Thursday, May 26, 2011

Yury Olesha on History's Darlings

"We weren't born yesterday. We too have been history's darlings."

"Oh, if only they'd kicked his kidneys in soccer..."

"And so I wander, the last dreamer on earth, on the edge of a cesspool, like a wounded bat..."

When I was in high school, my sister and I were obsessed with a soap opera called Santa Barbara. On winter break we seldom missed an episode. More particularly, we liked to watch the show’s graying patriarch, C.C. Capwell, boil over in anger at everyone around him. Capwell was interesting because he only had one emotional tone or trope, and that was anger. Capwell could brood or sulk or rave, but he was always angry about something or someone. He only had one note on the piano of his feelings, one channel on the television of his emotional range, and that was uncontrollable fury.

Even when Capwell was in love, he seemed to be visibly upset at the object of his affection, and irritated by the unbalanced, uncertain state of romantic arousal. In some ways, Capwell was an emotional cripple. He couldn’t feel what others felt; he was never truly worried, joyful, envious, sad, or hopeful—whatever was going on at the time, Capwell just felt pissed about it. On the other hand, I wondered whether Capwell had developed a special relationship to his pet sentiment, anger. After all, isn’t it true that almost every situation calls for some level of anger if examined closely enough? Perhaps it takes a savant like Capwell, someone specially attuned to rage as a bloodhound is specially attuned to fox or raccoon smells, to register the annoyance that lurks in every human interaction or encounter with the physical universe.

At first glance, one might expect that some human experiences lie entirely outside of the purview of rage. Not so! How exactly did Capwell’s special sensitivity to anger work? Here’s a hypothetical example. A woman, perhaps even Capwell’s daughter, announces that she’s graduating from college. Ordinarily, you’d expect a father to be filled with pride over the achievement of his progeny. Not C.C. Capwell. He’d focus on the negative. Shouldn’t his daughter have gone to a better school? Shouldn’t she have achieved a higher G.P.A.? Shouldn’t others—her aunt for example—have attended this once-in-a-lifetime ceremony? The possibilities for anger, if we are truly open to the emotional experience, are everywhere.

C.C. Capwell has nothing on Nikolai Kavalerov, the drunken, intellectual antihero of Yuri Olesha’s masterful 1927 Soviet novella, Envy. But whereas Capwell was a maestro of irritation, Kavalerov is a virtuoso of another kind of resentment, envy. The ostensible target of Kavalerov’s spite is Andrei Babichev, his benefactor and a successful Soviet bureaucrat to boot. The broader target of Kavalerov’s envy is the entire Soviet order ushered in by the Revolution. Although on the face of things, Kavlerov seems to accept the claims of the champions of the Soviet system--that Soviet cultural life is orderly, modern, and efficient—his venomous envy deconstructs the myth of the new regime. Even as despicable antihero, Kavalerov’s mockery undermines the rhetoric of revolution and defends that which preceded it. If there is a new Soviet man, Homo Sovieticus, should we not mourn the death of the old man? If the new system is more rational than the old one, or more technologically progressive, should we not continue to value the beautifully irrational or delightfully human elements of the old system? Kavalerov, for all of his unenviable qualities, lays out a ridiculous but nevertheless persuasive case that the Revolution, for all its glory, has jettisoned some of the most sublime aspects of the human experience.

Kavalerov's chief complaint is that revolutionary logic has overthrown the reign of human emotions. "The buttercup of pity, the lizard of ambition, the snake of jealousy--these flora and fauna must be driven out of the new man's heart." Kavalerov laments this extinction. As Kavalerov melodramatically complains, "I have been given the honor of conducting the last parade of old-fashioned human passions..."Emotions apparently have something to offer men and women, though he doesn't quite say what. Perhaps they make life more beautiful, perhaps they simply make life more varied and interesting.

It's interesting to note that Kavlerov mourns the defeat of human emotions but seems to hold out the possibility that they will take their revenge on the new order of things. Is it possible to vanquish that which makes us truly human, no matter how reasonable the cause? In 1927 Russia communism must have felt fragile indeed. The Revolution was only a decade old; the Civil War less than that; and Lenin was dead and gone. Notwithstanding the optimism and certainty of the Bolsheviks, many Russians still remembered pre-revolutionary Russia. Conspiracies and revolts were not out of the question. Olesha, although a revolutionary writer, seems to suggest that a backlash might still succeed in overturning the Bolshevik regime. "...I want to gather a multitude around me. So that I have a choice and can choose the best, the most vivid of them, to form a shock troop, sort of a...shock troop of emotions." "Yes, this is a conspiracy of emotions, a peaceful uprising. A peaceful demonstration of emotions."

In the end, Envy isn't really about Kavalerov's envy of Babichev. Rather, it's about the envy of one whole generation of Russians, or one historical epoch even, for another. Even as new Soviet citizens recognized that the absurdly atavistic Old Regime had been flung, in Trotsky's words, onto the "ash heap of history," these same Soviet citizens knew that something valuable had inevitably been lost in that ash heap. Wasn't there a part of every ethnically Russian Soviet citizen--the Russian part perhaps--that envied the future itself? Kavalerov's speech sums up this ambivalent feeling about Bolshevik progress: "Everything flows from this, the new era, everything is drawn to it, it will get the best gifts and exclamations. I love it, this world that's coming toward me, more than life, I worship it and hate it with every fiber of my being! I sob, tears gush from my eyes, but I want to poke my fingers in its clothes and rip. Don't outshine me! Don't take away what might have belonged to me!"


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