Personally, I require a ceiling, although a high one. Yes, I like ceilings, and the high better than the low. In literature I think there are low-ceiling masterpieces—Crime and Punishment, for instance—and high-ceiling masterpieces, Remembrance of Things Past.
—Artur Sammler, in Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1969), 151.
No one doubts that Crime and Punishment has a prominent place in the pantheon of world literature. Its place in the literary canon is secure. Nonetheless, the question remains: How great is Crime and Punishment? Is it really just a “low-level masterpiece”? Nothing more than a finely crafted crime story? A refined, middling, middlebrow mystery novel masquerading as highbrow literature? Is Crime and Punishment merely a “low-ceiling masterpiece”?
Incidentally, Sammler also says he used to read Alice in Wonderland to his daughter (145), but doesn’t disparage the novel—though perhaps mentioning that he read it to a child, as if it weren’t a book that deserves to be closely read by adults, is disparagement enough. Last year witnessed the outpouring of love (deservedly so) for Lewis Carroll’s classic novel Alice in Wonderland. All across the country, museum exhibits, stage-plays, and all sorts of commemorations marked the 150th anniversary of its publication.
But this year marks the 150th anniversary of Crime and Punishment, and unfortunately, much less is being done to celebrate the birth of this monumental novel. This is most likely due to the fact that, while Alice is obviously very lovable, Crime and Punishment is disturbing, challenging, and rather difficult to commemorate, let alone celebrate. But while comparing Crime and Punishment to Alice and Wonderland is as ridiculous as comparing Tchaikovsky to Charlie Parker, Crime and Punishment is the more urgent novel for us in our day and age; it not only is a great work of art, but is also a novel with a vital message for us in our peculiar time in history.
Raskolnikov is also young, but he is no Alice. He is a destitute student who wears rags, hardly gets enough to eat, and lives a meager life in the squalid slums of St. Petersburg. He is given to bouts of depression, hypochondria, monomania, and is isolated, alienated, and easily irritated—can there be any doubt that the subject he is a studying is law?
And this squalid St. Petersburg is obviously no wonderland. In fact, Raskolnikov’s grim city has much in common with Artur Sammler’s hellish New York City of the 1960s. But while the virtuous Sammler tries to end the criminal adventures of an elegant pickpocket artist on a Manhattan bus by calling the police, Raskolnikov tries to end the miserly existence of an old, odious pawnbroker by murdering her. Sammler commits an act of futility; Raskolnikov commits an act of terrorism.
“There are chance meetings with strangers that interest us from the first moment, before a word is spoken,” writes Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment. And such is the impression made upon us by Dosteovsky’s incredible psychological masterpiece. As Nabokov did about a century later with Humbert Humbert, Dostoevsky takes us into the mind of a criminal (Rodian Romanovitch Raskolnikov—can Nabokov’s similar doubling of the protagonists name be anything but intentional?) who is not too different from you or me, and by narrating events from his perspective, Dostoevsky makes us empathize with, and identify with the protagonist, thereby making us, to some extent, “complicit” in his crime.
In addition to its observations about human nature that, like Raskolnikov’s “casuistry,” are “keen as a razor,” and in addition to its frighteningly realistic portrayal of individual psychology, Crime and Punishment is frightening for its eerily prophetic portrayal of societal psychology. Dostoevsky wrote this magnum opus at the time when Europe was just beginning to witness the widespread questioning of religion. Darwin, Marx, and not too much later, Freud, would help usher in the modern secular age. Burgeoning scientific and historical awareness, as well as increasingly confident radical philosophers and theologians, were beginning to question all the old societal shibboleths and religious certainties; everything that once seemed so sure and firm—Judeo-Christian morality, in particular—now seemed so uncertain and weak. What would become of a society without religion, and without the millennia-old moral values which formed its bedrock? What would become of humanity in a world that would soon lose its moral center but without yet having formulated a new morality? Dostoevsky dreamt up a terrifying scenario of such a world, and plants this prophetic dream in the sleeping mind of the monomaniacal Raskolnikov.
Early in the novel, Raskolnikov dreams that he was back in the quaint, formerly pious village of his childhood. In his hometown, there is a tavern next to the church. Next to the tavern, Raskolnikov sees a group of peasants on a horse-drawn cart. The cart is being pulled by an old, poor, beaten-down horse. The horse is having great difficulty pulling the men on the cart forward, and the owner of the horse urges the men to beat the horse. They begin to do so, and the horse only struggles further, but instead of letting up, the owner barbarically urges the men to beat the horse even more. An awful spectacle unfolds: the men continue to beat the poor horse, while people cry out at the owner of the horse, “you are not a Christian!” They eventually exhaust their bloodthirst and beat the poor old horse to death.
In introducing this dream, Dostoevsky writes that “in a morbid condition of the brain, dreams often have a singular actuality, a vividness and extraordinary semblance of reality.” (48) What was most morbid about Raskolnikov’s dream was not only the horrid scene itself, but the fact that his dream did possess this “singular actuality”—it actually came true. Towards the end of Friedrich Nietzsche’s brief life, Nietzsche experienced Raskolnikov’s dream of a horse being beaten in his actual, waking life. Nietzsche was so overcome with emotion that he ran over to the horse, hugged it, and broke down in tears. Shortly thereafter, he suffered a nervous breakdown, and was never entirely sane again. He died in 1900.
Dostoevsky thus eerily prophesized a frightening event in the life of the most frightening prophetic philosopher of early modernity. Nietzsche’s breakdown, some suspect, was not due to the gruesome scene of seeing the beating of a defenseless horse; rather, it was the ruthless beating of the poor horse that triggered his psychological breakdown. For many years, Nietzsche, like Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment, had foreseen the frightening new reality of a world in which “God was dead”—a post-Darwin world in which the avant-garde would declare the old moral order of Christianity obsolete but without constructing an adequate new morality to replace it. For both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, the beating of the horse was a burning bush: It was a moment of revelation, a terrible, numinous sight which encapsulated and ushered in a new non-religious order, a terrifying world in which man had killed the morality—and the religion that lay at the foundation of this morality—which had carried him for two thousand years, without having yet procured a new horse of morality to carry him forward.
When Raskolnikov finally wakes up, he is “gasping for breath, his hair soaked with perspiration”; he stands up “in terror” and exclaims: “Thank God, that was only a dream. . . . Such a hideous dream!”
Unfortunately, to humanity’s great horror, the most frightening part of Raskolnikov’s hideous dream was that it was not only a dream. Seventy years after Raskolnikov’s dream, and fifty years after Nietzsche’s real-life redux of Raskolnikov’s vision, all moral foundations of the world order did indeed collapse; the culture of Bach, Beethoven and Goethe set up death camps to exterminate entire races of peoples and to launch a full-scale assault upon the very principle of the sanctity of life.
Crime and Punishment influenced everyone from the Great Tradition writers like Henry James and Joseph Conrad to existentialist-absurdist writers like Albert Camus and even comedic filmmakers who dabble in existentialism like Woody Allen. Allen’s filmic masterpieces, Crimes & Misdemeanors (1989) and Match Point (2005), are both heavily indebted to Crime and Punishment. And, while Camus’ Meursault, unlike Raskolnikov, did not commit a premeditated murder, he shares some of the same alienated feelings—a sense that he is swept along by a tide of uncontrollable events; an explicit distaste for religion; a penchant for getting mixed up with indecorous individuals—as Raskolnikov. (Compare, also, these authors’ similar phrasings: Crime and Punishment’s “Man grows used to everything”  and The Stranger’s “mother used to say that one gets used to just about everything.”) Moreover, Meursault’s firing of three extra bullets into the body of the already deceased Arab parallels Raskolnikov’s killing of Lizaveta after he had already killed Alyona, warning us that once one gives free reign to violence and criminality, there is no telling how far these vicious currents will carry us.
Indeed, Crime and Punishment is also a critical crie de coeur against the evils of terrorism. Do not think, says Dosteovsky, that violence can be justified by arguments based on virtue:
“Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds? For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay. One death, and a hundred lives in exchange—it’s simply arithmetic!” (59)
Do not think that the murder of innocent people, even if you and others hate them, can be considered a good deed; life is sacred, even the life of someone you despise. One life cannot be exchanged for thousands, because that one life itself is of infinite value; as the Talmud states, “whoever murders one person is as if he murders an entire world; and whoever saves one life is as if he saves an entire world.” Rather than paying obeisance to Raskolnikov’s nihilistic inclination, Dostoevsky ultimately affirms an alternative, unquantifiable arithmetic: the Judeo-Christian principle of the sanctity of one individual life. And a century later, Artur Sammler conducted a similar spiritual accounting and reached the identical conclusion: “The best and purest human beings, from the beginning of time, have understood that life is sacred.” (13)
Lastly, on the matter of Crime and Punishment’s premier place in the Western literary canon, I give the final word to former Princeton University Professor of Comparative Literature (and the brilliant Dostoevsky scholar and biographer) Joseph Frank:
“Dostoevsky managed to produce the greatest depiction of a conscience in conflict with itself since Macbeth. So long as the injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill’ continues to be a part of the Judeo-Christian moral code, Raskolnikov’s anguish will speak directly to the sensibility of any reader who intuitively believes with Sonia that human life is (or ought to be) sacred. The confrontations between Sonia and Raskolnikov, which dramatize, with such agonizing sublimity, the clash between the ideals of love and justice, raise some of the deepest issues of a Western culture whose double heritage derives from both Greco-Roman civilization and Christian faith. Such passages soar to heights that can only be compared with Aeschylus’s Eumenides, Sophocles’s Antigone, or Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, in their tragic grasp of the most profound moral-philosophical dilemmas.”
Crime and Punishment a “low-ceiling masterpiece”? Sorry, Mr. Sammler, but I think not—unless, of course, Mr. Sammler would go so far as to say that Macbeth is “low-ceiling Shakespeare” (as some apparently do). In which case, we’d have to call Mr. Sammler “low-ceiling Bellow” (not that I ever would)—a fitting punishment for such an unforgivable literary crime.
Originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on November 14, 2017.