11. Raskolnikov Talks

Some say that the 19th century was the century of hypocrisy, i. e. the suppression of the innermost desires. The same can be expressed in another way: the 19th century was the time of the greatest order in the soul life; the very disposition of the soul, as mentioned above. As for ‘hypocrisy’, this is a moral assessment, that is, not a substantive one. The question is different: what did this century pay for the orderliness of soul life, for its discipline, for everything that the man of the 20th and 21st centuries bitterly envies?  We find the answer in Dostoevsky. On the other side of all the high and complex forms of life — brought out in his novels Underground Man and Raskolnikov, both infringed by this disposition, the reigning moral order in the world.

‘Why did it so happen’, laments the Underground Man, ‘that, as if on purpose, at the very, yes, at the very moments in which I was most capable of realising all the subtleties of ‘everything beautiful and high’, as they used to say in our time, I happened not to realise, but to do such unsightly deeds, such things that… well, yes, in a word, which even though everyone probably does, but which, as if on purpose, happened to me just when I was most conscious that they should not be done at all?’

This is not to say that the Underground Man (and in fact his creator) was a ‘low’ man. One can also see in this Dostoevsky’s moral bifurcation, which is closer to the truth, but is still not true. The bifurcation is introduced into the personality by Christian morality. Not by the Ten Commandments, as the reader might think, but by the nowhere clearly expressed, but thoroughly internalised in the Christian world prohibition to desire for oneself, to strive for personal goals; by the belief that worthy goals are only unnecessary for the individual, extremely distant from his joy and well-being; by the necessity to smuggle the joy and fullness of life, covering them up with these or those high goals. The underground man (and Fiodor Mikhailovich) sought their joy in different places, sometimes not very good ones, but this does not cancel what has been said above.

About Raskolnikov it is usually thought that he wanted to transcend conscience, and set his experience to find out: will the soul bear the ‘superhumanity’ or not? But Raskolnikov’s question can be put more simply: ‘Napoleon is given the right to desire for himself, and he acts for the sake of those wishes. Can I, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, wish for myself?’

Rodion has heard from his mother and nannies that it was a sin to ‘desire’ in general, and especially for oneself; and then he has learnt that everyone ‘desires’, but they do not talk about it, because only wishes for the sake of abstract, alien goals are acceptable to public opinion. Napoleon, on the other hand, is not the more marvellous because

‘for him the millions

of two-legged creatures are but tools’,

but that he boldly desires his own and for himself.

Raskolnikov could say: the ‘morality’ we know is reduced to the requirement: ‘you must not desire anything for yourself’ and is essentially a school for educating losers, i. e. those deprived of the ability to desire. Losers are comforted by the fact that the point of application of their efforts is somewhere beyond the limits of success in life, beyond the life they would like to live.

This mood is acquired, not inborn. The child’s soul is naïve and wants life; then comes the mind, which has been inoculated with ‘morality’, and teaches that fullness of life as a goal is either immoral or unworthy; that man should let life pass him by, and head for ideal goals: service to neighbours or ideas — something that promises reward only in another world or never at all.

To be a ‘moral’ person in this sense means to be broken, since any desire for oneself is illegitimate from the point of view of Christian morality. Its main feature is the primacy of ‘I must’ over ‘I want’. However, it is natural, desirable and useful for man to desire. By suppressing desires for oneself, not ‘ennobled’ by unprofitable goals, this morality produces either a man of a bifurcated will, or a predator, or a saint who has given up everything, but most of all, naturally — the first.

Rozanov correctly said that ‘morality’ in most cases is the inability to desire. And vice versa: a person is so dubious from the point of view of conventional morality, how strong his desires are. And even Chekhov (a man of seemingly weak desires) once uttered: ‘it is moral not to do what elders do not do’. That’s right.

How can one not think, Raskolnikov would say, that until one realises that everything (with a few exceptions) is ‘possible’; until one frees oneself from the questions ‘is what I desire good?’, ‘can I desire it?’, ‘do I deserve it?’ — he will move past life. The ability to desire requires abandoning moral judgement, abandoning the fear of looking ‘selfish’, of ‘desiring for oneself’. He who has been taught to ‘desire for others’ lives a phantom life…

By closing legal ways, he would continue, we encourage the development of two types of people: the weak, who retreat in the face of prohibitions, and I would not say ‘strong’, but the scoundrel, the impudent one, who first lies, then gets his way, but through lies and cynicism.

Let us stop Rodion Romanovich and ask: what about the Old World, in which strong personalities were not as rare as in the New World, and the ability to desire did not always lead the individual into the ‘underground’? After all, the Old World was, as it seems to the modern observer, through and through Christian, and the natural conclusion of consistently applied Christianity should be the universal inability to desire for its own sake, while not everyone is able to live with ideal goals, and life does not require the constant and exclusive pursuit of ideal goals. [1]

In fact, the capacity to desire was not left unexercised in the old world; whole areas of life ‘hidden’ from the gaze of the prevailing morality (i. e., the morality of ‘unwillingness’ or ‘desire for external goals’) were given over to it.

‘Lovers have a secret from ethics’, Kirkegaard remarks.  Man did not lose the ability to desire for himself — in love, in the field of ambition — and these desires constituted the body of life, and indeed the main content of literature. All the fiction of the old world is devoted to the extra-ethical behaviour of the individual, i. e. passions, aspirations, the search for fortune and happiness — everything that Christian morality cannot bless.

‘From the Christian point of view it is impossible to make an action, an effort, a leap, a play in the sphere of art, or literature, or laughter, pride, and so on’, Rozanov said about it. Not because it is somehow particularly hostile to labour and effort (on the contrary); but because it addresses itself to the inner man and turns away from the external world with its achievements; it refuses to approve any effort directed towards external goals.

Why is this so? Because Christianity is the religion of the shaken soul; in an atmosphere of disaster the Christian feels at home, here his faith gives him wings. Ordinary life, which requires love for the sun and warmth, is half-hearted for him, its meaning is unclear, there is no justification for it (despite all attempts to find such a justification).

In times of peace Christianity also nourishes the soul, but its centre of gravity is elsewhere. Christianity is the religion of the individual, torn from its foundations, no matter how many cosy outbuildings are built next to its original building. The Christian’s home is in the Apocalypse, to which he returns at the first opportunity. The Apocalypse gives completeness and meaning to his worldview… The fervour, for example, of the Russian schism is the fervour of the soul, which has moved from a sleepy and peaceful and generally unnecessary existence to the fiery but nourishing and to the end clear environment of the end of the world. The fruitless waiting has passed, life has begun!

Christianity is world-denying. Its world-denial comes from resentment against a world in which everything is given either temporarily or on condition. How not to be offended by ambiguous gifts and an unkind giver? How can one not be offended and refuse all his baits? However, another view is also possible: spiritual life, and life in general, is an adventure, not a rest, and it would be ungrateful to refuse the opportunity to be a part of this adventure…

But let us return to Rodion Romanovich and his speeches. The ‘old world’ was still rich and great — was it not because it was ‘moral’? On the contrary, Rodion will answer. The natural obstacle to the development of a weak, ready-to-obey personality (an endeavour which the Bolsheviks later succeeded so well in imposing in their own way the same morality of ‘abstract goals’) was the passions boiling in the old society, inherited from extra-moral (or rather, extra-Christian) sources.

A fruitful, rich life is enriched by the paradoxical truths of Christianity, but it is not exclusively nourished by them. Christianity is good where its light falls obliquely, not directly. To say, ‘Christian culture produced Pushkin and Tchaikovsky’ is wrong. If they had been fully and only Christian, their genius would have had nothing to feed on.

To live under the sun — to love, to desire, to pity, to strive — one must be something other than a ‘good Christian’. Much less to live a life of creativity. In reality, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky were produced by a rich and complex culture based on the coercion of the inner man, the strict discipline of the personality, the highest forms of internal order — with all the underlying tensions and underground rebellions inherent in these forms.

Whole areas of life in the Old World, as I have already said, were either directly inherited from paganism (arts, warfare, state-building) [2] or nourished by powerful worldly desires (marriage) — despite the emasculating influence of morality. The Church was an island on which the individual could rest from worldly pursuits, but the strength of this island was in the limitations of its size.

It is difficult, Raskolnikov would confess, to estimate the significance of Christianity for the personality, because it gives the soul a yoke — and at the same time dynamite for its destruction. Its life is in movement from stability to destruction and back again. In one thing alone Christianity is constant: in its abhorrence of all things that can be achieved. It is for the days when nothing more can be done; for the minutes when life has stopped…

The solitary heart has much to read in the Sermon on the Mount, but any desire for the fullness of life is by definition unblessed by Christianity. The whole world of ‘passions’, achievable goals, burning of mind and feeling was in earlier times outside the Church’s understanding of life — and this life was nourished by it; and in its turn was nourished by the ringing tension between duty (the Christian discipline of the soul, ‘cannot’ instead of ‘want’) and the demands of life (the flame of passions in the broadest sense, from ambition to erotic aspirations). This tension (about which Nietzsche wrote) is what gives the culture of the Old World (the last centuries of the Christian era) its unique acuteness.

In the war of 1914—1918 this world has burned down. The European is no longer required to exert himself every day in the struggle with himself; he has paid for his freedom with the gift of creativity.  The next step is either the dissolution of the individual in a sea of infinite (i. e. incapable of creating forms) freedom; or submission to a new burden (to the next ‘only true worldview’ of a secular or religious kind); or (the most difficult and unlikely) the search for the yet to be found combination of higher development and fullness of life.

[1] If it had not been for the generally accepted morality, which highly valued the renunciation of one’s own desires and the service of ‘distant aims’ — the intelligentsia would not have accepted Bolshevism, which freed Russian man from all desires ‘for himself’. At any rate, ‘men of mind and ink’ were seduced by this very thing by the revolution . Till the axe came down on yet another neck, the flickering light of the new moral order beckoned the head worn by that neck….

[2] It is not for nothing that Anton Kartashov says: the greatness of Peter is that he instilled in Russia the Roman (pagan, I note from myself) beginning.

Timofey Sherudilo.
From the book Twilight Time.

Back to Twilight Time

Views: 55