“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Wednesday, September 08, 2004


LI decided that, due to world events, the best thing to do at the moment would be to read some Tolstoy. So we’ve been reading a novella – The Cossacks – and the Prisoners of the Caucasus. We were pointed to the latter story by an essay in Russian Studies in Literature, Spring 2004 by Paula A. Michaels (Prisoners of the Caucasus: From Colonial to Postcolonial Narrative), which considers Tolstoy’s stories and two films which derive from it.

Now, we are grateful for Ms. Michaels pointer. But we read the story in a state of recoil from Ms. Michaels article.

You see, Ms. Michaels is infected with the American penchant for fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christians read the bible literally – fundamentalist academics operate with the same procedures, but (usually) different sacred text. In Ms. Michaels case, Edward Said’s Orientalism is holy writ, and she happily applies it like a treasure map on which the magic x that marks the spot stands for racism. Thus, she can guide herself through any text unfortunate enough to fall into her hands.

Ms. Michaels dutifully -- and this was useful to LI -- gives us an account of a narrative type in Russian literature – the captive of the Tartars. She shows how the two films deriving from Tolstoy’s story give us a more modern, sensitive account of the thing. And she tells us what she thinks of Tolstoy’s story, premised on two suppositions. Tolstoy can only be, a., using the protagonist to reflect his own feelings, and b., a racist imperialist Russian. She has no intention of wrestling with her texts as fictions. That fiction has its own world, in which irony, allegory, and the sudden evanescence and reconstruction of ideological lines are commonplace, is not acceptable, and is sent back to the back of the classroom if it raises its hand. Fiction, obviously, isn’t serious. Fundamentalism takes texts much more “seriously” than they take themselves – and if they engage in shenanigans, so much the worse for them! Here is how Ms. Michaels sums up the story:

“As already mentioned, Tolstoy’s tale, not surprisingly, portrays
the Caucasian natives in ways conventional for nineteenth-century
European Orientalist literature. His narrator, Zhilin, repeatedly
describes his captors as ill-smelling, suggesting that they are uncivilized,
dirty, and diseased and reflecting his revulsion for them.
While some Caucasian characters are given names, other are impersonally
referred to as the “red-faced Tatar” or the “red-bearded
Tatar.” When the brother of the “red-bearded Tatar” is killed by
Russian soldiers, a funeral procession is described in detail. Not
only does this finely drawn picture impart authority to the author
and his narrator, but it increases the reader’s alienation from the
exotic subjects filtered through an ethnographic lens. Here and
elsewhere, the reader encounters the Caucasian natives solely
through the narrator’s representation of them and their ways. As
Zhilin does not speak their language, they are rendered largely
mute in this tale. When they do speak broken Russian, their simple
phrases and grammatical errors infantilize them for the reader.
Tolstoy juxtaposes the anonymity, exoticism, and childlike barbarism
attributed to the Tatars to the cleverness, bravery, and determination
of his Russian protagonist. From the very beginning,
they encounter a wily adversary as Zhilin proves to be a tough
negotiator over the ransom price. Zhilin goes on to demonstrate
his skillful hands and agile mind by repairing his captor’s watch,
healing the sick, and making a toy for Abdul Murat’s son. These
acts build bridges between himself and his captors, integrating him
into their community to some extent and cultivating their trust in
him. He proves, however, that these acts are part of a crafty plan
when he uses their trust, particularly that of Abdul Murat’s children,
to facilitate his escape. When read against the images of the
mute and childlike Tatars, there is no mistaking Tolstoy’s imperialist
stance. The Russians are smarter, more civilized, and worthy
of the empire they have conquered.”

There is, of course, no mistaking… there was no mistaking before the story was read, and certainly none after it was read. We loved her use of "not suprisingly" -- this is the strength of fundamentalism, its elimination of surprise. Once you have your paws on the Truth, you can bat away that imp of the perverse, the writer's impulse to surprise. Ms. Michaels, expert detective, knows that a story is just a stance, an imperialist stance. It is a disguised lecture, or op ed piece.

From that account, one would never expect a text that had paragraphs like this:

Zhilin is captured by a red bearded Tartar who sells him. The Tartar lives in the same village where Zhilin is kept as a captive. One day, Zhillin goes to see how he lives. The old man shoots at him. Afterwards, the man comes to Zhillin’s master to complain about him. Zhillin’s master explains to his Russian captive:

"'He is a great man!' said the master. 'He was the bravest of our fellows; he killed many Russians and was at one time very rich. He had three wives and eight sons, and they all lived in one village. Then the Russians came and destroyed the village, and killed seven of his sons. Only one son was left, and he gave himself up to the Russians. The old man also went and gave himself up, and lived among the Russians for three months. At the end of that time he found his son, killed him with his own hands, and then escaped. After that he left off fighting, and went to Mecca to pray to God; that is why he wears a turban. One who has been to Mecca is called "Hadji," and wears a turban. He does not like you fellows. He tells me to kill you. But I can't kill you. I have paid money for you and, besides, I have grown fond of you, Iván. Far from killing you, I would not even let you go if I had not promised.' And he laughed, saying in Russian, 'You, Iván, good; I, Abdul, good!'"

Luckily for all of us, as Ms. Michael notes, Russian scholars have fully absorbed the lesson that Russian literature is only the clothing around various hegemonic and racist postures. Time marches on, and we, who breathlessly keep up with it, can certainly put our noses in the air when considering the, well, 19th century and before then. Yuck!

“Extending the arguments of Edward Said, literary scholars in recent
years have well documented the ways in which prerevolutionary
Russian literature can be understood as an expression of
imperial identity.5 The same kinds of representations that Said noted
in the scholarly and artistic literature of Western Europe are readily
detectable in the Russian case. Nineteenth-century Russian imperial
expansion brought writers, adventurers, ethnographers, military
men, missionaries, and others into contact with a variety of
ethnic groups, which Russians filtered through their own shifting
sense of ethnic and national identity.”

Tolstoy’s barbarous times are passed, and now we can make multi-culty films of his novel and show him up for the imperialist stancist he is –even if, in the decade we are making these films, we are also plowing the Chechen fields with corpses. The stance we take, us moderns, is that we are infinitely more progressive than the likes of Tolstoy. As one of Flannery Connor’s characters says, when she is told that the monks of old slept in their coffins, “they warn’t as civilized as we are.”

Reading Ms. Michael’s essay made me sad. There is one thing you will never get a fundamentalist – Christian, Moslem or academic – to believe in: literature. Entertainment is fine, they have their favorite tv shows, but literature? you must be kidding me.

So I moved on, looking for another essay. Which I’ll save for another post.

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