What Crime and Punishment can teach you that the internet can't

Because the internet takes its cue from us, it doesn't push back. Reading a novel like Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" forces us to confront the "otherness" we would otherwise ignore.

At the age of 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky, sentenced to death for revolutionary activities, stood before a firing squad. The young writer and agitator kissed a cross that was passed around among the prisoners. The Tsar’s soldiers raised their guns. Then a rider rushed into the square and announced a pardon: the condemned men, including Dostoevsky, were to be sent to hard labour in Siberia instead.

Very few of us will ever have a terrifying, unreal moment like Dostoevsky’s: convinced he was about to die, then spared at the last minute. When Dostoevsky returned from Siberia and wrote his great novels, his near-death echoed through his work. He felt compelled to imagine killers and their victims in the most graphic, even sickening ways.

Being alone with Dostoevsky and his perverse, troubled characters can be an appalling experience. But still we read on, unable to tear ourselves away from a world so miserable and so alien to our hopes. Dostoevsky shows us what subjecting ourselves to a book whose vision is extreme and uncomfortable can do for us: broaden our knowledge of others.

Increasingly, psychologists and neuroscientists have been focusing on empathy as a crucial part of what makes us human. Moral life is unimaginable without the ability to identify with other people, to feel their experiences. But what about people whose inner lives we can’t bear to think about: the torturers and killers we condemn as evil, even inhuman? Every day we gulp down headlines and lurid, tabloid stories about such bad people, but this is voyeurism, not an entry into another world. Dostoevsky actually portrays bad people in unrivalled depth, and over hundreds of pages: the terrorists, the murderers, the scoundrels. Lately, psychological studies have suggested that reading serious fiction increases empathy, enabling us to stand in the shoes of others. This is especially valuable when we read about those who seem completely unlike us: not just people from a different nation, race or religion, but those who are morally different, who are, to use the inescapable word, evil.

Dostoevsky is not alone among the great realists in his ability to depict evil. When I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I am always most intrigued by the novel’s chilling portrait of Napoleon. In Tolstoy’s hands, the Emperor resembles an overgrown child, but he knows only cold satisfaction, instead of a child’s joy. Yet Tolstoy’s Napoleon, who is capable of sending thousands of men to their deaths without hesitation, remains part of the spectrum of humanity. He’s not a monster, but one of us.

When you read a novel seriously, you're alone with the author’s characters, listening and feeling as carefully as you can. Sometimes, as with Dostoevsky, the reader enters a world that may seem foreign and even repulsive, but that also fascinates. We feel exhilarated but uneasy as we find ourselves trapped with the people we usually turn away from, life’s villains. At times a television series like Breaking Bad is able, like a realist novel, to make us sympathise with a hero whom we also want to condemn. But novels, because they demand that we immerse ourselves in the lives of others more slowly and thoroughly than television or movies, give us a fuller portrait of the dark side.

Reading a novel forces us to experience the lives of characters who are radically different from us, something we can't get from other art forms. Only by spending a long time inside the head of a character can we know something of the full range of human life. The more we can do that, the better for how we see the world, because we've spent serious time with otherness during our reading. 

Novels deliver the unlike, the alien, as an antidote to our comforts and our day-to-day prejudices. Increasingly, we are snugly wrapped in our worldviews. Conservatives see everything in blue, progressives in red. The internet seems designed to back up our opinions, because when we’re online we make a habit of seeking out the like-minded. We gang up on those we disagree with, rather than listening carefully to contrary opinions. When the web shows us the horrors of war and domestic violence, we take a quick look and move on. Distracted by snapshots of horror, we think we are following terrible events. But we’re not, because we don’t commit ourselves to finding out about the human actors behind them. Reading a novel means committing yourself, to the author and the characters. Glancing at evil and tragedy, as the internet encourages us to do, lets us avoid the hard questions about motivation and human personality that novels make us confront.

Because the internet molds itself to our whims, letting us go where we want, when we want, it prevents us from really experiencing otherness in the way that a novel, the longest of long forms, can offer. A novel has a structure, while the web doesn’t; a novel pushes back, and demands that we stay involved. Sinking into a book and subjecting ourselves to the author is the shock treatment we need to break out of our habit of online distractions, which can numb our capacity to see how human beings develop over time. Without that capacity, we lose the power to identify with the people around us, especially those we find morally troubling. 

When we read Crime and Punishment, we sympathise against our will with the murderer Raskolnikov. But Dostoevsky, remembering his own near-execution, also makes us watch a murder from the point of view of the victim. Dostoevsky imagines what it's really like to kill someone in a way that movies and television and online games almost never do. Raskolnikov first kills an old woman pawnbroker, and then her sister Lizaveta, who arrives unexpectedly on the scene. As Raskolnikov lifts his axe, the author shows us Lizaveta paralysed with fear. We suddenly see the murder through the eyes of the victim, after having experienced the inner life of the murderer through so many gripping pages.

In ordinary life we tend to choose sides. We wouldn't want to think about a murderer and his victim at once. But Dostoevsky makes us identify with both. We can't push either of them away; our moral judgments get put on hold so that we can really see into the lives of other people. We've spent so much time with the murderer, in our slow, captivated reading of the book, that we can't just reject him now. But we also know that, when he scorns the sacredness of human life, he has done the unforgivable.

We are moral creatures, and so we must divide humanity into innocent and guilty, victim and evil predator. But there is something about such distinctions that cuts us off from further knowledge. When we're prevented from picking sides, as happens when we read a novelist like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, we've learned something essential: that we need to move beyond comforting moral judgments, if we really care about understanding the world.

A few hours after his reprieve from death, Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to his brother, “Life, life is everywhere, life is inside us... There will be people beside me, and to be a man among people is to remain a man forever...” These words suggest that Dostoevsky knew his uncanny strength, from that moment on, would be his ability to imagine other people, and to help us imagine other people too.

David Mikics is the author of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (Harvard/Belknap). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston

Jens Harzer performs as Raskolnikov in a German stage production of Crime and Punishment. Photograpgh: Getty Images.

David Mikics is the author of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (Harvard/Belknap). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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The stuff of life: how A S Byatt intertwined the lives of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

In Peacock & Vine, Byatt has turned works of art and their shade, texture, patina and heft into words.

How to evoke a colour in words? It is a task of daunting simplicity which A S Byatt attempts in her essay on the artist-designers William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. A Fortuny dress in pleated silk embellished with gold pomegranates is, she writes, “a colour somewhere between dark pink and pale red . . . a shining rose crossed with rust”. She adds, “no one reading what I have written will imagine the colour very well, or at all”. An adjacent photograph of the dress shows that “rose crossed with rust” is a fine description of its luscious and evasive colour – though it is also true that the words will conjure a slightly different tone in the mind of every reader, and none of those imagined russets will be exactly that of the dress.

Still, if anyone can turn words into shade, texture, patina, heft, it is Byatt. Her fictions swarm with physical objects of intense emotional potency and with characters whose lives they touch in strange and unexpected ways. Byatt herself, she writes in her introduction, has “always admired those whose lives and arts are indistinguishable from each other. And as I grow older I become more and more interested in craftsmen – glass-blowers, potters, makers of textiles.” Her own ancestors, she remarks, were Staffordshire potters.

On a first visit to the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Byatt found herself unexpectedly thinking about William Morris, whose work she knew well. “I was using Morris . . . to understand Fortuny. I was using Fortuny to reimagine Morris. Aquamarine, gold green. English meadows, Venetian canals.”

The two men were born four decades apart: Morris in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, to “a family with no aesthetic interests”, Fortuny in Granada in 1871, to an aristocratic family of artists and collectors. Each led a life of intense, multifarious ­creativity in surroundings where no distinction was made between domesticity and professional work. Morris designed houses, gardens, furniture, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, wallpaper, books and typefaces. Fortuny was a painter, photographer, theatre designer and inventor whose innovations included a system of electrical stage lighting that revolutionised the staging of Wagner’s operas.

Both he and Morris came late to textile design, but it is perhaps for this that each is now best known. In 1907, after reading a book by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, Fortuny designed his first purely fashion creation, the Knossos scarf, incorporating Minoan imagery. In 1909 he patented his Delphos design for a pleated sheath dress in the Grecian style. The dresses were made of fine silk, dyed with vegetable dyes, hand-pleated using a technique that remains a mystery and held together with Murano glass beads. They turned the female body, of any size or shape, into a graceful column, and they were both elegant and extremely comfortable – though not, Byatt thinks, “sexy, either in 1910 or now”.

Fortuny saw his creations as works of art, and they were worn by women of highly evolved aesthetic sensibility: the dancer Isadora Duncan, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Byatt notes that Kay, the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, was buried in a Fortuny dress. She was not the only fictional character to wear Fortuny: his designs are a potent presence in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Of all the dresses owned by the narrator’s lover, Albertine, a Fortuny in blue and gold, lined in Tiepolo pink, is her favourite; when she leaves him, she takes with her only a dark blue Fortuny cloak.

In his lifetime, Morris was almost better known for his writing than for his designs. His literary output was as prodigious as his craft: a book about his journeys to Iceland; News from Nowhere, a pastoral utopian fantasy; translations of Icelandic epics and of a 16th-century Venetian book on the art of dyeing; an epic poem, “The Earthly Paradise” (vastly popular in his lifetime, but now almost unreadable, Byatt says: “The rhythms hack and bang”); as well as books and essays on art and design.

Pattern, Morris wrote in his 1881 lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing”, must possess “beauty, imagination and order”. It is here, in the tension between imagination and order, that Byatt finds the connections between her heroes that illuminate the work of each. In chapters on motifs that both men loved – pomegranates and birds – she explores the multitudinous ways in which they used them; the exhilarating collisions of naturalism and abstraction, the audacious juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity.

In considering this, she considers, too, the acts of making and looking. Both of her subjects, she says, were “obsessive workers, endlessly inventive, endlessly rigorous, endlessly beautiful”. They acknowledged no separation between art and labour, but made their lives and their work a seamless continuum; and, through the beauty they created, invited us to do the same.

“It is always surprising,” Byatt writes, “how people don’t really look at things.” But she does, and in this brilliant and tenderly observant little book, with its elegant Gill typeface and handsome colour illustrations, she celebrates the fruits of making and looking: “the endlessness of what is there to be imagined and shaped”. 

Peacock & Vine by A S Byatt is published by Chatto & Windus, 183pp, £14.99

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt