Monday, March 12, 2007

On Nastasya Filippovna

Fyodor Dostoevsky provides the origin of this rumination through Prince Myshkin, the main character of Dostoevsky's novel, The Idiot.

[Prince Myshkin speaking to Aglaia about Nastasya Filippovna]
"That unhappy woman is firmly convinced that she is the most fallen, the most vicious creature in the whole world. Oh, don't cry shame on her, don't throw stones at her! She has tortured herself too much from the consciousness of her undeserved shame! And, my God, she's not to blame! Oh, she's crying out every minute in her frenzy that she doesn't admit going wrong, that she was the victim of others, the victim of a depraved and wicked man. But whatever she may say to you, believe me, she's the first to disbelieve it, and to believe with her whole conscience that she is...to blame. When I tried to dispel that gloomy delusion, it threw her into such misery that my heart will always ache when I remember that awful time. It's as though my heart had been stabbed once for all. She ran away from me. Do you know what for? Simply to show me that she was a degraded creature. But the most awful thing is that perhaps she didn't even know herself that she only wanted to prove that to me, but ran away because she had an irresistible inner craving to do something shameful, so as to say to herself at once, 'There, you've done something shameful again, so you're a degraded creature!' Oh, perhaps you won't understand this, Aglaia. Do you know that in that continual consciousness of shame there is perhaps a sort of awful, unnatural enjoyment for her, a sort of revenge on someone. Sometimes I did bring her to seeing light round her once more, as it were. But she would grow restive again at once, and even came to accusing me bitterly of setting myself up above her (though I had no thought of such a thing) and told me in so many words at last, when I offered her marriage, that she didn't want condescending sympathy or help from anyone, nor to be elevated to anyone's level. You saw her yesterday. Do you think she's happy with that set, that they are fitting company for her? You don't know how well educated she is, and what she can understand! She really amazed me sometimes."

Now, there are a number of passages that I earmarked in the course of reading The Idiot, but this was by far my favorite, and has been most frequently revisited by me since finishing the book. My first question is this: Do you know anyone whom this would describe? I admit myself to demonstrating to a much lesser extent the basic flaw of Nastasya; that is, I often place upon myself an undeserved guilt, or a feeling of being unworthy of this or of that. However, in me (and I'm sure in many others), it does not translate into performing some shameful act in order to prove to myself that I am indeed a "degraded creature." My reason for posting this passage, then, is really just that it seems a great one for reflective purposes. It quite eloquently states a relatively common fault, to varying degrees, of many great people. Further, I've always felt there to be some truth in the notion that among the best ways to surmount a character flaw is to be flatly confronted with it. If this is you, you will see yourself within it, yet you will still recognize it for the flaw it is and may feel compelled toward change.

So what is the psychology of such a sentiment? Is it symptomatic of self esteem issues of a youthly origin--some kind of Freudian delusion? Is it an actual psychopathology of sorts? How should one go about addressing it in a friend or loved one? Of course, these are the questions, and the answers will surely vary for each relationship. I suppose my main curiosity is whether such a sentiment is as widespread as it seems it could be.

Currently listening to: "Four Winds" by Bright Eyes
Previous activity: Mailed a couple "thank you" cards to Cornell
Next thing on the agenda: Reading "Pale Fire" by Nabokov

7 comments:

andysilvertongue said...

Wow! I cannot believe this coincidence.

I am in the midst of reading The Idiot and upon reading that quote this evening felt immediately moved t quote it verbatim to my friend Kristine.

I was looking to provide some context for her when stumbled across yor blog.

But that's not all. I was literally listening to Cassadaga whilst reading your blog.

Get out of my head!!!!

Just a quick question. Do you think Prince Myshkin was in love with Nastasya or does he just feel sorry for her as he says on the next page?

You've probably guessed that you could probably substitute my name for Price Myshkin and Kristine's for Nastasya in that question. Anyhow, you're opinion would be valued.

Anonymous said...

A series of coincidences lead me to this page and I have been thoroughly moved my it. The quoted passage accurately describes the girl I'm currently dating. I believe, like Nastasya, her issues result from problems with self esteem. On the other hand, I've read some things that suggest a personality disorder may be the source. As a very sensitive person in love with such a woman, this is a terribly troubling and, yes, drama filled relationship. Ultimately, though, such people need love as everyone else. Maybe even more so, since others likely give up on them before getting too close (further confirming their feelings of self-loathing, without, of course, their taking personal responsibilty). I cant answer the question of how to "solve" these issues, and I'm curious to hear how your relationship has progressed (if at all).

Anonymous said...

Hello Luke, Anonymous and "Andysilvertongue"

I stumbled across this blog too, and I couldn't be happier being here.

I've read a bit of The Idiot too(half way through), and have enjoyed every bit of what I've read for the numerous human issues dealt with in that book.

The theorising and intellectualising, is amazing.

But what also hooks me to the book, is how well I relate to a specific 'trait' in one of the characters- Nastasya.

I'd be happy talking about this issue. But what really propels me to write now, is emotion.

Anonymous, I'd think if you kept believing in her and being there for her, things may change with her. I wish I could hear from you about how things are now. I'd like to know whether there's any hope for me, as this is driving me crazy.But above all, I'd like to tell you not to give up hope, and I wish the best for you. Like you say, it seems like most people give up on 'such people'. I've been thinking about it, and it seems such a dangerous situation-- being so wholly dependant on one person, to turn things around for you(by 'you' I'm referring to those like Nastasya). What happens to such a person if the other does give up? Which they already believe should and will happen?

"andysilvertongue", I wouldn't like to pass a judgement about the way you feel. If I were to "think" about it, from the person that Myshkin is, I'd think he's caught between wondering whether he loves her or pities her. But thinking with my emotions, I'd say it's just pity.

Luke, wonderful post, really.

Luke said...

I'm not sure how people stumble across this post two years after it was written. I'd be curious just to hear how that happens.

Anyway, to respond to this most recent post from the second Anonymous, I'm sure that you recognize that no one can wait forever for someone to "come around" or, more simply, to change. There's never any assurance that change will come. Moreover, would it really be our role, let alone our responsibility, to try to change someone like Nastasya?

My own experience was one of constant advances and retreats, progress and regress. I consider myself to be a very patient person, but no one can wait forever. For me, I almost started to feel guilty that I was hoping for someone to change. I felt after a while that by hoping so strongly for it, I was attempting to impose it, and I'm not comfortable with the notion of imposing such a thing on anyone.

When thinking of a relationship with such a person in a romantic sense, it becomes even more complicated, I think, especially when I'm not someone to simply date someone casually. I'd like to think it has a future. With someone such as Nastasya, I think I would much prefer to simply be there for her as a friend. The difficulty for me, I feel, was that being there for her as a friend simply wasn't an option. I tried this, but she pushed forward for something more, and if I resisted, it was viewed as rejection, which simply fed into the self-pity as described by Dostoevsky.

Ashley had many great qualities, but we weren't able to get over the deficits. I still don't understand them, or what was going on in her mind. For my own part, in utter confusion, I tried to take things upon myself toward the end that frankly weren't true, simply to give her a scapegoat outside of herself. This didn't work either. It was just a degrading situation for both of us, and I had to extricate myself from it.

Anonymous said...

Btw. If you type Nastasya Filippovna into Google Search you get this blog.

To answer questions in general: Nastasya Filippovna engages in a rather refined practice of emotional blackmail. She engages in it because it gives her immense power in a time/place/society where what little power is given her she scorns, and what other power was taken from her.

As to dealing with specific cases of people who use emotional blackmail there's two different types: People who know they're using it and people who don't. Nastasya Filippovna is especially fascinating because she knows she's using it, and in my experience that is more rare. What's more, she had progressed from just using it to get what she wanted to using it to just to create chaos in the situations around her.

Notably, Nastasya does not engage in this behavior with people she respects. She seems to respect people who do not engage in her games.

I would suspect the vast majority of emotional blackmailers are not on Nastasya's level of self-awareness. These people are typically difficult to deal with on a rational level much less romantically. I suppose if you thought the subject intelligent enough you could lay out a case as to this is what they do, and how you're not going to put up with it.

bookswithoutanypictures said...

Even though Nastassya does think she's unworthy and broken because of the abuse she suffered, she's still one of my favorite female literary characters of all time. She's psycho and awesome at the same time, and has a certain wildness to her simply because she doesn't think she's fit for high society. At some point something snapped and now she's not afraid to challenge convention. I loved the scene where she throws the money into the fire without a second thought. If nothing else, she's got a lot of nerve.

johnnyboy said...

I have just finished my second reading of the Idiot. To my mind Nastasya Filippovna is one of the greatest female characters in literature. Even Anna Karenina seems to pale beside her. And she is even more tragic than Anna K. Cruelly used by the disgusting Totsky, she becomes a woman full of self-loathing, but with an honest and daring that are thrilling. The scene of her throwing the money into the fire, or whipping the officer in the face are two of the greatest in literature in my opinion.