Thursday, July 12, 2007

Notes on Crime and Punishment

As you may remember, I'm currently working my way through Dostoevsky, in addition to all of my required reading this summer. What I mean by that is to say that I'm wrestling with his books, duking it out with them, arguing with him, and wondering aloud what he's going on about. I don't believe in the idea that we should genuflect before the great and sublime works of art. I agree with those other old curmudgeons who say that there have been genuinely sublime and beautiful works of art and that much of what we encounter now is pretty thin gruel, and I also fear along with them that culture no longer exists in any real way. I accept the logic of canons. However, I also hate the idea of treating the canon like a reliquary; taking out the old tomes every once a year and flipping through them in the armchair, perhaps stroking our chins and chuckling at how clever that Shakespeare was. Yuck! Get thee to a mummery!

I'm about one-quarter of the way through Crime and Punishment. I read at least one book each day, but I like to stretch out the really great ones that I read at night, and so far this one is simply astounding. It is much tighter and more controlled than his other books, with the exception of Notes from Underground, which it reminds me of. Yet another ''self-immolating male", to crib from Camille Paglia. Anyway, keeping in mind that I'm only 1/4th of the way into this thing, here are my notes from last night (when, incidentally, I was both reading and drinking straight rye whiskey)...

"In the first book, Raskolnikov seems too academic and sketched in- like a philosophical discussion in place of a character. He only comes into being with the murder. With this act, Dostoevsky creates a sympathetic character, which is the opposite of what we might expect. This isn't to say that Dostoevsky argues for sin. Raskolnikov tries to transgress moral law, but he is brought down to the level of humanity by his helplessness to escape moral law. Instead of becoming a superman, he is mastered by his fear. Raskolnikov is thrust into being through a bloody act of ''matricidal'' aggression. He kills, therefore he is condemned to be. He terror masters him, but it also humanizes him somehow. He wanders deliriously through St. Petersburg like Adam and Eve, cast out from the human community by his knowledge of life and death.

I think we are starting to see two Raskolnikovs. As a ''rational'' character, he carries his reasoning to its logical conclusion in killing the old woman. But, as with Notes from Underground, I think Dostoevsky is terrified by the thought of humanity living by ideas alone. After the murder, the irrational Raskolnikov emerges through suffering. I think that Dostoevsky believes that we live only through suffering, and are only saved through suffering. Note that the irrational Raskolnikov tries to give himself away, subconsciously trying to atone for the crime."

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