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.
But 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.