Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Crime and Punishment

"On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge."

 A ratty old paperback with a cold title, cover sloughing off, coffee stains and cigarette burns.  The previous owner had begun reading with a vengeance, highlighting and underlining and scribbling coded notes in the margin, grown tired around page 100, and had given up altogether by 200.  I found myself analyzing those marks as much as the words beneath, and it became plain that they were the droppings of a psych student, who had undoubtedly been enticed by Freud’s blurb that “Dostoyevsky is second only to Shakespeare”, and who had likely abandoned the project once it was realized that Dostoyevsky wrote literature.  It made the novel more dreary, gave it a harder edge, knowing that it was abused in this manner, with red lines scratching through and psychobabble around the perimeter.  People were reading this book the way med students read cadavers.

There’s good reason for the abuse.  Roskolnikov is inside and out the most psychologically real character that’s ever jittered through the pages of a novel.  The battle between the intellect and the soul, the corrosion of the latter beneath the weight of the former, the hunt for absolution while grasping at justifications – Roskolnikov is a case study with life breathed into it.  Dostoyevsky has such a clear grasp of his character that he seems to be manipulating the atoms of the brain with one hand and describing the actions of the body with the other.  Nothing is out of place.  The entire novel grows out of the seed of anguish in Roskolnikov’s consciousness. 
But – it’s also just a damn good story.

The whole of it revolves around a moral dilemma, what you might call the moral dilemma: Is it alright to overstep the moral code in pursuit of some greater good?  Or, Can "great men" or "great actions" be justified regardless of the moral toll?  Sounds like a question whose answer might dribble out of some dreary philosophy paper, but Dostoyevsky gives it to us on a knife's edge and the tension only ever builds.  The axe drops in the first chapter and the head never hits the ground.

Roskolnikov is immediately recognizable as that bit of your brain that's never comfortable at dinner parties, the part that recoils at the crowd.  He's that piece of you that pauses and mutes the world for brief moments, and thinks, I'm either a creep or king, because I sure as hell ain't one of these assholes.  It's the ego and the self wrapped up in alienation, on the outside looking in, squirming.  And he condenses this fog into a clear picture, defines it with a single act.  To lift his righteous self from poverty and debt, he decides to murder an innocent (albeit unproductive) old woman, whose gold and trinkets will surely provide the catalyst for his greatness.  He is a man apart, and justified in the end.  A king.

What is disturbing about his crime is its intellectual nature.  He thinks this sucker out on a metaphysical level and comes back with an axe in his belt.  It isn't passion, it isn't desperation - it's calculation.  Somewhere in that battered brain, sprung out of the primal and universal emotion of alienation, killing an old lady with blunt force trauma to the head becomes a morally right action.

But he can't argue away the guilt.  It's a pendulum swinging over him for the rest of the novel. 

What I confidently call the greatest scene in all of literature takes place about halfway through Crime and Punishment, as Roskolnikov's soul bleeds right out of his eyes and onto the muddy streets of St. Petersburg.  A man is run over by horse and cart and a crowd gathers.  While everyone shows concern, Roskolnikov is absolutely manic.  He takes out his wallet, begs for the best physicians in the city, he'll cover any expense.  Take him to my lodging, he says, give him my shirt, my shoes.  His sincerity is too vigorous, his demonstrations of philanthropy too desparate.  In a psychotic inversion of "He doth protest too much," Raskolnikov annihilates himself before the crowd, begging for the right to save someone, squealing for absolution.  I read this scene from the comfort of an armchair, and I remember looking around and thinking, this isn't right.  I can't be warm.  The chair is a lie.  I can't witness this destruction with my feet to the fire.  I flipped on the porch light and read the rest of the book in the February cold.  Dawn was hovering when I found the last word.  I had to peel my fingers from the binding.

I have no conclusion.

If you like the blog you might like the book.  Link's over there  ------>