Part Six, Chapter Two
by Dennis Abrams
Porfiry vs. Raskolnikov. Porfiry and cigarettes. Porfiry owes Raskolnikov an explanation, “I’ve come to explain myself, my good Rodion Romanych, to explain myself, sir! I’m obliged, and I owe you an explanation, sir…” The strangeness of their previous meeting. The importance of proceeding with frankness. Porfiry attempts to explain himself and his line of thinking, “I made you suffer through a great deal, Rodion Romanych. I am not a monster, sir.” How rumors, “On Crime,” and other things led to Raskolnikov being under suspicion. Using Razumikhin, searching Raskolnikov’s room while he was sick in bed. Zamyotov. Mikolka, a schismatic or sectarian, and his need to suffer. “Do you know, Rodion Romanych, what ‘suffering’ means for some of them? Not for the sake of someone, but simply ‘the need for suffering’; to embrace suffering, that is and if it comes from the authorities — so much the better.” Porfiry’s conviction that Mikolka will recant his confession, and the reasons why he couldn’t have done it. But whoever did it, “He killed, but he wasn’t able to take the money, and what he did manage to grab, he went and his under a stone…Well, let’s say he was sick then, but here’s another thing: he killed, and yet he considers himself an honest man, despises people, walks around like a pale angel — no, forget Mikolka, my dear Rodion Romanych, there’s no Mikolkha here!…Then…who did kill them?…What? Who killed them?…he repeated, as if not believing his ears, But you did, Rodion Romanych! You killed them, sir…” Raskolnikov denies being the killer. Why Porfiry hasn’t arrested Raskolnikov. “I’ve come to you with an open and direct offer — that you yourself come and confess your guilt. That will be infinitely more advantageous for you, and more advantageous for me as well — since it will be taken off my back. Now, tell me, is that sincere on my part or not?” A promise of a reduced sentence if Raskolnikov comes in voluntarily to confess. Porfiry encourages Raskolnikov to not disdain life, “You still have a lot of it ahead of you.” Raskolnikov spits on his offer. Porfiry’s argument: “I know belief doesn’t come easily — but don’t be too clever about it, just give yourself directly to life, without reasoning; don’t worry — it will carry you straight to shore and set you on your feet…Maybe you should still thank God, h ow do you know, maybe God is saving you for something. Be of great heart, and fear less…Since you’ve taken such a step, stand firm now. It’s a matter of justice. So, go and do what justice demands. I know you don’t believe it, but, by God, life will carry you. And then you’ll get to like it. All you need is air now — air, air!” Porfiry gives Raskolnikov a day and a half or two to come in and confess before he will have him arrested. His certainty that Raskolnikov won’t run away, “You’d run away, and come back on your own. It’s impossible for you to do without us. His certainty that Raskolnikov will decide to embrace suffering. Porfiry’s last request — if Raskolnikov should decide to kill himself, to please “leave a brief but explicit note. A couple of lines, just two little lines, and mention the stone; it will be more noble, sir.”
OK, that was incredible. I was literally sitting at the edge of my chair, I gasped out loud when Porfiry described the killer as someone who “walks around like a pale angel,” and was riveted from that moment on. One question — again, “All you need is air now — air, air!” Where is this coming from and where is it leading? And then Porfiry’s final request…astonishing.
And finally a continuation from yesterday’s excerpt from Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, today specifically regarding Crime and Punishment
“Crime and Punishment has suffered greatly at the hands of critics who insist on treating it as a moral tract upon the wickedness of taking human life, in spite of Dostoevsky’s plain statements about its real purpose, which is far less obvious. Even Nicholas Berdyaev, whose book on Dostoevsky is the most stimulating ever written, adopts the Christian standpoint and condemns Raskolnikov as a ‘cold monster.’
…we can dismiss this interpretation without fear of finding ourselves in the position of condoning murder. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is in the same position as the beetle-man, living in his room, morose, too self-conscious, hating human wretchedness, and disliking the human weakness which he holds to be its cause. With his whole being, he wants to establish contact with the ‘power within him,’ and he knows that, to do this, he must arouse his will to some important purpose, to find a definitive act. In a later chapter of the book (after the murder) Dostoevsky describes Raskolnikov’s awakening: ‘His movements were precise and definite; a firm purpose was evident in him. ‘Today,’ he muttered to himself. He understood that he was still weak, but his intense spiritual concentration gave him strength and self-confidence.’
And a little later: “…a sort of savage energy gleamed suddenly in his feverish eyes and his wasted, yellow face. He did not know or think where he was going, but had one thought only: ‘that all this must be ended today…that he would not return home without it, because he would not go on living like that.'”
Now we can see that Crime and Punishment is actually simply a study in what we have spoken of in Chapter IV — the definitive act. Raskolnikov’s position has much in common with Nietzsche’s: he hates his own weakness, he hates human weakness and misery. His deepest instinct is towards strength and health, ‘pure will’ without the troubles and perplexities of intellect. He does not believe that he is rotten to the core; he does not believe that ‘there is no health in us.’ There is strength — he is certain of that — but a long way down, and it would take a great deal of will to blast one’s way down to it. Very well, show him a way, any way. Show him an enemy worth his strength.
And here’s the difficulty. For Raskolnikov…has ‘no genius, no special talent.’
A writer, a thinker, a preacher, a soldier, all might find worth-while work to do in that environment of social misery and decay. But Raskolnikov has no faith in his mission. He sees Petrograd as Blake saw London, the Industrial Revolution:
I wander through each dirty street
Near where the dirty Thames does flow
And on each human face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
The misery that provoked young Russian students to become followers of Herzen and Bakunin roused in Dostoevsky a deeper feeling than a desire for social revolution. And, in Crime and Punishment, the suffering, fevered Raskolnikov is Dostoevsky’s spokesman. His reaction to it all is a fictionalized feeling about it.
Now here the problem of interpretation becomes difficult. For Raskolnikov’s reaction to his perception of universal misery is to commit a crime, to kill an old pawnbroker, whose death will serve the double purpose of providing him with money to escape his binding poverty, and of being a gesture of defiance, a definitive act. The murder achieves neither of these purposes; he finds no money and solves no problems. The Reader asks, Why does he solve no problem? and it is only too easy to ‘identify’ his horror of the bloodshed with a moral intention on the part of the author.”
Part Six, Chapter Three
And a reminder…I’m estimating we’ll start reading The Idiot on February 21 — have your copy ready!