The Raskolnikov Syndrome

This wonderful photo, entitled "Portrait of Raskolnikov," was taken by Samanyu Sharma of India. I hope he doesn't mind my using it here; it just illustrated my point so well. I couldn't figure out how to contact him.

“You’re crazy,” Clevinger shouted vehemently, his eyes filling with tears. You’ve got a Jehovah complex… You’re no better than Raskolnikov –“
“Who?”
“–yes, Raskolnikov, who–“
“Raskolnikov!”
“– who — I mean it — who felt he could justify killing an old woman –“
“No better than?”
“– yes, justify, that’s right — with an ax! And I can prove it to you!”

I’ve long had this theory that people who do truly horrendous things that Ordinary Decent People can’t fathom do them because they’ve actually entered another state of being that society, because it is society, can’t relate to.

Quite simply, people like James Eagan Holmes are able to spend time planning a mass murder, prepare for it, gather guns and ammunition and explosives and body armor, and actually go to the intended scene of the crime and carry it out, without ever stopping and saying, “Hey, wait a minute — what am I doing?” because they’re not interacting enough with other human beings.

This allows their thoughts, unchecked, to wander off to strange places indeed — and stay there, without other people making social demands on them that call them back.

I think there’s a quality in the social space between people that assesses the ideas we have in our heads and tells us whether they are ideas worth having, or so far beyond the pale that we should stop thinking them. This vetting doesn’t have to be conscious; it’s not like you’re overtly throwing the idea out there and seeking feedback. I think that in your own mind, you constantly test ideas against what you believe the people around you would think of them, and it naturally affects how you regard the ideas yourself. I think this happens no matter how independent-minded you think you are, no matter how introverted in the Jungian sense. Unless, of course, you are a true sociopath. And I believe a lack of sufficient meaningful interaction with other people you care about plays a big factor in turning you into one of those.

Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov was the perfect case, fitting all the criteria we keep hearing about. Brilliant young mind, but he suffered a series of setbacks that embarrassed him and caused him to draw away from his friends. Living hundreds if not thousands of miles from his family, he was forced by lack of money to drop out of school. Rather than make money doing the translations his friend Razumikhin tried to throw his way, he fell to brooding in his ratty garret, or wandering alone through the crowded city, thinking — and not sharing his thoughts.

His murderous plan started with a provocative, if not quite mad, idea that he wrote an essay about — setting out the theory that extraordinary people who were destined to do extraordinary things for the world had a right, if not a duty, to step over the normal social rules and boundaries that restricted ordinary people. Had he been in contact with friends and family, they would have challenged him on this, as Razumikhin did late in the book, when he learned of the essay. Maybe they wouldn’t have changed his mind, in the abstract, but if he had been having dinner each night with his mother and sister, and going out for drinks regularly with Razumikhin, it would have been impossible for him to have carried it to the next level.

I’m not saying he would ever have run the idea up the flagpole with his friends and family, and then been checked outright. He wouldn’t have said, “I think my idea’s a good one, so you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to kill that old woman I keep pawning my possessions with, and take her money, and go back to school and achieve my potential.” No. What I’m suggesting is that if you are constantly around normal, decent human beings who care about you, who ground you in humanity, you won’t allow your thoughts to run that far out of bounds. You’ll check yourself.

My “proof” for this theory — which I’m sure has occurred to thousands of other people (I don’t share Raskolnikov’s delusions about my own brilliance) — lies in what happened when, unexpectedly, his mother and sister appear in his life again, right before him in his own dingy room.

It happens after Raskolnikov has committed his crime — a crime that that has an emotional impact on him he didn’t anticipate, although he’s more or less holding up. He has renewed acquaintance with Razumikhin, a bit late for any positive socializing influence to prevent the murders.

And he comes home, and BANG, there are the two most important people to him in the world, the people whose absence had sent him into such a tailspin:

The 40 years since I read that played a trick on me. I could have sworn that the passage was more specific about exactly what happened in his mind when he saw his mother and sister. I thought it said something like, “In that moment, it came to him in a flash what he had done.”

And maybe the translation I read did. Or maybe I was just so sure that that was the “sudden and insupportable thought” that “chilled him to the marrow.”

In any case, it still seems clear that while he had been able to think of his crime in one way in isolation — a way that actually made it possible — he didn’t truly realize what he had done, in human terms, until suddenly faced with the two people who most mattered to him, and who would be most horrified, to the cores of their souls, to know what he had done. He saw himself, and all he was and all his actions, in an entirely different way through their eyes.

Under my theory, if he had been in regular contact with his mother and sister, he would have had that realization long before getting to the point of committing his crime.

20 thoughts on “The Raskolnikov Syndrome

  1. Burl Burlingame

    Oops. When you made the original reference, I mixed it up with the Kosgolotov character from “Cancer Ward.”

    Reply
  2. Scout

    I’ve not read this book, but it seems like a decent theory. But I suspect there are other factors involved – I suspect there is a mental deficit of some sort involved that either causes the social isolation to begin with or that when coupled with social isolation may produce such ill effects.

    Reply
  3. Kathryn Fenner

    I think you are on to something. Has there ever been someone who went off the rails in a big way like this who was NOT described as a loner?

    I suppose the question could be which comes first: the crazy ideas or the detachment from society?

    Reply
    1. Nathaniel

      The radical ideas come first, but they don’t take hold until the isolation. i.e. Raskolnikov explored the idea of murder in the essay he published. The isolation allowed the ideas to incubate.

      Reply
  4. Kathy

    Love Dostoevsky (and Catch 22). However, I’m going with the theory (for now at least) that Holmes had a psychotic break that more social interaction would not have stopped. If someone had actually realized what Holmes was planning, they would have alerted authorities (I hope).

    Reply
  5. tavis micklash

    Brad,

    I this is definitely a departure from your normal work.

    Literary analysis this intense is beyond my comprehensive. Especially at after a long night shift at the coal mine.

    I just feel the need to tell you I recognize this as a very thought provoking essay into the mind of insane and sick people.

    While in my tiny world of power generation I consider myself an expert here my high school educated mind fails me here.

    Maybe its just a little too esoteric for me at this hour. Regardless I appreciate the effort you went into this and will come back to it later and take another crack at it.

    Well Done.

    Reply
  6. Mark Stewart

    Gee, thanks. I got to spend too much time today considering who was more heinous: the theater freak or the guy in Massachusetts who shot his children to get back at his wife.

    Reply
  7. Steve Gordy

    I tend to go along with Kathy’s turn on your theory. Just now, I’m reading “The Idiot” – another loner with a very different approach to life.

    Reply
  8. Brad

    You can also probably see how this theory about the humanizing influence of society feeds into my tendencies toward communitarianism.

    I read this novel in college, at a time when I was really into reading things that encourage a young man’s egoism and self-centeredness, such as Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People.” (And to some extent “Catch-22,” which was huge with me at the time, encouraged inwardness, since Yossarian was all about turning away from obligations to the larger society in order to save his own skin.)

    But Dostoevsky showed me a young man who held such ideas about his own personal worth and what was due to HIM, developed to an extreme degree, and where that took him — to places where the people who cared most about him would not have let him go, had he not withdrawn from them.

    And I think that as I matured (to the extent that I did), I came to embrace more and more the idea that however much I might wish to put myself first, that was not what a moral person, living a worthwhile life, does.

    So it was a journey of maturation with, I suppose, Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” (which I enjoyed in junior high school) on one end, and “Crime and Punishment” on the other…

    Reply
  9. Kathryn Fenner

    But, Brad, and I was an English major because I found so much truth in literature, aren’t you guilty of confirmation bias? You, like me, believe in the value of community, so we believe fiction that extols the value of community to be truthful.

    Reply
  10. Brad

    No. What I just said was the opposite. This was a work that pushed me in the direction of community. I was not formed, and it helped to form me.

    I could have kept reading Rand — and Ibsen, who also was a big one for self-actualization at the expense of others (i.e., the feminist icon in his “A Doll’s House”). Or Kerouac for that matter.

    I could have been like Yossarian, who pursued hedonism and self-preservation above all (except that one time that he led his formation fearlessly over Bologna, without evasive action).

    Instead, I moved more in the direction of the uncool Clevinger.

    Reply
  11. Mark Stewart

    Kathryn,

    So to is killing a mass of innocents.

    We could also use our “own” Irmo lunatic to consider this topic of social connections as a balm to psychologically disturbed impulses. Here, we have a guy who seemed to have friends and family and a connected social fabric. I don’t think it was the illegality of his occupation which “forced” him to kill his wife and friend/business associate. His, too, is just a heart of darkness.

    Maybe it’s more that there are as many ways for people to come apart as there are ways to connect and engage? Half of this kind of horror seems to involve major mental illness and half just plain ego-driven meanness.

    Reply
  12. Kathryn Fenner

    But you posted it now as an exhibit for its truthfulness.

    A counter example in my case would be posting Jane Eyre as romantic advice, something I might have done at age 15, but would never do now.

    Reply
  13. Brad

    In a lengthy profile today, The New York Times seems to substantiate somewhat my application of the Raskolnikov syndrome to Holmes:

    “There was no question that he was intelligent. ‘James is really smart,’ one graduate student whispered to another after a first-semester class. Yet he floated apart, locked inside a private world they could neither share nor penetrate.”

    Reply

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