Monday, April 19, 2010

'A Hero of our Time' Mikhail Lermontov

There are two men within me – one lives in the full sense of the word, the other reflects and judges him.

Lermontov’s masterpiece consists of three sections of the diaries of one Pechorin, an upper-class professional soldier, with two framing tales and a preface in which the narrator ‘Lermontov’ relates how he came into possession of the diaries, and describes his meeting with Pechorin. The novel is set in the mountains, garrisons and spa towns of the Caucasus and Black Sea coast, and is packed with incident (a duel, womanising, smugglers, balls, midnight trysts, skirmishes, Russian roulette) and psychological observation. Published in 1840, three years after Pushkin’s death, it forms a bridge between the neoclassical and Romantic literature of the 1820s and 1830s, and that of the psychologically and socially realistic literature which began to appear after the middle 1840, a link between the world of Pushkin and that of Dostoevsky. This can be seen most clearly in comparing it with Pushkin’s approach to character, and in its prose style.

It is a truism in Russian literary criticism that Lermontov’s Pechorin and Pushkin’s Onegin reflect the ‘superfluous generation’, the young intellectuals from the noble class who felt powerless to do anything under the prevailing autocratic conditions of their time. These figures both originate from Byron’s Don Juan and Childe Harold; both suffer from spleen and ennui as a result of their alienation from the political and intellectual life of their country. However, their characterisation is somewhat different. Pushkin restricts his description of Onegin to outside observations of what he does, how he feels, how he reacts to and effects other people. Onegin only reveals his thoughts in conversation with others and in the letter of Canto 8. These communications are necessarily tempered with considerations for the receiver of the message and must be taken with a pinch of salt as genuine expressions of self. This externality of characterisation is partly the result of Pushkin’s verse form, in which realism is subjected to the demands of versification, and partly to do with the conventionalities of the period, the influence of a Byronic conception of character in particular.

Lermontov takes Pushkin’s Onegin and develops him. Like Onegin, Pechorin suffers from spleen and a sense of worthlessness; but this is tempered with an active nature: he is an army officer in an imperial army and takes part frequently in skirmishes with the local population; he hunts, has adventures, rides his mounts to their deaths, and indulges, like his prototype Don Juan, in amatory pursuits. Pechorin’s cruelty is more pronounced than Onegin’s. Unlike the externality of Pushkin’s presentation of Onegin, Pechorin expresses his internal life through his diary, which allows him to present his thoughts to himself (and us – the implied reader of the diary). Pechorin says of himself As a boy I was a dreamer and dwelt with loving care on the dark and radiant images traced by my restless eager fancy. And what did it bring? Weariness……And when I came into this real life I had lived it through already in my mind and found it boring and disgusting…

One can only imagine Onegin saying the same thing. Pechorin is drawn with more psychological complexity than Onegin, and is more tormented: My whole life has been nothing but a series of dismal, unsuccessful attempts to go against heart or reasons. An enthusiast turns me cold as ice, and I fancy that frequent contact with a languid phlegmatic would turn me into an ardent idealist. He describes (in a conversation recorded in his diary) the way his nature was formed in opposition to the world, in an astonishingly perceptive piece of self analysis that is more modern and more realistic than anything in Pushkin: Everyone saw in my face evil traits that I didn’t possess. But they assumed I did, and so they developed. I was modest, and was accused of being deceitful, so I kept to myself. I had a strong sense of good and evil; instead of kindness I received nothing but insults, so I grew resentful. I was sullen, while other children were gay and talkative. I felt superior to them, and was set beneath them, so I became jealous. I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, so I learned to hate. I spent my blighted youth in conflict with myself and my world. Fearing ridicule I hid my best feelings deep within me and there they died. I spoke the truth but no one believed me, so I took to deceit. Knowing the world and the mainspring of society I became adept at the art of living, Yet I saw that others were happy without that art, enjoying for nothing the advantages I’d worked so hard to gain. This is completely alien to the spirit of Onegin, but one can begin to hear the whispers here of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man.

Pechorin articulates a greater awareness than Onegin of the possibilities of the two main temptations for the superfluous man: lust and power. Of lust he says, again with great psychological acuity I often wonder why I’m trying so hard to win the love of a girl I have no desire to seduce and whom I’d never marry. … It can’t be that restless urge for love we suffer from in youth, that drives us from one woman to the next till we meet one who can’t abide us. That’s when our constancy begins, our true never ending love that might be described mathematically by a line stretching from a point in space. The reason for this endlessness is simple: we can never attain our goal – our end, that is ; and of power, he chillingly says: ambition is nothing more than a lust for power and my chief delight is to dominate those around me. To inspire in others love, devotion, fear –isn’t that the first symptom and the supreme triumph of power? To cause another person suffering or joy, having no right to do so –isn’t that the sweetest food of our pride? What is happiness but gratified pride? If I thought myself better and more powerful than everyone else in the world, I should be happy. If everyone loved me I should find inexhaustible founts of love within myself. Evil begets evil. This opens the way for Dostoevsky’s nihilist Stavrogin.

Although both characters bow their heads to fate, the manner of their bowing is different. Onegin in his letter to Tatiana, says, My life depends on your decision/And I surrender to my fate. This is an entirely conventionally poetic expression (Nabokov in his commentary on this couplet gives an exhaustive and exhausting account of other Romantic writers who use the same sentimental expression, in three languages), a mere literary device. In contrast to this conventionalised phrasing, in the last section of his diary, The Fatalist, Pechorin relates two incidents to illustrate his growing belief that everything is written. A fellow officer, during a discussion on the topic, in an attempt to prove that everything is written, plays a game of Russian roulette. The pistol misfires, and although there is a bullet in the chamber, it does not go off. The same officer is then murdered by a drunken Cossack on his way home, proving that it was written he would die that day. Pechorin reflects: How can one not be a fatalist after this? Yet who really knows if he believes a thing or not? How often our beliefs are mere illusions or mental aberrations. I prefer to doubt everything. Such an attitude makes no difference to a man’s determination – on the contrary, as far as I‘m concerned, I always go more boldly forward when I know nothing of what lies ahead. After all, the worst you can do is die, you’ve got to die sometime. Pechorin’s position is close to Diderot’s in Jacques le Fatalist: Everything which happens to us in the world, good or bad, is written up above… and the title of this section also points to Diderot.

Lermontov attended Moscow University at a time when the philosophies of Schelling and Hegel were becoming influential there. The relationship between the individual and history (fate) was a key concern of the period, especially for the disenfranchised sons of the nobility, whose confidence and position had been severely weakened by their aborted coup of December 1825, and whose ranks had been cruelly decimated by the Tsarist reaction to the coup. Belinsky, who was also at Moscow University a few years after Lermontov, reached his early, extreme position of reconciliation of reality: the individual is powerless to effect change in the face of historical circumstances which are governed by ineluctable laws; therefore, to struggle against historical circumstances (autocracy) is pointless and achieves nothing; better then to reconcile oneself to reality. It is not too far- fetched to assume that Lermontov was exposed to these ideas and had them in mind when he wrote in the closing pages of his novel: We can no longer make great sacrifices for the good of mankind or even for our own happiness, because we know it is unattainable; and as our ancestors plunged on from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt. Only unlike them we have no hope, nor even that indefinable but real sense of pleasure that is felt in any struggle, be it with man or with destiny. Lermontov, like his hero Pechorin, rejected this Hegelian passivity, joined the army and went off to test his mettle and do dashing things amidst spectacular scenery. Belinsky also, later, rejected this reconciliation of reality and became the period’s foremost social critic and agitator for reform. The Hero of our Time, not least in all the ironies of its title, is thus a portrait of the dilemma faced by young men in the 1830s, and their differing reactions to it.

In 1822 Pushkin wrote: Precision and brevity – these are the two virtues of prose. It demands matter and more matter- without it, brilliant expressions serve no purpose. In this it differs from poetry. This serves as a model for his own prose style. Pushkin was no word painter in his prose - in contrast to his poetry, where his word painting is sublime- and his prose moves swiftly and sparely from incident to incident: I lived the life of a young oaf, chasing pigeons and playing leapfrog with the serving boys. Meanwhile I had turned sixteen. Then the course of my life changed. is how he sketches in the youth of the hero of his final novel The Captain’s Daughter. Lermontov on the other hand, is a masterly word painter, not only in his psychological descriptions, but also in the descriptions of the Caucasus: In the west a pale moon was about to sink into the black clouds that hung like tattered shreds of curtain on the distant peaks…Far away on the horizon groups of dancing stars wove wondrous patterns, fading one by one as the pale light of dawn spread over the deep violet sky and lit up the virgin snow on the steep mountain slopes. Dark mysterious chasms yawned on either side of us. Wreaths of mist coiled and twisted like snakes, sliding down the folds of the neighbouring cliffs into the abyss as though they sensed and feared the approach of day. There was peace in heaven and on earth.
It was like the heart of a man at morning prayer.

Lermontov is the master of the well- chosen simile, a device that Pushkin abhorred in his prose. For Pushkin, matter meant incident, while Lermontov found matter in accurate and painterly descriptions of nature, and closely examined psychological states. While Pushkin’s prose style looks back to the French philosophes, Lermontov’s looks forward to the dense prose of Dostoevsky, the social realists and further, to the symbolists of the Silver Age.

It might be regarded as invidious to compare two such different geniuses as Pushkin and Lermontov. However, their lives and posthumous fates were linked. Lermontov’s poem, The Death of a Poet, written in the immediate aftermath of Pushkin’s death, and casting blame for it on the court and the machinations of those around the Tsar, earned him three years of exile, and the adulation of the young and the intelligentsia. After Pushkin’s death, his mantle passed to Lermontov, whose fame subsequently eclipsed Pushkin’s. It did not last long, however, as just over a year later, at the age of 27, he was also shot dead in a duel.

The Dream
A vale in Dagestan, the noon sun gleaming,
There, bullet-stricken, motionless I lay;
My wound was deep, and had not ceased its streaming
As drop by drop my life blood oozed away.

I lay alone there in the sandy hollow;
The cliffs rose sharply, shelving all around,
The sun burned down on hilltops bare and yellow
And on me too: my sleep was deathly sound.

I dreamed a scene of lights and glowing dresses,
An evening feast back home I seemed to see;
And youthful wives with flowers in their tresses
Held cheerful conversation about me.

But taking no part in this scene of gladness,
A certain one sat thoughtful and apart;
Her soul had conjured up a scene of sadness
And, God knows how, it had possessed her heart.

A vale in Dagestan came in her dreaming;
A well-known body in that valley lay;
The body bore a chest wound black and streaming
And blood ran down, and cooling, ebbed away.


MarinaBel said...

Merci pour blog!

Mark Aserit said...

Great article! Hoping to read more from you