running not in a linear direction but circular, constantly ending then starting and so on and forth until existence is a seamless repetition throughout eternity (Safranski 2003, p.228). This terrifying revelation presents to us a dilemma of epic proportions: if everything we do and say and think in our lives is already predetermined and doomed to be repeated on an endless loop, then what is the point? How are we to live a life with no meaning (like those hopeless, manic-depressive nihilists)? From this dilemma, Nietzsche gives us the anti-nihilistic nihilism; the new, optimistic nihilism; the philosophy of the future. The eternal recurrence theory is not supposed to be presented as a truth (the possible despair and destruction stemming from this theory was something that Nietzsche found amusing) but as a “pragmatic, autosuggestive aid in structuring our lives” (Safranski 2003, pp.230-231).

Religion, mainly Christianity, has us living our afterlives; however, with the prospect of an eternally recurring life, shouldn’t we be concentrating on this life now? (Safranski 2003, p.231). Instead of focusing on the afterlife, we should be focusing on the nowlife – embrace the life that was given to us! Amor fati! Rejoice and revel in this life; embrace your fate; relish the darkness and the brightness of the life we have now! Only the weak willed are struck down by Christian morality and guilt; the denial of self and will; the constant “no”-saying. Nietzsche demands that we must have courage and strength; that we should not deny truth and reality; and that “knowledge, saying ‘yes’ to reality, is…a necessity for the strong…” (Nietzsche 2009, pp.46-47). Once we learn to do this, will we be that much closer to the Ubermensch.

Nietzsche distinguishes those of us who are perhaps blinded or herded by this slave-like morality. We are essentially slaves to our guilt and masochistic psyches (guilt is really just like self-flagellation) which, argues Nietzsche, is something that must be overcome and rejected. We are led by the delusions (or perhaps manipulations) of ‘priests’ who encourages herd-like mentality and conformity; who stresses the importance of selflessness and denying ourselves of certain desires and pleasures; who teaches us what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil; and who offers us ‘soothing balms’ to helps us ‘tolerate’ life – these priests, these enforcers of slave morality, must be unheeded (Bornedal 2010, pp. 414-417). We must enforce the life affirming, absolute amor fati, and the joyful embrace of both the suffering and pleasurable aspects of our lives – to the point, as Bornedal so puts it, “where [we] could want…eternal recurrence” (2010, p.418). The Ubermensch is not slave to superimposed values and morals – he scoffs at the categorical imperative – but the master of his own values and morals. He is both the “destroyer and creator of values…who needs no illusory fictions about an afterlife…but instead imbues this world with the affirmative values of his own making” (Daniels 2013, p.194).

Once we have thrown off the superimposed slave morality and adopted the life affirming ‘yes’-saying and noble morality, can we start to harness the will to power and the will to the Ubermensch. The will to power is essentially the shared characteristic of all living beings –in this case, the will to become, rather than existing as static beings; surviving and not living (Heidegger 1979, pp.18-19). To clarify, Heidegger emphasises the distinction of the semantics of the word. He posits that the word ‘will’ does not convey the concept of ‘want’ or ‘wish’, but rather “the submission of ourselves to our own command, and the resoluteness of such self-command…” (1979, p.40). When we say the phrase ‘will to power’, we assume that Nietzsche suggests a will with a goal or an end. However, as Heidegger points out, the ‘will’ itself is “as mastery out beyond itself…will is a willing beyond itself…it is the strength that is able to bring itself power” (1979, p.42). Will itself is power.

To Nietzsche life is a vibrating, humming, tautened elastic band of will to power. It is a matter of whether or not we release the elastic band and harness the will to power to really live our lives and, ultimately, overcome ourselves. To reiterate, we are sedentary and cushioned, too comfortable in our current state of being (and too weak willed) to change, to evolve. Nietzsche wants us to overcome this; to overcome ourselves. We must harness the will to power – the will to the Ubermensch – to overcome, change, and become what is destined for us.

In summary, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, the Dionysian ideal, is something that we must strive for (even if it is unattainable); since the simple of act of striving is in the spirit of the Ubermensch. With the eternal recurrence theory, instead of being horrified by the prospect of an eternity of the same life, we must learn to live life to the full; embracing everything, even the suffering and the pain. Nietzsche demands that we do not be satisfied with purely surviving – our main goal in life simply being happy, and cushioned and fattened by modernity – but we should (and must) want more from life and ourselves. We must throw off the trepidation and guilt of slave morality and we must become masters of our own values and morals. To yell and scream “yes!” to everything in life; to love the life given to us (amor fati!); and to actually want to live the same life over and over again for eternity – this truly is the most precious gift we could possibly ever hope to attain. However, we must first gaze upon ourselves, the modern man, and realise that to hope to simply be happy in life is not enough. We must want more; aim higher; and struggle to overcome ourselves. The future is in this overcoming.

©Yuki Iwama, 2015

Reference List

Bornedal, P 2010, The Surface and the Abyss: Nietzsche as philosopher of mind and knowledge, De Gruyter, Berlin & NY.

Daniels, PR 2013, Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy, Acumen, Durham.

Heidegger, M 1979, Nietzsche Volume I: the will to power as art, Harper & Row, NY.

Nietzsche, F 2009, Ecce Homo: a new translation by Duncan Large, Oxford University Press, NY.

Safranski, R 2003, Nietzsche: a philosophical biography, Granta Books, London.


White, A 1990, Within Nietzsche’s Labyrinth, Routledge, New York & London.


Review: Michelle de Kretser’s ‘Questions of Travel’ by Yuki Iwama

To travel is to say goodbye. To travel is to isolate. To travel is to connect. To travel is to escape. Michelle de Kretser’s fourth novel, Questions of Travel (published in 2012 by Allen and Unwin) is aptly named, as it attempts to answer the questions and poses concepts that readers would otherwise not associate with travelling. The author herself has lived parallel to her characters, having her roots in the east and living in the west. One can see how this novel can be seen as a bipolar reflection on the author’s own experiences with travel.

The story encompasses over forty years and is told by two characters: Laura, a Sydney woman who travels the world after gaining an inheritance; and Ravi, a Sri Lankan man who becomes a tourist in his own country before seeking asylum in Sydney. We see here two parallel lives, though from opposite ends of the socio-political spectrum. David Callahan writes in Transnational Literature, that this blatant polarity is obvious in the “economic ability of [Laura] to travel out of desire, and [Ravi’s] constraints of travel structured by politicised violence” in his home country (2013, p. 6). At face value, it may appear that de Kretser is postulating that travel is only for the wealthy, however travel can come in any form: from Ravi’s journey of asylum in Australia to Laura’s cyber travelling while she works for a travel guide publishers.

These different forms of travelling are explored at great length within the novel. De Kretser pens the beginning at 1970, at the first hesitant steps of the technological boom, to 2004, when technology is an organic part of humanity – for example, as Ravi has sex with his wife, he cannot stop thinking about the internet and “things [flowing] together on his mind’s screen” (de Kretser 2012, p. 88). Deborah Rice of the ABC quotes de Kretser, who says: “Travel of different kinds is central to the book and people are interested in that…I hope they perhaps have their ideas of travel shaken up a bit or perhaps affirmed” (2014). But, while travel is the foremost theme of the novel, the author also attempts to explore technology, human interactivity and connection, politics and war, wealth and poverty, cultural relativity and race.

The title itself is based on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem by the same name, which also attempts to answer the questions of travel; questions that de Kretser also asks in her novel. Bishop writes: “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come/to imagined places, not just stay at home?…Should we have stayed at home,/wherever that may be?” (Poem Hunter 2003, para. 4-5). We meet a plethora of characters through Ravi and Laura on their travels who all have a strong relationship with the concept of home – whether they are yearning and searching for one or buried deep in the roots of the land. From Theo, who seems to be constantly misplaced, especially in himself; and Hazel, who has a deep connection with her house and her family; to Hana, an Ethiopian woman trying her best to find a home in Australia. Then there is, of course, Laura and Ravi, who both feel displaced in their home countries, for different reasons. Questions of Travel then, argues Evelyn Juers of the Sydney Review of Books, poses to us questions not only about travel but also about “authenticity: of consanguinity and camouflage, of mimesis and alterity” (2013, para. 10).

Though the book has won a number of awards and recognition – in particular, the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction – it is not however, well received by those outside the academic and literary circles. De Kretser’s use of language is the most debated and striking aspect of the novel. It is one of the leading reasons why most readers feel disconnected to the story, since it is tacit and difficult to swallow.  De Kretser has a roundabout way of describing things, which can be seen quite perfectly when Ravi comments on a picture of Freda’s father (or some other relative), saying that “he filled the frame, a squared-off man. Ravi thought of good English butter. He thought of all the red roast beef the man contained” (de Kretser 2012, p.119). Just by association, we know that the man is stocky and well-built. It is a technique de Kretser uses almost constantly throughout the novel, and reading even one page is a cerebral quest – turning it into a puzzle one needs to solve before moving on in the narrative. Kim Forrester of Reading Matters, while giving the novel a positive review, admitted that she had trouble deciphering the language in some parts. She states that: “the author’s prose style…felt convoluted and “showy”…”; however, she continues on to say that once she familiarised herself with the language, it became easier to understand (Forrester 2013, para. 9).

There are, however, those who appreciate the beauty and complexity of the language. While Forrester is valid in her argument about the inaccessibility of the language in some parts of the novel, she also praises de Kretser and her mastery of description. “[The author’s] descriptions,” she says, “particularly of objects and places…were evocative and often quite beautiful” (Forrester 2013, para. 9). One can get a feel for the heady and almost drunk-like qualities of the novel, which offers a sensual mobility that parallels the book’s core theme. The book is one of fierce living (which can be seen in Laura’s character) and the inertia of death (Ravi here, serves as the metaphorical vehicle for this concept). It is hard not to find yourself breathless while reading Laura’s story, as the descriptions here are a smear of colours. Passages like: “It was lush with overgrown oranges, loquats, figs…The leaves of the orange trees were as glossy and distinct as if cut from green tin…on the station platform, surrounded by shouts, clanking, an aria oozing from the tannoy, the squeak of sneakered feet…” (de Kretser 2012, p.99). De Kretser indulges in the sensual like Laura indulges in the pleasures of living. Jenny Ackland writes on her blog that Questions “is lyrical yet compact yet wide and stuffed with detail” (2013, para. 15). Like the language, the story itself is tacit and both too macro and too micro.

Though quite beautiful, the book is not without its’ flaws. The structure of the novel was something that I had trouble grappling, as did many other readers. Randy Boyagoda of The New York Times describes the structure as a “huge game of Ping-Pong” and that de Kretser makes “too many minor plot excursions and secondary character profiles” (2013, para. 7). I did indeed have a difficult time tracking all the new characters that were being introduced in every chapter, some of whom did not appear again for the rest of the book, or were mentioned briefly five chapters later. It felt at times that these characters were pointless and only there for convenience. Names like Cassie and Phil (Laura’s roommates mentioned early in the novel) and Helmut Becker (Laura’s colleague at Ramsay’s) would only draw blank faces – these are characters who served little to no service whatsoever. It makes me wonder why de Kretser created them in the first place.

Boyagoda’s description of the chapters being like a game of Ping-Pong is also quite accurate – going from Ravi to Laura every chapter around a hundred times, with barely room to breathe, seems overwhelming and confusing at times. Boyagoda argues that this structure leaves the reader no time to reflect on “the emergence of distinctive patterns and juxtaposed meanings”, being “undermined by the sheer number and frequency of these switches” (2013, para. 7). It is perhaps too much to ask of the reader – plunging us deep into two parallel lives with stories riddled with implicit juxtaposition, only to pull us out head first before we can decipher any meaning from them.

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel is a dizzy drunk epic. Whilst reading, I found that her language seeped into my brain chemistry, leaving me with the feeling that I had smoked too much weed in the Botanical Gardens – the colours and the Pollack descriptions is the main (if not only) reason why I admire this book. Questions did have structural flaws that were hard to overcome, and the sheer number of minor (and seemingly pointless) characters lost de Kretser many readers. The political aspects of the novel were something I, as an Australian living in a multicultural society, understood and had been exposed to before – so there wasn’t anything new from the literary shores that I had been searching for. However, the philosophy of travel presented by de Kretser caught my attention and challenged my idea of the concept. Though the novel did have its’ flaws, if it can change or impact a reader’s perception, no matter how small of an influence, it is a book worth reading.

©Yuki Iwama, 2015

Reference List

Ackland, J <> 2013, ‘Book Review: Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser’, blog post, 26 July, Seraglio: not a pizza place, viewed 18 October 2014, <;.

Boyagoda, R 2013, ‘When Two Paths Meet: ‘Questions of Travel,’ by Michelle de Kretser’, The New York Times, 21 June, viewed 19 October 2014, <;.

Callahan, D 2013, ‘Review of Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser’, Transnational Literature, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 6-7.

Forrester, K <> 2013, “Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser’, blog post, June 18, Reading Matters: Book reviews of mainly modern and contemporary fiction, viewed 17 October 2014, <;.

Juers, E 2013, Tripper Up, Tripped Out, Sydney Review of Books, 17 October 2014, <;.

Poem Hunter 2003, Questions of Travel, Poem Hunter, viewed 17 October 2014, <;.

Rice, D 2014, ‘Michelle de Kretser’s Questions Of Travel wins Book of the Year at NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’, ABC News, 19 May, viewed 17 October 2014, <;.

The Status of Sexual Violence in Balzac’s Adieu by Yuki Iwama

Sexual violence is the oppression and violation of women and the rhetoric through which men establish their masculine identity. Balzca’s Adieu is a text laden with sexual violence and phallocentricism palpable to a feminist reading. In this essay, I will be looking at the sexism of language and the model of the woman-beast used habitually in the text. I will also be exploring the consistent silencing of women in the text and how male narcissism actively oppresses and, ultimately, sexually violates women.

To own language is to own the reflection of reality. According to Gannett, our language is the language of men. It is comprised solely of the dominant (man as a humankind), the muted (the woman to the man), and the silenced (the hysterical and irrelevant – the animal and the child) (Gannett 1992, p.53). The dominant voice is of men – the authors and speakers of discourse and meaning; they are who creates our reality (Gannet 1992, p.53). The muted is of women – the voices must adhere to the dominant discourse (Gannet 1992, p.53). Voices outside of the dominant dialogue are left unheard, belonging only to the mad and hysterical and the inhuman (Gannet 1992, p.53). In Adieu, the language of men is evident.

Men as the writers of reality have time and again used the woman-beast comparison (though rather than a comparison it is more so a metaphorical relation and bestialisation). It is evident that it has its roots in the phallocentric binary of the rationality of man and the irrationality (hysteria) of women (Desblache 2005, p.381). Women, like animals, are creatures under men’s rule – even in Genesis, when God gives men the animals to tame, protect, and ultimately use. Animals are mute, without souls, unable to communicate like men do.

From the introduction of Stephanie in Adieu, Balzac offers us the first of many descriptions that adhere to the prevailing model of the woman-beast (prescribing to the language of the man – the dominant discourse): “At that moment,” Balzac writes, “the two huntsmen heard a cry that was something like that of a mouse caught in a trap” (2014, p.12). Then there is a description of the house where Stephanie resides. It is dilapidated, run down, with fruit rotting on the ground – emblematic of Stephanie’s mind (since no human woman would live in such disorder). A cow and goat greet the huntsmen as they approach the door, and already we are given a zoological image where Stephanie is simply another of the animals grazing in front of the house.  When Stephanie appears again, she is described as unintelligible and vacant, her teeth “as white as those of a dog” (Balzac 2014, p.13). There are only women-beasts in Adieu (sometimes described as a child – who fall into the muted group), a text that places women as subservient and secondary, even when not succumbed to madness. They are only silenced in madness because they do not adhere to the dominant discourse of language.

It is not only the narration that silences women in Adieu. According to Felman, the literary suppression of the female voice is also evident in the concept of women as the ‘unreal’ opposed to men as the ‘real’. Literary critics like Gascar and Berthier choose to focus on the war represented in the text (here we see the erasure of women in a more immediate and alarming form, especially within the academic circles) – chapter two being the focus of men and the other two chapters bringing Stephanie more so into the forefront of the story (though even then, she is more so a prop than an agent) (Felman 1993, pp.27-29). Adieu, according to Gascar and Berthier, is a story about the realistic heroism of soldiers (the ‘real protagonists’) and that Stephanie’s narrative is simply a supernatural streak within the text – unrealistic and ‘marvellous’ (Felman 1993, pp.28-30). Supernatural, Felman notes, is something not adhering to rationality, something to be dismissed, and “does not call for thought” (1993, p.30). Thus, women are reduced to a fictional status, a fairy tale – Stephanie is no longer a woman, or even an animal; she is Sleeping Beauty.

In regards to the woman-beast model, it is a simple yet illuminating reflection of a phallocentric reality. Stephanie’s journey in Adieu is one of dependence, objectification, and dehumanisation. From being rescued by Philippe during the war to being consistently hunted and captured by men (whether they had good or bad intentions), she is only independent outside of man’s grasp and in turn, their rationality. This desire to own, to have their female ‘Other’, is what drives the dominant discourse. For an example, Philippe attempts over a period of time to bring back Stephanie’s sanity (insanity marking the loss of femininity) by ‘taming’ her with sugar lumps and attempting to hear her utter his name. Felman notes that this is an effort to re-establish his own masculinity – since Stephanie as a woman-beast (something not human since the loss of femininity) is, to Philippe, a failure as a man (1993, pp.35-36). Stephanie, Felman argues, is Philippe’s Other; she is how he measures himself; she is his validator and establisher; without her recognition and lucidity, he is losing himself as she is to him (1993, pp.35-36). Man’s desire to own woman, to measure himself by her, is the aggressively ego-centric foundation to a hegemonic paradigm.

Fjelkestam, in her paper Gendering Cultural Memory, explores the erasure of Stephanie’s past traumas by Philippe and the suppression of sexual violence by the dominant voice. She quotes Hirsch and Smith on the gender perspective of historical and cultural memory: “what a culture remembers and what it chooses to forget are intricately bound up with issues of power and hegemony, and thus with gender” (cited in Fjelkestam 2013, p.240). Fjelkestam postulates that “what society chooses to remember becomes ‘the truth’”, which in this case the validity of memory and history falls upon the dominant voice (the authors), which was aforementioned (2013, p.245). Balzac, who writes under the dominant discourse as a male author, is an agent in this ‘selective remembering’. There is a detailed exploration of war and men but very little female representation. There is Stephanie, the only woman mentioned in Chapter Two of the text, and she is like a ghost (here, perhaps, is a supernatural element to her presence), half asleep and in a dream state, dumbly following Philippe. Her traumas following the river crossing is only mentioned in passing (within one or two sentences) and only serves to push the plot – to explain her insanity. The full extent of her trauma is dismissed and pushed into the background – suppressed and silenced, which is common when it comes to women and sexual abuse. Fjelkestam argues that Philippe’s refusal to acknowledge Stephanie’s trauma is what causes her to die (which in turn serves as his own death sentence) (2013, p.247). To elaborate, when Philippe attempts to recreate his own memory of the war (remembering as a man), Stephanie’s trauma is ultimately erased from the past – because Philippe refuses to acknowledge the distinction between past and present (Fjelkestam 2013, p.247). Thus, she dies because when her trauma is erased, she too is erased – in that her voice, her experiences, her memories and history are taken from her.

Ofcourse, though this is an exploration of a story from 19th Century France, a feminist reading of it is still critical to present day literature and society. Sexual violence is not only the literal abuse and rape of women, but also the metaphorical, the conceptual – the active oppression and silencing of women. We can see this, at the core, in the dominant/muted/silenced discourse in language, which is hardly noticed or challenged (which makes it dangerous); the dominant, hegemonic discourse by which all literary oppression of women conforms to. This distinction and subjugation of the man/woman opposition is also evident in the dehumanisation of women and the woman-beast model. By turning women into something other than human, they become easier to control and own – whether as an animal or a supernatural entity (unreal and marvellous). The obvious omission of the female experience in cultural memory and history, especially in relation to sexual violence and abuse, is not only harmful but possibly the worst violence one can inflict upon women. Balzac, whether intentional or not, has dismissed sexual violence, reducing it to a mere tool to explain Stephanie’s madness (as if a man can as easily take away a woman’s identity and femininity as he can control it). To look at the status of sexual violence in Balzac’s Adieu is to look at the state of male narcissism and ego-centrism. To take away a woman’s voice, her identity, and her experiences, is to metaphorically rape her and make her nothing. Though men may look at women as reflections of themselves, I think they must first look at themselves; and as women, we must unfailingly challenge this phallocentric reality and speak.

©Yuki Iwama, 2015



Balzac, HD 2014, Adieu, trans. KP Wormley, Ingram.

Desblache, L 2005, ‘Beauties and Beasts: contrasting visions of animal representation in women’s contemporary fiction’, Comparative Critical Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 381-395.

Gannet, C 1992, Gender and the Journal: diaries and academic discourse, SUNY Press, Albany.

Felman, S 1993, Women and Madness: the critical phallacy, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Fjelkestam, K 2013, ‘Gendering Cultural Memory: Balzac’ Adieu’, Culture Unbound, vol. 5, pp. 239-249.

I Am Perfectly Normal: a personal essay by Yuki Iwama

Something incredible happened to me in the psychiatric ward of St. Vincent’s hospital: a patient told me that he was “perfectly normal”, and I believed him. In retrospect, it should not have been so incredible; however, going in with the social stigma of mental illness staining my perception, it was difficult to see it as anything but. The patient’s name was Daniel and he was a builder who constantly wore a black beanie and a leather jacket around the ward, even when he was in his pyjamas. I thought that perhaps he even slept with them on. He was soft-spoken and walked with a drag in his feet, but this was probably due to heavy medication.

When I first immersed myself in the world of psychiatry, I was surrounded by people who seemed far from “normal”. We had schizophrenics, manic depressives, clinical depressives, psychotics, anorexics, borderline personalities, obsessive compulsives, autistics, paranoids, and schizoids. They all took Aripiprazole, Fluvoxamine, Chlorpromazine, Quetiapine, Sertraline, Temazepam, Diazepam, Clonazepam, and Fluoxetine. I found myself in a completely different world where everyone spoke a foreign language and where people were only secondary to the cold, lyrical words of psychiatry.

I was sitting with Daniel in the art room, watching him draw, when he said those words to me. Not words of psychiatry, but words that were his own. I found it difficult to talk to him those first few days. He was always distracted, staring off into the distance as if he was watching a movie only he could see. He would do this for hours, sitting in a green chair with stuffing spilling from the tears, staring up at the ceiling with unfocused eyes, his lips slightly parted and moving ever so slightly. I watched him from the corner of my eye, unable to communicate with him, until I walked into the art room to find him drawing. That was when we had our first conversation.
It began with me doing the routine Q & A the citizens of this strange world practiced in place of greetings.
“What brings you here?”
His forehead furrowed but his pencil kept moving. “I don’t know. They said I’m anxious.”
“About what?”
“About life, I guess.”
“Aren’t we all?” I said.
The pencil paused. Daniels met my eyes with his and it was shocking. “That’s why I don’t know why I’m here.”

The so-called bible of psychiatry is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, otherwise known as the DSM. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the DSM is “the standard classification of mental disorders used…in a wide array of contexts and…by clinicians and researchers of many different orientations” (American Psychiatric Association 2014). Nick Haslam of the University of Melbourne posits that the misconception of diagnosis from the DSM has led to the rift between normality and mental illness (2013, p.36). Because of the common-sense ideal that physical illness and mental illness are fundamentally different, Haslam states that “Psychiatric conditions all too easily become defining identities that set some people apart from the rest of humanity, pervading and diminishing their personhood” (2013, p.36). In other words, we stop seeing the mentally ill as people and begin seeing them as their illness.
It was always going to ‘us’ and ‘them’, no matter which side of the rift you were on. Us: the mentally ill. Them: the sane. Us: the sane. Them: the mentally ill. People tend to forget that mental illness is not static – it fluctuates, soars, plummets, disappears, and crushes. In Daniel’s case, he had only been ill for two months out of the twelve. For those two months, he had been on one side of the rift, with the mentally ill. For the rest of the year, he had been on the other side, with the ‘sane’. It is because of this fluctuation that I cannot rely on this social construct of ‘us and them’. It only exists in the minds of those who cannot fully comprehend what humanity really is.

Two weeks in, I met a girl who lost her ‘personhood’ due to her extended time within the system. Her name was Jess. She had strawberry blonde hair, a snub nose, and an intense dislike of water (she would get her liquids from strawberry milk). She had been in and out of the system (whether it be general hospitals, psychiatric wards, or long stay facilities) for several years due to her severe chronic depression. She was very easy to talk to and we quickly became friends. When we engaged in the standard Q and A, she told me that she was hit by a train months prior and had, until recently, been recovering in the general hospital.
“Why were you hit by a train?” I said.
She gave me an incredulous look. “I’m a chronic depressive,” she said.
It quickly became clear to me that she felt comfortable in identifying herself by her illness. Countless psychologists and nurses and counsellors had beaten this label into her over the past several years, until it seemed like it was all she was. This, in turn, fed her overwhelming dependency on the system until she was no longer able to fathom the idea that she was ever once a healthy individual. She lost all her dreams in a haze of medication and emergency rooms, and she killed time by smoking and drinking milk.
“I don’t like to do anything,” she told me. “Not now.”
“I’m sure you had hobbies and interests before you became ill, Jess,” I said.
A surprised look came over her face, as if she had not thought about it until now. After some deep thought, she tentatively told me that she used to love drawing.
“Why don’t you join me and Daniel in the art room?” I said.
“I can’t. Not now,” she said, turning her attention to her cigarette.
“Why not?”
“I’m too depressed.”
A few days later, Jess joined us in the art room and drew for the first time in years.

Jose Silveira from St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto states that the DSM is used to organize symptoms only, and that “it’s purely diagnostic; it doesn’t reflect risks associated with conditions” (in Kingston 2013, p.52). The ‘bible’ of psychiatry reflects the current nature of the mental health system: we are too trigger-happy with labels. People, like Jess, get buried under the label they are given. The psychologists and counsellors treat the illness, not the person. The language of psychiatry is harming us, instead of helping us.
Of course, there needs to be a balance with this, like with everything. Diagnosing illness is a normal part of medicine, whether mental or physical. Without it, we could never understand the nature of the problem and begin the process of healing. However, as Peter Kinderman from the University of Liverpool states, there seems to be a label for every human fallacy, including sexual disinterest and overindulging in vices like alcohol (in Kingston 2013, p.52). So how does this reflect on us? What does this attitude say about humanity? It seems to say that we see ‘being human’ as an illness. The fallacies, the flaws, the falls, these are the things that everyone experiences, and yet, we have clinicalised it and slapped a burdensome label on it.

My experience at St. Vincent’s wasn’t the first time I stepped into the psychiatric world. But it was the first time I realised that perhaps I should shrug off the label and assume more responsibility for my own care. For almost a decade nothing had worked for me, because nobody was seeing me as a complicated and individual human being. They were only seeing me as the psychiatric world wanted to see me: ill, dependent, something to treat quickly and push on. There is so much more to mental illness than being psychotic, schizophrenic, depressive, or obsessive compulsive. These are just shapes strung together into words that only have the context we apply to them. The people in the system like Jess, Daniel, and me – we weren’t these things. We were people suffering from various aspects of life, whether external or biological.

But the language of psychiatry does not allow for this humanisation of mental illness. It would be difficult to harness in such a clinical setting. It is up to us, as individuals, to realise that though the label may be placed on us, it doesn’t define us. We should protest if we don’t agree, have a more open dialogue with the workers in psychiatry, and shrug off the label if it becomes too burdensome and take charge. These thoughts have led me to become aware of the rift that social stigma has created between us and ‘normality’ – when in fact, it is “perfectly normal” to fall now and then. It is not, however, normal to fall under the crushing weight of the labels created to help us in the first place.
I was one of the lucky ones. I realised this just before I was to be assimilated into the system. I managed to shrug off the label and unlearn the language before becoming too comfortable and too dependent on them. Jess, unfortunately, is still in the system, and probably will be for the rest of her life.

©Yuki Iwama, 2015


American Psychiatric Association 2014, ‘DSM’, American Psychiatric Association, viewed 22nd October 2014, <; .

Kingston, A 2013, ‘Is she a brat, or is she sick?’, Maclean’s, vol. 126, no. 11, p. 52.

Haslam, N 2013, ‘Modern Madness: The labelling of mental illness gets a shake-up’, The Monthly, May issue, pp. 32-36.

‘The Unreliable Narrator: Dostoevsky’s Underground Man’ by Yuki Iwama

Hypocrisy is rampant in human nature – we say one thing and do another; we believe one thing and renounce it with one event. This condition seems amplified in Dostoevsky’s Underground Man – a man of ‘high conscious’ and intellect. “To be overly conscious,” the Underground Man writes, “is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.6).  This extreme state of consciousness is the undoing for the Man; perhaps even the main cause of his paradoxical nature. The unreliability of the text stems from this dualism against the backdrop of the reigning school of thought at the time, which was rationalism and utilitarianism – liberals and nihilists were most prolific in the intellectual circles (Pevear in Dostoevsky 2006, p.xii). In this essay, I would like to present the paradoxical nature of the Underground Man, as both character and narrator, and the various embodiments Dostoevsky paints for us in turn – especially in Apropos. But first, I would like to delve into the roots of the Man. Is he as unreliable as the book suggests?

Within the opening lines of Notes From Underground, readers can instantly comprehend the narrator’s ostensible unreliability. The Underground Man contradicts himself within every sentence – an example can be seen when he blatantly states that he is superstitious even though he is “sufficiently educated not to be” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.3). It is abundantly clear that this is a man paradoxical in nature, unable to assert himself over one thing or the other. The Underground Man struggles even to label himself, unable to reconcile his very self to such an ostensible objectivity. Even being labelled a ‘lazybones’ is something that the Man wishes he could give himself to: “…it would be most agreeable to hear that about myself. It means I’m positively defined; it means there’s something to say about me” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.19). This crippling inability to define himself by any means is reflective of the warring philosophies that is presented in the novel. Appearing an irrationalist, the Underground Man’s philosophy could be seen as a direct embodiment of  Dostoevsky’s criticism of the prevalent school of thought of the 1860s, which was of course, rationalist egoism. However, the Man is not without logic, despite his writing process. Scanlan, posits that though the Man is not a rational egoist, he is still an egoist (1999, p.3). The Underground Man’s repugnant character serves as a warning against egoism, which discounts humanitarianism and altruism – which could lead to disastrous effect (Scanlan 1999, p.4). Therefore, though he may appear to be an irrationalist, the Underground Man can instead be seen as an egoist trapped between “two climates of opinion” (a dangerous combination), embodied in the novel in the cynicism of the older man in Underground, and the romanticism of the emotionally driven younger man in Apropos of the Wet Snow (Pevear in Dostoevsky 2006, p.x).

Here, in Underground, we see the end result of the Man’s metamorphoses from youth to age, from romantic to nihilist.  (Though arguably, we could say that Apropos of the Wet Snow reflects the beginnings of the metamorphoses, since the Man is already in a heightened state of mental agony and suffers from bouts of cynicism.) Underground presents the Man immersed in the nihilistic ideology. He is completely misanthropic, cut off from society, and cynical about everything including himself, after years of being ‘underground’. He writes, “…I am living my life in my corner”, (here he refers to the underground), “taunting myself with the…futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become something” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.5). Here is a man who, with his ‘high conscious’ cannot, in good faith, become one thing or another because of his nihilism. He has “never managed to become even an insect” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.6). How could he become anything if he has no choice in the matter? Joseph Frank notes that the Man “seems to be nothing more than a chaos of conflicting emotional impulses; and his conflict may be defined as that of a search for his own character his quest for himself” (1961, p.7). Thus, a man who cannot know himself, cannot be considered ‘reliable’ in any sense, including as a narrator. But, Frank also notes that the novel must be seen “as a whole”; that this unreliability is more than it appears to be (1961, p.4). Pevear posits that the broken and perplexing narration is a “dramatization” of the “unifying idea” of the novel (in Dostoevsky 2006, p.viii). The novel itself, as well as the character of the Underground Man, are embodiments of anti-rationalism and anti-utilitarianism; the rejection of the systematic philosophies that overlooks the fallacies and dissent of human nature. The unreliability is intentional and satiric, revealing a caricature of the Underground Man as an everyman intellectual who has slipped through the cracks of society.

Apropos of the Wet Snow recounts the Man’s disastrous encounters with various characters who are themselves caricatures of Russian society in the 19th Century: the soldier, the schoolmates, the prostitute, the colleagues, and the servant. We see here the Man’s struggle with his metamorphoses and the disparity in thought. The first scene he paints for us is of his office and his relationship with his colleagues. He expresses hatred towards them and crippling insecurity at being too “eccentric” – even though he states that they are “all dull-witted and as like one another as flock of sheep” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.44). He also mentions that he is a “coward and a slave” and that this state of being derives from “natural law”; hinting at the deterministic nihilism that eventually cripples his sense of self and place in society (Dostoevsky 2006, p.44). Here, the Man is stricken with “contraries” in many forms: being highly sociable with colleagues one day and isolated the next; setting them above himself one day and looking down upon them the next; and suffering a bout of “scepticism and indifference” before “reproaching [him]self with romanticism” (Dostoevsky 2006, p.45).

The Man’s growing dissent with romanticism and sentimentality is shown to us through a satirical episode with the literary cliché of the ‘redeemed prostitute’ – which, according to Pevear, is a parody of sequences from Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky’s novel, What Is to Be Done (to which Dostoevsky is replying to through Notes From Underground) (in Dostoevsky 2006, p.xv). After sleeping with Liza, the prostitute, he rants about ‘saving’ her from her fate, but later reproaches himself for being so sentimental and starts to hate her. There are constant referrals to literature within this episode; from Liza telling him his rant sounds something from a book, to the Man becoming angry with himself for giving Liza money (the act being described as being “so bookish”) (Dostoevsky 2006, pp.1256-127). Pevear notes that “one main thematic strand of the book is the underground man’s denunciation of the estranging and vitiating influence of books…”, which leads to him using the word “literary” quite sarcastically (in Dostoevsky 2006, p.ix). However, not only is the episode with Liza, the ‘redeemed prostitute’ a parody of a literary cliché, it can also be seen as a satire on the Man’s ‘high consciousness’ itself.

Coetzee suggests that this intense self-awareness and high consciousness “make the hyperconscious man the antithesis of the normal man. Feeling no basis in certainty, he cannot make decisions and act” (1985, p.216). Here we see l’homme de la nature et de la verite (the man of nature and truth) – a healthy, normal, “undivided man of action”, who, albeit being narrow-minded and stupid (according to the Underground Man), is decisive and holds a certainty of himself and what he desires and his place in society (Pevear in Dostoevsky 2006, p.xix). This particular breed of men (the normal men in fact) is subject to the Underground Man’s scorn and disgust, however he is also intimidated by the decisiveness displayed by l’homme de la nature et de la verite. The example of this type of man is presented in the novel as the soldier, who moves the Man aside in the bar in order to walk past him. The Man, shocked by the soldier’s instinctive and definitive action, becomes obsessed by him and attempts to bump into him on various occasions (when he does, it’s only by accident). Frank notes that the ‘stupidity’ or lesser consciousness of the man of action “allows him to maintain his complacency, and to look on the underground man’s squirmings with unfeigned contempt”; whereas the Underground Man, with his high intellect and consciousness, sees what the man of action does not, and is both spiteful and envious of him (1961, pp.10-11).

So we can see through these examples how the Underground Man’s ostensible unreliability as a narrator stems from his nihilism and struggles with rational egoism, as well as his ‘high consciousness’. However, we must also remember that he is a ‘literary’ embodiment of the main argument made by Dostoevsky against rational egoism – as Pevear states, not only does the author present to us an antihero, but also an “antibook” (in Dostoevsky 2006, p.ix). We must also be aware of the socio-political climate of the time, and how heavily Dostoevsky had been censored in his work. The Wayne Booth model of narrator unreliability states that this unreliability is a “function of irony” – a channel to communicate ideas behind the “speaker” (the narrator, who is the embodiment of the irony itself) (Olsen 2003, p.94). We can see the satirical nature of the novel, especially in the Underground Man’s encounter with the characters in Apropos, and the inherent humour through which Dostoevsky presents them to us. Pevear states that “laughter creates the distance that allows for recognition,” thereby distinguishing the author from the narrator (in Dostoevsky 2006, p.ix). It does not do to presume that the narrator’s argument holds little validity, at his apparent unreliability. One must go deeper than that and read the author’s intentions.

The Underground Man is considered to be unreliable as a narrator, however we see now that it serves a deeper purpose and stems from a deeper psyche. The Man is a character of paradox and warring philosophies, namely the inherent desire for free will, and the core determinism of nihilism. This duality can be difficult to comprehend at times, with such distorted and contradictory writing; however, this presents a channel for the heavily censored Dostoevsky to communicate his ideas to his readers behind the paradoxical speaker. We see here a tragic and satirical novel commenting on the socio-political climate of 19th Century Russia, which, after all these years, can still be applied to contemporary society: the disassociation of the individual and the masses; the struggle between a nihilistic age and the sentimentality of yesterday; and the mania of egoism in a capitalistic society. The Underground Man exists today just as he did then.

©Yuki Iwama, 2015


Dostoevsky, F M 2006, Notes From Underground, Vintage Books, Great Britain. Foreword by Richard Pevear.

Coetzee, J M 1985, ‘Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky’, Comparative Literature, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 193-232.

Frank, J 1961, ‘Nihilism and “Notes from Underground”, The Sewanee Review, vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 1-33.

Olsen, G 2003, ‘Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators’, Narrative, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 93-109.

Scanlan, James P 1999, ‘The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground’, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 60, no. 3, pp. 549-567.