Sunday, January 28, 2007

Oh, to be an Oblomov...

Oblomov in Paradise
Cover to 1858 Russian Edition of Oblomov
(Image from Wikipedia)

At university, I discovered the dark pleasures of Russian literature and read everything that I could find in English translation because I didn't know Russian and had no gift for learning languages.

Perhaps I was searching for that deep Russian soul that the slavophiles attributed to Mother Russia and contrasted with the shallow spirit of the West, an exportable trope that turns up everywhere -- in the Germanic critique of French Enlightenment, the European attitude toward American culture, or even the Islamist attack on the World Trade Center -- everywhere a putative depth against an accused surface.

Would that purveyors of such critical views had remained as Oblomovist as the eponymous, indolent antihero of Ivan Goncharov's novel Oblomov. If Mohammad Atta, for instance, had lived on as a superfluous man, then might he have already enjoyed an earthly paradise of the sort that Oblomov suggests to his friend Stoltz?

"Isn't everybody looking for the same thing as me? ... Surely the purpose of all this hustle and bustle of yours, all these passions, wars, trade and politics is to achieve precisely this very peace and quiet, to strive for this ideal of paradise lost?"[1]

Oblomov is right but wrong, for we're all caught up with the angel of history, blown from a vaguely remembered but long-lost paradise, the storm from its garden leaving no one sheltered:

A Klee drawing named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[2]
Even the indolence of Oblomov could never withstand this hurricane force, which only increases in its destructive ferocity.

[1] Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov, newly translated by Stephen Pearl; quoted in Joseph Frank, "Being and Laziness," The New Republic Online (January 29, 2007).

[2] Walter Benjamin, "Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History," reprinted in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (Schocken, 1969), pages 257-258.


At 9:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Walter Benjamin would have had more sympathy with Atta than with Bush. He was against fascism.

At 3:07 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

As an older teenager loved that Russian angst. I seem to feel I was born into the wrong time and place. Of course, I would have had to have been born male.
Regret not having read modern novels.

At 4:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, Walter Benjamin would have detested Atta. He was -- as you note -- against fascism.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, there's something seductive about it, isn't there? I still feel the tug of that literature, and perhaps I'll someday return to Russian literature.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:12 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Once again, I lost the message I typed out, and I don't have enough time to type it all out again, so I'll sum up what I said in a few words: Gogol-great author. Dead Souls, The Nose, and The Overcoat are 3 of my favorites. I hope all's well..DR

At 5:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Herr Richter, thanks for the visit. Good to hear from you. I'd been wondering how you are doing.

So ... the old problem once again, a failed internet connection that lost your comment. A similar thing happened to me a couple of days ago. I was posting a blog entry on Don Quixote and lost most of the post when I tried to save it. I also had no time to rewrite, so I posted something shorter on a different topic.

Anyway, I also love Gogol and have read about everything, I suppose, that he wrote.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:05 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

I'm going to be a bit busier this semester than last, so I dont know how many posts I'll be making.

Gogol is the only Russian author from the 19th cent. that I can think of who had a sense of humor that pierced through all his writings, or the ones I read at least. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, I dont think these guys really had senses of humor, did they? Or if they did, they were pretty good at hiding it. I haven't read Goncharov, but Oblomov seems like it has comic elements, does it not?

At 8:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground could be rather absurdist, and I think that quite a bit of satire pervades Dostoevsky's other works. So, there's a bit of the comic, at any rate, if little humor.

And, yes, Oblomov has comic elements.

But for great humor, Gogol's the one ... or the 20th century's Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:52 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

Was it Oblomov or his servant who spent all his time sitting on the stove?

I'd love to hear your criticism of The Master and Margarita, especially in light of Paradise Lost.

What do you make of the end (or lack thereof) of Dead Souls? Herr Richter is right on.

Or to go deeply Russian, you can look at the schlock but important novel What is to be done? by Chernyeshevsky. And, of course, Tolstoy. War and Peace may not be the most interesting for postmodernists, but it's good, classic East-meets-West.

Also, Victor Pelevin is a contemporary author who wrote a lovely little existentialist novel called The LIfe of Insects. Oh, to be near a decent library again....

At 8:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jessica, how nice of you to come calling. I visited your blog today and nearly left a message about your little one's appetite ... but I grew lazy...

I don't recall if Oblomov or Zakhar sat on the stove ... though perhaps the servant.

The Master and Margarita is simply great ... and finished, unlike Dead Seouls.

I've never read Chernyeshevsky, but Lenin wrote an essay with the same title, I believe. I only read selections from Lenin's essay...

Tolstoy, I've certainly read, but Pelevin never, not at all. My loss, I'm sure.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:12 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

My pleasure.

"So what?"
"What do you mean, so what? They were all flying toward the light, after all. Whichever way you fly, there's only the dance floor that actually shines, and it turns out that everyone thinks they're flying toward life, but all they find is death. That is, at any given moment they move toward the light but still find themselves in darkness. You know, if I wrote a novel about insects, that's how I'd represent their life: a village by the sea, darkness, and a few lamps shining in the darkness above this repulsive dancing. And everyone flies to the light, because there's nothing else. But to fly to those lamps means . . ." -Life of Insects

At 3:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Jessica, I'll have to read that sometime.

Jeffery Hodges

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