First Conversation Part 2: Guilty? Episode 2

“So, the husband – just what is it he’s got to do to get out of his despair? What is this step he’s got to take?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich sat back and closed his eyes for a moment before looking at me almost apologetically.

            “Despair. He must despair. He must plead guilty and ask for forgiveness.”

            I wasn’t quite sure what he meant but blundered forward anyway.

            “But surely he is guilty – and knows it. Isn’t that the whole point of his confession, telling the whole world how guilty he is?”

            “Not exactly,” Fyodor Mikhailovich replied, with just a hint of the kind of glee you can imagine a prosecutor enjoying as he closes in on the crucial point in a cross-examination. He continued.

            “The question is: what is guilt and what is it to be guilty or to confess your guilt? Most people don’t understand this at all. They think it’s just a matter of fact – did he or didn’t he do it? If he did, he’s guilty, if he didn’t, he’s not guilty. Remember what Ivan Karamazov said, that everyone wants to kill their father – but the world knows many of these mental parricides as obedient and loving sons, who are not guilty of anything.” Pause. “I think you haven’t read my Diary of a Writer?”

            “I’ve read about it …” I answered, not wanting to risk offending him any more, though sensing that he did in fact know exactly what I had and hadn’t read.

            “But you haven’t actually read it?”

            “Er, no,” I had to admit, slightly confused. Perhaps the whisky hadn’t been such a good idea.

            “It’s strange,” he said, almost as if he was talking to himself. “My English and American readers don’t seem to read it very much. Of course, I do say some rude things about England in it and I know what they say in return—that’s it’s full of Russian jingoism, all very retrograde and reactionary. In my own view, though, it has some of the best things I’ve ever written in it. In fact, that’s where you’ll find this story we’re talking about right now.”

            “Really? I thought it was just a short story, like in this collection here.”

            “Just a short story …?”

            “Sorry, I didn’t mean that in a bad way, but …”

            “I know, I know,” he replied consolingly. “It is a short story, but it’s also what one of my friends on this side would call ‘a thought experiment’. We can talk more of that another time, but I’m digressing. You see there’s a lot in the Diary about guilt and what it means to be guilty. Not fiction, but real life, cases that happened in Russia, in my own time, not unlike quite a lot of cases happening in your country today—alas.”

            He sighed.

            “These are difficult things to talk about, and I should emphasize that I never wanted anyone to be locked up, or beaten, or put to death for what they’d done. I’ve seen too much of what that means. Punishment isn’t the answer, but acknowledging your guilt is … the first step.”

            As I’d had to admit, I hadn’t read The Diary of a Writer (actually a kind of journal that Dostoevsky published monthly and that consisted entirely of his own thoughts about issues of the day), but I did know that he had been involved in several criminal cases, some of which were about the kind of cruelty to children that Ivan Karamazov cited as evidence against the existence of God. I couldn’t remember any details, though. I felt rather like a student who hasn’t done his homework hoping that he’s not the one going to be asked the next question. Only there wasn’t anyone else to ask. In the event, Fyodor Mikhailovich let me off fairly gently.

            “You want me to explain?” he asked.


            “I suppose you know that jury trials were still quite an innovation in my time in Russia, so it’s no surprise that they produced some odd results. A clever lawyer could easily persuade a jury one way or another. Even when all the facts pointed to the guilt of the accused, even when it was admitted that, indeed, such-and-such a woman had attacked her lover’s wife with a razor with the intention of killing her, such-and-such a father had so violently beaten his seven-year old daughter with birch rods that even the neighbours were terrified by her screams, or such-and-such parents had treated their children like animals, keeping them in filthy conditions, and beating them with leather straps, again and again—each time our poor soft-hearted jurors concluded ‘Not guilty!’ Can you imagine? Of course, there is always an explanation, there are always attenuating circumstances, there can even be provocations, and the letter of the law may tell us this is not torture but simply punishment, the kind of punishment that, in those days, all good middle-class parents thought it right to mete out so as to give their children a sense of duty. The facts. The facts are the facts, but the truth once uttered is a lie, and even the facts can be put together in such a way as to turn even torture into well-meaning parental discipline.”    

            As Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke, he became quite agitated. His face narrowed and his eyes flashed. At first he had just tapped his fingers intermittently on the arms of his chair but as he went on he started to wave his hands around with increasing energy. Whatever he had seen in the world he now inhabited, it was clear that he was still unreconciled to the outrages that adult human beings inflict on children, who, as he had said in The Brothers Karamazov, hadn’t eaten that fatal apple. I didn’t know the details of the cases he was talking about, but I couldn’t help thinking about a particularly horrifying case that had recently happened here in Scotland. I’ll spare you the details.

            “I’m sorry,” he said, taking a breath (or what seemed like a breath). “As I say, even here there are times when I could wish for a cigarette—or even a good whisky”, he added with a smile, nodding reassuringly at me.

            “But I repeat,” he continued after a moment, raising his hands dramatically, “I am not demanding the maximum penalty of the law, not even for these torturers. I do not want them imprisoned, beaten, or executed, though I understand the outrage of people who do. Remember, when Ivan asked Alyosha what to do about the general who’d had the little boy torn to pieces by his dogs, even mild, sweet-tempered Alyosha said ‘Shoot him’. But that doesn’t help either. Just because I wrote a novel called Crime and Punishment, people imagine I’m obsessed with punishing. Not at all. All I want is that the guilty are not acquitted. That their guilt is clearly stated. And that they accept it—that’s the most important of all. Let them be found guilty—and let them go free.”

            “Just like that?” I interjected, quite shocked.

            “Not ‘just’ like that. No. If you’d read my Diary” (not said reproachfully, but matter of factly) “you’d have read how I imagined the judge speaking to such a person. He makes it clear that it’s not a matter of going home and forgetting about it, going back to the way things were before. No. There has to be change. In my time, the father was the authority figure in the family, but, as I—or my imaginary judge—pointed out, even fathers sometimes need to be re-educated by their children until they learn to listen to their children’s needs. I know that families are very different in your time, but, yes, parents, whoever they are, must learn to be parents to their children. I disagree with much that the prosecutor said about the Karamazov family, but he was right on one point: parents can’t just be parents by virtue of procreation, they have to become parents. And when they abuse their position and their power, they cannot hide behind their rights as parents—they have to own up. The guilty have to know that they are guilty.”

            By this time he was shaking his right index finger, not unlike a judge scolding the prisoner in the dock. Slowly, he lowered his hand, till it came to rest again on the chair.

            “So, you see.”


            I had been quite carried away watching (as well as listening to) his peroration. He had been gradually raising his voice as well as his hands and I wondered vaguely whether Laura might have been disturbed. But all of this seemed to be at a tangent to what we had been talking about and the devastating climax of A Gentle Spirit

            “But our husband—how does this connect to him?” I asked. “I mean, surely he does acknowledge his guilt. The whole story is in a way his confession, isn’t it?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich thought for a few seconds, gently nodding his head.

            “In a way, yes. But only in a way. It seems to me that he has still not acknowledged what he did to her, only how it has affected him. It is not her misery but his own solitude that bothers him: how he can go on living without her.”

            “Isn’t that rather harsh? After all, he himself set out the charge sheet, if you like. He tells us just what he has done, how he has behaved. He provides all the evidence we need to find him guilty—morally, if not legally.”

            “Yes, yes, yes—but why? Why is he doing this? Let me give you another example, a better known one, I think. You remember that in The Possessed (which, by the way, isn’t quite what my title means, though it’s quite good in its own way), I had Stavrogin go to Bishop Tikhon to confess how he’d raped a twelve-year old girl and then just waited in the next room while she hung herself?”

            “I remember. It’s unforgettable. Horrific. In a way I’m not surprised they didn’t let you publish it.”

            “Nor was I, though it was very frustrating. But you will also remember that he didn’t just go to confess his sin in the way that a normal penitent does: he had even arranged for a full copy to be printed, ready to be published for the world to see.”

            “Yes, I remember.”

            “Now some people might think that was a sign of how deeply he had repented, allowing himself to be shamed before the whole word. But, as I hope you also remember, Bishop Tikhon could see that wanting to publicize your guilt in that way is not necessarily the same as really accepting it, inwardly. Wanting to be seen – and maybe even admired – as a great sinner is not quite the same as actually repenting. And perhaps that’s how it is here too. Of course, if you want to be fussy, you could say that he’s just talking to himself. He’s not produced a written, let alone a printed, confession. I’m the one who wrote it, not him. And yet, it’s as if he’s rehearsing his story for the benefit of the world, for the imaginary audience we each of us have inside our heads.”

            “You mean like in one of Shakespeare’s monologues, like Richard III or Hamlet.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich seemed pleased at my remark, shaking his whole upper body in approval.

            “Exactly! It’s a performance. It’s not the heart speaking. The heart would say something very different. In fact, the heart wouldn’t need to say very much at all: it has only one thing to say, to love and to ask for love, to forgive and to ask forgiveness. We’ve been talking about people who commit crimes but won’t own up to what they’ve done, people who want to say to anyone who’ll listen: ‘Not guilty! My conscience is clear! Don’t blame me!’ But the real problem is not the evidence of the facts—did he or didn’t he do this or say that. The real problem is that this is completely back to front. The person who loves, even if they haven’t committed any crimes, is the person who wants to be guilty, who doesn’t just want to forgive but wants to be forgiven; the person who thinks of themselves not only as guilty but infinitely guilty, guilty of everything, before everyone, in fact the guiltiest one of all.”

6 thoughts on “First Conversation Part 2: Guilty? Episode 2

  1. It seems that your Dostoevsky quotes Tyutchev (the thought, once uttered, is a lie) – or I misread your intention?


  2. “Just a short story …?”

    “Sorry, I didn’t mean that in a bad way, but …”

    “I know, I know,” he replied consolingly. “It is a short story, but it’s also what one of my friends on this side would call ‘a thought experiment’.

    The above exchange was definitely what someone of my generation would call a ‘lol’ moment. I’m also desperate to know *which* friends on the other side Fyodor Mikhailovich has been speaking with. I wonder if any 20th and 21st century analytic anglophone philosophers made it over??

    I also think now that the husband of ‘A Gentle Creature’ very well exemplifies the difference between ‘guilt’ (other-oriented regret) and ‘shame’ (self-oriented regret).


    1. Dear Luke: I’m not sure how much you’re asking me to give away …? I’m sure you’ve recognised Søren Kierkegaard, but not too many others will appear by name, analytic or continental (though a special role is envisaged for Vladimir Soloviev). That’s a useful comment about shame/ guilt, which hadn’t struck me – I may put it to use. ‘Guilt’ will return in the Christological conversation, No. 3.


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