Photo: Gerd Eichmann, via Wikimedia Commons | Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

Crime and Punishment: The loving action is above the idea that is logical

For this year, I had planned to read four of Dostoevsky’s classic novels in this order: Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Demons. Even though I have already written about Notes from the Underground, it is important to return to it briefly because it is deeply connected to the title under discussion here.

This book follows a retired civil servant who spends his time at home writing notes. In them, the man of the underground records his beliefs, which originated in Western Europe, and which captivated the fascination of Russian youth: Idealism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarianism, positivism, socialism and – underlying everything – atheism.

He can talk about these abstract ideas. However, completely incapable when it comes to the realm of action. He acts ineptly when dealing with his colleagues and friends. When he promises to help a young woman, his incompetence becomes apparent. For he leaves her in a worse situation than before their acquaintance.

In Crime and Punishment, this archetype (the intellectual) appears again, as it does in subsequent works by Dostoevsky. He reappears as a young university student named Rodion Raskolnikov. He is highly intelligent but ill-fated as he is unable to continue his studies due to lack of money and must starve. He uses his wits for a plan: if he goes to the local pawnbroker, kills her, takes the money from her, and uses it to finance his studies, his action will have a positive effect on society.

After the terrible deed, Raskolnikov regrets it, contrary to his view of “permitted murder.” He discovers that the realm of action is quite different from words. Similarly, to what Sidi Ali Al-Jamal of Fez said, action also has primacy over knowledge in Dostoevsky. In a state of confusion, he wanders among St. Petersburg’s poor, who are suffering terribly. This reflects his condition, for St Petersburg was a great metropolis, which in theory advanced all the great things of civilisation, but in practice the masses barely got by. This is one of Dostoevsky’s many hints that the country might soon be heading for revolution.

Wandering among the wretched of the capital, Raskolnikov meets a prostitute named Sonia and is instantly attracted to her. The reason is that, like the murderer, she has transgressed the moral boundaries of her society. Although the two are similar, there is a great difference between them.

Rodion Raskolnikov murdered the old pawnbroker for himself as an individual. Sonia prostitutes herself to support her desperately poor family. He has acted out of pure rationalism rooted in the will to power, while Sonia acts out of pure love rooted in faith in God. Here Dostoevsky shows that Sonia’s path of irrationality, is the one that leads forward. After Raskolnikov meets Sonia, he falls in love with her for this very reason. It is through this love that he is finally able to change.

Crime and Punishment is not limited to Europe in its meaning but has universal appeal. An example would be the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which started from anthropological ideas of the colonisers of the superiority of one people over another. After the genocide, both sides could only continue because they carried out the irrational practice of reconciliation. The same could be said about South Africa’s irrational solution to dealing with its difficult apartheid past: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Even in our personal lives and family zones, we have been taught ideas about male-female relationships: whether equality of both, a superiority of man over woman, or even the idea that gender is absurd. All three viewpoints offer their own compelling dialectic of how men and women should relate. However, if we take these ideas at face value, we may be inviting disaster in this area.

In all areas where individuals find themselves – fate, the political climate, our families, our marriages, our own passions, – we can make sense of them through the rational. But this has its limits. Only when we engage with the wholeness of love can we go beyond it. Then life will take the place of dialectics. According to Sufism, freedom is attained through its opposite: submission to the Absolute.

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