Roskolnikov’s ‘New Word’

In Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment the central character Raskolnikov (the murderer) writes an article that is the first sign that the police investigator finds of his guilt. Below is the argument of that article as presented by himself, in person, to the police investigator. This presentation is the machine at the heart of the novel. The novel can be read as an exploration of the definition of that machine.

Raskolinkov makes an attempt at being an extraordinary person by pronouncing a ‘new word’. That ‘new word’ is the article presented in the following quote – that is, it is the articulation of the criminal origins of all law. The reason that he kills the old money lender and her sister is the principle outlined in this article – the assertion that law is criminal itself and thereby justifies its own transgression. The plot that arises from this act can be understood as the “beautiful and edifying” “public penances” that are the self-inflicted punishment of those that cannot bear the consequences of founding a new law yet make the attempt anyhow.

The question presented by the novel seems to be: Is this an articulation of the limitations of law – that it cannot be done away with, that it cannot be built again on grounds that are not criminal, that is, that it cannot recognize its own partiality? Or, is the novel itself the presentation of Raskolinkov’s ‘new word’ and that the punishment he inflicts upon himself represents the re-founding of law precisely on the basis of its partiality? This second possibility would see his punishment as being a necessary estrangement the ‘extraordinary man’ has from the experience of his own mastery.

The key to the answer to these questions seems to lie in the interpretation of Raskolinkov’s ‘redemption’ in Siberia. Answering this question could be a way of articulating that Nietzsche’s fear of the ‘ultimate man’ is unfounded at an absolute level. This is a topic that I have been interested in because, to put it crudely, it seems to suggest that a lack of stupidity is a problem for modernity and this, at least at the empirical level, is erroneous.

The other consequence of such an investigation would be to provide some comment on the possibility of positive political action that is not simply self-interested against the assertion that political engagement holding a rigorous claim to universality must by definition always be negative.

Here is the quote:

Raskolnikov grinned again. He understood at once what it was all about and what they were so anxious to get him to admit. He remembered his article. He decided to take up the challenge.

‘I’m afraid that isn’t exactly what I wrote,’ he began simply and modestly. ‘Still I must admit that you put it quite fairly, and even, if you like, very fairly indeed.’ (he seemed to be pleased to admit it.) ‘The only difference is that I do not at all insist that the extraordinary men must, and indeed should, commit all sorts of enormities, as you put it. In fact, I doubt whether such an article would have been allowed to appear in print. I simply hinted that the ‘extraordinary’ man has a right – not an officially sanctioned right, of course – to permit his conscience to step over certain obstacles, but only if it is absolutely necessary for the fulfilment off his idea on which quite possibly the welfare of all mankind may depend. You say my article isn’t quite clear. Well, I’m quite willing to explain it to you as clearly as I can. Perhaps I’m not mistaken in assuming that that’s just what you want me to do. Very well. In my opinion, if for some reason or another the discoveries of the Keplers and Newtons could not be made known to people except by sacrificing the lives of one, or a dozen, or a hundred, or even more men who made these discoveries impossible or in any way prevented them from being made, then Newton would have had the right, and indeed would have been in duty bound, to – to eliminate the dozen or the hundred people so as to make his discoveries known to all mankind. That, however, does not at all mean that Newton would have had the right to murder anyone he liked indiscriminately or steal every day in the street market. Then, as far as I can remember, I go on to argue in my article that all – shall we say? – lawgivers and arbiters of mankind, beginning from ancient times and continuing with the Lycurguses, Solons, Mahomets, Napoleons, and so on, were without exception criminals because of the very fact that they had transgressed the ancient laws handed down by their ancestors and venerated by the people. Nor, of course, did they stop short of bloodshed, if bloodshed – sometimes of innocent people fighting gallantly in defence of the ancient law – were of any assistance to them. It is indeed a remarkable fact that the majority of these benefactors and arbiters of mankind all shed rivers of blood. In short, I maintain that all men who are not only great but a little out of the common, that is, even those who are capable of saying something that is to a certain extent new, must by their very nature be criminals – more or less, of course. Other wise they would find it difficult to get out of the rut, and to remain in the rut they could by their very nature never agree, and to my mind they ought never to agree to it. In short, as you see, there is nothing particularly new in all that. Indeed, it has been printed and read thousands of times. As for my division of men into ordinary and extraordinary, I admit it is somewhat arbitrary, but after all I don’t insist that it can be fixed exactly. I only believe in my principal idea. And all this idea claims is that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories: an inferior one (ordinary), that is to say, the material whose only purpose is to reproduce its kind, and the people proper, that is to say, those who possess the gift or talent to say a new word in their particular environment. There are, of course, innumerable subdivisions, but the distinguishing features of both categories are well marked: the first category, that is to say, the masses, comprises all the people who generally speaking, are by nature conservative, respectable, and docile, and love to be docile. In my opinion it is their duty to be docile, for that is their vocation in life, and there is nothing at all humiliating in it for them. The men belonging to the second category all transgress the law and are all destroyers, or are inclined to be destroyers, according to their different capacities. The crimes of these people are, of course, relative and various; mostly, however, they demand, in proclamations of one kind or another, the destruction of the present in the name of a better future. But if for the sake of his idea such a man has to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he is, in my opinion, absolutely entitled, in accordance with the dictates of his conscience, to permit himself to wade through blood, all depending of course on the nature and the scale of his idea – note that, please. It is only in this sense alone that I declare in my article that they have a right to commit a crime. (You remember our discussion began with the legal aspect of the question.) Still, there is really nothing to be afraid of: the mob hardly eve acknowledges their right to do this, but goes on beheading or hanging them (more or less) and, in doing so, quite honestly fulfils its own conservative vocation in life, with the proviso, however, that in the subsequent generations this same mob places the executed men on a pedestal and worship them (more or less). The first category is always the mast of the present; the second category the master of the future. The first preserves the world and increases its numbers the second moves the world and leads it to its goal. Both have an absolutely equal right to exist. In short, with me all have the same rights and – vive la guerre eternelle – till the New Jerusalem, of course.”

Roskolnikov is then asked what there is to identify such extraordinary men.

…But you have to take in to consideration the fact that such a mistake could only be made by a member of the first category, that is to say, by the ‘ordinary people’ (as I have, perhaps not very felicitously, called them). For notwithstanding their inborn disposition to docility, quite a lot of them, owing to some whim of nature which has not been denied even to the cow, like to imagine themselves advanced people, ‘destroyers’, and do their utmost to proclaim the ‘new word’ themselves, and that in all sincerity. At the same time they very often not only do not notice the really new people, but also treat them with scorn as old-fashioned people whose ideas are beneath contempt. But I don’t think there is any real danger here, and it really shouldn’t worry you at all, for they never get very far. Occasionally, of course, it might be as well to administer a thrashing to them for allowing themselves to be carried away by their ideas and also to make sure they don’t forget themselves, but no more. As a matter of fact, you won’t even have to employ anyone to thrash them, for, being extremely law-abiding by nature, they will thrash themselves: some of them will perform this service for one another, while others will administer the thrashing to themselves with their own hands. In addition, they impose all sorts of public penances upon themselves, and the result is both beautiful and edifying. In short, you needn’t worry at all. It’s a law of nature.’ p276-278 Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment


About barkingcoins
This author is just another fucking dickhead.

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