Crime and Punishment.

I finished Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment) a few days ago, and I’ve been mulling it over since then. It’s the first of Dostoevsky’s Late Great Novels I’ve read in Russian, and it would be ridiculous to try to summarize it or make general points about it after all the commentary that’s already piled up. I will say that I had trouble with the melodramatic aspects (the drunken father, the daughter forced into prostitution, the mother who goes mad and drags her little children out into the street to dance and sing); I realize it’s something that comes with the author, as with Dickens (who Dostoevsky loved), and I just have to put up with it, but I can’t help rolling my eyes and thinking of Wilde’s “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” I’m not crazy about organ music either, but if the composer is great enough (Bach) or the performer brilliant enough (Larry Young) I can get past my first reaction. But I’d trade half the wallowing in the misery of the Marmeladovs for another chapter with Porfiry Petrovich.

Also, a word about Svidrigailov. Erik McDonald recently posted links to a longish interview with Michael Katz and Nicholas Pasternak Slater, both of whom translated the novel and both of whom (in Part 2) picked Svidrigailov as the most misunderstood character. I can’t quarrel with Katz’s “he remains something of a mystery,” but I don’t like NPS’s more extended response:

On one reading, he is so enigmatic as almost to make no sense – is he fundamentally good (clearly not), or fundamentally evil (also not), and how do the good and bad sides in his character coexist? On the bad side, he may (or may not) have caused his wife’s death, he is a self-confessed libertine, he tries (or threatens) to rape Raskolnikov’s sister Dunia, and he plans to marry a child for his sexual gratification. Yet he performs many good actions, including saving Katerina Ivanovna’s orphan children and giving Dunia a large sum of money. Perhaps the last of his moral actions is to commit suicide. I think his character actually hangs together quite well: though repugnant, he is an intelligent man with a philosophical bent and humane instincts of empathy and kindness, who is saddled with sexual appetites that he can barely control. This is a paradox we meet often enough in real life (in this day and age, might he have been a charity worker in a third-world disaster area?). Dostoevsky, of course, must condemn him because none of his humane motivations come from God or religion: he is an amoral freethinker.

Talk about false equivalence! His “good actions” boil down to giving lots of money away; in the first place, that’s the easiest way for bad people to try to salvage their reputations (you can read about such lavishness in the papers every day), and in the second place, he mostly gives it to women he wants to seduce, which makes it not a good action at all. He’s a thoroughly bad man, which is why Dostoevsky condemns him — not “because none of his humane motivations come from God or religion.” He doesn’t have humane motivations, for Pete’s sake.

With that out of the way, I’d like to quote from William J. Leatherbarrow, an excellent Dostoyevsky scholar (and President of the British Astronomical Association!); these are a few of the many insights he provides in his Fedor Dostoevsky (Twayne’s World Authors Series):

We can express these ideas in another form: when the narrative of Crime and Punishment is in its subjective mode, as it is for much of the time, Raskolnikov’s consciousness threatens to deprive the outside world of its otherness, of its objective reality. It not only devours objective space and time, it also colors the reader’s view of other characters. Nearly all the characters in the novel are presented in terms of their relevance to Raskolnikov; few survive the discoloring effects of his dominant presence. The weakly presented Sonya soon loses all traces of “otherness,” of independence, and becomes merely a pledge of Raskolnikov’s salvation through humility and suffering. The fascinating Svidrigailov resists absorption longer, but in the end is identified with Raskolnikov’s alternative fate, that of pride, will, and death. Razumikhin does escape absorption completely, and his name — deriving as it does from the word razum (reason, intelligence) — suggests his role as a moderating presence, a touchstone of reality. Dostoevsky’s lesser characters contrast interestingly with those of Tolstoy. In Anna Karenina the Oblonskys and Levins stand partly inside and partly outside Anna’s world, and they broaden the novel by creating and sustaining the impression of a real world of alternatives. The secondary personages in Crime and Punishment afford no such refuge from the commanding consciousness of the central character. […]

The final interview is handled magnificently. In it Raskolnikov’s consciousness assimilates Porfiry completely, to create a phantom who satisfies all the demands of his urge to be caught. By this point Porfiry has lost all semblance of reality; like a ghost he visits Raskolnikov, who is alone in the room where the murder was conceived, and like a ghost he afterwards disappears, never to return. And, indeed, there is no need for him to reappear, for after this scene, in which he finally confronts Raskolnikov with his guilt, the latter has no further need of his fantastic, imaginary duel with the detective. The next stage in the development of his desire to be caught and punished must be real — a proper confession to the authorities. Raskolnikov’s final interview with Porfiry is a rehearsal for the real confession and arrest.

I don’t know if I agree with all that, or with the many other provocative things he writes about the novel, but it makes me think and reconsider my own reactions, and that’s what I want out of literary criticism.

Another thing I want to mention is this series of quotes from Razumikhin about lies and truth, which I haven’t seen much discussion of. In 2:4 he says:

Ведь тут что всего обиднее? Ведь не то, что они врут; вранье всегда простить можно; вранье дело милое, потому что к правде ведет. Нет, то досадно, что врут, да еще собственному вранью поклоняются.

What’s the most offensive thing here? It’s not that they lie; lying can always be forgiven — lying is a delightful thing, because it leads to truth. No, what’s offensive is that they lie and worship their own lying.

In 2:7:

Мы-то сами разве не врем? Да и пусть врут: зато потом врать не будут…

Don’t we tell lies ourselves? Well, let them tell lies: afterwards they won’t do it…

In 3:1:

— Да вы что думаете? — кричал Разумихин, еще более возвышая голос, — вы думаете, я за то, что они врут? Вздор! Я люблю, когда врут! Вранье есть единственная человеческая привилегия перед всеми организмами. Соврешь — до правды дойдешь! Потому я и человек, что вру. Ни до одной правды не добирались, не соврав наперед раз четырнадцать, а может, и сто четырнадцать, а это почетно в своем роде; ну, а мы и соврать-то своим умом не умеем! Ты мне ври, да ври по-своему, и я тебя тогда поцелую. Соврать по-своему — ведь это почти лучше, чем правда по одному по-чужому; в первом случае ты человек, а во втором ты только что птица! Правда не уйдет, а жизнь-то заколотить можно; примеры были.

“What do you think?” shouted Razumikhin, raising his voice even more, “you think I’m mad at them for lying? Nonsense! I like it when they lie! Lying is man’s only privilege before all organisms. By lying you’ll get to the truth! I’m a man because I lie! Nobody’s ever gotten to a single truth without lying fourteen times first, and maybe a hundred and fourteen, and that’s an honorable thing in its way; but we can’t even lie with our own minds! Lie to me, but lie in your own way, and I’ll kiss you. To lie in one’s own way is almost better than to tell the truth in someone else’s. In the first case you’re a man, but in the second you’re just a bird! Truth won’t get away, but you can board up your own life; there have been examples.”

And a few pages later in the same chapter:

[…] хоть мы и врем, потому ведь и я тоже вру, да довремся же наконец и до правды, потому что на благородной дороге стоим […]

[…] though we lie, because I lie, too, we’ll lie our way to the truth at last, because we’re on the noble path […]

What’s all that about? It was obviously important to Dostoevsky, since he hammered it in repeatedly, but it’s not clear to me how you lie your way to the truth. Still, more to think about, and the next time I read the novel maybe it will make more sense to me.

I’m taking a brief break from the 19th century to read Part Five of Vladimir Sorokin’s Норма, the letters to Martin Alekseevich (“Здравствуйте дорогой Мартин Алексеич!”); I was put onto them by this post by Anatoly Vorobey, which I recommend to anyone who reads Russian and has any interest in Sorokin — there’s a lively exchange of views and some consensus on his best work (including these letters). I wonder: are Pelevin and Sorokin the Tolstoy and Dostoevsky of our day, and can we call them Porokin, a la Tolstoevsky? Anyway, after that it’s back to 1866 and Leskov’s Воительница [The Battle-Axe, also translated The Amazon].


  1. Once again, a disclaimer. I’ve read C&P a long time ago and might be off base. What Razumikhin talks about (and Dostoevsky himself through him) is not an easy factual truth like what one ate for breakfast today. I think what Dostoevsky is interested in is motives behind people’s actions. How we present our motives to others and how we view them ourselves. And for Dost it is an infinitely deep well of confusion, deception, and self-deception. He knows full-well how people lie to themselves about their own motives, but still thinks that examining these half-truths is a worthwhile thing or maybe the only thing. What else can one do to pierce into their own or somebody else’s mind?

    I thought to make a comparison with the famous spherical cow. That is a reconstructed motive, even if we know that it is not the full or best explanation, is still something that might reveal a side of reality not observed before. But now I don’t think it’s quite right. When I read him, I didn’t get the impression that Dost had an analytical mind. For him the truth about human nature was not a multi-faceted reality, but a reality with deeply buried essence, which was hard to reveal. And the whole truth was not a collection of the sides or part-truths or suchlike, but finding that essence. Still he saw these deceits and self-deceits as attempts to pry the real truth out.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    The spherical cow link doesn’t work ! I am inconsolable until it does.

  3. D.O.: Everything you say is correct, of course, and I’m not expecting “factual truth” from what Razumikhin says — I just want to know how I should understand it, what he’s trying to convey, and I don’t think it’s that we should examine half-truths to discover motives.

  4. Great write-up on C&P! I’m also curious what you’re gonna make of Sorokin’s “Letters…” , which is strongly tied with the 1970s realia of the Soviet Union, as most of The Norm is. I have no idea how the whole thing could be adequately translated into English. Anyway, nobody would understand it without annotations. The German translation does exist, however.

    As for Pelevin and Sorokin being “the Tolstoy and Dostoevsky of our day”, God forbid! And I did enjoy a lot of things they had written. My prediction is that both will remain in the history of Russian literature as minor writers. Mikhail Gigolashvili, for example, is head and shoulders above them. Same goes for Mikhail Shishkin, Vladimir Sharov and the late Alexander Goldstein.

  5. I have no idea how the whole thing could be adequately translated into English.

    I think it could be done, but you’d need a translator adept at a certain register which most translators (having an academic background and little contact with manual labor) are unlikely to wield. For an academic press, it could be festooned with notes so the diligent reader could enjoy all references and allusions, but I think it’s enjoyable enough just as a verbal fugue that you could do without all that.

    As for Pelevin and Sorokin being “the Tolstoy and Dostoevsky of our day”, God forbid! And I did enjoy a lot of things they had written. My prediction is that both will remain in the history of Russian literature as minor writers.

    Like them or not, they’re definitely not minor writers. But my thought was not about quality but about their position in the literary world of the day; T and D came out with novels every year or two and were seen as automatically top of the list, and the same is true of P and S since the ’90s. You can’t deny that Omon Ra was The Novel of 1992, Sorokin ruled 1994, and Pelevin hit it big again in ’96 with Chapaev i pustota. Both have long since gone downhill in terms of quality (as has Akunin, to take an example from a lower level), but their novels are still events when they appear. We live in a fallen age. And come on, “Porokin” is funny. (For the non-Russian-speaking, porok means ‘vice.’)

  6. “Porokin”, btw, is a legitimate Russian last name. Have you read “Goluboye salo” and “Serdtsa Chetyryokh” yet? Those are his most radical texts. The latter one makes Palanhiuk and Ellis look like nursery rhyme authors.

  7. No, but they’re definitely on my list.

  8. Link for “spherical cow” is not working… how fitting. I guess, googling is the way then.

  9. Michael Hendry says

    ‘Spherical cow’ makes me think of the square pigs in Space Truckers, and then wonder if any of the erudite commenters here have ever seen that hilariously stupid movie. (They’re bred to be squarish to fit in cages for long-distance space-trucking, like the squarish watermelons you see now: I wonder which came first.)

  10. Here’s a chunk of Anna Weetabix’s paper on Russian cultural scripts that may be helpful:

    The reality of the script posited here for Russian culture may be disputed on the grounds that Russians often see themselves as prone to lying. The classic text in this regard is Dostoevsky’s essay “On lying” (“Nečto o vran’e”), in which he writes, inter alia (p.133):

    Lately, I was suddenly struck by the thought that in Russia, among our educated classes, there cannot be even one man who wouldn’t be addicted to lying [lgat’]. I am certain that in other nations, in the overwhelming majority of them, only scoundrels are lying; they are lying for the sake of material gain, that is, with directly criminal interest. Well, in our case, even the most esteemed people may be lying for no reason at all, and with most honorable aims. We are lying almost invariably for the sake of hospitality. One wishes to create in the listener an aesthetical impression, to give him pleasure, and so one lies even, so to speak, sacrificing oneself to the listener.

    The anthropologist Dale Pesmen, the author of the acclaimed recent book Russia and Soul, appears to accept Dostoevsky’s comments at face value when she refers to “the values and practices of lying” as “a poignant aspect of dusha [soul] culture”:

    A woman, talking with a friend in my presence, happily exclaimed ‘What Russian can help stretching the truth occasionally?’ I have no statistics on Russian mendacity, but what matters is that talk about lying and fibbing enjoys an exuberant vocabulary and corresponds lavishly to that of Russian soul. (Pesmen 2000:64)

    Is it true that Russian has an exuberant vocabulary of “lying” as compared, for example, with English? I think the statement is defensible, in so far as Russian has two widely used words comparable to the English lie, that is, lgat’ and vrat’, as well as the common expression govorit’ nepravdu ‘to tell untruth’. It is also true that vrat’ has a rich family of widely used derivates: privrat’, sovrat’, navrat’, and so on; and that there is the widely used abstract noun lož’, the widely recognized speech genre of vran’e [‘jocular lies, lying as art’, as explained later], and above all, the basic speech category of nepravda ‘untruth’ [which has no English equivalent, as explained earlier].

    What this “exuberant vocabulary” suggests, however, is not a greater mendacity than in other societies, but a greater concern about truth, a greater cultural focus on telling the truth. Dostoevsky’s comment that Russians lie out of hospitality sounds somewhat amusing from an Anglo point of view, because in English, such “lies” would be described as “white lies” and not regarded as “real lies” at all. But Russian (as mentioned earlier) has no word or expression for “white lies” and makes no similar distinction between “lies” and “white lies”: as Dostoevsky’s comments illustrate, they are all seen as “lies”.

    See also our 2015 discussion of Russian words for ‘lie’.

  11. Very apposite quotes, thanks!

  12. IMHO, Russians are not lying more than others, though I have nothing to go on except personal perceptions. Russian language doesn’t have an exquisite vocabulary for lying. There are many ways in which people deviate from honest and simple truth and Russian employs various ways to describe the meaning appropriate to the situation, but it is not “exquisite”. Russian used to have a “white lies” expression “lozh’ vo spasenie”, but it sounds archaic. Was current in Dosts time though. And let’s state one more time the obvious — however deep Dostoevsky’s insights were into Russian mind or even universal human mind, his specific views about Western moral situation was a caricature.

    ‘What Russian can help stretching the truth occasionally?’ — so does everyone else. It’s like the phrase from Gogol everyone keeps repeating “What Russian doesn’t like a fast ride?”, well, everyone likes it. Duh!

  13. Sure, but it does seem to me that lying (in its various forms) is talked about more in Russian, even if not practiced more.

  14. I don’t like fast rides; I like speed only insofar as it saves time, with as few bumps and clunks and swayings as possible.

  15. …but it does seem to me that lying (in its various forms) is talked about more in Russian

    Maybe, though I don’t see it. There are very good Western books about truth and lies and the whole lives based on them. Heck, the whole mystery genre is about uncovering the truth. What about Roth’s “American pastoral” (just to pick something I am reading right now). Aren’t lies big and small a big part of it? Don’t tell me, though, the details, I am still reading it.

  16. Well, yes and no. The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye wrote in Anatomy of Criticism:

    The fact that we are now [1958] in an ironic phase of literature largely accounts for the popularity of the detective story, the formula of how a man-hunter locates a pharmakos [‘scapegoat, villain’] and gets rid of him. The detective story begins in the Sherlock Holmes period as an intensification of low mimetic [the mode of pathos in tragedy and bathos in comedy], in the sharpening of attention to details that makes the dullest and most neglected trivia of daily living leap into mysterious and fateful significance. But as we move further away from this we move toward a ritual drama around a corpse in which a wavering finger of social condemnation passes over a group of ”suspects” and finally settles on one. The sense of a victim chosen by lot is very strong, for the case against him is only plausibly manipulated. If it were really inevitable, we should have tragic irony, as in Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikoff’s crime is so interwoven with his character that there can be no question of any ”whodunit” mystery.

  17. There are very good Western books about truth and lies and the whole lives based on them.

    Sure, there are books about everything. I’m not talking about “books about,” I’m talking about the topic being woven into the fabric of discourse, both everyday and literary. I don’t think Americans talk about it much in daily life (as opposed to rote complaints about lying politicians). But of course an actual study would be needed; I’ve long since learned not to trust my own intuitions.

  18. Bathrobe says

    Well Japanese must be great liars, too. The expression うそ! uso! ‘a lie!’ is regularly used as an expression of surprise meaning, roughly, ‘You’re kidding!’ or ‘Really?’.

    The Japanese also say 嘘も方便 uso mo hōben, often translated as ‘Lying can be expedient’. It means that telling lies may be necessary to attain a goal. However, this apparently has a religious background. 方便 hōben refers to the different ways in which Buddhist monks can preach to the masses in order to bring them to understand the true teachings of Buddhism. Lies are one way of doing this — but not, of course, lies that are used for evil purposes. Does this sound a tad like Dostoyevsky? Maybe not…

    There are other ways that Japanese justify uttering untruths for social purposes — to smooth over situations, make people feel better, etc. This is not regarded as bad. Even お世辞 o-seji, ‘(false) compliments, flattery’, but with less of the negative undertones of the English word ‘flattery’, is understood as referring to untruths or exaggerated compliments to make people feel good. People will regularly discount effusive praise as o-seji without necessarily thinking badly of the other person. In some quarters the Japanese have got a reputation for lack of frankness or for deviousness, but if you know the culture it’s not hard to tell when lies are being used for social purposes (as in John Cowan’s quote about the Russians). The real problem is if people tell you barefaced lies (真っ赤なうそ makka na uso, ‘pure-red lies’), but I don’t think this is necessarily any more common in Japanese culture than in other cultures, possibly even less so, although this is a pretty subjective thing.

    In social situations the Chinese are also apt to lavish praise on people. Knowing how to praise someone skilfully and subtly when toasting is a prized part of the culture of drinking.

    I do know one thing, however: if a Chinese shopkeeper tells you that he/she is selling an item to you for cost price, they are sure to be lying. But that is part of the culture of making a sale. I’m pretty sure it exists in many different cultures. And anyway, no business operator (anywhere) is going to tell you what he/she bought an item for. Profit and profit margins are tightly held secrets.

  19. Very interesting! I think this kind of discussion of how different cultures handle topics can be enlightening as long as it isn’t devoted to one being held up as ideal or another mocked or the differences taken as some sign of grand irreconcilable differences. We’re all human, we all lie, but we talk about it differently.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Sure, there are books about everything. I’m not talking about “books about,” I’m talking about the topic being woven into the fabric of discourse, both everyday and literary. I don’t think Americans talk about it much in daily life (as opposed to rote complaints about lying politicians).

    Austrians and Germans complain a lot. But Germans also complain about people who complain a lot, while Austrians don’t: if you complain, you’ll get agreement or disagreement, but not a complaint that you complain a lot.

    …at least I read that once, but my experience doesn’t seem to contradict it.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Wikipedia naturally has an article about the spherical cow. “See also”: “Assume a can opener”.

  22. In an episode of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, the joke is told by Dr. Leonard Hofstadter with the punchline mentioning “spherical chickens in a vacuum”.

    Why would you do that?? It’s like changing “interrupting cow” to “interrupting chicken” — you’re not gaining any humor, but you’re losing a cultural reference.

  23. David Marjanović says

    you’re not gaining any humor

    Sure you do – you can cringe and laugh at what an out-of-touch nerd Leonard is. After all, that (for most of the characters) is what half the series is about.

  24. David Marjanović says

    Urban Dictionary: Interrupting cow.

  25. Ah, well I don’t watch the show so I didn’t know that was a factor.

  26. David Marjanović says

    OK, “half the series” is an inference from maybe 10 episodes I happen to have seen because someone else was watching them over the years.

    And don’t get me started on Sheldon’s contradictory personality traits. 🙂

  27. [Maybe an antedating of “spherical cow”]

    A professional joke that circulated among scientists a few years ago may guide us. It seems that a large dairy company had been losing money for some time. All the usual curative tactics had been tried [….] In desperation the directors voted to get a scientist as a consultant [….] Eventually a brilliant young theorist was found and hired at high pay [….] In due time he did summon them, sat them down in front of his blackboard, and began, ‘You have employed me to analyse your troubles and work out solutions. We scientists know that the main thing is to select first the essentials of the problem, leaving secondary matters for later corrections. I shall start (Fig. 2.2) by postulating a spherical cow…’.

    A.O. Williams Jr in Underwater Acoustics, ed. RWB Stephens (London, 1970, p. 25).

  28. I never really thought the “spherical cow” joke was particularly funny. However, there was a slightly more elaborate version that I heard around MIT (and nowhere else, although the main joke is common among scientists) several times near the end of the last century. In addition to the cow being spherical, it was assumed that the milk was distributed uniformly throughout its volume.

  29. A better joke about theoretical physicist’s ability to abstract out “unnecessary details” comes from the Soviet Union:
    A seminar announcement:
    1. Ya. I. Frenkel “Gas as a rigid body”
    2. I. Ya. Pomeranchuk “Rigid body as gas”

    For non-Russian speakers, both names are real, but read as ordinary words are “I and Frenkel” and “And I, Pomeranchuk”

  30. January First-of-May says

    In addition to the cow being spherical, it was assumed that the milk was distributed uniformly throughout its volume.

    The enhanced version I’ve seen somewhere (not sure of the details, it was years ago) was “assume a spherical cow radiating milk isotropically”.

    (It was probably on Wikipedia, since I vaguely recall there being a link from the word “isotropically”.)

    [EDIT: yup, Wikipedia, the talk page for “spherical cow”.]

  31. The classic text in this regard is Dostoevsky’s essay “On lying” (“Nečto o vran’e”)

    I just read it (Russian text), and it’s excellent; too bad there’s no freely available translation, but the quote above gives a good idea of the gist. (He ends by saying Russian women don’t lie nearly as much as men, which he sees as a hopeful sign.)

  32. Incidentally, one thing I dislike about the usual way of transliterating Russian is that it makes no distinction between e and yo, so that vran’e represents both nominative враньё [vran’yo] and prepositional вранье [vran’e]; “Nečto o vran’e” has the latter.

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