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 bear 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 in 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."

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