David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: insanity (page 2 of 2)

The Little Demon, Fyodor Sologub

The obvious comparison that jumps out is to Gogol. There is a similar dark humor, and a similar cynicism, but those affinities are mostly superficial. While Gogol had larger than life archetypes as characters (the pathetic bureaucrat, the obsessive gamesman, the skinflint), Sologub’s characters are resolutely small and detailed. They hardly succeed at signifying anything other than their own pettiness. The Little Demon was written in 1907, but has nothing of the upcoming Russian futurists about it (though his poetry sure does), nor the power of premonition of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, nor the contemporary feeling of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. It is more parochial than Gorky. The Little Demon has the claustrophobia of a hellish vision of a small village beyond which no one’s thoughts ever go.

The hero, Peredonov, is a nasty little man, an abusive schoolteacher whose ambition is to become inspector of schools, through the connections of his fiancee Varvara. Unfortunately, Varvara, terrified of Peredonov dumping her for a less repellent woman, has been in league with the old spinster Grushina and has fabricated her connections. Grushina forges letters from a princess in St. Petersburg to Peredonov. Varvara keeps up the charade with increasingly unbelievable antics until Peredonov marries her, by which point Peredonov is quite paranoid, and partly with reason, since most of the people around him really do loathe him and gossip about his peccadilloes. But by the end, he has become completely crazy, unwilling to believe what everyone else knows–that the letters are fakes–and instead chasing after fabricated plots, setting fire to ballrooms, and eventually turning on his dense friend Volodin and slitting his throat, all the while spurred on by the “petty demon” of the title, which taunts him and eggs him on. The hallucinations and unreality is similar to that of Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” but there is no redemption, no moment of clarity, only oblivious dark.

In the context of the surroundings, stripped of any nobility, Peredonov occupies a role in his environment similar to that of Pechorin in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, written in 1840, seemingly as a rebuff to Pushkin’s more romantic view of Russia. Pechorin was the cynical, brash opportunist who was no more moral than the pompous nobles around him, but is incredibly successful at exploting them. Lermontov implied that the logical end of Pechorin’s mindset was an ennui-laden fatalism, but Sologub seems to have another answer: paranoia and compulsive scheming can arise just as easily when those around you are too dumb to even act predictably in their own self-interest.

Sologub fills up the book with other grotesquely picaresque anecdotes, which aren’t as shocking as they might be because the characters are so flat. Three shrill sisters, a pompous windbag headmaster, a succession of increasingly dull officials. But one story stands out and nearly takes over the book, though it’s only tangentially connected with Peredonov’s tale, and that’s the story of Lyudmilla and Sasha. Sasha is a young, persecuted student who Peredonov, in another incomprehensible scheme for promotion and fame, attempts to claim is a girl, and Lyudmilla is a shallow, nasty woman who becomes infatuated with him, driven by dreams of being the queen of a palace full of boys whipping each other. Lyudmilla dresses him up in girl’s clothes, pinches him, induces him to foot-worship, and eventually seduces him. Unlike Peredonov, Lyudmilla manages to completely cover up the affair when his aunt hears about it, with Sasha playing along perfectly.

The material is unnerving if not shocking; it’s of such a base nature that Peredonov’s insanity looks fuzzy in comparison. And Sologub seems to relish it more than the rest of the plot, devoting more and more time to the details of their meetings. (That and the general misogyny, misanthropy, and prurience suggest that Sologub was not a nice man.) Lyudmilla even picks up some pagan pretenses that she initially uses to justify her perversions to Sasha. It could be trash, but Sologub goes a ways towards justifying it by painting them in opposition to Peredonov. While Peredonov runs amok, Sasha and Lyudmilla maintain (or even, in Sasha’s case, establish) their public decency by falling back on a secret vice. The implication is that Peredonov failed because his addiction was public achievement. Sasha and Lyudmilla are undoubtedly doomed as well, but they are doomed in the way that Frank Norris’s McTeague was doomed: tolerated if not respected, they’ll go along until their private life destroys their public life. McTeague eventually abandons his dentistry practice for the promise of gold, but Sologub is a bit lighter than Norris. Sologub gives his characters their private pleasure, while in McTeague, there is clenched-teeth misery only let loose when a young boy urinates in public and humiliates his whole family, in an expression of unbelievably repressed (and oppressed) rage.

That’s not to say that Sologub is sanguine, but the two main plots of Peredonov and Sasha/Lyudmilla strengthen each other. Peredonov would just be a madmen amongst dullards, and Sasha and Lyudmilla would just be perverse caricatures, but each is a reaction to the other, as Charles Bovary’s failures make Emma’s futile dreams deeper. I will not go into detail about how the two aspects, one public and deranged, one private and devious, reinforce each other and how that might apply to the past and future history of Russia, but I’d say there’s something there.

Cassandra, Christa Wolf: The Ones to Get It In the Neck

Cassandra‘s concept is simple and thorough: Cassandra, daughter of Priam, the ruler of Troy until its demise, has been brought back by Agamemnon after the war as something of a trophy, and his wife Clytemnestra kills them both for Agamemnon’s “it was for good luck” murder of her daughter Iphigenia. In her last moments before she becomes a bit of collateral damage, she jumps through her past in the Iliad, the Oresteia, and other assorted bits and pieces. The basic plots are covered here.

Wolf’s book is classically revisionist in that it mostly sticks with the material. It is classically feminist in seeing Cassandra and the additional characters of slaves and women as fundamentally oppositional to the male characters of the original stories, and even Clytemnestra, who is one of those women, unlike Cassandra, who never do “stop wearing themselves out trying to integrate themselves into the prevailing delusional systems.” Its additions are ones of interpretation and of layering: notably, Cassandra has an affair with Aeneas in her youth, and he remains a fixture in the book. This is Wolf’s key addition, and the one that produces the most resonance, about which more later. But Wolf also overlays Cassandra’s interactions with servants and the invisible people of Troy, particularly her servant Marpessa. Marpessa is something of a pagan Sappho stand-in who provides Cassandra with the glimpses of an alternative, less “heroic” world that is clearly meant to be superior. Consequently, the hysteria with which she delivers her prophecies comes out less as insanity or desperation than as a fundamental (and willing) disconnection from the world of Priam, Paris, and Hector.

Aside from the overlays, Wolf plays up the escalation aspects of the Trojan War, taking the view that the abduction of Helen was a tit-for-tat response to Priam’s sister Hesione’s willing “abduction” by a Spartan who she has married. The parallels to the Cold War in the 80’s when the book was written (except for a couple of post-colonial elements that get pushed slightly too hard, there is nothing to suggest it couldn’t have been written a few decades earlier) are entirely implicit, but quite apparent. Wolf was a nuclear disarmament unilateralist living in East Germany, and she had no patience for half-measures.

Of course, it’s all seen through Cassandra’s eyes, through tight but mercurial narration, and Wolf’s attention to her rape by Ajax and her identification with the doomed amazons led by Penthesilia, but Cassandra’s personal persecution and the general horrors of the war, for which she is mostly an observer, aren’t resolved. Maybe they couldn’t be. Wolf comes closest with Cassandra’s relationship with Aeneas, marked out as the only real relationship she has had with one of the “heroes.” To Wolf, she shares with him an unwillingness to be a part of the historical narrative, and at the end of the book she signals her acceptance of Aeneas’s unavoidable fate of going down the dark, violent road of the Aeneid to found another empire. Cassandra’s fate as victim and hysterical prophet, as with Aeneas and Penthesilea, is contextually necessary, and Wolf uses that to endorse the other, overlaid context before it is destroyed by the heroes.

It’s a dogmatic book, executed with great skill. The emphatic cry that lies beneath the flowing surface seems to have gone out of fashion, what with Gunter Grass’s missives against German reunification already seeming dated, or at least mistargeted. Wolf’s academic polemicism actually shares more with Amos Oz and David Grossman, those Israeli writers for whom the solution to war is obvious yet completely out of reach, and for whom the approach is fundamentally emotive. But the sensibility has faded elsewhere. It’s not fair to chalk it up to the end of the Eastern Bloc, and the demise of the passion that some (Sergey Kuryokhin is a good example) claimed only came out of repressive states. Part of me thinks it’s about to make a reappearance.

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