Sunday, December 4, 2011

Intention, Paradox, Process

I'm finishing a semester of teaching Dostoevsky and getting ready to teach him again next semester, so I've been thinking a lot this week about an article I read by Gary Saul Morson, "Paradoxical Dostoevsky" (The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 43, No. 3 [Autumn, 1999], pp. 471-494).

Dostoevsky was consumed with the idea of intentionality and guilt and, as Morson argues, he often used paradoxes as a way of thinking through the idiosyncrasies of human psychology.

Drawing on the comments of the (generally repulsive) character of Fyodor Pavlovich in The Brothers Karamazov, Morson notes that "we often hate people not because they have harmed us, as one might think, but because we have harmed them" (471).

They have become "the occasion of our guilt" and, paradoxically, we may prefer to see them take revenge on us (472). Their forgiveness may not actually make us feel any better, in fact--quite the contrary.

We feel this way, Morson suggests, even though we know that they aren't deliberately forgiving us as an elaborate act of revenge: they genuinely want to heal the breach and move on. The problem is, "those people have become the occasion for our feeling guilty or demeaned in our own eyes" (471).

What Morson identifies as "gratuitous ascriptions of agency" (472) or, to put it more simply, the tendency to hold people responsible for things they have no control over, is a paradox of human behavior.

We willfully ascribe will to "what cannot be willed" and react accordingly (472).

I have a slightly humorous example of this: a good friend of mine was once extremely angry at a woman who had treated me badly. Although my friend has since "gotten over it," so to speak, she still continues to privately vent her annoyance at this woman to me.

It takes the form of constantly commenting on... the size of her nose. When I once remarked that the woman was "kinda pretty, after all," my friend announced, "Oh, she looks like Jim Nabors."

Any time she sees anything involving this woman, she makes a derogatory comment about her nose: "I can't get over it, you can't even see her lips." "Look at the size of that thing." "God help us if she gets a head-cold."

Finally, I pointed out that, while the woman could definitely and reasonably be held accountable for her words and her actions, it wasn't really fair to hold her responsible for the size of her nose.

In my friend's case, it's a manifestation of (sincere) friendship and the demonstration of an emotional connection. I've done similar things myself. Everyone has.

As Morson suggests, "we typically invent deliberate insults the victim has inflicted in order to justify the otherwise unjustifiable feeling we have" (472).

We just don't want to like them. It may be unreasonable, it may be unfair, but on some level, we're just not willing to get over it and it's their fault if we don't.

As Morson recognizes, Dostoevsky thoroughly understands this irrational and paradoxical aspect of human behavior:
Law, poetics, and psychology typically imagine human intention as in principle locatable at a moment. Though it may take time for an intention to form, though it may be revised over and over again, at some point, if we are to act on it, it takes shape. We first intend and then we act, the common sense idea goes. (476-477)
By contrast, Morson argues, Dostoevsky's novels repeatedly suggest that "such a view of intention is naive. It applies only some of the time" (477).

Dostoevsky realizes that in some cases, we may really mean it when we say we really didn't mean it, because, on some level, we really didn't.

At some point in your past, your mom or some other authority-figure probably told you in no uncertain terms, in those heady minutes before you were totally grounded, "You knew what you were doing was wrong, and yet you went ahead and did it anyway."

Well, yes and no, actually. If you were caught forging checks or toilet-papering the trees in your neighbor's yard (to take two very different examples), then there is a good chance you knew that you shouldn't be doing what you were doing and yes, you went ahead and did it anyway.

But what if, like Dmitri Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, you pick up a heavy, blunt object while on your way to yet another sordid episode in the ongoing, angry shouting matches you continually have with your emotionally abusive, alcoholic, spiteful, neglectful dad?

You know, the drunken father who's openly trying to use his money to steal your girlfriend? The one who won't give you your inheritance because he claims you spent it all already and that actually, you owe him?

When investigators ask Dmitri why, before heading off to visit dear old dad (after finding out that his girlfriend had snuck out of her house in the dead of night), he picked up a potential weapon, Dmitri insists, "What does one pick things up for at such moments? I don't know what for. I snatched it up and ran--that's all" (444).

As Morson points out, Dostoevsky was fascinated with such cases: in his journal, he commented extensively on a case involving a woman who bought a knife and went to her lover's house after finding out that he had gone back to his wife. She began stabbing the wife, but the couple awoke and stopped her.

Did she intend to kill the wife?

Oddly enough, Dostoevsky will argue that, as in the case of his character Dmitri, the answer is "No." As Morson argues, according to Dostoevsky, "She was fully aware of what she was doing at each moment, but she could not tell it advance what she would do at the next moment" (478).

Although not feasible as a legal standard, the idea of intentionality as a process rather than a fixed, motivating idea leads to an interesting conception of human responsibility. As Morson points out, Dostoevsky's work frequently suggests that, in any given moment, there are an infinite number of unrealized possibilities that stand an equal chance of being actualized.

Moral accountability, in Dostoevsky's conception, lies not only in acknowledging what we meant to do, what we did, and what occurred as a result, but also in contemplating what we might have done, but didn't. As Morson notes, "Dostoevsky even suggests that unactualized possibilities have their own kind of being, perhaps capable of affecting future generations of events" (482).

It is in this spirit that Dmitri Karamazov ultimately accepts responsibility for his father's murder, even though he didn't actually kill him. He wanted to kill him and he could have killed him and, were the same circumstances repeated, he might very well have killed him: for all of these things, he takes full responsibility.

He is willing to go to prison, in the end, not for what he did, but for what he didn't do--for the commission of a crime that was always within the realm of possibility.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."