The Limits of Reason

A comparative analysis of Dostoyevsky’s anti-rationalist thematics as expressed in his novels Crime and Punishment and The Devils.

It has been said that what makes a great author is his ability to distil philosophy through extended analogy [1]. Never was this more true than in the case of Dostoyevsky. He spent the vast majority of his career trying to communicate to readers through the expression of existentially geared philosophy and the medium of prose fiction, all in an attempt to impress upon his audience the apparent futility of life without God.

Most serious Christian apologists have tended to raise abstract theoretical issues when seeking to convert non-believers. Unsurprisingly, however, Dostoyevsky – a figure renowned as one of the greatest inspirations to the existentialist movement, though not an existentialist himself – preferred to proselytise through insights that he believed were more experientially verifiable. He went to great lengths to demonstrate the way that he believed Christ transformed the lives of His followers. Indeed, redemption through faith may fairly be considered the central motif of both his life and his works – a theme never more clearly conveyed than in the tale of Raskolnikov, the destitute protagonist of Crime and Punishment who is, in the end, saved by faith.  

Søren Kierkegaard, a forerunner to the existentialist movement, is noted for popularising his own thesis on the nature of belief, commonly termed the “leap of faith” [2]. It details his conception of how an individual would believe in God, or act in love. It is not a rational decision, rather the product of a “transcendent rationality” [3]. This notion finds its maturity in the works of Dostoyevsky, who expended great effort in convincing readers of the invaluable worth of faith and the dangers of extreme rationalism. Characters of his such as Stavrogin of The Devils, who, in their pursuit of a life intentionally devoid of any faith, end up propounding some amalgam of nihilism and fatalism, constitute sterling examples of this.

Dostoyevsky’s work is pervaded with a belief in the transcendent nature of faith, and its value in sustaining meaningful human existence. Thus, I consider it fitting that this notion be the focus of my own study, in which I examine both the deployment and the development of this key theme as featured in his novels Crime and Punishment and The Devils. In particular, I will explore the ways in which Dostoyevsky employs his characters in terms of their actions, reactions, and interactions, as well as providing a detailed look at Dostoyevsky distinctive narrative technique.

In Crime and Punishment Dostoyevsky tells the story of Raskolnikov, a student who has become disillusioned with everyday life and the convictions of his youth. Eventually, out of his twisted intellectual ruminations he produces a theory of “extraordinary men.” [4] Here he argues, in true antinomian fashion, that,

“[T]he extraordinary man has the right…, to permit his conscience to overstep… certain obstacles.” [5]

These are men of a callous, amoral sort, who see themselves as beyond the notions of right and wrong which constrain the behaviour of the rest of mankind. In testing his theory, he decides to commit murder. However, upon exacting his crimes he finds that he cannot deal with his remorse. The remainder of the novel details the course of his spiritual renewal and eventual redemption.

Perhaps the more political of the two novels, The Devils displays Dostoyevsky as the brilliant polemicist that he was and makes admirable use of the socio-political state of 19th century Russia. A time of wide-spread revolt against the Orthodox Church, it was an ideological battleground, and the perfect stage on which to evaluate conflicting philosophies, as exemplified in The Devils. Here, Dostoyevsky mounts an assault on the liberalism of the period, depicting numerous radicals, anarchists, and conspirators in an intentionally grotesque manner. The plot centers on the character of Stavrogin, a radical who eschews faith as being devoid of any real validity. From this basis Stavrogin becomes disillusioned with life, eventually raping a young women for no reason other than that it was his desire. The novel details the progression of his despair, which culminates in suicide. This is, once again, a deliberate effort on Dostoyevsky’s part to expose man’s desperate need for God.

Joseph Frank has said that, “Dostoyevsky’s first success is in fusing the personalities of his characters with his new, anti-radical ideological thematics” [6]. To this it may be added that his second is in marrying his storylines to his didactic project, using each incident to introduce, extend or compound one or another of his central themes.

Consider Raskolnikov, the central figure of Crime and Punishment, whose extended train of thought constitutes an introspective discourse fabricated by the author to convey what he deems thematically appropriate. Early in the novel, Raskolnikov makes a crucial decision, which acts as a catalyst for the rest of the plot. He decides to murder an old money lender so as to acquire her wealth and disperse it among the poor, thus justifying what would otherwise have been a thoroughly immoral course of action.  This ties in seamlessly with the theme at hand, proffering readers a lucid example of what Dostoyevsky believes to be the natural outworking of a life bound by the uncompromising tyranny of reason. Why should rational man not act like this? It cannot simply be because of the apparent iniquity of the affair, as this can easily be justified by utilitarian means. According to Dostoyevsky, there can be no sustainable answer. It is then well established that man, if he is to live life consistently, must believe in something more; some absolute distinction between right and wrong that can be neither verified nor justified by rational means.

Similarly, in The Devils there are numerous incidents that may be construed as veiled criticisms of utilitarianism. Viewed as a whole they make it abundantly clear that Dostoyevsky does indeed value the categorical imperatives of his Christian beliefs over and above any utilitarian justification. He maintains that the notion of a ‘greater good’ possesses a spurious glitter, of which we should all be wary.

The character Shigalyov, a radical in the group led by Peter Verkhovensky, is effective in demonstrating this. An anarchist, he believes he has developed a new, far improved class hierarchy. The only disadvantage is that its establishment would entail genocide. In similar style to Bakuninist anarchy we find that he wants to topple the existing society before realising his own ideal. Shigalyov heartlessly dismisses the damages that actualising his social paradigm would incur as collateral. He uses his pragmatic bent to justify the means in terms of the end result. However, he exists as more of a caricature of a radical anarchist than a serious characterisation of one. For this reason Dostoyevsky has made apparent to all the inanity of his thesis, in accordance with the notion that the radicals featured in the novel are possessed by ‘devils’ and corrupted by their influence.  Because of this Shigalyov, as a portrayal of a maniacal revolutionary, becomes an acerbic criticism of not only the radicals themselves but also everything that they propagate, which is in this case an unequivocally utilitarian system of ethics, brought about by a denial of faith and an over-appreciation of reason.

By extension of this same principle Dostoyevsky offers us a further lesson in the character of Peter Verkhovensky, an aspiring revolutionary conspirator. The difference, however, is that here it is not moral absolutes that are forsaken for ‘the greater good’. Instead it is all morality abandoned in the pursuit of political power. This can easily be demonstrated by example.  Early in the novel Verkhovensky attempts to organise a knot of revolutionaries. He then schemes to solidify their loyalty by murdering Ivan Shatov, a fellow member of the party.  Clearly he does not accommodate abstract notions of right and wrong, but rather alters whatever principles he may have as opportunity presents itself. This, Dostoyevsky argues, may be considered permissible if we are to adopt the perspective of a rationalist.

A further correspondence between the two novels is found in the way characters react to the choices they make. Here Dostoyevsky magnificently utilises his ability to combine theme and character. First consider Raskolnikov. As he attempts to come to terms with the crime he commits he looks desperately for some justification, using first his own theory of ‘supermen’ who were born without consciences, supposedly to the benefit of the ‘greater good’; men like Caesar and Napoleon. Later he argues from the stance of a pragmatist, stripping his thesis down to its bare bones and, in doing so, making clear the utilitarian ideology that underpins it. He hopes to expiate his sins by giving the money he gains to the poor of St. Petersburg. Eventually, however, he reaches the point where he feels such remorse that he cannot keep silent. He goes to Sonya Semyonovna Marmeladova, the woman who is later to become instrumental in his conversion, to tell her of his crimes. Yet even as he tells her of his transgressions he works to diminish their significance, exclaiming:

“Crime? What Crime?… My killing a loathsome, harmful louse, a filthy old moneylender… you call that a crime?” [7]

Regardless of all other indications, explicit and implicit, from this alone we can infer that Raskolnikov is incapacitated by the wrongs he commits. In fact not only is this made apparent by the psychological trauma that Raskolnikov endures it is also manifest in the physical illness that ails him. The true significance of his crimes resonates throughout his being; he feels guilty, not to the court, nor the state, but to something far greater than both. Dostoyevsky phrases it this way:

“…the only real, the only frightening and appeasing punishment…  lies in the acknowledgement of one’s own conscience.” [8]

This is startling. How can Raskolnikov explain his apparent guilt? He cannot rationalise it, cannot justify it as the result of his actions causing more harm than good; in fact they did the opposite. So what is it? There is but one answer – a recognition that his crimes were simply wrong; rational and yet at the same time abhorrent.

This presents the man who seeks to live by reason alone with a problem of colossal proportions. It tells him that reason cannot explain his behaviour, that there is something greater that determines who he is and why he cares about what he does. Like Raskolnikov – whose name borrows from the Russian “Raskol”, meaning “split” or “schism” – such men are torn between their beliefs and actions. Communicating this was undoubtedly Dostoyevsky’s intention. He forms Raskolnikov’s dichotomous inner commentary as a poignant testament to the significance of belief in a greater truth than reason alone can illuminate.

Unlike Raskolnikov, whose eventual catharsis is so complete that it proves redemptive, Stavrogin dies despairing over the meaninglessness of life, and, hypocritically, the guilt he feels over his misdeeds. Consider the scene where he shows a degree of magnanimity by handing all his money to a beggar. This is not what we would generally expect of a rapist such as Stavrogin, and yet it is he that does this. In the end, we see that Stavrogin is capricious purely because he does not believe that anything truly matters. This was the reason he believed that he could rape a young girl and then arrange her suicide, all without personal consequences. Toward the end of the novel, however, we learn how wrong he was:

“Nothing had ever tortured me so!… is this what’s called remorse or repentance?” [9]

Eventually hanging himself, he leaves a short note that reads,  

“No one is to blame, I did it myself.” [10]

Similarly, one can imagine Dostoyevsky positing the responsibility for Stavrogin’s suicide not with any one person or action but in his own misinterpretation of the truth. He believed that since there was no God he was free to do as he pleased, that “Everything is permissible” [11]. Taking this to the extreme he found that something prevented him from living the life of reason that he wanted. This Dostoyevsky would identify as the stranglehold that comes from a denial of man’s innate sense of right and wrong accorded him by God. He was adamant that man was made for greater things than reason, that there is a transcendent aspect to our existence that is intangible, empirically impossible to verify, and surpassing all else in significance.

In addition, further perspectives on Dostoyevsky’s great theme may be found by contrasting the characters of Stavrogin and Raskolnikov and the roles they play in their respective works. One obvious difference between the two figures is found in their eventual fates. While Raskolnikov is converted to the Christian faith in a magnificently cathartic transformation, Stavrogin spirals into despair until eventually he takes his own life. From this, the question inevitably arises, what was the difference between these two men who were at first so similar? The answer is found in the periphery of their lives, the influence of the people who surrounded them.  

Raskolnikov finds his saviour in the form of a prostitute who works to feed her family. Sonya, who happens also to be a devout Christian, comes to love Raskolnikov unconditionally, so much so that even when he is exiled to Siberia she follows and waits for his release, all the while visiting and praying for him whether or not he grants her consent. In Sonya, Raskolnikov is introduced to a character of astonishing purity, conviction and compassion. He finds a love that does not depend or demand anything; a love that springs from a faith in the goodness of the man behind the bad choices. For a time Raskolnikov is puzzled by Sonya’s entirely unwarranted care, at one point exclaiming:

“There’s nothing to pity me for! I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross, not pitied! Crucify me, oh judge, crucify me but pity me?”  [12]

Eventually, however, Raskolnikov is overwhelmed, and so comes to appreciate Sonya’s love, as she apparently recognises:

“She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come…” [13]

In the end, then, Raskolnikov realises that all that is reasonable, rational, logical and sensible, is worth nothing to him in comparison to the utterly absurd faith, the profoundly irrational love that he has found in Sonya.

Following this the book closes with these words, from which we may infer that he later took upon himself that same faith that Sonya so virtuously exhibited:

“‘What if her convictions can now be mine, too? Her feelings, her strivings, at least…’… [And so] the story of a man’s gradual renewal, his gradual rebirth, his gradual transition from one world to another, of his growing acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality [began].” [14]

The message behind all of this is one of astounding profundity; it is that, while the oppressive effects of reason may well be spreading, there exists a cure and it too is catching.

What’s more, towards the end of the poignant objective correlative that Dostoyevsky employs to detail Raskolnikov’s brilliant conversion, we come across one assertion, one excerpt that encapsulates like no other the cardinal significance of faith over reason. Further, it effectively communicates the importance of the love that Sonya provides, in the recovery of Raskolnikov’s life:

“Everything – even his crime, even his sentence and exile–seemed to him now, in his first outburst of feeling, strange and superficial, as though it had not actually happened to him…Life replaced logic.” [15]

Pausing parenthetically, one might speculate that Sonya’s role in this unlikely turn of events took its inspiration from two sources. First and perhaps most significant is the Bible. Parallels can easily be drawn to the words of the apostle John who said, “We love because He first loved us” [16]. Here Dostoyevsky learnt the nature of a love that transcends rationality: a love that can only be experienced when it is shared. Equally, with regards to Raskolnikov’s conversion, it would be reasonable to attribute some responsibility for Dostoyevsky’s choice of endings to the work of Victor Hugo whose epic novel Les Miserables centered around the aphorism, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” [17]

By contrast Stavrogin lives among “devils”, whom Dostoyevsky compares to demon-possessed swine that drown themselves in a lake [18]. He associates himself with the likes of Peter Verkhovensky, the amoral revolutionary, and Kirilov, a suicidal nihilist. It is most notable, in fact, that in The Devils there exists no hero, no proponent of Dostoyevsky’s favoured Christian values. No good is present to counteract the bad: no faith to outbalance the faithless. And so, unsurprisingly, Stavrogin is unable to find an escape from the tortuous guilt he feels as a result of his misdeeds. The difference between the respective fates of Raskolnikov and Stavrogin, then, is Sonya the prostitute. This is a remarkable revelation that serves as both a verification of the insights into love, faith, and salvation presented above, and a testament to Dostoyevsky’s belief in the role of the Christian as Christ’s body in the physical world and a medium of communication between the divine and the depraved.  

Of all the methods that Dostoyevsky employs in developing his ideas there exists one of a subtle significance that features only in Crime and Punishment.  Here Raskolnikov is a character “surrounded by others who serve as oblique reflectors of his inner conflicts” [19] – a highly effective facet of Dostoyevsky’s literary technique that The Devils quite conspicuously lacks.

Raskolnikov was created to exemplify the hazards contained in a radically rationalist life, and yet so too, the other characters exist to guide readers toward a proper grasp of the significance of Raskolnikov’s crime, and, further, a greater appreciation of the type of faith that brings meaning to human existence. Consider, for example, the character of Razumikhin, whose name contains the Russian word for “reason,” razum. He represents the part of Raskolnikov that seeks to believe in something greater than himself. The existence of Razumikhin, a figure characterised by spontaneity, warmth, and magnanimity, indicates Dostoyevsky’s desire to link the employment of this faculty not with despair and the clinical calculations of Utilitarianism, but with faith and meaning.  Previously, reference was made to Kierkegaard’s “leap of Faith” [20], something Dostoyevsky would most likely have endorsed. It must be further noted, however, that he would not have taken this to the extent that Kierkegaard did, working to polarise faith and reason. Instead, it would be more accurate to contend that Dostoyevsky believed the two to be reconcilable, that using the rational we can justify a belief in something that transcends reason. He was convinced that that which is greater than reason left behind marks of itself; signs pointing towards a greater truth, and a “hitherto unknown reality.”  [21]

Other characters are also used in this manner to represent the faithful, virtuous side to Raskolnikov’s character, most notably the previously considered Sonya, and Raskolnikov’s own sister, Dunya. Indeed, Dunya may be seen as a pure, innocent version of Raskolnikov himself, the person he should have been and was, before he strayed.

On the other side of the dichotomy there exist numerous figures notable for their desperation and malignancy in Crime and Punishment who resemble Stavrogin and the revolutionaries of The Devils.

Consider that one twentieth-century philosopher [22] has termed what he calls ‘the line of despair’, a distinction that denotes the departure from an antithetical methodology and, more pertinently, the acknowledgement of faith and reason as diametrical opposites. Together these two philosophical developments introduced an infectious sort of despair that has persisted throughout the development of Existentialism and its influence on modern culture. As an example of this he alludes to the works of Sartre, who contended that the universe is utterly absurd, and that the only meaning, or ‘authentication’, is to be found in exercising free will. Our freedom is all that truly matters. Thus man is free to do as he pleases. To an extent, we can see in the character Svidrigailov an anticipation of this kind of thought. A man who has fallen below ‘the line of despair’, Svidrigailov concludes that, since the universe is both meaningless and directionless, man’s main course of action is the complete gratification of his appetite. While understanding this on a detached level, we find that he is incapable of accepting it emotionally. Soon he comes to recognise the suffocating futility of the life he leads – a realisation that leads to his eventual suicide.

Unsurprisingly, then, it would be correct to assert that in Crime and Punishment the external world, and Raskolnikov’s noetic commentary are linked with a kind of thematic symmetry. St. Petersburg is the external macrocosm that proves wholly consistent with Raskolnikov’s mind, the internal microcosm.

In addition to this symmetry there also exists another, fascinatingly original, structural feature that permeates all of Dostoyevsky’s later work, including both Crime and Punishment and The Devils. One scholar, famous for propagating the significance of this feature has classified Dostoyevsky’s as “polyphonic”  [23] novels that deviate greatly from the literary norms of the time of their writing. This is particularly the case in that all prior works tended to be monologic in nature, while his were undoubtedly dialogic. This simply means that a character of Dostoyevsky’s, in stark contrast to the style of his contemporaries, “does not serve as a mouthpiece for the author’s voice” [24]. Rather each individual character constitutes a viable proponent of his or her own views, whether or not they conform to the didactics that the author means to communicate. Thus, as is unique to the works of Dostoyevsky, “a plurality of independent unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels” [25] and is subsequently crucial in the deployment of his themes. There is of course a ubiquity of examples of this, ranging throughout both of the works here discussed. However, the following few will all be taken only from The Devils, for the sake of expediency and balance.

In The Devils Dostoyevsky intentionally presents a group of people who appear almost as if they had been arbitrarily chosen. They represent the revolutionaries that plagued Russia at the time of the novel’s writing and constitute a veritable amalgam of inane caricatures, each designed to offer readers a different example of the ways in which reason without faith can prove a dangerous faculty. These are people like Stavrogin, Verkhovensky, Shigalyov, and Kirilov, who will now be examined in some detail.  

Apparent throughout all of Dostoyevsky’s works is his conviction that either, there is a God, and a life after death, or everything we do is pointless. In the character of Kirilov this principle is taken to its extreme. Kirilov commits what he calls a “logical suicide” [26]. For life to be worth living, he argues, God must exist and yet he is convinced that God cannot exist. His suicide is essentially a revolt against the idea that God does exist. This is not explicated as a product of desperation per se, rather a creative act in which Kirilov hopes, in a sense, to “become God” [27] arguing that,  

“A new man will come, happy and proud,  to whom it won’t matter whether he lives or not…. He who conquers pain and fear will himself be a god.”  [28]

This being said, it would be fair to maintain that although Kirilov did not consider himself to be desperate as such, both his circumstances, and the nature of his actions, were.

In addition, the character of Shigalyov merits some further discussion. To an extent it may be maintained that Dostoyevsky intended Shigalyov to appear the antithesis of Christ. As Shigalyov states,

“My conclusion directly contradicts the original idea I start from. Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrived at unlimited despotism.”  [29]

Notably, freedom is a central concern for Dostoyevsky – Christ was the emblem of freedom, in that he chose to die for us; his free choice was against his own rational self-interest and demonstrates that, as his followers, we are fundamentally irrational creatures.  

These two examples, taken from a selection of many others, effectively validate Bakhtin’s “polyphony” [30] thesis as each of the characters involved exist not as, “object[s] of authorial discourse, but rather… fully valid, autonomous carrier[s] of… [their] own individual word[s].” [31]. Further, in doing this, they qualify his claim that Dostoyevsky did indeed “create a fundamentally new novelistic genre” [32]; a matter of the greatest significance in any evaluation of his works.  

Were Dostoyevsky alive today it seems likely that he would consider himself a bastion of good Christian values against the contemporary philosophical climate. In particular I imagine he would object to schools of thought such as logical positivism and defining philosophy that seek to restrict the study to purely rationalist principles. This being said, it appears equally probable that he would also oppose worldviews that preclude any notion of a reasonable faith such as that propounded by the likes of Karl Jaspers, the Swiss existentialist. Instead, what Dostoyevsky would offer is a compromise, a reconciliation of the two.

G.K. Chesterton warned that the insane man is not always one who has lost his reason; he may also be one who has lost everything but his reason. [33] Similarly, Dostoyevsky once wrote, “a fool with a heart and no sense is just as unhappy as a fool with sense and no heart.”  [34] He passionately believed that reason and faith could be brought together, and together bring meaning to the lives of his readers as he demonstrates with consummate skill in his novels Crime and Punishment and The Devils. Through the experiences of Raskolnikov we learn something of the potential danger of abandoning faith, while appreciating as fully as is possible in the second person the meaning and eventual salvation that can come from embracing Dostoyevsky’s ‘transcendent reality’. Equally, in The Devils we are taught the disastrous ramifications of an apparently meaningless life; meaningless, here considered synonymous with faithless.   

While there exist significant differences between the two novels – the symmetry present in Crime and Punishment, and the contrasting nature of each novel’s key figures – the overriding theme is the same in each. In fact, broadly speaking, all that differs is the way in which this theme is employed and communicated, although even this is, to an extent, the same with Dostoyevsky’s dialogic approach being the key feature in its exposition. Consequently, the most startling difference between the two novels becomes the fate of their respective main characters, and yet still here we see a thematic consistency. Consider that reason was not enough to save Raskolnikov: it was enough to kill Stavrogin.  Herein lies the moral of each novel; stated simply, humanity, if she is to persist, must find an existential sense of meaning, which cannot be rationally apprehended. Just as Raskolnikov was saved by faith, so must we all be.  

[1] Refers to a comment made by Simon Blackburn, of the Sunday Times, as voiced in regard to, and stated on the cover of A.C. Grayling’s What is Good?(2003)

[2] Fear and Trembling (2005) and written by Søren Kierkegaard pp. 20

[3] Ibid. pp. 149

[4] Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky pp. 308

[5] Ibid. pp. 308

[6] Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865 – 1871 (1995) by Joseph Frank pp. 97

[7] Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky pp. 617

[8] The Brothers Karamazov (2003) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky pp. 64

[9] The Devils (1872) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky from Stavrogin’s Confession (an appendix)

[10] Ibid. pp. 668

[11] Voiced by Ivan Karamazov, in  The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky pp. 732

[12] Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky pp. 29

[13] Ibid. pp. 439

[14] Ibid. pp. 656

[15] Ibid. pp. 521

[16] Holy Bible: New International Version (1978), 1 John 4:19

[17] Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo

[18] Holy Bible: New International Version (1978), Luke 8: 32-36, ( the verses are also alluded to throughout The Devils)

[19] Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 (1995) by Joseph Frank pp. 98

[20] Fear and Trembling (2005) and written by Søren Kierkegaard pp. 47

[21] Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky pp. 656

[22] Francis A. Schaeffer, philosopher and author of Escape from Reason (1968)

[23] Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1984) by Mikhail Bakhtin pp. 241

[24] Ibid. pp. 7

[25] Ibid. pp. 66

[26] The Devils (1872)  by Fyodor Dostoyevsky pp. 610

[27] Ibid. pp. 610

[28] Ibid. 126

[29] Ibid. pp. 384

[30] Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1984) by Mikhail Bakhtin pp. 235

[31] Ibid. pp. 5

[32] Ibid. pp. 70

[33] Orthodoxy (1909) by G.K. Chesterton  pp.12

[34] The Idiot (1869), by Fyodor Dostoyevsky pp. 74

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1 Comment
  1. Posted March 4, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Very powerful article,for some reason I feel anger vs facts.

    Great writer

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