Dostoevsky, Anarchists, and Al Qaeda

Dostoevsky, Anarchists, and Al Qaeda

Cross Posting at Blogcritics

More than anything, Crime And Punishment seems to be about what the characters are thinking. Not necessarily in an inner-monologue kind of way, definitely not stream-of-consciousness, but what their ideas are.

The characters have beliefs and ideals and IDEAS. The ideas are more important to the main character than any reality that exerts itself upon him.

He seems startled when a reality that does not conform with his ideas presents itself. That’s not so surprising, I’ve experienced it and seen others experience it. When you believe something to be true, it is hard to assimilate new evidence to the contrary.

I am sure that I would not have understood this novel if I had not also bee reading The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman. This book is about the cultural climate right before WWI. I haven’t finished it yet, but I had gotten to the part where she discusses the anarchist movement, AKA the communist movement. The people who were involved in this movement were taking it upon themselves to attempt assassinations, with some successes, of the ruling class. They seemed to act with terrifying randomness, because their IDEA said all rulers were bad, and needed to be brought down.

For the anarchists, there was no allowance for personality in a ruler. It was incidental if they were benevolent, and in no way saved them from attacks. The position, regardless of who occupied it, needed annihilation. Murder was not wrong, when it was correcting the evil of the ruling class.

The anarchists were not in the majority, even among those who were acting against the contemporary powers-that-be. Socialists and Unionizers were associated with the anarchists, but only a very few acted on their ideas.

So, of course, it is easy to see the parallels between the picture Tuchman drew of these idealists and Raskolnikov. He wanted to prove himself as a man of genius, above such petty moral considerations. He is motivated by his ideas about the world, and ignores realities of the world. A college drop-out, who mopes in his room, neglects to eat. And, of course, murders an old woman based on his principles.

Dostoevsky seemed to be bringing the reader through the experience of Raskolnikov in order to show the consequences, the “Punishment.” As seductive as some ideas seem, there is a reality which must be reckoned with. Our rationalization of theories and ideas is fine as far as it goes, but there is a standard to measure against. We may not recreate the world according to our ideas.

Of course, the times being what they are, I could not help but see a similarity between the turn-of-the-century idealists and the modern ones. I read the stories of the anarchists who murdered in the name of their beliefs. I saw how their zealot faith led them to an inevitable conclusion. And I remembered a certain group of men who hijacked some planes.

Wrong. When interacting with the universe, humility is required. You will not convince the world that you are right, and make it change. Not like that. The laws of the universe always get the final world: “Because I said so!” We must bend our minds to their forms, always and forever. There are consequences and reactions for our actions; and there is usually something that has been overlooked in the grand IDEA.

Raskolnikov had to understand how moral laws worked. Dostoevsky did a really good job of showing the complexities of his thoughts and experience. It isn’t simple.

Neither is the book. It’s long and often seemingly pointless. But it’s worth reading, and unexpectedly timely.

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