Friday, July 1, 2016

Crime Without Remorse: A USA Specialty

Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is about an individual student in 19th century Russia who murders an old woman. But it also tells the story of the USA . . . .

Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
I sat at an antiracism training sponsored by the ELCA Sierra Pacific Synod last week. One of the participants said, "Our country - we adopt the attitude that nothing we do is ever wrong." I thought it was a simple, elegant explanation of what is meant by "American exceptionalism." It certainly resonated with me, as I have been thinking about the question, "What is it that we as Christians need to face up to in this country? at the most fundamental level?"

I've been reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment again. This time I'm enjoying reading it in an old paperback edition -- the same one that was around our house when I was growing up. Every time I read it I'm struck by layers of meaning that I can't remember noticing before. 

As I began reading, I recalled that a few years ago Edward Snowden was given a copy of Crime and Punishment by his Russian lawyer. At the time I suggested the attorney was using the book to subtly raise the question, "Where are the real crimes that we should be focusing on?"

I noticed three things as I read Crime and Punishment this time:

Jacques-Louis David,
The Emperor Napoleon in His Study
at the Tuileries
(Art Institute Chicago)
(1) It's about politics. I had never before taken seriously the importance of Napoleon as a model for the kind of actor on the world stage who is "entitled" to bring about suffering, because it is offset by his great accomplishments. Perhaps to us readers today, Napoleon is a caricature; but at the time the novel was written, he had transformed society, and people who wanted to do things in the world pondered his example very seriously. (Consider: who are the "big players" that people look up to today?)

(2) It's about relativism. The murder committed by the book's protagonist is about as horrible as you could imagine. The book relentlessly zeroes in on him and his physical, emotional, and moral state. And yet . . . . I was struck by this statement, a kind of throwaway line from another character in the book: "It's as well that you only killed the old woman. If you'd invented another theory you might perhaps have done something a thousand times more hideous." (Bantam paperback, p. 396) (Consider: what are the theories we use to justify suffering by other people at our hands today?)

(3) It's about our resistance to remorse. Up until the very last pages, the protagonist is unable to simply say, "I was wrong." (Consider: why can't we admit we were wrong? what are we afraid might happen?)

I wonder: what would happen if students were encouraged to read this book and given the following guidance:  "Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is about an individual student in 19th century Russia who murders an old woman. But it also tells the story of the USA . . . . " ? ? ?


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