Part IV, Chapter Six
Porfiry’s office: The door bursts open, Nikolai, the painter from the pawnbroker’s building suspected of her murder, drops to his knees and confesses the murder, much to Porfiry’s amazement, confusion, and finally anger at the timing. “‘So, there it is!’ Porfiry cried out spitefully. ‘He’s not using his own words!’ he muttered, as if to himself…” Raskolnikov and Porfiry are both shaking. Raskolnikov leaves, “It’s good-bye, I should think,” only to have Porfiry hurrying after him, “One little word, Rodiom Romanovich…but all the same we’ll have to ask you a thing or two formally, sir…so we’ll be seeing each other right enough, sir.” The two agree that they’ll “finally get to know each other.” The comic art of obtaining a confession — first you break them down to get a confession, then you accuse him of lying when they confess. Gogol. Raskolnikov goes home. Reviewing how he had done with Porfiry. “He somehow had a presentiment that for today, at least, he could almost certainly consider himself safe.” Going to see Sonya. Standing at his door, the “man from under the ground,” the man who called him “murderer.” His apology for going to the police. He was supposed to be Porfiry’s surprise. “For my slander and my wickedness, forgive me.” “‘God will forgive,’ Raskolnikov replied.” The struggle is not over.
What an odd little chapter! What exactly is Porfiry playing at? With?
And finally, more from Joseph Frank’s “The World of Raskolnikov.”
Thus it is by no means accidental that we find Raskolnikov’s crime planned on the basis of a Utilitarian calculus: this was the very essence of the matter for Dostoevsky. And we see too that, exactly like Godwin, Raskolnikov believes that his reason can overcome the most fundamental and deeply rooted human feelings. Godwin argued, it will be recalled, that reason would (or should) persuade him to leave his mother or sister burning in a fire and rescue Fenelon instead because, as he writes in Political Justice</em, 'the illustrious Bishop of Cambrai was of more worth.' to humanity. Whatever a Freudian might think of this argument, Godwin believed that it followed with impeccable logic from a Utilitarian calculus taking as its ultimate standard the good of humanity. Raskolnikov's conviction that he would be able to commit a perfect crime is based, we should notice, on exactly the same type of reasoning.
Ordinary criminals, Raskolnikov had theorised, rob and steal out of need or viciousness; and they break down at the moment of the crime, leaving all sorts of clues scattered about, because they inwardly accept the justice and validity of the law they are breaking. The irrational forces of their conscience interfere with the rational lucidity of their action. But, he was convinced, nothing of the kind would happen to him because he knew that his so-called crime was not a crime. Reason had persuaded him that the amount of harm his crime would do was far out-weighted by the amount of good it would allow him to accomplish. Hence his irrational conscience would not trouble and distort his reason, and he would not lose control of his nerves and make blunders.
This is one way in which the very conception of Raskolnikov springs from the ideology of the Russian radicals in the mid-1860s, and shapes the basic psychological conflict in the book between reason and the irrational. But another essential ideological component is derived from the evolution of Russian left-wing ideas between 1860 and 1865. In this period, for various reasons, we find a shift from the ideals of Utopian Socialism, with its semi-religious glorification of the people, to that of an embittered elitism, which stressed the right of a superior individual to act independently for the welfare of humanity.
The most important event in Russian culture between 1863 and 1865 was a public quarrel between two groups of radicals — the old Utopian Socialists, and the new Nihilists. Dostoevsky’s magazine Epoch printed a number of articles analysing and commenting on this momentous dispute, and immediately recognized, with great perspicacity, that it marked a fateful moment in the evolution of radical ideas. ‘The sons have taken up arms against the fathers, one generation replaces another,’ ironically wrote Strakhov, then the chief critic of Epoch; ‘a thick journal, once progressive, has turned out to be backward, and in its place stands another thick journal, which has succeeded in going farther along the path of progress.’ Even more relevant is that Dostoevsky himself wrote an article about this internecine warfare between the radicals called ‘Schism Among the Nihilists’; and this is what the whole episode is still called in histories of Russian culture. All this was just a few months before Dostoevsky, after the collapse of Epoch, sketched out in a letter his idea for a story about a murder committed by a young student acting under the influence of certain ‘strange, incomplete ideas’; and we can, I think, relate this schism among the Nihilists to Crime and Punishment in two ways.
One is in the difference that Dostoevsky draws between the comic and harmless Utopian Socialist in the novel, Lebezyanikov, and Raskolnikov himself, who is no longer a Utopian Socialist but a true Nihilist. The Utopian Socialist is in favor of peaceful propaganda, conversion to the cause by reason and persuasion (which is why he lends books to Sonia) and he believes that the salvation of humanity hinges on communal living arrangements. These matters had still been important just two years before, in the period of Notes from Underground; but things in Russia moved very fast, and it was now out-of-date. Raskolnikov looks on all this as ineffectual nonsense; he feels that time is running out, that it is necessary to act now and not be content with Utopian dreams of the future, and that the superior individual has the right and the obligation to strike a decisive blow by himself.
A second reflection of this new situation may be found in Raskolnikov’s famous article “On Crime.” For every idea in this text, it would be possible to supply a parallel quotation from The Russian Word, the ‘thick journal’ that had become the Nihilist organ. The main spokesman for the Nihilists was Dimitri Pisarev, best known for his attacks on art being useless — which is, of course, merely another application of the Utilitarian calculus. And if we go back and read Pisarev and his group, we find these undeniably genuine left-wing radicals exhibiting the utmost contempt for the people on whose behalf they presumably wish to change the world. We also find them using the arguments of Social Darwinism to establish the justice of the ineradicable distinction between the weak and the strong, and the right of the strong to trample on the weak and unworthy.”
More to come…
Part V, Chapter One