Ivan Karamazov reviews Crime and Punishment

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by Ivan Karamazov, with help from Brian Armstrong

For my thirtieth birthday, my brother gave me a novel called Crime and Punishment by a well-known Russian author. The novel was published back in 1866, but I was unaware of it at the time; that was an unusually difficult year for me. I’d since heard of it, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve not even touched my copy of War and Peace yet!

Those of you who are aware of my family history, however, can likely ascertain why I quickly read my gift. I’d heard that I bear some similarities to the central character, and that while the novel was being serialized in The Russian Messenger, some of its most important themes were being played out in my own life. And while I cannot but acknowledge those similarities, I must admit that I was unimpressed with the young man.

First, given that everyone who is anyone has already read the novel, I hope you won’t think me a scoundrel if I openly discuss the fact that the central character, Raskolnikov, murdered a couple of people and stole from them and then eventually – and rather pathetically – confessed first to a woman whom he barely knew and then to the authorities. There is supposedly a great mystery as to why he did it, but, honestly, I believe that the former gambler Svidrigailov summed up the central character and his motivations quite well: he sought to rob the older sister, and he did it in order to see if he was an exceptional “man of genius.”

The idea of the exceptional person of genius is part of a theory he had, in which people are divided into two groups according to a law of nature: the mere “material” and those who, due “to their lofty status, are outside the law, and not only that, who themselves write the law for the others – for the material, I mean . . . the rubbish” (462). Svidrigailov rightly notes that there’s nothing really special about this theory. He also rightly notes that what follows from Raskolnikov’s criminal act is simply a matter of his being “greatly pained” by the thought this this lofty status was beyond him. In other words, “What could be more demeaning for a young man with a high opinion of himself, especially in our day and age … ?’ (462) Apparently there is nothing more demeaning.

raskolnikov 3But that’s not the end of the story. It’s not just that this young man, with his confusions and his inflated sense of himself, committed some mundane crimes. We’re also supposed to believe that a process occurred – especially with the young woman whom he barely knew – that led to his redemption, and we’re told by the narrator that some great future deed awaits him. I’m aware that there is debate over how “true” this process and this future deed is to “reality” – meaning to psychological reality, since the book is, of course, a fiction made up by the author (a fact that many readers seem to forget!). There is also debate over whether this process and future deed work from an aesthetic perspective. In my opinion, it is true to reality and it is done beautifully. I was ready to weep for joy. Except…

Except that I couldn’t help but wonder: at what cost did this young man’s redemption come? The death of two innocent women. Yes, yes: perhaps the pawnbroker really did deserve to die. And even if she didn’t deserve to die, it seems clear that the young man does not feel remorse for having killed her. Rather, it’s the second murder, which even the narrator rarely mentions, that seems to eat away at the young man. And I see that this second murder is essential: the young man hardly ever mentions her, but the guilt he seems to feel is what converts his act into something redemptive.

But why should I approve of such redemption? Does the author mean to say that we should approve of young men killing innocent strangers (and females in particular) in order to redeem these men? That seems a steep cost to pay. Too steep. And what of the innocent young woman who is sacrificed so horribly in this mechanism of grace? It is right or just that her life is the cost of his ticket to redemption?

But my thoughts on this issue are likely well-known. Year in and year out, I have these same sorts of conversations with those around me (and often with the same people). My interlocutors are constantly pointing out flaws in my logic and my rhetoric and my choice of facts and figures of speech and examples. And I’m constantly being accused of irony and atheism, so that the points I make are fully misunderstood. But I’ll say it again: I believe in God and in the immortality of the soul and in Heaven and Hell. And I still refuse my ticket.


Brian Armstrong is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Augusta University. He works on the intersection of philosophy and literature, and his current project focuses on the philosophical implications of Dostoevsky’s fiction. He masterminded @YakovGolyadkin last fall during #TheDoubleEvent. You can find him on Twitter under the handle @wittstrong.

This post appears as part of the #CP150 project. For more information about the project, click here.

Painting the Town Black: A Japanese Take on Brothers Karamazov

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by Connor Doak

Connor Doak is a lecturer in Russian at the University of Bristol. He is grateful to Ritsuko Kidera of Doshisha University for advice on Japanese culture when preparing this piece. This piece originally appeared on All the Russias, the blog of the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russian, and is reproduced here with their permission.

Many of us who share a love for nineteenth-century Russian literature have found a recent fix of television drama in the BBC’s sumptuous adaptation of War and Peace. My tastes, however, have always leaned toward Dostoevsky rather than Tolstoy, so I put the BBC drama on the back burner while I finished a 2013 Japanese adaptation of Brothers Karamazov, now available on DVD with English subtitles. This award-winning eleven-part miniseries relocates the action from nineteenth-century Skotoprigonevsk to twenty-first century Karasume, a fictional provincial town in Japan. The popular series provides a case study in how Dostoevsky has been indigenized for a contemporary Japanese audience. Moreover, it is fascinating to observe how this miniseries is influenced by recent trends in televised crime drama, a genre that, of course, had its origins in nineteenth-century literature, and to which Dostoevsky’s own novel made an important contribution some 150 years ago.

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Even more than Dostoevsky’s novel, the miniseries highlights the family conflict at the heart of the story. The Karamazov family become the Kurosawas. This name offers a nod to the great Japanese director whose 1951 adaptation of The Idiot remains a classic, but its Japanese meaning—“black swamp”—also reflects the family name Karamazov’s connection to blackness. The terrifying presence of Bunzo Kurosawa, the Japanese incarnation of Fyodor Pavlovich, looms over the entire miniseries. Veteran actor Kotaro Yoshida’s wealth of experience as a Shakespearean stage actor shines through in his portrayal of the consummate villain, complete with maniacal laughter. It is difficult to forget him as, even once murdered, his grotesque image lingers through a huge portrait that dominates the interior scenes of the Karamazov house, and, of course, frequent flashbacks provide ample opportunity to add to his screen time.

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Yoshida’s hyperbolic performance fits with the overblown aesthetic that characterizes the series as a whole. This mood is enhanced by gothic-inspired cut-scenes featuring sinister crows, as well as an emotionally laden soundtrack that mixes late Romantic composers (Grieg, Ravel, Tchaikovsky) with angry rock (Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, Nirvana). “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones, with its tones of frenetic desperation, provides a fitting anthem for the series. At times, the program overindulges in this dark aesthetic, risking becoming a parody of itself. Perhaps that danger is particularly present for European audiences, whose taste in crime drama is currently more attuned to Scandi crime dramas. Nordic noir, though it deals with equally gruesome themes, tends towards a slower pace, bleaker, sparse settings, and more restrained performances. Yet for the viewer equipped with knowledge of Dostoevsky’s source text, the over-acting and heavily charged atmosphere appear as an asset in the Japanese miniseries, since these features have direct equivalents in the novel.

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As in the novel, the miniseries opens with a reunion of the family. The father’s murder soon follows, leaving the audience wondering which of the brothers committed the crime. Even those familiar with the book are drawn in, as we wonder whether the adaptation might yield a different killer than the novel. The miniseries switches between different time periods: the lead-up to the murder, its aftermath, and the boys’ traumatic childhood. This editing technique creates a fragmentary narrative, inviting the audience to piece together the sons’ long-term resentment of their father as well as the events on the day of his murder. Though long familiar to viewers of crime drama, this device proves poignantly effective for an adaptation of Brothers Karamazov, as it allows for an exploration of the power of memory, so important to that novel.

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Modern-day analogues are found for each of the three brothers, with varying degrees of success. Dmitry’s equivalent is Mitsuru (Takumi Saito), whose brooding good looks make him attractive to women, but who is struggling with debts and alcohol abuse. Perhaps the best performance comes from Hayato Ichihara as Isao, the counterpart for Ivan. His success not only stems from the fact that Isao has all the best lines—as many would argue Ivan does—but because Isao’s role as a lawyer proves an apposite twenty-first century equivalent to the questioning skeptic found in the novel.

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It proves more difficult to find a modern-day analogue for Alyosha, the novice monk. He becomes Ryo (Kento Hayashi), a student of psychiatry, his kind spirit channeled into medicine rather than Christian virtue. As Ritsuko Kidera, a Dostoevsky specialist at Doshisha University, points out, Japanese versions of Dostoevsky have historically tended to play down the writer’s Christian themes because of the difficulty of finding cultural equivalents. Zosima’s role is even more difficult to reproduce. Although the early episodes feature a university tutor whom Ryo much admires, the character and his values are not articulated strongly enough to provide the same presence that the Russian monk offers in the novel.

It is, in fact, the social rather than the religious dimension of the novel that this adaptation foregrounds. The tyrannical patriarch Bunzo, a corrupt and uncompromising entrepreneur has bought up a good portion of the town of Karasume. According to the creator of the series, Misato Sato, Bunzo is “a relic of the bubble economy of the 1980s” [1]. The dark side of economic growth is explored through a recasting of the subplot involving Snegirev, who is reimagined as a petty businessman whom Bunzo destroys financially by enlisting the help of his lawyer son Isao. Here the series points to the collusion of the law with big business, showing how Dostoevsky’s text can be repurposed as a critique of capitalism for our contemporary era of recession.

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The police investigation occupies more space in the miniseries than in the novel. The idea of universal responsibility, arguably the novel’s central theme, is not entirely neglected, although it takes a back seat to the exploration of policing and justice in the miniseries. The detective’s assumption of Dmitry’s guilt echoes the social determinism of the prosecutor in the novel. The law is presented as coldly calculating and rational. Although the lead detective is not as wantonly cruel as the patriarch Bunzo, the system that he represents is almost as heartless.

Nabokov derisively called Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov “a typical detective story, a riotous whodunit—in slow motion” [2]. This assessment purposely fails to mention all the ways in which Dostoevsky reworks the tradition of the whodunit: his questioning of human justice, his exploration of free will and determinism, and his Christian ethics, to name but a few. Although the miniseries does not attempt to replicate the full range of Dostoevsky’s philosophical inquiry, it, too, is more than a “riotous whodunit” on the small screen. The series not only uses Dostoevsky’s text to create an entertaining crime drama, but also as the basis for an inquiry into the psychology that accompanies the current socioeconomic moment in contemporary Japan.

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[1] Misato Sato is interviewed in Anna Fediakina and Horie Hiroyuki, “Arigato, Karamazov-san,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, http://rg.ru/2013/04/10/misatosato-site.html, 11 April 2013.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt, 1981), 133.

 

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