Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia
Walking along the aptly-named River Dodder next to where I live I am given to speculation. I notice how, often, a dog’s physiognomy is similar to that of his owner. In making a choice of puppy, or breed, a putative owner seems to be unconsciously guided by an attraction to a dog, embodying characteristics of his own, or perhaps idealised ones. This makes the hound on the leash appear as an extension of the human holding him. The owner also drills his pet into conformity with how he wishes him to behave. Yet it seems that, over time, any dog imparts qualities of his own onto his owner too, thereby confounding the relationship. Ownership is thus reciprocal, involving self-love, an expression of ego, and mutual nurturing, potentially expanding a capacity for love on both sides. The bond is mutuallyreinforcing: just as an owner cares for his pet, so the dog protects and gives affection. It is a fascinating intimacy between species that have co-evolved since before the advent of agriculture. Our best, and worst, qualities are often revealed in human-canine relations.
Stories behave like dogs in some respects. They’ve been ‘man’s best friend’ since time immemorial, and been internalised as a collective unconscious beyond ourselves. Telling a tale is an expression of ego on the part of its creator, but stories also take on a life of their own. A wild nature attending any creation may refuse to obey the ostensible author’s command. Thus, Leo Tolstoy, as he wrote the eponymous novel, complained to his editor about the unpredictable conduct of Anna Karenina, who seemed unprepared to accept an allotted role, just as she rejects social conventions in the novel. Once engendered, a great fable is unpredictable and beyond the control of its apparent creator, whose name is often forgotten in the retelling. Now Leopold Bloom’s life exceeds that of his creator James Joyce who may soon be forgotten on Bloomsday. In general literature nurtures, and expands a capacity for compassion, but fictions may also be destructive, especially where an ‘imagined community’ is concerned – as in nationalism – or in
excessive veneration of religious tropes that breed fundamentalisms. The re-framing of narratives is essential in conflict resolution.
A cultural awakening often occurs before a precipitous decline into barbarity. The visionary artist intuits forthcoming ruptures, and is animated by a frenzied energy drawn from his Zeitgeist. Nonetheless, no matter how compelling, his voice may only be heard in the wilderness of the avantgarde, or by posterity. A more intriguing spectre is that the artist engenders the scenes he depicts, and that stories are not mere prophecies, but work – in voodoo style – on the world he inhabits. This ‘magical’ view of literature, where the poet plays the role of a divine, might seem implausible, but it is apparent that life does often imitate art, and that the sensibilities of groups of people are moulded by the stories they listen to. It is not only great artists that possesses these alchemical abilities, we all do to some extent, but any greatness is defined by the capacity of a work to take on a life, or afterlife, of its own. In this respect, it is worthwhile considering the Russian Revolution as a product of competing narratives, and characters, that emerged in the formidable Russian literature prior to the events.
The duel in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) between the young nihilist Yevgeny Basarov and the older Romantic Pavel Kirsanov anticipates the competing sides in the Russian civil war over fifty years later. Each character displays heroic qualities, Kirsanov in his dedication to poetry, Basarov in his application to science, and the tragedy is no reconciliation is found between these essential disciplines. Towards the end of the novel both characters play for the affections of the former servant Fenichka, who has already had a child with Nikolai, Pavel’s brother. Pavel witnesses Basarov making an unsolicited advance on her and, in his passion, demands satisfaction with pistols at dawn. Basarov emerges unscathed from the ensuing encounter, but Pavel receives a wound to the leg and departs into a depressing German exile, along with his old-fashioned ideas, just as White Russian emigres departed in their droves after the Russian Civil War. Fenichka’s character may be interpreted as representing a pragmatic subaltern class, who dismisses the vainglorious Pavel. Similarly Czardom would react irrationally to progressive ideas and thereby fail
to accommodate, or defeat, political movements appealing to reason and science that arose in Russia before the October Revolution.
Arguably, like the progressive ideas that animated many Russian Communist during the Civil War, there is to be no happy ending for Basarov either after the duel. Already, ‘irrational’ and ‘poetic’ feelings of love had grown up inside him, contrary to his intellectual will, for the aristocratic widow Anna Sergevna Odintsova, who rejects him and leaves him a state of depression. Basarov’s rational self prefers the idea of casual, and animalistic encounters but he cannot help falling for the worldly Anna, despite his equation of love with a non-sensical poetic sentimentality. Anna might be identified with an establishment that will never be reconciled to a type such as Basarov, who, despite his erudition, is stigmatised by a humble background. Civil war looms, just as Aeneas’s rejection of Dido also amounted to a rejection of peace between Rome and Carthage, and foreshadowed an enduring conflict between East and West.
Basarov’s final demise is also tragic. He returns to his loving, but traditional parents and sets out to bring scientific rationality to freed serfs through his medical practice. But in the course of tending to the sick he too contracts an illness, from which he dies. Reason, it appears, cannot be implanted in the dark, irrational soil of Russia. The possibility of a peaceful resolution to Russia’s contradictions is glimpsed, however, in each of the successful love affairs of son and father, Arkady and Nikolai Kirsanov, the latter of whom bridges a class divide with his marriage to Fenichka. Both appear as a middle course between the competing extremes of Basarov and Pavel Kirsanov, but these are less vivid, heroic and intelligent characters than either. It is hard to identify any real sense of hope in Turgenev’s exile account of the looming conflicts in his homeland.
Likewise, the tactics proposed by Shigalyov in Dostoyevsky’s novel Devils (1872) seem to have been played out many years later in the Soviet Union under Lenin, and especially Stalin. Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky explains the plans of the revolutionary vanguard thus: ‘He has a system for spying. Every member of the society spies on every other one and is
obliged to inform. Everyone belongs to all the others and the belong to each one. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery’. This impossibility of anyone evading an intelligence gathering apparatus recalls Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, George Orwell’s 1984, and even anticipates a dystopian Internet future, leading to: ‘Complete obedience, total loss of individuality.’ Dostoyevsky intuited how a secret police would dominate in ‘totalitarian’ regimes in Eastern Europe, ensuring the Revolution would not be an ongoing process of social and intellectual transformation. Once in thirty years Shigalyov permits, however, an upheaval and ‘everyone starts devouring one another, up to a certain point, just to avoid boredom.’ This reflects the timeline of Nikita Khrushchev’s overthrow of the Stalinist system in 1956, culminating in Leonid Breshnev’s takeover in 1964, and the more extensive implosion of the Communist system under Yeltsin (1991-1999), preceding the present era of stability under Vladimir Putin, who was once a KGB agent.
The salvation for mankind that Dostoyevsky proposed through the writings of the Starets Zosima in his later novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880) has not been fully realised in Devils, although we do meet a monk called the Elder Tikhon whose philosophy foreshadows the Starets Zosima’s. He says to Stavrogin after hearing him confess to unspeakable crimes: ‘Having sinned, each man has sinned against all men, and each man is responsible in some way for the sins of others. There is no isolated sin.’ Dostoyevsky envisioned religious faith as a moral force removed from the judgment from on high we may associate with many Christian denominations. Sin is seen as a collective error, rather than being attributed to any failing of an individual.
But in Devils the dominant voice of opposition to nihilistic tendencies eventually comes from the debauched poet and father of the revolutionary Pyotr, the liberal Stepan Verkhovensky who had been been tasked with teaching Stavrogin in his youth, with baleful results. In his last public speech at a fête which becomes the occasion for the descent of the town into anarchic violence, he pronounces with Byronic ardour:
I declare that Shakespeare and Raphael are more important than the emancipation of the serfs, more important than nationalism, more important than socialism, more important than the younger generation, more important than chemistry, almost more important than humanity, because they are the fruit, the genuine fruit of humanity, and perhaps the most important fruit there is!
The claim that mankind can live without bread but not without beauty rings hollow, however, when expressed by a person who lives in a debauched aristocratic style. In the end it is through a return to a simple Christian faith that the exhausted Stepan retreats from his hauteur. Rejecting a nihilistic liberalism, he renounces worldly possessions and takes to the road as a supplicant. But by then he is a wasted figure, isolated from his community, his poetic talents long squandered.
It is left to his amoral son Pyotr to explain that the murders, scandals and outrages were committed to promote the: ‘systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society and all its principles’, which would: ‘demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything’. Then, ‘when society was on the point of collapse – sick, depressed, cynical, and sceptical, but still with a desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self-preservation’, his faction would, ‘suddenly gain control of it’. Thus Dostoyevsky through Pyotr appears to foretell the methodology of the Bolshevik Revolution, and ultimate suppression of democracy in Russia. As in Turgenev, no reconciliation is envisioned in an impending civil war. Devils such as Pyotr and Stavrogin are beyond salvation it would appear. It is symptomatic that the character of Shatov, who has previously associated with the revolutionaries, but returns to a simple faith in God and humanity, is violently executed by his former associates.
It would be ludicrous to blame the excesses of the Russian Revolution on the writings of Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, but such active imaginations may be the authors of fate, and not simply prophetic. At least Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov offers a more optimistic vision for Russia, which perhaps still awaits. One wonders if a more rounded vision could have
emerged if the author had written his proposed sequel. Alas, the premature death of the novelist at the age of fifty-nine, just a few months after completing the novel, ensures we will never know.
The novel was the dominant art form of the nineteenth century, but in reality few among a largely illiterate population, at least in Russia, would have actually read the texts we now see as dominating the period. Nonetheless, I retain a faith in the metaphysical capacities of great artists, such as Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, to shape the world around them; for their art to cross boundaries of time and space. At its height, poetry – especially that devoted to fictions – is a medium of revelation, which works without fear or favour. Northrop Frye understands that: ‘The poet is a magician who releases his magic, and thereby recreates the universe of power instead of trying to exploit it.’ This coheres with Percy Shelley’s assertion that the poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, which invests great responsibility in the artist. But a genuinely creative person can never be held to account for the world she creates, and any effort to compel her to envision Utopian conditions is futile, as she is the agent of an unbiddable unconscious. This is the magic in art – and you just never can tell how the puppy is going to turn out.