The Russian Sickness

July, 2022
Kiana Sarmadi, Blog Correspondent
Kiana Sarmadi is a writer based in Ontario, Canada.

The story of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia, of the nobleman returning to his motherland after years of European education, only to discover a feudal country to which Western ideas cannot be applied is too familiar to readers of Russian literature. This odd paradox—an educated aristocrat who one hand studies French enlightenment texts but on the other hand owns serfs and lives a medieval feudal life—is perhaps the central motif for what gradually becomes the agonizing preoccupation and national obsession of arguably every writer of this country: when can Russia create a new idea, a movement so thoroughly Russian and original at heart that would even influence Western art and literature? When will Russia look inward for ideas instead of trying to implement Western ideas in its culture?

Be it Pushkin with his Ironic Romanticism, Gogol with his black comedy, or Dostoyevsky through his polyphonic novels of Christian existentialism, for the key writers of the Golden Age, there is no way but to respond to the surge of self-loathing, self-questioning discussions around Russian identity with a sneer. This expression manifests itself differently in each author’s oeuvre, and is yet shared by a single notion that Russia needs not worry about originality or creativity; for in its vacuum of ideas, it offers a new sort of innovativeness that is quintessentially Russian. This ingenuity is embedded in the susceptibility of the Russians to the influence of Western ideas, which in the absence of other ideas becomes an enormous factor in their intellectual development. It is, therefore, this consciousness of the aptitude of the nation, to live and alter ideas in its own landscape, that reveals itself in the masterpieces of Golden Age authors and poets.

We begin with Alexander Pushkin; the first writer who, unlike Vasily Zhukovsky or Vladimir Odoyevsky, does not directly emulate German and English Romanticism. Instead, he uses the movement to introduce a new language that is relentlessly aware of the banality, ignorance, and servility within which it has been contextualized. This new form of Romanticism that originated in Germany turns even more radical in Pushkin’s work, which constantly wavers between self-destruction and self-creation, in order to break away from the limitations of his constructions. A glimpse of this vision can be seen in The Queen of Spades, in which the Gothic Hoffmanesque veneer of ghosts, madness, and secret liaisons falls apart under the mockingly, revealing tone of the story. It ridicules its shallow or naïve characters who constantly struggle to imitate archetypical Romantic or Gothic roles, but fail miserably in the end.

Take the bedroom scene as the most ironical of this particular story, in which every piece comes together only to frustrate the expectations of any Gothic reader. “Remember” pleads Hermann ardently to the Countess “that the happiness of a man rests in your hands”. This theatrically desperate attempt at securing his “happiness” through a poor seduction—still more poorly disguised under the veil of a Romantic hero—hardly affects the Countess. She clearly sees beyond the triteness of a speech that is an unimaginative pastiche of clichés from second-rate sentimental Romantic novels. This miserable attempt, like many other such scenes in the story, marks the banality of pastiche in the literature of the time. Hermann, eager to learn the secret of the Countess’ card game, becomes mad in discovering there is nothing beyond the mystical and seductive façade of a Gothic parlour tale. What remains is each characters’ realization of the shallow synthetic nature of their existence, so brimful of empty tales and feigned emotions that their respective tragedies—the Countess’ death, Hermann’s madness—resembles more to a comedy than a tragedy. There is no real fatal flaw at play in the story, but a collective attraction to banality and vapidity.

Far from being read as a mere parody of pastiche, however, Hermann’s fate turns this story into one of the most influential Russian pieces. It makes both madness and suffering the two central pillars of the nineteenth century Russian literature. Pushkin’s target in parodying Romantic madness, a madness that opens hero’s eyes to a higher truth or world, is the imaginative failure and poor performance of Hermann as a Romantic hero; a Russian German whose poor imagination, lack of creativity and greed leads not only to his own madness, but the suffering of others.

He is, however, too foreign, too extraordinary, to be in any of Nikolai Gogol’s work. The devil of Gogol’s world is not a European fascinated with second-rate Gothic tales who wreaks havoc in Russia. His devil is a most ordinary Saint Petersburg clerk with a naïveté that makes him the most unlikely cause of chaos and suffering. “Life’s dreadful murk passes by”, writes Gogol in one of his scattered notes “and there is still a profound secret hidden here. Is this not a horrible thing? Life, raging and empty—is it not a dreadfully great phenomenon…Life?” In this “dreadful murk” that is filled with corruption and deceit “hideous decaying specters with melancholy faces” shape and rise out of our fears though not “in a magnificent costume à la Byron” but “without a mask” and “in a tail-coat”—as banal and corrupt as the people they try to swindle.

The Inspector General’s Khlestakov is one such figure who, through no real skill or talent (depending only on the town’s general folly, fear, and hypocrisy) creates a mass of frenzy and open adversary between them. He is not, however, a simple comical device to show and condemn governmental and bureaucratic corruption. He is a fellow “extraordinary light of thought” who admits that he “lives by literature.” It is not the poor pastiche of Western literature that he represents but the contemporary progress, the contemporary writers “dressed in the latest fashion,” who Gogol writes make a “dreadful mockery of mankind” with their poor imitations of Pushkin.

It is Khlestakov too—the devil without a mask, a fool with no shrewdness—who holds a mirror in front of the town. He makes the town see themselves as a stupid bunch drowned in opulence that makes them resemble, as the Governor remarks in the end, more to pigs than men. Gogol’s devil is the product of a shallow world that respects all that is superficially glamorous, urban, and European. It is not the foreigner that destroys us, but the omnipresent banality that fills the newspapers, the ballrooms, and theatres of the country.

There is, however, as the furious narrator of Notes from Underground asserts, a curious fact that “man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately in love with suffering”. In the world of Dostoyevsky, it is never possible to evade or eliminate suffering, but the consciousness of its relentless force over one’s life can lead to redemption. There are always those who as Razumikhin in Crime and Punishment exclaims are “a crowd of windbags and show-offs! As soon as you come up against some pathetic little bit of suffering you fuss over it and even then you steal from other authors”. These “crowd” people every page of Crime and Punishment; from Dunya and Sonya who are prepared to sacrifice their own happiness and future to secure that of their families, to Mikolka confessing to a crime he has not committed. This is all out of some vague conviction, which makes them embrace, and even revel in an unnecessary pain that Dostoyevsky makes clear could be avoided. For Raskolnikov, who decides to believe and live through Western utilitarian ideas, the suffering that he goes through can be put an end to by an action that although may cause pain for others, he believes can transform the society to a better place.

This delusion, however, only pushes him deeper into madness and fever. This illness can only be cured by the realization that embracing suffering to open up room for the soul of another is the only path to salvation. It is the discovery of the soul that has such great impact on Raskolnikov in the end. It is this discovery that causes his pathetic obsession with his own suffering and the illusion of his magnanimity vanish. This is what places him in the beginning of a “gradual renewal.” Cured of this “Russian sickness,” of the susceptibility of living and suffering through translated Western ideas, Raskolnikov establishes a firm unwavering character in himself; a character which brings him back to his spiritual Russian origin through his love for Sonya.

But this “origin” is not as clear as the Slavophile or the Christian Orthodox reader would like to believe. It is not the complete separation from Western traditions and ideas that puts the Russian on the path of rebirth and renewal; it is not the total rejection of the Gothic, Romantic, or enlightened that liberates him from the banality, the second-rate, and the unimaginative. Rather, it is an alteration of these ideas through already existing Russian traditions that makes them not only cherished in Russia, but also influential in Europe.

This expression manifests itself differently in each author’s oeuvre, and is yet shared by a single notion that Russia needs not worry about originality or creativity; for in its vacuum of ideas, it offers a new sort of innovativeness that is quintessentially Russian.

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