17 May 2010
Because, I Can
Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary.
What makes someone think they are extraordinary enough to get away with murder? One “extraordinary” person’s grounds for committing murder due to a desire based on self-interest cannot be justified. Existentialism is the analysis of existence and the way humans find themselves existing in the world. An existential murderer is practicing free will by going against society’s norms in order to fulfill his/her logically reasoned desire for murder. Society plays a role in feeding these psychologically unusual vile cravings of human beings. Woody Allen, an American director and actor, would agree with the existential idea behind a murderer’s logic. He would say that a murderer makes his own choices and will have to continue fighting for his life by facing the consequences of his actions. A hierarchal and heterogeneous society has horrible repercussions in driving one’s ego to act immorally while legitimizing one’s actions.
In Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov represents the modern day man. He has puts his faith in truth and science, rather then religion. “Science now tells us, love yourself above everyone else, for everything in the world relies on self interest” (Dostoevsky 145). Nihilism argues that there is no purpose in life. Nihilism rejects the traditional bonds of family and society. Dostoevsky has a problem with this, because it causes a lack of faith and we see people putting oneself above the other. Raskolnikov believes that he has the right to manipulate society and place himself on a pedestal, because he’s better. Roskalnikov says, “The old woman was a mistake perhaps, but she isn’t what matters! The old woman was just an illness…I was in a hurry to overstep…I didn’t kill a human being, but a principle! I killed the principle…” (Dostoevsky 261). Roskalnikov acts like he is “naturally selected” to better society, because he thinks he is doing mankind a favor.
Raskolnikov is a rational egoist. He is rationalizing the fact that he killed someone by plighting that he is carrying out a service for humanity. An elitist rational thought process— “I am what I think”—drives Raskolnikov’s murders. Raskolnikov is an egotist. He loves himself so much, he thinks it is the role of the world to serve him. Alexandra Rudicina writes “ Murder is presented as an act generated exclusively by the rational mind of the murderer. It is a product of pure intellection, a rationally argued ‘calculated’ act of violence…” (Rudicina 1065). An egoist murderer puts himself above everybody else, and therefore justifies all his actions, due to his/her idea of supremacy.
Patrick Bateman is the protagonist in Bret Easton Ellis’s, American Psycho. He is also a rational narcissist. Narcissists are only dedicated in improving themselves. They have no concern with the outside world. In Bateman’s case, Freud would say that a narcissist’s self is not whole, therefore they’re on a search for fulfillment of the self. Bateman wants power and control. By finding power he thinks he will find himself.
Bateman is a Harvard graduate, who belongs to the upper class elite. We learn about Bateman’s thought process through his stream of consciousness, like Raskolnikov. As the story progresses, we begin to uncover Bateman’s violent urges and learn that he finds gratification in his sadistic and psychotic murders. Bateman has a smooth, slick, and calm personality unlike Raskolnikov. His obsession with perfection, wealth, superiority, and consumerism drives his ego to the roof. Bateman feels no guilt or remorse before, after, or during his killings. He is the literal meaning of the “American Psycho.”
As his conscience takes a toll on him and he begins to feel self-reproach, he confesses his crimes to his lawyer, Harold Carnes. Carnes does not take Patrick’s confessions seriously and laughs it off by stating that he just had dinner with one of his supposed murders just a couple days ago. Were all these murders a dream in Patrick Bateman’s head or was he lucky enough to get away with murder? Whether or not Bateman was dreaming the murders or actually performing them, his psychotic thoughts and vivid imaginations are a by-product of America. In the 1980’s, consumerism is taking place. “I am what I wear,” is what’s going through Bateman’s head. The self is the commodity. Patrick Bateman is convinced that in order to be successful, and reach the glass ceiling, he needs to purchase, own, and invest more than any person or industry. America constructs this psycho. Society puts so much pressure on looks, products, appearance and exploitation of consumerism that the only thing people want to do is, “fit in.”
Contrary to Bateman who thinks, “I am what I wear,” Raskolnikov believes, “I am what I think.” Patrick Bateman is the modern day version of Raskolnikov. They are both tied around a class system that they are not able to escape. The division in class allows both characters to perceive their murders uniquely. Raskolnikov is living in Russia in the 1800’s when the opposition or Russian spiritual values to Western rationalism is growing. Raskolnikov is one of those Russian radicals who cultivate Western ideas of social-scientific approach, that studies the material world and attends a university. By following a western, utilitarian economic theory, he reduces it to human compassion merely replaced by economic utility and self-interest. James P. Scanlan writes, “In the 1860’s Dostoevsky’s interest in the phenomenon of egoism was powerfully fed by his conviction that a narrow focus on the ego or self—something he considered endemic in Western Civilization—was a plague that increasingly threatened Russia” (Scanlan 553). Dostoevsky constructs a character that begins to have his conscious eat away at him after his murders. By killing the pawnbroker, Raskolnikov tries to prove that the material world of self-interest determines behavior, but he is wrong. He later understands that human nature and compassion for others should exist in society.
Raskolnikov wants to kill the pawnbroker so he can feel above her. Raskolnikov wanted to lend a helping hand and “kill [Aliona and Lizaveta], take her money and with the help of it devote [himself] to the service of humanity and the common good. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds. For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay” (Dostoevsky 66). He wanted to rise and feel important in the Russian class system. Whereas Raskolnikov murdered because he wanted to change Russian society, Bateman is a victim of the American society. Even when Bateman silently cries for help and admits to being a murder, he suffers no repercussion, because no one believes him. This is a critique on American society. Voices are often silenced when it comes to class division. The poor and even the consumers, like Bateman, who realize America is exploiting them begin to speak up and are still ignored. America tries spreading it’s own voice to its citizens and expects its people to unconsciously buy into what they are selling. An ego driven society is dangerous and gives morally powerless individuals the strength to put themselves above humanity.
Raskolnikov believes his crimes are justified due to his “exceptional” position in society. He has given himself the title of “superman” which emphasizes the power and authority he has endowed upon himself. Scanlan writes, “…Rational Egoism— was a genuine danger, because by glorifying the self it could turn the minds of impressionable young people away from sound values and push them in the direction of a true, immoral, destructive egoism” (Scanlan 553-554). Is this Nihilistic and Utilitarian attitude Roskalnikov have towards the world true? Lester, a character in Woody Allen’s, Crimes and Misdemeanors, is a TV/film producer who says, “They don’t pay off on high aspirations. You’ve got to deliver.” Lester believes he has a specific role in society, similar to Raskolnikov. He has “delivered” so well to the public’s interest that the public now puts him on a pedestal.
Like Raskolnikov, Lester has an ego. Lester however, does not contemplate over his thoughts and actions. He has chosen to be the best, therefore is the best. Clifford Stern is a documentary maker in, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Cliff does not “deliver” to the public; therefore he is a “starving artist.” The characters of Lester and Clifford are prevalent in Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov has a side of him who thinks his murders are justified. This is the viewpoint that is similar to Lester, because they are both convinced that what they are “delivering” is supreme. On the other hand, Raskolnikov begins to wonder whether his previous utilitarian ideals are correct, as his guilty conscience begins to eat away at him.
Clifford Stern does not change his style of life or mindset in order for the public to love him. Clifford stands next to his views and perspectives. The public has no interest to him. As Raskolnikov begins to slowly engage in society and come face to face with his crime, he realizes that it might not have been in the interest of the public to kill Aliona Ivanovna, the pawnbroker and her sister, Lizaveta Ivanovna. Yes, they might be a nuisance to society, like Lester, but Raskolnikov should have been passive rather than active by keeping his personal opinions to himself.
Lester, Raskolnikov and Clifford are educated men who have a lot of pride behind their ideals. Each has similar yet different views of what someone’s role in society really is. When you know what the public wants and you deliver well, you will strive, like Lester. Lester has no inner turmoil or unconscious battle. His concerns in life are not associated with hidden deep emotions. His focal interest is consumerism; money and fame. When a character becomes more complex, like Clifford, it is not so easy for him to forget his purpose in life. Clifford’s major trouble is for his voice to be heard and understood by the public. Clifford does not care about selling the voice of the public back to the public. He wants to sell his voice. A mixture of Cliff and Lester form an even more convoluted character such as, Raskolnikov. Unlike Clifford and Lester, Raskolnikov makes the mistake of murder, because he is caught between two ideals; continuing to live his life believing he committed a murder in order to “deliver” to society, or to accept that his choice was unjust and ego driven.
Like Patrick Bateman from, American Psycho, and Raskolnikov from, Crime and Punishmen, Judah, the protagonist in Crimes and Misdemeanors, is involved in a moral crisis. He hires someone to kill the women he has an affair with— multiple times— because he can find no other way to cope with his infidelity and make it go away. Judah does not get punished for his murder. It’s interesting how a decent, hard-working man commits adultery, and has his guilt lead him to his only possible solution; the murder of his adulteress. On the other hand, an arrogant man like Lester would never commit murder, even though he is a product and exploiter of a materialist society he adorns. Woody Allen writes:
And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt… Now, he’s panic-stricken… And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted… The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s Scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.
Woody Allen shows a good critique on society . He shows how society and human nature have a large part in shaping us all. Even a hardworking accomplished guy like Judah is able to commit a crime without suffering the pangs of a guilty conscience. Paradoxically, Judah, a family man, executes a murder that Lester, the egotist of the story would never be able to. Everyone lives to fulfill his or her ego contrastive from everyone else.
In the 1988 American Drama, American History X, the protagonist Derek Vinyard is drawn towards the Neo-Nazi movement, after his racist father is killed. Derek kills two black men trying to steal his truck, hence being placed in jail for three years. Derek cannot go “back to his protected world of wealth and privilege” like Judah from Crimes and Misdemeanors does. Derek serves time in jail, and soon realizes that his murder is equivalent to only three years in jail, whereas if one of the black men shot him, they would be sentenced for life. Within the three years Derek is in jail reforming his preconceived racist thoughts, his younger brother, Danny, has began moving in the direction of Derek’s past white supremacist way of life.
Derek’s initial learned behavior emanates from his father’s racism. It is human nature to imitate one’s surroundings when there is no one else showing someone an alternative way. When Derek enters a four walled jail cell, he has no other option than to observe the people around him. He realizes the unfairness of the justice system and the racial determinants of the amount of years a person gets in jail. When a person has enough isolated time—like time in jail— it gives them time to step out of their self-driven life and think of ways to starve the discriminatory system that runs their world, rather than feeding it with more followers.
Criminal statistics are high because social inequalities produce them. In American History X, we see how racism against African Americans causes black students to bully people around and white supremacist ideals that Danny holds allows him to feel “extraordinary” in order to stand up to a black person. It is an ongoing circle of hate. It resembles a domino that keeps falling, standing up on its own, then falling back down. Derek kills two black men in the beginning of the story, learns to control his anger, but it is too late, because he could not protect his brother Danny from getting killed by a black student at his school. What goes around comes around. On one hand society creates these white and black supremacist ideas for the youth to follow, and on the other hand society punishes the youth for using these ideas to commit crime.
Society does play a role in feeding these psychologically unusual vile cravings of Lester, Raskolnikov, Patrick, Judah, Derek, and Danny. Patrick is a concrete example of someone who is personified as a commodity. He is a product of the American society and is not able to escape it, even after he accepts his wrong doings. Society has already placed him in a division of class that not even the law can touch. Raskolnikov is an example of someone who suffers from his guilt, admits to his murders, and learns how compassion does exist in society, because he pays for his crimes through punishment. Lester does not commit any crime. He will live in his fantasy world of fame and fortune never understanding the purpose of reality. Judah symbolizes how people should not be judged by their cover, because appearances are definitely deceiving. Finally, Derek and Danny are the definition of racists who realize that their anger and prejudice only puts them into more trouble. They both come to terms with themselves and work jointly to start a new life.
In American History X, they ask Derek, “ Has anything you’ve done made your life better?” I think this is the question everyone should ask themselves. It is easy to release built up anger by externalizing it in order to momentarily escape one’s own fear and anger, but does it get you anywhere? It will be easier for individuals like Lester, Raskolnikov, Patrick, Judah, Derek and Danny to really evaluate the world they live in, once they overcome the urge of copying, Ego, an invisible man who tries enforcing people to follow self-interest, rather than human nature. We can all be extraordinary together, rather than ordinary apart, if we work collaboratively to better this mad world.
American History X. Dir. Tony Kaye. Perf. Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. New Line Cinema, 1998.
Crimes and Misdemeanors. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen, Martin Landau, and Mia Farrow. Orion Pictures, 1989.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Barnes and Noble Classics, 2007. Print.
Ellis, Bret E. American Psycho. Vintage Books, 1991. Print.
Rudicina, Alexandra F. “Crime and Myth: The Archetypal Pattern of Rebirth in Three Novels of Dostoevsky.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 87.5 (1972): 1065-1074. JSTOR. Web. 20 April 2010.
Scanlan, James P. “The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.” Journal of the History of Ideas 60.3 (1999): 549-567. JSTOR. Web. 19 April 2010.