Dostoevsky and the “Pride of the Poor”

It seems intuitive that a consumerist system would benefit from a high level of general prosperity within its population. Such prosperity would, in theory, provide citizens with more resources to spend within the system, and their level of success within that system seems like it would incentivize them to stay invested in it. Despite these obvious arguments, I’m beginning to doubt that this is really the case; in fact, I’m beginning to think more and more that such an economic system benefits from having at least a segment of the population mired in abject poverty.

I started thinking about this because of a passage from Crime and Punishment. An extremely poor, recently widowed woman is donated a small yet relatively significant sum of money. Despite her destitution, she decides to spend a seemingly unreasonable chunk of it on a funeral banquet that seems rather extravagant given her economic situation. Dostoevsky theorizes about why anybody would do this, arguing that it could be “that singular ‘pride of the poor’,” which causes “many poor people [to] strain themselves to their last resources and spend every last copeck they have saved in order to be ‘no worse than others’ and it order that those others should not ‘look down their noses’ at them.” (Dostoevsky, Penguin Classics, 451-52)

This is a woman who cannot afford to feed her children, whose stepdaughter resorts to prostitution to prevent the family from starving. The twenty roubles that she is gifted would be pocket change to some people (including some of her neighbors within the same apartment building), but to her, that sum is nothing short of temporarily life-changing. Given these facts, it may be easy to read this passage as a criticism of this particular woman; however, the fact that Dostoevsky frames his observation as a theory about the “pride of the poor” rather than about the pride of this widow is significant. It becomes an observation on one of the psychological effects of a money-driven society rather than a character analysis of Katerina Ivanovna. Her plight is the plight of anyone that resides at the bottom rung of a consumerist, status-driven culture, and her irrational compulsion towards frivolous spending in the face of crippling poverty is shared by them as well.

This “pride of the poor” is the exact reason that a destitute portion of a population helps to sustain a consumerist culture. These people, through no fault of their own, are often ironically the system’s most invested devotees. Because this segment of society exists within a culture that prizes reputation and material success above all else, they try desperately to prove to their peers, to those above them in the hierarchy, and to themselves that they, too, are making it, that they, too, have staked out their place within the system’s machinery and have found some degree of prosperity. Of course, this isn’t actually the case, but when material prosperity is the only benchmark of success that a person has known for their entire life, then what’s to stop them from spending every last resource that they have at their disposal to at least appear materially wealthy? This dedicated lower segment of society sets an example for societal investment, providing the rest of the population with a model and a warning: engaging in material culture is a requirement, not a choice, so do everything you can to succeed within the system.

This is, of course, a generalization. Not every member of a consumer society’s lowest caste tries in vain to play the part of a successful person, and those that do are not at fault in the least. It’s not my intention to stereotype an entire economic class, and I don’t think that this was Dostoevsky’s intention, either. The crux of the issue is that material culture ensnares people of all levels of prosperity; the “pride of the poor” is just a single prong of its machinery.

Sincerity Vs. Sardonicism: Infinite Jest and Fight Club

There are some obvious ones: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous. The program, however, has evolved to include a whole slew of twelve-step fellowships: Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Crystal Meth and Sex Addicts and Workaholics and Overeaters Anonymous. The twelve-step lifestyle may have hit its parabolic maximum in the late 90s, but it continues to carve out a niche in American culture, a culture that has a particularly addictive personality. It makes sense, then, that (vice) Anonymous programs occupied a prominent role in American media of the late nineties. A program with a faith-based foundation is bound to be targeted by an increasingly secular, skeptical media industry. Two juggernauts of nineties culture come to mind.

Fight Club is a firmly postmodern film. A character that directly addresses the audience; a twist based entirely on the subjectivity of reality; an atmosphere marked by a general skepticism for authority and traditional power structures. Twelve-step fellowships are approached by the film with the same sardonic attitude. From a group dedicated to parasitic brain parasites (sic) to one called “Remaining Men Together”, the film suggests that these fellowships exist for any ailment that could possibly afflict a human being. The people who participate in these groups are portrayed as pitiful, weeping husks. The protagonist himself attends these meetings, but as an outsider, as somebody who would never really buy into something so gooey and sentimental. The film’s finger points at human sensitivity and vulnerability while its distrustful postmodern face contorts and laughs.

Infinite Jest seems to portray these fellowships in a similar light. The stories shared by the twelve-steppers border on the absurd; most of the participants suffer from laughably bad lots in life, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves about it. The same exaggerated sentimentality portrayed in Fight Club also exists in Infinite Jest, but there’s one important difference: it’s shown to work. While Fight Club makes twelve-step programs out to be ineffective and cheesy, Jest portrays them as effective and cheesy. Yes, there’s a whole lot of recitation of trite cliches and blathering on about a “Higher Power As You Understand It” and hugging other members and crying into their shoulders, but it’s honest and therapeutic and helps the addicts see that they’re not alone. Gooey sentimentality may not be cool or edgy, but for some people it might be just what they need.

This difference, I think, highlights a significant divide in our culture. Some are happy to point and laugh at the bits of our culture that seem silly; others do the same, but are also willing to recognize their merits. Malicious cynicism versus a sincere sense of humor. Perhaps if more artists cease to be content with stopping at the pointing and laughing, if more are willing to fuse their satirization with sincerity, then perhaps that sincerity will begin to infuse into our culture.

The Challenges of Film Familiarity

This is a theory that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, and I’ve decided that I ought to flesh it out thoroughly with a full article.

While some skills of literary analysis are transferable to film analysis, there are a few key differences that make it an entirely different beast. These differences can make it difficult for even the most skilled readers to dissect film effectively. I’ll refer to these challenges under the umbrella of “film familiarity”.

Film familiarity can be divided into two primary components. The first one involves the fundamental tools that the medium uses to deliver an impact, which are visual and auditory stimuli. These stimuli also happen to be the variety of sensory information that most people are bombarded with most on a day to day basis. It may seem as if our familiarity with this sort of sensory information would make film analysis easier, but it actually generates one of the greatest challenges of understanding the form. Consider the written word; most literate people read in some capacity every single day, but they’re not exposed to nearly the same volume of text as they are to images and sounds. Furthermore, the text they’re exposed to in the form of cereal boxes and advertisements is a far cry from the text of literature. As a result, when someone sits down to read a poem, it’s an active and involved process. Because they’re not exposed to poetic language in their everyday life, there’s a degree of conscious effort that takes place to internalize it and interpret it. Each line is taken in, processed, and critically analyzed on at least a somewhat conscious level. The images and sounds of film, however, are far more familiar to the everyday person than the style of a poem. It feels more natural. When they watch a film they receive its emotional impacts, but they don’t need to consciously process the information they’re presented with in order to do so. Breaking down the film into its constituent parts feels unnecessary and unnatural, creating a barrier to understanding the technical elements of the medium.

The second part of film familiarity stems from the way the medium handles the passage of time. Now, written works have a limited degree of control over how much time the reader will spend on it. Tolkien, for instance, can make the journeys of his hobbits seem tortuous by tirelessly describing every last rock, tree, mountain, and bend in the road. But despite this, readers will spend varying amounts of time on each section. They’ll reread sentences that they don’t understand, savor the bits they enjoy most, and get through the boring sections as quickly as possible. The time controls of written works extend only as far as encouragement. A filmmaker, on the other hand, has total control over the duration of her work. She can select the exact total runtime and the precise duration of each scene. Barring bathroom breaks and intermittent pauses, and if a film is viewed as the creator intended, each viewer will be provided with the exact same runtime. Now, this is ignoring the frequent pauses that a film student or critic would employ in order to dissect certain scenes, but right now we’re referring only to the normal and intended delivery of a work. Undeniably, written works do not have the strict built-in duration that films have. This has a few important effects for the filmgoer. The most straightforward one is that the average viewer simply won’t have enough time to carefully dissect the piece. Since the film will go on and on despite the viewer’s thought processes, most people will not be able to carefully consider the intricacies of every shot and scene. The second, less straightforward effect is the subconscious encouragement towards passivity that a carefully controlled time structure generates. The controlled pace of a film means that a role that the audience would serve in the case of a written work is taken from them and relegated to the creators. Riding on the back of a motorcycle requires less attention than actually operating one. In the same way, the less work that an audience has to perform, the less attention they’ll need to pay to it. As a result, conscious effort must be taken to give a film the same attention as a novel or poem.

The funny thing about the medium is that if film familiarity is the primary stumbling block on the path to understanding the form, then one must actually become less comfortable with it in order to dissect it. They must consciously eliminate their rapport with the medium in order to be able to examine its technical elements. On the other hand, there must be some instinctual connection with the piece in order to be able to receive its intended emotional impact. Striking this balance between instinctual film familiarity and disinterested analysis is one of the greatest challenges that a student of film faces.


(This article is continued in a later post. Click here.)