Monday, April 4, 2011

Rachel Polonsky's Russian Obsession

Rachel Polonsky's book, Molotov's Magic Lantern, is a long series of poetical reflections on the nature of Russian leaders, artists, places, and ideas. Here are just a few quotations drawn from the book. Note that her own prose is almost as magical as that of the poets and writers she quotes so liberally and admires so greatly. She seems to capture the essence of the Russophile obsession and bibliophilia that pervades this blog. Here are a few gems in Polonsky's own words:

"Is there a set of secret maps to be found among a person's books, a way through the fortifications of the self?"

"Old books are objects of a mysterious and compulsive kind of desire, fed by a stubborn intuition that the past might yield its secrets to the touch, as though some further meaning or spirit dwells in their very matter."

"Each place I have explored has beckoned me towards the next, toward some further arrangement of landscape, politics and myth, which I have reassembled in this book of travels. All my expeditions have been half-blind shadowings of the pursuits of others, sometimes tracing lines leading to places of exile, quest or crime..."

"Thinking about the meaning of the scene on the staircase, I sense that this house was not merely a setting for history, but a player in the drama. These apartments were velvet cases fashioned for the families of the bourgeoisie, for love and peace and the accumulation of possessions."

"They register the fear of all those who face the prospect or the memory of years spent over books: the fear that their reading might be no more than a sterile game, an escape from life, leading nowhere, as thought dissolves to nothing with the passing of time."

"In the intimate relationship of ownership, a person lives inside his possessions, makes a dwelling place for his spirit."

"The nonreading of books, as Benjamin said, is characteristic of collectors, who can become invalids if they lose their books and, in order to acquire them, can easily turn into criminals."

"A weary impatience with the unknowability of other people is sometimes a characteristic of the bibliophile, who loves with fervor publication dates and catalog numbers, all the categories of exact knowledge that a book can be made to represent.."

"In a city dizzy with fashion, this library is a carnival of anti-fashion."

Perhaps Polonsky is on to something about why I love books so dearly. Perhaps book collecting is a mild form of Asperger's syndrome or another kind of mental dysfunction. Certainly reading in general draws one away from one's social obligations or dating opportunities. How much worse is it to collect books one doesn't even have time to read? What does it signify, especially in the age of the Kindle, when one fills every nook and cranny of a home with unread books on arcane subjects? Polonsky's quotations offer many convincing explanations for the mania, but I am convinced that book collecting is ultimately related to a fear of mortality. For somehow it seems unlikely that we will die before we have a chance to complete the books we've purchased. So if we purchase enough books to last us the next fifty years, surely the Grim Reaper will, out of respect to learning if nothing else, be patient and hold off on executing his appointed task.

Before I finish this post, let me just cite a few random passages Polonsky quotes in her adventures through Russian time and space:

"After all, an entire nation consists only of certain isolated incidents, does it not?" Dostoevsky from Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.

"Everywhere the soul of Onegin
Involuntarily reveals itself,
Whether by a brief word, by a cross
Or by a question mark..." Pushkin.

"A body has been given to me, what am I do to do with it?
So single and so my own?" Osip Mandelstam from Stone.

"Ask me my biography and I will tell you the books I've read." Osip Mandelstam from a letter.

"You know, Moscovites are a people who, more than any other, like to talk about their city--the streets, the ice rinks, the houses, the Moscow River.." Varlam Shalamov from the short story, "Dry Ration."

"The state is not pure spirit." Leon Trotsky.

Mankind will leap from "the kind of necessity" to the "kingdom of freedom" where the "extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself." Frederich Engels.

Socialists believe that historical materialism "leads inevitably to the crumbling away of historical reality." Berdyaev. The Meaning of History.

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