On teaching Crime and Punishment

by Robert Belknap, with introduction by Deborah A. Martinsen

Introduction

Bob Belknap was not only one of the world’s greatest Dostoevsky scholars, but also one of the world’s greatest teachers. He held that while some writers tell us what happen and some show us what happen, the Russians make us experience what happened. And that’s what Belknap did in the classroom. He did not tell us or show us what to think, he made us think by making us experience the texts he was teaching. For instance, he argued that Dostoevsky works physically upon us: when Raskolnikov is behind the pawnbroker’s door as Koch and his companion knock on it, he is holding his breath. And so are we. As Belknap points out, Dostoevsky makes us accessories after the fact: we want his axe-murderer to get away.

robertbelknap_hildehoogenboom_crop2

                               Robert L. Belknap, photo by Hilde Hoogenboom

When talking to colleagues who were teaching Crime and Punishment in Columbia’s great books course, Literature Humanities, Belknap always stressed two things: Dostoevsky was not Raskolnikov (he was more like Razumikhin) and Dostoevsky was an extraordinary literary craftsman, who studied the trade at the feet of the best yet continued to innovate. Belknap’s chapter on Dostoevsky’s omnivorous reading in The Genesis of “The Brothers Karamazov” is itself a fun read. He stresses that Dostoevsky read everything from the classics to the latest best sellers. He loved Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Schiller, and Pushkin (among many, many others), avidly read Ann Radcliffe and the Gothic novelists, and introduced Edgar Allan Poe to the Russian reading public.

Belknap held that Crime and Punishment was a novel about rehearsals: Book I is a rehearsal for the murder (think of the dream of the horse) and the next five books are rehearsals for confession (make your own list!). He held that Porfiry had a theory of crime: it is a disease with two symptoms – the crime itself and the need to get caught. Raskolnikov’s behavior betrays his guilt: he revisits the scene of the crime, ostentatiously throws money around, and talks as though he were guilty.

At the XVI International Dostoevsky Symposium in Granada this year, our Russian colleagues argued about whether or not Raskolnikov truly repents by the end of the novel. Belknap had an answer: Raskolnikov’s dream in the Epilogue is a magnificent repentance. His subconscious recognizes that nihilism and Napoleonism are diseases of individualism and pride.

The following post comes from April 2010, the last year Belknap taught Crime and Punishment as part of Columbia’s Core Curriculum. For more vintage Belknap on the novel, see his posthumously published masterpiece Plots (2016).

Crime and Punishment discussion for Lit Hum staff, April 5, 2010

Dostoevsky was very much a part of European culture, wrote with immense admiration about Homer, Dante, and especially Don Quixote, learned his trade from Balzac, Dickens, Poe, and many others, and considered Les Misérables a better novel than Crime and Punishment, though he considered Razumikhin and Dunia a better pair of lovers than Cosette and Marius.

That is to say, he was a pro, and not a mysterious Asian phenomenon, or an alienated misfit. If he resembled any character in Crime and Punishment, it was Razumikhin, racy, snappy, generous, arrogant, fun. Here’s a letter he wrote to his brother at the same age:

As to translations, I’m not sure whether I’ll fuss around all summer trying to get one. We had an idiot in Petersburg, Furmann, (He’s abroad right now) and he receives 20,000 a year from translations alone! If you could get just one year provided for, you should definitely come. You’re young; you could even make a career in lit. They’re all doing that now. In ten years, you could forget about translations.

Dostoevsky was a professional journalist as well as a writer of fiction. He edited four important journals and was centrally involved in the political and ideological controversies of the 1840s, 60s, and 70s. The nihilism of Turgenev’s Bazarov (Fathers and Children) had become the central concern of the intellectual world. It was not the belief in nothing, as Bazarov had suggested, but the adherence to a fixed list of doctrines – atheism, scientism, socialism, feminism, sometimes self-interest, and a few others – over against the three official doctrines of the government – Orthodox Christianity, Official Nationalism, and the Sovereignty of the Tsar.

Raskolnikov is infected with this disease of nihilism. His conscious being is drawn to the mathematical, the calculating, the economic, the burdensome, the suicidal, the social, the scientific, the cynical, the murderous doctrines about great men that had appeared in Napoleon III’s Life of Julius Caesar. His unconscious impulses remain generous, kind, liberating, and involved with confession, resurrection, and faith.

This split between the conscious calculations and the unconscious impulses lets Raskolnikov shift, usually suddenly, between the two identities. He confesses his crime, silently, horribly, to Sonia, and then suddenly shifts to the social benefit that flows from it, saying he has only killed a vicious insect. He gives money to the Marmeladovs, to the girl wandering on the boulevard, and he regrets it for socially rational reasons in each case.

After the dream of the horse, he wakes liberated from the burden of the murderous plan, but returns to that plan because he happens to learn that it is possible. This weird reversal of intent comes not from what he learns, but from the way he learns it – by coincidence. This coincidence reaches his sense of superstition, and Dostoevsky links superstition with the scientific sense of total control that emerges at the end of the novel in the dream of the plague that makes the madmen feel supremely sane.


Robert Belknap (1929-2014) was a Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and a former Dean of Columbia University. His work on Dostoevsky includes the books The Structure of “The Brothers Karamazov” (1989), Genesis of “The Brothers Karamazov”: The Aesthetics, Ideology, and Psychology of Making a Text (1990), and Plots (2016). 

We are grateful to Deborah Martinsen for giving us access to her notes from Professor Belknap’s discussion of teaching Crime and Punishment in 2010 as well as her introduction to this piece. Deborah Martinsen is Associate Dean of Alumni Education and Adj. Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. 

The photograph of Robert L. Belknap was taken at a conference held in his honor in February 2010 and appears with the kind permission of the photographer, Hilde Hoogenboom, Associate Professor of Russian at Arizona State University.

This post appears as part of the #CP150 project. For more information about the project, click here.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s