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Extraordinary Man Essay

Thus, a personal decision was put in place that would, over the next 45 years, bring about the unique flowering of talents and contributions that would set Herman Miller quite aside from the narrow, manneristic patterns of the rest of the furniture industry.

Characteristic of his special vision of organizational life, he recognized the things that would destroy good decision making—idolatry and covetousness, lasciviousness, giving in to the opinions of everyone, pride, envy and bitterness—concerns not likely to be lectured on in schools of business or debated in the boardrooms of industry.

Another momentous circumstance shaped Herman Miller as an organization. In 1930, D.J. realized that the company, in its undercapitalized condition, and with declining volume, would be out of business in a year. The depression delivered a crisis which would severely test D.J.’s capacity to create a new world for the Herman Miller Company. While most organizations were turning inward in gritty struggles to survive, D.J. looked through this negative looking glass to a very different world of new values, new people, and new ideas.

In the heat of this struggle for survival he was able to make a crucial assessment. Was it possible that his furniture company was providing living environments of dubious value? Were consumers offered only interiors stuffed with over-scaled, over-elaborate, jaded furnishings? With a personal candor that is a hallmark of his character he asked himself, what could Herman Miller do uniquely? He resorted to prayer, asking God for guidance.

In 1935, the decision was made to drop period furniture even though it was the furniture success of that era. This was partly the result of D.J.’s visit to the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1932. As part of the fair there was an exhibit of modern homes, one of which was “the House of Tomorrow” furnished by Herman Miller with Gilbert Rohde’s designs. D.J. sat in the rooms listening to the comments of people, all kinds of people, working class people. He was impressed with their common sense reaction to what they saw, more value per dollar than in the period furniture of the past.

He emerged from this experience with a conviction, not just a preference. “Herman Miller would go sled-length into modern design.”


WHAT lessons, if any, do we get when we look back on the 20th Century? Two world wars, the Stalinist purges and the labour camps, the holocaust, all those revolutions that devoured their own children, leaving behind ideas and dreams hovering deliriously over a wasteland of fact - over 100 million dead or missing. Put another way, the whole project of modernity, based on the new-found faith in the power of reason, science, industry, revolution and the perfectibility of man, of an Utopia in-the- making beyond good and evil, gone up in a wisp of smoke. It was Dostoevsky's discovery, first put succinctly in Notes from Underground and elaborated in Crime and Punishment, that showed how monstrously stupid and twisted human beings, governed by vile and senseless passions, could be. So, among the 19th Century novelists, all more or less tainted by false hopes, only Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov could stand up today and say to us: "I told you so!"

First, the plot summary of Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov, an impoverished student, conceives of himself as being an extraordinary young man and then formulates a theory whereby extraordinary men of the world have the right to commit any crime. To prove his theory, he murders an old pawnbroker and her step-sister. Immediately after the crime he becomes ill and lies in his room in a semi-conscious state. As soon as he is well and can walk again, Raskolnikov goes out and reads about the crime in all the newspapers of the last few days.

Raskolnikov meets an official from the police station and almost confesses the crime. He does go far enough in his ravings to make the official suspicious. Later, he witnesses the death of Marmaledov, a minor government official who is struck by a carriage as he staggers across the street in a drunken stupor. When he returns home he finds his mother and her sister Dounia who have just arrived to prepare for her wedding to Luzhin. Raskolnikov denounces Luzhin and refuses to allow his sister to marry him. About the same time, Svidrigalov, Dounia's former employer, arrives in town, looks up Raskolnikov and asks for a meeting with Dounia. Previously, Svidrigalov had attempted to seduce Dounia and when Raskolnikov had heard of it had taken a violent dislike to him.

Meanwhile, Raskolnikov learns that the police inspector Porfiry, is interviewing all the people who had ever any business with the old pawnbroker. Therefore he goes for the interview and leaves thinking that the police are suspicious of him. Since he had met Sonia Marmaledov, the daughter of the dead man whom Raskolnikov had helped, he goes to her and asks her to read from the Bible about the rising of Lazarus from the dead. He feels great sympathy with Sonia because she had been forced into prostitution in order to support the family while her father drank. After another interview with Porfiry, Raskolnikov confesses to Sonia. During the confession, Svidrigalov listens through the door and uses this information to force Sonia to sleep with him. She refuses and he kills himself later in the night. After talking to Sonia, Raskolnikov confesses to the murder and is sentenced to eight years in a Siberian prison. Sonia follows him and with her help begins his regeneration.

The structure of Crime and Punishment is clear. The book consists of six parts and an epilogue, and at the end of the first part, within the first 100 pages, the crime is done. The following five parts, the bulk of the book, deal with punishment which is essentially a process of psychological crisis and complex self- examination, ending at last with confession and punishment. The meaning of the book has been explained by Dostoevsky in his Notebooks: "Man is not born for happiness. Man earns his happiness, and always by suffering. There is no injustice here, for knowledge and consciousness of life... is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must get through one's own".

Though Crime and Punishment is a psychological study of crime, the dominant recurring theme or the leitmotiv is the split of of human consciousness between the rational and irrational truths. Raskolnikov, the hero of the novel, is rationally "beyond good and evil". As he does not believe in God, he cannot accept any transcendental or eternal moral law. He commits murder simply in order to prove to himself that he dares overstep the line of our conventional good and evil, and conquer the final freedom of the man-God who does not recognise any law above and beyond himself. He obtains a complete rational sanction for his crime: yet the subconscious "irrational" reaction after it is so terrible that it drives him to a voluntary confession of his deed, despite the fact that logically he still does not consider himself a criminal at all.

It is easy to regard agnosticism and atheism as naturally coexisting with progress but, as G.K. Chesterton once put it, when people cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing - but rather they believe in anything. When you really believe that the heavens are empty and that God is dead, or that He was never alive in the first place, what happens is not an overwhelming sense of insignificance but rather a sense of total helplessness with absolutely nowhere to turn: you go from here to there, around the room, around the "world" you live in - without ever being able to rest but also without being able to do anything. Raskolnikov is condemned to go around and round talking to his phantoms. His sickness is a continual dissatisfaction, an inability to love anyone or anything, a restlessness without object, a disgust of the self - and in a love of the self. This is the modern man, the nihilist who sees in the water's depth his reflection shattered to pieces. The vision of his fall fascinates him; faced with himself, nausea grips him but he cannot look away. There is something strangely fascinating about morbidity and guilt. Or, as the poet put it, "the waters of the abyss where I was falling in love with myself". This is precisely what happens to Raskolnikov in punishment.

One of Dostoevsky's best critics, Mikhail Bakhtin, observed that Dostoevsky created a new form, the "polyphonic" novel, in that, the narrative is told not as a monologue but as a great polyphony of many voices, endlessly competing for dominance. The many voices speak of many things, and Crime and Punishment is therefore seen as many things. First, as the most profound of detective stories in which detection of the crime involves the remorseless pursuit of its motives, and where the essential detective is the criminal himself. Second, it is read as a metaphysical thriller, in which the very nature of sin is analysed. Third, it is regarded as a story of tragic pride, in which the hero is haunted to the depths of his soul by the deed of blood he has done - one critic has said that it reads like the fifth acts of all tragedies. Fourth, it is seen as a profound work of modern nihilism and egotism in which the superman attempts to step beyond the role of good and evil. Very simply, the story is not told as if it is the only one; there are stories within stories which are all ways of saying just one thing in some compelling fashion. It is indeed the first of the modern novels. Besides all this, Crime and Punishment "enlarges our consciousness" and so complex is our imaginative identification with Raskolnikov that we begin to feel that we too might commit murders.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated and introduced by David Magarshack, 1951. New translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage paperback, 1998, £6.99.