Svidrigailov and the Society of Extraordinary Suicides

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Amidst the squalor of Crime and Punishment stood a dark figure who was Svidrigailov. He appears after the main character, Rodya Raskolnikov realized that he was not an extraordinary man, exempted fro,m the rules than govern the affairs of the common man such as morality, decency and religion.
Svidrigailov treads the line between a villain and a sympathetic character. In this sense, he seems to be one of the most complex and enigmatic character’s in Dostoevsky’s Crima and Punishment.

The complexity of his character is manifested in the acts he undertakes through out the novel. He is presented as a generous benefactor to Sonya and her family when her parents died, yet the reader would know that this is only a ploy in order for him to get closer to Rodya, brother of the object of his lust, Dunya. It is unclear whether he is absolved of killing his wife, and it is even more unclear whether it is mere lust or is it a much deeper love which propels him towards asking Dunya’s hand in marriage. His motivations, tainted by base desires and his means, two-faced and vaguely suspicious lead the reader to think that he is a clever mastermind who is ready to do anything to achieve the object of his desires.

However, this theory of an enigmatic but one-dimensional villain becomes weak when one considers the point of the novel. I have already established in a previous article that one of the possible aims of the novel, Crime and Punishment, is to criticize the Nietzsche-an theory of the extraordinary man, a human person who is naturally exempted from the constraints imposed upon him (or her) by society through its rules of morality and propriety. Seen in this light, Svidrigailov may be viewed as the realization of Nietzsche’s hypothetical person.

Svidrigailov, much like Raskolnikov, seems to not be incapable of doing “good” things. The readers see this in his final actions before he “goes to America.” Here he had nothing to gain. He had already been turned down by Dunya, and in no way does this benevolent act help him achieve any diabolical goal. Perhaps, one may say, it is appeasement to his battered conscience. But up to the last moment, we see no regret or remorse in the part of Svidrigailov. We only see a gun in his mouth and his finger pulling the trigger.

Svidrigailov is shown to be a lot of things in the story: a villain with his own motives and clever means, a slave of desire… But in all this, it cannot be denied that he exhibits full responsibility and agency for his actions. Unlike Rodya, he does not turn to some philosophy of some greater good in order to justify his perverse goals and actions. To do so would man he is still subject to some code of morality. He does not even harbour an insecure urge to prove himself above others, unlike the main character. Rather, it seems that he has fully and unapologetically exemplified this fact in his actions. As far as he is concerned he is above it all. And we do not hear from him a monologue justifying how he is. He just straight up does what he wants to get what he wants: disregarding morality and decency in the process.

This is what makes Svidrigailov more of an ubermensch than the main character. But what does his development as a character tells us?

It may tell us that even with his transcendence of the codes that govern human society, the ubermensch is still not an island. The fact that his independence is dependent upon how he exerts power over others means that his overman-liness is dependent upon the individuals he dominates and subjects. This point is seen through how Dunya’s rejection led to Svidrigailov’s eventual demise. The overman’s life and power does not exempt him from his necessity of other people. And in failing to subject other people to his will, in failing to fulfil the point of his very existence, there is no executioner more worthy nor more capable of punishing impotence, the overman’s only possible crime, than the overman himself. Ultimately, Svidrigailov kills himself, for in failing himself, he has commited a crime to the only authority he deems worthy: himself.

Here we may find significant differences in the characters of Rodya, the insecure pseudo-overman, and Svidrigailov, the epitome of the ideal overman. I have already said that while they both have perverse intentions and undertake evil acts to pursue their own ends, Raskolnikov felt the need to appeal to a conception of a greater good., while Svidrigailov seems to be absolved of this. But more importantly, in being thwarted, they both contemplate suicide. They both realize that this is the ultimate punishment for their failure to fully transcend the shackles of humanity and dependence. But only Svidrigailov followed through. Rodya found himself to weak to do it, and in doing so he further proves to himself that he is not an extraordinary man.

Rather than an expression of weakness and defeat, Svidrigailov’s suicide is the culmination of his transcendence over traditional morality. It is his final expression of triumph over the world of the weak. Here we find the ultimate consequence of the overman’s philosophy of relying on himself for a standard of truth, goodness and happiness: self-destruction. And Dostoevsky hits this point even harder with Raskolnikov’s dream.

Raskolnikov’s final dream, like the one he had with the tortured horse, is his soul trying to make sense of the implications of his philosophy, without the insecurity and pride which he is blinded of when he is awake. In his sleep, he sees a society wherein everyone was the final authority on their own versions of truth, and fought tooth and nail to impose it on others. Everywhere was war and chaos and disunity. In a society where there is no morality but one’s own interests, where everyone is exempted from the constraints of decency and propriety and are thus free to pursue their own goals, might makes right (if there is such a thing as right), and things fall apart.

The dream leads Rodya to realize that the independence of the overman cannot be reconciled with the mutual interdependence imposed upon everyone by external circumstances. The overman cannot exist as true master and tyrant over the people on whose existence his power and will is dependent upon. And if everyone aspired to be tyrants, to be masters of our own fate and captains of our own soul, we will all aspire to be lords over other lords, which would only lead to a state of war.

On a personal level, Rodya is reconciled with humanity in realizing his need of external forces, of other people, to fulfil his longing for love and salvation from the tyrant which is his own pride and selfish interest. He is not an ubermensch. He cannot live like an ubermensch. He realizes his limitations and needs and his own hypocrisy, and thus begins his journey back to humanity, the paradise he lost. And the journey begins in repentance.

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On Exemptions from Crime and Punishment

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“‘In his article all men are divided into ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary.’ Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary. That was your idea, if I am not mistaken?'”

This was Crime and Punishment’s main character, Rodya Raskolikov’s belief, as articulated by his primary accuser, the magistrate Porfiry Petrovich, who was investigating the recent murder of a shrewd old pawnbroker.
Rodya, of course, was responsible for the crime, and is in fact haunted by his guilt at the time, when Porfiry, who was rightly suspecting him, confronted him about an article Rodya wrote as a student in the University.
This statement was an admitted oversimplification deliberately made to put Rodya in an uncomfortable position. However, without losing his cool, the antihero was quick to correct the detective in doing so:

“I don’t contend that extraordinary people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an ‘extraordinary’ man has the right… that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep… certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfilment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity).“

The philosophy of Raskolnikov is reminiscent of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief in the ubermensch or the overman (or superman, in other translations). Nietzsche believes that naturally, there are people who excel everyone else in terms of their ability, resilience and will to dominate others. However, compared to ordinary people, they are quite few in number. Thus, finding strength in numbers, the ordinary men bound together to form ideas such as morality, the law and God to create a semblance of equality among otherwise unequal human beings.
These power structures, at least based on my understanding of Nietzsche, are contrary to what nature has preordained. And so he says that naturally, the overman has the natural right to transcend the obstacles provided by such constraints.
There are minor deviations made by Raskolnikov in his articulation of the philosophy behind the extraordinary men. Perhaps because on the outset, it is really hard to embrace the radical idea of Nietzsche of inequality and domination as the proper state of affairs, and Dostoevsky, while disapproving of the thesis, is just enough to provide a rational justification for believing in such a way of life.
The most significant deviation is that the overman is only allowed to “overstep” the hindrances provided by societal norms and codes in so far as he is moving humanity forward. Overmen, therefore, are really like Siegel and Schuster’s Superman, whose benevolence leads the people to see him as a symbol of hope rather than fear.

“I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men,“ Raskolnikov explains, “Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound… to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity.”

Of course this would be more sympathetic than the murderous, tyrannical overlords we picture from Nietzsche’s philosophy. But the idea remains the same. As Raskolnikov explains further: “I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course.”
Of course we know that this is coming from a man who just murdered an old woman. And perhaps, he was just passing the blame of the cruelty of murder to nature, as anyone of us would. Following the story of Raskolnikov, we know that he murdered the pawnbroker and her sister not for money, but to express his transcendence of the moral laws that govern ordinary men. We see his insecurity and shiftiness after the crime, and how he is led to the conclusion that these “weaknesses” manifest because he is not, after all, an extraordinary men.
This leads us to inquire further about the philosophy of the overman. Raskolnikov has said that his thesis was not new, and has been professed a thousand times before. Not only to extraordinary men, but to ordinary men as well.
It has been told to people over and over that they are allowed the right to set aside morality to somehow “push humanity forward.” But even if it were true, that such overmen exist, how is one to know that he is one without trying to exercise his will over others? What if ordinary men believe that, like the overmen, they have the natural right to kill, steal and rape for humanity?
This is not far from reality. We have seen people who act as if they were above the law, as if their interests were to be pursued at the expense of others. In the novel, we see Rodya, who was not driven by the natural urge to ascend to power in killing, but rather the fear of being ordinary.
The belief that there are such people, overmen, urges the power-hungry, proud and insecure germ in us to question whether or not what we have is enough, and whether or not we are entitled for more. And it gives us the license to appeal to nature whenever we overstepped the limits dictated by morality and conscience. And even if most of us think that this is too ridiculous to be true, we know from experience how the animals in us would rather turn to lies and be satisfied, than be confronted by reality and find themselves to be inadequate.
Perhaps there are overmen. Perhaps not. But even if there were, I would much rather live in a world where everyone were gods and had no idea, than live in one where everyone believed themselves to be gods when they are really not.

Crime and Punishment: Cruelty, Justice, and Simple Arithmetic

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If an act needs to be justified, does it mean it is inherently wrong?

If an act needs to be justified, does it mean it is inherently wrong?

“Kill her and take the money so, so that afterwards with its help you can devote yourself to the service of all mankind and the common cause: what do you think, wouldn’t thousands of good deeds make up for one tiny little crime? One death for hundreds of lives – it’s simple arithmetic! And what does the life of this stupid, consumptive, and wicked old crone mean in the general balance?”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

It was as if the world wanted Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov to do it. It was as if the universe wanted the young man to hack old Alyona, the spiteful pawnbroker, dead with his axe. Just when he had almost decided to let go of his plan to murder the old woman and scurry away with her money, he overhears two men at the pub contemplating whether killing off the crone would be just.

Of course, like most discussions and debates concerning justice, this one arises from an acts moral ambiguity. We do not argue over acts which are self-evidently and undeniably good, like dying for one’s neighbor or country or paying one’s taxes. We argue over the justice of acts which seem to be evil at first glance, like not dying for one’s neighbor or country or not paying one’s taxes. This is because almost all of us know and accept that sometimes a lesser good may be sacrificed for a greater good. Questions of justice are questions which ask whether the goodness of an act relative to a greater cause necessitates and justifies sacrificing a particular lesser good. In this case, the question is: Can one kill an indecent human being if it is done as a favor to mankind?

The lesser good to be forgone according to the speech given by the student is the life of an old, rich, and nasty, pawnbroker, while the greater good would be the redistribution of her wealth to several poor, dying families. If one is believes in utilitarianism, the problem seems to be indeed, simple arithmetic, for the goodness of an act ultimately depends on the amount of pleasure it creates. The happiness of one may indeed be sacrificed for the happiness of many others, if one is to follow this line of thinking. An underlying problem, of course, being disregarded or taken for granted I think by most utilitarian thinkers is whether human life is in fact as dispensable as other goods. But utilitarianism is not on trial here. What this article aims to shed light upon is how the problem may be resolved in the novel itself.

Prior to hearing the conversation, Rodya Raskolnikov was contemplating on whether to kill the Alyona the pawnbroker. Being a reflective, insightful University dropout, Rodya puts much thought into first, whether it is plausible and executable, and then whether it is just. What almost drives him significantly to have at it was that it was in fact executable, as he overheard that the pawnbroker’s sister, her only companion, shall be away for a while. But then he was shaken when he received a letter for his mother regarding her sister, who was to be married off to a rich though unlikeable man for his and his mother’s sake. Holding on to his love for his sister and his own ego, he could not let this be so, and yet he could find traces of his own reasoning and motivations in the letter regarding the murder of the pawnbroker: a woman’s life and worth being given up to satisfy the needs of others.

This was reinforced by the dream which followed. In it, Rodya pictured himself as a little boy witnessing the beating of an old mare to death by its owners. He could not stand this. While it may be said that the horse was old and useless, and its beating was causing entertainment for its owner and his friends, the sight was simply too ugly and cruel to behold. One could easily say that the horse was Alyona the pawnbroker and he was the mare’s master. But I think the dreams profundities do not simply end there.

The conversation between the officer and the student ended with the officer asking the student if he could in fact kill the woman. The student, saying that the point was not whether or not he would do it, but if it was just if someone did, said no. Of course. Everyone likes the idea of a war, a revolution, of just desserts. Yet nobody wants to get their hands dirty. No one wants to clean the dishes.

We talk about the justice in murder and killing that we oftentimes forget how ugly it is. In talking about the death penalty, for example, we do not consider how cruel a feeling it would be to be the one strapping down a criminal in the electric chair, or the crucifix-shaped bed where he or she would await the lethal injection. We do not even consider if the one to be punished is someone whom we loved. Or if it were us in the receiving end of such punitive justice. Objectively, we claim, it is just to kill murderers and predators. But what we do not see is that we are blind to the cruelty of “an eye for an eye.”

Of course, some have the cold adamant sense of justice that would tell them that such cruelty to be experienced by the criminal, whoever’s son, daughter, father or mother it might be, is well deserved. But even they, if only they would honestly consider the amount of mercy and grace they receive for the little acts of evil they get away with, would question whether mercy and grace should be extended to the individual as well. Such is the wisdom Jesus exhibited when he asked which one of the sinful woman’s accusers were qualified to cast the first stone.

This is the first thing the dream tells us. It is that violence however we may justify it is violent. Torture is always ugly. Killing is always cruel. We may turn to philosophies and ideologies to say which acts of violence are justified, but their justice does not exempt them from their evil. It does not wash the blood away.

Secondly, though it may have come before the dilemma, the dream answers the question posed by the conversation of the student and the officer. A thousand good deeds will not justify a tiny little crime. A thousand happy people does not make the torturing of a mare any less brutal. Good acts and bad acts, no matter how complimentary they may seem, are isolated from one another, just as the act of beating the horse dead and entertaining the people watching it are isolated. The inherent badness of lying is not negated by any end it was done for. “Justification” is a matter of whether or not such badness may be forgiven. And one does not forgive right things, only wrong ones.

Ultimately, the dream teaches us that we are hypocrites. While the mare may simply signify Alyona, it may also signify Rodya’s sister who was being betrothed to a man she does not love for their family’s sake. While Rodya was blind to the evil of killing the pawnbroker, a similar evil was visible to him in the case of his sister. And that evil, the evil of a victim tortured for the satisfaction of others, was incarnated in the dream of the tortured mare. Most of the time we see things as morally ambiguous or gray because we try, like hypocrites, to detach emotions and humanity in our judgment. We are hypocrites because we do not do this in cases which involve those whom we love. We turn to utilitarianism, relativism and subjectivism when it wins the argument. But when lives are at stake we appeal to conscience, authority and objective morality, the very things we deny in our moments of intellectual masturbation.

Our actions and their morality matter. This is why we philosophize about ethics and morality. But when we care about ethics and morality and philosophizing about them more than we care about what we actually do, we become something less of a human. When we value what constitutes a just murder more than what constitutes a good life, which is I think all we ever talk about these days, we become something less of a society.

God’s Broken Windows: His Standards and Ours

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"If God lived on earth, people would break his windows."

“If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.”

If only our pain were proportional to the bad that we do, we think most of the time, life would not be as bad. Yet it seems that life is not that way. It seems that whatever good we do, we suffer unjustly. “If God lived on earth,” says a Yiddish proverb, “he would have broken windows.” And why not? Do we not protest every little injustice we experience from those in positions of power? If God were on earth, we would burn effigies in front of his door like people from the olden days burnt sacrifices.

Last Friday, however, I learned a very important lesson in suffering through our discussion about the Book of Job in our World Literature class.

For so long have I viewed suffering as either punishment or a test. But I found that this was an error and perhaps, veiled by self-righteousness. It was only then did I observe that when the people I hate and disdain are suffering, too easily can I say that it is probably deserved by some form of sinful act they have done. But when it is the people I love, I am so contented in explaining it to be a mere test of faith. What is wrong with this attitude is the double standard by which I judge whether it is punishment or testing. This leads me to judge which people to comfort and which ones to stay away from.

“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
    Where were the upright ever destroyed?
As I have observed, those who plow evil
    and those who sow trouble reap it.
At the breath of God they perish;
    at the blast of his anger they are no more.

– Eliphaz the Temanite, Job 4:7-9

This is the same thinking employed by Job’s friends and thus leads to condemn Job for having committed a great transgression, although it has been prior established that no one is as righteous as him. But I have also learned that Job is not exempted from having such a standard. It is through this idea of suffering being punitive that Job accuses God of being unjust.

“Yet how often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out?
    How often does calamity come upon them,
    the fate God allots in his anger?
How often are they like straw before the wind,
    like chaff swept away by a gale?
It is said, ‘God stores up the punishment of the wicked for their children.’
    Let him repay the wicked, so that they themselves will experience it!
Let their own eyes see their destruction;
    let them drink the cup of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what do they care about the families they leave behind
    when their allotted months come to an end?”

– Job, Job 21:17-21

The problem in the Book of Job is the system by which we limit God’s justice and goodness by putting our standard of goodness above Him and judging Him based on that like we judge other people. And when somehow we are afflicted by pain we claim to be undeserving of, we accuse God of not being good or just or loving. Worse, we even doubt His existence. These are all because He failed to pass our standard of goodness.

“If only I knew where to find him;
    if only I could go to his dwelling!
I would state my case before him
    and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would find out what he would answer me,
    and consider what he would say to me.
Would he vigorously oppose me?
    No, he would not press charges against me.
There the upright can establish their innocence before him,
    and there I would be delivered forever from my judge.

 

“But if I go to the east, he is not there;
    if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
    when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.”

– Job, Job 23:1-9


What we fail to understand is that God cannot be judged by our standards of good and justice and love. Because He is Goodness and Justice and Love. What He does is purely good and just and loving, though it may be ugly and undesirable, and shockingly, even though when other people do it, it is to be considered evil. When you think about it, evil acts done by people are only evil because they are playing God. But surely God can play God.

In all this seemingly arbitrary characteristics of pain, we should not fear that God might be exercising His power upon us like objects of experimentation or toys. Because He loves us. He told us so. We can be sure that whatever pain we are given, undeserved it may be, is necessary. We may not know His nature and decision-making process, but we know His plan. He made it clear.

It is a hard idea to accept, especially for the hurt and suffering and oppressed: that all this somehow makes sense in the grandest scale of things. But like Job, we are permitted to mourn and weep and beat our chests at God and ask Him questions. He is real and He will answer. But I am inclined to think that we don’t. For we are so quick to lecture God about how justice should really be like.

What we should be doing is not judge God by our standards of goodness, but judge ourselves on whether we are perfectly submitting to His standards. Because whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, God knows what He is doing. There will be times when this idea would be so hard to accept as sufficient, but it’s okay. We can always come to Him and ask Him about things, for we will find Him when we seek Him. Didn’t He promise that?

When in pain, talk to God. Be angry at Him, show Him how much you are hurting. But talk to Him. If you do, out of the storm He will come and will reveal Himself to you. You will know Him and you will know you. And then, there will be peace.

“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.”

– Job 42:2-3