Friday, September 25, 2015

Aleksandr Blok and the Sythians

This article originally posted on Johnson's Russia List, 2008

                                                The Coming of the Sythians

This is a response to the article by Mark Medish, "Russia's Road Rage," reprinted in JRL-2008, Special Issue, 2008, Item No. 21

When I saw the title of Mr. Medish's article, I immediately assumed that the subject would be Russia's hideous drivers: the way they won't wear seat belts as a matter of puerile pride, the way they operate automobiles in ways that are destructive to themselves or others, the way they'll speed up if they see a pedestrian crossing the road up ahead, the way they'll moderate their driving habits not one iota when roads are icy. As a result of these driving habits, Russia has horrendous road fatality rates, both for drivers and pedestrians.

Of course, the driving (and the drinking) habits say important things about how Russians view the world, both at home and abroad. The basic message is the POFIGISM ("Mne po figu"=I just don't give a damn), which is the most widespread and most deleterious cultural attitude in all of Russia. This attitude has resonance with the major theme of Mr. Medish's article, his contention that Russians will assert their national pride, even in ways that may be self-destructive, or destructive to the world as a whole.

John McCain, who solemnly declared, tears in his eyes, that "we are all Georgians," Bill Clinton, who began the process of pushing NATO up to the very borders of Russia (a process that has continued over the years of the Bush Administration}--these are politicians who know nothing about Russian cultural mores and Russian history. They rely on Russian "experts," such as Condoleeza Rice, who, despite her background in Soviet studies, does not seem to have learned very much either--she may know something about the Soviet political scene, but her spoken Russian is rudimentary, and if she has much insight into Russian literature, history, culture and folklore, she certainly has shown no evidence of this.

 Certainly the new President Obama needs to be informed that, in dealing with Russia, we are facing a country with its back to the wall, a country that may talk big, talk aggressively (this is Putin’s style, and Medvedev sometimes apes it), but that has poor military resources, an economy in trouble, huge demographic problems, a crumbling infrastructure, an apolitical population that can get volatile when the economy tanks. What does Russian possess, ultimately--what weapons to use in its defense against the outside world? It possesses, ultimately, nuclear weapons, and anyone who knows the essence of the Russian temperament (see the drivers above, see the maximalist views of Russian philosophers and writers discussed below) realizes that if pushed far enough, Russia will use these weapons.

As the Medish article demonstrates, it is dangerous to remain ignorant of traditional maximalist Russian stances. The poet cited, Alexander Blok (1880-1921) lived a life that constantly walked a thin line between the sane and the insane. Inspired by Vladimir Solov’yov (see below), he had visions of a new world, in which the human communes with the divine. As Russian intellectuals go, he was not that unusual in his time, and his poetry still has a lot of influence on the thinking of Russians. In reference to the revolutionary events taking place all around him, Blok once wrote that “cosmos is born out of chaos.” Well, as it turned out in the years of the Russian Civil War, chaos was what was born out of chaos.

In citing Blok's poem “The Sythians” in support of his point about the Russian propensity to assert itself, Mr. Medish misses the more salient theme of the Blok poem, a theme that demonstrates how prescient Blok's poetry was at the time he wrote it, and how prescient it remains today. "The Sythians"[i] begins with an epigraph from Vladimir Solov’yov (1853-1900), a Russian philosopher who was extremely popular in the years preceding the Russian Revolution. Somehow typically Russian in their grandiosity, Solov’yov’s ideas look to the Western rationalist like something off the wall. The philosopher had had visions of the “Divine Sophia,” a feminine entity associated with Hagia Sophia, embodying, ostensibly, God’s idea of the divine essence of the world.

Just because Solov’yov’s notions may seem eccentric and outrĂ©, this does not, however, diminish their influence on Russians or their importance.[ii] In fact, the only time that the two greatest Russian novelists who ever lived, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, were together in the same place was at a lecture by Solov’yov in 1878.[iii]

The Solov’yov epigraph to Blok’s “Sythians” is: "Panmongolism! Although the word sounds wild,// It somehow caresses my ears."

Here the philosopher expresses a notion that Blok, as well as intellectuals all over Russia, were obsessed with for years--the idea that the East was coming, with its Mongol cruelty, its joy in shedding blood. The first stanza, truncated by Medish in his article, reads like this:

There are millions of you. Of us there are untold numbers of dark hordes ("Nas--t'my, i t'my, i t'my.").
Give it a try; try fighting with us!
Yes, we are Sythians! Yes, we are Asiatic,
With our slanted, greedy eyes!

Ever since Russia had been defeated in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05),[iv] Blok's poems were replete with allusions to the might of the Eastern powers, the threat to the West that would come from the East. Deep in their cultural bones, Russians have never forgotten the Mongol Yoke. In "The Sythians" the poet repeats the (unfounded) assertion that Russia had served as a shield, to protect Western Europe from the Tartar invaders in the 13th-14th centuries; then he goes on to say, "from here on, we won't be your shield any more."

Blok, who was neurotic to extremes and who welcomed the destructive force of the Russian Revolution (even though he knew that it meant an end to his noble class of the intelligentsia and an end to his personal existence), stresses in "The Sythians" his notion that the new Bolshevik Russia would somehow join the elemental forces of the Orient to crush the bourgeois West.

Like so many Russian intellectuals, Blok hated, above all, middle-class philistinism, and he welcomed the crudeness (and cruelty) of the Russian workers and peasants. He apparently embraced, as well, the thugs of Bolshevism, who, while merciless, would sweep the world clean of the bourgeois class. In exalting criminals and bandits (Stalin is a typical example of such a revolutionary)[v] Blok deluded himself and paid dearly for the delusion. But in reading this poem today, his prescience, a different prescience, is obvious.

For the foreseeable future the greatest threat to Russia will come from the East. Central Asia, poor in spirit and economic means, has, nonetheless, a higher birth rate than Russia. What's even more relevant, "untold numbers of dark hordes" are lurking right across the border of the Russian Far East--in China. The meager Russian population of this area has been decreasing in recent years, but even if all 142 million Russians were sent out to the borders of China, they would be small in numbers, in comparison to the population of Western China.

Russian leaders have often pointed out their affinities with the East; they have even expressed a desire to create a new world order based on Eastern alliances. But, simultaneously, they realize their precarious geopolitical situation with regard to China. No fools themselves, the Chinese leaders are willing to negotiate with Russia, e.g., on the issue of building new pipelines Eastward. Recent negotiations, however, collapsed when the Russians realized how much the Chinese, operating from what they see as a position of power, were demanding.

Most encouraging of all, while the Russian people have this strain of maximalism, this love of mysticism and the outré, the present Russian leadership seems to operate on totally pragmatic principles, which comes closer to American ways of doing things.

These are the kind of facts that President Obama's Russian advisors should be presenting to him. Let them set aside their books on politics and economics temporarily. Let them read, say, the superb biography of Blok and his times by Avril Pyman (2 vol., in English), or the telling remarks about Russia's attitudes toward Asia in Orlando Figes' book on Russian culture: Natasha's Dance.

Such books might provide the insights required to convince Obama that American policies should change, that there is much that Russia needs from the West, that Russia would certainly be amenable to initiatives from the U.S. IF those initiatives make clear that the plan for missile systems in Poland will be postponed or abrogated, that the push to get Georgia and Ukraine into NATO will be put way back on a back burner—which back burner, at some time in the future, will be quietly switched off.

[i]The Sythians were a nomadic warlike tribe that settled in the steppes around the Black Sea in the seventh-eighth centuries AD. Their remarkable artifacts may still be viewed today at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Blok uses this bellicose people as his metaphorical representation of all the elemental power of the Orient, which, as Blok sees it, is set to advance upon the West and destroy Western civilization.
[ii] Many of the great thinkers of the world (Freud, e.g., Nietzsche) often present ideas that, on their surface, seem preposterous, far-fetched. When viewed in all their profundity, however, these ideas offer at least the seeds of elementary truths.
[iii] The lecture that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy attended was part of a series called Lectures on Godmanhood, which Solov’yov presented in St. Petersburg, in the winter and early spring of 1878. Although seated that day in the same lecture hall, the great novelists did not meet (nor did they ever meet each other in their lifetimes). See Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky, the Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 386-87.
[iv] Even an apparently apolitical poem, the famous “A Girl Was Singing in the Church Choir” Aug., 1905), is replete with allusions to the Russian ships that were lost in the Battle of Tsushima (May, 1905). The Russian Baltic Fleet had circumnavigated the world to reach the Pacific battle site, where it was decimated by the Japanese.
[v] The best example of how Blok glorified the ignorance, cruelty and brutality of the working-class soldiers of the Red Army is his famous poem The Twelve (Jan., 1918), which, notoriously, concludes with an image of Jesus Christ, marching ahead of the pack of marauders.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Anna Karenina" SUMMING UP


I started out posting my lecture notes on Anna Karenina with an introductory posting on this blog on Dec. 6, 2014. Now we're already pushing into the end of 2015. Counting this final posting, I have put up a total of 32 bits and pieces on the novel, plus, in the middle of this, I have written a long review article on the latest translation into English, by Marian Schwartz.

We could go on indefinitely discussing "AK," since a novel this long and this great presents opportunities for almost endless discussion. A few things we haven't got around to: the meaning of the Biblical epigraph--"Vengeance is mine; I will repay" (the critic Boris Eikhenbaum, in his Tolstoy in the Seventies, devotes a whole chapter to the epigraph); the art theme (revolving around the painter in Italy, Mikhailov); the way that the two Alexeis (Karenin and Vronsky) have a lot in common; Tolstoy's use of irony and sarcasm; the theme of death (especially prominent in the passages describing the slow death of Lyovin's brother, Nikolay); humor and comedy in the novel; the ending of the novel.

About the ending. You sometimes think that Tolstoy might have done better to end the book with Anna's suicide. The final part (Part Eight) of AK meanders along, moralizing, philosophizing, describing, perhaps, as much Tolstoy's own personal problems as those of his alter ego Lyovin. A passage in Ch. 8--the last sentence in that chapter--describes Lyovin's dilemma but is also exactly descriptive of Tolstoy's own personal dilemma: "He was miserably at odds with his very self, and he strained all his spiritual resources to escape from that condition." The whole book is about reasoning one's way through to an acceptance of non-reasoning, but the round and round of this process in Part Eight gets tedious. Tolstoy was stricken with bouts of depression throughout the writing of this novel, but that situation is reflected most obviously in the last part.

Other things worthy of discussion: great prose often develops out of great poetry, and "AK" would not be what it is if not for the influence on Tolstoy of the poetry of Tyutchev and Fet; the three Annas--why are there three--Anna herself, her maid Annushka, and her daughter Annie--and to what extent are the lesser Annas (the maid and daughter) spectral counter-images of the main character? What else? The homosexual officers who make a brief appearance in Part Two, Ch. 19 (what is their role in the novel?); gestures and kinesics and facial expressions (why does Anna habitually narrow her eyes?).

Back when I was teaching Anna Karenina to students at Miami University I used to conclude my lectures with the following:

Anna Karenina is probably the greatest novel ever written. It is certainly the best ever written on the subject of marriage and family life. It reverberated through all of Russian literature during the remainder of the nineteen century and then all through the twentieth and now into the twenty-first. It was Chekhov's favorite novel, Bunin's favorite novel, Nabokov's favorite novel (not counting his own--but even such a consummate egoist as Nabokov was knew deep in his soul that he would never write anything as great as "AK.").

Chekhov's stories are full of subtle pokes at the Great Master, airings out of Tolstoy's marriage-family theme in new ways. Emerging out of Tolstoy as well, Bunin presented a fresh treatment of the love-death theme. In Nabokov's novel Pnin, we have characters reading and discussing "AK," interpreting it. There are even grounds for asserting that Nabokov's treatment of kinesics and the language of gesture in Pnin has its origins in the extensive attention paid to kinesics and gesture in "AK."

The list can go on and on. We find touches of "AK" in Sologub's Petty Demon, in Solzhenitsyn's One Day, in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. Etc. Etc. Few pieces of Russian prose written after "AK" escape unblemished. The book has influenced almost all Russian writers.

In a word, it's a great novel. I love it and never get tired of reading it. Over and over. Each time I read it a find marvelous new things. Great art is inexhaustible. But some of you sitting out there in my audience today don't like the book. Others have never got around to reading it. My spies at the video stores downtown have provided me the names and photographs (taken with a hidden camera) of those of you who went to these stores in search of a tape of "AK," a movie.

For shame. We'll be posting those photographs out in the hallways of Irvin Hall, Mother Miami, in a sort of "gallery of shame." This is right in the Russian-Soviet tradition of self-criticism and shaming as a means of promoting moral rectitude.

But what about those of you who made the effort, who read and studied this long novel, who mulled over its many themes and characters and STILL DON'T LIKE THE NOVEL? Well, at this point it's time for me to stop trying to promote the book and give up. People have all different tastes, and although it's difficult for me to acknowledge the intelligence of anyone who does not appreciate "AK," I must, at least grudgingly, say, Okay, maybe even some intelligent people don't like Tolstoy.

In conclusion, let me quote from a great writer, and a man who, like some of you readers, worked over "AK," studied its themes and characters, deeply cogitating on anything and everything concerning the novel, and, in the end, found the book sorely lacking in redeeming social qualities.

"Concerning Karenina, I assure you that for me that abomination does not even exist, and it only annoys me to think there are people who place any value on the novel."

Of course, anyone who knows much about the ups and downs and changing of minds over the long lifetime of Lev Tolstoy can easily guess who is responsible for that quotation. It comes from a letter Tolstoy wrote late in his life (cited in Eichenbaum, Tolstoy in the Seventies, p. 162).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


(30) "Anna Karenina" Lapses in plot logic

Although Tolstoy usually does a masterful job at holding together the various plot lines and multitude of characters in his big novels, there are times when he forgets certain things or neglects to clarify others. Here are a few examples:

(1) Vronsky makes a horrible mistake while riding in the steeplechase (Part Two, Ch. 25). He shifts his weight in the saddle at the wrong time, causing his beloved mare Frou-Frou to fall. The horse has to be put down immediately after the fall. "The memory of this race lingered in his heart for a long time as the most difficult and agonizing memory in his life" (185, Schwartz trans., my emphasis URB). Tolstoy does not get around to describing Vronsky in events immediately subsequent to the steeplechase until several chapters into the next part (Part Three, Ch.20-22). Here is Vronsky at the beginning of Ch. 22, riding along in his carriage on the day after the steeplechase fiasco.

"His vague awareness of the clarity at which his affairs had arrived, his vague recollection of the friendship and flattery of Serpukhovskoi, who considered him a man who was needed, and, most of all, the anticipation of a rendezvous [with Anna]--all this combined to create the general impression of a joyous sense of life. This sense was so strong that he smiled in spite of himself. He lowered his feet, crossed one leg over the other knee, and grasping it with one hand, felt his resilient calf, which he had bruised yesterday in his fall [my emphasis, URB], and, leaning back, took several deep breaths, filling his chest.

"'Fine, very fine!' he told himself. Often before, too, he had experienced this joyous awareness of his own body, but never had he loved himself, his body, as he did now. He enjoyed feeling the mild pain in his strong leg [my emphasis, URB], enjoyed the muscular sensation of his chest moving when he took a breath" (287-88).

This description of how Vronsky delights in his very body and in life goes on for a whole long paragraph. Although Tolstoy reminds us of the steeplechase mishap twice, in references to the injured leg, the intervening chapters have, apparently, caused him to forget how devastated Vronsky was by the loss of Frou-Frou, and how guilty over his own role in that death. On the very next day he could simply not be exulting in life and in the strength of his body. Impossible.

(2) With his sense of propriety, with his feeling that his life and that of his wife must be kept within the bounds of proper Christian behavior, Alexei Karenin would be horrified to learn that his wife is pregnant by Vronsky. Anna informs Vronsky that she is pregnant on the day of the steeplechase. On that same day, in her distraught state after Vronsky's fall, she tells her husband, "I love him, I'm his lover, I can't stand you, I despise you," but she does not tell him that she is pregnant.In fact, never on the pages of the book do we see the moment when Karenin finds out. Therefore, we have no scene describing his horror at learning the news. In the confrontation between Anna and Karenin (Part Four, Ch. 4) on p. 335 we get the following dialogue:

"'You need Seryozha just to hurt me,' she said, looking up at him sullenly. 'You don't love him. Leave me Seryozha!'

"'Yes, I've even lost my love for my son because he is connected to my revulsion for you. But I will take him anyway. Good-bye!'

"He was about to leave, but she held him back.

'Alexei Alexandrovich, leave me Seryozha," she whispered again. 'I have nothing else to say. Leave me Seryozha until I. . . I'm going to give birth soon, leave him to me!'

"Alexei Alexandrovich flared up, and, tearing his hand away from her, he left the room without a word." That's the end of the chapter.

As far as the reader knows, this is the first time Karenin learns of the pregnancy, but the scene is written as if he had already known--no reaction to such dire news, just a brief flare-up and departure from the room. The scene when he first finds out about the pregnancy is missing from the book. A lapse in plot logic.

(3) In terms of plot logic the end of Part Four (399) is something of a muddle. Anna and Vronsky make a horrendous decision, to go abroad, to Italy, not to go ahead with the divorce just when Karenin offers them a divorce. Vronsky seals his future fate by turning down a transfer to Tashkent and resigning his commission, leaving him to maunder along as a civilian with nothing to do for the rest of the novel.

"'Stiva says he has agreed to everything, but I cannot accept his generosity,' she said, gazing pensively past Vronsky's face. 'I don't want a divorce. I don't care now. Only I don't know what he will decide about Seryozha.'"

A and V never recover from their refusal to act now as, later on in the novel, Karenin is not as amenable to allowing them a divorce. The decision not to proceed with the divorce seems, at first glance, totally illogical, but it makes sense if we recall that A and V are in terrible emotional and physical shape at this point, each of them having recently almost died--Anna in childbirth and Vronsky in a botched suicide. They just want to get away from the whole mess and recover abroad.

Here is the ending of Part Four:

"A month later Alexei Alexandrovich was left alone with his son in his apartments and Anna and Vronsky had gone abroad, not only without having obtained a divorce, but having resolutely refused one" (399).

Okay, so Anna, in her weak state, gives up on taking her beloved son Seryozha abroad. This is logical. Karenin has told her she can't have the boy. But what about the baby girl? Was there no dispute over who was to take her? After all, Annie is legally the daughter of Karenin, and he could assert his rights to her if he wished. Apparently she goes abroad with her mother and Vronsky, but she is not even mentioned in this final paragraph. This is ironic when we consider what happens later in the book--Karenin ends up with little Annie after Anna's suicide, and he dotes on the girl.