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Dostoevsky Review



Some rough notes on DOSTOEVSKY: CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (Penguin Classics, 1991)

'IF GOD DOES NOT EXIST, THEN EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED.' (Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881)


'Russia's evil genius,' -- Maxim Gorky (1905).

'So great is the worth of Dostoevsky that to have produced him is by itself sufficient justification for the existence of the Russian people in the world: and he will bear witness for his country-men at the last judgement of the nations.' -- Nikolay Berdyaev (Prague, 1923).

'I don't like Dostoevsky. He is like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and in order to belong to the light, professing love, all love.' -- D. H. Lawrence

'Dostoevsky is the only person who has ever taught me anything about psychology -- Friedrich Nietzsche.

'Humans would rather will the void than be devoid of will' (Nietzsche).

'At our times, compassion is forbidden by science' (Marmeladov)

'Every man needs a place to go to' (Marmeladov)

'Science says: before anything else, love yourself, for everything in the world is based on personal interest' (Lujin)

'Individuals can be divided, according to the laws of nature, into two categories: the inferior one, (of vulgar men), which is (...) only useful in the procreation of the species, and the higher one, made of individuals who possess the gift and the intelligence to say something new. (...) The first category is the true dominator; the second is... the future dominator. The first conserves the world and multiply it mathematically; the second moves it, and leads it to its ends' (Raskolnikov)

'Suffering is a good thing, too. (...) Pain is, in fact, a great thing. (...) There is a meaning in pain...' (Porfiri Petrovich)

'Accept punishment, and redeem yourself through it' (Sonya)

'Dostoevsky's characters did not evolve' (Nabokov)


Dostoevsky lived and wrote at the crossroads - between medieval feudalism and modern industrialisation; between Asia and Europe; between atheism and Christianity, and within Christianity between European Catholicism/Protestantism and Russian Orthodoxy In a letter to A. N. Maikov, written in 1870, Dostoevsky wrote: 'The whole destiny of Russia lies in Orthodoxy, in the light from the East, that will spread to the mankind of the West, which has lost its faith in Christ. All of Europe´s misfortunes, all of its ills, without exception, harken back to its loss of Christ with the establishment of the Roman Church, after which they have decided that they could manage just as well without Christ.'

People were coming to see that they have inalienable or built-in 'rights,' against which authorities could not assert their prerogatives, and remaking society to protect those rights seemed like a logical next step

Someone on the Web commented: 'Those thinkers, like Dostoevsky, who chose to salvage some aspects of Christianity [from its old medieval trappings] had to struggle not to appear to be anachronisms or hypocrites. After his pioneering efforts, we can see a long line of Russian writers, including Zamyatin, Berdyaev and Pasternak following in his footsteps. Without Dostoevsky, there might not have been that particular flowering of Russian literature, a flowering which served as a brilliant counterweight to Marxist dogma.'

'But why didn't Dostoevsky take the easy way out? Why didn't he simply side with the secular humanists in the face of the Great Intractable Problem of Bread? After all, one honest answer to the question: where is God now that scientific knowledge, not myth, rules our thinking, is 'He is dead.' Why not chuck out all of the old doctrines at once? That is what the 'Great Atheists' of the turn of the century did: I am speaking of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud.'

'The nineteenth century saw a leap out of the Enlightenment into what might be called the 'psychological era,' which looked back on the safe and sane ideas of a Chain of Being and a rational universe as so much naiveté. Dostoevsky was definitely one of the architects of this change of consciousness. After Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Schopenhauer and others, something was 'discovered' (or perhaps invented) we could call the 'unconscious.' Contradictory and unacknowledged motives came to be seen as influencing the destinies of men and nations (and even occasionally of women). And Dostoevsky was one of those who helped to 'raise' this 19th and 20th century consciousness.

'He criticizes all of his contemporaries with a sharpness that has still not been surpassed. In fact, over time, many of his criticisms may be said to be prophetic. Before Marx, he castigated violent revolutionaries, before Nietzsche he warned humankind of the poison of inflating the human soul with dreams of becoming a superman. He unleashed a flood of sarcasm against every school of 'progress' designed to improve and rationalize the society of his time, whether it came from the liberal camp, such as JS Mill; the scientific camp, such as the Darwinists; the socialist camp, such as Bielinsky; or conservative theocrats, such as the Catholic Church. I would say that his criticism of the 'sciences of man' -- psychology, anthropology, sociology and such, is as scathing as Foucault's.

'Russian Orthodox Christianity was for Dostoevsky the answer to the problem of nihilism he saw growing around him. This problem was succinctly summarized by him through the famous words of Ivan Karamazov: 'If God is dead, all is permitted.' Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky clearly saw that the security of the Medieval world view had crumbled. He knew it was too late to turn back to the world view of a pre-scientific era. Unlike Nietzsche, Dostoevsky believed that leaving the reader on his or her own to be a god to himself was an invitation to disaster. Russians have always been extremists; nihilistic or apocalyptic visions seem to captivate Russian thinkers, and in Dostoevsky's time ordinary tea rooms and vodka parlors were full of earnest discussions of how to build a scientific -- even atheistic -- new world, or alternatively, how God would punish those who tried.'

The method of expressing philosophical ideas through novels is characteristically Russian. In fact, it is probably fair to say that Dostoevsky helped to create this peculiarity of Russian literature. As a modern example, look at Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago. The body of this novel is saturated with religious and philosophical allusions and symbolism -- almost on every page. The title itself reminds every Russian, regardless of religious background, of the Russian Orthodox Bible. This is because 'zhivago' is the Old Church Slavonic pronunciation (akin to our King James English) of the word 'living.' The very title 'Zhivago' is a Biblical allusion, referring to the quotation 'Why seek the living among the dead?'. This custom of working Christian and other philosophical ideas into the structure of a novel was started by a handful of Russian writers, and chief among them, and the one with the strongest philosophical ideas to communicate -- was Dostoevsky.

Since his death Dostoevsky's fame has continued to grow. No 19th-century writer had greater psychological insight or philosophical depth or as systematically plumbed the mysteries of the human soul. None speaks more immediately and passionately to the mood and tone of the present century. In fact, it can be said without exaggeration that Western civilization in the second half of the 20th century has become 'Dostoyevskian.' (Edward Wasiolek)

Background Notes:

Existentialism is the philosophical movement that believes there is no ultimate purpose to life; we find ourselves in a world where 'truth' is revealed to us primarily in situations of anxiety and dread. Quote from somewhere: 'Dostoevsky's view of suffering is in the existentialist camp with the 'rugged individualists' Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, as well as with other towering figures of the 19th and 20th centuries such as Jean Paul Sartre and Kierkegaard. But what does it mean to be 'in the existentialist camp'? Here a deeper examination of cataclysmic events in the history of ideas is necessary. No greater volcanic eruption has happened in the history of thought than this: the collision of Medieval Christianity, and its other-worldly philosophy of renunciation, with the discovery that well-being in this world, through scientific advancement, may be entirely possible.'

Nihilism is associated with Dostoevsky's contemporary (and antagonist) Turgenev: particularly his book Fathers and Sons, where the possibility of justifying moral values is denied. Some Russian nihilists advocated the total annihilation of all existing institutions in the name of unrestricted individual freedom. I found this somewhere on the Web: 'The trouble with the Russians is not that they don't know what svoboda, or freedom is, but that they want it all! They want complete freedom. I don't think it is an accident that the one musical instrument without any keys or mouthpiece at all -- the Theremin -- was invented by a person born in Russia. The Theremin is a perfect illustration of freedom from all forms of restraint.' And: 'Dostoevsky's novels are full of characters flying apart, testing the limits of freedom -- searching for a satisfactory solution to the problem of nihilism.'

Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhaylovich (1821-1881)

(Encarta® Online Deluxe Encyclopedia and a few other sources tell us that) DOSTOEVSKY, FYODOR MIKHAYLOVICH (1821-1881) was a Russian novelist, by general consent one of the greatest of all novelists. He was born in Moscow in 1821. The son of a Moscow military doctor who was murdered by his serfs, Dostoevsky grew up in materially comfortable but psychologically damaging circumstances. After finishing a military engineering education in 1843, he soon turned to literature.

In his early works, Dostoevsky explored the humiliations and consequent behavior of the underprivileged, but in 1849 his literary career was disastrously interrupted. He had joined the mildly subversive Petrashevsky Circle, a group of young intellectuals who read and debated French socialist theories forbidden to be openly discussed in tsarist Russia. A police informer slipped into their secret meetings, and the entire group was arrested and taken to a place of execution, presumably to be shot. At the last minute they were reprieved (one of Dostoevsky's colleagues went mad through the experience), and the punishment was changed to penal exile.

Dostoevsky served four years of hard labor in Siberia and afterwards five years as a common soldier. In The House of the Dead (1861-1862). Dostoevsky described the sadistic beatings, the filthy conditions, and the total lack of privacy among the convicts. Released from prison in 1854, he was sent to a garrison town near Mongolia. These harsh experiences transformed his youthful liberalism into a fervent religious orthodoxy.

Later, in collaboration with his brother, Mikhayl, Dostoevsky launched a monthly periodical called Time. When it was suppressed because of a supposedly subversive article, the brothers started The Epoch, another short-lived review, in 1864. The beginning of Dostoevsky's philosophical novel Notes from the Underground (1864) was published in the first issue. In the monologue of the nameless narrator of Notes, Dostoevsky presented, for the first time in the history of modern literature, the alienated antihero. This powerful work is considered the philosophical testament of existentialism. Walter Kaufmann who included Dostoevsky in his classic anthology of existentialist writings, explained, 'I can see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist, but I do think that Part One of Notes From Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written.'

The following years, including many spent abroad to escape creditors after Dostoevsky inherited his brother's debts, were marked by physical hardship and poverty but great productivity. He completed the novels Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-1869, the story of a failed Christ figure), and The Possessed (1871-1872, in which he denounced the alienated radicalism that characterized contemporary Russia) and returned to Russia in 1873 a world-renowned writer. A Raw Youth (1875) described decay within family relationships and the inability of science to answer humanity's deepest needs.

These themes were central to his masterpiece - completed not long before his death - The Brothers Karamazov (1880), in which with rare psychological and philosophical insight Dostoevsky plumbed the depths and complexities of the human soul. The Brothers Karamazov is a summation of Dostoevsky's beliefs and concerns and develops his greatest themes: rationalism versus irrationalism; the struggle between love and hatred, faith and unfaith; the dangers represented by socialism and the attempt to engineer human happiness; the power of sensuality; the reality and unreality of God; and the conflict between generations. The central drama of the novel is the struggle between the repulsive father, Fyodor Karamazov, and his four sons. Each of the sons represents a universal trait of humanity: Alyosha, saintliness; Dmitri, passion and sensuality; Ivan, the intellect; and Smerdyakov, ugliness of body, mind, and spirit. Dostoevsky explores the right of a child to raise his hand against his father and, by extension, the right of humans to raise their hand against God. (Sigmund Freud, for one, considered the treatment of patricide in The Brothers Karamazov the equal of that of Shakespeare in Hamlet and of Sophocles in Oedipus Rex, while Jean Paul Sartre has said that all of French Existentialism is to be found in Ivan Karamazov's contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted.)

Dostoevsky's later novels are endowed with symbolic worlds where heroes, pervaded by the tragic sense of life, search for truth and self-fulfilment. Dostoevsky anticipated modern psychology by his exploration of hidden motives and intuitive understanding of the unconscious, manifested in his characters' irrational behavior, psychic suffering, dreams, and lapses into insanity.

Certain events in Dostoevsky's life influenced him so deeply that he could not bring himself to accept optimistic scenarios, or plans to rationalize society in order to free humanity of its chains in one fell swoop. In 1839, when Dostoevsky was eighteen, the serfs on his father's plantation rose up and murdered the tyrannical old patriarch. This probably accounts for the young man's preoccupation with sin and expiation. From what Dostoevsky saw of life, most of humanity's chains were moral ones, to be removed only by spiritual rebirth, not by social reorganization. This is why many called him a reactionary. But his hatred of theocracy and oppression of all kinds was as deep as any revolutionary's; thus, he didn't fit among traditionalists (such as the Slavophiles) either. After reading The Brothers Karamazov, the elders or staretzi of Optina monastery weren't sure whether he was on the side of the Evil One or not.

He had broken through the almost insurmountable class barriers of Russian society. He was thrown in with the very lowest social strata; in prison, high and low born were forced to speak to each other on a day-to-day basis. While most of the prisoners from a background of serfdom still regarded him and all other 'gentlemen' with suspicion, there was enough interaction between Dostoevsky and the 'masses' to acquire a sense of serfs, peasants and other representatives of the lower classes as real multi-dimensional human beings. His work is refreshingly free of romantic stereotypes or, on the other hand, of bigoted and mean-spirited caricatures of 'the vulgar masses.' He came out of prison with a sense that common unbathed illiterate Russians were full human beings who carried the same complex moral burdens as anyone else.

Romanticization of 'the people' was almost a sickness with the Russian intelligentsia of Dostoevsky's time. Not being able to communicate freely with either those lower or higher than themselves in the social scale, Russian writers tended to romanticize either the aristocracy (e.g. Lermontov) or the masses (e.g. Tolstoy) in order to ally themselves with some part of the social hierarchy. This lack of truthfulness considerably weakened their attempts to work with the masses in any real attempt to increase literacy among the peasants and guide them in any constructive political direction. Their frequent crusades to enlighten the peasantry often absurdly misfired. The peasantry often had contempt for the intelligentsia, and worse, the intelligentsia often had contempt for themselves. Russia's intellectual elite was paralyzed by what today would be called 'liberal guilt.'

There is a moving story about the last days in Dostoevsky's life told by his faithful and loving wife Anna Grigorievna. On the night of January 25th 1881, Dostoevsky experienced pulmonary bleeding. Around 5 p.m. that day the bleeding started over again. Anna Grigorievna anxiously sent for the doctor. When the doctor began to listen to and tap the sick man's chest, the bleeding began again and this time so strongly that Dostoevsky lost consciousness. 'When they brought him to again', - writes Anna Grigorievna in her 'Memoirs' - 'his first words to me were: 'Anya, I beg you, invite a priest here immediately, I want to make a confession and receive Holy Communion!'.'

'Although the doctor at first believed that there was no particular threat to his life, in order to calm the sick man, I complied with his wish. We lived near the Vladimir church and within a half hour its priest, Fr. Megorsky, was already at our house. Fyodor Mikhailovich greeted the priest calmly and good-naturedly, had a long confession and then received Holy Communion. When the priest left, the children and I went into the room to congratulate Fyodor Mikhailovich on receiving Holy Communion. He then blessed both me and the children, and asked them to live in peace, to love each other, and to love and care for me. Having sent the children out of the room, Fyodor Mikhailovich thanked me for the happiness I gave him and asked me to forgive him if he offended me in any way. The doctor entered the room and laid him down on the couch, forbade him to make even the slightest movement or to talk, and at the same time asked that we send for two other doctors, A.A. Pfeiffer and Prof. D.I. Koshchlakov - whom my husband had sometimes consulted. The night passed peacefully.

I awoke at about 7 the next morning and saw that my husband was looking in my direction. 'So how do you feel, my dear?' I asked, leaning over him. 'You know, Anya', whispered Fyodor Mikahilovich, 'for the past three hours I've been lying here thinking, and only now am I clearly aware that today I will die.' 'My dear, why do you think that,' I said, terribly disturbed, 'since you already feel better and there's no longer any bleeding. For God's sake, don't torture yourself with doubts, I assure you: you're going to continue living.' 'No, I know that I must die today. Light a candle, Anya, and hand me the Gospel.' He opened the Gospel himself to Matthew 3:14-15 and asked that it be read to him: 'But John forbade him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.'

'Do you hear that - Suffer it to be so... don't forbid me, - this means I will die' said my husband, and he closed the Bible...'

At about 7:00 p.m. the bleeding began again and at 8:30 p.m. Dostoevsky passed away (28 January 1881).

Crime And Punishment

In any list of the greatest novels of all time, two of Dostoevsky's would appear: The Brothers Karamazov, and Crime and Punishment.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1866) is the story of a slightly above-average student who commits a cold-blooded murder. After killing two women (a corrupt pawnbroker and her innocent sister who happened upon the scene at the wrong moment) he enters a cat and mouse game with a police detective. Raskolnikov's motives are as hard to get at as is Hamlet's motive for delaying the avenging of his father, but have something to do with a belief in his superiority, a desire to eliminate an evil person, and his poverty. The novel toys with the possibility that murder, if committed by an intellectual, may be justified. Extraordinary people, because of their greatness, have the right to commit any crime - and remain unpunished - if it is for the betterment of society.

Raskolnikov is testing his belief in a type of Nietzschean 'Superman.' He 'seizes the moment' and commits an act of murder just to see if he has the courage to break the rules. (We could say he is playing a game of 'chicken' with himself). Raskolnikov commits the wilful act of murder, but he cannot face his deed and slowly, painfully, ends up tortured with guilt, ultimately repenting of the act and going gladly to prison in Siberia In the end, he is converted to Christianity through the love of a prostitute. Perhaps the key to understanding Raskolnikov is through the idea that suffering is a means of enlightenment. He did not freely live in the desert eating roots and locusts to purify himself. Circumstances forced his suffering upon him, as they force suffering upon most of humanity. What his suffering broke down was his egoism and its attendant rationalism. This recapitulates Dostoevsky's own horrible experiences in prison: he entered as a sort of rational socialist and returned as apologist for the Russian Orthodox Church.

Of course, that was Dostoevsky's idea of the real psychological consequences of committing a senseless murder. Was he right? Nietzsche, for instance, would probably not agree that a freely chosen act, even a murder, would necessarily plunge a person into an abyss of guilt. Speaking of Christian morality, Nietzsche once wrote, 'This queer and sick world into which the Gospels introduce us a world out of a Russian novel in which the scum of society, nervous diseases, and 'childlike' idiocy seem to give each other a rendezvous.'

(There are many symbols of suffering in Dostoevsky's works. The rationalist is tortured by the recognition that his high ideas are meaningless in the real world. The prostitute is a victim of circumstances, hardly understanding the degradation to which she is subject. The monk intentionally brings suffering upon himself).

So CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is a brilliant portrait of sin and remorse, guilt and justice, and redemption through suffering and sacrifice. The novel represents a 'testing' of the limits of individual freedom and is a gripping metaphysical detective story.

This is most clearly seen in the motif of the 'underground hero,' that is, the hero who is alienated from technology and the so-called advances of civilization. The student Raskolnikov, poor and lonely, is the ideal field for the blossoming of evil ideas. In feeling the urge to murder an old lady, a rich and wicked money-lender, he asks himself whether it would be wrong to kill a 'useless old woman.'

After he kills her, we have a mix between a detective story, and a psychological drama. Dostoevsky describes Raskolnikov's dreams, thus achieving incredible psychological insights, like no writer of his time ever had. Not just the character of Raskolnikov, but minor characters also are so beautifully defined. From the torments of Svidrigailov, the libertine, to the grief of Katerina Marmeladova, the tuberculous wife of a drunk, Dostoevsky creates a panel of humanity: the picture of a suffering humanity, who has nothing to expect from this life, not even compassion; people who lead the life of animals, but never cease to be people; beings, who have lost all but one hope: their faith in God and in his eternal love.

This novel is beautiful without falling into stupid melodrama; it is touching without being boring. If we are touched, it happens not only because of tragic situations, but mainly because of the skill used in creating each character. They are dear to us, because we know them, because they seem real. They have their failures, they are often more evil than good... but they do not deserve our reproval, but only our compassion, for they are sufferers.

Each of these are - like characters we encounter in real life - is a mystery to fathom. Berdyaev notes that each character is a puzzle to solve. The ones with the most interesting twists and turns are the ones whose integrity is flawed, who contradict themselves, who wonder why they do what they do. (The Nazis, for example, were not monsters, but humans. When we call them monsters, we take away the terror by objectifying them into some absolute. The fact that humans act monstrously is much more frightening than monsters behaving like monsters). What is scary about Raskolnikov, is that he is not bad and yet did what he did. Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov are not good nor bad. The characters are not finalized, but are in a process. Svidrigailov in fact has not decided on his own character make up yet. The polyphony - or various consciousnesses- are within him, actively negotiating. Dostoesvky avoided 'finalized' characters. Raskolnikov is an axe murderer, but he also rescues children and is able to be quite noble. Even though Raskolnikov converts, he´s not happy at it. He´s never loving, he´s, at best, an agnostic. In order to make the change seem less abrupt, Dostoevsky decided to leave the true conversion to another book.

'There are two points that prove to me that Svidrigailov is not that bad, not wholly remorseless. First, he has nightmares, he sees his dead wife, he longs for punishment. His story, I think, is very parallel to Raskolnikov, because while both have commited a crime, and while both need to free their consciousness of their guilt, Raskolnikov, being of a higher nature, has pure feelings towards Sonya, and is redeemed by her love; Svidrigailov, on the other hand, is too carnal, therefore he loses the only hope a man would have to free himself - the love of a woman, namely Dunya. It´s, in a way, the presence of the loving woman that saves Raskolnikov, and it´s the absence of her that dooms Svidrigailov.

What did Svidrigailov feel for Dunya - just sexual attraction, or something higher? When they face each other alone in a room, Svidrigailov has a gun, has all the means he needs to satisfy his instincts, yet he gives up the thought of rape - a strange reaction from such a scoundrel, isn´t it? Yes. But the scoundrel was no longer expecting pleasure, but redemption. He gives Dunya the gun, because he wants her to redeem him in freedom, to give herself over to him, the way Sonya does to Raskolnikov. And he is crushed by the evidence that this cannot be. He´s alone. He has to face his guilt all by himself.

What is Raskolnikov's relationship with Svidrigaïlov? Pure hatred? Perhaps he is confronted with the fact that Svidrigaïlov is too much like him. He is the only character of intellectual power equivalent to that of Raskolnikov - along with Porfiri who is probably the most despicable character of the novel, the most criminal of all, he loves crime but has never committed one. Svidrigaïlov is not pure evil, he is just too conscious. And too much like Raskolnikov.

Was Dunya Svidrigaïlov's victim? She was in a difficult position when she worked for him, but at no time was she ever in true danger. His pursuance of her, was one of romantic love. When they get caught by Marfa Petrovna, he was making her a very decent offer, to run off together and live happily ever after (the true love story of the novel is between these two, but it's impossible love). Then in their final confrontation she is holding the gun. He has trapped her, but once again it is to make her a final offer.

Svidrigaïlov is a poet trapped in a flat and narrow world. Just as Raskolnikov is going into a bar to read about the murder (and meets Zamiotov ) he begins to talk of a man condemned to hanging who would prefer on a narrow ledge with barely enough room to stand, for all eternity, and that this would be better than dying right away. This is Raskolnikov's choice, it would not be Svidrigaïlov's. That is the main difference between the two. There are two faces of the same coin.

Raskolnikov now had Sonya, a woman to love him unconditionally. He knew that she would not desert him. She would follow him to hell and back, and did just that when she followed him to serve his sentence. In spite of her overwhelming devotion to him, Raskolnikov did not exactly reciprocate with enthusiasm. He shunned her efforts as first. In the prison, everyone seemed to love Sonya, except for him. But I believe he did love her the entire time, he just took her for granted. He knew she would not leave, so he could treat her with complete indifference. While he did treat her poorly, he did eventually confess his love to her. Raskolnikov and Sonya overcame many trials, but in the end they found some sort of 'happiness'. Svidrigailov killed himself but Raskolnikov faced his punishment. In the end, it was indeed Svidrigailov who was the coward

The reader is invited to guess what the underlying principles are that pull together such apparently contradictory actions; what childhood traumas, what crucial life decisions, what current circumstances have contributed to this or that character acting in such and such a way. Just as each real individual we meet is a moral mystery, so Dostoevsky's characters force us to wonder about them as if they were real. Only an artificial construction -- a stereotype -- can be completely fathomed. It was Dostoevsky's belief that real people are not such neat constructions.

Thus we have moral encounters with Dostoevsky's characters. Like real moral encounters, they leave us questioning our own values. This is why Tolstoy could not bear to call Dostoevsky a 'real' artist. Tolstoy felt that a true artist gives answers to the deeper questions of life. Dostoevsky gave only questions. Dostoevsky's characters are questionmarks. The element of mystery - of unfathomableness - is there in just about all of them. So we ponder over the motives of Dostoevsky's characters -- and ask ourselves: 'what are their principles? What should be their principles? And ultimately, what should ours be?'

Back to Raskolnikov: he is searching for greatness. Of course he is to blame for his actions, he was holding the axe, but something else swung it. The exact words are: 'almost mechanically, almost without using force, he let it fall on her head' Obviously, Raskolnikov would never be stupid enough to claim that destiny acted in his place. But at the time of the murder, everything is happening so quickly that he has no time to think, and most probably he wouldn't have done if there hadn't been so many coincidences. Is it some sort of 'fate'? Of course his idea of being great like Napoleon is how he explains things afterwards, but at the moment of the murder, he has no desire to be 'great', or at least this desire is very far from his consciousness. If your vision of Crime and Punishment as a tragedy (like a Greek tragedy) then you will want 'destiny' to be the key factor

But the novel may have been written to ridicule Raskolnikov's great ideas. In his personal notes preparing for Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky tells himself that in the most serious of situations, the most absurd and ridiculous details must come into play. For example, in the first scene with the old woman, he is disturbed that she will only give him one and a half rubles for his watch when he was asking for four, and almost leaves without checking things out, which is why he went there in the first place. The whole idea of the novel is to show how great ideas are always ridiculed by experience.

But it may also be argued Dostoevsky refuses the explanation that crime can occur as a mere product of various combined factors, the way Positivists, Hegelians and Marxists try to explain. The idea of freedom is present through all his work, and we must not forget that: 1) in other parts of the book, like in the confession of his crime to Sonya, Raskolnikov expressly admits he did because he wanted to prove himself great, as great as Napoleon; 2) not once after he commits the crime he grasps the excuse that it was not his guilt, but fate. He needed to say it was fate in other to find courage to make his will (i.e. his freedom) act; 3) in other books, mainly Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky attsacks the determinist explanation of human behavior; 4) in The Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor condemns Jesus for having made humans free.

Freedom, for Dostoevsky, is an axiom. But what really makes his characters so compelling is that, though free, as we are, they are weak as we are, and when they fall, even though Dostoevsky forces us to see it´s their responsability, he can invite us to feel compassion for them.

And Dostoevsky had to make his main character out to be a so-called 'neurotic.' The main character is painted as 'perverse' precisely because he could not get by with saying what he does straight out. An era of social improvement on the upswing has no tolerance for criticism of its basic values. Dostoevsky was criticizing all of the major schools of though in his time before most of them were fully formed. Only a 'perverse' character that the reader expects to say awful and contradictory things would be tolerated by Dostoevsky's readers; after all, they were bound to agree with at least one of the doctrines he is attacking. Since he is assaulting the belief systems of his readers he has to use some pretty tricky literary mechanisms to defuse their resistance.

'Dostoevsky asks questions which are unanswerable, but answer them we must!' Like: It seemed obvious to Dostoevsky that we need to love one another as Jesus directed. But it was equally obvious to him that we don't. What is to be done?

Dostoevsky refuses to concede that society can be rationalized for our benefit. Society is no more rational than we are. At the heart of every person is a mystery, and we encounter that mystery through a kind of feeling, such as the feeling we might have in moments of self transcendence.

He insists on the sacredness of the individual, and bitterly hates any institution which oppresses individuals, but he defends the individual in the name of a sacred mystery shared between the individual and God, not in the name of man's 'higher rational faculties.'

And if it is not our essence to be rational, then we cannot be counted upon to be good, either. If wo/man is an irrational animal whose desire to create a big effect in the world is typically a stronger motive than good sense, then any sort of good or evil is potentially lurking in us. We can see these good and evil schemes hatched in the minds of a broad range of Dostoevsky's characters.

This profound animus against all schemes to rationalize society for humanity's benefit stemmed from Dostoevsky's conviction that any such attempt to force humanity onto the Procrustean Bed of some 'system' amounts to tyranny. This includes schemes that actually work -- those that enable men and women to increase their standard of living (or their 'well-being'). But how could any sane person possibly take a stand against well-being?

We find the two parts of his answer in Notes From Underground and 'The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor'. The key point to remember, he believed, is that the desire for freedom and the desire for well-being are not identical. Unlike John Stuart Mill, who claimed that the desire for freedom was one (extremely important) component of our desire for happiness, Dostoevsky believed that the desire for freedom was often opposed to the desire for well-being. For instance, people can be bribed into renunciation of their ideals with promises of material benefits.

'The.Legend of the Grand Inquisitor' poses this dilemma: what if it were possible to make people happy by enslaving them? Should we do it? What about the possibility of a perfect theocracy?

Since Dostoevsky hated tyranny in all its forms, he declared a perfect theocracy to be perfect tyranny. He depicts the Grand Inquisitor confiding to Alyosha that benevolent dictators (and the Inquisitor is one) are really working for 'The other.' With a transcendent Christian framework as dualistic as any from the Middle Ages, Dostoevsky is insisting that human beings must choose: freedom OR bread, freedom OR power and influence, freedom OR security. The good things of this life are more often than not glittering temptations for humanity, not cure-alls. You can see how profoundly he differs from the Marxists here; and of course, he is also casting a jaded eye on the comfortable ideals of Capitalist societies.

But Dostoevsky's own desires to remake society along the lines of Christian brotherhood, with the State as a guardian of true Christian ethics, comes disconcertingly close to a theocracy. He draws a very unsatisfying distinction between the (bad) Roman Catholic Church (to whom the Inquisition belongs) and the (good) Russian Orthodox Church which is not borne out by historical experience.

Here Dostoevsky's position as a writer, an artist, a non-philosopher, lets him off the hook. We don't need to get answers from him. And this is definitely a time when he leaves us with an open question.

In a world where millions cried for bread and land, and where the Christian religion was increasingly forced to acknowledge that the masses did deserve food, medicine and freedom from tyranny -- Dostoevsky insisted that bread and land can tempt people away from what is really important: our freedom to express our individual quirks, our desires, our whims ... the freedom to make our own mistakes ... to create something entirely new.

We can distinguish two types of schemes for securing human happiness. The first is well-known, and we may call it 'utilitarian.' What is best is that which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. What happiness is remains controversial, but given an account of happiness, there will be a rational scheme according to which it is optimally distributed. A well-known objection to utilitarianism is that the production of overall happiness may require immense unhappiness on the part of some unfortunate few.

This theme can be developed in the context of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. In a significant passage, the skeptical brother Ivan asserts that he cannot accept the notion that suffering in the world is justified because it promotes an ultimate state of happiness. Some forms of injustice cannot be justified under any assumption. Specifically, the undeserved suffering of an innocent child can never be forgiven by the child's mother, even if the child were moved to forgive. Thus Ivan could not accept the world as the work of God. Ivan's brother, the saintly Alyosha, had no reply to this argument. Some actions cannot be permitted even if they serve to promote the greatest overall happiness.

But suppose that the overall happiness could be served by acts of self-sacrifice by a few stout-hearted souls? Would it then become desirable to pursue it at any other cost? Dostoevsky considered the possibility of a theocracy, a government by the church. Specifically, he singled out the Roman Catholic Church, which though much of its existence wielded a great deal of temporal power. During the Spanish Inquisition of the 16th century, Church officials put to death numerous persons they branded as heretics. Perhaps this could be justified as necessary for the greater happiness. In one of his most arresting images, Dostoevsky recounted Ivan Karamazov's 'poem' about the Grand Inquisitor who would have excuted Jesus himself for the greater good of humanity.

The second coming of Jesus occurs in Seville, Spain, at a time when hundreds were being burnt at the stake on a single day. Walking through the town like an ordinary person, Jesus attracted a throng of followers who knew exactly who he was. So did the Inquisitor, who had him arrested and imprisoned. He told Jesus that he would have to be put to death because he was interferring with the work of the Church, which after Jesus's death on the cross had become the only legitimate vehicle of human salvation.

The Inquisitor told Jesus that there was a fundamental error in the Gospel message. Jesus had preached that humans should freely give up the flesh and follow him. The freedom of the act of faith is dramatized by the three temptations by Satan. Jesus could have secured the loyalty of his followers by giving them bread, by leaping from a precipice only to be saved by angels, by becoming the ruler of Jerusalem. Instead, he forced his followers to take him or leave him just as he was. And this was, in the eyes of the Inquisitor, his error.


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