Dostoevsky’s great 1866 novel Crime and Punishment reads like a frenetic vision. A compulsive gambler and one-time political radical who was condemned to Siberia and forced labor, Dostoevsky created the novel’s Rodion Raskolnikov, a half-mad dreamer who expressed the radical, nihilistic ideas of the time. Drawing on his own struggles and experiences, Dostoevsky used Raskolnikov to explore existential and religious issues: man’s fate, human nature, sin, repentance, redemption, and the ultimate nature of reality. Like Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky wrestled with God and his own fractured personality.
Russia, as this crime novel’s eccentric, dogged detective Porfiry Petrovich notes, produces “fantastic people,” “holy fools,” religious mystics, nihilists, poets, martyrs, and depraved criminals. Dostoevsky’s Russia in its extremity encompasses the fullest range of human heights and depths, from perverse sinners who long for punishment and suffering, to extraordinary divided minds like Raskolnikov’s, for the word raskolnik means a religious schismatic, and raskol means a split or schism. Raskolnikov is a walking contradiction, a poverty-stricken ex-student who gives away the few rubles he possesses to those even more destitute; a man who commits murder yet risks his own life to rescue a child from a burning building.
The existential and religious concerns of Dostoevsky also vexed an admirer of his work, Friedrich Nietzsche, who like the great Russian grasped what the “death of God” meant. Dostoevsky famously declared that without God, all things are permitted, and he uses Raskolnikov to test that assumption. In robbing and murdering a greedy, apparently inconsequential pawnbroker and her sister, Raskolnikov plays out the role of Superman or Übermensch, applying proto-Nietzschean theory directly with an axe to the skulls of his victims. In Raskolnikov’s Napoleonic vision, he is the “benefactor of mankind” who has rid the world of a problem in the person of the pawnbroker and will use the loot from his robbery to aid his mother and sister.
The reality of Raskolnikov’s fevered dream, however, falls short of the vision. In Raskolnikov’s estimation, his own troubled conscience, inability to “step over” conventional moral limits, and mixed motives de-legitimize his experiment and expose his own degraded nature, as well as that of the philosophy behind his crimes: “It was not for my mother that I killed…I simply killed, killed for myself alone.”
The criminal act, as Raskolnikov understands, was an exertion of his own destructive—and self-destructive—will to power, nothing more. The novel ends with Raskolnikov discovering that repentance and redemption are available even to a double murderer in a world where all are guilty and God’s grace remains operative. Dostoevsky remains a literary hero for our own troubled time.
Aldous Huxley’s 1939 novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan is a marvelously entertaining account of America’s obsessive pursuit of the ultimate commodity: eternal life in the here and now.
When Huxley settled in California in 1937, what he encountered confirmed his suspicions about life in the U.S. Here were people devoted to perpetual youthfulness and the denial of death. Even their largest cemetery, Forest Lawn, defied the grim reaper, assuring its customers that passing away was merely transition to another and better stage of human development. The novel’s title mocks this fantasy. It’s a line from Tennyson’s poem Tithonus, which recounts the fate of a human granted eternal life but not eternal youth.
Huxley’s novel inspired Herman Mankiewicz to write the screenplay for Citizen Kane, featuring a protagonist—a fabulously wealthy plutocrat modeled on William Randolph Hearst—who resembled in several important ways Huxley’s central character, Jo Stoyte. Stoyte, like Hearst, invests his incalculable wealth in artifacts of European high culture. To house his loot, he builds a castle on a hill near Tarzana, California, where he hosts celebrities.
The crux of the novel is America’s desire for immortality—literal immortality. Stoyte, the man with everything, relentlessly pursues physical immortality with the assistance of the brilliant but sinister doctor Sigmund Obispo, whom he retains as his personal physician. Obispo keeps the sixty-year-old Stoyte in vigorous health with a regime of steroid and testosterone injections.
But then Jeremy Pordage, the humanist scholar whom Stoyte retains to authenticate the origins of his artistic acquisitions, discovers the 17th-century diary of the Fifth Earl of Gonister in which the earl discusses his own remarkable longevity. The scientist and the humanist join forces to investigate Gonister and how he managed to extend his life well beyond usual limits. When they do so, they also discover the great joke implicit in the attempt to deny mortality.
Eighty years after it was first published, Huxley’s satire remains relevant. One only has to consider the advertising in newspapers, magazines, and other media to confirm this. Our commercial outlets are replete with hucksters touting products that supposedly render their consumers perpetually youthful. Alexander Pope was right to say, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Of course, he added a limitation. “Man never is, but always to be blest,” for “the soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,” can only rest in a life to come.
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