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I am reading Crime and Punishment, and as you might expect am really enjoying it. Fascinating book. But there is one passage that is a little confusing to me, in particular the use of the word 'aesthetics'.

This is Part Three, Chapter Six, pages 328 to 329 in my Penguin Classics edition:

'Napoleon, the pyramids, Waterloo - and a scraggy, horrid pen-pusher's widow, a hag, a money-lender with a red box beneath her bed; it's a bit much even for the likes of Porfiry Petrovich to digest! ... Not to mention the rest of them! ... Aesthetics will intervene: would a Napoleon really go crawling under the bed of some "old hag"! Please!'

Also used later on the same page where he says:

I'm an aesthetic louse, that's all there is to it!

So what exactly does Dostoyevsky mean by aesthetic in these two cases? What does he mean when he says aesthetics will intervene, and what precisely is an 'aesthetic' louse? The meaning of the word aesthetic as I understand it doesn't seem to make sense.

'Concerned with beauty'. Is he suggesting that in some way, because he has just killed an old hag, there is less beauty, and so he is inferior to Napoleon? I feel like I am on entirely the wrong page!

Thanks in advance!

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First the definition would be good. Sadly, there are quite a few but I think that only one is important:

  • Relating to the philosophy or theories of aesthetics.
  • Of or concerning the appreciation of beauty or good taste: aesthetic judgment; the aesthetic appeal of the exhibit.
  • Attractive or appealing: the more aesthetic features of the building. Characterized by a heightened sensitivity to beauty: the poet and his aesthetic friends.
  • Being or relating to a work of art; artistic: The play was an aesthetic success.
  • Informal Conforming to accepted notions of good taste.
  • often Aesthetic Of or characteristic of aestheticism in the arts.

But we can agree, that if someone/something is aesthetic than it it beautiful, worthy of admiring. Or, we could go even further and replace the word "aesthetic" with "Art", which often has been treated as something seemingly alive and conscious.

Now the examples from the book:

Aesthetics will intervene: would a Napoleon really go crawling under the bed of some "old hag"! Please!'

Let me show you this in a different translation (by Constance Garnett)

One sudden irrelevant idea almost made him laugh. Napoleon, the pyramids, Waterloo, and a wretched skinny old woman, a pawnbroker with a red trunk under her bed—it’s a nice hash for Porfiry Petrovitch to digest! How can they digest it! It’s too inartistic. “A Napoleon creep under an old woman’s bed! Ugh, how loathsome!”

So it is impossible to imagine someone so great as Napoleon doing something as despicable and loathsome as hiding under a bed of some old hag - those two things are just too opposite in the aesthetics spectrum, too inartistic (it is like painting a nude act of a beautiful woman sitting on a toilet!); it is so despicable that some sort of higher force should intervene! Following this chain of thought, someone who indeed was hiding under an old woman's bed cannot think about himself as being as great (as aesthetic) as Napoleon.

2.

I'm an aesthetic louse, that's all there is to it!

Again, a different translation makes it more clear

aesthetically speaking, I am a louse

Raskolnikov keeps self-depreciating himself - it is bit more clear further on:

Ech, I am an æsthetic louse and nothing more,” he added suddenly, laughing like a madman. “Yes, I am certainly a louse,” he went on, clutching at the idea, gloating over it and playing with it with vindictive pleasure. “In the first place, because I can reason that I am one, and secondly, because for a month past I have been troubling benevolent Providence, calling it to witness that not for my own fleshly lusts did I undertake it, but with a grand and noble object—ha-ha! Thirdly, because I aimed at carrying it out as justly as possible, weighing, measuring and calculating. Of all the lice I picked out the most useless one and proposed to take from her only as much as I needed for the first step, no more nor less (so the rest would have gone to a monastery, according to her will, ha-ha!). And what shows that I am utterly a louse,” he added, grinding his teeth, “is that I am perhaps viler and more loathsome than the louse I killed[...]

So he says that he is just ugly, despicable like a louse - a parasite that lives in dirt and feeds on blood.

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  • 2
    Isn't it a bit confusing to list dictionary definitions of the English word "aesthetics"? Does the corresponding Russian word in Dostoyevsky's original text have all the same nuances and variations of meaning? – Rand al'Thor Jul 10 at 17:06
  • OTOH, one could ask, does it make sense to use English words to talk about a Russian definition. At one point or another we have to accept someone's translation. So we could (1) accept a professional's—I'm guessing it's a Pevear & Volokhonsky or Constance Garnett), who've tried their best to carry nuance with their knowledge of both Russian and English language and culture, or (2) we could accept someone-on-the-Internet-who-speaks-Russian's word for it, or (3) decide not to know. The third is actually not a bad strategy!—it keeps the mind open to multiple meanings as the story goes. – Andrew Cheong Jul 11 at 18:26
  • In case unclear, I'm saying that listing Russian definitions may be just as unclear or misleading depending on how one goes about it. English definitions allow an English-only mind to evaluate whether it makes sense; Russian definition would give no option but to put faith in someone else. But I do see your point :-) – Andrew Cheong Jul 11 at 18:31
  • @AndrewCheong For me personally, the closest definition here would be "art" or "beauty" - as a semi-conscious cosmic force, that has the power to intervene – Yasskier Jul 11 at 23:52
  • Oh, sorry, I was replying to @Randal'Thor mainly. Shame on me, I didn't even read your answer (until now). And I'd agree with your analysis. – Andrew Cheong Jul 12 at 0:16

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