Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Platonov's Chevengur - The Ambivalent Space

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.


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