«Michal Kuz, Political Science Department, Louisiana State University. 1 Abstract The issue of justice is crucial to Dostoevsky's oeuvre. The Russian ...»
Justice and the Western Perception of Dostoevsky: Woody Allen’s Crimes and
Misdemeanors and Match Point.
Political Science Department,
Louisiana State University.
The issue of justice is crucial to Dostoevsky's oeuvre. The Russian writer depicts the
gruesomeness of being a law onto oneself and at the same time the inherent futility of holding any
individual totally responsible for his deeds. This aspect, makes Dostoevsky one of the favorite
authors of Western intellectuals. Dostoevsky is thus is read by Nietzsche, Freud, Gide, many American writers as well as by a filmmaker ‒ Woody Allen. Allen in his Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point presents a very nihilistic reading of Dostoevsky, which again is typical of the Western perception of this writer. In the New Yorker's films we see individuals who faced with difficult moral choices discover that social justice is just a facade that imperfectly covers the cruelty and indifference of the world. Eventually Allen's protagonists loose their moral illusions but gain a kind of Nietzscheanistic perspective that enables them to "succeed." The question remain open whether, it is a perspective of the "last man" or of the "superhuman"? One can even suspect a certain cycle of corruption occurs in passing from the second position to the first.
In short, Allen is fascinated with Dostoevsky's radical destruction of the notion of individual justice. Superficially, this destruction is tantamount to total nihilism and that is what many Western intellectuals and Allen seem to suggest. But there is a certain political theology in Dostoevsky’s works. This theology is not clearly visible to Westerners because it is collectivistic, imperial and Gnostic. Those motives are an inherent part of the political experience of the East (althought they can be also found in some Western ideological movements), which was observed by Eric Voegelin. Nevertheless, what Allen and many other Western readers of Dostoevsky seem to ignore is that the objective of both religious and secular law is not to prevent all crime on a cosmic scale but to recognize certain standards of inter-human and human-God relations.
Simply making the notion of justice a matter of convention does not free the human but enslaves her/him, because it makes the law a matter of a purely arbitrary decision of the political authority. This dilemma is clearly visible in Dostoevsky's work, and I call it the Grand Inquisitor's trap.
Not seeing this problem is a serious misreading of Dostoevsky.
Allen's characters endure only slight metaphysical pangs on occasion of their misdeeds and live in a secure world of modern consumerism, which seems to develop without any moral code. An important argument raised in Crimes and Misdemeanors is that believing in individual justice is hardly possible after Hitler's death camps. A historically conscious reader of Dostoevsky, however, could argue that on the contrary; XXth century has shown us how dangerous the collectivistic morality is (this is also the morality of Dostoevsky, himself). In conclusion, the notions of individual crime and punishment, although imperfect, are the only notions that can offer some protection from the Voegelinian, dark Gnosticism and preserve the liberties of the individual.
Every reading necessarily involves a misreading (Bloom 1987), this is true especially in the case of Dostoevsky and has even been codified in the form of the theory of a polyphonism of his novels (Bakhtin 1999). This theory assumes that Dostoevsky is a withdrawn author, a deus absconditus of his own universe. Nevertheless, a Central European, a person, who like me comes from the borderland between the West and the East is often surprised by the typically Western reading of Dostoevsky. Czeslaw Milosz (2010), a Polish Nobel Prize winner in literature and a former lecturer at Berkeley sees three main types of the Western reception of Dostoevsky: the psychological, the existential and most recently the socio-political. The last one according to him creates the greatest
obstacle to the Western readers. Milosz writes on his American pupils' reception of Dostoevsky:
"My students showed great skill when, I introduced them to the psychology of the characters or when I showed how the authors intentions can be revealed with the use of the structural method.
Young people were also typically quick to jocularly notice the discrepancies between the oeuvre and the untidy workshop ‒ that is the mind of the author. Nevertheless, they had trouble when we encountered certain facts. For instance, they could not understand why Dostoevsky loved the autocratic leadership and why he had done so already before his return form Siberia, where from a revolutionary he turned into a conservative. [translation mine - Michal Kuz]" (Milosz 2010, 138).
Notoriously Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first Western intellectuals to recognize the genius of the Russian writer. " Dostoevsky is the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn." – says Nietzsche (2005, 45). In this reflection the German philosopher seems to foreshadow both the existential and the psychological reading of the great Russian. One stems from a clear affinity between the Nietzschean theory of the superhuman and the views expressed by many of Dostoevsky's characters. The other, from the psychological perceptiveness Nietzsche attributed to Dostoevsky. As for the political reading there is little evidence that Nietzsche was familiar with A Writes Diary 3 (Dostoevsky 1994) and other works where Dostoevsky openly reveals his political musings. Neither did he know about the Russian writer's political poems in which he glorified the tzar as a semi - deity (Milosz 2010, 141). Nevertheless, based on the problematic, anti-democratic reception of Nietzsche's own oeuvre one can suspect that the famous German would be fare less surprised at the political implications of Dostoevsky's works than many typical readers. The affinity between Dostoevsky and Nietzsche is further explored by Lev Shestov (1969). In the introductory part let us just remark that the closely affiliated existential and the psychological receptions of Dostoevsky became, in accordance with Milosz's observations, typical of many Western intellectuals. This essay will focus especially on the way Dostoevsky is read by an American film maker ‒ Woody Allen and in what aspects this reading can be said to be representative of the Western reception in general. The first part of this examination will be devoted to the psycho-existential reading of Dostoevsky O a reading typical of Allen's movies. The difficulties in grasping the social and political elements of Dostoevsky's thought will be referred to in the second part; followed by the final conclusions.
Dostoevsky did not become popular in the West instantly, not even after the tribute paid to him by Nietzsche. According to André Gide's (1981) and Milosz's (2010) records he was initially viewed as an interesting writer, albeit too austere, surreal and incomprehensible. This had begun to change with the rise of the French existentialism and endorsements by Gide, Camus and Sartre (Milosz 2010). From the American and English perspective, however, an element that made a breakthrough in the understanding of Dostoevsky was the growing popularity of psychoanalysis and the search for the unconscious in literature. Freud himself deemed Brothers Karamazov one of the the keys to understanding his theories. In a 1928 essay - "Dostoevsky and Parricide" (Freud 1945) the Austrian psychoanalyst 4 describes Dostoevsky as one of the great literary geniuses that sensed the paramount cultural and civilization role of the Oedipus complex.
This foreshadowing of the unconscious with all probability made Virginia Woolf state that Dostoevsky's novels are: "seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in." ( 1994, 181). Similar elements can be also sensed in the reflections of Henry Miller who admits that: "Dostoevsky is chaos and fecundity. Humanity, with him, is but a vortex in the bubbling maelstrom."(Bloshteyn, 2007, 101). The psychological reading of Fyodor Dostoevsky is also said to have influenced such contemporary American writers as J.D. Salinger, Joseph Heller and Jack Kerouack (Ibid.). Undoubtedly it has also had a huge impact Woody Allen who names both Freud and Dostoevsky as his major inspirations (Nichols 2000). And indeed, it seems clear that both authors influenced his pictures. The fact that Allen belongs to the psychological school of reading Dostoevsky means that he is partly blind to the political and social aspects of Dostoevsky's oeuvre and among them to his concept of social justice. On the other hand, this blindness is precisely what enables us to see that with the words Yeats a "terrible beauty is born" (2011) and that a certain vacuum is present in Western mass and high culture.
One may even suspect that Allen is conscious of this social and moral blindness as it becomes one of the leitmotivs of his first, and according to critics one of the best, “Dostoevsky movies.” Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen 1989) is a film that tells us a story of a ophthalmologist who commits a crime that is uncannily similar to the murder performed by Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky 2006). The film commences with a scene in which the main protagonist ‒ Judah Rosenthal opens a new ophthalmology clinic and in his speech ponders on the words of his father (a devout follower of Judaism): "The eyes of God are on us always." "I wonder whether it was just a coincidence that I made my specialty ophthalmology." ‒ Judah concludes. The metaphor of moral blindness is visible throughout the movie.
5 Another important character ‒ rabbi Ben is Judah's patient. The rabbi bears a striking similarity to the morally upright Alosha from Brothers Karamazov (2009). In the movie he offers spiritual advice to Judah but physically, unfortunately he goes completely blind. Allen in general seems to suggest that because there is no cosmic justice, there is little hope for any justice. Another character ‒ Prof. Levy a Jewish philosopher, who resembles father Zosima from Bothers Karamazov, commits a suicide in spite of his declared faith in love and laughter. Zosima of course does not kill himself but the stench of his body is also a device used to undermine the popular image of saintliness. This is Dostoevsky's way of undercutting the most simple and gullible metaphysical hopes. Still, Dostoevsky searches for the metaphysical, he may not reach his goal but he makes an honest attempt. Allen leaves no hope, with the words of the already mentioned Allan Bloom in his films "the outer is dissolved and becomes formless in the light of the inner and the inner is will-o-the wisp or pure emptiness" ( Bloom 1987, 155). The cruelty and basic unfairness of life annihilates for Allen almost all higher hopes. In the Marxaian and Volterian vein Woody Allen examines two alternative concepts of justice: justice as an objective, materialistic phenomenon or as a loose social convention. And since the material cosmos is not just according to the available human notions, the film maker concludes that the moral foundations of interhuman relations are devised arbitrarily. In one of the scenes Judah has a dream in which he is reunited with his family. During this reunion the Judaical faith of Judah's father is openly ridiculed. A very existential question: "How can one believe in punishing for the wicked after Hitler?" is explicitly asked.
Later Judah tells the story of his crime to a unaccomplished script writer Cliff ‒ played by Woody Allen himself. The ophthalmologist describes in third person how he arranged the murder of a former lover, who blackmailed him; he, however, disguises the recollections as a idea for a potential film script. Nevertheless, Judah explicitly tells us about his pangs of conscience, the "black void" he 6 saw behind the dead eyes of Dolores ‒ the woman whom he had killed. Here the metaphor of sight is present again. Judah also openly describes his remorse as "little sparks from his religious background."
The ending of the story is, however, a shock both for the viewer and Cliff. Judah claims that on a certain day he opened his eyes and found himself as if "awakened from a dream." The pangs of conscience went away, the sun was shining, he decided to take his wife for vacation in Europe, which renewed their relationship. Later he learned that the crime was attributed to someone else and was happy ever after. Nichols (2000 155) calls Judah's experience the "awakening from guilt." On hearing about this Cliff protests, he expects the story to end with an "awakening to guilt" and the protagonist to turn himself in after being tortured by his conscience. Judah's only response is that Cliff has "seen too many movies" and as result prefers a didactic ending over raw life. This is an example the modernistic criticism of a noble lie about the existence of God and cosmic justice that was present in older forms of art. Allen exploits this theme in his play God (1972) where an ancient Greek playwright and director boast of an ingenious way to restore order after a number of crimes and atrocities had occurred in the play. To do this he introduces the deus ex machina ‒ a device that can simulate a divine intervention and effortlessly bring even the most convoluted plots to a happy ending.
Judah's lack of "awakening from conscience" is also portrayed as a very Freudian process.
Firstly, his crime is committed to protect Judah's social superego from the consequences of the carnal desires and other misdemeanors of the id. Judah's decides to kill only after his former lover threatens to inform his wife of the affair unless he succumbs to her wishes. Secondly, the consciousness as well as its pangs are portrayed as a product of the upbringing, a continuation of the “obsessions” and “complexes” Judah inherited from his parents. This coupled with the subplots ‒ the blindness of the good Rabbi and the suicide of the Jewish philosopher who seeks God, paints a truly gloomy moral picture in accordance with Allan Bloom's assessment.