Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Raskolnikov and Dexter, part 1

We're currently working our way through Crime and Punishment in one of the classes I'm teaching, and we spent almost the whole of the last class working through Raskolnikov's theory of the "extraordinary man."  In the fifth chapter of Part 3, smack dab in the middle of the book, Porfiry (the man investigating the pawnbroker’s murder) cunningly gets Raskolnikov talking about an article he had written as a student, in which he distinguishes between the common, obedient mass of humanity and "those who have the gift or talent of speaking a new word in their environment."1 

The man with such a gift, argues Raskolnikov, is almost always judged a criminal by his contemporaries, though he “has a right...that is, not an official right, but his own right, to allow his conscience to...step over certain obstacles, and then only in the event that the fulfillment of his idea--sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind--calls for it." 2

Sort of by surprise, I presented them with an overly-reductive summary of Alain Badiou’s little book on ethics.  For Badiou, we are not born “subjects.”  We are simply Homo sapiens, a species of animal, and animal behavior is amoral—it obeys certain “natural” laws but it would be inaccurate to describe any of their actions as good or evil; however, when an animal (not necessarily a human being) experiences  what Badiou terms a “truth-event,” it then becomes the subject of a truth, something more than animal. 

Now truths (and these are subjective “truths” we’re talking about) come in four different flavors for Badiou, which strikes me as a little arbitrary or Aristotelian or something, but those flavors are Art, Love, Politics, and Science.  Not every animal is going to become the subject of a truth, but you might have one that realizes that it is in love with someone else, or another that realizes that the earth revolves around the sun, or another yet to whom it occurs that the history of the world is the history of class struggle.

A truth-event speaks a new word and hands down a new law, and the subject of a truth, like Raskolnikov’s extraordinary man, must remain faithful to his or her truth—must fulfill his or her idea—or pretend it never happened…and this alone—infidelity to truth—is evil, for Badiou.  

So anyway, throughout this class, my brain kept echoing the phrase “an idea transcended into life” over and over again.  An idea transcended into life…where have I heard that?  I resisted the urge to say it out loud.  An idea transcended into life. Was it Nietzsche?  No, don’t be an idiot.  An idea transcended into life.  It’s related to what I’m talking about but why does my brain keep repeating it like that?

I soldiered on.  I answered their questions and corrected their misunderstandings.  One student seemed to find the claim that human beings are animals very insulting.  Another student jumped in and made my counter-argument for me.  And if I’m any judge, the class session turned out to be extremely productive as far as situating the novel in the proper philosophical context was concerned.  But it wasn’t until long after the class, on the bus ride home, that I remembered where I’d heard that line.

It was from Dexter.

Stay tuned for when I compare Dexter to Raskolnikov and explain why even though I’ve never really liked the ending of Crime and Punishment, I understand why it had to end the way it did, and why I think Dexter, despite how much I continue to enjoy watching it, may have jumped the shark.

1 Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Vintage Classics. Trans. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.  p. 260.
2 Ibid. p. 259

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