Wednesday, July 18, 2007

More notes on Crime and Punishment

I'm about halfway through Crime and Punishment and here are some notes:

The character of Raskolnikov has come into focus, probably more so than any other murderer that I can remember in fiction. I think the idea of there being two Raskolnikovs works well as an explanation because he is sharply divided against himself. On the one hand, you have the more ''scientific'' Raskolnikov who believes that morality is a mistake of the weak, and who makes a devastating speech about the right that the few overmen among us have to do as they wish. This would be the character who committed the murders in the first book.

On the other hand, there is the Raskolnikov who is irrational and unable to escape his crime. This is something that presumably Dostoevsky saw when he was jailed in Siberia- the criminal who gives himself away in spite of himself. Raskolnikov seems fairly determined to confess his crime, and it's interesting that he claims in places to believe in God, although this goes against what he claims for his guiding philosophy.

The critique of ''science'' extends to the discussion of socialism in the story and it's worth putting in perspective. There is a strong belief in the 19th century that all of the ''laws'' that guide human behavior will soon be understood and societies will be at last organized according to scientific principles. Political rule will go from the rule of people to the administration of things. Naturally, this will secure the most happiness for the most people.

Dostoevsky finds this prospect terrifying; not only for what it will do to the dignity of man in society, but also for what it suggests about free will. His narrator in Notes from the Underground is terrified by the prospect of reducing man to a player piano or barrel organ. Similarly, what makes the Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamavoz so insidious, I think, is that he sees the key to human happiness lying in the removal of ''the problem of freedom''. I think Christ is silent in front of this because He recognizes it as evil.

So it is in Crime and Punishment too. The advocates of socialism want to reduce all human behavior to a confluence of social forces. Raskolnikov (I think) asks about the adult who rapes a child; this is lurid, but it gets at a central criticism of ''scientific'' social projects- aren't there some pathologies that have no social roots, that are simply irrational? How do we allow for guilt if there is no individual pathology?

Raskolnikov is torn on this issue- between the perfectly rational materialist who kills an old woman with an axe for the good of society, and the irrational moralist who wants to be caught for committing a crime. It is a sardonic gift from the subconscious that his mother and sister show up at this point to badger him. I would suggest that their cloying goodness is one of the few mistakes that Dostoevsky makes- and he never seems to know what to do with purely good or purely evil characters- although it might well be the product of the main character's fevered imagination.

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