Monday, March 12, 2007

Channeling Dostoevsky

(Just for fun.)

You, you, how dare you look down on me! My coat may be shabby and missing buttons; it does a better job of keeping out the rain than your fine silk umbrella, I assure you. I notice how you avert your eyes from me on the sidewalk, on the bridge, in caf├ęs. It is easy to see how your feigned politeness only masks disgust. It would not become you to engage in conversation with such a shabby personage as myself, not that it would shame you, or damage your pride, but because it is not proper. I am a scrounging artist with an insolent servant I cannot afford in straitened quarters; you no doubt have a house on the hill or on the river and at least four servants. Perhaps you are having relations with one; perhaps you have dismissed two for becoming pregnant, handing them a little sack of rubles as compensation, knowing full well none will believe their tales— because on their one night out a week they must have been with sailors, or drunks, or others of the serving class with no self-control.

Your pocket watch chain may be gold, it may only be gilded. Your felt hat looks of good quality but is a little questionable around the edges. Your cravat? Ostentatious red silk. Cravats are cheap, of course. Your waistcoat looks in fine repair although your belly strains against it, a prosperous appearance if not refined. Your coat appears to be English tweed, certainly some sort of continental affectation, especially with those crude elbow patches. And the coat is not right for the cravat, which is certain. Which demands the question: Do you pick out your clothes or does your man? Obviously you do. Valets have better taste.

That you eschew boots in this thawing spring also proclaims your vanity; someone else will have to polish your brogues, but boots would not suit the gabardine slacks you affect. And is that an alligator belt? Again, your mismatched ensemble says more about you than fashion. You are bourgeois, an upper functionary perhaps, perhaps the last in a line of dwindling minor aristocrats with an income taken from the flesh of your serfs. You are not in the arts; doubtful in business, either, or you would have the sense to dress more tastefully. Had I your money I would certainly dress better than you; but I would rather have this ragged coat than your inelegant ensemble, however rich the material. You remind me of the “Emperor with No Clothes,” except it would be “The Emperor with Bad Clothes.”

As you smoke your cigarillo from an ivory holder, and gesture, world-weary to your better-dressed friends over a glass of vodka, you appear in command, a man among men, a man above the shabbiness I endure. But who’s to say how shabby you are inside? “One thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside,” Lennoninsky wrote. Indeed, your subterfuges don’t fool me.

Your face is more indulgent than cruel, your cheeks soft and full, your moustache thick but not overweening, no need to hide your worsening teeth with a larger brush just yet; an early wattle on your neck that will come to swing with the years; the pomade on your thinning hair, the sensuous Mediterranean lips, the broad nose and the thin almond eyes recalling some Mongol ancestor, like your clothes, these features seem not to belong together, belying your outward, superficial, self-satisfied confidence!

I am wearing leather boots, the heels worn down but no holes as of yet; they manage to keep the rain out, though I am frequently footsore. No fancy shoes to hand waterlogged and scuffed over to a fawning servant. And though I have worn this, one of my two good shirts, for three days prior to this occasion tonight, and its cuffs are a little frayed, it is of good quality, a very fine wool, most likely a better quality once than you are wearing now. My stained beret, impractical for this weather, hangs on the rack. I took my hat off as I came in, a tradition you jauntily disrespect. And is the beret an affectation? No! By no means. It is a symbol by which I mock myself as an artist with little utility in this suffocating society of bores. I mock myself intentionally.

Have you ever mocked yourself? Have you ever looked in the mirror and beheld the essential evil behind your ingratiating smile? I doubt there has ever been a time in your life when you looked upon your reflection with anything save self-congratulation; such insight would be beyond you.

And yet you might represent a publishing house, a magazine, someone for whom I must scrape and bow to to eke out a living as an artist, someone not worth the last five thoughts from my brain. And if I met you in that relation, with these, my best clothes, you would certainly think to get the better of me and negotiate some scandalous payment for the sweat of my brain. You would not think me someone capable of bargaining over the quality of a piece; no, you would try to steal it from me, steal my thoughts and hope it improves your circulation, like some bug collector charging admission to his museum while adding a new bug. I am that bug, aren’t I?

How I despise you! How I despise the falsity of your pose, of everything it represents, half-measures, nods to liberalism, even Marxism, perhaps— no; that would be too daring and might make you slightly suspect even among those whom you call “friends,” no doubt old chums from the university who would abandon you if you fell out of society for your debts. I had to leave the university because of debts and become this creature you naturally avoid.

What if I were to walk up to your circle, right now, and begin talking as if I had been invited? I might talk of the recent architectural changes to Petersburg, or the price of pork rising above the peasant’s means, or the eternal illusion of freeing and reforming the serfs. I could nod and listen with the best of you, and for your sake pretend you were of equal intellectual standing as I, yes, I could pretend to humility among your overfed circle of bourgeoisie functionaries, minor aristocrats, businessmen, liberal-minded poseurs and the lot. And would you forgive my appearance? This three days’ beard? This ragged and thinning hair creeping over my ears like a bad fungus? Perhaps. Perhaps there is in you, or one of your circle, the ability to see beyond a man’s shell, to see into the heart and the mind—but what is the purpose of all your desultory and condescending conversation and polite niceties and slight bows toward your betters? To avoid this very thing, to lose humanity in inane politeness.

I pity you, Sir, I pray when your last breath comes it will be breathed with the sudden and horrifying realization of the triviality of your entire life. Only this will save you. Or should you lose a daughter or son or a beloved wife or friend you loved before that last deathbed revelation I doubt will ever overtake you, I pray the tragedy might be enough to make you kneel in church and confess, “Be merciful to me, O God, for I am a sinner,” and mean it. But you cannot do that now; church is for the best pews and the satisfaction that you are only a formal sinner, not in the real sense. You have not been unfaithful toward your wife in a long while, despite the opportunities your club regularly affords, and the last time meant nothing. The dismissed servants asked for your attentions, hardly your fault. You don’t cheat at cards and you return invitations for invitations; surely you are good, and insulated from common evil. Surely you are above the degradation God visits on the vast majority of humans, with their dirt floors and thatched roofs and drunken Saturdays, burying half their infants in graves whose markings disappear with the rains; surely you will never see how this might be your salvation, no, you must precede them into heaven! Surely you are the grasshopper with others to play the ant for you, while we, the hard working ants, suffer the fate of grasshoppers in the winter, that which you deserve--hungry and piled with blankets around a few coals. Have you earned anything in your life? You will know if that which has only been given is likewise taken away.

I'm a big fan of Fyodor, he vies with Eliot as my favorite author. Eliot is harder to imitate, and though it can be done, it usually ends in parody. Imitating Dostoevsky I find easier to do without degenerating into parody, but let the reader judge--that inveterate reader who will actually put up with 1400 words in one day's blog.

Thine at 1 Kilorat (feeling irritable and caged up),


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