On Crime and Punishment
by Boil the Water, Walter aka Cut That Work, Jack
I recently had the luxury, and extreme pleasure, of re-reading the most meaningful, which also happens to be my favorite (an indication of just how sensitive to the human condition and of how important I am, no doubt) novel of Modern times; Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
Before you enlightened literary experts (FCHorn, I'm looking at you) and empty, faux-intellectual shills (Grendel, my glance moves to you) chime in together and turn hipster on me, I'm well aware that The Brothers Karamazov is a lesser read, more polished and overall “better” novel as well as being the darling of literary critics. Not only do I lack the time and energy to digest a large volume of dense reading, but Crime and Punishment can still, to this day, give me butterflies, as it was my first love and it shall be my last.
Let me preface that my re-reading of C&P was very difficult for me to undertake. This book was a very formative narrative for me and tapped within me the wellspring of existential living, of which I adhere, and sprung from the deep the driving questions that move my life:
Mainly: What is the meaning of my living? For what am I living for?
Supplementary: Why do I do the things I do? Why do I want the things I want? What are my passions and goals? What do I strive for? Why even live?
I realized that, because of C&P’s strong influence, the reason I’ve been slow to revisit this book and why I’ve been weary of lowering myself down into the depths of my soul was because of the sheer amount of time and energy it takes to clear an earthly schedule to allow for the proper spelunking and mining needed to find and polish all the new, funky jewels that have collected and gummed up, like sticky plaque, in the dark abscesses since my last reading.
Putting off reading this book again, even as I devoured every other Dostoevsky novel(la), short story, and essay, along with anything I could get my hands on of Nietzsche (who commented that “…Dostoevsky is one of the few psychologists from whom I have learned something.") and Camus, (whose The Stranger is counted as my second favorite and most read resource, owing a lot to its diminutive size and readability (and that is NOT to say it doesn’t pack a punch, my dearies!)), I knew that one day I would have to read this book again and I would be forced to reevaluate the story, the message, the writing, the style, and what C&P means to me.
Would I still feel the severe and personal rousing this rudimentary tome of existentialism stirred in me through the expert conveyance of the decay and dejectedness a self-aware man feels, caught between the unfeeling and unworthy masses, the weak, “material that only exists in order by some effort by means of crossing races and stocks, to bring into the world at last one man out of a thousand with a spark of independence” and the said ‘one in a million’ flash of genius?
Would I, an evolved and astute man, above the station of most but achingly aware of impotently existing on a rung below the elite class of the ruling and powerful, still appreciate the struggle of the self aware adult male or would I have grown fat and lazy, like a Christmas ham, on the contentment of an average, middling, and all together base life- one of mediocre (by my, perhaps lofty, standards) standing full of irrelevant trifles and minimal material gains?
Will the foibles and follies of youth show me to be a silly and idealistic boy or would my resolve be reaffirmed and would these hitherto lifelong values and source of hope follow me into my (arguably, by most of my friends and family) manhood?
Ultimately, I didn't want this book to have any less of an impact or lose even one glint off the constellation of brilliance and luster it once held for me, but, because I have stalled with a personal project and have “gone through every house on the block” as the addicts and derelicts say, I had no other choice but to go to the heart and home of my muse, timidly and anxiously rap on that hard and unyielding door, and see who was home.
That is to say, a week ago I deigned to pick up C&P and allow my cold heart to love again.
So with the anxiety of a 14 year old girl, I exhaled a nervous breath, spread my chaste rib cage and allowed Dostoevsky to again insert his cold, stiff two fingers an inch and a half in my heart (a thoroughly feminine organ, after all) and perform, once again, a come-hither motion.
The latest reading of Crime and Punishment was a very inspiring undertaking for me and left me with very different, but equally enthralling, inspired takeaways.
Before, as a 22 year old, I fancied myself not unlike the protagonist, Raskolnikov. A budding sprig with many of the unavoidable foibles of youth, I thought myself a man of considerable intellect and introspection, and one of the few (oh how I hated the average dullard- I still am not altogether cured and pique when people like Slorch or Rocko begin to opine) with absolute capability to “utter a new word”, as is said, by creating a theory for which to live by (and I did succeed in creating a philosophy, rules to govern my behavior, which I took great pains to establish).
In Raskolnikov I found my hero- a man who, not unlike your author’s beleaguered and youthful soul- mired in frustration with outward circumstances and environments and who found it difficult to exist in the Absolutes and Universals decreed by the juvenile and intellectually cheap understanding of our world. (Note the folly of my youthful logic; a young man who fancies himself bestowed with ‘absolute’ capability but lashes out when ‘absolutes’ are spoken! I still, however, reject the premise of absolutes outside of mathematics on the charge that it is ignorant and irresponsible to do so. I begin to digress…)
But, unlike Raskolnikov who could only wade in egoism and who mostly remained on shore, marooned by his miscalculated weakness, emotions, and nerves, I was a young but seasoned mariner, ready and willing to “spit on my hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats”.
Beyond all the good, those strong down winds that helped me sail successfully through life, I harbored all the shortcomings, that short sighted, myopic worldview enabled by living fully in the self and ego and was thoroughly disgusted when Raskolnikov would not power through his flawed human condition, take his $#@! out of his heart, and dismiss the notion he was a Great Man, “a Napoleon”, and resist turning himself in. I couldn’t- and most importantly, I wouldn’t- understand.
It wasn’t until this most recent reading that I now understand. Because Raskolnikov was not a Great Man- not a leader of terminal men- once he crossed the threshold and transgressed law, he lacked the ability to maintain his head and was subsequently left with three choices:
Madness (of which he flirted with and led on as if she were his betrothed)
Suicide (of which the true Hero, I humbly submit, Svidrigailov would eventually submit to*)
Repentance (which Dostoevsky seems to argue is, ultimately, redemption) with the knowledge moving forward that one, as a man of limited capabilities, is to stay in one’s lane and stay out of the way of grown men’s (the parlance of my day) travels and travails.
By turning himself in and opting for redemption Raskolnikov effectively opted, through truncating the theory of his being a Great man unburdened to the arbitrary rules and laws created by flawed and imperfect men in a world we can’t fully understand, for a mediocre, albeit easy and comfortable, life with close friends and family who love him at his bosom. He admitted to himself his true worth, that he a meaningless existence.
As a delusional, 22 year old student (again, not much unlike dear Rodion- especially in my gripping good looks, he-he-he), who fancied himself a “remarkable” and “great” young man, I could not follow my, up until then, Sherpa on that weak, flat, easy and well paved path.
I would rather have died.
And, still, as pride grips me and I retain enough of that youthful vigor (at the ripe old age of 28) to continue to hold out hope- a hope to redeem what I consider to be god given, innate strengths and excellence in abilities and attributes- and I still stand in defiance.
I understand, this time around, why Raskolnikov must do what he did, but I reject Raskolnikov’s decision and, still, would “break a sword over my head and kiss the pieces” before capitulating.**
Come with me as I turn my full and current attention to the technical details; the craft, the literary merit and the actual writing contained in C&P.
After my first reading, never had I been so moved by a literary creation and my body was rendered weak because of it. I dropped the book, completely fatigued from the reading, and rolled over exhausted and in need of a drink or a cigarette, as if Dostoevsky had just $#@!ed the $#@! out of me.
But, just as it is after great sex, my memory was given to short term and immediately after reading I had forgotten exactly how all the pieces and devices had been engineered together to create such a dynamic machine. All I remembered, in fact, was the end result and I was content to remain ignorant as long as I had that product and, owing to that, after this current reading, I was surprised at the actual writing, character development, character arcs and story line, and how Dostoevsky employed his unique abilities.
I don’t want to lurch into the dry and technical details of writing and bore the remaining five Mensch’s who have come with me this far, so I will speak to a few brief, but meaningful, points.
The most glaring aspect of Dostoevsky's writing that immediately jumped out at me, and what I completely missed the first go around, was the generous use of tension to move the story forward. Dostoevsky constantly and expertly built tension to keep fluid what could have easily been, because of the emphasis on psychology and the cerebral, a plodding and heavy-footed plot and this adroit use of conflict made for a smooth ride.
At times, though, Dostoevsky was almost vulgar in his excessiveness (examples of this were the constant cliff hangers at the end of chapters where someone was always showing up or something was revealed- a kitschy technique honed by the good people at Days of Our Lives and General Hospital) and there were times when it felt aged and archaic.
Next, something I noticed was that the shock and awe of a few scenes were tempered the second time around. The prevalent use (and some would argue, abuse) of ‘stream of consciousness writing’, while very much a Dostoevsky staple, seems to have been muted by the last few years of reading contemporary writers who make their bones with overt and, increasingly, obscene and anything-goes-streams of illogical, shocking, and random musings from writers like Chuck Palahniuk, B. Easton Ellis, and Hunter S. Thompson.
And lastly, an unaccredited major influence on my own personal writing style and "voice" that I must have subconsciously picked up from Dostoevsky, I really enjoyed his elaborate and garrulous descriptions- the sing-songy, melodious rhythm- and, especially the postulations and suppositions handed out in Socratic dialogue's, and I was reminded numerous turns of phrase, tonal direction, or word choice and realized the reason why everything I write, no matter the intention or genre, seems to err on the side of meta-fiction.
New and delicious tastes, accompanied with the staple flavors digested from my first read, satisfied a few of the nutrients my being was starved of and I left this book content, that still, there is a lot of intellectual bread I have yet to sniff because of how quickly I’ve filled up on these first two courses.
But for now I am full again. And from the belly of a fat man, I say to you:
To the well-read and learned man- Do not feel unworthy and unqualified to critically critique. Share with me your thoughts and opinions!
To the budding novelist- Do not let the weight of the great literature already published encumber and shackle you but, instead, hoist these works high and, like a flag of independence, give honor to creative freedom and the existence of creation as an option for humanity.
and To you Great Men, you “Napoleon’s” among us- Let the hug and embrace of this work motivate and inspire. As rejuvenated men emboldened with the reminder that we can, and must if we are, in fact, worthy of it, create our own meaning in this savage jungle.
Notes (from the Underground? He-he-he)
*Another essay entirely is required to expound and explain the question and topic of why Svidrigailov is the tragic hero and should be the celebrated and revered man in Crime and Punishment
**One must always take into consideration the possibility that perhaps the author is already showing the signs of age and the pussification that a dwindling of opportunity and the loss of grains of sand creates, because while he maintains that to die would be a more noble and honest ending, the reader must note that he has taken measures to “hedge his bets” so to speak, by having a kid for, if nothing else, a cheap, biological success and an automatic extension to further the chance to “spark genius” as was said.