At the end of “,” which was completed in 1866, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s hero, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, has a dream that so closely reflects the roilings of our own pandemic one almost shrinks from its power. Here’s part of it, in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s rendering:
What is this passage doing there, a few pages before the novel concludes? Recall what leads up to the dream. Raskolnikov, a twenty-three-year-old law-school dropout, tall, blond, and “remarkably good-looking,” lives in a “cupboard” in St. Petersburg and depends on handouts from his mother and sister. Looking for money, he plans and executes the murder of an old pawnbroker, a “useless, nasty, pernicious louse,” as he calls her; and then kills her half sister, who stumbles onto the murder scene. He makes off with the pawnbroker’s purse, but then, mysteriously, buries it in an empty courtyard.
2020欧洲杯体育在线网址Is it really money that he wants? His motives are less mercenary than, one might say, experimental. He has apparently been reading Hegel on “world-historical” figures. Great men like Napoleon, he believes, commit all sorts of crimes in their ascent to power; once they have attained eminence, they are hailed as benefactors to mankind, and no one holds them responsible for their early deeds. Could he be such a man?
In the days after the crime, Raskolnikov vacillates between exhilaration and fits of guilty behavior, spilling his soul in dreams and hallucinations. Under the guidance of an eighteen-year-old prostitute, Sonya, who embodies what Raskolnikov sees as “insatiable compassion,” he eventually confesses the crime, and is sent to a prison in Siberia. As she waits for him in a nearby village, he falls ill and has that feverish dream.
2020欧洲杯体育在线网址For us, the dream poses a teasing question: Is it just a morbidly eccentric summation of the novel, or is it also an unwitting prediction of where we are going? Dostoyevsky was a genius obsessed with social disintegration in his own time. He wrote so forcefully that Raskolnikov’s dream, encountered now, expresses what we are, and what we fear we might become.
I first read “Crime and Punishment” in 1961, when I was a freshman at Columbia University, as part of Literature Humanities, or Lit Hum, as everyone calls it, a required yearlong course for entering students. In small classes, the freshmen traverse such formidable peaks as Homer’s and Virgil’s epics, Greek tragedies, scriptural texts, Augustine and Dante, Montaigne and Shakespeare; Jane Austen entered the list in 1985, and Sappho, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison followed. I took the course again in 1991, writing a long report on the experience. In the fall of 2019, at the border of old age—I was seventy-six—I began taking it for the third time, and for entirely selfish reasons. In your mid-seventies, you need a jolt now and then, and works like “” give you a jolt. What I hadn’t expected, however, was to encounter catastrophe not just in the pages of our reading assignments but far beyond them.
In April, when the class began eight hours of discussion about “Crime and Punishment,” the campus had been shut down for four weeks. The students had arrived in New York the previous fall from a wide range of places and backgrounds, and now they had returned to them, scattering across the country, and the globe—to the Bronx, to Charlottesville, to southern Florida, to Sacramento, to Shanghai. My wife and I stayed where we were, in our apartment, a couple of subway stops south of the university, sequestered, empty of purpose, waiting for something to happen. I trailed listlessly around the apartment, and found it hard to sleep after a long day’s inactivity. I loitered in the kitchen in front of a small TV screen, like a supplicant awaiting favor from his sovereign. Ritual, the religious say, expresses spiritual necessity. At 7 P.M.2020欧洲杯体育在线网址, I stood at the window, just past the TV, and banged on a pot with a wooden spoon, in the city’s salute to front-line workers in the pandemic. Raskolnikov has been holed up in his room for a month at the beginning of “Crime and Punishment.” Thirty days, give or take, was how long I had been cut off from life when I began reading the book again.