“He was one of that numerous and diverse legion of vulgarians, feeble miscreates, half-taught petty tyrants who make a point of instantly latching on to the most fashionable current idea, only to vulgarize it at once, to make an instant caricature of everything they themselves serve, sometimes quite sincerely.”

Part Five, Chapter One
by Dennis Abrams

Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin and his ward, the socialist Andrei Semyonovich Lebezyatnikov. Luzhin’s regret that he informed Lebezyatnikov about his breakup with Dunya, his anger at the lost deposit on the apartment and new furniture. His regret “Devil take it, why did I turn into such a Jew?” that he hadn’t given Dunya and her mother money for the trip and a dowery, “They wouldn’t have refused me so easily!” Preparations for Marmeladov’s memorial meal. Luzhin’s stay with Lebezyatnikov; his fear of exposure, his need to “curry favor with ‘our young progressives.'” Realizing that Lebezyanikov was “an extremely trite and simple little man.” His need “to find out at once and quickly what went on here and how. Did these people have any power, or did they not have any power? Was there anything for him to fear personally, or was there not?…Could he not, for instance, bolster his career a bit precisely by means of them?” Andrei Semyonovich’s mutton-chops, his stupidity, his knowledge that Luzhin despised him. The rights of women. Terebyeva and a civil marriage. Does the number of civil marriages matter? Lebezyatnikov, Sonya and the right to sell oneself: “In today’s society, it is, of course, not quite normal, because it’s forced, but in the future it will be perfectly normal, because free. But now, too, she had the right: she was suffering, and this was her reserve, her capital, so to speak, which she had every right to dispose of…As far as Sonya Semyonovna personally is concerned, at present I look upon her actions as an energetic protest against the social order, and I deeply respect her for it. I even rejoice to look at her!” The commune. “In a commune, the present essence of this role will be entirely changed, and what is stupid here will be come intelligent there, what is unnatural here, under the present circumstances, will there become perfectly natural. Everything depends on what circumstances and what environment man lives in. Environment is everything, and man himself is nothing.” Women’s freedom, the right to give themselves sexually. The question of freedom of entry into rooms in the future society. “What is noble is whatever is useful for mankind! I understand only the one word: useful!” Luzhin asks Lebezyatnikov to bring Sonya into the room and to stay with them for appearances sake. Luzhin offers to arrange a lottery or fundraiser for Sonya and her family, with the stipulation that Sonya manage the money. Luzhin slips Sonya a ten rouble-note. Free love vs. cuckoldry. Luzhin’s interest in Sonya.

Interesting discussion — who knew or even thought that such topics were being discussed among “intellectuals” in Russia during that period? And since the Joseph Frank essay I’ve been posting this week “The World of Raskolnikov” proved very useful to me at least in giving today’s chapter context, I’m going to continue…

“Indeed, one of the most pugnacious contributors to The Russian Word, Bartholomew Zaitsev, who later in exile became a follower of Bakunin, even defended Negro slavery on the ground that Negroes were biologically inferior and would otherwise be wiped out entirely in their struggle for life against the White race. This opinion was repudiated by the majority of the radicals, although Pisarev defended Zaitsev’s premises if not his conclusions. Even though a minority opinion, however, this was exactly the sort of consistent application of Utilitarianism-cum-Nihilism that Dostoevsky believed revealed the true moral consequences of the new radical ideology. This context explains the “Nietzchean” aspects of Raskolnikov, which have been so often commented upon. Thomas Masryk noted some of these “Nietzchean” elements in Pisarev and Russian Nihilism as far back as 1913, in his indispensable book The Spirit of Russia; but nobody paid the slightest attention to them since, or brought them into any relation with Dostoevsky.

All this, I hope, has now placed us in a better position to understand what Dostoevsky was trying to do in Crime and Punishment. His aim, in my view, was to portray the inescapable contradictions in this radical ideology of Russian Nihilism. To do so, he adopted his usual procedure (in his mature work) of imagining its ‘strange, incomplete ideas’ put into practice by an idealistic young man whose character traits embody its various conflicting aspects. Now Dostoevsky knew very well that the emotional impulses inspiring the average Russian radical were generous and self-sacrificing. They were moved by love, sympathy, altruism, the desire to aid, heal and comfort suffering — whatever they might believe about the hardheadedness of their ‘rational egoism.’ The underlying foundation of their moral nature was Christian and Russian (for Dostoevsky the two were the same), and in total disharmony with the superimposed Western ideas they had assimilated, and on whose basis they believed they were acting. Hence over and over again in Dostoevsky’s major works we find him dramatising the inner conflict of a member of the Russian intelligentsia torn between his innate feelings and his conscious ideas, bet ween the irrational (which, by the way, is never Freudian in Dostoevsky but always moral as in Shakespeare) and the amorality of reason in one form or another.

In Crime and PunishmentDostoevsky set himself the task of portraying this conflict in the form of a self-awakening, the gradual discovery by Raskolnikov himself of the unholy mixture of incompatibles in his ideology. This is why Raskolnikov seems to have one motive for his crime at the beginning of the book and another towards the end…Many critics have pointed to this seeming duality of motive as a weakness in the novel, and artistic failure on Dostoevsky’s part to project his character unifiedly. On the other hand, Phillip Rahv quite recently has maintained that this is precisely what makes the book great — that in failing to provide a clear and single motive Dostoevsky reveals ‘the problematical nature of the modern personality,’ or the startling fact ‘that human consciousness is inexhaustible and incalculable.’

Both these views, however, are equally and egregiously wrong. The whole point of the book lies precisely in the process by which Raskolnikov moves from one explanation of the crime to another, and in so doing discovers the truth about the nature of the deed he committed. Even without the historical background I have sketched in, this should be abundantly clear to anyone who has some respect for Dostoevsky’s capacity as a craftsman, and who studies the curious and original construction of the first part of the novel.

Why, for example, does Dostoevsky begin his narrative just a day before the actual commission of the crime, and convey Raskolnikov’s conscious motivation in a series of flashbacks? One reason, of course, is to obtain the brilliant effect of dramatic irony at the close of Part I. For the entire process of reasoning that leads to Raskolnikov’s theory of the altruistic Utilitarian crime is only explained in detail in the tavern-scene, where Raskolnikov hears his very own theory discussed by another student and a young officer; and this scene is the last important one just before the crime is committed. (It may be well, incidentally, to recall that when the officer doubts the possibility of anyone committing such a crime, the student retorts that, if this were so, ‘there would never have been a single great man.’ The ‘great man’ component of Raskolnikov’s theory is thus there from the first and is not unexpectedly tacked on later.) Temporally, the tavern-scene and the murder itself are at the very opposite ends of a single time-sequence; but they are telescoped together deftly by Dostoevsky’s narrative technique — and for a very important purpose. And if we grasp the thematic significance of Dostoevsky’s dramatic irony here, I think it will give us a model to illuminate the whole vexed question of Raskolnikov’s motivation.”

More to come. I’d also like to point that if all Dostoevsky was doing was to illuminate certain streams of 19th century Russian thought, he would not be the universally read author he is today. It is only a part of the many threads — political, religious, psychological, dramatic — that makes his work so complex, and so open to interpretation.

Wednesday’s Reading:

Part V, Chapter Two

Enjoy.

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One Response to “He was one of that numerous and diverse legion of vulgarians, feeble miscreates, half-taught petty tyrants who make a point of instantly latching on to the most fashionable current idea, only to vulgarize it at once, to make an instant caricature of everything they themselves serve, sometimes quite sincerely.”

  1. artmama says:

    And what is going on with the money again? It’s piled up on the table and throwing everyone off balance, including me. All those bills on the table and Luzhin unfolds a ten spot for the little lady! That made me really mad!

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