Frank Arm­strong

Lit­er­ary Voodoo in Czarist Rus­sia

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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.

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