Fyodor Dostoevsky - Crime And Punishment - Preface To Podcast
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
At the mere mention of the words, “Russian literature”, two names—plucked from a field of illustrious candidates—suggest themselves: Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The primacy of the one, or of the other, yet remains a distinction un-conferred. We know not to whom the gold goes, nor to whom the silver. And so, we’ll reserve our judgment, withhold our choice, and await the administration of an accolade for another day.
For now, though, we speak of Dostoevsky. Of all his works, the two worthiest of note are The Brothers Karamazov, and Crime and Punishment. The former will be the subject of a future podcast. The latter is our concern for today.
One name to know, less famous, perhaps, than that of the iniquitous protagonist, Raskolnikov, is Pierre Francois Lacenaire. An historical, as opposed to a merely fictional character, Lacenaire was the man on whom Dostoyevsky’s young murderer was based.
Born of bourgeois parentage in the Eastern part of France, Lacenaire had poetic aspirations—dreams, in fact, of artistic greatness and literary renown of which, till the very end of his life, he never fully let go. By all accounts, throughout his brief time on Earth, he suffered neither the sting of poverty, nor the shame of want. His educational attainment was high, and his inheritance, commensurately lofty. Every obstacle by which his progress through society might’ve been slowed, was removed from his path. In a word, success and status awaited him, if only he could avoid falling off the road.
Upon completing his studies, Lacenaire joined the French army. Within a year of graduation, he exchanged the cap of a scholar, for the bayonet of a soldier. While serving in the field, however, he was quietly devising plans for a forthcoming career, the culmination of which would lead to Dostoyevsky’s terrible inspiration.
No sooner had Lacenaire enlisted, than he abandoned his military post. His parents were shocked, while his radical literary friends cheered the dishonor. He promptly re-entered civilian life, and habituated himself to immorality and crime. He was incarcerated intermittently, fined time and again, yet remained unreformed of his delinquent ways. His wickedness, having not yet peaked, only grew larger. Finally, it climaxed with his murder of a man by the name of Jean Francois Chardon, and his elderly mother, with whom he lived. The former was slain with an axe; the latter, suffocated with a pillow.
His twin murders, enough to make a barbarian blush, quickly became an international horror; the brazen defense with which he tried to justify them, a scandal for all time. Citing France’s wide-spread, systemic injustice, a program of oppression of which he felt himself to be a blameless victim, Lacenaire argued that his violence was, by any measure, valid, given the unhealthy climate in which he lived. Culpability for his act, he claimed, resided rather in society, than in himself.
His trial became a thing of public theater, and his jail cell, a veritable salon. In it, he played host to the gilded names of France’s literary elite, from whom he amassed a personal library of some substance. At long last, having succeeded in captivating the attention of not only France, but the entire Western world, he was sentenced to death, brought to the guillotine, and killed at the tempestuous age of thirty-two.
Dostoevsky, like Balzac, Hugo and the rest of the French literati, was engrossed by the story. Each, of course, was disturbed by it, but in different ways. Dostoevsky, most astute of the three, understood it not merely as the macabre misbehavior of one individual wretch, at one point in time, and in one sordid city, but as a general feeling of lawlessness by which European society, writ large, had become lately tainted.
Russia was in the throes of a generational rift. Among the nation’s restive youth, strength was deemed the ascendant morality (in accordance to the preaching of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche), while nihilism was the philosophy de rigueur. Christianity, so long the ballast by which the country was steadied, began to shed its formidable weight. It no longer convinced a continent drifting ever further into the murky depths of materialism, positivism, and science. (This phenomenon is best-voiced in Ivan Turgenev’s masterpiece, Fathers and Sons, a tale upon which I expound in an earlier episode).
Dostoevsky, though only recently returned from his Siberian exile, wasn’t insensitive to this changing tide. With no small amount of anguish, and with the numbing chill of trepidation at his feet, he felt its waves make contact with his skin. Having been thus bathed, he might’ve done one of two things: retreated from the shoreline, along which these daunting eddies roiled, or dived still deeper into the abyss. Undeterred by the depths before which he stood, and buoyed by a faith in Christ about which he was never more certain, he chose the latter.
Crime and Punishment was the result.
Aided by the morbid example left by Lacenaire, and adorned by the rubies of his dazzling genius, it was a devastating response to Nietzsche’s doctrine of power. He anticipated and, with dramatic éclat, buried the myopic German’s sinister idea. He depicted a man, Raskolnikov, unmoored of morality, and brimming with power. He fancied himself a reborn Borgia, or a nascent Napoleon—a conqueror unencumbered by that same moral law to which, regardless of one’s claim to papal paternity, or his ownership of Europe, everyone is equally subjected.
Everyone—Raskolnikov not excluded. Christian morality, he sooner learns, is unlikely to brook circumvention, and the will to power is an impossible creed by which to live. The following is an excerpt from the great account of a killer’s psychology, and an atheist’s sin: Crime and Punishment. I do hope that you enjoy. From the text:
“You see, I wanted to become a Napoleon…that’s why I killed. Well, is it clear now? Would Napoleon have gone ahead or not?” Doubtless, he would have. The Corsican artilleryman, that great general upon whom, in the rubble of the Revolution, the dazzling title of “First Consul” was bestowed, was little encumbered by his conscience, and seldom dissuaded by the scruples of his Christian faith. Indeed, he was subject to no higher moral law, no Decalogue issued at Sinai’s misty peak. He cast himself, instead, quite beyond the realm of good and evil--that same meek, pallid, wretched world from which our young Raskolnikov sought his escape. In his murder of a louse, and her innocent sister as well, perhaps he found it. We hesitate, though, to proclaim him a Napoleon reincarnate. Such an epithet is for others to apply.