David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: russia (page 3 of 5)

Nikolai Leskov: The Enchanted Wanderer

I only heard of Leskov recently (Irving Howe and Walter Benjamin both wrote about him, so perhaps this is my fault), and I can’t understand why he isn’t better known in English. Leskov may not be in the absolute top rank, but he certainly deserves a place alongside other big 19th century names like Goncharov, Lermontov, and Shchedrin. But no, even though his most famous story, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” was turned into an opera by Shostakovich, there’s very little on him in English. Leskov is less spiritual and more folkloric than his contemporaries, preferring not to deal in big concepts like family and fate, and perhaps this makes him less archetypally Russian. But especially in the massive novel-length tale “The Enchanted Wanderer,” he pulls off an extended anti-everyman epic that has echoes of the less satirical (and less crazy) side of Gogol, but even more so, Kleist.

I adore Kleist, and I follow Gabriel Josipovici’s line that Kleist was a singular and oppositional figure in Germanic literature, pointing away from the dominant trends of the time. Leskov is nowhere near as perverse, but the willingness with which the stories blithely take hairpin turns and lapse into burlesque is something Leskov has to himself.

“The Enchanted Wanderer” plays up the blitheness, as our hero, the strong giant Ivan, is not the most reactive sort, and greets his many crazy and painful picaresque adventures with more nonchalance than anything else. For most of the story, his calm ability to take things in stride comes as simply an odd quirk, but by the end it appears integral to Leskov’s portrayal of the world. He is a reluctant storyteller. Late in his life, as a monk, some people on a boat ask him to tell his long life story, and he eventually agrees.

The story then has several more or less discrete sections with jarring transitions between them. Here’s a synopsis:

  1. He is born as a serf and becomes a horse driver for his lord. One day he inadvertently kills a monk, who returns to him in a dream at night. The conversation he has is typical of his attitude:

    “You took my life without giving me a chance of repentance.”

    “Well,” I replied, “it’s tough luck and I’m very sorry, but what do you expect me to do about it now? I didn’t do it on purpose, did I? Besides,” I said, “what have you got to grumble about? You’re dead and that’s that.”

    …”You will suffer many hardships and adversities, but you will not die until the day appointed for your doom, and then you’ll remember your mother’s promise and you’ll become a monk.”

  2. He continues at his job as a horse driver until saving the life of his lord’s son, at which point he becomes a caretaker of pigeons and such. But after a cat eats the pigeons and he cuts off his tail, he is punished and humiliated and flees to become a robber.
  3. He is soon found by another landowner who trusts him immediately to be the nursemaid for his wife and child. But the wife’s lover prevails on him to let the wife and child run away with him, and taking a moral stance that the lovers should be together (after initially wanting to beat up the lover), he helps them get away and then runs off from his job.
  4. He shows up at a horse fair and displays his expertise in judging horses, then gets into a flogging fight with a Tartar, whom he kills. The Russians present try to haul him off to trial, so he flees with the Tartars to the steppe.
  5. The Tartars like him too much and hold him hostage on the steppe for ten years by implanting bristles into his heels, making it difficult even to walk. He has several wives and children.
  6. At age 33, he is finally able to flee from the Tartars (converting them to Christianity beforehand via some prestidigitation) by finding corrosive earth that allows him to open his heel and remove the bristles.
  7. Ivan is hired by another lord for his horse judging skills.
  8. He meets up with a mysterious magnetizer who leads him through Kleistian nightmares and hallucinations in order to cure him of drink.
  9. Still employed, he meets up with some bizarre gypsies, falling in love with the captivating dancer Grusha, to whom he loses a huge amount of money. His master goes to see Grusha the next night and buys her from the gypsies as a mistress.
  10. Grusha becomes miserable, the master grows tired of her and imprisons her in a remote cottage. She escapes and returns to our hero, demanding that he kill her to put her out of her misery. He reluctantly agrees.
  11. He joins the Russian army and, wanting to die over his guilt for killing Grusha, he embarks on a suicide mission, miraculously surviving and defeating the Tartars. He tries to confess killing Grusha, but no one believes him, and he is made an information clerk in St. Petersburg as a reward for his heroism.
  12. In St. Petersburg, he beats up an actor for harassing a young actress and loses his job as a result. Finally out of options, he joins a monastery.
  13. In the monastery he wrestles with his sins and with the Devil himself, finally driving off his torment through extreme fasting.
  14. A Jew hangs himself near the monastery and our hero thinks that his ghost is Judas and is tormenting him during the night. Turns out to be a cow.
  15. He gets frustrated while setting up a service one day and knocks over a bunch of candles in anger. He is imprisoned in a pit in the monastery for months, but he doesn’t find it too bad, and acquires a gift of prophecy.
  16. He takes the trip that began the story, meaning to go to some saints’ tombs and pray there, for he foresees more war and will leave the clergy and take up arms if war breaks out: “I want to die for my people!” he says, and the story ends.

This gives a decent idea of the eccentric nature of the story, but not of what lifts it above the level of a picaresque folktale. It’s in the telling that Leskov draws the pieces together, not just in his maintaining certain traits to the narrative but also in how he rejects other more conventional ones.

Leskov seems to have had a thing for telling stories that go on longer than their expected end point. “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” famously does this, but here it’s even more perverse. The whole story is structured to lead up to Ivan joining a monastery and fulfilling his prophesied destiny, and yet when he does finally become a monk, the story goes on as if nothing has changed. He still gets into misadventures, he still falls into slapstick antics, and he still suffers in his usual nonchalant way. Far from being any particular destiny for him, his engagement with religion turns out as arbitrarily as everything before.

So if the destiny angle is not fulfilled, what forms the commonality of his adventures? It’s Ivan’s character. Ivan is not a cerebral man; he primarily acts out of instinct, and he doesn’t learn much from his experiences. He is not appreciably different from his younger self at the end of the story. But throughout, his reactions follow a certain moral pattern. He can act out of rage or out of kindness, but he tends to show a great sympathy for women and possesses a sense of honor that seems more innate than situational. If he feels bad about something, no one is able to stop him from proclaiming his unworthiness; if an authority condemns him for something he believed to be right, he ignores the conflict and just walks off. And these reactions spring forth fully formed from his unconscious; he seems to watch them as they happen rather than choose them, and this is complemented by his blase attitude toward the strangest happenings (shown well in the dialogue above, where he is ridiculously at ease with the ghost of a man he just inadvertently killed). And he has no lessons to tell to his audience on the barge; he’s just telling a story.

So while there is a melancholic fatalism to the plot, Ivan’s personality makes it difficult to greet the events with any sort of tragic sense, because his own attitude is such that he knows he will survive anything, even if he doesn’t wish to. This makes him very much the archetype of a “wanderer,” but one without angst and one untroubled by regret, concerned neither with salvation nor damnation. Yet he is not a holy fool in any sense, as he suffers greatly and maintains a consistent, though buried, moral posture throughout. As with Kleist, the whole story holds together in spite of its refusing any easy shape that it might fit.

Shchedrin: The Golovlyov Family

It must not be imagined that Iudushka was a hypocrite in the same sense as Tartuffe or any modern French bourgeois who goes off into flights of eloquence on the subject of social morality. No, he was a hypocrite of a purely Russian sort, that is, simply a man devoid of all moral standards, knowing no truth other than the copy-book precepts. He was pettifogging, deceitful, loquacious, boundlessly ignorant, and afraid of the devil. All these qualities are merely negative and can supply no stable material for real hypocrisy.

In France hypocrisy is the outcome of a man’s upbringing; it forms part of “good manners” so to speak, and almost always has a distinct political or social coloring…If this kind of hypocrisy cannot be described as a conviction, it is in any case a banner around which men who find it profitable to be hypocritical in this rather than in some other way can gather. They are conscious hypocrites, that is, they know it themselves and are aware that other people know it too. For a French bourgeois the universe is nothing but a large theater in which an endless play is going on and one hypocrite gives his cue to another.

We Russians have no strongly biased systems of education. We are not drilled, we are not trained to be champions and propagandists of this or that set of moral principles but are simply allowed to grow as nettles grow by a fence. This is why there are very few hypocrites among us and very many liars, bigots, and babblers. We have no need to be hypocritical for the sake of any fundamental social principles, for we have no such principles and do not take shelter under any one of them. We exist quite freely, i.e. we vegetate, babble, and lie spontaneously, without any principles.

Whether this is a matter for grieving or rejoicing is not for me to say. I think, however, that while hypocrisy may arouse fear and indignation, objectless lying makes one feel bored and disgusted. And so the best thing is not to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of the conscious as compared with the unconscious hypocrisy, but to keep away both from hypocrites and from liars.

And so Iudushka was a sneak, a liar, and a babbling fool rather than a hypocrite….

The Golovlyov Family (1876)

And so, like a sober, humorless Gogol, Shchedrin sets about proving his point, not just by portraying these characters in unrelentingly brutal detail, but by killing them off rather arbitrarily. In Dostoevsky and in Tolstoy, characters do tend to stick around so they can meet a fate, deserved or undeserved, that serves some dramatic or moral purpose. Shchedrin kills off characters prematurely to foreclose any possibility of redemption, though it quickly becomes clear there was never a chance anyway. What begins as a character sketch ends with that same character dying. Even by Russian standards, this is a miserable book.

I don’t know if Shchedrin had read Burke or Diderot, to whom he seems to be responding here, but his point that hypocrisy implies a bourgeois sort of moral self-awareness is well-taken, and I would say I see Shchedrin’s sort of hypocrite a lot more often than Rameau’s Nephew.

Albert O. Hirschman: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Genealogically speaking, this book isn’t as captivating as Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, because it’s not a survey of past rationales, but an analysis of contemporary behaviors in response to this phenomenon:

Firms and other organizations are conceived to be permanently and randomly subject to decline and decay, that is, to a gradual loss of rationality, efficiency, and surplus-producing energy, no matter how well the institutional framework within which they function is designed.

Free of the meta-analysis, Hirschman doesn’t manage the ideological sweep of the other book, but there’s enough here that should interest even the most impractical humanities scholar. (Like the other book, this one is very short.) Hirschman’s structure is simple: when employees or consumers of an institution are faced with decline of how that institution serves and services them, they either vocalize their grievances (“voice”) or they vote with their feet (that would be “exit”). Various constraints make one option more attractive than the other, and sometimes exit isn’t available, or voice is minimized. There are two scenarios in particular, one conceptual and one historical.

The first is Hirschman’s free-market apostasy in saying that competition can work against voice, since the more vocal and less vocal can be separated into equally impotent factions. The easily dissatisfied ping-pong between equally bad options while the more inertial sorts stick around and don’t complain, giving no incentive for the institution to improve. (Think cell-phone companies.) This plays itself out in a more class-stratified way if there is a better but more expensive option for the privileged class to exit towards, leaving the less empowered stuck with a system that again has fewer incentives to change. (Think public and private schools.) Under orthodox conceptions, this is no prisoner’s dilemma, as the free-marketer would expect any exit to motivate the institution to improvement. In actuality, the institution will often be glad to be rid of these complainers. Sometimes it’s because they weren’t worth the trouble, but often it reinforces existing resistance to the troublesome process of reversing decline. One look at the sociologically fascinating Mini-Microsoft reveals a handful of salutary problems facing Microsoft in decline:

  1. Many of the most creative and most vocal leaders and employees have already left.
  2. Those remaining are miserable.
  3. Because of the first factor, the company has less incentive to address the second.
  4. The company’s attempts to stem the damage are perceived as cosmetic, and because of the above reasons, probably are.
  5. Remaining executives are perceived as not being accountable in the slightest and cashing in.
  6. If the increasingly livid tenor of the comments is any indication, things are getting worse, not better.

Mini-Microsoft is a particularly interesting case because even though the remaining employees are an extremely vocal and articulate bunch, the exit behavior appears to have caused a backlash demoralizing both executives and low-level employees. Hirschman’s optimistic suggestion that voice be recognized before things decay to this point seems unrealistic, however, since it requires a foresight that no institution can be expected to have: why listen to people gripe when everything is fine? I fear that only the absence of exit makes voice truly viable, and that is only because the possibility for organized, open revolt exists when those first exiters aren’t able to leave.

Point two: the United States was founded on exit, grew through exit, and exit is ingrained in its psyche. Founded by those who voted with their feet, grown on cheap immigrant labor, expanded through pioneer expeditions, and granted the luxury of isolationism through geographical position, the country has been notably reticent to address complainers, and the massive backlash against civil rights and entitlement programs is only one of the more distasteful examples. Complaint is frowned upon precisely because of the “If you don’t like it, go to Russia” ethos:

Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too unpleasant?

Ironically, this book was written in 1970, so Hirschman cites the black power movement as a notable exception to this trend. Forty years later, a singular, failed exception it remains.

I have not spent enough time with other cultures to have a sense of how distinctively American this trait is, but people from Tocqueville to Veblen to Richard Hofstadter have remarked on it, so I’ll assume it’s at least more extreme here. It makes me wonder if the comparative absence of politically-engaged novels and works of philosophy in U.S. history (note that I am talking about political engagement rather than agitation and muckraking, so I don’t count Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis, nor the disenfranchised voices of Baldwin, Ellison et al.; Dewey is a notable exception, however) can be traced not only to individualism, but also to the disparagement of voice in our culture. Do we teach our writers to stay the hell out of politics? Is that why our supposed politically-engaged writers (Mailer, DeLillo, Franzen) are such a joke?

Vladimir Sorokin: Ice

The way this book is structured, it’s almost over just as it begins. I was deeply struck by Chetyre (aka 4), which was scripted by Sorokin, and Ice plays on some of the same themes: weird genetics, supernatural myths become gritty urban reality, and an emphasis on flesh and the physical at their most blunt. Blunt this book is, because the first half of it is Keystone Kops caperings of mobsters and a secret society of chosen people (blond and blue-eyed) who seek to awaken their comrades by smashing in their chests with a hammer, to awaken their “hearts” and cause them to speak. Some of their candidates do not have such a heart within them, and they tend not to survive the attempted awakening.

That this is evidently a pastiche of contemporary decadent writing only becomes apparent in the last half, where the style inverts into a long chronicle of the movement’s history by its current leader Khram, an old lady who survived the Nazis and survived Stalin to bring her movement to fruition with the aid of an aggressive oil tycoon post-perestroika. She’s upfront: there are 23,000 of them, alien visitors who were trapped through ambiguous means in the bodies of humans. As it is explained to her:

The absolute majority of people on this earth are walking dead. They are born dead, they marry the dead, they give birth to the dead, and die…That is the circle of the dead lives. There is no way out. But we are alive, we are the chosen. We know what the language of the heart is, the language we have already spoken to you. And we know what love is. Genuine Divine Love.

There is more to the mythology, particularly the notion that they commune not through physical sex but through mystical “conversations of the heart,” but this is the basic duality: life and death, love and lack of love, hope and despair. There is no hope for most people, and the chosen treat them as objects, because that’s all they are.

The book ends with the ascension just beginning, and there is both a sequel and a prequel in the offing. Aside from Sorokin’s slick navigation of styles (it seems that way in English, at least, and a few Russian speakers have confirmed this), there’s not too much more than the secret history presented in this novel, from the oppression of the chosen to their rise in the chaos of present-day Russia. In some ways it is a glib vision that Sorokin offers. Accepting the disbelief in spiritual salvation, but not wishing to produce nihilism (Chetyre was, for all its grotesqueries, deeply humanistic), he takes off from Kafka’s famous aphorism: there is “Plenty of hope for God–no end of hope–only not for us.”

People tend to excise the “God” part from that quote, but the quote is merely fashionable pessimism without it. Though he leaves the certainty of the salvation ambiguous, Sorokin resolutely focuses on a set of chosen who resist reader identification and are therefore wholly other. It makes Sorokin an inversion of Hegel: life is always elsewhere. Intuitively, this seems a far better model for the big claustrophobic world of today than Hegel’s steadfast one-world (hell, one-country) view.

Update: See also this excellent review.

The Clown Program Has Been Put on Hiatus for Retooling

No, it hasn’t. Sorry for the lack of posts, but other projects (see left) have been consuming what little time has been available. I hope to get back with more substantial posts shortly.

  • Reading Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, finally. It’s much easier reading than Taylor’s Sources of the Self, and, in tandem with Proust, asks the question: is what masquerades as modern realistic fiction today actually a series of Homeric narrative legends and myths?
  • Otomo Yoshihide, Keiji Haino, and Tatsuya Yoshida are each playing a dozen or so shows at The Stone in December!
  • Spurred by my endless confusion between the books Concrete and Cement, one a Bernhard novel and one a Russian social realist text, some friends and I tried to come up with other titles that could be similarly confused. My best so far: Obsolescence. Anyone else want to have a go?
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