Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Miserable Golovlyovs

In my last post, I briefly speculated about the nature of a Russian novel. The Russian novel is, quite clearly, the best variety of novel. There will never be anything as good as War and Peace or Crime and Punishment in any other language. In fact, one can confidently begin any classic Russian novel secure in the knowledge that one is unlikely to meet up with dull, naive, or optimistic romanticism.

Take Mikhail Saltykov's (aka Schedrin) The Golovlyov Family. As previously stated, most Russian novels are rooted in guilt. This is true of the Saltykov's masterpiece, which seems to be composed of equal parts of satire and tragedy. For the Golovlyov family saga takes place in the context of serfdom. The family's wealth is grounded in serf labor. In some slave societies, the existence of unfree labor is rationalized by the presence of an allegedly productive or useful aristocratic class. We see the mythology in refracted form even today. If America has radical inequality, we should at least acknowledge that billionaires are our best citizens. The nation's greatness is contingent on the energy, innovation, and entrepreneurialism of its leading businessmen.

Using a similar argument, in nineteenth century, the Russian landowning class was often seen as its saviors: if the laboring masses were ignorant and uneducated, its aristocrats were moral, aesthetic, and political leaders. But the Golovlyov's were anything but saviors. They were not involved in the economic life of the countryside, except insofar as family's matron, Arina Petrovna, consolidated property and then skimmed as much wealth from her properties as possible, and had almost no moral or cultural ambitions.

Although wealthy, the Golovlyovs' lives were as brutal and narrow as that of the oppressed workers they so completely ignored. Before or after the legal emancipation of the serfs, the Golovlyovs lived privileged lives of absolutely no utility to anybody but themselves. In fact, Saltykov's vision of rural, landowning life is an example of reductio ad absurdum. For the Golovlyov's take as little interest in one another as they do in their servants or field workers. Their lack of concern with one another is by turns comical and tragic.

And Arina's son and successor, Porphyry, is the embodiment of a shallow, purposeless, miserly, and soulless existence. He's religious, but only in a hypocritical way. For Porphyry, God created the world in all its patent unfairness, so it's practically blasphemous to question his own good fortune. If God had wanted others to be happy, He would have arranged life differently. Porphyry's pathetic, amoral life is made worse by the fact that he constantly lectures those around him. With nothing to say, his endless prattle is pure torture to his unhappy family. One son commits suicide; another winds up in a Siberian prison; two nieces lives a life of alcoholism, lewd acting, and quasi-prostitution; his brother and mother die hating him.

Ironically, the one thing Porphyry never feels is guilt. It's the absence of guilt that comes as the biggest shock to the reader. In this tale of "unmitigated tragedy," the author has created a set of characters who should by all rights feel nothing but guilt for squandering riches and privileges in the service of absolutely nothing, and yet none of them--and least of all the "bloodsucker" Porphyry--feel anything of the sort. This--the absence of guilt in a situation crying out for atonement--is then Salykov's greatest indictment of Russian life.


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