Justice and the Western Perception of Dostoevsky: Woody Allen's 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' and 'Match Point'
Louisiana State University, Political Science Department
APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper
The issue of justice is crucial to Dostoevsky's oeuvre. The Russian writer depicts the gruesomeness of being a law onto oneself and at the same time the inherent futility of holding any individual totally responsible for his deeds. This aspect, makes Dostoevsky one of the favorite authors of Western intellectuals. Dostoevsky is thus is read by Nietzsche, Freud, Gide, many American writers as well as by a filmmaker ‒ Woody Allen. Allen in his Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point presents a very nihilistic reading of Dostoevsky, which again is typical of the Western perception of this writer. In the New Yorker's films we see individuals who faced with difficult moral choices discover that social justice is just a facade that imperfectly covers the cruelty and indifference of the world. Eventually Allen's protagonists loose their moral illusions but gain a kind of Nietzscheanistic perspective that enables them to succeed. The question remain open whether, it is a perspective of the last man or of the superhuman? One can even suspect a certain cycle of corruption occurs in passing from the second position to the first.
In short, Allen is fascinated with Dostoevsky's radical destruction of the notion of individual justice. Superficially, this destruction is tantamount to total nihilism and that is what many Western intellectuals and Allen seem to suggest. But there is a certain political theology in Dostoevsky’s works. This theology is not clearly visible to Westerners because it is collectivistic, imperial and Gnostic. Those motives are an inherent part of the political experience of the East (although they can be also found in some Western ideological movements), which was observed by Eric Voegelin. Nevertheless, what Allen and many other Western readers of Dostoevsky seem to ignore is that the objective of both religious and secular law is not to prevent all crime on a cosmic scale but to recognize certain standards of inter-human and human-God relations.
Simply making the notion of justice a matter of convention does not free the human but enslaves her/him, because it makes the law a matter of a purely arbitrary decision of the political authority. This dilemma is clearly visible in Dostoevsky's work, and I call it the "Grand Inquisitor's trap." Not seeing this problem is a serious misreading of Dostoevsky.
Allen's characters endure only slight metaphysical pangs on occasion of their misdeeds and live in a secure world of modern consumerism, which seems to develop without any moral code. An important argument raised in Crimes and Misdemeanors is that believing in individual justice is hardly possible after Hitler's death camps. A historically conscious reader of Dostoevsky, however, could argue that on the contrary; XXth century has shown us how dangerous the collectivistic morality is (this is also the morality of Dostoevsky, himself). In conclusion, the notions of individual crime and punishment, although imperfect, are the only notions that can offer some protection from the Voegelinian, dark Gnosticism and preserve the liberties of the individual.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 20
Keywords: Dostoevsky, Woody Allen, justice
Date posted: August 1, 2011 ; Last revised: January 3, 2014