06 July 2009

Raskolnikov’s “Exceptional” Man

As I hit the half-way point in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, one of the central ideas has finally come out in the novel. This is the third time that I’ve read it, so it was more of a matter of my remembering where the part occurred rather than knowing that it occurred. In the fifth chapter of Part Three, Raskolnikov explains an essay he wrote in which he explains two classifications of people. The great mass of humanity is made up of normal people who must follow the rules of society. But, Raskolikov suggests, there are a very few who are “extraordinary” and indeed must break social customs in order to advance society – despite the best attempts of the mass of humanity to keep life regular and unmoving, or to put it another way, to conserve social order.

The problem with Raskolikov’s thesis of the rare, “exceptional” man, which suggests the idea of the ubermensch, is that there is no real criterion with which to designate such a person. Before the point of action, it may be simply a feeling that there is something special, something unprecedented about one’s own thoughts and ideas. After all, if a person comes up with something new in his head and as long as he stays in that environment – in his head – does he ever really know if his idea, his motive, his drive is unique? It is easy to believe one’s self special if one’s self is the only person one ever puts one’s self up to for inspection.

Raskolnikov, in the days and weeks prior to the double murder, does just this. He boxes himself up in his room, neglects all others and even himself, and is concerned only with his own thoughts. Surely he can and has convinced himself that he is an “exceptional” man who is capable of murder and theft. All he must do is complete the task and advance himself. Only after the deed does he understand that he is not “exceptional” at all. He is all too human.
What I think that Raskolnikov has tried to lose through his logic of the “exceptional” man is the practical fact that man needs to have something, some force, over him in order to prevent radical, or even immoderate, digressions from social morality. Raskolinov attempts to make his case for the “exceptional” man quite forceful by taking it to the extreme case that such men may logically be excused from committing murder so long as it advances their agenda. If murder is permissible for such men, then everything else is as well.

But Raskolnikov finds out early in the novel that there is some force greater than the “exceptional” man – if there is such a thing. Later in the novel, he will find a name for it; he will rediscover it through Sonya. For the reader, though, his is a cautionary tale. Self-absorption and an inflated sense of self-importance are quite dangerous things. If we but look around, we can see these all around, blown up (figuratively) on big-screen televisions and through the internet; the hyper-celebrity culture icons are not unlike Raskolnikov’s “exceptionals”. The difference is that unlike his supposed reasoning that these men act to advance a culture, there is no such lofty goal for the hyper-celebrity. All is excess and debauchery. And sadly, both they are we are culturally the lesser for it.

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