Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Russophilia and Mortality

Two days ago I came to the sudden and startling realization that I would be reading about Russia for the rest of my life.  I have of course already been reading Russian history and literature almost exclusively for the past seven or eight years.  But somehow the thought that I would never, ever break the spell of Russia came to me as a shocking revelation.  What could it mean to be certain that nothing would ever—indeed could ever--take the place of Russia in my imaginative or quasi-scholarly interior life?  In a sense, this epiphany is an adumbration of mortality: when one is young, one often assumes that all learning will one day be meaningful, important, and (supreme conceit) above all, useful.  If I take a course in Japanese, I do so because I will some day encounter a Japanese theme in my life, be in a Japanese girlfriend, a Japanese business opportunity, or a inescapable current of Japanese academic, cultural, or educational ideas.  For a young person, or a person who at least sees himself or herself as young, life is open-ended and pregnant with possibility.  As one grows older, life becomes increasingly scripted.  If I take a Japanese course now, I don’t expect that I will actually find a way to build on this knowledge; my potential life as a fluent Japanese-speaker is limited, almost non-existent.  If I’ve worked hard at Spanish for about a decade and never mastered that relatively easy project, how likely is it that I will find myself in command of an unfamiliar alphabet and grammar? 

To be sure, one’s attitude toward the future isn’t determined by biology.  Age is at least partly a matter of attitude.  The genius of some chronologically advanced men and women is that they retain a youthful capacity to engage with multiple futures and to remain hopeful that every encounter with new learning will sooner or later prove to be significant.  On the other hand, getting old has its advantages.  Believing that the future will resemble the past isn’t an entirely misguided or deleterious enterprise.  Embracing the idea that “this is all there is,” is the first step to a kind of emotional or even spiritual maturity.  If life does have a trajectory, one might do well to study it if only in order to “know thyself.” More concretely, if my future life will continue to resemble my current one, what illusions can divert me from making wise decisions related to living my life as it should be lived?  Russophilia has forced me to take Russian poetry seriously; one simply cannot understand Russia without at least accepting the idea that Pushkin, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, and Tsetaeva somehow articulate Russia’s essence.  We often think of poets’ as expressing the ideals or values of youth.  But true poetry seems to hail from a place of pessimistic maturity rather than optimistic youth.  Poetry emerges only after a man or woman has fully embraced the idea that life is fleeting, time is finite, and adventure is, at least one some level, fictional.  That is to say, a poet knows what priest knows:  we’re born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. 

Fatalism is a very Russian idea.  It’s off-putting to many, but it shouldn’t be entirely repellent.  The Russian poet (and I’ll include writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the broad Russian poetic project) merely asks us to live our lives as if we were going to die someday.  For some reason, this is remarkably difficult for most of us to do.  For my part, I recall reading Tolstoy’s short book, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  As I recall, the book does nothing more than (spoiler alert) describe a man who discovers that he is going to die.  It took a Russian, and a Russian genius at that, to tell us the simple truth that people die.  Moreover, the book’s streamlined plot ensures that few or no readers can miss the point. 

The American equivalent to this revelation can be found in Woody Allen movies, which are of course directly inspired by Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.  But I remember the conclusion to the series, Six Feet Under.  Of course, this series took up the theme of death by setting up its protagonists as a family of funeral parlor owners.  But (second spoiler alert) the series finale, which allowed viewers to witness the chronologically disparate death of every single character on the show, drove home Tolstoy’s point about the ubiquity of death.  What does it matter?  Why should we focus on the fact that we will someday perish? Although pessimism has its downside, it also allows us to study our lives and weigh our options carefully.  At age 43, I’ve begun to study my life, and I’ve determined that nothing would be more profitable than to ensure that my intellectual and spiritual life continues to revolve around Russia, as it has done now for many years.  As the Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky says:  “God grant that tomorrow be exactly the same as today.”  

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