Dostoevsky’s characters astonish by their complexity. Their unpredictable but believable behavior reminds us of experiences beyond the reach of “scientific” theories. We appreciate that people, far from maximizing their own advantage, sometimes deliberately make victims of themselves in order, for example, to feel morally superior. In The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Father Zosima observes that it can be very pleasant to take offense, and Fyodor Pavlovich replies that it can even be positively distinguished.
In fact, people harm themselves for many reasons. They tear at their own wounds and derive a peculiar pleasure from doing so. They deliberately humiliate themselves. To their own surprise, they experience impulses stemming from resentments long suppressed and, as a result, create scandalous scenes or commit horrible crimes. Freud particularly appreciated Dostoevsky’s exploration of the dynamics of guilt. But neither Freud nor most Western readers have grasped that Dostoevsky intended his descriptions of human complexity to convey political lessons. If people are so surprising, so “undefined and mysterious,” then social engineers are bound to cause more harm than good.
The narrator of The House of the Dead describes how prisoners sometimes, for no apparent reason, suddenly do something highly self-destructive. They may attack a guard, even though the punishment—running a gauntlet of thousands of blows—usually proves fatal. Why? The answer is that the essence of humanness lies in the possibility of surprise. The behavior of material objects can be fully explained by natural laws, and for materialists the same is true of people, if not yet, then in the near future. But people are not just material objects, and will do anything, no matter how self-destructive, to prove they are not.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor