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Tracing Creator Characters in Russian non-Realist Literature

Throughout much of Russian non-realist writing feature what this essay will call the ‘creator’ archetype; characters who are either trained scientists, historians, doctors, artists, or who exhibit traits strongly reminiscent of these professions. The aim of this essay is to explore how these characters are used in their respective texts, and show that they exist to (attempt to) either control, create, or understand their worlds, and that in doing so they can become poetically mobile, such as Pushkin’s Don Juan in The Stone Guest (1830), who takes control of his own centuries old tale, or Pushkin himself in Bitov’s Pushkin’s Photograph (1985), but that they can also become static in their attempts to categorise and make sense of things. This occurs in the aforementioned Bitov with the futuristic historians, but also famously in Mozart and Salieri (1830) and even partially in Chekhov’s Black Monk (1893), where Kovrin works himself to madness and eventually death in pursuit of genius and subsequently control. The creator figure also provides a ready made conflict with the Nature that they try to understand, control, or create, which is a theme to which Pushkin repeatedly returned, and here the essay will examine his fairy tale The Old Man and the Golden Fish (1833). This archetype has a long and rich history in Russian literature, yet the focus of the latter part of this paper is how Daniil Kharms strips the figure of its meaning and function through his portrayal of the writer who doesn’t write and the miracle worker who works no miracles in his Old Woman (1939).

Portrait of Absurdist Russian writer Daniil Kharms
Fig. 1: Daniil Kharms (literalalb, n.d.)

First, and briefly, the artist figure is included in the definition of the creator because although in real life the scientist and the creative are often somewhat opposed (or at least separate), in literature they can be used to fulfil the same function. Don Juan in The Stone Guest exhibits poetic features, inhabiting characters and masks, and indeed writing a song that Laura sings but he also shows a deep understanding of human emotion; Leporello asserts that ‘your keen imagination// will picture you the rest, I have no doubt;// its defter than a painter’s brush I swear’ (Pushkin, 1830, S1), and the song Laura sings shows such ‘depth of feeling in the words’ that it her audience calls her (and the song) ‘divine’ and a ‘sorceress’ (S2). Juan here is shown to be able to extrapolate a detailed portrait of a woman from a glimpse of ‘a bit of slender ankle as she passed’ (S1), and to understand human emotion to a divine level. These are both very scientific descriptions of what a poet can do within literature; they understand, and they build, just as doctors and academics and scientists do.

Pushkin and Poetic Motion

Several of Pushkin's significant works are centred on the ‘inherent mobility’ (Herman, 1999, p. 4) of the poet. He makes this very clear by often juxtaposing the mobile poet with an immobile statue, such as in The Stone Guest and The Bronze Horseman (1833). His retelling of the Don Juan myth includes his recasting of Juan as himself a poet, as I mentioned, and it is this Don Juan that takes control of his story in a way that Mozart’s Giovanni or Moliere’s Juan could never; Juan inhabits a monk, something which must be painful for a character usually defined by his freedom of emotion and action (and sin) (p. 8), and uses this character and his way with words to elicit from Donna Anna genuine love, or at least something approaching it. She grants him a kiss and even says ‘I wish with all my heart that I could hate you’ (Pushkin, 1830, S3). He falls to his knees and delivers flowing, eloquent poetry of apology, and it works. On the arrival of the statue (recast as Anna’s husband rather than her father), Juan is dragged down to his demise, but not before responding to the statue’s question of ‘do you tremble now, Don Juan?’ with an almost nonchalant ‘oh no, I called you here… and bid you welcome’ (S3). The readers are left stunned, seeing a character that is famous through the centuries as a libertine and rogue appear as a genuinely remorseful man who made his amends, who willingly came back from exile to Madrid, who invited the titular guest and who accepted his fate. This is a Don Juan who can, and might very well be, redeemed. Pushkin takes what is a fundamentally static character, the star of one of Mozart’s true masterpiece, a very well-known figure, and gives him control of his own tale, through his poetic talent and his eloquence. Juan both controls his own fate within the parameters of his tale, and creates a redemption arc where historically there was only a morality tale.

The duel and death of Alexander Pushkin in 1837
Fig 2: Duel of Alexan­der Pushkin and Georges d’Anthès (Volkov, 1869)

Pushkin himself ascends to this kind of control in Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin’s Photograph, where a young man is sent back in time from the year 2099 to procure a photograph of the poet, but fails because Pushkin always recognises him. Pushkin recognises Igor because each time he fails, he goes further back into Pushkin’s life, creating a time paradox where the older Pushkin has already seen Igor despite the chronology of the words on the page. Bitov here gives Pushkin incredible control over 300 years of time. He can evade the attempts of a vastly more advanced people, nominally because he recognises Igor, but truly (symbolically) because of the central conflict of the story, that being between the 2099 historians’ attempts to control the past against the impossibility of objectivity in art, and the efforts to understand it. The authorities in 2099 want to own Pushkin, not read him. This is evident even in their first proclamation of their mission; ‘Pushkin himself… did not manage to be photographed’ (Bitov, 1985, p. 20, my italics), as if in not living long enough to be pictured Pushkin did something wrong which must be fixed. They extend what must be fairly significant resources to send someone back in time to help them ‘know objectively about the external appearance of the great poet’ (p. 20), supposedly because ‘Pushkin’s whole life, his activity, his titanic labour are near and dear to hundreds of millions… the name of Pushkin rings out everywhere’ (pp. 18-19). But in seeking to procure a photograph, the historians will not increase galactic Pushkin scholarship. It does not matter what Pushkin looked like. His writings remain extant, which is what matters. The figure of the poet within this story is intrinsically free, as I mentioned, but it is important to focus on what he is free from. As the real life author contrasts Don Juan with his statue, Pushkin in Bitov is foil to the static 2099 community. Where Pushkin the poet is at the mercy of those who try to understand his work (as I have already done in this essay), he is totally free from those who attempt to own him. Bitov drives this home with the phrase ‘we will restore the whole of former culture down to the tiniest detail… Homer will sing us the Iliad… Shakespeare will finally tell us his autobiography’ (p. 23). First, the idea that simply by knowing the author, their work can also be known, is deeply false; Roland Barthes eloquently writes ‘the birth of the reader is ransomed by the death of the author’, asserting that prior knowledge of an author’s life or views can only cloud the judgement of an intelligent reader. While this sentiment is perhaps debateable, it is certain that meaning can be derived from a text that an author did not necessarily intend (as with Kharms later), and Bitov’s choice of names here rings true to that sentiment. Homer was almost certainly not one single individual, and ‘his’ works were likely assembled over many hundreds of years by a number of bards. Homer cannot sing us his (or their) works, they are the voice of a culture, a society, and to best understand them, they must be treated as what they are; disembodied voices from a past about which little is known. George Orwell wrote about Shakespeare in his reply to Tolstoy’s complaints about King Lear; ‘Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker, his most serious thoughts are uttered irrelevantly or indirectly, and it is unclear to what extent he wrote with a ‘purpose' or even how much of the work attributed to him was actually written by him’ (Orwell, 1947). Like Homer, there is some doubt about who wrote his plays (much less strongly founded doubt), but more importantly Shakespeare has been widely misrepresented by his cultural myth as some great teacher or philosopher. Shakespeare was neither of these, he was a poet and a dramatist, who mastered the English language as it was in his time. To focus not on his plays on stage or on his language is to fail in scholarship; while there may be something interesting in his biography, what matters about Shakespeare, and what matters about Homer, and more so than both what matters about Pushkin, already exists in the form of their texts. The historians are hamstrung by their doomed quest for objectivity.

Where Madness Lies

On the subject of the doomed ‘creator’ are Chekhov’s Black Monk (1893) and Pushkin’s The Old Man and the Golden Fish (1833). Pushkin’s text is easily dealt with for our purposes. The fish, the embodiment of the sea, is happy to give earthly pleasures to the fisherman’s wife, but when she asks for power over the seas themselves the fish takes everything back. This story, though devoid of an academic, surely has in the figure of the woman a creator's character, someone harnessing Nature to control it, as the historians harness time to control art and Juan uses his mastery of emotion and language to control people, and it has Nature push back against her attempts to control it. The sea is described as rougher and rougher every time she sends her husband back to ask for more from the golden fish, and eventually it rejects her advances totally. From a Romantic like Pushkin, one of this story’s meanings comes through clearly; Nature with a capital ‘N’ is stronger than any human ‘creator’.

Portrait of composer Antonio Salieri
Fig 3: Portrait of Antonio Salieri (Mähler, 1815)

Chekhov uses similar descriptions of nature in his Black Monk; it opens to the ‘promise of an exhilarating summer’ (Amir & Hashmi, 2016, p. 151) before Kovrin, who has already exhausted himself at his academic work, drives himself mad by furiously studying, imbued with a feeling of cosmic significance as he toils. Here, his ‘genius’ drives him madder and madder, until he is forcibly stopped from working and later, having received a professorship, dies, thinking he is a ’mediocrity’ (Chekhov, 1893). There is far more to this story, but what it is in part is a demonstration of how a creator character can become a depository of madness. Kovrin’s furious research gets him nowhere, it alienates all those around him and eventually kills him. Similarly, in Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri, though not a non-realist text, is the scientific Salieri, the highest paid composer in Europe and a man who mastered music through hard work and rigorous understanding, as Kovrin received his masters and his madness through fervently hard work, confronted with the cosmically genius Mozart, and this causes him to question his value and poison the great man. ‘What good if Mozart live?’ asks Salieri. The good is his creations, his music, but for Salieri ‘fall it must when he departs// and no successor will he leave behind.// What profit then his life?’ (Pushkin, 1830, S1). Mozart is too good that he cannot impart his skill to others, and therefore Music cannot be improved. Never mind the beauty he produces, he cannot improve music as a whole beyond his own works. Here are two creators; the scientist, who seeks only to understand and is fundamentally static within his field, and the artist, who is free from all constraints and exists as he wishes.

Kharms and the Disarming of the Creator

Finally, after a long discussion of the meaning of these characters, arrives Kharms, who denies them any at all. In his Old Woman, echoes of Dostoyevsky abound, among others (Carrick, 1995, p. 1). An old woman, dead on the floor, in the context of the incredibly intertextual Russian canon can only elicit thoughts of Crime and Punishment, and there is a somewhat Gogolian streak through the tale, as well as allusions to Pushkin’s Queen of Spades. The relentless nods to these old giants create the feeling that this is not necessarily Kharms’ story, and this is significant, in that it implies a reproduction of Raskolnikov’s story, or Herman’s, or any of Gogol’s characters’. Our main character is a writer, a creator, only he doesn’t use this power. ‘I feel within me a terrible power… it will be a story about a miracle worker living in our time and who doesn’t perform any miracles. He knows that he is a miracle worker… He is thrown out of his flat [and doesn’t miraculously keep it] … he is capable of turning a shed into a fine brick house, but he doesn’t… and eventually dies without having done a single miracle in his life’ (Kharms 1939, pp. 18-19). This is his story, but all the protagonist writes is ‘the miracle worker was on the tall side’ (p. 22). Here is a statement; Kharms shows us a man who is stuck in someone else’s story, who wishes to write but can’t. He wishes to write about a miracle worker who performs no miracles, and even those miracles he could perform are not what would usually be seen as miraculous (staving off eviction or making his house bigger). Kharms parallels these two characters, and strips the meaning of the title of ‘miracle worker’ from its owner, both by having him perform no miracles, and by reducing the term ‘miracle’ to just magic. This is paralleled with the writer who doesn’t write, and his story that he wishes to write has no events. The characters do nothing, and he sets it in ‘our time’ and not a world he has to build himself. Kharms strips the title of ‘writer’ or ‘creator’ of its meaning, by presenting a creator who doesn’t create. The Russian canon has bestowed meaning upon the position since its inception, yet Daniil Kharms, in denying the figure its power, drags the creators of the past and future into the absurd.

Bibliographical references

Amir, M. F. and Hashmi, A. M. (2016). Medicine and the Humanities: Anton Chekhov’s The Black Monk, Medical Humanities, 22(2), 151-152

Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author (R. Howard, Trans.).

Bitov, A. (1985). Pushkin’s Photograph, Russ 365 Supernatural and Absurd in Russian Literature, McGill University

Carrick, N. (1995). A Familiar Story: Insurgent Narratives and Generic Refugees in Daniil Kharms’ The Old Woman, The Modern Language Review, 90(3), 707-721

Chekhov, A. (1893). The Black Monk, The Lady with the Dog and other stories (C. Garnett, Trans.). Project Gutenberg

Herman, D. (1999). Don Juan and Don Alejandro: The Seductions of Art in Pushkin’s Stone Guest, Comparative Literature, 51(1), 3-23

Gasparov, B. (2006). Don Juan in Nicholas’s Russia (Pushkin’s The Stone Guest), In L. Goer & D. Herwitz (Ed.),The Don Giovanni Moment, Essays on Mozart’s Opera (pp.47-60). Columbia University Press

Kharms, D. (1939). The Old Woman,

Orwell, G. (1947). Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool. Polemic, 7.

Pushkin, A. (1830). The Stone Guest and Mozart and Salieri, both in Boris Gudonov and Other Dramatic Works (J. E. FAlen, Trans.) Oxford World Classics

Pushkin, A. (1833). The Old Man and the Golden Fish, in Russian Magic Tales: From Pushkin to Platonov (R. Chandler, Trans.) Penguin Pushkin, A. (1833). The Bronze Horseman, (J. Dewey, Trans.)

Visual sources

Figure 1: Literalab (n.d.). Daniil Kharms. [Illustration].

Figure 2: Volkov, A, (1869), Duel of Alexan­der Pushkin and Georges d’Anthès. [Painting].

Figure 3: Fig 3: Mähler, J. W. (1815), Portrait of Antonio Salieri. [Painting].


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Jack Preston

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