Friday, September 21, 2018

Blaise Cendrars' Moravagine

It may be a stretch to include Blaise Cendrars in a Russian history and literature blog, but the French-language novelist and poet lived in Russia for quite some time, and used Moscow as one of several locations in his modernist novel, Moravagine.  The book is a shockingly dark novel about a murderously misogynous aristocratic who grows up in a Austrian castle, displays every symptom of madness, murders his beloved, gets confined in a small cell, escapes, and somehow finds himself in pre-World War I Russian revolutionary and anarchist activities, before moving on to other adventures.  Cendrars' picaresque book is a small masterpiece, sinister, inventively descriptive, and outrageously funny.  It's also extremely philosophical, and offers up numerous theories about the fragile essence of our humanity.  Cendrars' hero (or antihero) is a criminal, pure and simple, and also a psychopath.  However, in some ways this antihero (as well as the narrator, who is the villain's conspirator and enabler) is a quintessentially modernist hero, engaged in the business of exploring his subconscious urges. 

Had Moravagine not actually murdered so many of the people who surrounded him, he might merely be said to have been exploring the boundaries of his own identity.  Like a small child, Moravagine had to find out where his body or will ended and other people and the world began.   "I  felt myself strong, all-powerful.  I was jealous of all nature.  Everything should give in to my desires, obey my whims, bend before the wind of my breath.  I commanded trees to fly, flowers to rise in the air, I ordered the meadows and the house foundation to turn, to about-face."  Viewed in this light, Moravagine's violence, as crude and primitive as it is, appears to be a form of experimentalism, an attempt to determine where his own personhood ends and and the personhood of another entity begins.  In another passage, he imagines himself to be the very objects that surround a woman he admires.  "I was the comb that magnetized her long hair.  I was the bodice that moved over her legs.  I was the little stocking of silk.  The heel that bore her.  I was the exquisite ruffle at her neck, her ingenuous  puff of rice-powder...Then I became a hand to unbuckle her belt.  I was her chair, her mirror, her bath.  I possessed her wholly and from every side, like a wave.  I was her bed."

But how does Russia and the Russian revolution figure into the adventures of Moravagine and the narrator?  By page 59, they have arrived in Russia.  The year is 1904, September 4th, the eve of the failed Revolution of 1905, historically speaking.  For the pair, revolution seems to be the social equivalent of their personal journeys of violence, primordial energy and self-discovery.  The two are naturally, inevitably, drawn to the blood and chaos of social upheaval.  "Sitting in Phillipov's we saw, Moravagine and I, the first stains of blood pierce the snow.  They spread like clusters of dandelion leaves all about the Governor's Palace..."  The pair are filled ecstatic.  "We took an extremely active part it in."  Moravagine and the narrator immediately get involved with newspapers, pamphlets, tracts.  They live on assassination plots, expropriations, foreign contacts, terror, sabotage, pillage, "depots of armaments" and "frenzied propaganda." 

Cendrars notes that revolutionaries display an "overweening presumptiousness."  However, Cendrars' point isn't necessarily that only revolutionaries engage in such primitive savagery.  After all, his protagonists encounter governmental violence in the form of "machine gunnings, mass hangings, deportations, arrests, sequestrations."  Cendrars' points to be that the revolutions do in fact represent some very deep longing on the part of both revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries to use violence to explore their identifies or understand their deepest longings and aspirations.  The event created a "ponderous army of crime" and a "collective madness" but these traditionally negative phenomena have some religious overtones.  As the revolution spreads, it awakes a sense of sacred frenzy among the Russian people.  According to the narrator, during this time "On the Volga, Jews committed ritual crimes," "strange Asiatic superstitions spread," and "every couple practiced Platonic love."  The narrator also hints at Rasputin's power and the Empresses' interest in the Occult.   In a sense, Cendrars take on revolution is that it offers its participants a strangely satisfying but paradoxical mixture of religious and nihilistic activity.  

For Cendrars, revolution acknowledges the meaningless of life by permitting or even encouraging people kill for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  As the narrator remarks as he contemplates his revolutionary practices, "For a long time now we had believed in nothing, not even nothingness."  The movement was predicated on "death" and "universal destruction." They saw the world as a hateful place, in which "[a] mud-stained sunlight began to splatter the sodden fields, and the hateful, nasal world of birds began to come to life," and  "[i]t seemed to me that I was coming out of a suffocating nightmare and that the low clouds flying before the wind were the shreds of an evil dream." On the other hand, the permitted killing has a ritualistic quality.  In this Bacchanalian sense, revolution is a religious celebration of nothingness.  Thus Moravagine begins his journey by using violence to celebrate his own growing self-awareness (a self-awareness rooted in an understanding of being and non-being) and moves on to Russia to explore a collective version of this same basic process.  

Below are a few of my favorite quotes from the book

What convention calls health is, after all, no more than this or that passing aspect of a morbid conditio...

Diseases are. We do not make or unmake them at will.  We are not their masters.  They make us, they form us.  They may even have created us.  They belong to this state of activity which we call life.  They may be its main activity.

Diseases are a transitory, intermediary, future state of health.  It may be that they are health itself.

Epidemics, and even more diseases of the will or collective neuroses, mark off the different epochs of human evolution, just as tellurian cataclysms mark the history of our planet.

Strongly drawn to women, his unctuous manners concealed a brutal sexuality which was betrayed by his flat feet, his spatulate finger-nails, his fixed stare and his frozen smile.

Our origins being aqueous, our life is the perpetual rhythm of tepid waters.  

"Well, as I told you, I have no idea who cared for me in my earliest childhood.  Mercenaries.  I was always handed over to mercenaries."

That evening, when it was time for her to go, I kissed her on the mouth, lingeringly, in the general's presence.  Her lips had a taste of ferns.  It was the following day...that I took scissors and cut out the eyes of all my ancestors hanging in the portrait gallery.  

Now, if you wish, call me a murderer, a demiurge or a savage, whichever you please, I don't give a damn, for life is really an  idiotic business.

One day I could stand no more.  I called the hateful dog and put out his eyes, slowly deliberately and expertly.  Then, taken by a sudden madness, I grasped a chair and broke it over his back.  This was how I rid myself of my only friend.

She gave off a perfume--crushed walnuts and watercress--in which I luxuriated in silence.

I no longer washed.  I no longer undressed.  I even reveled in the doubtful odors of my own person.  I enjoyed urinating down my legs.

I feel in love with ugly objects almost without workmanship, and very often with raw matter, primarily matter itself.  I surrounded myself with the most heteroclite articles. A bisquit-tin, an ostrich-egg, a sewing machine, a piece of quartz, a lead ingot, a stovepipe... These objects taught me much.

The simplest figures, circles, squares, and their projections in space, the cube, the sphere, spoke to my senses like the scurrilous symbolds--red and blue lingams--of obscure, barbaric, and ritual orgies.

I was just beginning to grow impatient when I heard a lout scream and saw my animal come running, a bloody knife in his hand.  I pulled him hurriedly aboard and we were off.  He leant over to me:  "I got her!"

"In Pressburg my cell was very small.  It was six meters long and two wide.  That scarcely bothered me, accustomed as I was to lead an indoor, sedentary and almost motionless life.

"I began wanting to hear nothing at all.  But an act of will I made myself dead."

Science is history arranged according to the superstition and taste of the moment.

"Freedom is the only treasure of a Russian man."

Intelligence consists of eating stars and turning them into dung.  And the universe, at the most optimistic estimate, is nothing but God's digestive system.

They were sitting elbow to elbow about the tables, square and round, and speaking in whispers of thhe events, as everyone does in Russia when certain things are mentioned in public;  backbones give and bend, for one sense the menace of a nightmare hand, and terror hangs over all alike.

When you've behind the hell that is Russia, life seems a good and pleasant thing.  

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