The Lockdown Lessons of “Crime and Punishment”

From The New Yorker:

At the end of “Crime and Punishment,” which was completed in 1866, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s hero, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, has a dream that so closely reflects the roilings of our own pandemic one almost shrinks from its power. Here’s part of it, in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s rendering:

He had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate.

What is this passage doing there, a few pages before the novel concludes? Recall what leads up to the dream. Raskolnikov, a twenty-three-year-old law-school dropout, tall, blond, and “remarkably good-looking,” lives in a “cupboard” in St. Petersburg and depends on handouts from his mother and sister. Looking for money, he plans and executes the murder of an old pawnbroker, a “useless, nasty, pernicious louse,” as he calls her; and then kills her half sister, who stumbles onto the murder scene. He makes off with the pawnbroker’s purse, but then, mysteriously, buries it in an empty courtyard.

. . . .

Is it really money that he wants? His motives are less mercenary than, one might say, experimental. He has apparently been reading Hegel on “world-historical” figures. Great men like Napoleon, he believes, commit all sorts of crimes in their ascent to power; once they have attained eminence, they are hailed as benefactors to mankind, and no one holds them responsible for their early deeds. Could he be such a man?

In the days after the crime, Raskolnikov vacillates between exhilaration and fits of guilty behavior, spilling his soul in dreams and hallucinations. Under the guidance of an eighteen-year-old prostitute, Sonya, who embodies what Raskolnikov sees as “insatiable compassion,” he eventually confesses the crime, and is sent to a prison in Siberia. As she waits for him in a nearby village, he falls ill and has that feverish dream.

For us, the dream poses a teasing question: Is it just a morbidly eccentric summation of the novel, or is it also an unwitting prediction of where we are going? Dostoyevsky was a genius obsessed with social disintegration in his own time. He wrote so forcefully that Raskolnikov’s dream, encountered now, expresses what we are, and what we fear we might become.

. . . .

I first read “Crime and Punishment” in 1961, when I was a freshman at Columbia University, as part of Literature Humanities, or Lit Hum, as everyone calls it, a required yearlong course for entering students. In small classes, the freshmen traverse such formidable peaks as Homer’s and Virgil’s epics, Greek tragedies, scriptural texts, Augustine and Dante, Montaigne and Shakespeare; Jane Austen entered the list in 1985, and Sappho, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison followed. I took the course again in 1991, writing a long report on the experience. In the fall of 2019, at the border of old age—I was seventy-six—I began taking it for the third time, and for entirely selfish reasons. In your mid-seventies, you need a jolt now and then, and works like “Oedipus Rex” give you a jolt. What I hadn’t expected, however, was to encounter catastrophe not just in the pages of our reading assignments but far beyond them.

. . . .

In April, when the class began eight hours of discussion about “Crime and Punishment,” the campus had been shut down for four weeks. The students had arrived in New York the previous fall from a wide range of places and backgrounds, and now they had returned to them, scattering across the country, and the globe—to the Bronx, to Charlottesville, to southern Florida, to Sacramento, to Shanghai. My wife and I stayed where we were, in our apartment, a couple of subway stops south of the university, sequestered, empty of purpose, waiting for something to happen. I trailed listlessly around the apartment, and found it hard to sleep after a long day’s inactivity. I loitered in the kitchen in front of a small TV screen, like a supplicant awaiting favor from his sovereign. Ritual, the religious say, expresses spiritual necessity. At 7 p.m., I stood at the window, just past the TV, and banged on a pot with a wooden spoon, in the city’s salute to front-line workers in the pandemic. Raskolnikov has been holed up in his room for a month at the beginning of “Crime and Punishment.” Thirty days, give or take, was how long I had been cut off from life when I began reading the book again.

. . . .

Nick Dames led the students through close readings of individual passages, linking them back, by the end of class, to the structure of the entire book. He is also a historicist, and has done extensive work on the social background of literature. He wanted us to know that nineteenth-century Petersburg—which Dostoyevsky miraculously rendered both as a real city and as a malevolent fantasy—was an impressive disaster. In the early eighteenth century, Peter the Great had commanded an army of architects and disposable serfs to build the place as a “rational” enterprise, intended to rival the great capitals of Western Europe. But, Professor Dames said, “ecologically, it was a failure.” Prone to flooding, the city had trouble disposing of sewage, which often found its way into the drinking water; in 1831, Petersburg was devastated by a cholera epidemic, and ordinary citizens, battered by quarantines and cordons, gathered in protests that turned into riots. After 1861, when Alexander II abolished serfdom, Professor Dames said, peasants came pouring in, looking for work. It was an unhealthy place, and it “wasn’t built for the population it was starting to have.” He put a slide on the screen, with a quotation from “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), by the German sociologist Georg Simmel:

The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli . . . the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.

“The rootlessness that Simmel writes about comes from detachment and debt,” Professor Dames said. “And it produces a constant paranoia—a texture of the illogical. And dreams become very important.”

Dostoyevsky ignores the magnificent imperial buildings, the huge public squares. He writes about street life—the voluble drunks, the lost girls, and the hungry children entertaining for kopecks. His Petersburg comes off as a carnival world without gaiety, a society that is neither capitalist nor communist but stuck in some inchoate transitional situation—an imperial city without much of a middle class. It seems to be missing the one aspect of life that insures survival: work. “With very few exceptions, everybody in the novel rents,” Professor Dames observed. “They are constantly moving among apartments that they can’t afford.” 

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

4 thoughts on “The Lockdown Lessons of “Crime and Punishment””

  1. This was chilling: “Great men like Napoleon, he believes, commit all sorts of crimes in their ascent to power; once they have attained eminence, they are hailed as benefactors to mankind, and no one holds them responsible for their early deeds. ”

    I used to admire Winston Churchill, based on his writings and on what I had been taught about the man.

    Now that I know what a horrible person, and a horrible racist he was, I question that dictum – he may have helped save Britain in WWII, but he has a very long legacy of blood on his hands.

    • Winston Churchill was born in 1874 and grew to adulthood under the reign of Queen Victoria.
      And you judge him by the standards of the 21st century?
      Will you similarly judge Shaka Zulu and Montezuma for being exemplars of their age and society?

    • Sigh…

      Abraham Lincoln was a staunch opponent of slavery – but also believed (along with many abolitionists) that the “Negro” was inherently incapable of being integrated into civilized society.

      Mahatma Gandhi was a quite outspoken racist himself.

      Martin Luther King has been shown to have been a very nasty misogynist.

      Saint Paul, in one of his letters, said that the slave and the master were, indeed, brothers in Christ – but the slave was still a slave, and owed his absolute obedience and loyalty to his master.

      Even the Christ himself basely accused the Heavenly Father of cruelly abandoning him in his time of greatest need.

      Greatness comes with some humans. Flaws come with all humans. Get used to it.

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