Russian literature of a certain era
February 6th, 2016
The most pointless people that I have met have all been conventionally happy with their lives. Their general state of lukewarm satisfaction results in a certain kind of intellectual morbidity, cowardliness, and superficiality in them and my dislike for these characteristics explains, in turn, my aversion with social media. Social media is infested with pointless people, plain and simple. On the other end of the spectrum, I am endlessly fascinated by the darkness which so often accompanies tragedy and travail which is perhaps why I have such a fascination with Russian literature of a certain era.
Russia, during the years ranging roughly from the 1820s to the 1930s, produced a canon of literary work whose impact, not heft, rivals that produced by any other country over any other time period. In excellence it more than stands up against the French, the English, the Spanish, and the German traditions. In that one century Russia produced writers of such brilliance as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky, Turgenev, and Nabokov with such classics as The Overcoat, The Idiot, Anna Karenina, Lolita, Eugene Onegin, and many more. I would consider any of these books to be more important and more deep than any single book ever produced by any American writer. This is not to say that American writers have not been good but that Russian writers of a certain era were unusually brilliant. And I often wonder why that was the case. I also wonder about a related question: why was this kind of success never emulated in India (at least in Hindi literature with which I have some familiarity).
The Russia of let's say Tolstoy is an exceedingly grim place. It shivers under the perpetually frigid temperatures of the northern cold and it trips, falls, and huddles into a corner under its dark depressing skies. It is too cold for the general visions of healthy, plentiful, agricultural farms to breathe; instead, the only beauty it ever presents is the dead beauty of colorless, barren Siberian landscapes. There's widespread poverty of the general population, a direct result, no doubt, of a dictatorial monarchy which outlasted any other in Europe, finally overthrown only to be replaced by the more brutal reign of Communism. The life of the common man in such a place is a very tough one. While he is squeezed from one side by the unrelenting elements of nature, he is dehumanized from the other by a gargantuan, unsympathetic, and humiliating bureaucracy. His existence is fraught with the kinds of limitations that one can only dream of in the modern Western world. And with such monstrous institutional and natural limitations in place, the weak and pathetic common man indeed becomes a very interesting person. He must limit his dreams in order just to survive and he must grow used to being kicked around and denied the very little that he wanted in the first place. With his entire human vitality suppressed within the confines of his own sorry self he gains a depth of emotions which cannot be matched by those who have had a happy existence, by those whose wishes have been more or less granted. I think Russia, of a certain age, presented to its great intellectuals the potential building materials of a deep storytelling tradition. There was enough misery to provide the raw material but not enough censorship to stifle creativity when it arose. The latter part is what changed after the 1930s when the Bolshevik jokers took it upon themselves to treat Russian literature as their propaganda vehicle.
Why did America never produce anything comparable? Because people living here have always been far happier than their Russian counterparts. The only worthwhile voices amidst a sea of literary mediocrity are from those who were and are deeply affected by that peculiarly American malaise: horrific isolation and pointlessness which result in an utterly materialistic society. However, this sense of desperation is an individual experience by definition, as opposed to the communal desperation of 19th century Russia. The American sense of desperation is felt more or less only by some people of adequate sensitivity. Everybody else is busy buying shit.