Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Major Arcana #10: WHEEL OF FORTUNE - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This is the eleventh in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.

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WHEEL OF FORTUNE: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Along with Proust, his adjacent Arcanum, Dostoyevsky is well-regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the history of the medium. Like Proust, he is considered one of the most subtle philosophical novelists, dealing as he does with the real-world consequences of abstract moral and psychological ideas. However, unlike Proust, Dostoyevsky is also known for writing brilliant suspense... in Crime and Punishment, his best-known novel, he explores the unhinged psychology of guilt and PTSD in the context of a manhunt, reeling and lurking through the streets of Moscow.

The Wheel of Fortune is the Arcana of happenstance, a symbol of fate in its Janus-faced duality, as randomness and absolute necessity. It represents the turning-point in a journey, as well as the inevitable chain of events that follows, the juncture ruled by absolute choice and the unknowable sequence of consequences ruled by physics and the subconscious.

Nobody works through these kinds of issues -- choice, necessity -- quite like Raskolnikov, who makes a fateful decision at the outset of Crime and Punishment, and then spends the rest of the novel coming to terms with it. His guilt is an unbreakable thread of destiny, chaining him to the murder, which was originally carried out as a symbolic act to prove his superiority in the face of misfortune and impotence.

It looks like a whim... the reader has no decisive insight into the motive at the time of the murder... but it's actually an act of radical choice, like Mersault's shooting of the Arab in The Stranger. Raskolnikov is spinning the Wheel of Fortune and accepting its judgment.

It's telling that Raskolnikov seems so entirely out of control for so much of the novel. He spends expansive passages in a feverish blur, swinging between mania and despair, wandering the streets of the city. When he isn't simply hesitating, teetering on the abyss, he is generally reacting to outside situations: his sister's impending marriage, the arrival of a detective or a mysterious witness. Even in these situations, his actions seem outside the reach of rationality, as if he is caught up in the whims of a greater spiritual force... the force unleashed by his capricious decision to commit a mortal sin.

This decision was not itself unreasonable... or it wasn't entirely outside reason's frame of reference, at least. It was a spontaneous overcommitment to the idea that a radical act of agency could realign the moral universe around the actor. Perhaps Raskolnikov was trying to change the terms, to rewrite the Wheel's possible outcomes. Dostoyevsky teaches him a hard lesson, as Raskolnikov spends the whole novel being carried along uncontrollably by the very decision that was supposed to free him from constraint.

In trying to control the wheel, Raskolnikov only found himself caught in its spinning.