Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sigizmund Krzhizanavsky's Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanvsky’s Autobiography of a Corpse provides a sophisticated explanation of the impact of war and revolution on the psyche of a Russian intellectual.  One of Russia’s smartest authors ever to put pen to paper, Krzhizhanvsky’s unsettling short story takes the form of a suicide note that the dead protagonist has left to the tenant (i.e., the reader) who is lucky enough to take over the dead man’s flat in the overcrowded interwar Moscow housing market.   The dead protagonist ruminates on a number of different existential subjects but his main concern is that the experience of the World War, Civil War, and Russian Revolution, have created a new type of human being who is isolated from his living peers, but strangely connected to his dead ones.

 If the protagonist can be taken as representative of the new Soviet man, this Soviet man is profoundly disoriented and, consequently, profoundly depressed.  The narrator recalls the original source of his confusion as the First World War.  For the narrator, the shock of the war was enduring.  If you were lucky enough to have survived the war, you never forgot the experience.  The narrator recalls one ostensible survivor who travelled light for the rest of his life, preferring not to carry material possessions that weighed any more than his rifle did.  The death statistics of the World War were astounding, something to be continuously but fruitlessly pondered.  What could all of this death ultimately mean?  Nobody could make sense of it.  The author’s removal from the front lines of war didn’t necessarily make things easier for him.  Were the living--who had escaped the central fact of the modern age--more “alive” than the dead, who had squarely confronted this central fact of modern life by, ironically, dying on the battlefields of central Europe?
 The dead protagonist also speculates about the general dissolution of identity following the war.  What did it say about your identity when the new revolutionary authorities or their opponents in the Civil War, constantly tried to assess you, to verify who you were and what you stood for?  How stable could your consciousness be, when an increasingly intrusive state (as well as the state’s enemies) wanted to check your papers at every opportunity? 

The protagonist’s depictions of the revolution proper, as opposed to the state of post-revolutionary consciousness, are also instructive.  In many ways the Revolution reinforced the themes of the war.   The Revolution was violent, shocking, and all-consuming.  It had “jagged edges” that cut everyone.  More than that, the Revolution shook up the traditional relationship of the dead and the living.  In the Great War, the newspapers did their best to document who was dead and who was alive, but the very process of attempting to document death on such a scale revealed something arbitrary about the division that separated the living from the dead.  Similarly, the protagonist sees the Revolution blurs the boundaries that traditionally separate the living from the dead.  For the dead narrator, the Revolution was the world’s first revolt of the living against the dead.  Presumably, he means to follow Thomas Payne’s understanding of revolution as the rational expression of living men and women who are striving to break the arbitrary and archaic chains of the distant past.   But surely he also means that the Revolution is also a protest against the mass death of the First World War, an act of revenge on the part of the dead against those who had sent them to their deaths.   Viewed in this light, we might say that Stalin’s purges were payback for the original sin of World War.  Or we may at least say that the dead called out to their loved ones to do something more dramatic, more limitless, than reform in order to justify or sanctify the nation’s limitless loss.  And Krzhizhanovsky uses this very language to describe the process of revolution.  He said the Revolution removed all thresholds.  Without thresholds, Russians moved directly from the ancient regime to the modern world.  There was no intermediary stage of political evolution.  The Revolution did what Dostoevsky said atheism would do:  it made everything possible.

Some quotes from Autobiography of a Corpse:

“He knew that on the metropolitan chessboard, squares and not been set aside for all of the chessmen.”
“Naturally you have come ‘to conquer Moscow’; you have the energy and will ‘to gain a foothold,’ ‘to make your way in the world.’”

“I ordinarily sit in a splayed armchair, among my books and boredoms.”

“Space, I reasoned while in earliest youth, is absurdly vast and has expanded—with its orbits, stars, and yawning parabolas—to infinity.  But if one tucks it inside numbers and meanings, it will easily fit on two or three bookshelves.”

“In the country’s northern latitudes the population per square mile is .06 person.  It stuck in my mind like a splinter.

“We lived like separated drops.  Like waifs.”

“The city in which I lived changed hands thirteen times.”

“The more they made certain of my identity, the less certain I became of it myself…”

“Thus from the very first day newspapers and rifles divided us into those who would die and those for whom they would die.”

“But it’s fair to say that the war’s dialectic forced those who were more or less alive to go to their death, and those who were more or less dead the right to live.”

“Even then one sensed the approach of this new, as yet unnamed regime. It was as though the oxygen were being pumped out of the air by a slow, gigantic plunger.”

“The Revolution crashed down like lightening.”

“But then, when the revolution was still new, we were all, willingly or unwillingly, inflamed or burnt by its jagged, all-consuming course.” 

“In an instant, all thresholds had been removed—not only from rooms, cells, and studies but also from consciousness.”

Question 41:  “Ought a burial to take place after sunset? No.  For it is the reward of the dead to see the sun at the hour of their burial.”

“So I’m a corpse.  So be it. For I too shall see the sun at the hour of my burial.”

“Meanwhile the March fury was surging higher and higher, and many were frightened by its violent rise.  What had to happen, happened.”

“Life…seemed to favor the dead.  They better suited the existing order.”

“…and then began the planet’s first struggle or, rather, revolt of the living against the dead.”

“New eyes have appeared.  And people.  They have a new way of looking at you:  not at but through.  You can’t hide your emptiness inside;  they will bore into you with their pupils.”

“We’ve riddled all of Russia with bullets, but here she is again.  Patched—“

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