Against ideas: On Crime and Punishment

I just finished teaching Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in my literature 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 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!

15 thoughts on “Against ideas: On Crime and Punishment

  1. Well, under the aegis of sinus medication and morning brain slush…I already babbled this on Twitter with Adam, but since he (rightly) sarcastic’d me about a long twitter response, here it is repasted:

    Sonya doesn’t ask about suffering as an academic-she is suffering embodied. If Kotsko needs help with the “thin” of Christian theology……perhaps embodiment is the place to start. He asks the exact question Dostoevsky sets out to refute: treating suffering as a problem of “ideas,” when suffering is in fact made banal by turning it into an “idea” (in this case contra-Christian God via theodicy) , something Sonya, actually suffering, never does. Dostoevsky’s narrative hints of Christian theology are perhaps some of the least “thin” one can find. If one is prejudiced against redemption as Dostoevsky illustrates it (redemption in spite of great idealistic arguments against it, a la Ivan Karamazov, et al) ……then one is simply prejudiced against redemption, not that redemption is somehow flawed in F.M.’s narratives of it.

    Adam’s response to me indicated we might be more congruent than I thought, though perhaps in explanation where I find Dostoevsky’s hints of Christianity (hints in that they aren’t thumping proselytizing per se…) convincing in a religious sense, I perceived Adam’s thoughts above as critical of what I found convincing. Better said: where he claims a deeper nihilism contained in the suffering of Sonya, I guess I found it to be a (finally) non-pat, non-transcendentalizing (per most Christian responses) way out of the oscillation between Nietzschean ass-kicking all fate/faith, and insipid ignoring/de-fanging of suffering via “Christian” spiritualizing.

    I can find myself bouncing around my head in a way of Raskolnikov, but find a way forward via Christianity that is embodied, and less dogmatic (even based in typical certainty), versus one simply trying to beat ideas with other ideas, which is where we perhaps get closer to agreeing, perhaps?

  2. As I clarified on Twitter, I meant that Christian doctrine, in the sense of intellectualized reflections on Christianity, was almost totally absent, and that this was in keeping with Dostoevsky’s anti-ideas polemic — obviously there’s a ton of symbolic and “embodied” theology, specifically Christology.

    I wish Christians in general wouldn’t be so eager to figure out some point on which we might agree. I think that viewing Sonya as a model is nihilistic — she goes from submitting to prostitution in order to feed her step-father’s addiction to a total devotion to a murderer.

    Why couldn’t we view Razumikhin as a model instead? Or Luzhin’s roommate, whose ideas sound ridiculous but who is revealed to have a good heart when he stands up for Sonya at the funeral dinner?

  3. Well, if eager for disagreement…I suppose I don’t find the “redemption” epilogue as weak, or even a let-down (taking Sonya’s prostitution, Raskolnikov’s prison term, etc. into account it seems hardly simplistic). It does seemed tacked on in something like Ecclesiastes, for example, but C+P doesn’t have the burden of being a religious text, with its concomitant expectations, so when redemption occurs here, it doesn’t have to be a let-down (what would “more” be here? Raskolnikov raped in prison as a parallel or echo of Sonya’s sexual abuse? Sonya falling in love with another while Raskolnikov is in prison, for him to find out only when he gets out, ready to marry?).

    Sonya as a model isn’t something I intended to mean-and it purports that Christianity embodied in her seeks or tries to suffer under some oppression. Rather, it’s whatever redemption could happen even under that oppression that offers some kind of hope, which can cause allergy for some reason if one is pre-disposed to mistrust a theological answer. Dostoevsky was no socialist, but he wouldn’t ignore the social aspect of Sonya’s situation either. She didn’t seek prostitution in order to be ‘saved’, but rather doesn’t see her oppression as precluding her from ‘salvation’, nor offering some sort of it to others.

    Razumikhin is probably too marginal (maybe), or would require too much actual reading for folks to draw more from his example (I don’t know how much Spark Notes mentions him-I teach too (not literature) so I’m allowed to be cynical also). But that is a really good point. So though it might chap your ass, I’m still gonna compliment your subtlety.

  4. My students loved Razumikhin, though for the most part, they do their reading. And it seems like the true miracle of taking care of the orphan children, etc., comes from the “evil,” suicidal Svidrigailov — who also offers to set up Sonya really nicely as well. To me, that’s the real moment of redemption. It’s great that she decides to set up her prison ministry, but the really great thing is to be in a position where she can actually decide what she wants to do.

    What chaps my ass is your continual use of language of “bias” throughout this discussion. I’m not sure what it amounts to other than, “Well, if you don’t find it appealling, you must not be a Christian.” It reinforces the sense of question-begging — there must be some “pathological” reason not to be deeply moved and convinced.

  5. ha-then i really do apologize if that’s what comes across, i honestly don’t intend some superiority or ‘real-christianism’ in my responses. i hope i don’t operate in that kind of framework as it is. likewise, it’s worth saying that (whether intended or not) playing victim to at least some sort of devotional response (i’ll gladly admit I color my approval of Dostoevsky from a personal place, whatever that means) is no better than some supercilious churchy response. which again…i don’t intend. i appreciate the rebuttal of my language if that is indeed what i’m doing. again, the lack of religious expectation in Dostoevsky is what makes it compelling both religiously and -not-. My point would be that plenty of scholars, pious, impious, and casual readers find the redemption lovely-and in no way does it require religious confession to be found so. I just argue that the religious possibility in the text seems more compelling than more idealistic or more systematic visions. Even to religious people, and hopefully to non-religious folks as well.

  6. feeling that if I responded from some confessional place (i.e. if this story somehow acts as a devotional/liturgical/religious icon for me personally), that it meant I was accusing you of impiety, or of not possessing the entire lens necessary for appreciating the story-simply because I came at it from a religious angle, and that it somehow that meant I was playing some sort of arrogant christian language game.

  7. Several times, you’ve attributed the lack of appeal of Dostoevsky’s “answer” to some kind of bias or predisposition to reject religion. I didn’t just make that up. I also don’t feel victimized by it — it just seems disingenous, and it partly reflects what I don’t like about Dostoevsky’s position. You’re projecting a lot of personal stuff here that just isn’t happening on my end.

  8. Even the language of “playing victim” seems to presume a lot — as though I’m offended by a presentation of the Gospel that got “too real.” I don’t see how that kind of language is productive. If it’s sending messages you don’t intend to send, then stop using it.

  9. I’ll readily admit my language games are conditioned by christianity, confessional stuff, etc. and that it might in fact place too much intellectual (or better non-intellectual) burden on them. but then again, i could be burdened by any number of academic lenses, and at some point I just want to move forward within consideration of a text, and if the baggage makes my interpretations soft, then I’m grateful for discussions as these to reveal what is soft in them.

    i guess a question i should’ve asked earlier is: does it make sense to work intratextually with something like Crime and Punishment-using religious language because, well, it’s religious content to a large degree? Not that it requires religious devotion to be understood-but that it could perhaps be spoken of with religious language in order to make a little more sense? That the redemption aspect could be masked as less-compelling art, or as a weaker narrative device by the proliferation of contemporary (and contemporary to Dostoevsky’s time, though not his milieu) easy-outs in religious narratives (god-forbid religious fiction). I would ask if intra-textual language could help approach the narrative on its own terms? And I really am asking for your thought on it!

  10. I feel like we’re having a miscommunication here. Obviously you have to use religious language to discuss Crime and Punishment. I do in the post. I think I need to be done for now.

  11. The conclusion of Adam’s post moves me to recommend the merely apparently unrelated paper “The Purpose of Tractarian Nonsense” by Michael Kremer.

  12. maybe i’m way off… but here are some of my thoughts on it:

    I read the conclusion as a sort of obversion of the whole story itself; rather than even being able to ‘let down’ or become
    superfluous, it was a sort of negative supplementation.

    Porfiry’s says, “If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment – as well as the prison.”

    Where the prison became opposite of what Porfiry’s office was and those who stayed near by are reflected against the role they have always played throughout the novel. This revealed both the depth of presence and absence of Raskolnikov’s relationship to them. His mother’s transformation as a character is the clearest example of this.

    So when psychological issues are talked about being double sided or hard to convict from (something like that..i forget the exact language used) I imported that into the epilogue as a question mark over the reality of his ultimate redemption – or if he had been redeemed immediately after the murder in his sickness.

    I recently read the novel but wasn’t reading it nearly as critically as it would be read in a course with it as the subject – that sounds like an interesting course, though

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