Monday, April 24, 2017

Boredom in Goncharov, Boym, Chekhov, and Platonov

Boredom is surely one of the most important motifs in both late Russian and Soviet literary history. One thinks immediately of Ivan Goncharov's treatise on the subject of boredom, Oblomov, where his protagonist can't usually think of anything compelling enough to make him leave his room or even rise from his bed.  The theme of boredom is perhaps most exquisitely manifested by Anton Chekhov, whose plays seem filled with superfluous characters bemoaning their existential fate as well as their economic fate as representatives of obsolete classes.  Svetlana Boym's brilliant book, Common Places:  Mythologies of Everyday Life, depicts boredom as one of the central tragedies of Russian culture.  Boym's argument is that Russians mourn banal existence and all too often seem to prefer extraordinary events to what they see as the tragedy of quotidian life.

Chekhov's Three Sisters seems to capture this predilection.  As, for example, when Masha and Vershinin try to decide how best to suffer the banality of small town life.  "To speak three languages in this town is not an accomplishment, " mourns Masha.  "It is a deformity."  Vershinin has only a slightly more optimistic view of the situation.  He believes that in the very distant future things will be better. "In two, three hundred years... life on earth will have become unutterably beautiful.  Men need such a life.  We do not have it, but we dream of it.  We anticipate it.  We wait.  We wonder.  We prepare for it."  More than this, Vershinin's view of the present is that it should perhaps be thought about as a rough draft for a better life.  Irina also complains, although it's not entirely clear whether her lament is a class-based complaint or an existential one.  One suspects it is a mixture, or that the aristocratic life somehow symbolizes the more general human condition.  "And if one does not work...that's why we are unhappy. Isn't it?  Because we have nothing to do.  We are born of people who despise work."

For Chekhov's characters, the melancholy of the present can only be redeemed by the splendor of the future, although his characters rarely seem certain about the extent to which that future will actually come about.  "Can we not day dream, as it were, of what life will be in a hundred  years?" Vershinin asks Tuzenbach.  Tuzenbach begins optimistically.  "People will move in hot air balloons.  Fashions will change. We will see the discovery and development of the Sixth Sense."  But then Tuzenbach sours even on this idyll.  "But life...Life will remain the same. Dark. Full of mysteries.  Dark. Difficult.  Unhappy.  In a thousand years, too."  Vershinin retains his enthusiasm for the future.  He can bare the sorrowful present only if life will change in the future.  "At some time...Life will have changed.  How can we think that it will not--as it is changing now?  ..a happy life--a life of betterment."

Chekhov's attitude toward everyday life, and toward boredom in particular, sometimes seems to anticipate the Russian Revolution.  Although we know Chekhov could not have predicated the revolution, we can see in the revolutionary impulse some desire to transcend everyday existence in favor of a radically different future.  As it turned out, the Soviet future was worse than the Old Regime's dreary present, much worse.  For this reason, it's interesting to pair Platonov's brilliantly absurd plays about the Soviet experience with Chekhov's more naturalistic treatment of turn-of-the-century Russian hope of radical transformation.  For Platonov, post-revolutionary communist life remains supremely boring, although that boredom has become almost ideologically necessary to the Soviet state's continued existence.

In both Fourteen Little Red Huts and the Hurdy-Gurdy, Soviet citizens are supremely bored, but boredom (made more vicious by the presence of man-made famine) in the present seems to consolidate one's faith in the Soviet future.  Hurdy-Gurdy opens with the theme of boredom as Miud says to Aloysha, "I've gotten bored of living in the world," and Aloysha replies:  "Never mind.  Soon there will be socialism--then everyone will rejoice."  In fact, Aloysha's retort shows that the Soviet state seems to have finally harnessed Russia's unending (and therefore tedious?) problem with boredom.  When Serena in the Hurdy-Gurdy asks Aloysha later in the play, "Why do you look so bored on your face?" Alyosha's reply is once again ideologically sound.  "Because I'm always yearning for socialism...."  Of course, Alyosha's faith in the future is perhaps no less fragile than Chekhov's Vershinin's faith in the future was.  When Serena shows even a hint of doubt about Aloysha's faith by asking, "And will it be wonderful?"  Aloysha logically replies:  "For a question like that I could kill you. Can't you see?"

In fact, the Soviet Union's principle contribution to humanity may be its putative solution to boredom. In Fourteen Little Red Huts, we see that Communism has solved the problem of suffering the present by actually turning suffering into a positive virtue.  Thus Bos says "That's good--suffer!  Suffering's splendid.  I'm reminding you, so you don't forget."  Communism also provides citizens with a road-map to the future that justifies the present.   With Marx and the Party Line, Soviet citizens "can see right through humanity to the whole of fate!"  In the end, Platonov shows us that the Soviet state has developed a number of different solutions to the problem of time, which is in the end another way of labeling the problem of boredom.  The Soviet state has discovered tools for defeating time.  For instance, the Soviet state has five year plans that can be completed in four years, and shock workers who can do the work of multiple days in a single day.

The Soviet Union has also shown Russian citizens that they do not need to even create the future, as Chekhov's characters suggested.  Rather, they can do what Platonov's Bos suggests, which is precisely nothing.  This is because the Communists had showed him that it's okay to "languish without motion amid the historical current." There's a paradox here, but Platonov suggests that Soviet citizens can defeat boredom in two equally absurd ways.  First, they can work twice as hard to speed up time, and second, they can do nothing and drift in the current of the proletarian future.  Bos sums up the paradox of Soviet boredom this way:  "I'm bored of you all with your youth and enthusiasm, your capacity for work, and your faith in the future.  You stand at the beginning, but I already know the end.  We can't understand each other."

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Helen Rappaport's Caught in the Revolution

Helen Raaport's new book, Caught in the Revolution, is an excellent compendium of foreigner eye-witness accounts of both the February and October revolutions in Russia.  It is exhaustively researched, and well-written.  The book also helps readers to get a vivid sense of how events seem to have unfolded at the time.  In other words, it miraculously gives the reader a general sense of chronology even as it teaches us that the revolutionary events felt disordered or unpredictable at the time.  Perhaps the book's greatest strength is that it gives us a sense of the paradoxes of revolution. On the one hand, St. Petersburg was extraordinarily violent and dangerous as the Romanovs disappeared from the scene.  On the other hand, people continued to go about their ordinary business in many respects, even attending theatrical performances in some of the most hectic moments of political chaos.  And while Rappaport shows us that the revolution continuously surprised people, she also demonstrates that many observers already sensed that Russia was headed toward some form of catastrophe.

Rappaport's foreigners may not have understood everything that they witnessed, but they certainly add something to our understanding of what a revolution looks or feels like.  Rappaport relies heavily on the accounts of British, French, and American diplomats and journalists, but captures a number of other different perspectives as well.  Generally speaking, these eye witnesses are biases against the Bolshevik takeover, with the notable exception of Reed and Bryant.  Again, it's the paradoxes of the book that struck me most. For Rappaport reveals that Lenin and Trotsky and their ilk were marginal players in the much wider drama of a society in collapse.  But her sources also show that in such a descent into disorder only a group such as Lenin's would have made any sense to many Russians, who no doubt couldn't believe that the country was still at war when it could no longer feed itself or make its factories run.

I read Rappaport's book directly after finishing Smith's excellent investigation of Rasputin.  The two books work well with one another.  Reading Smith's book one gets a clear sense that the Russian political order was incredibly fragile as it entered the first world war.  Ironically, Smith shows us that Rasputin was not exactly Russia's problem.  In fact, he was a much more sympathetic character than is often portrayed.  Yet the fact that both Nicholas II and Alexandra were so heavily dependent on a a man like Rasputin reminds us that autocracy was no longer viable as Russia moved forward into the twentieth century.  This dependence had serious political consequences, but is also symptomatic of the old regime's brittle nature.  Even the monarch's relatives and fellow aristocrats became critics. Rapapport revisits the final days of the Romanov dynasty, but then suggests that the Provisional Government inherited at least some of the problems of the Romanovs, and never really stood much of a chance of securing legitimacy in such chaotic conditions.  Continuing the war was certainly the government's worst mistake of course.  One would like to see a closer investigation of why the Provisional Government was unable to consider leaving that war.

Igor Vishnevetsky's Leningrad

St. Petersburg has a magnificent mythology, with plenty of gods and monsters roaming about.  Igor Vishnevetsky's short novel, Leningrad, seems to be well-versed in this fantastical landscape.  In his short tale, we see the appearance, however fleeting, of several different layers of deities.  After all, before Zeus and his crew ascended to Mount Olympus, Titans ruled the world.  And before that, there were other gods, including Chaos and Gaia.  Vishnevetsky's god groupings include Finns, Baltics, Slavs, Vikings, Germans, Huns, Tartars, Mongolians, Hanseatic League members, nomads, Orthodox Russians, and Novgorod Russians. But of course he is primarily concerned with the gods of St. Petersburg and their perhaps continuing attempt to resist the age of Leningrad, or even the age of the Nazis which threatens to make all other gods irrelevant.

Vishnevetsky's city is symbolized by dozens of different holy sites, including the Bronze Horseman, St. Issacs, Kazan Cathedral, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage, Krondstadt, the Neva, the Collegia Buildings, the Admiralty, the Tauride Gardens, Vasilievsky Island, Smolny, Anichkov Bridge, and October 25th Street.  His heroes include Genghis Khan, Block, Sologub, Hippius, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Khlebnikov, Tchaikovsky, Kirov, and dozens of other intellectuals and statesman.  Some of Vishnevetsky's heroes do evil things, like Stalin or Peter the Great, but we recall that even Hercules killed his own family in a fit of madness.  

Vishnevetsky's socialist city is modern in some respects but always in touch with the primordial conditions that gave rise to the first gods.  For Leningrad during the siege was often without water, electricity, transportation, heat, or, most importantly, food.  It was beset by bombs, and "pockmocked all over from the dancing of elephants or rhinoceroses."  The siege was a return to an age of primitive sacrifice, or illiteracy (books were burned for heat), of cannibalism even.  But even in the midst of chaos, Leningrad resisted total destruction.  Mythical history is cyclical after all. It has no beginning and no end.  Thus atheist Russia re-encounters religious Russia in the midst of its agony.  "Well, then, what does God 'advise us' us?" The answer:  "That no winter of crushing hunger will ever smear us into snowy Nothingness."