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.

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.