Part Six, Chapter Four
by Dennis Abrams
The conversation between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov continues. Svidrigailov’s virtual monologue: His relationship with Marfa Petrovna. “I had enough swinishness in my soul, and honesty of a sort, to announce to her straight off that I could not be completely faithful to her. This admission drove her into a frenzy, but I think she in some way liked my crude frankness.” Their contract. “Marfa Petrovna would allow me to cast an eye occasionally on the serving girls, but not otherwise than with her secret knowledge..” Raskolnikov’s sister was too much for Marfa Petrovna, “being herself a fiery and susceptible woman, and quite simply falling in love herself — literally falling in love — with your dear sister.” Svidrigailov insists that “Avdotya Romanovna herself took the first step…” Marfa Petrovna told Avdotya Romanovna all about Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov refuses to answer a question regarding Luzhin’s accusation of causing a child’s death. Is Svidrigailov a romantic figure? Avdotya Romanovna’s natural feelings of loathing for Svidrigailov turned to pity, “pity for the lost man. And when a girl’s heart is moved to pity, that is, of course most dangerous for her…You know, from the very beginning I’ve always felt sorry that fate did not grant your sister to be born in the second or third century of our era, as the daughter of some princeling or some other sort of ruler, or a proconsul in Asia Minor. She would undoubtedly have been among those who suffered martyrdom, and would have smiled, of course, while her breast was burned with red-hot iron tongs. She would have chosen it on purpose, and in the fourth or fifth century she would have gone to the Egyptian desert and lived there for thirty years, feeding on roots, ecstasies, and visions. She’s thirsting for just that, and demands to endure some torment for someone without delay, and if she doesn’t get this torment, she may perhaps jump out the window.” The chasteness of Dunya “She is chaste, possibly, to the point of illness…and it will do her harm.” Parasha, “dark-eyed Parasha.” Svidrigailov’s seductions. His attempt to get Dunya to runaway with him, Marfa Petrovna brings in Luzhin, offering the same thing as Svidrigailov. What are Svidrigailov’s plans for Dunya? Svidrigailov’s plans to pay for and marry a girl not yet sixteen. “…once in a while she gives me a glance on the sly — it burns right through.” Raskolnikov: “In short, it’s this monstrous difference in age and development that arouses your sensuality!” “And why not? Of course. Every man looks out for himself, and he has the happiest life who manages to hoodwink himself best of all.” The thirteen year old girl dancing the can-can. “I, for my part, offered to contribute to the young lady’s education — French language and dancing lessons. They accepted with delight, considered it an honor, and I’ve kept up the acquaintance…” “Stop, stop your mean, vile anecdotes, you depraved, mean, sensual man!” The pair leave the tavern; Svidrigailov suggests that they go in opposite directions.
So can we safely describe Svidrigailov as “depraved” as Raskolnikov proclaims? Is that the “draw” for Raskolnikov? Are they the same? I can assure you that some of these questions will be resolved in the weekend’s reading.
And a question — Raskolnikov seems to be without sexual desire — why do you think that might be?
From Colin Wilson’s The Outsider
“But before the end of the book, he has caught a glimpse of ‘a way out.’ There is the scene with the prostitute Sonia, in which she reads aloud the story of raising Lazarus. And Raskolnikov recognizes his own problem. For he too needs to be raised from the dead [but] the idea both fascinates and revolts him. For the spiritually dead, the idea of rebirth is terrible. Sonia who is simple and docile, and…has no spiritual problems, can somehow divine Raskolnikov’s misery; she too could tell him: ‘You’ll have to be, somehow.’ His attempt at solution of the Outsider’s problems is a failure; he has tried to gain self-control and has not succeeded. But it would be a mistake to suppose that this is because his method was wrong. He has already advanced to Nietzsche’s position of ‘beyond good and evil’. Although he tells Sonia, in confessing the murder, ‘I murdered myself, not her,’ this is not an indication that he accepts the murder to have been evil, for later he asked frenziedly: ‘Crime? What crime? That I killed a vile, noxious insect…’
And it is apparent, at the end, that he has no feeling of ‘Christian repentance’ for the murder…and unless we assume that Dostoevsky completely disassociates himself from Raskolnikov’s ideas, we can hardly persist in the belief that Raskolnikov fails because his solution is morally wrong. He fails for the very different reason that he is not strong enough to cease to be an Outsider. This, of course, does not mean that we must accept Raskolnikov’s belief that murder is not morally wrong. It is simply that the question is irrelevant to the Outsider’s problems; and Crime and Punishment is first and foremost a book about the Outsider’s problems.”
So group — what did you think about Colin Wilson’s interpretation?
And on the subject of depravity in the works of Dostoevsky, I’d like to begin a series of excerpts from the essay “Dostoevskii and psychology” by Robert L. Belknap
Love and Violence
Psychology in Dostoevskii is often linked with that special quality the Russians call dostoevshchina. It involves gloom, paradox, suffering, self-will, self-pity, hysteria, and other exaggerated and sometimes pathological emotions which often appear in Dostoevskii’s fiction. Curiously these elements are among the least unique in Dostoevskii’s repertory. They are the stock in trade for the most popular prose writers of the nineteenth century, Hoffmann, Dickens, Hugo, Sue, and all the Gothic and sensationalist novelists of that period. Certain patterns, however, are genuinely peculiar to Dostoevskii and deserve more psychological attention than they have received. Let us consider violence, for example. In Crime and Punishment alone, Aliona and Lizaveta have their skulls bashed in; a landlady is seriously beaten in one dream, and a horse beaten to death in another; Marmeladov’s wife hales him about by his hair and slams his head against the floor; an angry coachman catches Raskolnikov with his whip; Razumikhin knocks a watchman off his feet; a prostitute, an abused child and…attempt suicide, the last two successfully; and in Raskolnikov’s final dream, the entire world is engulfed in lucidly self-righteous violence. Curiously, however, all of this violence does not include a single good fight. With the exception of the completely abstract slaughter in the final dream, every one of these attacks is a beating. The nearest thing to a fight in Crime and Punishment is the scrap between the two painters after a day’s work together. ‘I grabbed Mitka by the hair and knocked him down and started tearing at him, and Mitka grabbed me by the hair, from under me, and started tearing at me, and we did this not in anger, but in all affection, in play.’ Lizaveta does not even raise her hand to deflect the axe, and Marmeladov, who ‘himself assisted [his wife’s] efforts,’ looks up from the floor and tells Raskolnikov that this beating brings him ‘enjoyment’
Plainly, however, this one-sidedness in violence does not come from any inherent inability of the Dostoevskian characters to resist aggression, or any universal masochism. As his journalistic career shows, Dostoevskii was good at mutual hostility. The number of two-sided contests at the verbal level in his works is at least equal to the number of beatings on the physical level. Raskolnikov insults Razumikhin, Porfirii and the explosive lieutenant at the police station, and all of them give as good as they get. Luzhin and Svidrigailov respond to his insults with greater restraint or irony, but certainly could never be called compliant like Lizaveta or Marmeladov. In this novel, and in general in Dostoevskii, if violence is reciprocal, it is not physical; and if it is physical, it is not reciprocal. The reverse of these statements does not hold true. If an assault is not physical, it may or may not be reciprocated: Razumikhin does not always answer Raskolnikov’s verbal assaults, and Sonia never does. If an assault is not reciprocated, it may or may not be physical: Marmeladov welcomes verbal as well as physical assaults.
Readers often remark how few happily married husbands and wives there are in Dostoevskii, although he himself was a devoted and loving family man…This absence of happy marriages might be ascribed to a novelistic tradition which marries characters off only at the end of the book after a series of impediments and travails that constitute the plot of the novel. In Dostoevskii, however, there is virtually no good clean sex outside of marriage either, and the novelistic tradition of his day certainly accepted that. The absence of happy marriages and healthy extra-marital sex might be ascribed to prudery, but that explanation will not work either, because in many of Dostoevskii’s novels there is no shortage of depraved sex, which is subject to stricter taboos. In Crime and Punishment, Svidrigailov rapes a little girl, and someone like him misuses the girl Raskolnikov tries to rescue on the street; Sonia and the prostitutes near Raskolnikov’s apartment earn their living through the loveless and eventually fatal selling of their bodies to satisfy desire.
This limitation of sexual encounters to depraved ones persists in all of Dostoevskii’s stories and novels. It is hard to find happy marriages or mutually fulfilling sex in any of his works. But this limitation does not come from any Dostoevskian hostility to marriage or love. Razumikhin and Dunia are two of the liveliest and loveliest lovers in all of literature, and Raskolnikov and Sonia save each other through their love, but these loves go unconsummated through the entire novel, as tends to happen with the happy love in all Dostoevskii’s other works.
There are many definitions of depravity, but for the purposes of this study, I should like to define it as consummated but unreciprocated desire. This definition leads to a puzzle that demands attention. Like aggression, desire in Dostoevskii’s works, if physically consummated, is not reciprocated, and if reciprocated, is not consummated. As with violence, this pattern does not work backwards; unreciprocated desire may be either consummated, like that of Sonia’s customers, or unconsummated, like Luzhin’s, while unconsummated desire may be reciprocated, like Razumikhin’s for Dunia, or unreciprocated, like Luzhin’s. In short, in two apparently unrelated regions of Dostoevskii’s oeuvre, desire and violence, if it becomes physical, it is not reciprocal, and if it’s reciprocal, it’s not physical.
This pattern has at least four possible explanations. Socially, in a society like Russia’s, where some people owned others, the consummation of unreciprocated desire becomes a part of inter-class rather than inter-personal relations and may radiate from that centre throughout the society. And in a society where the gentry dreaded the corporal powers of the tsarist bureaucracy, as Irina Reyfman has pointed out, single combat became a definitive prerogative of the gentry, who go practically unrepresented in Crime and Punishment and under-represented in most of Dostoevskii’s works. This pair of explanations might play a small part in explaining the number of beatings and depraved sexual encounters, but it is of little use in explaining the absence of fights or sexual mutuality, which transcend all social limitations.
Psychologically, Dostoevskii may well have believed that in sex one partner was always stronger, more sophisticated, and in a position to exploit the more innocent and weaker. His sense that his sister Varvara was victimised by her older, richer husband fused with much of his reading in George Sand, De Quincey, the Gothic novelists and all the heirs of Richardson to generate a pervasive picture of exploitative physical love — sometimes reciprocated at a comparable level, as Samsonov’s practical affection for Grushenka seems to be in The Brothers Karamazov, but often depraved, like Bykov’s for Varvara in Poor Folk. Dostoevskii’s psychological vision certainly paid due attention to the phenomenon of dominance by the strong, and submissiveness by those who must submit. His psychology of desire may have simply amplified this awareness into a universal pattern. with violence, however, this pattern does not work at all. In fact, the weaker often assault the stronger, who do not reciprocate. Marmeladov, Fedor Karamazov, Maksimov and others are not weaklings, but are physically beaten by their wives. Here Dostoevskii is exploring some sort of moral dominance which does not fall within the traditional range of psychological enquiry.”
More next time…
The Weekend’s Reading:
Part Six, Chapters Five and Six
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.