Reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment I am reminded of the Jewish teaching that when each person dies they will go before Adam, and he will tell them that their death is a punishment for what they did while alive, and not his sin in the Garden of Eden millennia before them. Although Judaism’s variant on Original Sin–for not every person deserves hellfire in Judaism, perhaps even most of us don’t–is different from the Christian version, I find myself shocked by Dostoyevsky’s understanding of Evil. If you take the book as a whole, the “ultimate evil” might be the claim on a person’s part that they are “above” the rules that bind other people to ideas like right and wrong. Raskolnikov even makes the claim that “the herd” exists for the sake of the “exceptional” person who breaks old taboos and creates new ones. Of course, the “ultimate crime” in Crime and Punishment is murder 1, and murder for an idea rather than for petty considerations like money or revenge. So it is that Dostoyevsky can be seen as foretelling the lawless world of Communism and Naziism. Both teach that there is no real morality save for the morality of the strong man–though in Communism the “strong man” is supposed to be a class and not an individual.
Another book I am reminded of is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. I am forced to admit that though it was my favorite of his novels when I was in high school, many people misuse it as a tour book of Italy. Donatello (the faun) murders Miriam’s abusive husband both because he sees Miriam’s husband abusing her and because he is in love with Miriam himself. Yet the mystery of his household (he is of aristocratic lineage), is that they are sinless in their youth and in old age’s decay monstrous. Now Donatello joins humanity through the fact that he has a sense of sin resulting from his “fall.” However, this “fall” makes him unhappy. It is the irony that though sin is necessary, it is not redemptive. Though this is a different paradigm from Dostoyevsky’s–for whom sin is wholly evil but from which a person, through suffering, can redeem him or herself–there is overlap. More, they both are interested as humankind’s emotional landscape and not just the contents of the mind.
I find myself wondering if we in modern times have divorced ourselves from concepts of “sin” and “guilt” too much. Though I found these ideas oppressive as a child, it seems like a person ought to have a strong believe in “good” or “bad.” The reason is that while reading Nietzsche and other writers, I have noticed that each person declaring they can get “beyond” good and evil seems invariably to than either promote or do deeds that before their book were considered evil. It is not really that they find a way to destroy world poverty or save the earth so much as commit sexual crimes or acts of hate.