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By Alan Jacobs


The Man Who Heard Voices, Part 1

"There is neither a first nor a last word," wrote Mikhail Bakhtin. "Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival." Suppressed for decades under Stalinism, long inaccessible to Western readers, the work of this powerful Christian thinker invites us to a carnival where the pretensions of all grand system-builders are deconstructed.

On the first page of Dostoevsky's great novel "Crime and Punishment" we find ourselves thrown into the mental world of an unnamed young man. Though the narration is in the third person, it seems at times to slip without comment into the young man's own voice:

It was not landladies he feared, no matter what this one happened to be plotting against him.

To find himself stuck on the stairs, though, and forced to listen to the whole range of her nonsense and offensive rubbish for which he had absolutely no concern; forced to listen to her pesterings for payment, her threats, her appeals; and he himself all the while prevaricating, making excuses, lying. … No. Better somehow to slink down the stairs like a cat and slip away unseen.

Is the landlady plotting against this young man? Does she speak mere nonsense? The narrator does not say. And likewise, when we hear the young man asking himself, "Can I really do that?" the narrator refrains from informing us what that is. We soon learn that the young man's name is Raskolnikov. We learn it, not because the narrator tells us, but because the young man identifies himself to a pawnbroker (a pawnbroker he will soon murder); now the narrator can pick up the name and use it himself. Raskolnikov wanders into a saloon, where he meets a strange, agitated man who introduces himself as Titular Councilor Marmeladov. And off goes this Marmeladov on a long, drunken monologue filled with references to people we don't (yet) know, culminating in a disorderly but blissful eschatalogical vision in which Marmeladov comes before the great Judge at the end of the world, admitting that he ...

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