Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Gide’s Dostoevsky, David Foster Wallace’s AIDS Essay (Books Acquired, 10.25.2012)

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Needing more books like I need another hole in my head, I nevertheless visited my local bookshop (after an impressive three week abstinence period).

No, I haven’t read Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial yet. I’m a sucker for New Directions’ back stock, I just finished Crime & Punishment, and Gide’s book looks cool. Plus it was like a dollar.

I spied the Might Magazine collection—I knew Might as Dave Eggers’s first venture. I picked it up for the (very short) David Foster Wallace essay “Hail the Returning Dragon, Clothed in New Fire”—which, incidentally, doesn’t appear to be is collected in the forthcoming collection Both Flesh and Not under the new not-as-Game of Thronesish title “Back in New Fire.” 

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I Riff on Dostoevsky’s Novel Crime and Punishment

Self-portrait in Hell, Edvard Munch

1. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—

Did I read it before? In high school? Not in college, not in grad school, I’m certain of that.

That I could have read Notes from Underground in full three times, but not Crime and Punishment—how?

I vaguely recall wandering into Crime and Punishment as a young man. All those Russian names though. My attention was on other matters.

And so reading Crime and Punishment this month I repeatedly felt a strange anger or shame at all my younger selves for lacking the attention or the will or the discipline to stick it out . . . and these words, attentiondisciplinewill, they don’t seem like the right words, because the book compels, commands, rewards . . .

2. You are familiar with the plot of course:

Our hero, our anti-hero, young Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker, an old woman; in the rush of the crime, he fails to close the door, and the pawnbroker’s innocent sister sees him. So he murders her too. The rest of the novel deals with the psychological fall out of this crime. Sure, there’s a sister and a mother, a failed marriage plot, a detective, a friend, and a love interest, a prototypical hooker with a heart of gold, etc.—but that’s it. That’s the plot.

3. What impels Raskolnikov to murder the pawnbroker?

Perhaps I shouldn’t answer here. Perhaps it’s better to suggest you just read the book if you haven’t yet—because is not this the driving question?

(Oh you’ve read the book? I’ll continue then).

4. Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker not because he is an indigent student in need of funds. He murders her to test his theory—or rather, he murders her to test his place within the scheme of his theory.

The Murderer, Edvard Munch

5. Raksolnikov’s idea:

I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it. . . . I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. . . . The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood . . .

Raskolnikov believes that “extraordinary men” have the right, the duty, even, to transgress law—even to the extremes of murder (even mass murder) in order to bring about a new word, a new idiom, a new philosophy, a new paradigm, a new zeitgeist, even a New Jerusalem.

Raskolnikov wants to know if he is one of these “extraordinary men.”

6. But Raskolnikov, like Macbeth or a figure out of Poe, is plagued by doubt, misgiving—and more than a touch of insanity and egomania.

His instability and his psychological and moral dilemma is summed up neatly in only the second chapter of the book:

“And what if I am wrong,” he cried suddenly after a moment’s thought. “What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.”

7. The word or an iteration of the word psychology appears 25 times in the Constance Garnett translation I read.

Crime and Punishment was published in 1866, when Sigmund Freud was ten years old.

(I am not naively/stupidly suggesting that Freud invented psychology, by the way. I’m just riffing).

8. What Crime and Punishment does so well:

Harnesses the intellect of its protagonist Raskolnikov, shows us his fevered mind in revolution, shifts us through his moods and dilemmas and despairs and strange joys.

9. And it’s not just the interior of Rakolnikov’s skull we get such access to—Dostoevsky gives our lead a marvelous, taunting foil in the detective Porfiry, a loyal and empathetic counterpoint in friend Razumikhin, a despicable enemy in the poseur Luzhin, and a dark-future forecast in Svidrigaïlov.

Each of these characters represent viewpoints and attitudes about psychology and morality without ever falling into being mere allegorical sketches or mouthpieces for Dostoevsky’s ideas.

10. Dostoevsky—unlike certain contemporary novelists I’ll neglect to name—doesn’t tell us that his character is brilliant (or troubled, or confounded, or fucked up). And he goes beyond showing us—he actually lets us experience the character’s psychology.

11. A marvelous, frightening episode that illustrates point 10:

Raskolnikov’s horse dream.

Despair, Edvard Munch

12. This isn’t to say that Dostoevsky’s handling of characterization is flawless.

His women appear less fully-realized than his men, as if he perhaps cannot inhabit their minds so fully or exercise their brains, their souls, their voices.

Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya, for example, is a bold, more perfect, more more moral, more stable version of her brother, a woman who seems able to withstand conflict, disappointment, and misfortune with ease—too much ease. Raskolnikov’s mother, in contrast, is something of an idealized blank—not just a mother, but the mother figure: nonjudgmental, loving—her character summed up in her hugging her son and forgiving him for what she cannot forgive

It’s the depiction of Raskolnikov’s love interest Sonia that I find most troubling though. Dostoevsky renders her an unsubtle merging of the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene. Her alcoholic father forces her into prostitution to save the family, but she never appears bitter or angry or even upset. Dostoevsky rarely affords her a speaking role, and in her biggest scene she reads the entire parable of Lazarus. Sure, she makes the words her own, but she’s being ventriloquized. The strings show. She’s pure symbolism, really, and stands in stark contrast to the dark, flawed humanity of Raskolnikov.

13. Re: Point 12 above: If Dostoevsky shows a certain weakness in his depiction of women, he perhaps compensates in other areas. For example, Luzhin’s roomate Andrey Semyonovitch, a utopian socialist, serves as a mouthpiece for emerging feminist ideas. And if Dostoevsky mocks would-be reformers in his novel, it’s not always with vitriol, but sometimes with understanding, and even perhaps love. After all, this is Raskolnikov’s pretension—to be a reformer of others, to step over the line of law, to be a great man.

14. But Raskolnikov is a failed reformer, or at least is unable to live with his trespass, his sin. Crime and Punishment’s epilogue emphasizes the Jesusian theme of the possibility of resurrection, even as it subdues or complicates that possibility.

We get the final image of Raskolnikov “mechanically” taking up Sonia’s copy of the New Testament; he doesn’t open it to read, but instead reflects on the possibility of a new life with Sonia, a life that “would cost him great striving, great suffering.” Dostoevsky does not let his protagonist off the hook, even as he offers the reader a final comforting vision of “the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life.”

15. There’s a strong temptation to see the epilogue as tacked on, as a sentimental gesture to the reader’s sense of stable morality, as a bit of window dressing that covers the ugliness of the narrative.

And perhaps this is true.

I’d argue though that Dostoevsky gives us a cold, ugly ending in the figure of Svidrigaïlov, who more or less commands the final moments of the narrative, moments that lead inexorably to his suicide—the self-erasing gesture that Raskolnikov cannot commit to. I think that Svidrigaïlov’s suicide might stand as a placeholder for Raskolnikov’s—an exchange of sorts.

And Svidrigaïlov’s death is not without a small measure of redemption—the redemption of other-directedness, of giving, of selflessness. It is far more complicated and troubling than the Jesusian resurrection that Dostoevsky implies as a possibility for Raskolnikov, but it also strikes me as far more real.