19 January, 2009

Dmitry Karamazov's not-so-clean underwear

I was thinking today about the chapter in The Brothers Karamazov where the prosecutors arrest Dmitry Karamazov. Dostoevsky remarks that Dmitry feels deeply humiliated that he must remove all his clothes, including his underwear, which was not very clean:

[Mitya] felt unbearably awkward: everyone else was dressed, and he was undressed, and—strangely—undressed, he himself seemed to feel guilty before them, and, above all, he was almost ready to agree that he had indeed suddenly become lower than all of them, and that they now had every right to despise him. "If everyone is undressed, it's not shameful, but when only one is undressed and the others are all looking—it's a disgrace!" flashed again and again through his mind. "It's like a dream, I've dreamed of being disgraced like this." But to take his socks off was even painful for him: they were not very clean, nor were his underclothes, and now everyone could see it. …
I wonder if Dostoevsky was consciously using this as a metaphor to describe the shame one feels when caught doing something wrong.

While wearing clean outer garments, one can perhaps imagine oneself to be clean all over, but when forced to strip down to one's underwear, and remove even them, and reveal that one is in fact soiled and dirty… Only an individual who considers filthiness to be normative and superior to cleanliness would not feel at least some disgrace, and a desire to present oneself as completely clean, all the way down.

Likewise, we like to wear a kind of "spiritual clothing" that makes us look clean and even fashionable to our peers. When instead these outer garments are stripped, revealing the less-than-clean undergarments that reveal our true spirituality—the deeds we perform when we think no one is looking; the disparaging words we utter about others in conversations that we fancy to be among like-thinking, right-thinking folk; the haughtiness and self-righteousness that we nurture within our hearts—when those are revealed for the filth they are, only an individual who values shameful deeds would not feel disgrace and the call to repentance. We all become Dmitry Karamazov in such moments.

I'm probably reading too much into this. One of the characters of the novel, "Stinking Lizaveta", seems to fit just this bill: she is completely oblivious to her filth, and if someone should clean her and give her new clothes, well—
Both Ilya's employers and Ilya himself, and even many compassionate townspeople, mainly merchants and their wives, tried more than once to clothe Lizaveta more decently than in her one shift, and towards winter always put a sheepskin coat and a pair of boots on her; but she, though she let them put everything on her without protesting, usually went away somewhere, most often to the porch of the cathedral church, and took off all they had given her—whether a kerchief, a skirt, or a sheepskin coat and boots—left it there, and went away barefoot, dressed as before only in her shift.
So Lizaveta seems to fit the bill of what I'm talking about—but for the fact that everyone considers here a "holy fool". (Very important in Tsarist Russian culture.)

Then again, she is Smerdyakov's mother…

No comments: