Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Guilt and the Russian Novel

One of the minor tragedies of recent years is the collapse of the Borders bookstore franchise. Where can one sit and work now? Obviously, Borders' business model of selling people a cup of coffee in return for a quiet place to read and write didn't work out. People stayed too long, and destroyed too many magazines without buying them, for anybody to turn a profit. The fact that Borders sold untold amount of random, plastic crap (toys, cheap sunglasses, rulers, etc.) apparently didn't remove the fundamental flaw in Border's business model. Yet there are always opportunities in the midst of tragedy. And so I scavenged among the shelves of more than one store looking for Russian-themed memoirs and novels offered at a seventy-percent discount.

Now, when I read one of these bargains, I feel a sense of guilt. How could I kick Borders when it was down after all of those days I've spent there without buying much of anything? Nothing new there. I feel guilt about everything, primordial guilt. I feel guilt for things I've done, for things I haven't done, for things I've thought about doing, and for things I believe I may do one day. My guilt level seems inordinately high, but I always feel that someday I will do something really terrible and all of the guilt I've felt over these past decades will make sense, all at once, at a snap.

At any rate, one has to hope one will do something terrible or otherwise all of this guilt will seem senseless. I know there are those who believe in previous lives. I'm reminded of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the Sound of Music: "Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good." Perhaps seemingly unwarranted guilt flows from something bad one has done in a previous life. Where did all my guilt come from? Have I suppressed a memory of a salacious criminal life? (I'm watching the First 48 as I write this, so the criminal life is on my mind. And it's interesting, even hardened murderers on the show often display enormous, enfantilizing amounts of guilt notwithstanding their bloody actions--it's as if a guilty ten year old resides inside us all, no matter how brutal and inhuman and experienced the murderer.)

But in my own life, the most guilty action I remember is not helping my mother as she got sick from cancer. Of course, I don't feel objectively guilty about not helping my mother. What can anybody do--but especially a very young teen--in the face of cancer? But they say that kids often feel guilty for emotional events they can't understand or control. Like a newborn baby who doesn't know where his own body begins and ends, a kid may well believe he is responsible for the suffering of others.

I have a couple of isolated memories of guilt related to my mother's illness, though who can tell if I've invented the memory to create a rational explanation for my present day guilt? I remember playing with a friend on a summer afternoon, having fun, staying so late that the sun began to set. And I remember thinking: I should be at home, where my mother is. What if she needs me? What if she's lonely without me? That's all I remember, but it seems logical to assume that I might have also wondered, more generically, and over the four or five long years of my mother's illness, why it was fair for me to be enjoying free time with my friends while my mother was in the slow (but not agonizing) process of dying?

And I did know she was dying. And actually, I'm amazed to remember how guilt is linked even to my first memory of cancer. When my mother came to tell me she had cancer, she told me that the doctors said she would likely have five more years to live. She meant this to be a sanguinary message, but it devastated me. Reacting to my shocked expression, my mother asked me if I wanted to go with her to see the doctor that day for an early treatment. I felt that she wanted me to comfort her, but I said no (probably feeling this trip to the doctor's would make the cancer seem closer, realer) and went to school. At school I felt terrible--guilty--as I still do today when I remember my decision. I suppose cancer and guilt are natural acquaintances.

I also remember being on a trip to Europe, my mother's last treat to herself before she was no longer able to travel or experience life. On the trip, my brothers and I did what we always did, and fought with one another in the backseat of the car. My mother asked my dad to pull over and we did. She sat on a tree branch and cried, telling us that we were ruining her special trip to Europe. I felt terrible, as I still do today, knowing that this really was her last hurrah.

How does all this guilt relate to Russian history? I cannot say. I digressed. I began this blog post intending to comment on the brilliantly titled memoir, My Life as a Russian Novel, by the Frenchman, Emmannuelle Carrerre, which I guiltily discovered at Borders fire sale. The book is Carrerre's attempt to analyze his own crippled love life in the context of a Russian expedition and a Georgian-Russian ethnic and cultural heritage. The book is well-written and honest, but amazingly egotistical and therefore uninteresting: after all, how rare are egotists in one's everyday life?

Disliking the book, I remain impressed with its title. Clearly, Carrerre's life isn't a Russian novel. The life is not intellectual, philosophical, political, or, most importantly, guilt-ridden. It's dark--it opens with the author tracking a Hungarian soldier who stopped speaking and lived anonymously in a Russian mental ward for five decades, and it ends with a double murder and suicide (of the author's documentary film subject and her young son, and the author's cousin, respectively), but it's not really about guilt.

The true Life as Russian Novel is all about guilt. Members of the Russian intelligentsia were obsessed with guilt. They understood that their privileged lives, and the very structure of their state and society, was founded on inequality, oppression, serfdom, the legacy of unfree labor, or indeed on what Marx and his followers would come to call "wage slavery." They dreamed of expiation and redemption, both political and personal. Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the ultimate Russian novel, is all about a Russian intellectual's attempt to overcome the very condition of guilt by killing an old woman and learning to live without guilt in the wake of this brutal crime. The novel's Christian ending of forgiveness and absolution is nothing like Carrere's decidedly unphilosophical look at love, insecurity, and jealousy. But so too are almost all other Russian novels. One wonders how damaging guilt can be. Would Lenin have been possible if the nation hadn't read so many guilt-infused novels?

No comments:

Post a Comment