Wednesday, August 30, 2017


"What does it mean to say we want to be decent?  How can we be decent when we're in debt?" [Anna]

I recently posted about Chekhov in the context of an analysis of Russian attitudes toward boredom. Generally, speaking, my thoughts on the subject of Russian boredom were formed by reading Chekhov's most popular plays, including Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, and Three Sisters.  But recently I took up the less popular play, Platonov, as adapted by David Hare.  Platonov also deals with turn-of-the-century boredom.  Its characters also struggle with aristocratic attitudes toward work, and suffer from the absence of meaning that often pervades their lives of leisure.  When Platonov arrives in town, he asserts that he has survived a winter that felt like an "eternity" and could could only be compared to an "Antarctic of boredom."  Another character, Nikolai, is so bored it colors all of his other activities.  "What can I say?" asks Nikolai, "We talk.  We walk in the woods.  Is is boredom?  Is it love?"

But unlike Chekhov's other plays, Platonov sometimes reads like an Oscar Wilde play in terms of its wit, irony, and high comedy. Although Platonov ends in tragedy, its pages are filled with ferociously clever banter of the kind only found in The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere's Fan.  From an historical perspective, Platonov demonstrates that Russian literary elites were clearly participating in the same aesthetic moment that English or French ones were.  In Ellmann's magisterial biography of Wilde, the biographer once asserted that Wilde's genius was to make almost every received social truism seem ironic.  Chekhov was obviously interested in doing something similar, at least early in his career--at least in Platonov.

Chekhov's early play also demonstrates that gender was as much on the minds of Russian writers as it was on English ones.  The women who amorously pursue Platonov are, after all, expressing some form of agency by doing so.  In fact, their pursuit of the relatively passive playboy almost exactly reverse the traditional gender tropes of European literature culture.  While misogyny is often expressed by the plays' male protagonists, Chekhov's female characters are intelligent, active agents seeking to fulfill their own sexual and social needs, whatever the cost to traditional mores about domesticity.

The distinctively Russian elements of Platonov are revealed by the characters' obsessive guilt about their wealth, apparently stemming from some conscious or subconscious understanding that this wealth is either directly or indirectly founded on the poor.  Platonov attempt to deny this guilt only emphasizes its undeniable urgency :  "My life, like yours, depends on the labor of others.  Yet I look working men and women in the eye and feel no shame."

Throughout the play, Chekhov's characters' guilt about wealth is transformed into anger at moneylenders, ambivalence about money, and a constant preoccupation with debt. The concern about wealth (or its absence) is both personal and national.  In one scene, Anna's lender, Bugrov, tells her he "could paper the walls with her IOUs" and in another, Nikolai, asks "How many people did he swindle to mass that much?"  While Nikloi loathes money-lending, his own son confesses to crass materialism.  "I've lived only for possessions.  I've put money before everything else."  Nikloi also sees the problem of debt transcends his personal circumstances and laments "they say Russia's bankrupt."  The characters also invest some of their anxiety about money into antisemitism.  Abraham notes the paradox of the situation.  "Jews are condemned all the time.  Why?  Because they are willing to lend money.  Meanwhile, Russians refuse and they escape censure.  Explain this to me."

One of Chekhov's characters reminds the others, "All happiness is built on the unhappiness of others." Platonov's view of Russian society is filled with references to thievery and brigandage.  On one occasion Platonov asserts that the governing principle in Russian life is that "crooks dies in the forest but they prosper in the drawing room."  On another occasion Platonov causally asks a guest:  "By the way, just asking, but why aren't you in prison at the moment?" On a third occasion, Platonov describes the Russian archetypal man as a sort of conquistador.  "Osip, the true Russian hero: The headless peasant, the fabulous warlord, up to his elbows in crime, blood, bone, gut."

Of course, Platonov's characters have many reasons to be anxious about money.  Guilt is one source of anxiety, but so is economic and technological change.  In turn of the century Russian, all sorts of changes are undermining the future of superfluous men and women. Porfori sees indecisive, Hamlet-like Platonov as an endangered literary type.  "I see him as the hero of a Russian novel," argues Porfori. And as you know, Russian novels are the worst in the world...He's a brilliant man.  But he exemplifies the modern vagueness, the modern malaise. No point, no purpose."  This type of indecisiveness may not survive into the twentieth century.

Here are just a few favorite quotes from the play:

Anna:  "Good for her.  That pointy little nose:  She'll make an excellent scientist."

Anna:  "It's the local epidemic.  indecisiveness. My advice would be marry her or leave her--one thing or the other--but nothing in between."

Ann:  "Don't rely on your own intelligence.  In your case, it's the worst mistake you could make."

Nikolai:  "A man who sees it as his mission in life to tell women they're stupid."

Nikolai:  "God deliver us from the curse of nostalgia!"

Platonov:  " All I hope is you haven't married a stupid woman.  That's the worst kind of hell."

"Platonov:  "This is a man who died at peace with his own stupidity."

Sasha:  "He sends his regards."
Ivan:  "Really?"
Sergei:  "I think she means it metaphorically."

Ivan:  "May the Lord forgive me for what I say now, but emancipated women are the best.  Guns in their hands, and the whiff of cordite on their flesh!"

Platonov: "Have you been drinking already, Colonel?"
Ivan:  "Drinking?  What else should I do?"

Nikolai:  "What does the heat mean?  What does it portend?"

Porfiri:  "You think this garden is ravishing.  Sofia, I assure you, my garden is infinitely superior.  My river is deeper, and I also have exceptional horses."

Anna:  "Typical Platonov.  He goes nowhere, yet he known everyone."

Platonov:  "Russia, you see?  Everyone their own theory.  Even the thieves have theories."

Platonov:  "Nobody looks.  Nobody thinks.  Nobody sees.  We go through life and we don't see."

Platonov:  "Think about it:  She's stupid and I'm worthless. In other words, we're perfectly matched."

Anna:  "Come and eat your lunch, you lazy parasites."

Nikolai:  "Did you get all that?"
Platonov: "The drift.  I got the drift."

Nikolai:  "And what's more--let me remind you--in theory I'm in love with her."

Platonov:  "And also, let's face it, we can't altogether ignore it:  I am slightly married."

Anna:  "He sounds like a male novelist making love to a female novelist."

Porfiri:  "I was born to admire great deeds, and yet to squander myself on a mas of trivial ones."

Porfiri:  "Why does Platonov do it?  And all without purpose.  One day he insults them.  Next day he apologizes."
Anna:  "He's from the ruling class.  That's what the ruling class does."

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