Throughout Crime and Punishment, dream-sequences intermingle with reality. Roskolnikov especially has a handful fo dreams. Something in the quality of Dostoevsky’s prose makes one miss the transitions, so you can read for several pages of what feels like reality before being pulled back by a character waking up. These dreams are used not just to emphasize Roskolnikov’s addled mental state – they also introduce thematic content and intellectual ideas. Toward the end of the book on almost the very last page in fact, Roskolnikov, now having confessed, been convicted and exiled to Siberia, dreams a dream. It deserves quotation in full:
He was in the hospital from the middle of Lent till after Easter. When he was better, he remembered the dreams he had had while he was feverish and delirious. He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices (Crime and Punishment, trans. Constance Garnett, text available here).
Two connections I drew while/after I read this:
1. A series of Margaret Atwood books (apparently Nates is not a fan, but I’ll persist). I read both The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake recently. There’s the last in the trilogy coming soon. These are pretty interesting post-apocalyptic novels, treading the line on science fiction. Atwood calls them “speculative” fiction. The premise of the series is that a very intelligent, but angry and antisocial young man rises up through the ranks of the scientific establishment, and discovers the means to disseminate a virus throughout western society, one that can kill nearly everyone who is exposed. He expresses the view that humankind has run its course, that it’s just bound to destroy the world, and the only way to avert this is, more or less, to destroy humanity. He speculates that if only one generation, even only one month of the world goes by, without “the grid”, without the internet, and without modern technology, it will all be gone, never to come back, since the requisite surface metals to redevelop the modern world would never come back. There’s something awfully fatalistic about these books, but also extremely personal. Most sci-fi-ish books like that seem abstract, hypothetical – these two had a really personal dimension to them that has stuck with me quite a bit. The books oscillate between the past (what is really, roughly around now for us) and the present (about 50 years out from now). It’s quite difficult to write about it outside of the experience of reading the books, but there’s an intuitive connection to Dostoevsky. There’s a virus that’s made its way into the world, and killed the vast majority of humans; the reality described “before the flood” is a world of individualistic excess, narcissism and objectification.
This also connects to a remark I heard Atwood make, on the New York Times podcast recently. Apparently she made a new year’s resolution to read all of Dostoevsky (not sure if that’s with or without the Frank biography…) I was puzzled by the connection between her work and his, but somehow the above paragraph almost makes it feel like Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood are, more or less, explorations of Roskolnikov’s dream.
2. In a similar vein – Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. There’s a strange coincidence between the emotional and political there too. Oryx and Crake unfolds as the story of two estranged childhood friends from the sprawl-land of an east coast city (“Oryx” and “Crake” are handles they once selected in a video game, both of which are extinct species). And there’s a thread of such a story running through the tracks of The Suburbs. A particularly memorable line comes about midway through the album –
and my old friends we were so different then
before your war against the suburbs began.
There are a cluster of other places this thematic confluence turns up. The haunting, climactic sequence of Oryx and Crake involves one character’s frantic search for food and shelter through the riot-and-disease-overrun subdivision in which he was raised, and again, towards the end of The Suburbs, something similar on “Sprawl I: Flatland”:
Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the places we used to play
It was the loneliest day of my life
You’re talking at me but I’m still far away
Let’s take a drive through the sprawl
Through these towns they built to change
But then you said, the emotions are dead
It’s no wonder that you feel so strange.
Who the “you” is, both here and from the earlier song, is tough to discern, but it feels like the lost other friend of Oryx and Crake, and it feels like Roskolnikov’s fantasy. It’s hard to write about feel, and looking back over the foregoing paragraphs I recognize they’re rather idiosyncratic and free-associative. And where music is concerned, it’s so hard to see how to write about it without just writing about the lyrics as though they were just the trite contents of fortune cookies.
All three – Roskolnikov’s dream, Crake’s disease, and Arcade Fire’s post-suburban nostalgia seem to operate on resonant frequencies. They all share the conviction that something is broken, some sort of boundary has been transgressed intellectually by our culture. Apocalyptic thought is hardly new, and I’m well aware of all those platitudes about how at all times throughout history, people have thought their own culture was so irredeemably corrupt/coming to and end/blah blah blah, and I know this is often cited as a reason to be suspicious of the truth of such narratives – but isn’t the invocation of “others have also always thought this” as a putative disproof of the potentially apocalyptic impact problems we have now just the same fallacy in reverse? Just because others have always thought this doesn’t mean we’re not right to think the same thing really, truly, something about our world is destined for total collapse and potential extinction in the relative near-term, right? That we really might have become irredeemable now, in this age?
More Arcade Fire lyrics – from “We Used to Wait”:
I used to write,
I used to write letters I used to sign my name
I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain
But by the time we met
By the time we met the times had already changed
So I never wrote a letter
I never took my true heart I never wrote it down
So when the lights cut out
I was left standing in the wilderness downtown.
All of this weaves a connection between the self-centered, hedonistic ideology of the contemporary mediascape and the eventual end of society as we know it, owing to resource overconsumption and no one caring even to acknowledge its inevitable course. Also there is the idea that some sort of invisible threshold has been crossed by actors in our world, that has made existence not categorically different from in past ages. Has it?