Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Raskolnikov sneered at this gross and deliberate distortion of his idea

That's from III.5, p. 240.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky presents a series of ideas, embodied in characters, for me to distort or ignore.  The saving power of Russian Orthodox monasticism, or the Nietzschean idea that Great Men are allowed a different moral system for the sake of their Greatness.  I found Crime and Punishment far more interesting, though, not as a novel of ideas but as a novel of the psychology of ideas.  Perhaps this is Dostoevsky’s great idea in the late novels, the psychological use of ideas.  That sounds plenty glib.

But I did take it as a real insight when Raskolnikov, near the end of the novel, makes a last desperate run at justifying the murders he committed, including the Great Man nonsense.  “’But that’s all wrong,’” his sister protests.  Raskolnikov replies:

‘The wrong form, you mean – the aesthetics aren’t right!  I just can’t understand it: why is raining down bombs on people, during a regular siege, a more honourable way of doing things?  Fear of aesthetics is the first sign of weakness!  Never, never have I understood this as clearly as now, and never have I understood my crime less!’  (VI.7, 487)

A breakthrough.

In what is I suppose the worst chapter in the novel, two minor characters, one secondary and the other, I don’t know, quaternary, discuss the Utopian reformist ideas of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? (1863), the same target as Notes from the Underground (1864), still a fresh subject.  The Chernyshevskian is made by Dostoevsky to do himself in:

‘You don’t understand a thing!  In the commune, this role [prostitute] does not exist.  That’s why people found communes in the first place.  In the commune, the essence of this role will be completely transformed: what is stupid here will become clever there, and what, in the current circumstances, is unnatural here will become entirely natural there.  (V.1, 347)

“What is stupid here will become clever there” is the most perfect distillation of Utopian thought I have ever come across.  What I mean by “worst chapter” is that this piece is completely detachable from the novel.  It is another variation of Dostoevsky’s attack on rationalism, light and comic compared to the murderous theorizing of Raskolnikov.  It is almost a clown scene.  Dostoevsky makes other, more subtle parodic uses of Chernyshevsky’s novel elsewhere in Crime and Punishment.  In this chapter, he just mocks it.

Oliver Ready’s notes do a fine job of covering this ground, but boy am I glad I fought through What Is to Be Done?  The best reason to read that book is to see what Dostoevsky does with it.

Maybe I’ll work on some of the dreams next.


  1. It's years since I read C&P--now I want to read it again to see all the Chernyshevsky stuff! And there's a new translation, hmmmm?

  2. '“What is stupid here will become clever there” is the most perfect distillation of Utopian thought I have ever come across. '

    In his essay on Swift, George Orwell points out that in the best Utopias the authors often forget their ostensible aims and mix attacks on what is and suggestions for what should be. They confuse “What is stupid here will become clever there” and “What is clever here will become stupid there” and forget which they are aiming at describing.
    Perhaps one reason 1984 is such a powerful book is that Orwell remembered the distinction so well as he wrote it.

  3. I've been dipping into the letters of DH Lawrence recently, searching for material on Cornwall. In passing I reread some of his penetrating thoughts on FD: he detested the mixing of 'God and Sadism' in his mystical-philosophical flights. 'They are great parables, the novels, but false art.' I find I largely agree with that, but he's too harsh in that last criticism. DHL didn't always get free from 'false art' in some of his own work...Too long since I read C&P to comment more pertinently, I'm afraid. Must reread 'the novels' some time...Enjoyable posts, Tom, as ever

  4. Hi Tom,
    I love your expatiation of this subject and I agreed that Crime and Punishment is a novel on the psychological use of ideas. In fact, you've made me enjoy this very much.

  5. You're making me very keen to re-read this as it's decades since I first did - and I've a lot more Dostoevsky under my belt too, so it would be interesting to see how I respond! :)


  6. Interesting to read about Lawrence and Dostoevsky, both writers with strong flavors, so to speak. Both writers I do not get, although I am much better with Dostoevsky than I used to be.

    I used the technique of reading, and re-reading, a lot more Dostoevsky. Kaggsy, my bet is that C&P will look really different.

    Nana, welcome back to the world of book blogging!

  7. I think I must have skimmed C&P as a young lad because, on "finally" finishing it recently, I discovered I had actually read most of it before. That being said, the Dostoevsky quote you highlight here--"why is raining down bombs on people, during a regular siege, a more honourable way of doing things?"--was likely much more interesting to the old man me both for its shared aesthetic with The Seven Madmen-era Roberto Arlt and the way it seems to anticipate Brecht's question re: "what is robbing a bank compared to founding one?" Good stuff even if I'm not sure I'm quite ready for Chernyshevsky yet.

  8. Oh yeah, pure Arlt, this whole passage of Dostoevsky. You could transplant it into Arlt, change the names, who would know.

  9. Last week I picked up a copy of The Seven Madmen. I can't resist a novel containing a character called the Astrologer, I guess. Anyway, I'll try to remember this exchange about Dostoyevsky when I read it.

    Well done, removing the threading of replies!

  10. I'm trying not to be a complete idiot, by which I mean I am trying to resist the temptation to run everything through a Dada filter just because that is what I happen to be reading now, but, seriously, "Fear of aesthetics is the first sign of weakness!" is pure Dada," just the kind of thing Tzara and Hugo Ball put in their manifestos, and it is a perfect epigram for The Seven Madmen.

    The Reply function business is a great weight lifted.