The Russian master hammered at the prototypes of cold-rationality of European Enlightenment that turned man into machine and everything into materialism and claimed that man can be understood through simple laws of nature while disregarding any role of his individual personality, sentiments, emotions and consciousness
Intensively elongated stares, sometimes for an hour, on fellow prisoners was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s paramount apparatus, in prohibition and absence of any writing material, to artistically decipher the thoughts of destitute people exiled by the Tsar in the frozen lands of Siberia. Dostoevsky had already wrote, years before exile when he was only twenty-four years old, about the miserable condition of poor and common people of Russia in his novel ‘Poor Folk’ and it had become a literary success. But now in exile for flirting with nihilist ideology, he was not only sharing an entangled destiny with them but also profoundly scrutinising and observing their every breath, thought, emotion, and movement.
While Alexander was pushing Russian society on the path of modernisation and at the same time bulwarking its youth from contagious Nihilism; faraway, in the deadly frozen abandon lands of Siberia, Dostoevsky was contriving literary-storm that was going to shake, break and shape Russian literature forever.
Kevin Birmingham in his biography ‘The Sinner and The Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer who inspired a Masterpiece’, has presented a resounding account of Dostoevsky’s life, literary career, inspiration for and making of his masterpiece ‘Crime & Punishment’, entwined with the political and social chaos of 19th-century Russian society. While with the success of Napoleon Bonaparte, the glittering streets of Moscow and Petersburg were gripped and haunted by the spectre of European Enlightenment and the trumpet of “Nihilism” was making the old order of Russian aristocracy vulnerable; at the same time, Dostoevsky was immersed in keen observation and snooping of stories of exiled rationalists and nihilists in cold, dark, and dusty prison cells of Siberia.
However, the frozen lands of Siberia and the dissection of thoughts of his fellow nihilists had chilled Dostoevsky’s own nihilist-spark, and undergoing change of heart himself, he confessed that Alexander is his greatest benefactor. Though his post-exile life oscillated between poor health, burden of debt, casino-addiction, hiding from creditors in Europe, abandonment by mistress, fear of forfeiting his rights on his future work, he yet took upon himself the mission of exposing the crumbliness and meaninglessness of the supercilious ideals of nihilists. He begin to study the anatomy of consciousness of nihilists and to reach its deepest abyss; as Birmingham puts it, “He had compulsion not just to open a wound but to examine it, to probe it with finger.”
Though Dostoevsky commiserated with the nihilist youth but he stayed clear of any influence of their thoughts and was of the opinion that the offspring of nihilist thoughts is nothing but devastation and chaos. However, he was against the censorship of nihilist literature, and proclaimed that suppression is no answer to growing popularity of nihilism, that a clampdown will only drive more youth towards this “forbidden fruit of Adam”. He asserted that nihilism can be countered and dispelled only by exposing its underlying farcicality.
Dostoevsky, after returning from exile, started a literary journal along with his elder brother. While hunting material for the journal, Dostoevsky came across the enthralling memoirs of France’s poet-murderer Lacenair who enjoyed watching comic shows immediately after cold-bloodedly murdering a bedridden old woman and her son. Though the French public were outraged and shocked by the gruesome act of barbarism but Lacenair showed no sign of remorse and publically justified his devilish deed and gave his brutal act philosophical meaning. He presented it as an act of just war against the tyrant society who had deprived him and his kind from the right of dignified life and called it as a blow to the “old aristocratic order”. Lacenair was a man of lofty ideals, cold-rationality, skeptic-philosophy, and barren of any kind of sentimentality and consciousness. Nihilists asserted that, “Society ought to be rational, because human nature is rational”, and Lacenair once asked people and journalists, “How is it that your intelligence doesn’t protect you from yourself?”
Lacenair’s academically persuasive arguments and eloquent rhetoric not only incarcerated the minds of French youth, especially young ladies, but among his admirers were celebrated intellectuals like Balzac, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and later Sartre and Nietzsche. Horrorstruck and frightened by his popularity, the French authorities pronounced death penalty for him, but the death sentence had not even a faint impact on Lacenair and he embraced death with a sarcastic laugh.
Lacenair’s story served as skeleton for Dostoevsky in creation of ‘Crime & Punishment’. Dostoevsky almost replicated the double murder scene, here of an old pawn-broker lady and her sister, at the very beginning of the novel whereas Raskolnikov protagonist of the novel is almost the double of Lacenair: ex-law student expelled for non-payment of tuition fee, destitute, improvised, intellectual, idealistic, and skeptic of the old order. As Dostoevsky vividly described every detail of the murder scene, even the broken skull was described meticulously and the identity of the murderer was revealed before the murder. Thus the theme of the novel is consciously directed towards “why he did it” instead of “who did it”. Dostoevsky wrote to his brother, “I am writing something important and I am confident that it will make great impact.”
Like Lacenair, Raskolnikov was inspired by a noble and idealistic cause to clear society from blood-sucking money-lenders and was compelled by his poverty-stricken position to commit a horrid murder. But unlike Lacenair, Raskolnikov soon found himself caught in the vortex of confusion, chaos and the absurdity of an initial noble resolution for crime. He buried all looted things under a big stone and even abandoned the idea of making use of those things. He was tormented by queasiness, hallucination, sallowness, haunting fears of his crime, and miserable consciousness.
Dostoevsky made it apparent that deeds carried out in the name of emancipation and rationality are in actuality done for “nothingness”. Though the philosophy of nihilism may had led both Lacenair and Raskolnikov to commit murder for worthy principles of cold-rationality but the human consciousnes is testament to the fact that consequences of crime are only absurdity and suffering. ‘Crime & Punishment’ is not about how philosophy shapes our lives but how consciousness shapes our lives. It hammers at the prototypes of cold-rationality of European Enlightenment that turned man into machine and everything into materialism and claimed that man can be understood through simple laws of nature while disregarding any role of his individual personality, sentiments, emotions and consciousness. “Dostoevsky wanted the murder scene pull readers out of the floating world of ideas and thrust them into a swamp of details”, writes Birmingham.
Birmingham’s biography is not like any other conventional biography but its captivating style of vividly depicting the making of the works of Dostoevsky interweaved with his personal, social, political and philosophical events makes it unique of its kind. Albert Camus, French novelist, said once, “Not Karl Marx but Fyodor Dostoevsky was the greatest revolutionary of the nineteenth century.” But the world has still not paid much attention towards Dostoevsky as compared to Marx; to understand and counter the transfixing materialistic attitude of the present era, reading Dostoevsky is indispensable.
—The writer teaches at Department of Commerce, University of Kashmir. [email protected]