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:

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