"The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!"
Fyodor Dostoevsky's tale of the ex-student Raskolnikov, who kills an elderly pawnbroker and her sister, was published in 1866. (This followed Dostoevsky's return from long exile in Siberia).
A number of years earlier, when he was about 33, he penned these words to the widow of one of the men arrested back at the time of the Decembrist Revolt of 1825:
I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper and more sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Saviour. I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more. If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth did really exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ, and not with truth.
|Dostoevsky by David Levine|
Who is the most insightful essayist on great literature? Hands down, it is a professor at Northwestern University: Gary Saul Morson.
Here are his thoughts on the motivation behind some of the horrendous crimes committed in the modern era. [Part 2 will appear next Friday].
One hundred and fifty years ago, when Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment, Russia was seething with reform, idealism, and hatred. Four years earlier, the “tsar-liberator” Alexander II (reigned 1855–1881) had at last abolished serfdom, a form of bondage making 90 percent of the population saleable property. New charters granted considerable autonomy to the universities as press censorship was relaxed. The court system, which even a famous Slavophile said made his hair stand on end and his skin frost over, was remodeled along Western lines. More was to come, including the beginnings of economic modernization. According to conventional wisdom, Russian history alternates between absolute stasis—“Russia should be frozen so it doesn’t rot,” one reactionary writer urged—and revolutionary change. Between Peter the Great (died 1725) and the revolutions of 1917, nothing compared with the reign of Alexander II.
And yet it was the tsar-liberator, not his rigid predecessor or successor, who was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists. The decade after he ascended the throne witnessed the birth of the “intelligentsia,” a word we get from Russian, where it meant not well-educated people but a group sharing a set of radical beliefs, including atheism, materialism, revolutionism, and some form of socialism. Intelligents (members of the intelligentsia) were expected to identify not as members of a profession or social class but with each other. They expressed disdain for everyday virtues and placed their faith entirely in one or another theory. Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were typical intelligents, and the terrorists who killed the tsar were their predecessors.
The intelligentsia prided itself on ideas discrediting all traditional morality. Utilitarianism suggested that people do, and should do, nothing but maximize pleasure. Darwin’s Origin of Species, which took Russia by storm, seemed to reduce people to biological specimens. In 1862 the Russian neurologist Ivan Sechenov published his Reflexes of the Brain, which argued that all so-called free choice is merely “reflex movements in the strict sense of the word.” And it was common to quote the physiologist Jacob Moleschott’s remark that the mind secretes thought the way the liver secretes bile. These ideas all seemed to converge on revolutionary violence.
The intelligentsia prided itself on ideas discrediting all traditional morality.
The hero of Crime and Punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov, discusses disturbances then in progress, including the radicals’ revolutionary proclamations and a series of fires they may have set. But by nature he is no bloodthirsty killer. Quite the contrary, he has an immensely soft heart and is tortured by the sight of human suffering, which he cannot and refuses to get used to. “Man gets used to everything, the scoundrel!” he mutters, but then immediately embraces the opposite position: “And what if I’m wrong . . . what if man is not really a scoundrel . . . then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.” (All quotes from the text are taken from Constance Garnett’s Modern Library translation.) He means that man cannot be a “scoundrel” because that is a moral category, and morality is simply “artificial terrors” imposed by religion and sheer “prejudice.” There is only nature, and nature has causes, not moral purposes. It follows that all is as it should be because if moral concepts are illusions then things just are what they are.
As the novel begins, Raskolnikov alternates between horror at evil and assertions that evil does not exist. When he encounters a girl who has been made drunk and raped, and is being followed by another predator, he summons a policeman and gives his last kopecks to get the girl home. We know that Raskolnikov can’t pay his rent and eats only when the landlady’s servant brings him food at her own expense, yet he gives away the little he has to help a fellow creature. Nevertheless, a moment later Raskolnikov turns into a complete Darwinian amoralist: “let them devour each other alive.”
We wonder how Raskolnikov manages to hold such contradictory positions. Perhaps, as he surmises, he simply can’t shake the “dead weight of instinct” inculcated by religion in childhood. Or maybe his extreme sensitivity to suffering when he is powerless to alleviate it makes a doctrine denying evil’s existence attractive. From extreme moralism to absolute nihilism is but a step.
Raskolnikov asks: is there really any such thing as crime? He has in mind the sort of thinking familiar to us from Nobel Prize–winning economist Gary Becker and other “rational choice” theorists. In a classic article entitled “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach,” Becker relates how he once found himself late for a meeting and wondered whether to park illegally. Multiplying the potential fine by the likelihood of being ticketed, he arrived at the “expected value” of the punishment, and concluded it was less than the potential benefit of timeliness. Then he reasoned: what if that is all there is to crime?
If so, there is no essential difference between illegal parking and murder. There are just different punishments. How many parking tickets equal a murder? Becker and Raskolnikov have decided, on “scientific” grounds, that there is no such thing as moral crime, just legal crime, however horrified benighted souls, clinging to nuns and religion, might be.
Even after confessing to murder, Raskolnikov does not think he did anything wrong: “Why does my action strike them as so horrible?” he asks himself. “Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course, it was a legal crime, the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law . . . and that’s enough.”
Raskolnikov is mad for rationality. In addition to radical amoralism, he has also invoked another form of rationalism, then called utilitarianism, as a justification for the murder he plans to commit. His victim is to be an old pawnbroker, a greedy, cruel woman who not only preys upon her poor customers but also mistreats her kindly, simple-minded sister Lizaveta. Logic itself, he decides, prescribes her death.
According to utilitarianism, the fundamental criterion of morality is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. What if that entails murder? Sitting in a tavern, Raskolnikov overhears two students posing that very question. “On the one side,” one student explains, “we have a stupid, senseless, spiteful, ailing, horrid old woman, not simply useless but doing actual mischief, who has not an idea what she is living for and who will die in a day or two in any case. . . . On the other hand, fresh young lives thrown away for want of help by thousands.”
According to utilitarianism, the fundamental criterion of morality is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. What if that entails murder?
The conclusion is mathematically certain: “Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. . . . One death and a thousand lives in exchange—it’s simple arithmetic!” You can’t argue with arithmetic. For that matter, since the pawnbroker’s life is not just valueless but of negative value—she does positive harm—it would be moral to kill her even without using the money for a good purpose. Indeed, it is immoral not to kill her, since her death would increase society’s total utility.
Raskolnikov is struck by the coincidence that the students are discussing just what he is thinking, but Dostoevsky’s point is that these ideas are in the air. It is almost as if people don’t think ideas, but ideas use people to be thought. As Raskolnikov is aware, the city in which he lives is itself, as the first planned city ever built, an embodiment of abstract reason. Established in a swamp by order of Tsar Peter, and following the design of French utopian architects, the notoriously unhealthy Russian capital fostered the spirit of rationalism in its noxious air. That is why, on his way to murder, Raskolnikov finds himself considering a “totally irrelevant” thought about how city planning might improve the neighborhood.
Raskolnikov convinces himself that the murder he contemplates will occasion no guilt because it is not really a crime. Fifteen years later the revolutionaries who killed the tsar demanded amnesty because their crimes “were not crimes, but the fulfillment of social duty.” To think otherwise would be sheer “prejudice.”
Nevertheless, after the murder, Raskolnikov endures horrific pangs of conscience and an almost overwhelming desire to confess. Above all, he suffers from nightmares.
Nobody but Dostoevsky ever created such terrifying dreams. In one, Raskolnikov finds himself drawn to the pawnbroker’s flat, sees her seated with her back to him, and swings his axe onto her head to kill her again. But she doesn’t die. He swings again and again, and at last peers down into her face and discovers her suppressing her laughter. Evidently she has lured him to the crime in order to ruin him! He turns around only to find people pointing and laughing at him. Overcome with shame as well as guilt, he awakes in a fever.
The novel’s detective, one of Dostoevsky’s great creations, uses Raskolnikov’s feverish emotions to ensnare him. An apparent bumbler and a masterful psychologist—Peter Falk’s klutzy detective Columbo was loosely based on him—Porfiry Petrovich has read Raskolnikov’s article entitled, appropriately enough, “On Crime.” Connecting the evidence pointing to a “bookish” murder with Raskolnikov’s frantic desire to show he is not confessing, Porfiry Petrovich guesses who the murderer is. As adept a psychologist as his creator, he devises schemes to drive Raskolnikov to confess out of sheer overwrought nerves. As the murderer’s anxiety mounts, it almost seems as if author and detective are acting in concert against him, each setting traps and provoking terror.
One reason Porfiry Petrovich understands Raskolnikov so well is that he has once been like him. And so he gets inside his mind. At some moments he actually whispers to Raskolnikov the very words he is thinking as if he were a voice within. The supposed rationalist feels almost possessed. Strange to say, Porfiry Petrovich is arguably world literature’s most empathetic character.
Insanity threatens Raskolnikov, but it may have already overtaken the weird visitor who appears, almost supernaturally, in his room. Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov stands as another of Dostoevsky’s completely original characters, simultaneously terrifying and funny, cruel and generous, insane and rational. In fact, he is insane because he is so rational. Raskolnikov has already learned of him as a wealthy man trying to seduce his poor sister. To further his pursuit, Svidrigailov shrewdly takes advantage of accidental information proving Raskolnikov is the killer. But villainy is the least interesting part of his character.
Svidrigailov wholly accepts the complete amoralism Raskolnikov merely professes. Today he would be the perfect deconstructionist, one who realizes the full implications of his doctrine. Valuing nothing, he suffers from metaphysical boredom, and so has excited stronger and stronger sensations of whatever kind he can find. Sadism, gambling, debauchery, the seduction of a child, beating a servant to death: he has exhausted them all. And now he is haunted.
As Dante makes the punishments of hell appropriate to one’s sins, Dostoevsky has his madmen experience a hell appropriate to their philosophy. The ghosts who pay social calls on Svidrigailov are decorous, boring, and not the least bit otherworldly. In their triviality, they promise a world to come even more pointless than this one. “We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast!” Svidrigailov observes. “But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like an outhouse in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is?”
When Raskolnikov reproaches him with his monstrous crimes, Svidrigailov points to the oddity of a moralist murderer, but he is also ready with excuses. If, as the progressives argue, people are wholly the product of their environment, if free will is an illusion, and if crime derives solely from bad social conditions, then how, he asks, can I be personally responsible? “The question is, am I a monster or am I myself a victim?” Besides, he continues, even if I have grievously insulted others, well, “human beings in general greatly love to be insulted” because taking offense allows them to feel morally superior. Why, people even seek out ways to feel offended! My students, who know just what Svidrigailov has in mind, appreciate Dostoevsky’s relevance.