“I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. That is something that you cannot say aloud, or perhaps even think” — Letter from Sigmund Freud to Oskar Pfister, October 9, 1918
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 Undergroundin 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, attention, discipline, will, 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.
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:
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.
The whole point of these books acquired posts is to try to document interesting stuff that comes in before it winds up in my pile for months (to put things in perspective, I got a reader copy of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son back in January, and have finally gotten around to reading it just now). I usually spend a week or two looking over the book, maybe publish a blurb or an excerpt of the book along with a photo, and then file it in one of three stacks — now, later, or never. Anyway, Siri Hustvedt’s new collection of essays Living, Thinking, Looking ended up never getting stacked anywhere, because I kept going back to it, poking into her essays on Goya, Gerhard Richter, Freud, reading her riff on sleeping, which somehow synthesizes Macbeth and Nabokov and REM science, pausing over her consideration of the Bush admin’s rhetoric. I haven’t finished the book but I will. Hustvedt combines her keen intellect with a range of ideas to explore her subjects (primarily, if the title didn’t tip you, living, thinking, looking). There’s a lot of lit here, a lot of psych, and plenty of art. Good stuff.
As far as I know Leonardo only once interspersed in his scientific descriptions a communication from his childhood. In a passage where he speaks about the flight of the vulture, he suddenly interrupts himself in order to follow up a memory from very early years which came to his mind. “It seems that it had been destined before that I should occupy myself so thoroughly with the vulture, for it comes to my mind as a very early memory, when I was still in the cradle, a vulture came down to me, he opened my mouth with his tail and struck me a few times with his tail against my lips.”
We have here an infantile memory and to be sure of the strangest sort. It is strange on account of its content and account of the time of life in which it was fixed. That a person could retain a memory of the nursing period is perhaps not impossible, but it can in no way be taken as certain. But what this memory of Leonardo states, namely, that a vulture opened the child’s mouth with its tail, sounds so improbable, so fabulous, that another conception which puts an end to the two difficulties with one stroke appeals much more to our judgment. The scene of the vulture is not a memory of Leonardo, but a phantasy which he formed later, and transferred into his childhood. The childhood memories of persons often have no different origin, as a matter of fact, they are not fixated from an experience like the conscious memories from the time of maturity and then repeated, but they are not produced until a later period when childhood is already past, they are then changed and disguised and put in the service of later tendencies, so that in general they cannot be strictly differentiated from phantasies.
. . .
When we examine Leonardo’s vulture-phantasy with the eyes of a psychoanalyst then it does not seem strange very long; we recall that we have often found similar structures in dreams, so that we may venture to translate this phantasy from its strange language into words that are universally understood. The translation then follows an erotic direction. Tail, “coda,” is one of the most familiar symbols, as well as a substitutive designation of the male member which is no less true in Italian than in other languages. The situation contained in the phantasy, that a vulture opened the mouth of the child and forcefully belabored it with its tail, corresponds to the idea of fellatio, a sexual act in which the member is placed into the mouth of the other person.
Strangely enough this phantasy is altogether of a passive character; it resembles certain dreams and phantasies of women and of passive homosexuals who play the feminine part in sexual relations.
. . .
The origin of Leonardo’s vulture phantasy can be conceived in the following manner: While reading in the writings of a church father or in a book on natural science that the vultures are all females and that they know to procreate without the coöperation of a male, a memory emerged in him which became transformed into that phantasy, but which meant to say that he also had been such a vulture child, which had a mother but no father. An echo of pleasure which he experienced at his mother’s breast was added to this in the manner as so old impressions alone can manifest themselves. The allusion to the idea of the holy virgin with the child, formed by the authors, which is so dear to every artist, must have contributed to it to make this phantasy seem to him valuable and important. For this helped him to identify himself with the Christ child, the comforter and savior of not alone this one woman.
From Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, which should be required reading for any thinking person—
We know that a human child cannot successfully complete its development to the civilized stage without passing through a phase of neurosis sometimes of greater and sometimes of less distinctness. This is because so many instinctual demands which will later be unserviceable cannot be suppressed by the rational operation of the child‘s intellect but have to be tamed by acts of repression, behind which, as a rule, lies the motive of anxiety. Most of these infantile neuroses are overcome spontaneously in the cause of growing up, and this is especially true of the obsessional neuroses of childhood. The remainder can be cleared up later still by psycho-analytic treatment. In just the same way, one might assume, humanity as a whole, in its development through the ages, fell into states analogous to the neuroses,‘ and for the same reasons – namely because in the times of its ignorance and intellectual weakness the instinctual renunciations indispensable for man‘s communal existence had only been achieved by it by means of purely affective forces. The precipitates of these processes resembling repression which took place in prehistoric times still remained attached to civilization for long periods. Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father. If this view is right, it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth, and that we find ourselves at this very juncture in the middle of that phase of development.
Simon Critchley’s latest book How to Stop Living and Start Worrying picks up where his last work, The Book of Dead Philosophers, left off. Both works explore what Critchley contends to be the signal problem of all philosophy; namely, how one might live a meaningful life against the backdrop of inevitable death. In Dead Philosophers, Critchley plumbed this question by surveying the deaths of dozens of famous philosophers, ultimately affirming a positive reality in death (both our own deaths and the deaths of others), and arguing that philosophies (and religions) that advocate the idea of a spiritual afterlife ultimately negatively disrupt human existence and lead to inauthentic lives. How to Stop Living reiterates these themes in a new form, essentially arguing that in asking “how to live,” we must also ask “how to die” — and also how to love and how to laugh. How to Stop Living takes form as a series of conversations between Critchley and Carl Cederström, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Economic Research at Lund University in Sweden. There’s a warm rapport between the pair, and although Critchley does most of the talking, there’s a genuine dialog in play, not merely a flat interview. The book unfolds over six chapters. The first, “Life,” is a discussion of, well, Critchley’s life, both personal and academic. I originally thought I’d be doing a lot of skimming here, but it’s actually kind of fascinating; more importantly, though, it establishes Critchley’s contention that a philosopher’s work cannot be divorced from his biography. To philosophize is to live. This idea is reiterated succinctly at the beginning of the second chapter, “Philosophy,” when Critchley states—
The first thing to say is that philosophy is not a solely professional or academic activity for me. Philosophy is not a thing, it’s not an entity; it’s an activity. To put it tautologically: philosophy is the activity of philosophizing, an activity which is conducted by finite, thinking creatures like us. Now, my general view of philosophy is that this activity must for part of the life of a culture. Philosophy is the living activity of critical reflection in a specific context; it always has a radically local character.
What follows in “Philosophy” is a somewhat discursive overview of the philosophers who will pop up again and again in the book: Heidegger, Husserl, Kant, Nietzsche, and, of course, Derrida. While I’m laundry listing, I might as well add Freud, Lacan, Beckett, and Hegel as key figures in How to Stop Living. In the third chapter, “Death,” Critchley discusses how many of these philosophers frame a subject’s individual relationship to his or her personal death. In a particularly enlightening passage, Critchley explains Heidegger’s “possibility of impossibility,” the idea that to be authentic, to lead an authentic life, one must internalize and master the finitude of a personal death. The chapter continues, working through other conceptions of death, including those of Freud, Beckett, and Derrida. Perhaps because of its dialogic structure, How to Stop Living often feels like a rap session, a big brainstorm, a work in process, and nowhere is this more evident in a chapter called “Love,” where Critchley moves from Hannah Arendt to The Song of Solomon to Lacan and Freud to a story about his marriage proposal. It’s all a bit messy, a bit watery, a bit undefined, and therefore difficult to summarize, so I’ll let Critchley dish on love in his own words—
Love is the attempt to break the logic of masochism that defines the subject, and to behave in a different way. That’s something that has to be wound up everyday . . . and it’s something with no end; and it requires a constant experience of faith. That’s the only sense I can make of love.
The next section, “Humour,” is better defined—and one of the highlights of the book. Critchley discusses jokes against a backdrop of psychoanalysis and anthropology, ultimately arguing that humor has the power to disrupt an individual’s relation to time or place, and thus reconstitute that relation in some meaningful way. Critchley’s book itself is indeed a meta-joke, a play against the sophistry of New Age self-help books. Indeed, the very name of the book is an inversion of Dale Carnegie’s 1948 “classic” of the genre, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. If you find the cover of Critchley’s book as off-putting and cheesy as I do, just remind yourself that it’s a parody of Carnegie’s cover. And yet Critchley’s sense of humor is not ultimately black irony, but rather a humor of affirmation of — and confrontation of — the absurdity of contemporary life. It’s not irony but authenticity he wants. “Authenticity” is thus the final chapter of this relatively short book, and here Critchley invites his friend (and partner in the International Necronautical Society) novelist Tom McCarthy to participate in the conversation. The chapter is lively, almost frenetic, and frankly all over the place, as Critchley and McCarthy rocket from subject to subject — Finnegans Wake, the Challenger explosion, Terrence Malick, J.G. Ballard, Levinas, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, McCarthy’s first novel Remainder — each reference seems to slip into the next, reined in occasionally by Cederström, who steers the conversation back to its center (leave it to deconstructionists to get off center). Good stuff.
How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, despite its tongue in cheek title and cover, and its discursive flow, is serious (if playful) about philosophy. Those interested in the thinkers and topics I’ve mentioned in this review may be interested, but it’s not necessary for one to have a working knowledge of Continental philosophy to enjoy Critchley’s latest. Recommended.
How to Stop Living and Start Worrying is available now from Polity Books.