Illustration Ragni Svensson.

Essays platonov’s chevengur. the ambivalent space

The author suggests that Platonov’s Chevengur is an attempt to describe the relationships between utopia and ideology, as seen through the eyes of a participant observer.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 10-14, Vol 1 2011
Published on on April 8, 2011

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Platonov is a kind of half-hidden writer for aficionados who took the risk of trudging through the narrows of his phraseology and an even greater risk of taking an interest in him during the period of what was once known as “Soviet 20th-century literature”. Readers are all doubtless familiar with the famous text by Joseph Brodsky that served as an afterword for Platonov’s The Foundation Pit since it is now almost a classic of the genre. In that work, Brodsky is not so much the philosophizing critic, pondering style from the perspective of a philologist, poet, and literary scholar, but the social anthropologist. When discussing Platonov’s phraseology, he refers to the inversion of his language as the main principle permitting him to shift away from the use of abnormal, non-standard literary language in order to describe the abnormal and non-standard situation in the country that gave rise to such language:

[Platonov’s] language fails to follow his ideas and suffocates from the overuse of subjunctive forms and supratemporal categories and phrases, with the result that even the simplest nouns lose their meaning in a cloud of conditionality. His prose reveals an anti-utopia in the language itself. 

And the logic of Brodsky’s further reasoning boils down to the conclusion that Platonov resigned himself to the language of the epoch, the language of a dead end and surrealistic political consciousness. And by surrealism he meant — in spite of the classical traditions — the rebellion not of a solitary fragmented consciousness, but of a mass that has no language of its own, that has merged itself with the state, absurd in its very existence and social ignorance. According to Brodsky, fortunate is the country in which translations of Platonov are forbidden, where there is no language that befits the language of Platonov. In essence, he tries to comment, as a poet, on the anomalous inversive character of Platonov’s language by relating it to the anomaly of the country itself, its culture and the resulting surrealistic situation.

With all due respect for Brodsky’s position, it should be noted that there are other viewpoints. I believe that what is most interesting in the phenomenon of Platonov is that, while he is a person who has made himself the instrument of the attitudes — both conscious and subconscious — of his time, he also proved interesting for everyone, not so much (and not only) because he was a Soviet writer in the fullest sense of the word — that is to say, a part of Soviet culture, a fact of Soviet culture, an expression of Soviet culture — but something more than that: because, for the world, the interest in the phenomenon of Platonov is not simply in his depiction of the values, problems and situations of the Soviet period.

Another scholar, English sociologist Thomas Osborne, said that Platonov has very rare qualities, that his prose is surprisingly anthropological. That is why in Osborne’s opinion, in contrast to that of Brodsky, people’s attraction to Platonov is of another kind:

His originality is more than literary, however. It is anthropological in the widest sense of that term. His work captures aspects of the utopian impulse that may remain opaque to either the projectively utopian human sciences or speculatively utopian modes of literary imagination. It does this because Platonov sends back dispatches not from some imagined non-place or from a dystopic or even anti-utopian place, but from what we shall call actually existing utopia.

And it is understood that Platonov achieves certain universal and symbolic principles of an imaginary reality — a certain symbolism of human existence as yet unexpressed in literary “fictionalism”. This seems to me much more important and interesting, and to some extent explains why he won such acclaim as a universal writer, as we have witnessed for quite some time. Because, beginning in the 1960s, Platonov, with increased confidence, has occupied his own quite definite place as a world classic — and not only for scholars of Russian culture. He has become a writer through whom and because of whom one may understand and see the Russian situation in the 20th century. The same Thomas Osborne wrote:

Few can have known more about the meaning of utopia in the 20th century than the sublimely gifted Russian writer Andrei Platonov. For Platonov, utopia was not just something one thought or dreamed about; it was where one had to live. And, no doubt, more or less inevitably where one had to die […] Platonov showed us an “anthropological” dimension inherent in the utopian impulse, that we are, so to speak, “utopological” beings. 

There was a period of good fortune in his life when he was successful at everything: studying at a technical university, launching his career as a journalist — a huge number of Voronezh newspapers and magazines published articles of his. It was at that time that a certain range of topics for his early works was formed. And one of his favorite themes was about unclear consciousness and emotions, which Platonov attributed — in precisely the same spirit of the classical Enlightenment ideology of Habermas’s modernism— to the lack of penetration, of sanctification, of the new idea in the culture of society.

This new idea of his corresponds perfectly, on the one hand, with Solovev’s revolution of consciousness, perceived largely in a symbolist way, by means of symbolist rhetoric and metaphor, based on a range of ideas that will later become known as Russian cosmism. On the other hand, his rhetoric and metaphor are rooted in the typical Enlightenment idea that technological progress, science, reason, and Enlightenment will transform the realm of dark and uninformed feeling into a reign of consciousness. Such was Platonov’s radical left version of Solovev’s concept of the triumph of a “revolution of the spirit”. And Platonov is happy, as long as life does not make him see these ideas — tested in the laboratory of reality for their viability — fall apart at the seams, disappear, submerge and disperse; as long as he does not have to work in the backwoods of the Voronezh region as a water supply and irrigation engineer. Perhaps it was one of the few periods in Platonov’s life when he was at peace with himself and the world. And he is fine until such time as he sees the tragic contradiction between the desired ideal — the world of harmony and happiness, the great utopian dream of popular archaic mythological, folk and fairytale notions of a land of milk and honey — and the reality of implementing the revolutionary social project and building a new state.

But then the “light of reason” begins gradually to dim under the pressure of something Platonov perceives as a swamp — the domain of feeling unillumined by conscious awareness. And the typical conflict in Platonov arises between cold, rational consciousness, and a feeling of being unillumined by awareness. What emerges is a modernist “couple” that establishes, on the one hand, the main conflict of his prose, his world outlook, and philosophy, and, on the other, the eternal movement and ambivalence of the problematic situations to be found throughout Platonov’s entire life and oeuvre. In essence, Platonov was always one who learned well from his technical education. His designing and engineering mind does not allow us to think that he was an intuitive writer of myths, who wrote badly because he lacked proficiency in the Russian language. On the contrary, his prose is well constructed, well adjusted, very rational, one might even say rationalistic.

The genres that he often turns to in the early 1920s include both science fiction, where certain ideas are always played with in a test lab environment, philosophical stories, novelettes, and prose. As early as the late 1920s — early 1930s, it was an idea emerging from the current situation that was subjected to the laboratory test. Quite often, this was the idea of revolution, the idea that happiness is possible under socialism/communism, the same idea of universal harmony — neither from Vladimir Solovev nor Nikolai Fedorov — but the transcription and translation into reality of what was declared by the country and the state as a particular ideology.

It is then that the next feature emerges, which is most important for understanding and realizing the meaning of Platonov’s works. This feature concerns the correlation between ideology and utopia. I once dealt with this problem when I used a work by Karl Mannheim on ideology and utopia in order to identify the correlation between these two basic elements: the utopian and the ideological in Platonov’s Chevengur. What happens when Platonov’s characters — whom he endues with murky consciousness and lack of feeling — are forced to face the enormous problem of the consequences and meaning of the Russian Revolution, the predominant theme of his creative work, and the problem considered first and foremost by Platonov himself, and all those who study him? It is that same anthropological quality that enables man to look for the necessary harmony and balance between fiction and what we would conditionally call reality, and what Frank Ankersmit called the “correlation between historical experience and memory”.

And here, as we discuss the correlation between utopia and ideology, it is probably timely for us to turn to those features linked to Platonov’s idea of a revolution as the perfect space where the collision between ideology and utopia is most graphic. The following are just two quotations from Andrei Platonov’s notebooks; one dates from the 1920s and the other from 1935: “Let the Revolution advance until it stumbles; and when it stumbles, we’ll help it to its feet.” “The Revolution was devised in dreams and was initially implemented to achieve the most unrealizable things.” And I repeat here, along with Mannheim, that in the work of Platonov several ideas collide which refer both to the objectives and to the time of the Revolution. If we recall Mann-heim’s thesis regarding the distinction between utopia and ideology, we will understand that utopia differs fundamentally from ideology in that it does not protect reality; it is precisely for this reason that its ideal symbolic image of the necessary ideal future succeeds in transforming the existing historical reality.

A rather paradoxical situation results. The ideology on which the social and state structure rests cannot, however, be implemented. But a utopia with its idealism of reaching the Pillars of Hercules has every chance to affect the course of history. A furious struggle ensues for the right “to redefine the symbolic situation”, as sociologists might say. The definitions of ideology and utopia depend on the approach of the one who sees it, and how he sees it; that is, who evaluates what. For Platonov in Chevengur, what is utopia and what is ideology, and what is the position of the writer himself? How can one pinpoint the correlation of the ideological and utopian with the concept of revolution as an ever-recurring secular event, a secular counterpart to Christ’s resurrection, to some extent reproducing the mythological context, and repeating itself over and over again? With Platonov, this particular event is presented as one in which the first stage of the Revolution exists fully in the realm of utopia. Then follows a sort of ideological expropriation, such that in the subsequent mutual discourse the uncompleted event passes from hand to hand, all the while continuing to form its subjects in acts of survival and subsistence. Seen in this light, Platonov’s Chevengur is an attempt to describe the relationships between utopia and ideology, as seen through the eyes of a participant observer.

Now I would like once again to return to the approach of Thomas Osborne when discussing the basic distinction between Platonov’s storyteller and those committed to a rather conventional narration, those who, like Soviet writers, described the Revolution using the language of reality as a tool to polish their personal literary style. Thomas Osborne viewed writers such as Bulgakov, Leonov, and Babel as people who worked with the language, but who do so in the manner of intellectuals. Platonov was not a writer in the conventional sense: he was neither a man of letters, nor a storyteller. He was not interested in making his literary plot entertaining, fable-like, or imaginary. With his ego, his body, and his writer’s imagination, he tried to reproduce the event itself. And in this very reproduction he — according to Osborne — differs from all the other representatives of Soviet literature. And I agree with Osborne.

Yes, Platonov uses the same material, but sets different internal objectives. What matters for him is the “problematic” itself, which every now and then treats the Revolution as a clash between live, musical, and enduring “Kairos” time and ritualistic, frozen, “Chronos” time, the time of ideology, the time of the state, grand epics and expansive narratives claiming universality and absoluteness, the time that equates itself with ideology. Consequently, in Chevengur, when the communards try to turn the sun around, it does not mean that they are struggling with Chronos for power. It is simply proof of the profound naturalness and unsophistication of the people of utopia who desire power over the crucial element of their world, the element that sets the life cycle and determines the tempo of existence. An enduring theme in Andrei Platonov’s own notes is that of a dark, black sun, emerging like a sign of the state of the world, not of the social world, but the one that is part of naturalness and sociality, but remaining all the while a “murky consciousness”.

Another digression is necessary here to deal with Platonov’s idea of the “murky consciousness” of people at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s. Until a certain point in time (possibly before Chevengur was completed), these people were for him a mass in need of influence, of remolding, of fundamental transformation, of experience in their new capacity as a majority, one that was not merely an aggregate subject of history. But after the completion of Chevengur, when the philosophical trilogy made up of Chevengur, The Foundation Pit and Dzhan came out as a single text, dealing with the same subjects and, contemplating the same ideas, the characters in its second and third parts (these are my conditional divisions) become a sort of peculiar expert group for Platonov; they are the people of Husserl’s “life world”. In the words of one of his characters, these people “are not the objects of history; they are its subjects, damn it!” So from the point of view of this commonplace consciousness, of these people of the “life world” — seen previously as a kind of natural “morass” for Platonov and described in rougher terms in some of his earlier newspaper articles — the process of redefining and reinterpreting the symbolic situation begins. 

If we examine Chevengur closely — the text is crucial for this transition — for the correlation between the ideological and the utopian, between rational, state, Enlightenment modernist thinking and the utopian; between the somewhat anarchical and popular ideas about a shift, a turning point, a revolutionary transformation — then we will see that Chevengur turns for Platonov into a central, mythological place, a space where the reality of Russian history and the potential of this history created by utopia meet each other, as if crystallizing the popular dream of the possibility of a perfect world order, a sort of folkloric “Belovodie”, the Eternal City on the White River.

Chevengur proves to be a sacral point from the perspective of the ancient myth of the first creation, in which the act of creation takes place. Here is where the center of the world, the sacral space, the mythological navel of the universe, is connected to the beginning, i.e., sacred time. The version of the myth in Chevengur includes the motif of the creation of the world by the Word, by demand, as in one of the most common myths about the first creation, the statement in the Bible: “In the beginning was the Word (Logos)”.

But in our case, it is clearly due to the influence of ideology on the free utopian principle. The first creation myth is treated by Platonov as the myth of communism, being created by the word out of chaos in compliance with all the canons of mythology, and following the sequence of all cultural stages. This is why there is no main character in the novel, no protagonist, just as there is no classic, plot-based, traditional storyteller. Sasha Dvanov is sometimes referred to as the main character. But this character serves only to minister to the true main character: Chevengur as the place (topos), and as the idea or ideology. Chevengur unites everything around itself; so after the wreck of his perfect topos as the idea and ideology, the destiny of all the other characters is terminated. For Platonov, whose whole life was a tragic conflict between myth and history, between utopia and ideology, the possibility of building a utopia represented the point of convergence and the possibility of answering these questions. The ancient popular dream and the modernization project of Soviet statesmanship converged at this point. That is why, both in its structure and content, Chevengur is a story of the collapse of the first creation myth and  of the model of the perfect state; it is also a story of a live utopian impulse allowing the Revolution to survive as a lasting and symbolic event.

In this symbolic event, Sasha Dvanov appears like a metaphorical, metaphysical orphan who has three fathers and loses them all: the first is a fisherman who drowns because of his curiosity in the city of Mutov; the second is Prokhor Abramovich, who banishes Sasha from his home; the third is Zakhar Pavlovich, who continues to search for Sasha after the latter leaves him. In terms of mythological interpretation, all of them represent different stages of man’s attempts to overcome the chaos of the world, the powerful and sluggish force of attraction to first matter. How do they attempt to accomplish it? Prokhor Abramovich attempts it through the endless breeding of children and successors with whom he wishes to populate the world; but they are poor in both body and spirit. The fisherman who aspires to otherworldly life seeks transition from the later patriarchal world to the earlier matriarchal world, and is surrounded by its symbols: mother, water, earth, a hut, a cave, death, a grave, a mother’s womb — all attempts to overcome chaos by merging with it. Last is the artisan, Zakhar Pavlovich, who initially tries to conquer nature by means of technology and culture, a kind of “modernizer” and “cultural hero”; but he becomes disillusioned and bored, and returns to the older stage — his family, his unloved wife, and his foster son. In Platonov’s novel, Sasha leaves all three fathers; he first gives up his ancestors’ barren efforts, then loses earthly communion and support, and finally relies on the idea of communism as a “substitute” for a father in an attempt to go on his own “Telemachean journey” to the Eternal city of Chevengur, the “New Rome”. And the Chevengurians hold a symbolic vigil for Sasha, who is to enlighten them and who signifies with his presence the rightness and authenticity of Chevengur: clearly, they are awaiting the Messiah, the advent of Christ as the main event in history, an event which always comes about from European revolutions — this time in a kind of secular version. But Sasha departs from here too, having failed to find the “right” ideology; he returns to the rightness of his old heart and soul, to the maternal element of water.

I include here a rather long passage from Chevengur which makes it possible, basing oneself on Platonov’s poetics, to try to capture the way the revolution is perceived by the author himself in the novel:

The revolution passed as if in one day: the shooting subsided for a long time in the steppes, remote districts, in all of the Russian periphery, and the roads of the troops, horses, and all the Bolshevik  foot-travellers ran wild little by little. The plains and countryside lay empty and silent after giving up the spirit, like a mown cornfield; a late afternoon sun drifted lonely and languid over the heights above Chevengur. Now there was no one riding a warhorse over the steppe: some of the murdered and dead still lay undiscovered, their names forgotten; others restrained their horses, and were leading the poor in their native village forward, not to the steppe, but to a better future. And if someone did turn up in the steppe, no one cared, as it was only some harmless, quiet person passing by, minding his own business. After he reached Chevengur with Gopner, Dvanov saw that in nature there was none of the earlier fear, and in the villages by the roads there was no danger or misery; the Revolution was gone from these places; it had released the fields into a peaceful boredom and left no one knew in which direction, as if finding refuge in the inner darkness of man, and feeling tired of the distances covered. The world was as if sunk in evening, and Dvanov felt that the evening was setting in on him too; it was a time of maturity, a time of happiness, or sorrow. On just such an evening of his own life, Dvanov’s father, wishing ahead of time to see the next morning, disappeared forever into the depths of Lake Mutevo. Another evening was now beginning, perhaps the day had already been lived whose morning the fisherman Dvanov had wanted to see; and now his son was living through the evening again. Alexander Dvanov did not love himself so deeply that he sought communism for his own life; but he kept on walking forward with everyone else because they were all walking and he was afraid of being left alone; he wanted to be with people because he had no father or family. On the contrary, Chepurnoy was tormented by communism just as Dvanov’s father had been tormented by the mystery of the afterlife, and Chepurnoy could not endure the mystery of time and shortened history, so he urgently established communism in Chevengur, just as the fisherman Dvanov could not endure his life and turned it into death in order to experience ahead of time the beauty of the other world. 

A thorough reading reveals a few important points. For Platonov, the Revolution was, like the people, a natural phenomenon. It comes and goes like the time of day. Consequently, in Platonov’s poetics and metaphysics, it has no spirit, no idea. The Revolution is carnal and sensual, created by carnal and sensual people, people with a murky consciousness, ignorant, and uninitiated, to use the terminology of the first Christian communities. The theme of Millennialism and Chevengur as counterpart to the medieval Christian communities has been elaborated in sufficient detail in literary studies (particularly well in the work of Hans Günter). It is in marginal sects where the non-traditional coming of a Messiah is treated from the perspective of Christian utopianism.

Chevengur is a protected reserve  for the Revolution where it “laps like a lake, lying in the low places of the watersheds”. It is into this “lake-revolution-Chevengur” that the main character plunges at the beginning to overcome orphanhood and solitude. After Chevengur is defeated both as topos, place, city, and as an ideology, Sasha enters the same river. Once again, he follows the path of his father, plunging into Lake Mutevo, then returning simultaneously into the mother’s and the father’s womb, into the water, as the primal chaos out of which demiurges and gods emerged in the first creation myths, creating cosmos out of the chaos.

Preliminary outcomes appear as follows: the demiurges and gods of revolution were defeated. Chaos triumphed, and the foundational myth was never replaced by the anthropomorphic world, the world of the cultural hero. All the “local demiurges” of Chevengur became aware of the absence of life, warmth, and happiness in the revolutionary world they were creating. There is one more analogy that emerges in Platonov’s Chevengur. Chevengur may also be treated as the domain beyond the grave, of life after death. There is a resonance here with what Brodsky says about utopia being a dead end, as that part of paradise where everything ends, where there is no time. And Chevengur represents the attempt by mortals to experience ahead of time the beauty of that world. One could draw a parallel with the mythologem of Freud’s “sensual/maternal”, where mother is simultaneously the mythological birth-giver and destroyer. And in the context of different metaphorics, one may recall another maxim from the period of the Great French Revolution, about a revolution eating its children. (And much has been eagerly written about the myth of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment in the novel.)

Now let us try to consider, in the light of the proposed interpretations of utopia and ideology “according to Mannheim”, how we might interpret the final scene of Chevengur, about which there are already so many different versions and interpretations. Here is my version, probably somewhat oversimplified, identifying two aspects: the utopian and the ideological. The utopian is linked to the time of the Revolution, as alive, lasting eternally, and generating a Nietzsche-Blok-like musical orchestra of history and the involvement of the participant in events as an “aggregate subject of history”. The time of ideology is the time of grand epic or narrative, the time of the state and of rituals. It is the time of a rationalistic “Enlightenment” sequence, an arrow flying forward since the time of the Blessed St. Augustine. Then it becomes possible to suggest that the secret detachments that smashed Chevengur are “bandits” only as perceived  by the Chevengurian utopians. They might have been detachments sent by the government to wipe up the anarchic wild rebels distorting the “revolutionary idea”.

In the final analysis, it is an attempt by ideology to deal with the popular utopian and mythological version of a revolution perceived as an eternally lasting and repetitive event. In fact, this is to some extent what was described by Pitirim Sorokin in The Sociology of Revolution in 1925: 

A society that does not know how to live is unable to develop through gradual reform;  therefore, putting its faith in the melting pot of the Revolution, it has to pay for its sins with the death of a good share of its members. And this is the price forever demanded by the almighty sovereign.

And this is the finale, as Sasha — who started by testing and creating a utopian reign of new ideas, a new Eternal City — ends in defeat. The Revolution has no Father; it is natural and sensual, and therefore reasonless, immoral, and unjust. Besides, it comes to an end, echoing the statement that a “revolution eats its children”; this could be worded differently as: “ideology devours utopia”. What follows from this? Obviously, what follows could be formulated as follows: once a revolutionary idea becomes the property of the state, it destroys the popular idea, the utopia of the revolution. Such was Platonov’s understanding of the correlation between the ideological and the utopian. In essence, that is precisely what Chevengur was about: it was Platonov’s “watershed” novel. The laws of social mechanics are inexorable, and Andrei Platonov, being a writer with a metaphysical and transcendent vision, and an engineer by education, could not help but understand it. The writing of Chevengur coincided with the end of the 1920s; Chronos time had come, for the time being at least, because a revolution is an eternally repetitive and symbolic event.

When dealing with the correlation between history and the past, ideology and utopia, examined via the theme of revolution, Platonov came to understand that he began to perceive the past not as history written in chronological time, but as a certain experience: the experience of the same aggregate subject of history, the same people of common consciousness who were previously uninteresting for him. For his youthful pathos, in his early Enlightenment-inspired modernistic project, in line with the state ideology, these correlations served only as material for alteration. And as time went on, he kept drifting further and further away from such a position. And the further away he got, the more the experience of these people that incorporate living in a utopian space driven by ideology becomes increasingly relevant for Platonov. Both the tragic confrontation of his earlier ideas that happiness can be reached through reason, structure, rationality, Enlightenment, and the experience of the life of the majority of people drives the writer to a dead end.  He was quite unhappy because the tragic contradiction between the desired and the real, between the available and the appropriate was lived by him not as a separate philosophical problem but as the substance of his own, private, daily, momentary, personal life. Maybe it is here that the idea emerges that Platonov’s language is a tool; it is the “prison of language” (Ankersmith’s expression borrowed from Nietzsche) which allows the experience of daily life to gain access to the broad arena of history. It is the language of inversion, the language for discussing the collision between epic and rational philosophical prose, ideology and utopia, myth and logic.

For Platonov, this language, infused with breaks, shifts, joining, and inversions, became both a fighting weapon and a painful burden carried throughout his life. If we compare the language of his journalistic articles and that of his prose, we see two completely different versions of the same Russian language. And this is most important, because people reading his prose sometimes get the impression that he writes this way because he thinks this way. On the contrary, it is the result of a rather consistent and difficult effort. He needed this inversion in the same way that the futurists needed to create an atmosphere of cultural shock and scandal. He needed to knock the reader out of his familiar, normal, cozy linguistic comfort, because one’s surrounding life does not assume such comfort. As a consequence, within Platonov’s work with the language, one finds simultaneously his peculiar writer’s achievement and, at the same time, his service and burden. I do not know what other lofty words to use.

Besides all that, it is in the language that we can see the traditional idea of beauty being implemented, “shifted”, with the old aesthetics being replaced in reality by something we could call presenting life in  elevated categories. This is what actually happened in the 1930s. And much has been written about it since then. In particular, there is a very good article by Catherine Clarke in The New Literary Review in which she discusses this phenomenon in the light of the unique, internal, very strong and as yet insufficiently studied revision of Enlightenment trends that originated in the 18th century, within the Age of Enlightenment as presented, for instance, in the works of Edmund Burke. Clarke states that while the aesthetic is infused in life, no aesthetics are required in art.

In the aesthetics of Soviet life of the 1930s, the “grand heroic deed” called on the elevated feeling rather than that of beauty. The daring deeds of polar explorers, Mukhina’s sculpture, Soviet films, and Lebedev-Kumach’s songs created the atmosphere of the time. It was the situation of the period, one which is also reflected in Platonov’s language and in his idea of the disappearance of the kind of artistic literary strategy in which the Romantics — the vanguard poet, the rebel, the hero, the innovator — committed breakthrough feats and heroic deeds. In their place appeared an entirely different pattern of behavior and artistic strategy, in which the heroic becomes the elevated, and, like the earlier romantics, suffused into life; everything requires that one make extraordinary heroic efforts, and the notion of the “hero”, or “individualist hero”, disappears as such.

This is a most strange, complex and peculiar phenomenon of Soviet life, from which will later emerge the “cliché” character of socialist realist art in its depiction of mass culture, and the extraordinary deeds of look-alike heroes. It should be noted that in order to live in the Soviet reality one did need to be a heroic person. To this day, people struggle with everyday, grassroots heroism, living in the wake of problems that are not normal for human beings. But the perception of life as the ongoing heroic deed of a vast mass of people linked by collectivities of living and ideology certainly contrasts with the utopian idea, the kind of heroism that comes from the epic, from fairytales, myths, and legends, which required a “cultural hero”, and also from a romantic standpoint. A new, “tragic” version emerges in Platonov’s writing also, because his character Nazar Chagataev in the novel Dzhan is one who does not have the pathos of a romantic hero when he goes to the desert to find the Dzhan people and restore them to new life. He goes there with the pathos of his recognition of their mass “grassroots heroism”.

I would remind the reader of “The Hot Arctic” essay written by Platonov during his first trip as a writer with a group of Soviet authors to Turkmenistan. He wrote that the Central Asian deserts, the ruins of ancient Iranian and Turanian cultures — the echo of Solovev here is not accidental — serve as an extraordinarily vast space for making transformations, both for extracting old cultural values and for creating the new ones.  Essentially, it is the oxymoron of a “hot Arctic”, where the everyday, grassroots, multidimensional, collective feat of polar exploration is being achieved. The exploration of Central Asia has the same appeal.

But along with this type of journalism, quite Soviet in spirit and content, we may refer to Platonov’s own notebook. There the theme of Asia is presented in a much more profound and tragic way, as an eternal, incomprehensible, exciting, inconceivable, and in fact utopian and sensual principle: Asia inside a human being;  Asia as the nature of the senses; Asia as the realm of unconquered human nature, permanently aware of itself; Asia as something that tears one away from the bosom of the rational; rather, something simple, enlightened, elevated, something that can be overwhelmed by a mass-scale heroic effort. It is in this Asia that Platonov’s philosophical tale of Dzhan is set. There is no feat by a solitary hero here. There are analogies with what happens to heroes in epic fairytales, to the one who stands on the path of salvation, the path of messiahship in another, biblical version of the myth. However, a much more important and powerful idea of Platonov’s is present in the background: the idea he expressed in the second version of the ending, the one not censored by the editors. In the liberal version of the 1960s, the story was given a more desirable version, shall we say, of the finale. The second version of the finale contains a much more Platonov-like idea, which is consistent and honest: no one may make decisions for anyone else. No matter how good one’s intentions are, one cannot make people happy against their will. One cannot decide how to give happiness to anybody. People may not be returned to happiness by obligation, against their will, as in a penal colony, a kind of Gulag. Happiness is not in a Gulag; it does not stem from personal choice alone, it also stems from the right to decide to make this choice — whether to gather together, or not. After the Dzhan people get together for a second time of their own free will and their own decision, it is possible for Nazar, by this very act of free assembly, to release himself from the yolk of messiahship and heroism, and to set forth to live a simple private life.

Properly speaking, the motion of Platonov’s prose goes from the destruction of the “big narrative” to the quiet, modest and very important life of a common man, going beyond the limits of a state epic to the limits of Chronos, to the limits of ideology. Utopianism begins to be treated as the achievement of happiness on earth through love. And, once again, when he speaks of the loss and destruction of the family — either from war or from the destructive passions in the heart of a human being — Platonov speaks of the eternal conflict between the desired and the real, of the impossibility of harmony and the absence of harmony.

And he did manage the attempt to choose a situation where it would be possible to find, if not harmony, then at least a brief moment of his relatedness to the world at the moment of creativity. It is two moments: the childhood of man and perfect poetic work. For him, such “dwelling places” of transient happiness were thus childhood and, for instance, the “Pushkin text” of Russian literature, when Pushkin became a utopian retreat, a “dwelling place of happiness” for Platonov. Why? Because — and here we return once again to Platonov’s idea of the inversive function of language — both children and genuine great poets are the first discoverers of the world for it is they who first apply the word to everything. It is they who assign names to things; it is they who, like the first Adams following the Creator, accomplish the act of naming things. Children do this during the brief period of living in the bosom of Kairos, and poets do it when they treat language as if it were some kind of free matter, but they nevertheless manage to keep control by using a strategy of their choice. And in this equalization of the child and the poet Platonov used the model of the old Romantics from the earlier period of sentimentalism, and then honed to perfection by classical Romantic philosophy with its cult of naïveté, simplicity, and childishness as possible detached views of the world. Platonov’s child text offers a somewhat different view, again the utopian space where childishness is compared to creativity not only as the time of happiness, but also as the time of work and experience.

And here we should once again turn to Ankersmith’s reflections on historical experience. Ankersmith tries to determine why we keep returning to the past every now and then, and what it is about the past that is so significant for man and for humanity. Perhaps, by addressing this subject, I will be able to complete my discourse on Platonov, because it is in Ankersmith that we see the attempt to examine the mechanism we use to actualize that which attracts our interest.

The actualization occurs because a person, when entering the realm of our historical experience, first causes the Gestalt shift from the timeless present to the world composed of the past and the present. This leads us to a world seen as an unveiling of reality which exists in us. This reality has broken loose from the timeless present, and here is the particular moment of loss. All this is in Platonov’s work. And he is at once the same moment of loss for us that we try both to hang onto and to overcome.

However, historical experience tends to restore the past in order to overcome the barrier between the past and the present. And this could be referred to as the moment of desire, or the moment of love; that is why the description should be placed into a space embraced by complementary motions that are reciprocal, ambivalent, so to speak.  This unveiling — the loss and restoration of the past — is done with the help of love, and together they constitute the realm of historical experience.

Throughout, Platonov makes these complementary motions of love and loss, thus all the while reproducing the personal at the level of the general, human, anthropological experience; and this is what makes him so significant and interesting. So the fact that we turn to him as a phenomenon of 20th century culture is surely linked to the fact that, for us, he is already part of this elevated historical experience. ≈

Who was Andrei Platonov? Read more here.

  • by Natalia Poltavtseva

    Associate Professor. Reader at the Russian Anthropological School, Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow. Senior Researcher at the Russian Institute for Cultural Research, Moscow.

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