Messy Things Betwixt and Between

by Amy Ronner

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the first in a series of posts by roundtable participants. 

With my PhD in literature, I began my first career teaching at the University of Michigan and then at University of Miami.  It is not surprising that when I became a law professor, I instinctively integrated literature – – especially Dostoevsky – – into my classes: the obvious course is criminal procedure and one not-so-obvious is Wills and Trusts.

Because I have practiced law, I have seen what can potentially hobble a lawyer: namely, her insistence that things be tidy and fall within set parameters of unyielding doctrines. In fact, fledgling law students tend to apotheosize the legal system and expect it to bestow order and absolute certainty. Golyadkin, as law professor, tends to jolt these soon-to-be lawyers out of this stultifying mindset.  But what is that nexus between Dostoevsky’s The Double and Wills and Trusts?

After the publication of my article, “Does Golyadkin Really Have a Double: Dostoevsky Debunks our Mental Capacity Doctrine,” Capital University Law Review. 40 (2012), p. 195, Harvard Law Professor Robert H. Sitkoff referenced it in his popular text book, Wills, Trusts, and Estates (New York: Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 2016).  The article, along with Sitkoff’s nod, gave me to idea to invite Professor(s?) Golyadkin to teach a unit in Wills and Trusts.

One unit in Wills and Trusts is about will contests where individuals seek to invalidate a testamentary document by arguing lack of mental capacity or insane delusion.  These cases involve people who contest wills because they feel that they have been unfairly omitted or slighted. (“Damn it, mom left my good-for-nothing brother more!” “Dad left that step mother, the witch, everything!”).  There are lots of cases like this and they are unsettling. In them, challengers argue that the wills are invalid because the testators have no basis to believe for example that one son was plotting murder, or that spouses were cheating, or that DEA agents were secretly monitoring their lives. When courts invalidate wills by finding that the beliefs behind them are the product of insane delusions, my students typically have a fit: how does that judge know that Smith’s son wasn’t trying to kill him?  How do the jurors know that Honigman’s wife was not smooching with Krauss behind the shrubbery?  How in the world can a jury find that DEA Agents weren’t monitoring Breeden’s life when it turned out that one of his friends was indeed such an agent?  As one student once succinctly put it, “these cases suck.”

In steps Golyadkin.  Despite the many debates over The Double commentators tend to concede that with respect to “hero” Golyadkin that they are never certain what is really happening and what is hallucination.  As Deborah Martinsen once put it, there is “narrative ambiguity around [the Double’s] objective existence.” (“Introduction” in Notes from Underground, The Double and Other Stories (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003)). Drawing on my article, I created a class exercise where we read The Double and make Golyadkin a testator in a will contest, one who is charged with having insane delusions.  The students are asked to answer the question, how should a court rule?  In most states, a delusion is not insane if there is any factual basis for it.  Does our Golyadkin walk away with a clean bill of health or an insane delusion diagnosis?

The most aberrant event in Golyadkin’s life is his encounter with the Double and even that is not implausible.  In real life, such a thing happens.  Accounts of identical twins separated at birth who suddenly meet for the first time are plentiful.  In fact, Anton Antonovich even mentions that very phenomenon to Golyadkin: “[D]on’t you worry.  It’s a thing that does happen. Do you know, I must tell you this, the very same thing occurred to an aunt of mine on my mother’s side.  She saw her own spitting image before she died.” And incidentally, CNN has been redundantly pounding it into our heads that Golyadkins can even triplicate.

As in will contests, in The Double, there is conflicting testimony.  Petrushka, for example, takes two coats and serves two meals.  He confuses Golyadkin with his Double and even quits because “nice people don’t have doubles.”  In rebuttal, however, Petrushka, corroborating the contention that the Double is imagined, considers the task of taking Golyadkin’s letter to the Double to be a joke and claims that both Golyadkins have the same address.  Witness Anton Antonovich also speaks to both sides.  After being pressed, he at first admits that he detects only a slight “family resemblance” between the two Golyadkins and then suddenly anoints them two veritable clones: “Yes. Quite right. Really, the resemblance is amazing, and you’re perfectly correct – – you could be taken for one another . . . Do you know, it’s a wonderful – – it’s a fantastic likeness, as they sometimes say.  He’s you exactly.”

My Wills and Trusts students can never reach anything close to consensus.  But they come to realize that the debate and discomfort that The Double engenders replicate the reaction  that they and legal scholars have with respect to mental capacity case law.  Moreover, there are students courageous enough and willing to push further to consider whether it is even worthwhile to relentlessly adhere to the belief in the existence of an objective truth.  That is an uncomfortable place to go: it is the land of messy things betwixt and between, but for lawyers the very act of going there is quite salutary.


Amy D. Ronner, who holds both a law degree and an M.A. and Ph.D in literature, is a Professor Emeritus of Law at St. Thomas University School of Law, where she taught Constitutional Law, Wills and Trusts, Sexual Identity and the Law, and Criminal Procedure. She is the author of five books, including Dostoevsky and the Law (2015) and Law, Literature, and Therapeutic Jurisprudence (2010).

The Four Raskolnikovs and the Confessional Dream

by Amy D. Ronner

I am a law professor who teaches criminal procedure, a course which covers the constitutional protections for those accused of or charged with crimes. One of the burning questions in the text books is why do so many suspects waive their Miranda rights and confess? Typical conjectures blame the overbearing and devious tactics of law enforcement or the suspects’ hubristic confidence in their own skill at talking their way out of trouble. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s perspective in Crime and Punishment is far more astute. In essence, there are four Raskolnikovs and they quadriphonically divulge confessional truth.

At least unconsciously, Raskolnikov knows what he needs to sire his own deliverance. Shortly before the crime, Raskolnikov experiences what has become famous in world literature – – his dream of the suffering horse. Dostoevsky underscores the momentousness of “dreams, morbid dreams, [that] always live long in the memory and have a powerful effect on disturbed and already excited organisms.”[1] It is this “palpable and vivid” dream that predicts the future and prescribes the cure (Pt. 1, Ch. 5: 51).

In the dream, Raskolnikov is a boy visiting the countryside with his father and passing a tavern, loaded with drunken partyers. Mikolka, the owner of a large wagon, hitched to a skinny old horse, invites the rowdies to pile in and go for a ride. Although it is obvious that the horse cannot drag the overloaded wagon, Mikolka savagely beats the horse to a pulp. The incident turns into a self-defeating vicious cycle: the more Mikolka delivers lashes, the less the horse can budge and the less the horse can budge, the more the enraged Mikolka delivers the lashes. When spectators voice objections, Mikolka yells, “I’ll do what I like.” According to Mikolka, the mare is his “property,” which after being senselessly bludgeoned on the spine, “sighs heavily” and expires (Pt. 1, Ch. 5:54, 55).

Child Raskolnikov, traumatized and dashing out from the crowd, makes a futile attempt to save the horse. Eventually, he lunges at the murderer:

He yells and squeezes his way through the crowd to the sorrel, throws his arms around     her dead bloodied muzzle and kisses her, kisses her on her eyes, her lips. . . Then he        suddenly jumps up and charges at Mikolka with his little fists. At that very moment his father, who’s been chasing after him in vain, finally grabs him and hauls him out of the crowd (Pt. 1, Ch. 5: 55).

When Raskolnikov awakens, he instantly annexes his dream to the very murder he has been contemplating:

“My God!” he exclaimed. “Will I really – – I mean, really – – actually take an axe, start bashing her on the head, smash her skull to pieces? . . . Will I really slip in sticky, warm        blood, force the lock, steal, tremble, hide, all soaked in blood. . . axe in hand? . . . Lord,will I really?” (Pt. 1, Ch. 5: 56).

Psychoanalyst Louis Breger points out that in Raskolnikov’s “own interpretation he sees himself as Mikolka, the dream portraying his plan to kill the aged and useless old pawnbroker.”[2] While the dream does mirror the atrocity that Raskolnikov is about to commit, it also prefigures regeneration and prescribes what he needs to do to even begin to get there.

Crime and Punishment back cover: the horse dream

There are four Raskolnikovs in this dream: one, the Mikolka-Raskolnikov who seeks to assert power over and ownership of others through the irrational extinguishment of human life; two, the mare-Raskolnikov who feels helplessly trapped and beaten down; three, the boy-Raskolnikov, who compassionately leaps forth to try to spare a life; and four, the father-Raskolnikov, who swoops in to squelch the child’s heartfelt, heroic benevolence.

Here the most important Raskolnikov in the quadrille is, of course, the boy, who speaks, comes forth, takes responsibility, and tries (albeit in futility) to right a wrong. He is, after all, the antidote to a Mikolka-esque murderous tantrum, and he is, like the spirit of confession, a courageous personification of what can potentially become best in human nature. In an allusion to Nekrasov’s poem “Till Twilight” (Do sumerek, 1859), the boy kisses the mare “on the eyes” and “on the lips,” compassionate acts which extol both vision and speech as faculties that can assist heartfelt redemption (Pt. 1, Ch. 5:55). As Deborah Martinsen has pointed out in her superb blog (“Dostoevsky and Raskolnikov’s ‘New Word’”), it “matters which ‘word’ we follow.” In essence, Raskolnikov’s soul and psyche desperately need to hear and heed this little boy’s word and thus, let him “squeeze[] his way” out (Pt. 1, Ch. 5:55). The dream tells Raskolnikov, even before he has committed the offense, that what he must do to just begin to change his life is to come forth, confront that internecine Mikolka, and confess.

The dream is conterminously prophetic because it is the fourth Raskolnikov, the suppressive patriarch, who prevails by banishing the boy, by rendering him invisible, by silencing the inception of the symbolic confession, and by curtailing the heartfelt outburst. It is only after the dream-father has trumped the dream-boy that Raskolnikov opens his eyes to the realization that he is heading down the Mikolka path and might actually “take an axe” to bring his horrific project to fruition. The dream, however, is even more of a prescription than it is prognostication: it admonishes Raskolnikov to confront his own Mikolka-like instincts, to come clean, to ultimately “hug the knees” of and accept love (Epilogue, Ch. 2: 516). As such, even before he bashes Alyona Ivanovna over the head, Raskolnikov craves confession and deep inside desperately wants to join the human race.

Notes:

[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Oliver Ready (New York: Penguin Books, 2014): 51. Hereinafter, I will include the Part and Chapter number, as well as the page number from the Ready translation, in parentheses in the text.

[2] Louis Breger, Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst (New York: New York University Press, 1989); 31.


Amy D. Ronner, who holds both a law degree and an M.A. and Ph.D in literature, is a Professor of Law at St. Thomas University School of Law, where she teaches Constitutional Law, Wills and Trusts, Sexual Identity and the Law, and Criminal Procedure. She is the author of five books, including Dostoevsky and the Law (2015) and Law, Literature, and Therapeutic Jurisprudence (2010). This blog is a rough adaptation of a section of her article, “Dostoevsky and the Therapeutic Jurisprudence Confession,” which appeared in The John Marshall Law Review, 40 (2006): 41.

The image that accompanies this post is from the back cover of the US deluxe edition of Oliver Ready’s translation of Crime and Punishment, available from Penguin Books.