Thursday, July 19, 2018

Notes on CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: The Contrived Scenes, The Emotional Hysteria, The Melodrama


Crime and Punishment: The Contrived Scenes, The Emotional Hysteria, The Melodrama

What bothers me most about reading Dostoevsky’s fiction are the melodrama, the overblown hysteria, and the hyper-theatrical staging of the scenes. As the critic Mochulsky has stated, “The principal intrigue is tragic; the accessory intrigues are melodramatic.”

Things are often staged in such a way that key characters are thrown together for key scenes. Certain liberties are taken to make sure that the central personages are properly placed. The well-off Luzhin, e.g., stays in the same lodgings as the Marmeladov family, although it is more than doubtful that even a skinflint such as he is would choose to live in such a low-class tenement. Svidrigailov takes a room right next to Sonya, and this puts him conveniently in a position to sit by the door and eavesdrop, as Raskolnikov pours out his soul to her.

Typical of Dostoevsky’s theater is the scandal scene, involving confrontations between characters, the building of tension in crescendos of hysteria, followed often by a dramatic entrance, which builds the tension still more. Interspersed with all this are a series of explosive incidents, each usually more explosive than the previous one; a final dramatic entrance usually precipitates the loudest and most devastating explosion.

Dostoevsky uses this technique in all of his novels. The best example in C and P is the funeral dinner for Marmeladov (Part 5, Ch. 2 and 3; p. 319-42 in the Norton Critical Edition). The crescendo of hysteria is interrupted by the next chapter, Ch. 4, the climactic scene of the whole novel, in which Raskolnikov confesses to Sonya that he is a murderer, while perverse Svidrigailov sits on the other side of the door, listening and chuckling to his evil self. Then Lebezyatnikov appears, to inform Raskolnikov and Sonya that Katerina Ivanovna has gone mad, and we’re off to the races again. Next comes the wild scene of the crazy woman out on the streets of St. Petersburg, bewailing her fate and forcing her small children to beg.

In the scene of the funeral dinner Dostoevsky brings in squalid background characters—poverty-stricken people who come to the funeral dinner largely because they are starving, and others who are there to gloat over Katerina Ivanovna’s misfortune—thereby providing a background chorus of squabblers, drunks and laughers for the main action, which involves, largely, Katerina Ivanovna’s incessant efforts to retain at least a glimmer of dignity. Dostoevsky is often taken as the most dead serious of writers, but there is always a comic side to the scandal scenes. Dark comedy it is, yes, but comedy nonetheless.

Of course, the main melodramatic intrigue here involves despicable Luzhin’s attempt to frame Sonya, an episode that is worthy of inclusion in the worst pulp fiction of that time. Or, to use another parallel, this is a scene out of a sentimental soap opera today. Here is what Nabokov says about sentimentality in his Lectures on Russian Literature: “Remember that when we speak of sentimentalists, among them Richardson, Rousseau, Dostoevsky, we mean the non-artistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader.”

Therefore, a big problem for me, and not only for me, is Dostoevsky’s frequent overindulgence in emotion, combined with flashy, cheap theatrical effects. With FMD using poor starving children to squeeze out the reader’s tears is a common occurrence. This is what we get with the scene of Katerina Ivanovna and her children on the street. Dostoevsky was already using these kind of effects in his first published novel, Poor People, and he never got completely away from the device.

Another scene that parallels—for sheer melodrama—the scene in which Luzhin accuses Sonya of stealing his money is the confrontation between Svidrigailov and Dunya in Svidrigailov’s room (Part 6, Ch. 5). Here Dunya ends up pulling a gun and shooting at her tormentor, grazing his scalp. This grazing of the scalp thing reminds me of the old Western movies I watched on Saturday afternoons as a child, and frankly, this whole scene is too overblown to be taken seriously.

So much for the weak side of Dostoevsky. But let’s backtrack a bit now. The fact that melodrama and sentimentality lessen the artistic quality of many of FMD’s scenes does not mean that all of his scenes are weak and ineffective. For me the mare beating scene is one of the most hideously effective scenes of violence in all of Russian literature. While horrifying, it is devoid of melodramatic license, as is the scene describing Raskolnikov committing murder—another piece of writing that ranks high in the pantheon of world literature.

Note that these two scenes of violence are central to the main plot, the story of Raskolnikov’s plight. Most of the melodramatic excess comes in scenes more directly concerned with subplots of the novel, where Dostoevsky is much a lesser creative artist. To repeat what Mochulsky wrote: “The principal intrigue is tragic; the accessory intrigues are melodramatic.”

Of course, a big weakness of the novel as a whole is the lack of verisimilitude in the over-sentimentalized prostitute/nun Sonya. She is simply never very believable as a character.

             D. Shmarinov, 1936, Illustration to C and P: Katerina Ivanovna and Her Children

Simon Karlinsky, and Russian Writers, on THE DOWNSIDE OF DOSTOEVSKY: ДОСТОЕВЩИНА

Simon Karlinsky, and Russian Writers, on The Downside of Dostoevsky

Despite my admiration for Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (FMD) as a psychologist and philosopher, there are things I do not appreciate about his fiction. Far from all Russian writers accept Dostoevsky’s greatness. Well-known figures such as Chekhov, Bunin, Tsvetaeva and Nabokov are often contemptuous in their disdain of FMD.

For a thorough account of objections to Dostoevsky’s writings, a good place to start is the article by Simon Karlinsky, “Dostoevsky as Rorschach Test” [originally published in "The New York Times," June 13, 1971; reprinted in The Norton Critical Edition of Crime and Punishment, p. 629-36]. Here are a few quotations from that article.

“All accepted standards of literary criticism and textual analysis tend to break down when applied to Dostoevsky. His prose has always been a magnet for the kind of reader (and commentator) who does not give a hoot about the art of literature, who mistrusts sober observation of reality, and who primarily looks for a reflection of his own self and for a possible vehicle of self-expression in every book he reads.”

Often “neither his biography, nor his general views are familiar to those who modishly bandy his name about. Someone ought to translate the set of disgustingly chauvinistic, jingoist and anti-Semitic poems (yes, poems) that Dostoevsky wrote in the late 1850s, urging that Russia conquer other countries, calling down God’s blessing on Russian conquests and denouncing the Jews as leeches who torture Russia; copies of these poems should be handed out to all the starry-eyed champions of the progressive, revolutionary Dostoevsky. Of course, a simple reading of The Possessed [The Devils] and of The Diary of a Writer might also help.”

“There somehow has to be room for a more balanced appraisal that takes into full cognizance Dostoevsky’s obscurantist, reactionary ideology, the excessively nagging and hysterical tone of his narrators, the cheap and flashy effects with which he stages some of his dramatic confrontations, and the occasional but undeniable sloppiness of his plots and of his Russian style.”

“One of the best kept secrets in Western criticism is that Dostoevsky does not happen to be everyone’s cup of tea. Many intelligent, compassionate, sensitive people find his overheated universe of stormy passions, gratuitous cruelty, tormented children and hysterical women definitely uncongenial.”

“Russian dictionaries list a common noun, derived from the writer’s name, достоевщина (dostoevshchina), which is a derogatory term describing an undesirable mode of behavior. A person guilty of dostoevshchina is being deliberately difficult, hysterical or perverse. Another possible meaning of this word is excessive and morbid preoccupation with one’s own psychological processes. The word, incidentally, is part of the normal Russian vocabulary.”

“Tolstoy tried to reread The Brothers Karamazov in 1910, the year of his death. ‘I’ve started reading it,’ he wrote to one of his correspondents, ‘but I cannot conquer my revulsion for its lack of artistic quality, its frivolity, posturings and wrong-headed attitude toward important matters.’”

“First reading Dostoevsky at age twenty-nine, Anton Chekhov wrote to his publisher Suvorin: ‘It’s all right but much too long and lacking in modesty. Too pretentious.’ In Chekhov’s stories and personal letters, the name of Dostoevsky usually occurs in passages condemning some high-strung, hysterical or hypocritical female.”

During his lifetime Vladimir Nabokov qualified Dostoevsky as “a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar,” “a prophet, a claptrap journalist, and a slapdash comedian,” and “a much overrated sentimental and Gothic novelist.”

But “it was none other than Nabokov who in Lolita gave the world a full-scale treatment of a subject around which Dostoevsky circled like a cat around a saucer of hot milk in novel after novel, only to recoil from it in horror.” Pedophilia.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Notes on CRIME AND PUNISHMENT The Issue of Sensuality:Pedophiles and Perverts

Dostoevsky's Morbid Characters, Representatives of "The Sick World" of FMD

The Issue of Sensuality: Pedophiles and Perverts

Dostoevsky, to put it mildly, writes fiction about the dark side of the human soul. Dostoevsky’s fiction is often sick, and reading too much of it at a time can have a deleterious effect on the reader. If you read Crime and Punishment, thoroughly digest it, take some time off before diving into another long and gut-wrenching Dostoevsky novel.

As one critic, Geir Kjetsaa, has pointed out, “in his [Dostoevsky’s] eyes sexuality was the fundamental condition for the relationship between man and woman.” Kjetsaa quotes from a letter that Dostoevsky wrote to his second wife Anna late in his life: “You think perhaps that this is only one aspect of the matter, the coarsest one even. But there is nothing coarse about it; everything else is dependent on it.”

Pedophilia and the sexual designs of older men on young women are prominently featured in Dostoevsky’s fiction from the very beginning. In his first novel, Poor People, the heroine Varvara breaks the heart of the narrator Devushkin when she makes a marriage of convenience with a man named Bykov. This is much the same situation as that of Dunya and Luzhin in C and P, although Luzhin’s designs on Dunya are foiled and the marriage does not take place. 

Bykov, like Luzhin, is attracted by the idea of exerting sexual control over a young female. The fatuous socialist Lebezyatnikov has similar proclivities. While professing to be selflessly interested in “educating” Sonya Marmeladova in socialist doctrines, while pretending to be interested in her as a representative of the oppressed masses, he also has prurient designs on her.

Probably the most negative character in C and P, Luzhin, a money grubber, incipient capitalist and social climber, is perversely attracted to the idea of possessing Dunya, a proud and attractive girl (she is eighteen). He will pull her, along with her family, out of poverty, so he thinks, and after their marriage she will be his love slave, totally submissive and grateful to him.

The genuine pedophiliac in the novel is Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov, who is sexually obsessed with Dunya, and, even worse, involved with very young girls from impoverished families. His first appearance in C and P is foreshadowed by a scene in Part 1, Ch. 4 (p. 39-43 in the Norton Critical Ed.), in which Raskolnikov sees a young drunken girl staggering down the street. She is followed by a plump fop with a lecherous gleam in his eye. Raskolnikov yells at him, “Hey, Svidrigailov, what do you want here?”

Svidrigailov’s actual appearance in the novel comes much later, at the very end of Part 3, when he almost seems to have been conjured up out of one of Raskolnikov’s violent nightmares. Raskolnikov dreams that he is striking the old woman—whom he has already murdered in the waking world—on the head with repetitive blows of the axe, but she just sits there laughing at him. He tries to run, wakes up, but “the dream seemed strangely to be continuing: his door was wide open and on the threshold stood a complete stranger, looking fixedly at him.”

This appearance of Svidrigailov as if out of the hero’s dream suggests that in some weird way he may be an extension of Raskolnikov’s personality, a part of his psyche. As has been emphasized by critics of Dostoevsky’s works, there are frequent doublings of characters. Svidrigailov and Sonya are both something of alter egos of Raskolnikov, she representing his good side, and he representing his evil side.

But in terms of sensuality Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov appear, at first glance, to have nothing in common. Svidrigailov is the supreme sensualist, who can find nothing to believe in except the flesh. He tells Raskolnikov at one point, “I have no confidence in anything but anatomy.” He has come to the conclusion that spirituality, morality, religion, and everything that most people cling to as a justification for living and behaving decently are mere abstractions. Debauchery is, in his ironic view, of positive value, as he tells Raskolnikov.

--Why should I give up women, if I have an inclination for them? It’s something to do, at any rate…
--So all you hope for is a spell of debauchery?
--Well, why not? Debauchery if you will! You seem to like the word! . . . . In ‘debauchery’ there is at least something constant, based on nature, indeed, and not subject to fantasy, something that exists in he blood as an eternal flame, always ready to set one on fire, and not to be readily extinguished, for a long time to come, perhaps for many years. You will agree that in its way it is an occupation (Part 6, Ch. 3).

As sometimes happens in a Hollywood film, a character actor steps into the narrative and begins stealing all the scenes. Svidrigailov steps into C and P very late in the action and almost steals all the attention from the main character Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky here has created probably the most in-depth and complex pedophile in the history of world literature.

Svidrigailov is aware that he is sick. “I agree that it [his pathological sensuality] is a disease.” In his past he is apparently responsible for the death of a deaf and dumb girl, whom Madam Resslich has procured for him, and whom he has abused (see p. 252, 429). He mentions to Raskolnikov his patronage of a thirteen-year-old girl and her mother, and, in the final part of the novel, he has become engaged to a fifteen-year-old. The description of how he visits his bride to be, then takes her up on his lap to fondle, are among the most perversely sensual of Dostoevsky’s writings, and they certainly provided Vladimir Nabokov with some of the material for his own treatment of pedophilia in Lolita. Even worse is Svidrigailov’s dream about a five-year-old girl whom he undresses, and who smiles lewdly at him.

Then again, Svidrigailov is not entirely a negative character. There is something even appealing about him at times. He finally has Dunya, after whom he lusts immeasurably, in his clutches, having lured her to his room with promises to tell her brother’s secret. But then, suppressing his own overwhelming feelings [“In the end I couldn’t bear even to hear the rustle of her dress. Really, I thought that I’d have a fit or something”], he lets her go. 

He provides money to help the Marmeladov orphans; he helps Sonya break free from prostitution. Then, as if realizing that there is no other way out for one whose amorality is an oppressive burden, he shoots himself.

But why do critics consider Svidrigailov a kind of double of Raskolnikov, who is extremely ascetic and appears almost non-sexed? You could approach this question by considering the character of Dunya, who is shown to be very similar to her brother. Svidrigailov tells Raskolnikov, “Avdotya Romanovna is terribly chaste, to a positively unheard-of degree . . . . . She is perhaps even morbidly chaste, and it will do her harm” (Part 6, Ch. 4). The implication is that morbid chastity, the obverse of morbid sensuality, represents another extreme condition. 

Complete renunciation of sexuality, Dostoevsky seems to suggest, is itself a kind of sexual impulse, and there is perhaps something perversely erotic in Dunya’s noble impulse to sacrifice herself by marrying the despicable Luzhin.

What about Raskolnikov, who is also “morbidly chaste”? In the first place, there are indications that Raskolnikov’s suppressed sexuality is not so dissimilar to Svidrigailov’s openly professed sexuality. This is especially apparent in brief mention of his one-time prospective bride, a sick and homely girl, daughter of his landlady. At one point Raskolnikov tells his mother that he “fell in love and wanted to be married.” But the impetus for this so-called “love” is sick and perverse, as only Dostoevsky’s characters seem capable of being.

“She was .  .  . very plain. I don’t really know what attracted me to her; I think it may have been that she was always ill… If she had been lame as well or hump-backed, I might very likely have loved her even more… (He smiled pensively). It was just because… Some kind of vernal delirium…”

So much for true love. There is something here fully as perverse in Raskolnikov’s morbid “love” as in Svidrigailov’s open profession of pathological sensuality and pedophilia. Lust is expressed in many ways, and the bottled-up libido will find an outlet. Some critics see the murder of the two women as a kind of rape, and act of subconscious sexual aggression on Raskolnikov’s part.

What about the love of Raskolnikov and Sonya? Not credible. In the first place, Sonya, the prostitute/nun in C and P is a character with little flesh on her bones. She is much less believable as a character than the lecherous Svidrigailov. And even much less interesting. What she is is Dostoevsky’s representative of the Christian message in the book. But Christian love is sexless, and there is never even a hint of sexuality between “the lovers” Raskolnikov and Sonya. They are, at some point we assume, to be married, but what kind of marriage will this turn out to be? Will Raskolnikov find an outlet for his own perverse sexuality by marrying, in effect, a nun?

Maybe so. We can only assume that in the years of the Russian Civil War Red soldiers—warriors for the cause of atheism—took great voluptuous pleasure in raping nuns. By that time Dostoevsky was no longer alive to write about such things, but had he still been alive he certainly would have been capable of expressing, in fictional art, the feelings of such men. Most important of all, he would have dared to write about such feelings, which more timid literary artists prefer not to touch.

In another novel, The Idiot, Dostoevsky attempted to portray the ideal man, a Christlike innocent devoid of sensuality. But at the end of that novel the hero fails utterly in his attempt to interact with his fellow man and woman; he degenerates into idiocy. There is no place for a sexless man in a world dominated by passion.

Want to see a good example of Dostoevsky’s influence on writers worldwide? Try reading Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” the story of a bible salesman in Georgia with perverse, Dostoevskian inclinations.

                   "Crime and Punishment" Beating a Horse to Death and Killing an Old Woman

Thursday, July 5, 2018

ALEKSANDR BLOK, translation into English of "Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека" "Night. Street. Lamplight. Pharmacy"

                                        Blok's Poem on a Wall in Leiden, Netherlands

Literal Translation

Night, street, streetlight, pharmacy,
A senseless and dim light.
If you live on even a quarter century more
All will be the same. There’s no way out.

You’ll die, and start all over from the beginning,
And everything will be repeated, just as before:
Night, the icy ripple of the canal,
The pharmacy, the street, the streetlight.


Night. Street. Lamplight. Pharmacy. 
A dim senseless glow all about.
Live twenty more years, look around, what’s to see?
Nothing will change. No way out.

Then die—and all begins over to breathe and to be,    
And the same bleary haze hovers over the damp
Night, icy ripples on canal, floating debris,
The pharmacy, the street, the lamp.
                                                                   Translated by U.R. Bowie, July, 2018

Aleksandr Blok


Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.
Живи еще хоть четверть века -
Все будет так. Исхода нет.

Умрешь - начнешь опять сначала
И повторится все, как встарь:
Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,
Аптека, улица, фонарь.
                                                                                  Oct. 10, 1912

Translator’s Note

According to Korney Chukovsky, Blok had a real Petersburg setting in mind for this poem: the beginning of Officer Street (Офицерская улица, later renamed ул. Декабристов, Decembrist St.), next to the Marinsky Theatre. The pharmacy was that of a man named Vinnikov, and the canal was the Kryukov Canal. Blok himself lived at the other end of Officer/Decembrist Street.
The apartment where he lived, at No. 57, is now a museum dedicated to Blok’s life and works. 

He had moved into this apartment on Oct. 6, 1912, only four days before he wrote this poem. On Oct. 10, 2012, exactly one hundred years after the poem was written, workers at the museum laid out the manuscript, plus the printed version, on the same desk where Blok wrote the poem. The desk belonged originally to his grandmother, the well-known translator Elizaveta Beketova.

Scholars, literary critics and lovers of Blok’s poetry have argued over exactly which pharmacy in St. Petersburg was the prototype for the one in the poem. There is (1) Chukovsky’s variant, the Vinnikov Pharmacy on Blok’s own street (see above), but you cannot see the canal from this location; (2) a pharmacy on the embankment of Krestovsky Island, which, some object, is too far away; and (3) a pharmacy just opposite the Marinsky Theater, which is still there to this day.

                                                     Smolensk Cemetery, St. Petersburg

Declamation of the Blok poem by Egor Fyodorov

Declamation by Ivan Shtompel

Notes to CRIME AND PUNISHMENT Raskolnikov's Split Personality

Makar Devushkin, Protagonist of "Poor People"

Sonya and Raskolnikov

The Issue of Mental Instability and Raskolnikov’s Split Personality

Of all world writers Dostoevsky is probably number one for attracting the interest of psychologists or medical doctors with an interest in abnormal psychology. Dostoevsky himself was severely ill most of his life with epilepsy, and with a nervous disease apparently consequent upon the epilepsy. There is a fascinating book by James Rice, Dostoevsky and the Healing Art, which deals in depth with Dostoevsky’s lifetime struggle with his illnesses and the manifestations of emotional maladies in his works.

Perhaps no other writer in world literature has so many emotionally disturbed characters. In his very first novel, Poor People, we encounter a raft of such people, including the two main characters, Devushkin and Varvara. In C and P not only is the main hero severely deranged, but lots of others are as well. Soon after her son’s arrest, his overwrought mother Pulkheria Aleksandrovna goes out of her mind, and the consumptive Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova goes raving mad soon after her husband’s death, raging around the streets and forcing her little children to beg.

Another example. Porfiry Petrovich, the police inspector with a keen feel for human psychology that rivals Dostoevsky’s own, has a nervous giggle, and his perpetual frantic movements suggest the sort of character whose playacting in aid of his efforts to catch criminals has led his mind a bit astray.

Raskolnikov, however, is the main character, and you cannot make much of the book without coming to some understanding of his mental state, which, from the very beginning of the action, is highly confused, even feverish. He is constantly pulled in opposite directions by opposing forces within his psyche. Time and again we see him almost intuitively doing good and then rebelling against his own altruism. As Razumikhin says, “it is as if he had two separate personalities, each taking turns dominating him.”

Early in the book (Part 1, Ch. 4), in an episode developed out of Dostoevsky’s early story, White Nights, Raskolnikov comes upon a drunk, abused girl staggering along the street. His immediate impulse is to help her and rescue her from the lecherous gentleman pursuing her. Only after he has managed to protect her, with the help of a passing policeman, do we get the switchover in his personality. “An instantaneous revulsion of feeling seemed as it were to sting Raskolnikov,” and he tells the policeman, “No, forget it. Let him [the lecher] amuse himself. It’s not our business.” After this the evil rationalizing side of him takes over for the whole next page.

It’s almost as if Raskolnikov has a switch in his head and that switch periodically flips over to one side or the other. Dostoevsky is setting up a rather simple dichotomy here in the service of his religious message: the devil and God are fighting for Raskolnikov’s soul within his psyche. We see this sort of thing again and again, and it becomes too obvious to belabor. After Raskolnikov has generously given what little money he has to the Marmeladov family, the switch clicks over: “What a stupid thing to do,” he thought. “After all, they have Sonya and I need it myself.” The sarcastic, prideful, godless side of the character clicks over to manifest itself even during his conversations with Sonya. See Part 4, Ch. 4.

Of course, deep down (we are to assume) Raskolnikov is a good person. In the epilogue we learn that he had once helped a poor consumptive student and his ailing father and had rescued two little children from a fire. But his pride remains with him to the very end, and for Dostoevsky pride in humanity is of the devil. Until Raskolnikov can humble himself as Sonya tells him, he cannot hope to be saved.

Note that as Raskolnikov is on the way to the police station to confess, he falls down and kisses the earth he has defiled. Sonya has told him that he must do this and must say, “I am a murderer.” Bystanders begin laughing when they see him on the ground: “It’s because he’s going to Jerusalem, lads [says one of them], and he’s saying good-bye to his family and his country. He’s bowing down to the whole world and kissing the famous city of St. Petersburg and the soil it stands on” (Part 6, Ch. 8).

Sonya (and Dostoevsky) would like to believe that Raskolnikov is bound eventually for Jerusalem, for expiation of his crime and salvation, but he still has a long way to go. Sonya wants him to humble himself by kissing the good earth, an ancient symbol of warmth and benevolence for Russians, but note that here he ends up kissing the soil of St. Petersburg, the city that for Dostoevsky symbolizes all the unease and malevolence that so works on his hero’s mind, and all the nefarious, rational principles imported into Russia from the West.

Is the split in Raskolnikov ever resolved? I don’t think so. Note that in the prison camp described in the epilogue he is still dominated by pride and hatred for his fellow man. Dostoevsky would have us believe that in a sudden burst of light—and of course with the help of the saintly Sonya—Raskolnikov receives God’s grace:

“How it happened he himself did not know, but suddenly he seemed to be seized and cast at her feet. He clasped her knees and wept. For a moment she was terribly frightened, and her face grew white . . . . . . But at once, at that instant, she understood . . . she no longer doubted that he loved her, loved her forever and that now at last the moment had come . . .”

Unfortunately, this passage is far from believable. Here we have a character who goes round and round—much like the Underground Man, that prisoner of rationalization in Notes from the Underground—alternating between Christian love and satanic hatred for 462 pages, and then suddenly, on p. 463, he finds salvation. This passage is what is called empty rhetoric, forced by wishful thinking. You can almost see the author prodding his reluctant protagonist here at the end of the book, forcing him over into the camp of Jesus: “Come on! Get on over there. Stop resisting! I said you’re saved.”

Of course, even Dostoevsky sensed the lack of verisimilitude in such an easy solution to the dilemma of his schizo hero, so he immediately began hedging around on the last two pages, suggesting that, no, Raskolnikov is not really quite saved yet. What happened just now is merely the first step on his path to salvation. Oddly enough, the novel ends by suggesting that before the character can find peace at least one more novel will have to be written:

“But that is the beginning of a new story, the story of the gradual renewal of a man, of his gradual regeneration, of his slow progress from one world to another, of how he learned to know a hitherto undreamed-of reality. All that might be the subject of a new tale, but our present one is ended.”

This ending with the suggestion of no ending at all is rather typical of the Russian realist novel of the nineteenth century. Gogol ended the first part of Dead Souls by promising great things in future volumes—including the redemption of his rogue hero Chichikov. He never got those future volumes written to his own satisfaction. Tolstoy finished off his heroine in Anna Karenina the best way a novelist can (with her death), but as this long novel ends we see the male hero, Levin, struggling with depression, doubting the meaning of life, contemplating suicide. His story is never concluded. Russian writers like to mention “hitherto undreamed-of realities,” but they seldom get around to treating those nebulous things in concrete terms, and writing books that are totally finished.

“Dostoevsky understood only restless, fractious, struggling people whose search is never ended. No sooner did he undertake to show us a man who has found himself and achieved tranquility than he fell into fatal banalities” (Lev Shestov cited in Norton Critical Ed. of C and P, footnote on p. 543-44).

Of course life is never finished either, not until you are dead, so perhaps it is better to leave the characters with an open-ended path ahead of them. As Grace Paley once wrote, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

                          The Sudden Revelation (Ending of "Crime and Punishment")

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Notes on CRIME AND PUNISHMENT Motivations for the Murder


Why did he do it? This is the central question of C and P, which is a murder mystery, but not what they call a “whodunnit.” This novel is a “whydunnit,” or a “I-done-it-but-I-don’t-know-why-I-dunnit.” Of course, in all of Dostoevsky’s fiction characters are ruled by subconscious impulses that they themselves are unaware of. Raskolnikov is mired in the cyclical processes of human reasoning, which Dostoevsky, the great anti-rational rationalist, treats with suspicion.

So, as one critic, Phillip Rahv, has put it, Raskolnikov is “the criminal in search of his motive” (Norton Critical Ed., p. 540-41). Why did he do it? The full complexity of the issue becomes manifest only about halfway through the book (Part 3, Ch. 5; p. 218-25 in the Norton Critical Ed.), when, for the first time we hear about the article he has published on crime. Much to the surprise of Raskolnikov, who was not even aware that his article had been printed, the police inspector, Porfiry Petrovich tells him that he has read it. The central point of the article is that human beings are divided into the ordinary and the extraordinary. The ordinary are like sheep, baaing their way passively through life, but the extraordinary have the right to overstep the boundaries of morality and law, to commit immoral acts in furtherance of their majestic goals. This overstepping provides the title of the novel, Преступление и наказание—the word for ‘crime’ in Russian, at its root meaning, suggests a “stepping across,” akin to the word “transgression” in English.

In his conversation with Sonya (Part 5, Ch. 5; p. 348-54), Raskolnikov’s confusion about his motive becomes apparent, when he goes through nearly every possible motivation for his crime, rejecting or revising each of them on the fly. Svidrigailov, who is conveniently eavesdropping on this conversation, later recapitulates the motivations to Dunya (Part 6, Ch. 5, p. 415). Here is roughly how the process goes in Raskolnikov’s feverish mind.

I did it because I was poor and I needed money to launch my career, but no, what I really wanted was to help my mother and sister and, after all, I had just received a letter from my mother describing how my sister Dunya was about to prostitute herself by marrying a despicable character, sacrificing herself to help me, but no, it wasn’t really that, what I wanted was to get money so that I could go about doing good, working toward the eradication of human evil and social inequality on earth, and I figured that by killing one contemptible old woman, who nobody on earth needed and who soon would die anyway, I could get that money and then atone for this one transgressive act by doing great good for the rest of my life, and, besides that, I was, after all, insane, or nearly insane, going nuts lying here in that cramped coffin of a room and actually physically ill as well, feverish, not even aware of what I was doing, but no, it wasn’t really that, what I wanted to be was a great man, a man who can transcend commonplace vulgar morality and become a superman, prove that he is above the ethics of the stupid baaing herd, a Napoleon, and I really could have been a Napoleon, I’ve got the stuff for it, but no, really I’m just a common louse like everyone else, but I had to know, you see, it was an experiment, I had to find out if I was a man or a louse, I had to know whether I really could overstep the bounds, whether I could do something that ordinary men are not capable of doing, and I didn’t really care about my mother and sister or the money, it was just the principle of the thing, and you know what’s the most despicable thing of all? By collapsing emotionally and physically the way I have, all I’ve really proved is that I’m a louse after all, Napoleon would have done it without even thinking about the sleaze of it, the immorality, he wouldn’t have worried for a moment about the ethics of the thing, he was beyond mere morality, a superman, but me, I’m a louse, and yet maybe I judge myself too soon and too harshly, maybe I still have great things in me, maybe I’m not a louse after all, yes I am, no, you’re not, etc., etc., etc., the round and round goes on.

In addition to the reasons Raskolnikov himself lays out, only to keep rejecting, there are several other possibilities: (1) His mental illness as the primary motivation. Certainly he would not have committed murder had he been in a balanced state of mind; (2) The idea that he is consciously seeking suffering. The “punishment” of the title operates even before he commits the crime, and he is punished in his own agonizing mind long before he is convicted and sent to Siberia. In this novel, as in so much fiction that Dostoevsky wrote, much is made of suffering as a means of purification of soul. Marmeladov says that he drinks not to relieve himself of guilt, but in order to redouble his sufferings. The peasant Mikolka, though not guilty, confesses to the crime in order to “accept his suffering” and suffer his way through to some redemption. As Porfiry Petrovich remarks, Mikolka is a “religious schismatic,” which in Russian is “iz raskol’nikov.” The very similarity of the word ‘schismatic’ with Raskolnikov’s surname suggests that this character is an alter ego of Raskolnikov. In fact, in summing up the possible reasons why Mikolka confessed (Part 6, Ch. 2, p. 383), Porfiry recapitulates Raskolnikov’s reasons for committing the crime. He ends up, once again, with suffering:
“Do you, Rodion Romanovich, know what some of these people mean by ‘suffering’? It is not suffering for somebody’s sake, but simply ‘suffering is necessary’—the acceptance of suffering . . . . . .  Mikolka desires to ‘accept suffering’ or something of the sort . . . . . What, can’t you admit that such fantastic creatures are to be found among people of this kind?”

(3) The issue of suppressed sensuality. Some psychological critics of Dostoevsky have suggested that Raskolnikov is, above all, a passionate character who has suppressed his own libido. In the text of the novel he is certainly a prude, and he reacts with revulsion to Svidrigailov’s openly expressed sensuality, his love for anatomy above all else. These same critics assert that one way Raskolnikov has of working out his repressed sexuality is murder. They comment on the sexual symbolism of the murder of two women, calling this a kind of sublimated rape.

Maurice Beebe mentions the succession of events just prior to the murder: the episode in which Raskolnikov encounters a drunken girl on the street, and saves her from a lecherous dandy pursuing her, followed by the mare dream (murder of a female horse), followed by his own acts of murder:
“The progression from seduced girl to beaten horse to murdered pawnbroker [and her sister] tells us much about the strain of aggressive sexuality that lies within Raskolnikov, a taint which he himself denies on the conscious level” (Beebe in Norton Critical Ed., p. 591).

In the epilogue of the novel Raskolnikov still struggles with motivations for his act. He is still suffering his way through to some kind of redemption, but we do not know if he will ever get there, because Sonya’s God of meekness and love still struggles in his soul with the devil of his pride. At any rate, by this late point in the novel it seems clear that the “superman motive,” his fierce pride and desire to prove himself better than other mere men, has taken precedence over the many other motivations for his crime.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018



With his strong Christian sentiments Dostoevsky believed thoroughly in human free will and taking responsibility for one’s deeds. So how do we square that with the overriding importance of coincidence in Part One of C and P? In carrying out his plan to commit murder, Raskolnikov does everything wrong, sets himself up to fail or be caught all along the line—and, miraculously succeeds. In fact, he has committed the perfect crime, and there is little or no chance that he will ever be charged. Then he proceeds to do lots of things to guarantee that he’ll be caught.

If you consider all the coincidences that operate in Raskolnikov’s favor in Part One, it is hard to remain unconvinced that some sort of supernatural power is (1) guiding him along like a blind man toward the crime, and (2) helping him escape afterwards. Sonya would say that this is the devil at work, but there are hints in the novel that it may be the Lord God.

Let’s trace all the most significant situations in which chance operates in Part One (p. 46-74 of the Norton Critical Edition C and P). We begin with the famous mare dream and Raskolnikov’s reaction to having had a dream in which he himself plays the role of a little boy watching peasants beat a horse to death. “I won’t do it, I won’t do it! [kill the old lady as he has planned] Lord, show me the way, that I may renounce this accursed fantasy of mine!” Next, he makes for home, but instead of going home by his usual route, he is led to cross Haymarket Square.

“Why, he used to ask himself later, did such an important and fateful encounter take place in the Haymarket (through which he had no reason to go) just at this time, just when his mood and circumstances were exactly those in which the meeting could have so fateful and decisive an influence on his destiny? It was almost as if fate had laid an ambush for him (52; my italics). 

What this refers to is the way he overhears the pawnbroker’s sister Lizaveta’s conversation in the Haymarket. From this conversation he learns that Lizaveta will not be at home the next day at 7:00 p.m., and “the old woman would be at home alone” (53).

“In later years he was always inclined to see something strange and mysterious in all the happenings of that time, as if special coincidences and influences were at work” (54).

Next coincidence: he stops off at a miserable little tavern and overhears his own theory of murder propagated by a student who uses as an example precisely the same old woman whom Raskolnikov has been planning to kill. In mouthing the same utilitarian principles that motivate Raskolnikov’s behavior—“you could murder the old lady, steal from her, and use the money to do good and benefit humanity”—the student demonstrates how unoriginal Raskolnikov’s ideas are; those notions are so much blowing in the wind of the day that two people speaking casually in a bar can give voice to them.

At this point, Dostoevsky, who goes out of his way to help the reader see the main idea, adds another amazed afterthought on the part of the hero: “This always seemed to him a strange coincidence. This casual public-house conversation had an extraordinary influence on the subsequent development of the matter, as if there were indeed something fateful and foreordained about it” (57; my italics).

From this point on everything that Raskolnikov does is flawed, but Fate (or the devil, or God) so helps things along that everything works out fine. While dreaming a dream about an Egyptian oasis, he nearly sleeps through the interval when he plans to commit the crime, but then a clock strikes just in time and wakes him up (58). Now he is in a total daze, sick and feverish, and his reactions are “almost completely mechanical, as though someone had taken his hand and pulled him along irresistibly, blindly, with supernatural strength” (60; my italics)

The servant girl Nastasya ends up being in the kitchen, so that he cannot pick up the axe he needs, but almost miraculously he comes upon an axe in the porter’s room: “It was not my planning, but the devil that accomplished that! he thought” (62).

Just as Raskolnikov turns into the gateway at the old pawnbroker’s building, “as if by design” a load of hay turns as well and screens him. Nobody sees him enter the courtyard. After he commits the murder he loses his head and does everything absolutely wrong. He even leaves the door open behind him, noticing this only after he has committed his second murder, of Lizaveta, who walks in at the wrong time.

A man arrives and knocks at the door, now locked. Soon another arrives. Raskolnikov has no way to get past these men and escape down the staircase, but, luckily, the man who is to remain at the door while the other goes for help decides to leave as well. As Raskolnikov descends the stairs he hears both of them returning. He has nowhere to hide; they are bound to see him, remember him. But, again luckily, two painters have temporarily left the apartment where they are working, and Raskolnikov ducks in there and conceals himself.

He escapes. Nobody sees him anywhere. He puts the axe back in its place. No one sees him; no problem. The perfect crime. If he is caught now, Raskolnikov has only himself to blame. So then he spends the rest of the novel getting himself caught, because, wallowing in contrition, he wants to get caught. Or at least one side of his split personality wants to be caught.

So was it really the devil helping him out continuously and guiding him inevitably toward the crime? And protecting him after the crime? Was it predestination? But Dostoevsky does not believe in predestination. For the rest of the novel Sonya’s God, or Jesus Christ seems to be guiding Raskolnikov though expiation of he crime and toward redemption.

Much is made of the spiritual benefits of suffering, not only in C and P, but also in much that Dostoevsky has written. There are implications that Raskolnikov may have a great future ahead of him, and that perhaps he has to suffer his way through to spiritual enlightenment before that future can be realized. The rather strange police inspector, Porfiry Petrovich, who sometimes acts almost as much as a father confessor to Raskolnikov as an investigator trying to solve a crime, suggests as much late in the novel.

Before the journey of suffering can begin, before the sufferer can work his way through to salvation, he must commit a horrible act. Following this logic—which is certainly hinted at in the narrative—the murder must be committed. So is it the Lord God setting up all the coincidences that lead Raskolnikov through the murder and escape? If so, the Lord God certainly works in mysterious ways. In fact, you could almost see the Lord as a kind of believer in the principles of Utilitarianism here. “Let’s kill off one old woman for the greater usefulness and good of our hero.”

A different and better way of looking at this issue is to assume that the god of the fiction here, Fyodor Dostoevsky himself, sets things up so as to make his narrative move along the way he wishes. Raskolnikov must commit the crime and must get away with it. If not, where would the book go as a whole, and how could the rest of it be written?

Notes to "Crime and Punishment" DOSTOEVSKY THE NEUROSCIENTIST (Dunya and Svidrigailov)

D. Shmarinov, Illustrations to C and P: Dunya

Dostoevsky the Neuroscientist
(Dunya and Svidrigailov)

Dostoevsky’s métier as a writer of fiction is his deep understanding of human psychology. In fact, his insights are so acute that already in the nineteenth century he anticipated the findings of neuroscience in the twenty-first century. In the past twenty years brain scientists have learned, among many other discoveries, that we humans are often not in control of our actions, even unaware, on a conscious level, of why we do certain things. In control, rather, are neurons deep in our brain, working sometimes at cross purposes even with our own ethical principles.

Examples of such a situation are rife throughout Dostoevsky’s works of fiction. A good example in C and P is Dunya Raskolnikov’s relationship with the perverse Svidrigailov. We learn that while she worked as a governess on his estate he constantly pursued her, in an attempt to seduce her. During that past time in the narrative she resisted him, as she does in present time narrative. Of the many melodramatic scenes in subplots of the novel, the encounter of Dunya and Svidrigailov in his lodgings, their last meeting, stands out (Part 6, Ch. 5).

Svidrigailov has lured her to a one-on-one meeting with his promise to tell her about her brother’s secret—his having committed murder—which Svidrigailov has discovered by eavesdropping on a conversation between Raskolnikov and Sonya. The confrontation scene is quite well motivated until Dunya draws a revolver; at which point we are into pulp fiction, and the scene ends up like something out of a Saturday afternoon serial at the local cinema. 

Svidrigailov has offered to save Raskolnikov, to help him escape to America. And given Dunya’s character, we expect more logically that she would yield to Svidrigailov in order to save her brother. But she shoots at him, grazing his scalp.

This confrontation scene does a good deal to advance the action of the main plot. For example, Svidrigailov recapitulates for Dunya the multiple motivations for Raskolnikov’s crime. Much is also said about how Dunya related to Svidrigailov back when she worked on his estate. While resisting his advances, she was constantly trying to reform him, to cure him of his “broadmindedness,” which he brings up again at this meeting.

“Ah, Avdotya Romanovna [Dunya], everything is mixed up now, though that is not to say that it was ever particularly straightforward. The minds of the Russian people in general are broad, Avdotya Romanovna, like their country, and extraordinarily inclined to the fantastic and chaotic (Русские люди вообще широкие люди, Авдотья Романовна, широкие, как их земля, и чрезвычайно склонны к фантастическому, к беспорядочному); but it is disastrous to have a broad mind without special genius. Do you remember how often we two discussed this theme . . . . sitting on the terrace in the garden, in the evening after supper? You were always reproaching me with that breadth of mind.”

Given what we learn in this confrontation scene, plus what information we have about Dunya and Svidrigailov previously, it is clear now that Dunya is both attracted to him and repulsed simultaneously. There is good reason for asserting that, against her own will, she may be even a bit in love with him. She is morally horrified by that deep neuron in her brain that wants Svidrigailov, she refuses to admit the attraction and openly expresses the revulsion. 

Svidrigailov, who like the police inspector Porfiry Petrovich, is one of the keen psychologists of the novel, earlier has explained to Raskolnikov how he set up Dunya for her fall.
“In spite of Avdotya Romanovna’s real aversion for me, and my persistently gloomy and forbidding aspect, she grew sorry for me at last, sorry for a lost soul. And when a girl’s heart begins to feel pity for a man, then of course she is in the greatest danger. She begins to want to ‘save’ him, and make him see reason, and raise him up and put before him nobler aims . . . . . I realized at once that the bird had flown into the net of its own accord, and I began to make preparations in my turn” (Part 6, Ch. 4).

So exactly how does Dunya feel about Svidrigailov? It depends on which neuron deep in her brain that you ask. Nothing is ever black or white in the complicated psychology of Dostoevsky’s characters. Dostoevsky often emphasizes that she resembles her brother, and is fully as complex a person as is he. Dunya is a secondary character, so there is not room in C and P to develop her to the full. At the end of the book Dostoevsky has conveniently married her off to the generous and good-hearted Razumikhin, but, given her tempestuous and complex nature, we wonder how successful that marriage will be.

Monday, July 2, 2018

ALEKSANDR BLOK, "Девушка пела в церковном хоре" Translation into English, "In The Choir of a Church a Young Girl Was Singing"

Aleksandr Blok

Девушка пела в церковном хоре
О всех усталых в чужом краю,
О всех кораблях, ушедших в море,
О всех, забывших радость свою.

Так пел ее голос, летящий в купол,
И луч сиял на белом плече,
И каждый из мрака смотрел и слушал,
Как белое платье пело в луче.

И всем казалось, что радость будет,
Что в тихой заводи все корабли,
Что на чужбине усталые люди
Светлую жизнь себе обрели.

И голос был сладок, и луч был тонок,
И только высоко, у Царских Врат,
Причастный Тайнам,- плакал ребенок
О том, что никто не придет назад.
                                                               August, 1905

Literal Translation

A girl in a church choir sang
About all those who were weary in a foreign land,
About all the ships that had gone to sea,
About all those who had forgotten their joy.

So sang out her voice, flying up to the cupola,
And a ray of light shone on her white shoulder,
And all those in darkness watched and listened,
As the white dress sang in the ray.

And it seemed to them all that joy would come,
That all the ships were in a quiet backwater,
That weary people in a foreign land
Had found a bright life for themselves.

And the voice was sweet, and the ray was slender (thin),
And only up high, by the Royal Gates [entrance to the altar in an Orthodox church],
Privy to the Secrets, a child was crying
Over the fact that no one would ever come back.

Rhymed and Metered Translation

In the choir of a church a young girl was singing,
Of world-weary dwellers in an alien demesne,
Of ships out at sea lashed by gales harsh and stinging,
Of all those whose joys had been tempered by pain.  

Her voice did so carry, soaring up to the dome,
And a ray of light gleamed on the white of her arm,
And those swathed in darkness beheld that pure tone,
As the white of her dress sang out succor and charm.

And each of them felt as if joy were at hand,
As if all harried ships would soon find a safe nook,
As if alien people in a nightmare dreamland
On a life bright and lustrous would now come to look.

And the voice was pure sweetness, the ray shone undying,
But perched way up high, on the wall’s narrow berm,
Aware of all Secrets, a child was crying,
For the teeming lost dead who would never return.
                                                                                           Translated by U.R. Bowie, June, 2018

Translator’s Note

Literary critics have noted the preponderance of maritime imagery in Blok’s poetry written in the summer of 1905. Much on all Russians’ minds at the time was the Russo-Japanese War and the devastating defeat in the maritime Battle of Tsushima. Attempting to relieve the Japanese siege of Port Arthur, in an amazing logistical feat, the Russian Baltic fleet had sailed all around the world.

By the time the fleet reached the Sea of Japan, in May of 1905, Port Arthur had fallen, and the Russian armada changed course, making for the port of Vladivostok. Engaging the Russians in the Tsushima Straits on 27-28 May, 1905, the Japanese annihilated the whole fleet. The Russians lost eight battleships, numerous smaller vessels, and more than 5000 men. Only three Russian ships made it safely to Vladivostok.

Some critics have noted that what the girl sings is a kind of prayer, for the repose of the dead sailors of the Russian fleet, or for those adrift in foreign lands. In the Russian Orthodox church there is also a prayer of intercession intoned by the priest (called евтения), for wayfarers at sea, travelers, and all those who are ill or suffering, during which the choir sings repetitively the Kyrie eleison (Господи помилуй).

The prayer of the girl, or of the priest and the choir, alas, is of no avail, since, as the final line tells us, no one ever gets back alive. Once again, this could be an oblique reference to the dead sailors, or, to take it more broadly, it may allude to the vast dead of the historical universe.
Some have suggested that the child crying at the Royal Gates is a depiction of a cherub, or of the Christ child.

Blok's poem declaimed by Olga Bunina:

Notes to CRIME AND PUNISHMENT Radical-left Doctrines in the Novel: Utopian Socialism, Utilitarianism, Nihilism

Utopian Socialism, Utilitarianism, Nihilism

Dostoevsky the journalist and fiction writer was always deeply concerned with the social and political ideas of his time. In his younger days, he himself had been caught up in the fervor of Utopian Socialism—with its lofty ideals and conviction that human life on earth could be bettered for all. But after his return from Siberian prison and exile he spent the remainder of his days fighting a variety of political notions and social ideas—all of which, so he thought, depended too much on reason, and all of which were imported to Russia from Western Europe. 

He saw Western ideas as, basically, alien and dangerous on Russian soil, capable of producing highly unfavorable social and political changes. As it turned out, he was right, since the political system of Marxism-Leninism, which fueled the establishment of the new Soviet Union, ended up being a disaster for the Russian people, and even more of a disaster for peoples in a minority position in the U.S.S. R.

The Russian social and political situation in 1863-1865 was extremely complicated. For an in depth treatment of all its ramifications, the best place for the Anglophone reader to go is to Joseph Frank’s literary biography of Dostoevsky, Vol. III: Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871. Suffice it to say here that Raskolnikov’s deranged mind is much influenced by both (1) French Utopian Socialism (2) English Utilitarianism and (3) Russian Nihilism.

The spokesman for Utopian Socialism in C and P is the fatuous Lebezyatnikov, described as “a singularly commonplace and silly person.” In his empty-headedness he resembles the caricatures of radicals who are Bazarov’s “disciples” in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (Kukshina and Sitnikov). Lebezyatnikov espouses views that were already somewhat old-fashioned in Russia by the mid-sixties of the nineteenth century: glorification of the common people, free love, the necessity to organize communal living, beyond the restraints of traditional marriage. 

He also mouths the theory about how the environment that people live in determines their behavior. Dostoevsky uses one of the most positive characters in the novel, the generous, intelligent and impulsive Razumikhin, to criticize the environmental theory:
“they explain everything by the ‘deleterious influence of the environment’—and that’s all! Their favorite cliché . . . from that it follows that if society is properly organized all crimes will instantly disappear. . . Nature is not taken into account, nature is banished, nature is not supposed to exist! . . . . . . They have no use for the living soul. The living soul demands life, the living soul will not submit to mechanism, the living soul must be regarded with suspicion, the living soul is reactionary!” (Part 3, Ch. 5).

Here we have Dostoevsky’s insistence that the irrational ways of life often take precedence over the rational, that an overemphasis on reason can pervert life’s natural processes. His spokesman for such a view is a character whose very name reeks with reason: Razumikhin (Russian razum=reason).

At one point the dull-minded Lebezyatnikov explains to Raskolnikov modern methods of curing the mad by using logical persuasion: “madness is, so to speak, a logical mistake, a mistake of judgment, an incorrect view of things” (Part 5, Ch. 5). Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova, who raves and rants all the way through the narrative, could be calmed (opines Lebezyatnikov), would stop crying if only she would listen to reason:

“what I mean is this: if you convinced a man logically that he had nothing to cry for, he would stop crying. That’s clear. Or are you of the opinion that he wouldn’t stop?”
“’That would make living too easy,’ answered Raskolnikov,” (Слишком легко тогда было бы жить).

Porfiry Petrovich, the police inspector, frequently emphasizes that evidence “cuts both ways” in the investigation of a crime. The Russian expression is “a stick with two ends” (палка о двух концах). But anyone reading much of Dostoevsky’s fiction soon discovers that the formula of the stick with two ends operates consistently. Despite his denigration of what he sees as a simplistic environmental theory, Dostoevsky does not deny the influence of the environment in motivating human behavior. 

One of his most intelligent characters, Porfiry Petrovich, assures Razumikhin at one point that environment can have a good deal to do with inspiring crime. Dostoevsky clearly illustrates how the squalid conditions in which Raskolnikov lives and the stifling, poisonous atmosphere of underclass Petersburg exacerbates his morbid state of mind. Frequent reference is made to his room, a horrible, cramped little cubbyhole that is compared to a coffin [see the cover art to the Norton Critical Edition of C and P, which depicts the view out the window from that room]. Environment is indeed important, but human beings cannot get away with rationalizing all their conduct by blaming it on their surroundings.

As for the ideas of English Utilitarianism, very popular in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century among the radical intelligentsia, Lebezyatnikov also mouths a few of these. Their most vocal spokesperson in Russia was Chernyshevsky, who was convinced that utilitarian theories could solve all problems of ethics and personal conduct. As Joseph Frank has written, “This has caused a great deal of confusion because only in Russia do we find the peculiar blend of French Utopian Socialism, with its belief in the possibility of a future world of love and moral perfection, held conjointly with a view of human nature stemming from the egoistic individualism [utilitarianism] of Bentham and Mill” (Norton Critical Ed., p. 563).

His “friend” Luzhin, perhaps the most despicable character in the novel, sniggers at Lebezyatnikov’s lectures on the utilitarian: “Everything that is useful to humanity is honorable, I understand only one word, useful!” (Part 5, Ch. 1). But Luzhin preaches the same utilitarian principles, using them to justify his own utter selfishness: “by the very act of devoting my gains solely and exclusively to myself, I am at the same time benefitting the whole community” (Part 2, Ch. 5).

Russian radicalism of the mid-1860s had advanced beyond the principles of Utopian Socialism. Utilizing the ideals of Utilitarianism and a love for the scientific method (positivism), the new radicals had arrived at so-called “Nihilism.’ The first important Nihilist in Russian literature was Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, a man who has no great love for the common man, or for anyone else as well. He disdains what he sees as the sentimentality of Utopian Socialism; he sneers at over-idealization of the common man. He is an elitist who worries little about whose feelings he tramps on in his single-minded effort to change the social and political system.

While brought up with a Christian view of brotherly love, Raskolnikov has long since left the Orthodox religion behind. At the moment that C and P begins he is an atheist who has already gone beyond socialism and utilitarianism to his own nihilistic theory of the amoral “great man,” who can change the world if he is willing to trample upon generally accepted human morals.

Of course, one of Raskolnikov’s motivations for the crime is strictly utilitarian. He claims that he will make good use of the money he steals upon committing murder, devoting his life to serving humanity and changing the world for the better. But the error of his thinking—this being only one of many errors in his confused mind—is apparent in his own subconscious when he tells Luzhin what Luzhin’s doctrines of utilitarian “rational egoism” will lead to ultimately: “Carry to its logical conclusion what you were preaching just now, and it emerges that you can cut people’s throats” (Part 2, Ch. 5).

Such is the confusion of radical ideas that were in the air in the middle of the Russian nineteenth century, ideas that battle for ascendancy in the deranged mind of the main protagonist of C and P. The author Dostoevsky viewed all of these ideas as alien and dangerous. His great hope was that Russia and Russians could return to their roots, embracing the Russian earth and the Russian Orthodox doctrine of love, suffering their way through to a non-rational enlightenment.

"Cuts Both Ways" Caricature of Dostoevsky Sitting on an Axe, by Eugene Ivanov

                                                        Luzhin and Porfiry Petrovich