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Stewart R. Sutherland LANGUAGE AND INTERPRETATION IN CRIME AND PUNISHMENT OF some novels it is possible to argue with justification that the problems of interpretation and understanding begin on the first page. Of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment it is possible to contend that the problems of interpretation and understanding begin on the title page. The terms "crime" and "punishment" are overtly moral. The novel is read in the context of a title which exhibits its values where they may be seen by all. What significance must we attach to the choice of such a title? It is possible that the title gives to us a characterization of the content of the novel which, retrospectively, we can only regard as either self-consciously ironical, or perhaps pathetically so, but how are we to decide whether this is more than a possibility? Having raised this question, I propose to set it aside in the hope of returning to it equipped with the experience derived from a number of literary and philosophical digressions. The literary and conceptual style of critical comment upon a novel often betrays much that is definitive of the response being elucidated. If one compares and contrasts Philip Rahv's essay on Crime and Punishment with the appropriate chapter of Mochulsky's Dostoevsky,2 the implication of this general claim may be clarified. My intention here is to use largely ostensive means to suggest the radically different accounts of the novel given to us by these two writers. That the conclusions are different is hardly in need of statement. What is worth examining is the character of the language and of the arguments used to substantiate those conclusions. The point of my discussion will rest not upon assessing the accuracy or legitimacy of particular judgments, but rather upon delineating the general contours of the intellectual contexts in which these judgments are offered. 223 224Philosophy and Literature Rahv's focus is on the character or psyche of Raskolnikov. The novel is seen largely in the form of a psychological study of the mind of the murderer. He reminds us that a central problem for Raskolnikov, for the reader, and for Dostoyevsky himself, is the identification of Raskolnikov's motive—not that there is an absence of motives, indeed quite the reverse: "He is soon lost in the maze of his own motivation" (p. 20). His mind spins incessantly upon an axis the nature of which is nowhere made unambiguously apparent. Nor, it seems, can we replace our search for a motive, or the sufficient reason for action, by identifying a supreme assertion of will: again, on the contrary, we are told, "Dostoyevsky is the first novelist to have fully accepted and dramatized the principle of uncertainty or indeterminacy in the presentation of character" (p. 21). Despite that, however, the success of the novel rests upon Dostoyevsky's skills in allying the insight ". . . that human consciousness is inexhaustible and incalculable" (p. 19), to "his capacity to combine [seeming contradictions] in a single brain and a single psyche, while staving off the danger of incoherence at one end and of the specious reconciliation at the other . . ." (p. 38). The mood ofRahv's treatment of the novel is dominated in this way by the language of (largely popularized) psychology—"pathological depression," "nameless guilt-feelings," "wishful fantasy"—and not surprisingly, he sees his own preoccupations as mirroring those of Dostoyevsky: "What Dostoyevsky has done in revising Raskolnikov's justification is to convert into a theory of human nature what is in Hegel not a psychological theory at all but a theory of men as subjects and objects of history" (p. 34). Mochulsky, on the other hand, breathes a very different atmosphere. From the outset he talks of "the spiritual existence of Dostoyevsky's heroes," and he says of a man who wills a murder or one who "betrays himself to the powers of dark necessity" (pp. 302-303), "The murderer has stepped beyond something more than the moral law: the very basis ofthe spiritual worlditself" (p. 303). "The whole tragedy of man-godhood," he tells us, "is expressed in these few words: 'It seems to me,' Raskolnikov says, 'truly great people experience an immense...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 223-236
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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