Dostoyevsky, Camus, and the World

Entirely by accident I recently read Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and Camus’s “The Stranger” back to back. What that amounts to is my having read two novels about a person more or less randomly murdering another person in direct succession to each other. Having done this, it is impossible that certain elements of difference in how Dostoyevsky and Camus see the world should not jump out at me. I do not claim any great knowledge or expertise concerning either of these novels, or any great knowledge or expertise regarding literature in general. My degree is in theology and philosophy, not literature. As such, should anybody with greater qualifications in this area feel inclined to correct me on any point regarding these works, I will happily bow to their expertise.

The comparison between Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov and Camus’s Meursault is the first matter of interest. Both men are isolated from society and alienated from the normal flow of human emotions and interactions. The difference, however, is that for Meursault it feels as if this is a result of his understanding of the nature of existence and his realization of how little any of it matters, while for Raskolnikov it has more the veneer of a descent into madness. Meursault feels almost nothing, he isn’t sad when his mother dies and he is incapable of loving his mistress. Indeed, none of this really matters to him because, after all, nothing really matters. Conversely, Raskolnikov is prone to explosive emotional outbursts and irrationally erratic behavior. This portrays a fundamental difference between Dostoyevsky and Camus concerning why their characters commit murder. Raskolnikov is a human being crushed under the weight of false ideas, Meursault is a pseudo-human, a man who has grasped the nature of reality, understood its disharmony with human existence, and excised part of his humanity to adapt to it. Meursault is constantly reminding us that things really don’t matter, he has trouble understanding why people behave in the way that they do, absurd things which occur seem both odd but also natural in his mind. This is in contrast with the tortured duality of Raskolnikov, afflicted by two mutually exclusive world views. As such, Raskolnikov is a character that portrays the basic duality of the human condition as simultaneously both good and evil. Meursault, however, kills the Arab in absurdist fashion because the sun bothered him, he feels no guilt or need to justify himself. It merely happened, it meant nothing and stood for nothing. Raskolnikov must justify himself, the old woman would not be missed, she was hated by all, he could do great things with her money, he must prove that he was a great man. In the end, however, he cannot fully understand why he did it. He did it just to do it. The evil has no reason, it simply is. As such, Raskolnikov is a soul afflicted by nihilism, Meursault is a soul which has been consumed by it.

Much of this difference must be ascribed to the divergent world views of the two men. While they are both often thought of as the “literary existentialist” types, they are such in opposite ways. Dostoyevsky, the Russian Orthodox conservative Czarist sympathizer. Camus, the far left atheist anarchist one time member of the Communist Party (although he despised Communism). To me it seems that Meursault’s absurdist rejection of any meaning behind human beliefs or actions has a tinge of the anarchic love for demeaning institutions as charades without substance, while Raskolnikov’s end has all the trappings of a conservative Czarist belief that retributive justice cures criminals, while the destructive tendency of Raskolnikov’s doctrinal sins in contrast to the meek acceptance of the world in faith by the more virtuous characters has the feel of a man in love with proper order and afraid of the energy of youth. This all comes to a head in the ending of both novels. Camus has his character die in absurdist fashion. It seemed he would receive prison time, instead he was sentenced to death. The death he dies is guillotine, but the guillotine is absurd as well. Smaller than he expected, it isn’t even placed on a platform, but on the ground. His death is not romantic, it, like the Arab he killed, is random, undramatic, and meaningless. This is apparent also in the entire novel. Camus said he wanted to write it in “American” style, borrowing from men like Hemingway he made his sentences short and abrupt with minimal description and a very simplistic communication of the character’s flat uncomplicated emotions. Since the novel is written in first person, however, it feels very much as if what is actually happening is merely that Meursault is childish and emotionally stunted. As such, we have a stunted character through whose eyes we see a stunted world, not fully itself. The world is very two dimensional, meaningless, and boring, and it follows that our lives are very two dimensional, meaningless, and boring. Stylistically, Crime and Punishment could not be more different. It is dramatic, colorful, even playful, all reflecting the basic conviction that we live in a wonderful world, one which we are held back from only by our false beliefs. Specifically, our belief that there is no basic meaning or inherent goodness in the world. Even suffering is an opportunity for greater virtue if properly approached with faith. As Petrovitch says to Raskolnikov, “I regard you as one of those men who would stand and smile at their torturer while he cuts their entrails out, if only they have found faith or God. Find it and you will live. You have long needed a change of air. Suffering, too, is a good thing. Suffer!…don’t be overwise; fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don’t be afraid—the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again.” So Raskolnikov atones for his sins by being sent to Siberia and undergoing hard labor. By doing this, he resolves the contradictions within him and attains true humanity. This must be seen first, as an expression of Dostoyevsky’s basic belief that the world is not absurd and that the belief that it is is a folly to be overcome, second, as an expression of his Christianity in the belief that Raskolnikov can be saved from his sins and be made fully what he is meant to be, and third, as a belief in the redemptive nature of suffering. It is only by suffering and being punished that Raskolnikov can be rid of his crimes and live his life fully and in true humanity. As such, both novels deal with the same basic question, “What does it mean to commit a crime for its own sake?” The Stranger answers, “It means nothing.” Crime and Punishment answers, “It means you have false beliefs that must be expiated by punishment.”

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