I read Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment”. In this article I’m going to try to articulate my thoughts about it.
Motivation and approach
This article is part of a more general attempt to get more knowledgeable about the great cultural works of our civilization, and to become better at thinking, writing and speaking. This effort has been motivated mainly by the Canadian professor of psychology Jordan Peterson. A more in-depth explanation can be found in my mission statement.
Why write? In his guide to good writing, Peterson states that
The primary reason to write an essay is so that the writer can formulate and organize an informed, coherent and sophisticated set of ideas about something important.
Why is it important to bother with developing sophisticated ideas, in turn? It’s because there is no difference between doing so and thinking, for starters.
Personalizing, concretizing, integrating
I love abstraction and thinking in patterns, but I’m going to make an effort not to keep the ideas in these works in a vacuum. Instead, I’m going to try to make them concrete and to apply them to my own life.
Stumbling towards the truth
Trying to write about a book is a humbling experience. I haven’t done it since high school, and I can’t recall ever doing it in English. I am painfully aware of my lack of literary expertise. I’m tempted not to write at all, but that’s not an option, so I’ll risk doing it badly instead.
To quote Marmeladov, a character from the very book I’m presenting:
Through error you come to the truth! I am a man because I err! You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen. […] Talk nonsense, but talk your own nonsense, and I’ll kiss you for it. To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.
So here comes my attempt to stumble towards the truth.
Spoilers start here.
Crime and Punishment is about the psychological development of the young Russian student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, as he plans to and then does kill an old pawnbroker woman to get her money, as he tries to hide his guilt from law enforcement and eventually confesses.
In my reckoning, the crucial point of the book is Raskolnikov’s reason for killing the old woman. It poses a deep problem that the whole novel is there to wrestle with.
Raskolnikov has a theory. He believes there are two kinds of human beings: ordinary and extraordinary ones.
- Ordinary human beings live ordinary lives. They are meant to follow the law (civil or moral).
- Extraordinary human beings have great things to accomplish. They can’t bother with ordinary rules. They follow their own rules. They are the ones who write the law. An example of such a human being would be Napoleon.
Raskolnikov further believes that what makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary human beings is exactly that: the willingness to break the rules to accomplish their greater goals.
“There is only one thing, one thing needful: one has only to dare!”
Raskolnikov wants to prove to himself that he is an extraordinary human being. He doesn’t care about the money so much as he wants to see whether he is able to do it, to really take advantage of the “opportunity” that presents itself in front of him. He wants to have “the daring”. He later says:
“I wanted to find out then and quickly whether I was a louse like everybody else or a man. Whether I can step over barriers or not, whether I dare stoop to pick up or not”
In other words, if you don’t act ruthlessly for your interests whenever you can get away with it you are just a sheep, made to follow sheep morality. There’s a theory to contend with!
In the story, Raskolnikov’s theory fails.
After his crime he basically becomes crazy. He is affected by hallucinations, fevers. He finds himself aimlessly wandering through the city. The memory of the deed torments him. He is scared of being caught. He ends up in a sort of psychological hell, an inverted religious experience, a “gloomy ecstasy” generated by his “gloomy creed”.
He can’t bear the burden and ends up confessing. First, to Sonia, a religious girl forced to prostitute herself to support her poor family. Later, indirectly, to Porfiry, the officer who has been investigating him (in a fascinating game of cat and mouse that reminded me of Death Note), who gives him a chance to submit voluntarily. Finally, at the police, in the last chapter of the book.
What was Raskolnikov’s mistake? Sonia and Porfiry both have answers.
Sonia’s religious sensitivity solves the problem very quickly. What for Raskolnikov is a fundamental dilemma, to her is a no-brainer. Her’s diagnosis is simple:
“You turned away from God and God has smitten you, has given you over to the devil!”
I don’t want to say much about the religious aspect, except that I find Peterson’s approach (which, I believe, originates from the psychologist Carl Jung) very interesting: leaving cosmology aside, perhaps religious imagery has something deep to say about our psychology. And since the only way we experience the world is through our psychology and we don’t know much about the nature of consciousness, religious imagery might be much more relevant than we might think (see my articles The world is magic and Spiritual experiences as inverted perceptions for an exploration of this idea).
Porfiry’s analysis is more articulate:
“You made up a theory and then were ashamed that it broke down and turned out to be not at all original! It turned out something base, that’s true, but you are not hopelessly base. By no means so base! At least you didn’t deceive yourself for long, you went straight to the furthest point at one bound.”
Raskolnikov’s theory had a flaw: it granted him the right to act immorally, but it didn’t consider that the act was incompatible with his being and would destroy him. In other words, it might be rational “in the abstract” to absolutely selfishly follow your own interests, but there is something about your being that gets corrupted if you do so.
Another interesting observation of Porfiry’s is that he only didn’t do something far worse because he was lucky not to invent a more cruel theory. The arbitrariness and deceitfulness of intellect is juxtaposed with the stability and wisdom of a more “religious”, if perhaps less sophisticated point of view.
Sofia and Porfiry both know what Raskolnikov has to do to “come back to life”. She tells him to go tell everybody. She tells him: “go to meet your suffering”. Porfiry tells him that he should confess and not fear the “bourgeois disgrace”. He tells him that suffering is a “good thing”.
What they are admonishing him to do is diametrically opposite to what his theory dictates. He can’t fix his problem by himself. His redemption can only happen through other people.
We said that Raskolnikov’s immoral act was incompatible with his being. This seems to explain how: Through his act he created a reality he could not share with other human beings, and that isolating reality became his hell. He has abandoned the human family and he can join it again only by recreating a shared reality with it. He must tell them his truth and face the consequences. Which he finally does.
“It was I killed the old pawnbroker woman and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them.”
I should also note that Raskolnikov’s confession is just the beginning of a long healing process:
“He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering. But that is the beginning of a new story […]”
A story of pride
Over the course of the story it becomes apparent that Raskolnikov’s main weakness is his pride. Pride seems to be what kicks off his abandonment of the human family. He is a student, but he gave up on studying. Late in the book he regrets it:
“I ought to have studied, but I sold my books; and the dust lies an inch thick on the notebooks on my table. I preferred lying still and thinking.”
Raskolnikov has detached himself from the culture he came from. Pride made him a rogue before it made him a murderer.
Another character of the story, Svidrigaïlov, makes the following interesting remark:
“Russians in general are broad in their ideas […] But it’s a misfortune to be broad without a special genius.”
In other words, Raskolnikov is a mediocre intellectual, and his pride doesn’t allow him to accept that and pushes him to prove to himself that he is superior.
Pride continues to drive him even after his confession and conviction. He still stubbornly believes in his theory, only now he is a confirmed “louse”. He failed to show that he can get away emotionally with his selfish behavior. The very thing that his interlocutors recognize as what makes him human, he keeps interpreting as a crucial weakness. Hence the narrator’s verdict:
“It was wounded pride that made him ill.”
Moral of the story
What is the precise relationship between pride and Raskolnikov’s theory, and what makes these so dangerous? To me, this is not just an intellectual question. I’m affected myself by the desire to be popular, to create something special that many people will appreciate, and to gain some sort of recognition. I’m genuinely asking myself: is there something wrong with that? Should I be more humble? How should I deal with these impulses? How can I avoid entering the psychological realm of Raskolnikov and end up isolated, tormented and resentful?
At this point, I can only speculate as to what really is the moral of the story. In my attempt to unpack this I’m going to use some of Peterson’s concepts from his lecture Maps of Meaning.
Any value system creates a hierarchy. If you adopt a value system, by definition you strive to reach the top of a pyramid defined by it. The desire not to be mediocre, that is not to remain at the bottom of the hierarchy seems thus to be built into any value system. We can’t get rid of striving, lest we remain without something to do (which, as Peterson puts so eloquently, doesn’t mean we remain in an effortless bliss: negative meaning has a way to present itself to us without our encouragement).
Pride, though, seems a dysfunctional way to deal with hierarchies. Pride seems to be the idea that you are special and thus not all the rules apply to you. Not accepting your current place in the hierarchy, cutting corners and cheating, detaching yourself and creating your own pyramid of one, or picking a pyramid you can’t possibly climb, all seem to be sins of pride or hubris committed in one way or an other by Raskolnikov. Whatever game you decide to join, the rules of that game are going to hold for you.
But Raskolinkov, empowered by his theory, commits the ultimate act of pride: he dispenses with the fundamental rule: that you need to aim for the good. Any value system is an attempt at defining what is good. So whatever value system you choose to adopt there is something you can’t escape: to aim towards the good. And the capacity to become better at moving towards the good is what could be called wisdom. Wisdom thus is a meta-value that can’t be dispensed with.
“You see I kept asking myself then: why am I so stupid that if others are stupid — and I know they are — yet I won’t be wiser? Then I saw, Sonia, that if one waits for everyone to get wiser it will take too long…. Afterwards I understood that that would never come to pass, that men won’t change and that nobody can alter it and that it’s not worth wasting effort over it.”
This seems to be the ultimate sin of pride, Raskolnikov’s crucial mistake, and the fundamental flaw of his theory: to think that you can stop wanting to be wiser, stop wanting to be good, without leaving your humanity behind, without, at the same time, destroying yourself.
To answer my own questions: it seems okay to desire to be popular and look for recognition, as long as it is done in service of a greater good.