Do you understand what it means
to have nowhere left to go? —
“Not revelry do I seek, but pure sorrow.”
As if in despair, he let his head sink on to the table —Fyodor Dostoyevsky
VIL INFECTS. In Crime and Punishment
, Dostoyevsky depicts the psychological inner workings of a mind on the verge of insanity, a mind in which rashness and loss of self-control dominate. And in so doing, Dostoyevsky ventures into the visceral maelstrom of evil itself. Indeed, even some of the minor characters are portrayed as lost in the clutches of something far beyond themselves, in the clutches of something they can neither understand nor from which can they escape. In Dostoyevsky, we venture beyond mere surface description and into a dark world in which evil imprisons and even ruthlessly tortures the very soul of a man. One such character is Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov. Although the character is fictitious, the behavior and utter hopelessness are real. We have seen and met such people.
The scene in which we first meet Marmeladov offers a philosophical glimpse into how evil shapes and infects a man, driving him into absolute madness. The piteous Marmeladov despises himself, despises what he has become. He drinks because his life is miserable, and when he becomes sober again, he discovers his life has become even worse. He cannot escape the cycle and he cannot stop drinking. Evil has him enslaved.
Raskolnikov (the protagonist of the novel) encounters Marmeladov in a drinking-den. The ensuing conversations, however, are both insightful and agonizing. His family wants him home, but Marmeladov is too ashamed to return home, and has been sleeping on the deck of barges in the canals of St. Petersburg for some five days. He is dirty and disheveled as he approaches a complete stranger, as he approaches the young Raskolnikov—
He was a man already on the other side of fifty, of average height and stocky constitution, with hair that was turning grey and a large bald patch. His face had the swollen look that comes of constant drinking, yellow, almost greenish in colour, with puffy eyelids through which his tiny. Slit-like eyes shone, reddish and animated. But there was something very strange about him . . . a flicker of something akin to madness. He was wearing an old and completely tattered black dress-coat which had shed all of its buttons except one.
There was in his manner, too, something that bespoke the solid, dependable air of the civil servant. He was, however, in a state of agitation; he kept ruffling his hair and from time to time would prop his head in both hands as if in despair, placing his threadbare elbows on the splashed and sticky table.
The phrase, “a flicker of something akin to madness” is most telling. Not only is Marmeladov without hope, but he follows a course that makes everything worse and even more hopeless. He blames himself, and in a sense, he does chart his own course, but once the voyage toward despair has begun, Marmeladov finds himself adrift in an ocean from which there can be no return. He is like a ship without a rudder in a storm.
Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov was such a man. Marmeladov drinks. And yet, he does not enjoy his drinking. And yet, he cannot stop his drinking even though he is very much aware of his life unraveling before him in pain and despair.
“How could I not feel it? And the more I drink, the more I feel. That’s the reason for my drinking. I’m looking for feeling and compassion in it . . . Not revelry do I seek, but pure sorrow . . . I drink, for I desire to suffer doubly!” And, as if in despair, he let his head sink on to the table.
The conversation between him and Raskolnikov lays out in very realistic images of what happens when drunkenness seizes the soul and will not relinquish its demonic grip. Some people drink to remember. Some people drink to forget. Marmeladov can do neither. He drinks because he must drink. The more he drinks, the more he feels the shame. The very drink he pursues drives him to despair while robbing him of all dignity. He sits at a table, animated and mocked by the very drink he relishes. He is aware of what is happening, but he cannot reverse the course his life has taken.
Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise. —Proverbs 20:1
Others in the tavern may laugh at the piteous Marmeladov, but the real mockery comes from Marmeladov himself. He is a man who believes that he has lost everything. We soon discover he had a good position in government, a respectable position, but soon even that evaporated into nothingness— “I lost it through my own fault.” As he continues his speech, we learn his situation in life had not been all that bad, but his drinking had made everything worse, worse beyond belief—
He pounded upon Raskolnikov avidly, as though he had not spoken to anyone for a whole month. “My dear respected sir,” he began with almost ceremonial formality, “poverty is not a sin — that is a true saying. I know that drunkenness is not a virtue, either, and that’s an even truer saying. But destitution, dear sir, destitution —that is a sin. When a man is poor he may still preserve the nobility of his inborn feelings, but when he’s destitute he never ever can. If a man’s destitute he isn’t even driven out with a stick, he’s swept out with a broom, to make it as insulting as possible. I will admit that when I’m destitute I’m the first to insult myself. Hence, the beverage.
To be beaten down so low that others see us as vile trash is not anything any of us would relish,Yet, wine is a mocker, and its mockery knows no retraint. Drunkenness breaks the spirit within a man and sometimes leaves him in a rage. The anger makes the man even more piteous and repulsive. Marmeladov describes himself as destitute.
It is wrong, but men tend to despise those who are poorer than themselves, and once a man has become destitute, he has no further to fall. Even supposed righteous people tend to shun him. The wealthy man is given the seat of honor, but the destitute man is addressed in gruff and cruel words—
There come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool. — James 2:2, 3
Such, of course, is not the religion that God wants of men any more than God wants men to gossip or to commit adultery or to lust for money, but men do all of these things, even religious men, and in so doing: “Ye despise the poor.” Perhaps, more than anything else, it is our treatment of the poor that measures our worth before God. With Marmeladov, all respect had withered and now he stands destitute, hopeless, and mocked by himself and by others. He has become what no man ever wants to become, what no man ever dreams could happen. Wine is a mocker.
No man who pursues drink ever believes that he can ever end up like Marmeladov, but end up like Marmaladov, he does and it matters not whether the man is educated, or ignorant, whether the man is wealthy or poor, whether the man is religious or ungodly, there is poison in the glass—
Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder. —Proverbs 23: 31, 32
Once the venom has reached saturation, the kill begins, but death comes usually in degrees so that man can feel the pain of his undoing, and watch himself flounder into deeper and deeper ravines of hopelessness. The description Marmeladov offers reveals that he is dangerously close to venturing into the abyss of no return. His wife is from a higher social class than he, and had married him because she had no other place to go. Yet, in describing his wife however, Marmeladov offers a mirror of the vast emptiness within himself. In talking about her, he really is talking about himself—
But marry me she did. Weeping and sobbing and wringing her hands — she married me! She had nowhere left to go. Do you understand, do you understand, dear sir, what it means to have nowhere left to go? No! That you do not yet understand . . .
Marmeladov believes that he is the undoing of his wife who herself is now dying, suffering in the last stages of tuberculosis. She coughs and gasps for every breath as if each were her last. She is pale and dotes about with no sense of direction. Like Marmeladov, she is lost to life. Later in the novel, she dies a pauper in the street, parading her children in a piteous attempt to garner a few coins from passerby’s. She dies having no place to go. In this scene, though, Marmeladov seemingly describes himself as much as he does his dying wife: “Do you understand what it means to have nowhere left to go?” Marmeladov finds himself literally at the end of his rope. He has nothing left, no hope whatsoever. He is a beaten man, knocked down by life and now finds himself beyond recovery.
Marmeladov, however, dies before she does. Our last glimpse of him is that of an accident scene in which he either stumbles or deliberately throws himself in front of a team of horses pulling a carriage. His screaming in pain startles the horses even more, causing the horses to pound the pavement more forcefully to quell the screams and somehow avoid the body now underneath their hoofs. The screams only bring more pounding, and the poundings bring more screams. In a brief moment, death silences the unfortunate Marmeladov— beaten to death under the hoofs of horses who meant him no harm, Marmeladov could not escape the vicious cycle once he had fallen on the pavement. He could only scream and those screams added more sufferings to a painful and irreversible death. Once fallen, he was beyond rescue and knew it
Something was lying in the roadway, right underneath the wheels. Everyone was talking, shouting, sighing; the coachman seemed to be in a state of bewildement. . . . On the ground lay a man who had just been run down by the horses, very poorly dressed, and covered in blood. Blood streamed from his face and head; his face was battered, torn and mutilated.
The coachman was wailing, “I saw him crossing the street, he was staggering about, nearly falling down. I shouted once, I shouted again and then a third time, and I reined the horses in; but he just fell straight under their hoofs! I don’t know whether he did it on purpose or whether he was just very drunk.”
While the scene may be a touching, Dostoyevsky adds that despite the wailing, the coachman was not particularly upset. The carriage belonged to a very wealthy man, who was waiting for the coachman to arrive. The police were aware of the need to complete the accident report immediately and they did so with perfunctory haste. As to Marmeladov who had died, Dostoyevsky ends the paragraph tersely with these few simple words: “No one knew his name.”
Far too often we welcome the evil and think of its insidiousness as a small and unimportant defect. We excuse ourselves; others, after all, are far more guilty of far greater wrongs. So we reason, and so we lie to ourselves. We deny that the lust within can hardly become something we cannot control or pull away from. Yet, the picture of evil in Scripture is quite different than the picture we imagine—
But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. Do not err, my beloved brethren. —James 1:14-16
There is a progression in evil. We go from lust to sin, and ultimately to death itself. We are cautioned not to think otherwise: do not err. If we do think otherwise, it is a deadly error in our logic, for once we are infected, evil will run its course. We may see that in Marmeladov; we find him piteous and perhaps even repulsive. We are saddened at his plight and his obsession to hurt himself, and shocked at his end and the callousness of those who witnessed his death.
Yet, we should not err in our thinking, for such images reveal how evil destroys. With drunkenness, evil enters the soul through the body, but ultimately the malady is never so much physical addiction as it is spiritual deterioration. All evil behaves in the same way, and the outcome is always the same.
Sin enslaves, and drives a man to a maddening behavior. Marmeladov is described, “But there was something very strange about him . . . a flicker of something akin to madness.” This something akin to madness is the course of evil.
In a parable of Christ, a young man demands his inheritance from his father, and goes into a far country and wastes everything he owned in debauchery and extravagant living. Only when the young man has nothing more to spend and is reduced to the level of swine, does the Scripture say, He came to himself (Luke 15:17).
Whatever life he had been living had been a life of madness. Like Marmeladov, he found himself in the worst of conditions– without friends and unable even to feed himself. Fortunately, he was able to go home to a father who loved him and had missed him dearly: he came to himself.
Marmeladov, on the other hand, had no place to go. Often that is the case when a man has pursued evil. For example, a man’s adultery ruins his marriage and destroys his children. He can never undo the harm he has caused, nor can he pull himself away from the lure of the other woman. He knows what he is doing is madness, but he cannot help the madness. He returns to the behavior that caused his hurt and shame.
They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again. —Proverbs 23:35
Marmeladov describes himself as a beaten man and dies under the relentless pounding of hoofs. Marmeladov, however, will not be able to return to this final beating. Evil infects a man so deeply that the soul is murdered, sometimes suddenly, sometimes in degrees.
But murder it is: sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death (James 1:15). Every evil has both a lie and murder at its core. Evil deceives and drives a man into a type of madness in which he does things that are not in his best interests. Many a man, after having been restored, has asked, “How could I have been so foolish?” The ultimate object of evil is to kill its victim and to do in shame and mockery. If evil is demonic ( and it is), then evil will reflect its demonic characteristics. The poignant exchange between Christ and his enemies offers a haunting insight.
“Now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth.” His adversaries, though, respond in mockery, “We were not born of fornication.” The words are clear enough. Christ was born out of wedlock and is therefore a bastard. The Lord ignores their derision by countering how evil had its beginning:
Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning . . . there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. —John 8:44
Deception and murder, then, are at the heart of evil. These elements mirror Satan, and his hatred of God and everything that is good. Just as Cain murdered Abel, so evil has murder as its ultimate objective. The reason is simple. Murder destroys that which has been created in the image of God and is, therefore, the ultimate evil. God instructed Noah—
Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man —Genesis 9:6
Murder, then, is the capital offense against God. Satan is the very fountainhead of all lies and all murder. Yet, Satan does not always murder a man outright. In Marmeladov’s case, death came by agonizing degrees until the ultimate end was the pounding under the hoofs of horses. Clearly, there was a great deal of suffering in the death of Marmeladov, but also in his life. Marmeladov came to detest himself and everything he touched or loved he saw as something he had infected.
Perhaps, there is a glimpse here in how evil deceives a man. It is not the case that evil promises the alluring and the forbidden. What we need to understand is that evil never delivers what is promised. Whatever joy the temptation may have offered soon becomes rotted, filled with worms and stench. Marmeladov finds no consolation in his drink. Evil has seduced him and given him death, but before he dies, Marmeladov must suffer savagely and become the scorn of derision. Before evil kills us, evil mock us.
Satan relishes the suffering evil brings, for the suffering brings pain to God whom Satan despises even more than he despises those creatures made in the image of God. Since God can be touched by the feeling of our infirmities, making a man suffer somehow can strike out at the God who made him. Job’s wife saw the connection when she chided Job to curse God and die (Job 2:9). Job could end his suffering by cursing God and dying, or so she thought. If God cares for man, and God does, Satan hates man and enjoys the moment when a good man falls. Satan relishes the suffering evil imputes and the death evil brings. The elements of lie, of pain, and of death form the same pattern, regardless of the sin.
They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. —1 Timothy 6:9-10
Greed, like any evil, destroys us, but we do not have to covet for us to fall into a snare and drown in an sea of destruction and perdition. Evil pierces always with many sorrows. Marmeladov died, and no one knew his name until the young Raskolnikov came upon the scene— “I know him! I know him!”
Excerpts from Crime and Punishment are from the translation by David McDuff, 1991.
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