The Voice of Violence-Its Afflicted Utterance
Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D.
At the back of the neck
The old skin splits.
The snake shivers
But does not hesitate.
He inches forward.
He begins to bleed through
Mary Oliver, “Rain”
To witness an act of violence puts us in another frame of reference than simply reading about it or viewing it through a media outlet. This incident occurred shortly after my wife, one of our sons, and I had moved to Santa Barbara, a place between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific ocean that is commonly referred to by natives and visitors alike, as Paradise. The snake lurking in the bushes and around the trees is ignored or we all pretend that it is harmless, but it isn’t. I want to relate a story of violence that, while thankfully not deadly, will make the point. We found ourselves one sunny Saturday afternoon walking along the beach between Shoreline Park and Stearns wharf where hundreds of people were barbecuing in the grills, playing Frisbee and swimming in the chilly surf. As usual, we were walking and discussing problems both personal and global, so were unaware, just yet, of a large group of about 12 young men in their 20s who were running in our direction, and very focussed on one another.
At first, out of the corner of our eye, we thought they were playing tag football, for they traveled in two packs, but were entangled, even enmeshed in one another’s motions. They slowed, and then all abruptly stopped just a few feet from us, and we heard indistinguishable noises coming from several of them as they broke more forcefully into our conversation. We sensed the changing and charged atmosphere but could not tell what was wrong. Suddenly we heard and saw one of the young men slap another so hard in the face that his glasses went soaring toward the sand and he went down on his knees while another man kicked him in the head. We heard the bones in his toes snapping, breaking and the young man kicked lay unconscious, deathly still in the sand.
Then the fighters began pairing off like buffalo or moose pawing the earth with horns lowered ready to inflict pain and injury.
Before we fully and consciously realized what was taking place, the entire scene suddenly erupted into an ugly and bloody brawl involving some 10 or 12 angry and frightened men, now moving in a small group to gang up on this individual, or circling suddenly another, singling him out for a beating.
The sickening sounds of flesh hitting flesh, of slaps and kicks and bare feet against jaws, skulls and ribs became louder than the surf’s crashings as they accelerated their hostility and brutality against one another, cursing and kicking and punching in one frenzied action. One young man, punched in the face with the crack of a fist on his jaw, suddenly went slack and fell unconscious to the sand. That was not enough for one of the young men, who began viciously kicking the unconscious fellow, whose head seemed to loosen and sway freely from his neck.
When the group moved away from him, he lay motionless with a placid expression on his face, eyes wide open, looking across the sand as if in a deep meditation,or even daydreaming, as the waves washed against his feet. His mouth, partly open, oozed a thin stream of blood. The group, meanwhile, moved like a pack with its own force, its own life separate and greater than any one individual part of it; they singled out another young man as his friends fell back.
This young man was also surrounded by four or five of the others and was punched once directly in the face. He went down on the sand and lay there deathly still. The mood, the barometric pressure of that section of the beach, turned from festive to grim and hostile as sunbathers and walkers began retreating from this knot of violence. The energy of the vehemence and rage reached all the people in the vicinity and sounds of horror arose from those watching as more blows were struck against several other young men.
We and others kept backing up to get out of the way of this destructive mass of energy moving with its own pulse and wave toward first one, then another victim, all out numbered and helpless in the face of this physical tyranny. The entire brutal collision lasted less than 4 or 5 minutes. Destruction of others seems to take such a short time when compared to developing something constructive between people. What is in fact the time of violence? Does it have its own clock? Anyone who has been involved in violence of any sort knows the power of its disruptive ethos, of its powerful effects on time and space, and on one’s common sense of reality. Violence rocks all of these off their familiar paths.
My wife and I were able to run to a restaurant on the beach close by and convince the manager to call 911; in an instant police cars, emergency vehicles and a fire truck all appeared and converged simultaneously. Some of the young men heading across the parking lot were pursued by two of the police cars. Medics from the fire truck grabbed their bags and respirator and ran the width of the beach to resuscitate the two victims. One of them had gained consciousness and was staggering as if drunk towards the parking lot. Blood flowed off his beach jersey onto the sand and left a thin red line in his wake.
The other young man, the front of his t-shirt covered with blood, remained motionless on the sand while a crowd gathered around and stared at him, speechless and offering no comfort. The medics, quick and professional, built a small sand pillow under his head and revived the dazed and confused man who was able to slur some words through a mouth pulpy with blood and saliva. Another of the medics pushed the reluctant crowd back; they did not want to give up their points of observation; one man, running up with minicam in hand, stubbornly stood videotaping the prone man’s face and was incensed that the Medics were telling him to back off.
The crowd, now losing interest with their new distance from the consequences of this beating, began to move back to their picnic areas. The beach’s activities slowly, as if in half-speed, began to take on its former shape and feeling prior to the fighting. Here and there on the beach, small pools of blood were still visible, sinking into the sand.
Violence in any form, when spoken of repeatedly, can become a vague abstraction without a body and without real substance. But when witnessed, or when one is a victim of it, when one hears the sounds of angry fists and obscene words crunching bones and cartilage of another human being amid cursing, brutal language, when one sees the blood and limp body lying motionless, perhaps injured or wounded permanently, one has to wonder how human beings can believe that something is solved or resolved by such behavior. But its deeper causes seem to remain unknown to us as a people.
The trial and sentencing of John William King in Jasper, Texas for the murder of James Byrd Jr. by dragging him to his death over a three mile asphalt highway chained to a pickup, happened not long ago. When we listen to the morning talk shows, where so much of our psychic baggage is laid out in the studio, in suitcases the contents of which need to be inventoried in 12 minutes, we hear the common and repetitive lexicon: “incomprehensible,” “incredible,” “confusing,” “appalling,” as feeble and inadequate attempts to grasp the nature and the intensity of the hate, anger, indeed rage, behind King and his accomplices’ actions.
In the war film, The Thin Red Line, which shows American soldiers invading an island in Guam, the narrative voice suffusing the film’s action asks at one point: “Evil. Where does it come from? How does it get into us? As the carnage accelerates with human beings housing different beliefs, ideologies, even mythologies, confronting another to the death.
The move to understand such an intangible question is most often to rush to causes to burrow into the “why” question and then to move swiftly as possible to “because.” But crimes such as King’s force a dissolution of such an easy assemblage toward understanding. We are instead left in a state of awe over its awfulness. The act steps outside of our constructed frames of moral and psychological reference and challenges us to think differently about violence, rage and hatred as deep-seated emotional responses to what “the other” stands for.
As I watched the King trial unfold, I was simultaneously reading Stephen Diamond’s Anger, Madness and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil and Creativity published by SUNY Press in 1996 and reissued recently in paperback, so much in demand has it grown. He writes early on that “the vexing enigma of violence has now reached epidemic proportions”…such that “constructively redirecting and rechanneling our anger and rage must be made a national as well as a personal priority” (16). Diamond suggests that unless we come to some better terms with our wrath—and here he is talking on a national, not just a local or personal scale—”it will destroy us” (17).
My own questions take us in a different direction: What is it that the voice of violence wants to say? What does it want? What is it pointing to that seems mandatory for us to listen to? Is violence pointing us to something we have lost, discarded or have found too trivial or irrelevant to entertain? What is the archetypal ground of violence? Is the cry of violence that seeks to be heard really about the showing of Compassion? Of recognition? Of being heard and seen as a person? Of having integrity and self-worth? Finally, are our ideas and images of violence too narrow?
Are the following other forms that violence takes?
- Retired people not on Medicare who are charged 2-3 times the insurance rate for drugs—sometimes averaging $1200. Per month. Violent acts by Pharmaceutical companies?
- Three hundred million Chinese men today smoke—lung cancer and related heart disease cases is off the map—acts of violence? Is it even too much to say cigarette companies engage in acts of terrorism on an entire people?
- A large number of people believe that the current astronomical numbers of abortions performed in our country is a violent frontal assault on life itself.
- The increasing agribusiness and wholesale slaughter of animals to keep us in steaks, chicken legs and hamburgers—are we to begin to envision this industry as one that engages in acts of violence?
- Is the current minimum wage—amount here…..an act of violence on a large segment of our population?
- Should we consider the current tax structure a violent theft of a certain segment of the population’s income?
- You return home to find your home burglarized. An act of violence?
- Developers who move into an area, like Southern California and overbuild, taxing sewage, water, traffic, quality of life, the earth herself An act of violence?
- And as we try to imagine more clearly the images of violence and their effect on us as a people, are we not paying as much attention to the violence of images that embody all forms of untruths, half-lies, –what of the violence of images, the violence done to images—the violence done to the imagination itself in our current spin-world?
Mahatma Gandhi has written that “the deadliest form of violence is poverty.” Is its increase in what appears to be a land of plenty, even excess, an escalating form of violence that is as cruel and deadly as the poison gas used in warfare?
Part of my concern in this presentation is: what more invisible forms of violence should we as a nation be looking at and trying to resolve even as we take feeble measures to curtail the society of guns, rifles and other deadly weapons?
Even as I compose this talk, three events have leaped into my awareness: l. a man in Hawaii has just killed 7 of his coworkers at a Xerox plant and then, hours later, surrendered to police; 2. A man in Seattle who at this hour is still on the loose, has just entered a Yacht repair company and killed two employees and injured two others; 3. My wife, Sandy, just called me at 5:15PM on November 3rd. to tell me that her company is surrounded by police and swat teams because of a threat by a candidate for a job who was not hired. Apparently while getting a hair cut at a barber shop, he was complaining to his barber that my wife’s company was not going to get away with not hiring him. He had big plans and owned 18 guns and rifles at his home. The talk was so aggressive and terrifying for the barber, that when the man left, he followed him out and recorded a partial license plate number, then called the police, who then called my wife at her company. Through the partial plate and my wife’s interviews during the past several days, she was able to locate who it was and the police arrived at his house an hour later to arrest him. We both cannot help wonder how much closer to home these threats will become for all of us as civil boundaries in the home and now spreading out, infect and pollute all institutions where one was formerly relatively safe: place of employment, church, school, hospital, courthouse, post office. All are now zones for violence—violence itself knows few boundaries and has seemingly taken on a life of its own.
What is speaking through violence? Rage, insult? Self-esteem? Wounded self-image? Frustration? What is it that has perhaps become displaced, is seeking a place, searching for or finding a home emotionally and psychologically? Or is violence another form of homelessness, another form of ritual, a grotesque form of rite of passage? And what in fact is mimetic about violence? What action is being imitated, finding through what Wolfgang Giegerich has called “the soul’s logical life” a sense of analogy in action? I want to address some ideas about violence, some mine, some others that have incited my own imagination, and then to look at a scene from Dostoevsky’s magnificent novel of violence and retribution, Crime and Punishment, to discern the poetic move of violence.
In his essay, “Killings: Psychology’s Platonism and the Missing Link to Reality,” Giegerich traces violent killings back to the origins of consciousness itself and makes us think about this horrifying question: is coming into consciousness itself a violent act? Does it require a violent act, an overt transgression—as we see I believe in Genesis, in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—indeed in the movement of tragedy itself? What is the connecting lineaments of violence to consciousness and to the sacred, if Giegerich and Rene Girard, among others, are right?
Giegerich claims that historically sacrifice is the most all-pervasive phenomenon in most civilizations of the world. Both political life and religious life were filled with bloody sacrifices. Is our obsessive adherence to the separation, the segregation of church and state part of our difficulty psychologically rather than a safeguard against illusory ghosts? Emperors and kings had as their main task the supervision of the correct ritual performance of the sacrifices, which were generally public, annual and sensory. Part of the slaughter’s efficacy was in the populace witnessing the blood spouting, smelling it in the air, seeing the life of the sacrificed drain from it. Here the political psyche and the religious psyche coalesced in the sacrifical killing.
But then following his argument, I have to wonder: when the fundamental experience of the sacred is the sacrificial killing, as Giegerich observes, then in our time the fundamental experience of the secular is the gratuitous killing or the uncontained violence, violent action without the boundary of ritual to contain it, support it and even to sanction it. Violence today points us to the startling difference between what is contained and what is uncontained—the bloody sacrifice without containment. Something of its mimetic, ritual action is lost in its gratuitous outburst, its private enactment, without the public’s participation, except as victim. Not just the violent act, but the sacrificial nature of it also evaporates—there is some sense here of violence becoming its own end. Violence then is out of place, out of order. Violence in an aesthetic space, like a drama, a literary work, which keeps it contained; violence in a religious ritual allows its action to become a memory of the original act and the faithful are perhaps transformed through remembrance into a renewed hope and faith. Perhaps the genres of literature developed so convincingly by Dr. Louise Cowan as terrains of the psyche might also be spoken of as containers of psyche—psychic containers or even reservoirs in which a particular category or constellation of archetypes, while not domesticated, are able to move within the confines of a structure—a psychic structure. When the container is inadequate or is rendered innocuous or even worse, unnecessary, then its bursting is an outburst, where boundaries are dislodged, their porous a hindrance rather than a help to civilization itself.
But when the wound enters the culture gratuitously, unexpectedly, then some boundaries of the cultural psyche, the soul of the time and the epoch, are loosened, undone somewhat and some toxin spills into the cultural soil which itself cannot contain it. The move is to contain under desperation so it seeks the form of gun control, blame, litigation, legislation, finger pointing to the responsible or the irresponsible parties involved and the litany of accusatory questions, ending with: “How could you allow this to happen?” What is not sought is the psychic or mythic ground behind such action—what James Hillman calls the “archetypal background “from which the action or the image is to be imagined. How strange it is to our ears to think about the question: “How are we to imagine violence? Its voice? Its plea? And even harder: what is violence asking of us?
In earlier times, as Giegerich continues, human killing was less concerned with biology and nature as it was with soul and mind which he claims, grows from those original necessities of psychology and spirit (9). Hunting was itself a crucial ritual, a “sacred action occurring in a sacred space” (9). Today, I would think that violence is enacted as a vague simulacrum of this original sacredness. And then Giegerich offers what I find to be an amazing proposition: “Through killing man gained his initial self-knowledge, his first awareness of himself”(10). Killing as separation of human from animal order was its primary goal. The pivot between immediate natural life of living creatures and cultural existence of mortals was “posited and mediated with a blow of the axe on the animal.” He hit and killed his own OTHER, thus himself. In this act of violence towards animals, Giegerich suggests the soul was born as homo sapiens shifted from gatherer to hunter, inaugurating a qualitative breakthrough into a new dimension: the mind and soul of consciousness itself. Is this the rebellious violent act of Adam and Eve, of Prometheus, of Faust, of Hamlet and of Raskolnikov?
Such a violent act shocked human beings out of the dull darkness of biological existence and created a space for soul, for psyche. Free space gushed from the mortal wound of the animal. “Blood gushing forth from the wound ignited a light” (11), and issued in a separation of self from the world. The myth of violence is coordinate with the myth of consciousness, of soul making. These early forms of violence were a direct assault into the cosmos of biological life in order to be freed from it through consciousness. But where derives its impulse? Is it in the molecules of the body that yearning for consciousness sleeps? Something else here is dislodged, loosened for me, in thinking of perpetrators of violence who then turn on themselves at the end of their killing spree.
We have witnessed far too many violent acts of murder wherein the killer, at the end of a spree, turns on himself and, we are told, commits suicide. But is it? Or is it a form of self-sacrifice? Perhaps we have been misconstruing what takes place here as suicide when in fact, or in mythic consciousness, it is self-sacrifice—a completion of the sacrificial killing. Is this where the sacrificing of others leads? When aborted, incomplete, or unfulfilling—precisely because it lacks the sacred or mythic character of the ritual killings mentioned earlier, because it is divorced from any sacred context and because all boundaries and containers have long since been discarded. And is it this recognition, of the horror of the act divorced from a larger context that brings the hand of the murderer to self-sacrifice? Or is it the fear of punishment and persecution? Of course, it need not be either/or.
If it is true that the soul first made itself through killing, then is there a way of speaking of violence today, desperate and unpredictable because the larger sacred ritual has left it—a larger numinous story to guide it and give it some form of containment? Has violence abandoned it or been abandoned by the prevailing myth because it does not fit or distracts from the common enterprise of consuming? So violent acts today are ghastly in a culture with little historical consciousness of the place of violence, and we are left wondering WHY? And we are quick to fix the appellation SENSELESS to these acts. What a fix we are in. We deny the existence of the very thing or force feeding the complex, inciting the archetype, rupturing the container, that we wish to address and mollify.
In breaking the bonds to animal existence, typified by a life, Giegerich claims, that rested on an automatic, affective, instinctual response that was directed almost exclusively at biological needs, our ancestors broke into this way of living through the blow of the axe or hurling the spear, and “in this deed broke through life’s boundaries to death” (13). He thus inflicted the experience of death on himself while still in life and made this experience the basis of his own”(14). I would suggest that maybe the imagination was born in this violent act into awareness and perhaps that imagination should be called MIMETIC. I say this because mimesis lifts us from the everyday events of life to the psychological, spiritual and emotional and aesthetic experiences that lead us to a symbolic life. To break from the exclusive fetters of biology is to enter mythology, which Joseph Campbell took great pains to tell us, originates in biology. Like Ahab, the prototype of the hunter into consciousness, or perhaps the hunter seeking a fuller and deeper consciousness, in his own dismembered way, is intent on striking out, striking in, and finally striking through the mask—to attack biology in the white whale, to break into biology, to inseminate mythology.
The white whale as the mythical image and the biological object of attack—a sacrificial killing with the harpoon—what is Ahab laying down? The first originary thrust into consciousness—from Adam on down. Ahab repeating the first mimetic act of consciousness, of striking through the mask of physus into ontology—his spear affords him an archetypal thrust, a primordial hurtling of the weapon forward in projection—projecting the spear outward from the self and inward to the world. A tremendous surge of energy is needed to break through; the act is by its nature a violent one, s is Raskolnikov’s when he swings the axe out from under hid threadbare coat to split the skull of the old pawnbroker, Alena and her half sister, Lizaveta. What Jung saw in Moby-Dick as the great visionary American novel takes its shape from the primordial act of violence, a sacrificial act of piercing the other, of slicing into the dumb brute of nature on which all of consciousness rests waiting to be discharged.
Have we then, as Giegerich suggests, flipped from living in the body to living in mind or soul, where “the inversion puts body in mind, not mind in body? Jung believed that “the body is animated by the soul,” but little is said of the information soul receives from body. Why not? What has happened to the body culturally and mythically? Has it dissolved into a technological function as Robert Romanyshyn argues in Technology as Symptom and Dream? Is archetypal psychology guilty of adding to violence by denying or downplaying the body’s wisdom? And are the rampages of violence in our culture desperate attempts to give the body its due, to recover something of our enfleshed nature that has been managed into meat, into systems and functions?
The eruptions of violence today in the culture are reminders—memories even, of this split and dismissal of the violent acts that brought consciousness into being. In order to protect the innocence of consciousness, Giegerich presumes, psychology has taken up only the symbolic and metaphorical sides of the the human person and left the historical-biological act of violence back there, unkempt and polluted and disdained in the miasma of history. The historicity of body consciousness has been relegated to the back burner. His claim is that we have dismissed the violent acts that brought consciousness into being. “The archetypes are immunized from actual world’s relation to an age and culture” (17) in large measure because they have lost their memory of the literal events that brought them into being—acts of violence.
In the same spirit in which Dionysos returns to Thebes under the leadership of Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae because he has been ignored or forgotten, his sacredness muted in the psyche of the polis, are acts of violence today in large measure an archetypal reawakening of these earlier acts of violence that promoted consciousness in the first place? Is violence a way of remembering, as hyperboles of memory? One novel that deals with a reawakened consciousness through the body is that mentioned earlier and written by Dostoevsky. His work gains added strength when we begin to consider the origins of consciousness that Giegerich explores in relation to shame, to a self-consciousness that is painful, even traumatic and that violence may be a desperate attempt to override or undercut feelings of shame. Two a couple of scenes early in the novel’s development I wish to turn to now in order to give flesh to the ideas entertained above.
You remember the story: Rodion Raskolnikov, a young man living in poverty in a fifth floor garret in Petersburg in the 19th. Century, is a former student at the university. Owing to a change of fortune, he finds himself out of school, brooding over his poverty, full of a mixture of kind-heartedness and deep bitter resentment over his current condition. He slinks down the stairway of his tomb-like apartment for fear of seeing his landlady, to whom he owes months of back rent. Proud but not arrogant, tattered but not yet defeated by life, Raskolnikov is in a limbo, a liminal state and his future path could as easily move to violence as to some prominence and success. But for the moment he is stuck, a bit ill, and slipping more deeply into depression and despair. At just his moment he receives from his mother early in the novel a letter from his mother.
In it she relates to her son the scandal surrounding his sister, Dunya’s experience serving as a housekeeper for the Svidrigaylovs in the country, of how she was abused, shamed by Svidrigaylov and finally, exonerated of any wrongdoing. She tells her son of her own poverty, of money borrowed to send him living expenses, and of his sister’s imminent betrothal to Peter Petrovich Luzhin, an attorney, brusque, arrogant and patronizing in temperament. His mother’s letter conveys a double message: she relates how things are going to improve for the three of them, while expressing deep misgivings as to the future happiness of his sister when she marries Luzhin.
The overall affect of her letter on Raskolnikov is to make him more clearly and bitterly conscious of himself and his poverty as well as increase in him the shame he feels for not being able to support himself or get his life moving in any productive direction. What the novel suggests to me regarding violence, which is Raskolnikov’s way of trying to assuage or alleviate his shame, is that with the birth of consciousness is the birth of self-consciousness and with it, the ability to be and feel ashamed. Are then the forms of violence we are witnessing so overtly today, responses on the part of individuals to confront or avoid their feelings of shame?
The effect of Pulkheria’s letter to her son is instantaneous; he now feels that, because they are coming in just a few days to visit him in Petersburg, he must act decisively towards his shameful condition and circumstances. In his frenzy, he begins to wander the backstreets of the dirty city, talking to himself, gesturing wildly, all in a desperate attempt to find a way out of the cul-de-sac or labyrinth he is caught in. And in his frenetic searching, he finds himself involuntarily heading towards the Vasilyevsky Island, away from the suffocating space of his cupboard-like garret and out of the stifling stench of Petersburg: “’But where am I going?’ he thought suddenly. ‘It’s strange. I must have come for some reason. I came as soon as I had read that letter….I remember now. But why?’”(43). Without rudder or direction, he wanders like a man drunk until he makes a half-decision to return home, “but by the time he reached Petrovsky Island he was too exhausted to go on, and he turned aside from the road into some bushes, let himself fall to the ground, and was asleep at once” (46). And here he dreams one of the most famous dreams in all of literature, a complex dream that stirs so many parts of his past and future into one cauldron. Space forces me to make only a thumb nail sketch of it, but its vivid description of violence makes it imperative to at least witness its present.
In the dream he travels with his father to the gravesites of both his grandmother and his younger brother “who had died at six months old and whom he could not remember” (47). On their way they pass by a tavern where a drunken peasant, Mikolka, is lashing the small aged horse while inviting all the peasants to get in the cart it will pull all of them in—clearly an impossible task. And we are meant to recall Pulkheria’s description in her letter to Raskolnikov of how his sister is of such a disposition that she can bear great burdens. Dostoevsky’s description of the beating and final bludgeoning to death of the small mare is emotionally exhausting and the young Raskolnikov intervening to save the horse from the whip and finally the heavy iron bar with which he breaks the horse’s back and kills her is terrifying in its brutality. Even the drunken peasants back away and cry out at the deranged man: “’Shame! You’re no better than a heathen!’” (50).
Raskolnikov wakes from his terror “panting and sweating, his hair damp with perspiration, and sprang up in alarm. ‘Thank God, it was only a dream,’ he said, sitting down under a tree and drawing long breaths” (50).
But then the dream connects in his mind to his fantasy whose seeds were sown even before his mother’s letter to him, that in the spirit of social and economic justice—after all, he had been studying law before he left the university—he had justified to himself that slaying the old pawnbroker, stealing her possessions and distributing them to the poor would help to restore a fair share of wealth to those less privileged. His fantasy is reactivated by the dream and he wonders aloud while sitting there: “’is it possible…that I really shall take an axe and strike her on the head, smash open her skull…that my feet will slip in warm, sticky blood, and that I shall break the lock and steal, and tremble, and hide, all covered in blood…with the axe…? God, is it possible?’”(51).
The dream is so powerful because it gives images to his ideas, enfleshes them and gives it a narrative by which to plot the violence. Do we today continue to condemn video games, movies, magazines of violent images with justification? Is the “cause” of violence there? Or are the first pages of this novel of transgression through violence, then punishment, telling us something more profound? Its suggestion is that some very complex interconnection between a heightened self-consciousness, the emotion of shame, distorted ideas of fixing what is wrong in the world as one perceives it, and the stories emanating from the unconscious all conspire in certain acts of violence as one attempts to create the world in one’s image.
In Raskolnikov’s dream he gains the images in a story and thus the affect of his ideas to achieve social justice even if it takes sacrificing the other to do so. And, to complicate the case further, he feels drawn and driven by a kind of destiny, a fatedness, that his own will is subservient to this force that drives him, he feels towards the third floor apartment of Alena Ivanovna, axe firmly hooked inside his coat, where he must, he feels, commit the murder.
So to her apartment he heads, almost inspite of himself—full of fear, of excitement, of a certain terror and a sense of blind destiny. And what does he hope to find there? I believe he is seeking freedom—freedom from his shame. I ask you to recall Gandhi’s earlier observation that “poverty is the worst form of violence,” and I think we can talk about a number of forms of poverty, one of which is a poverty of feelings of the self as valuable and worthy of esteem. James Gilligan’s current excellent study called simply,Violence, makes the observation as he works with death row inmates in federal prisons, that “the secret many violent men carry is that they are ashamed over trivial things and that they feel ashamed for feeling ashamed” (111). His ideas on shame and violence have their ripples through Giegerich’s belief that consciousness is born in killing. So there is a connection between this birth of consciousness and violence acts as way of deflecting or deflating a sense of shame. “’The instinct of (physiological) self-preservation,’” Gilligan goes on to suggest, “does not hold when one approaches the point of being so overwhelmed by shame that one can only preserve one’s self (as a psychological entity) by sacrificing one’s body (or those of others)” (110). There are indeed, as the genre of Tragedy reveals repeatedly, fates worse than death. Shame’s great acclaim is that it will stop at nothing to destroy one and that to avoid such a dissolution there are no limits to which one is capable to avoid such a subterfuge.
So Rodion Raskolnikov, under the powers of a shame over his own impoverished condition, anger over his sister and mother’s victimization at the hands first of Svidrigaylov and then Luzhin, his empty future, his grandiose ideas of history’s supermen who have so much authority that they may overstep the bounds limiting the rest of us, his authentic belief that he is fated to murder—that the world’s circumstances are aligning to make it happen—all these forces and more coagulate in the young man as he seeks to sort out this very difficult idea of freedom from and freedom to….
The great irony of Raskolnikov’s design is that he himself enters into a conspiracy two victimize two women, though he does not the full extent of his crime at the time of planning it, and in so doing participates in exactly the same form of abuse that he condemns Luzhin for doing—victimizing his sister and daughter. He mirrors what he condemns. Is this also a part of the awakening of consciousness that Giegerich asked us to buy into earlier? As Raskolnikov’s plan unfolds, he finds himself “seething with a dull, brutal rage” (61). Nothing can stop him now for he seems gripped in the rage itself, as he makes a hook out of cloth and sews it to the inside of his ragged coat. He is able to take the axe from the woodpile behind the apartment building he inhabits and goes unnoticed to the streets to Alena’s apartment. He rings her door three times, “quietly and firmly, without betraying any impatience” and “a moment later, he heard the bolt being lifted” (64). The old woman opens the door a crack and her “two sharp and mistrustful eyes peered at him from the darkness” (64). And that is where I will leave him. Hesitant, terrified, numb, determined and somehow strangely calm as he prepares to enter the old woman’s rooms and fill the floor with her blood, sliding in it, clumsily, and in the process and out of carelessness, being forced to murder her half sister, Lizaveta.
Such is the great paradox Dostoevsky points us to: the double murder will be the first blow into a full consciousness, one that will include his being ministered to by an 18 year old prostitute, Sonya Marmeladov, who will offer him another narrative to live by, a story that is at the same time a path to salvation, to a deeper, more numinous form of consciousness. The story from John’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus will be Raskolnikov’s new plot, one that is not about killing but about redemption, of being brought back from the dead. But that is another story entirely and I will leave it for another time.
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