As you might have guessed from the title of this blog entry, I’d like to argue a bit. If you haven’t read the recent letter from the poemless entitled “It’s a Dreary World, Gentlemen!, or, ‘Make Russia-blogging Great Again’“, now might be a good time to have a look.
I’d like to quote the particular paragraph I believe is worth responding to:
We read fiction and learn history for a reason. It gives us insight into and a template of human psychology. Russian fiction and history, often wound tightly around each other in prophecy and imitation, are littered with reoccurring motifs. Nihilism and instability. Bizarre and capricious events. The depressingly but comically absurd. A classic plot device in Russian literature features an ounce of mischief carefully dropped into a pool of convenient lackeys and a populace obsessed with their own reputations, creating a tidal wave of chaos and throwing society into disorder. The election of a con-artist, exposing respected members of our government, press and public as ignorant, bigoted, self-serving, frightened quislings bears strong resemblance to the intrigues of Gogol’s Chichikov, merchant of dead souls, Dostoyevsky’s Verkhovensky, inciter of anarchy and Bulgakov’s Woland, a devil sent to create unthinkable pandemonium. And what of the praxis of an American ideology in which inhumane deeds are ostensibly vindicated by the nobly democratic principle that here anyone can become President, taken to its extreme? The accompanying adrenaline rush and resulting terror torments us like Raskolnikov’s fever dreams.
A Russian novel well worth exploring in that context is Pelevin’s “Generation P”. It’s also worth talking about the movie, which can be watched with English subtitles (they are a bit messed up in the epilogue, but no big deal):
Americans don’t seem to particularly like the book. They tend to perceive it as a skewed mirror image of the ills of their own society, blah blah blah. But if that were a mere criticism of consumerism, that book would never be popular in the first place. However the book is something completely else. It’s a survival guide.
As the hero gains ever more serious positions in the society, he is followed by a trail of deaths of his acquaintances. However, the hero’s behavior is ethical. He is not guilty of the deaths, it’s just a high-risk environment. All he wants is a better position for himself, but he’s not evil, and doesn’t do anything that is.
Eventually the hero acquires the top social position in that world and essentially governs the system that is evil in its core. However, the idea of the book is more like “Slaughterhouse-Five” rather than “Bill, the Galactic Hero”. The passivity of the hero is not cowardness like in the case of farmboy Bill. Rather than that, it’s implied, like in the case of Billy Pilgrim. There’s just literally no other option than obey the rules of the system, because the only alternative to that system, the Soviet Union, has collapsed.
There’s a particular ethics embedded in that implication. The hero of “Generation P” resists any attempts to change the society, because it’s assumed that the Communism is the greatest evil. It’s his system of coordinates, which, although never openly expressed, doesn’t need an explanation because it is universally shared in the social layer to which the hero belongs.
The “Generation P” is Pelevin’s masterpiece not because it’s historically correct (it’s not since it blends facts with fiction), but because it has captured the mood of Russia’s 1990s. Nothing can be changed, except for your own position in the society.
Now, it can be argued with, but it’s native to my system. Do you know why there’s delight in the eyes of Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin when he’s interviewed by the CNN? Because he has climbed up the social ladder of the evil system he has not created, but has supported by his own actions. It’s a pretty much self-centered and pragmatic worldview. Of course, the hero of the “Generation P” does not like that situation. His drug trips are nothing else but an attempt of escapism.
That’s why I don’t share the pathos of the poemless. But, to each his own.