Shimer College

April 19, 2012

Against ideas: On Crime and Punishment

I’ve just finished teaching Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in my Humanities 2 class, surely an endurance marathon for student and teacher alike.

Perhaps this is what made the epilogue, which depicts Raskolnikov’s first step toward redemption (as mediated by the love of a good woman), such a let-down – after spending so much time in Raskolnikov’s twisted head, surely we deserved something more.

Yet the argument could also be made that the epilogue is totally superfluous, that everything has been decided by the time Raskolnikov finds himself compelled (in part by the “peer pressure” of Sonya) to confess his crime. We can already see Sonya’s dedication to him and her role in his redemption. We have verified Porfiry’s claim that the confession would take the police by surprise, leading us to trust his claim that the sentence will be merciful. And we also know that Raskolnikov is going to continue to be a total jerk about the whole thing for as long as humanly possible. What does the epilogue add, other than the sentimental satisfaction of learning that Dunya and Razumikhin get married?

Even more important, to me, is what the epilogue takes away, insofar as it attempts to narrate what is not narratable. Though something like Christian “doctrine” as such barely makes an appearance, Dostoevsky’s narrative here is certainly Christian, and nowhere moreso than in its attempt to capture the mysterious movement of free will: the failure of will that leads to sin as well as the turning of the will back toward God. In both cases, Raskolnikov is pulled along in a way that renders his conscious intentions strangely irrelevant. (Indeed, in the case of the confession, I’d say 90% of the conscious thoughts we get to see are anti-confession.) Various explanations for his crime, such as madness and/or physical illness, are trotted out and ultimately rejected – the ultimate explanation seems to be that he became proud (though he didn’t have to, as shown by the example of the similarly-situated Razumikhin) and he sinned.

The twist is the way that Raskolnikov’s pride is so intimately tied up with ideas – not simply the ideas of “nihilism,” but ideas as such. Certainly we are meant to take Raskolnikov’s vaguely Nietzschean ideas to be absurd or at least unappealling, but every other alternative is systematically undermined. Every ideology mentioned is either sharply criticized by a sympathetic character, or espoused by an unappealling one. It’s not that Raskolnikov got a particularly destructive set of ideas into his head, it’s that he got any set of ideas.

And that’s why explicit Christian theology is so thin on the ground: Christianity is presented as something other than a body of ideas. The exemplary Christian, Sonya, hasn’t even thought to ask the most basic question in theology – why would a good God allow suffering? – even though she’s in a situation that screams out for such questioning. The closest we come to a theological reflection is the story of the resurrection of Lazarus, which receives no overt explication and seems to have been selected simply to emphasize the miraculous (i.e., ultimately unknowable and mysterious) nature of Raskolnikov’s conversion.

The result is that the most important events of the narrative – Raskolnikov’s crime and conversion – are simply unaccountable (in the sense of Aristotle’s alogon). This famously “psychological” novel points ultimately toward the impotence of our psychology for directing or explaining our actions, as Raskolnikov endlessly spins his mental wheels. And so one could say that this response to the threat of nihilism is itself even more radically nihilistic than the nihilists themselves, recommending that we renounce all our ideas, accept suffering, and wait patiently. Surely there has to be some other alternative to the fantasy of being the next Napoleon!