Crime and Punishment

[After a bit of a hiatus, I’ll post a few more Dostoevsky Reading Project thoughts – this is hopefully 1/3 on Crime and Punishment, but I also have to start work again tomorrow…]

I read Crime and Punishment once before, when I was a senior in college.  I don’t remember why I decided to read it – it’s either because, randomly, in 1998 there was a 2-part Crime and Punishment network TV miniseries (NBC seemed, for a brief period in the late 90’s, to have lofty aspirations – they also made in Odyssey movie around that time – only now have they discovered true genius with the advent of “Minute to Win It”).  Or maybe it’s because I was enrolled at the time in a course called “From Hegel to Nietzsche”, and the professor alluded to Crime and Punishment while we were reading Fear and Trembling.  So as I’m making my way through my Dostoevsky reading project, this is the second book I’d already read, the other being Notes from Underground.  So I was interested to see if my recollection of the novel squared with my new experience re-reading it.

What I recollect from back then was an intense interest in the psychology of it all.  I remembered the graphic depiction of the murder (rightly) of a landlady (it turns out a wrong memory) and her serving-woman (also wrong).  I recalled (I now see erroneously) that huge swaths of the book were taken up by the dialogues between Porfiry (the investigator) and Roskolnikov (the protagonist).  I remembered a series of dialectical/investigative chess matches between the two, where Roskolnikov tries against all hope to avoid conviction for the double murder he commits about 80 pages in to the novel.  I also remembered the tragicomic (most tragi-) depiction of the frantic unraveling of the Marmeladovs, an unrelated Petersburg family: their father, the drunk who gets run over by a wagon, their mother, the manic, deluded memorializer who turns immediately from vile hatred of her dying husband to an absolutely insane desire to have a “noble” funeral for him, on which she spends her entire worldly wealth and then dies of tuberculosis, and then the daughter, a noble-minded prostitute who serves as Roskolnikov’s savoir towards the end of the book.

Like much eyewitness testimony then, my memory turns out to be unreliable.  Roskolnikov does not murder his landlady and her serving woman, he murders a pawnbroker and her half-sister (though he does use an axe he finds in his building manager’s utility closet) .  He does engage with Porfiry a few times about the subject of the murder, but not all that much.  My memory of the Marmeladov family, it turns out, was mostly correct.  It’s probably because I was reading the book for the first time that some of the details got amalgamated or oversimplified.  I didn’t know how it would finish, after all, so when I was reading then, I was reading for plot alone.

But the biggest thing I didn’t see then, but do now, and largely because of Frank’s biography, is the broad social snapshot that the novel represents.  This isn’t exactly a 19th-century-realist tome like Middlemarch, David Copperfield or War and Peace, but something I didn’t appreciate on first reading was that it is not a novel only about Roskolnikov and his crime either.  There is a vivid world of minor characters, foils, subplots, ironic contrasts and magnificent set-pieces: the wake for Marmeladov being an absolutely breathtakingly hilarious and terrifying example of good writing (about which I intend to blog separately, in conjunction with the similarly hilarious/terrifying episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm entitled “The Freak Book”).

There is also the intellectual context – Dostoevsky’s ongoing critique of the nihilism of 1860’s Russian intellectual life.  I have to defer to Frank on most of the details, being not at all well-versed in Chernyskevsky, Herzen, and so on.  Frank’s take on the book is at its best when he’s describing the novel itself – he reads it as a mystery novel in reverse, so to speak.  We know “whodunit” from the outset, including all the basic facts, we even basically know he’ll end up getting caught: what we only come to know over the course of the novel is the motivation of the murderer.  And not in the way that we sometimes come to know these sorts of things (i.e., we didn’t know all along that he had an ailing wife in Cleveland to whom he was mailing all of the profits of his crimes, and so he’s humanized at the end even though he’s a seemingly amoral con-man).  More like – we know why he thinks he did it even; it’s just over the course of reading that we come to know that why he thinks he did is it wrong as well.  Frank suggests that Roskolnikov moves from a utilitarian-socialist understanding (I killed her because I could do more good for the poor with her money than she would have) through to a more proto-Nietzschean assertion of the will to power.  That feels right – the idea being that both trends were there from the beginning, but the criminal himself did not feel it (he’s also suffering fevers, feinting, and some sort of mental illness throughout as well, so you can’t really blame him).

Where I find Frank’s reading lacking is again in his starkly unemotional analyses.  He even says things like “these pages are among the more emotionally affecting in all of 19th century literature” (that’s a paraphrase, not a direct quotation), but he never really gets to an understanding of how Dostoevsky’s writing comes to capture the subtleties of this state.  Instead his reading becomes, again, somewhat dry intellectual history.  This character represents so-and-so’s real historical figure’s ideas; that character represents such-and-such movement, etc. etc.  This again seems like such a strange way to read such emotionally laden books, especially since Frank notes several times that Dostoevsky was obsessed with his ability to accurately render what he called “idea-feelings.”  Frank’s readings may be right, but they seem to drive too much of a wedge between the thoughts and the feelings.  It’s as though these books just happen to be both emotionally powerful and intellectually complicated.  But the issue is that they’re both at the same time.

So, I feel like I should take a stab and describing what’s going on in this massive, and justly famous book.  Not that this reading is exhaustive or purports to be complete, but just some ideas that guided my re-reading.  I see it as essentially, to use a word that recurs throughout the book, “double-ended” tale.  On the one hand, it’s presented as a brutally realistic account of a crime and its aftermath, together with some surrounding characters: the Marmeladov family, the Roskolnikov family, the legal establishment, Roskolnikov’s bizarre social circle of struggling academics, the boarding-house neighbors, servants, landlords and superintendents, and so on.  There is just such an overwhelming sort of force to so much of the book’s main action, it’s frightening at several points.  I’m not one for emotional overload, at least not that often, but I quite literally had to put the book down after reading Part 1 (which ends with Roskolnikov’s brutal murder of the pawnbroker and her half-sister).  I was drawn into a sort of narrative sympathy with Roskolnikov that the various crime “genre” writers must all aspire to – it’s hard to imagine Elmore Leonard, or George Pelecanos, or whomever, doing a better job, just on the normal terms of the genre (and I’m reading this book in translation!).  The terror of the anticipation of the murder, the actual execution of it, and the subsequent escape from the apartment building are told in such a climactic fury I could not put the book down.   And like I said before, the tragicomic funeral-and-wake sequence at the Marmelodov’s was startling in its manic verisimilitude.  The succession of people who come to Roskolnikov’s sickbed is also perfect for creating a sense of his monomania; I found myself as annoyed at their presence as I was meant to think Roskolnikov did.

Beyond all this, though, is the other face of the book, one that transcends the realistic narrative and simultaneously succeeds as allegory.  If the book is an expression of “thought-feeling” then the foregoing paragraph was about the feelings, but what about the thoughts?  The reason the allegory, to me, seemed so rewarding was that its dimensions would advance precisely as the emotional qualities of the novel did (this is a reaction I often had while watching The Wire, by the way, and one I’ve come to look for as a sign of good art).  A sort of three-dimensionality emerges, where one feels emotions just when one has abstract thoughts – the effect is at times staggering.  This is probably what Kierkegaard also had in mind when he described Fear and Trembling as a “dialectical lyric” (Frank uses this term to describe Notes from Underground, but I think it applies here too).

So what is the allegory (recognizing beforehand that its description will be necessarily trite, and pale in comparison to the experience of actually reading it)?

Here is, in brief, the Judeo-Christian story of humanity.

This thought first occurred to me when, in Part Two, Roskolnikov’s estranged friend and fellow student Razumikhin (his name means “reason”), arrives at Roskolnikov’s apartment, where he is lying, delirious, in his bed, just a day after the murder.  No one knows he’s done this yet, they just know he’s sick.  Razumkhin has gone to the trouble of buying a whole set of new clothes for Roskolnikov:

He began untying the bundle, which appeared to interest him greatly.

“Believe me, brother, I’ve taken this especially to heart.  Because we have to make a human being out of you, after all.  Let’s get started: we’ll begin from the top.  Take a look at this little chapeau,” began, pulling a rather nice but at the same time very ordinary and cheap cap from the bundle.  “Allow me to try it on you.” (p. 129, my emphasis)

This line lodged in my consciousness as I read the ensuing 420 pages, and I also reflected it back over the first 130.  “We have to make a human being out of you.”  Here, then, is a story of creating a human being, an allegory for the construction of subjectivity –Part One becomes, in its own way, the exile from the garden of Eden, and Cain’s murder of Abel, and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, Moses’s killing of the Egyptian, all at once (or, looking forward in literature too, Finnegan’s fall).

Razumikhin brings him some new clothes, starting with some for her head.  The clothes lead the way to other forms of forced socialization, and for most of it, Roskolnikov resists, thrashing about internally, though rarely giving voice to the trashing.  The various other characters in the novel all take on themselves the job of what Foucault might call the biopolitical management of Roskolnikov.  His academic friend Razumikhin tries to talk some sense into him, get him clothes and find him work; a psychologist, Zossimov describes his illness; his mother and his sister try to reconstruct the bonds of familial love; the policemen and investigators discuss legal theories of investigation and forensic psychology, as well as try to make him pay his rent; Svidrigailov (his sister’s former master) tries to drive a utilitarian blackmailed bargain with him, and finally, after all these forces have been dialectically laid in place (like in Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals), religion claims the final spot, as Sonya demands that he repent for his break from humanity (“Roskolnikov” comes from a word that suggests schism), and bow down in the public square and affirm his brokenness.

Frank’s reading is consistent with, and in fact fits on top of this one – as Roskolnikov moves through various intellectual, moral and psychological understandings of his crime, his original sin, so a primordial self undergoes the many subjections to family, friendship,  law, history and religion needed to finally become a subject, a “human being.”  This is precisely what lends Part One its power – Roskolnikov is not just an overly learned intellectual looking to “put into practice” his radical ideology (though he is that, on the surface) he is also primordial, pre-“subjectivity” individual, striking at the world for power (neat how the dialectical ends of the spectrum, between effete leftist intellectual and primal criminal double back on one another).  And while reading this section, I at least, felt that primitive lashing-out, and was riveted by it.  The book’s epilogue contains another phrase that’s interesting on this reading – of Roskolnikov, the narrator writes “existence alone had never been enough for him; he had always wanted more” (544).  Only at the end of things does Roskolnikov first see the very “lack” he has been forced to fill.

But then, seemingly as a sort of Hegelian-exception type ending, he discovers the true mystery of Christian faith, and “instead of dialectics, there was life, and something completely different had to work itself out in his consciousness… but here begins a new account, the account of a man’s gradual renewal, the account of his gradual regeneration, his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality.  It might make the subject of a new story—but our present story is ended” (550-551).

Frank suggests that this ending is often criticized in the secondary literature about Dostoevsky, that it’s too neat, and too “happily ever after”, and therefore unconvincing.  Of course, the same is often said of Hegel’s dialectical account of history – for all its intellectual energy, all its complex negation, it sews things up too well into the 19th century Prussian state.  But Frank also says that Dosteovesky’s later books go on to explore this conversion, to see if he might find a way to make the affirmative of Christian love true to life.

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2 Responses to Crime and Punishment

  1. David says:

    Great stuff. I’m happy to see the series up and running again.

    Here’s a thought about what’s going on in C&P. In Brothers K, there’s the famous line, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” I recall finishing C&P and thinking that the book’s ‘argument’ went something like this: “NOT everything is permitted, and so God exists.” In other words, I recall coming away with the feeling that the first-personal experience of sin/wrongdoing can lead us to recognize a moral order which can lead us to recognize God.

    Of course, C&P is great art, and so it’s crass to suggest that the book has an ‘argument,’ but I feel like there is some partial truth to this simplification. R thought there was nothing really stopping him from doing anything, including murder, and he pays dearly (psychological terror/distress) when he discovers that he was wrong.

    Do you think there is there anything to this, Josh?

  2. Josh says:

    Yes, absolutely. I think that’s the “official” reading, i.e., one of Dostoevsky’s explicitly stated purposes. In a way that’s the “argument” of almost all of Dostoevsky’s later works. What’s interesting to me is the detours that get taken in pursuit of this argument. Like I think Nates commented on an earlier post, something that seems to keep happening in Dostoevsky’s novels is that he sets out to demonstrate the bankruptcy/moral-dead-end nature of a particular form of life, but then in the meantime that way of life asserts itself as compelling in spite of the original polemical intent.

    This may be just my reaction but for both C&P and Notes from Underground, the protagonists are extremely compelling and sympathetic characters in spite of themselves. And then their nihilism, which is supposed to be deconstructed by the reader’s experience of their lives, doesn’t become plausible exactly, but it comes alive. It just always feels to me like Dostoevsky has a bit more sympathy for these protagonists than the “official reading” wants.

    And so I don’t come away from these books persuaded that God exists, but rather come away with an appreciation of the fundamental confusion that arises in the lives of those who don’t believe. But, as with Kierkegaard, I’m left thinking “but maybe that confusion is what’s real.” It’s not a reductio of anything, it’s an act of realism.

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