I’ve been reading some horror stories lately, the fiction of Leonid Andreyev. His story “The Thought” (1902) is a kind of parody of Crime and Punishment. A doctor commits an elaborate murder of revenge. His plan for escape is to fake insanity. The result is that he goes insane, or I suppose reveals the insanity that was there all along.
I was not afraid of myself – that was more important than anything else. For a murderer the most terrifying thing is not the police or the trial, but the criminal himself, his nerves, the powerful protest of his whole body, trained in familiar traditions. Remember Raskolnikov, who perished so pitifully and so absurdly, and all those multitudes like him. (39)
Right there me might have a little clue about the reliable of the narrator, since Raskolnikov is a live at the end of Crime and Punishment. But the doctor is right that some of the grim comedy – and horror – of Dostoevksy’s novel comes from the difference between Raskolnikov’s initial belief that he is a Great Man of Reason and his instantaneous collapse into hysteria and mania once, or even before, he kills the pawnbroker. Andreyev’s doctor, more of a psycho to begin with, is a cooler customer, allowing us to watch him, in his own words, slowly unravel:
Altogether it seemed to me that an exceptional actor was hidden within me, one capable of combining naturalness of performance, which at times led to a complete identification with the character portrayed, with a relentless, cold control of the mind. Even when reading a book I would enter fully into the psyche of a character. Would you believe it, even as an adult I wept bitter tears over Uncle Tom’s Cabin… If man is destined to become God, his throne shall be a book. (43)
You see why I am nervous about identifying with characters, right? People who identify too much are likely sociopathic killers, as Andreyev understands. That last Nietzschean line is the only kind of religious invocation the madman makes. He ends his confession or testimony with a promise of apocalypse. In a prophetic touch – Andreyev specializes in prophetic touches – the doctor vows to build a nuclear bomb.
I shall pretend to be well, I shall attain freedom, I shall devote the rest of my life to study, I shall surround myself with your books, I shall wrest from you the might of your knowledge, of which you are so proud, and I shall find the one thing that has long been needed. It will be explosive matter. So powerful that no one has ever seen anything like it; more powerful than dynamite, more powerful than nitroglycerine, more powerful than the very thought of it. I have genius. I have persistence, I shall find it. And when I find it I will blow up your accursed earth, which has so many gods and no one, eternal God. (77, italics in original)
The killer is, after decades of debate about the term, an authentic nihilist. His “thought” is total destruction. After all of this writing, his only word in court, his only defense, is “Nothing.”
Page numbers are from Visions: Stories and Photographs by Leonid Andreyev (1987). The translation is by Henry and Olga Carlisle. Olga Carlisle is Andreyev’s granddaughter.