I repeat, if we were to look at Alexander Potemkin’s prose with its obvious merits and shortcomings from this angle, we might see much evidence of the literary experience of a postmodernist writer. Then we would have to say what is already known, that his prose is an invariant of postmodernist ideology. However, it seems that the writer’s creations fall somewhere between the techniques of postmodernism and the precepts of modernism, as well as of classical tradition. The codes and ciphers that refer to the postmodern in Alexander Potemkin’s works do not necessarily act as a postmodernist statement. The at times stylized writing of this author is not always constrained to imitating another’s word; paradigms of a strict worldview are refracted in Alexander Potemkin’s creative work, serving as the foundation of his artistic contemplation. It would help to interpret this prose with the help of a discourse.
Mikhail Bakhtin invested the concept of “discourse” with such meaning as “embracing another’s word,” “learning, searching for, and forcing a deeper meaning,” “the interplay of multiple voices (a corridor of voices) that supplement understanding and go beyond understanding…” I think that Alexander Potemkin’s prose is in this kind of dialogical relationship with classical tradition. Addressing another’s text implies striving for ethic and aesthetic self-definition. What he creates provokes a search for meaning, “revives” what is long “already known.” The hard-won idea conveyed by the author and his characters seems to be pointing to the “final” phase of the fall of Russian society, which is expressed in the lack of coexistence (interconnectedness, intercommunication), on the one hand, and leads to isolation, extreme forms of individualism, a purposeful desire to “disappear,” “be absent” in the world, on the other. Along with the “anonymous” (although they are also incredibly rich) “landlords of life,” whom the writer describes with unmerciful sarcasm, Alexander Potemkin also has characters with their own peculiar ways of thinking and inconsumable need for self-actualization, even at the expense of scandalous consequences for themselves.
The satirical novella The Desk presents a case of the dialogical unfolding of a classical discourse. The main character, Arkady Lvovich Dulchikov, a high-ranking bureaucrat concerned only with his personal gain, cannot imagine being parted from his income-producing “desk:” “You own the desk for a year, and your pockets are full, you own it for three years, and you have trunks stuffed full, you own it for five years, and you have secret bank accounts…” Without his “income-producing desk,” he will feel as though he has lost his family, his homeland. On his own, Arkady Lvovich is nothing, if he is worth anything, it is only because life has made him a “desk head,” the holder of an “income-producing seat” located “within fifty meters of the Kremlin Administration.”
Dulchikov’s character is typical, as typical as the rules of social life generated by social Darwinism. The character has a firm grasp on “one tenacious truth: each person must live for his own enjoyment.” He has no need for the “holy scriptures, the constitution, or civil and criminal law.” The specific features of Russian corruption are presented in the well-known image of “the bathhouse with spiders”—this manmade Russian hell, the mythological viscous circle: “If the government conquers corruption, the whole of Russia will come to a standstill….”
The almost religious reverence he feels for the “income-producing desk” is akin to ecstasy; “the desk” acts as a sex object in the story. This is what I mean by “forcing” new meaning into what at first glance is “already known” and “accomplished.”
In classical literature with its Chichikovs, ignorant merchants, and bureaucrats, the topic of bribe-taking was portrayed simply, in some sense even “naively,” it ultimately came up against some moral limit. The way this is portrayed by Alexander Potemkin, however, there are no moral limits. The philosophy of corruption is associated with sexual perversion, even with the lost of gender identity. The main protagonist in The Desk holds forth while in sensuous expectation of a homosexual encounter: “What if I like that very thing?” (the italics are retained everywhere—V.M.). The dialogue in The Abolition of Man is also graphic in this respect: “‘What, sex with a man?’ he asked somewhat matter-of-factly. This is the tone of voice people use when asking about something very ordinary. ‘Yes!’ I said, slightly taken aback by his reaction. ‘And that’s all?’”
No matter how the atmosphere reigning in contemporary Russia or the protagonist rushing around in it in search of the truth are described, the end result is the same—“bondage.” There is no getting away from the confusion of an abominable existence. Only one thing remains, “today’s Russian is free in the national expanse of bondage. Oh, what a wonderful feeling it is to be absolutely free in the territory of bondage!” (The Russian Patient).
The title of the novel Bondage is significant. Bondage is not only the drug addiction of the main character and not only the power of the bureaucratic machinery, bondage is the whole of Russia, in which the thinking person is literally damned, were there is no way out. The only thing left is to acquiesce to the minutest individualistic wish and…perish. The author creates the image of contemporary Russia where an extreme form of escapism and alienation from reality reigns, a share of that “voluntariness” Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote about, as well as an administrative apparatus, a defective bureaucratic system, that either makes short shrift of the hapless resident, or becomes a pedestal for successful unprincipled wheeler-dealers. The main protagonist, with his Dostoevsky-style name of Peter Petrovich Parfenchikov, spends his last money on a bunch of dope. According to the deal, he receives the keys to house in the Krasnoyarsk Territory and a sack of poppy seeds he intends to plant. He dreams of growing poppy on as much land as he can out in Siberia. He escapes from the capital to the countryside, running from himself, the poppy being for his mind, just as the train for his body, a means for comprehending “psychology at full steam,” a way of withdrawal, a way of being absent from reality.
Potemkin’s characters perform a real pantomime around the “infernal” questions of contemporary Russia: here we have mutation, eugenics, and a parody on proteanism of the Russian—Professor Koshmarov’s idée fixe—to “improve” the Russian national character by creating a nano pill that would inject the best qualities of other ethnicities into the Russian gene pool. A tragicomedy of Russian life also unfolds in parallel. It is no accident that the novel centers on the cruel treatment of businessman Razzhivin in the style of post-perestroika black humor.
Bondage is sooner an example of contemporary “metaphysical prose” in the spirit of the literature of existentialism. The questions the author poses are not new. This novel, as all of Alexander Potemkin’s prose, perceptibly underplays the role of the storyline. Is this accidental? I do not think so. Can you really expect a plotline (structure) if Russian reality has literally frozen in some ludicrous, inconceivable, chaotic pose? The integrity of Bondage is created by the consistency of the author’s thought, while the breakdown into chapters is provisional. One and the same thought might be expressed by different characters, each developing it, arguing with it, dialogically highlighting it from different angles. The main ideas center on Russia, on the fate of the Russian person, on Russian culture, and on the unstructured nature of Russian life.
The character’s discourse, oriented toward his own consciousness, is the “internal” storyline that compensates for an external, event-driven storyline. The internal storyline excels in its integrity—the author is mainly interested in presenting the consciousness and self-consciousness of his characters. This gives rise to a multitude of allusions (“thinking” allusions), as well as hidden and obvious quotations (pertinent in the semantic respect). The influence of Fyodor Dostoevsky is felt the strongest, only instead of the notorious tea underground man wanted to drink at the cost of going to the dogs, here we have poppy head. Poppy is an ancient symbol of sleep and death, an attribute of Hypnosis and Thanatos, the drug the main protagonist is obsessed with.
The main source of evil, Moscow, is “a contemporary Babylon,” which is the height of the dreams of an enterprising provincial person. The desire for power, wealth at any cost, and the myth about the successful person with a siren and a whoop driving in a dark green Audi past downtrodden poverty spread throughout the country from Moscow’s rings like the ripples from a stone thrown into the water. The mythologems of the “viscous circle,” the “ring,” the “wheel,” and the “carousel” repeatedly arise in the novel. The motifs of cycles and repetition of man’s earthly torment harken back to Oriental philosophy, but in Alexander Potemkin’s prose this topic is presented in composite with Christianity. Incidentally, both the cover and names of the chapters hint at a synthesis of Hinduism and Christianity. Christian theology stands alongside the x-ray of a skull that looks like a open chakra and is reminiscent of a box of flowerless poppy.
The novels The Russian Patient and The Abolition of Man, as well as the novella Myself, should be viewed as one “text” for comprehending cultural and spiritual tradition, which, as Alexander Potemkin’s characters think, has completely run out of life-giving sap. The characters can be called by different names, but they are basically the same, they are doubles who are affirming the same thought: man is not performing his mission these days, and so his nature must be radically changed.
The novella Myself centers on Vasily Karamanov, a character crippled by his dysfunctional childhood. Russian reality has accustomed the boy, who has lost his parents, to the “mores of a lonely scamp.” Vasily Karamanov is a “person from nowhere,” “deprived of his kinship roots,” person with a morbid sense of justice living in a world of people with “perverted minds,” as though deprived of reason. The protagonist is constantly confronted with people brought up in the “pop culture,” abhorrently “one-dimensional.” The essence of the mass culture boils down to ultimately depriving man of his reason and reducing him to a trivial level. The most important lesson Alexander Potemkin’s prose teaches is that an irreversible fatal countdown has begun in the vast expanses of Russian existence and being—a retreat into the gloomy era of the late Middle Ages.
The theme of revenge and vengeance is common to Myself, The Russian Patient, and The Abolition of Man. The will to take revenge is cultivated by an atmosphere of mutual humiliation and insult, by conditions when other “fortunate people” are suddenly able to rise from impoverished rags to consumer riches. But is the primitive pride and self-love of the nouveau riche correctly described?
According to Alexander Potemkin, the reasons for the moral decline of society should be sought in the fanatical denial of rational principles in the spirit of the “primitive symbolism” of the late Middle Ages. In the Russian world, reason is substituted for sensitivity; sentimentality acts as the main weapon of the mass culture, which takes root in the consciousness everywhere. The reader comes up against anonymity, “manmade” myths that replace the genuine in everything the author reflects on and describes in politics and business, in the economy, in everyday life, and even in the intimate sphere. The field of culture that reflects the erstwhile tragic flights and falls of the Titan characters is perceived as a depreciated mystery play.
Vasily Karamanov believes that the “conflict between civilization and nature” has reached its peak. His experiments on the “gene of honesty and decency” in people lead to ultimate disappointment. He cultivates in himself a “being of a new species” (a Putivlian) and dreams of breaking into the Russian world “to build it anew.” While wandering, he finds himself in different strata of Russian society and becomes convinced step by step that nothing “rational” from man remains either among the military, civil servants, or artistes, who supposedly bring culture to the masses. The way people behave is “an insult to the intellect.” The striving for everyday wellbeing, “greed, avarice, sexual perversion, envy, malice, legal nihilism, lying”—all in combination with criminal thinking—is an argument in favor of the fact that the world needs “super human potential.” The novella ends in an episode where the main character holds a trial against himself. This taking the law into his own hands, like Pontius Pilate or Hamlet, is an attempt to answer the questions: to be or not to be? What is the truth?
The processes going on in the minds of Alexander Potemkin’s characters lead not to mutual understanding but to cultivation of their whimsically conceived personal suffering. They lead to thoughts about the need to eradicate in oneself empathy for the mass person, for man in general. In The Russian Patient and The Abolition of Man, the central character, looking for pain and suffering, acts as a bearer of the “unhappy consciousness,” of the existential idea of the universal lack of harmony in the world.
The Abolition of Man is centered on a character who suffers from a split personality. During the day he is Semyon Semyonovich Khimushkin (“a sixty-year old, with a nondescript appearance, sick imagination, empty pockets, and poor health”), while in the evening Semyon Semyonovich turns into his double Ivan Stepanovich Gusyatnikov (“a rich businessman, patron-of-the-arts, good-looking man”). When the role of “mono-Gusyatnikov” ends, the time arrives for “multi-Ivan Stepanovich” to take the stage. Metamorphosis knows no bounds: “Today you are a righteous Christian, tomorrow a sex maniac, the day after a super human, and a few minutes later a wretched vagabond or a syphilis patient drinking yourself into the grave.” Alexander Potemkin creates the image of a universal protagonist who exists simultaneously in all of his manifestations, in a multitude of persons and objects (the conceptual experiment with Khimushkin entering a seed is interesting), but who does not fully find himself in any of them. The multifaceted nature and incredible multitude of masks show that Khimushkin-Gusyatnikov performs an ideological function, a “compacted” mind, sometimes serious, but more often a parody on his thinking self.
The explanation is given in Viktor Petrovich Dygalo’s monologue, who also comes into the Khimushkin-Gusyatnikov double motif: “Society has stubbornly taken the side of the humiliated and downtrodden, wishing to raise them to the level of geniuses. And this was a most terrible mistake. It should have been the other way around: promoting selection in every way and stimulating the appearance of a super man.”
Alexander Potemkin’s characters are very loquacious and shamelessly frank. They are in a scandalous dispute with the world, with authority. The hapless theoretician-thinker Dygalo knows all too well: “our time has run out.” It will only take a little more effort and the Apocalypse will be upon us. The Christian idea of apocatastasis, the idea of universal salvation as opposed to obdurate individualism, has revealed its powerlessness. In the world of Alexander Potemkin’s characters, both the “unconscious” and the “rational” and the “conscious” are subjected to scandalous defamation. There, “beyond the metaphysical horizon of understanding,” to which they are striving, the idea of God is lost. In the expanse of super human freedom, there is no “individuality, social individuality,” consequently there is no “creative divine intention.” Here we have the abolition of man. The motif of “abolition” of man is found in relation to Gusyatnikov’s resolve “to live and experiment” on people and common sense. The main goal of the philosophy of these contemporary “underground paradoxicalists” is to “free man from himself” and to legalize “all forms of violence” everywhere. In “total chaos,” “moaning and groaning,” they look for a substitute for the illusory “harmony of life.”
In The Russian Patient, the author mainly concentrates on Anton Puzyrkov, either the twin brother, or the double of oligarch Andrei Antonovich Puzyrkov. The character is bent on a “metaphysical” goal: to acquire non-good from life. The insatiable cult of consumption merges with the cult of perverted violence against others, of which oligarch Andrei Antonovich Puzyrkov is the epitome. The other pole of cruelty is deliberately posing oneself as a “victim of violence,” having a “need for suffering,” which corresponds, as Anton Antonovich believes, to his passionate striving “to understand the world.” By carrying out extremely “metaphysical” experiments on himself, the protagonist is filled with increasingly strong disdain for himself in the form of self-disdain that he chooses, whereby “the search for supreme enjoyment” correlates “with the degree of monstrous humiliation.” This is the only “conscious-rational” response to a society where “we are steering a course toward unbridled hedonism.”
So Anton Antonovich declares a rebellion, like Karamanov, and dreams of creating “new people,” in whom “disgusting and false worldview ideas” will be eradicated. Despairing silence—Puzyrkov’s role gesture—conveys the thought, metaphorically, of his “flight” from the real world. Objectively, Anton Antonovich, a typical “Russian patient,” has stopped existing as a whole, having lost his nucleus of individuality, and arrived at the “gloomy idea of self-denial.” Alexander Potemkin’s characters further promote Raskolnikov’s idea of shedding blood in all conscience (in their minds “a drop of conscience constitutes a wild animal nature”). Anton Antonovich’s rising above his own mind is evidence of a true “Renaissance of egoism,” the main argument of his “behavioral gesture.” Anton Puzyrkov demonstrates “new horizons of feeling, when constant humiliation and unending self-torment arouse delight.” He voluntarily accepts “insult as a form of higher existential experience.” The result is ideological suicide which, at the same time, brings sweet enjoyment, full cherished anticipation of hell, where the character hopes to ensure himself “endless rapture:” “The world in which Anton Puzyrkov now felt himself so well began to slowly disappear. And the last thing he saw flashing in his mind, he expressed almost soundlessly, ‘Where is this new road taking me? To abuse, to abuse of myself…’” Anton Antonovich recalls the words of Dostoevsky that the principal and most basic spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, incessant and unslakeable suffering, everywhere and in everything … the Russian people have been infused with this need to suffer from time immemorial. A current of martyrdom runs through their entire history, and it flows not only from external misfortunes and disasters but springs from the very heart of the people themselves. There is always an element of suffering even in the happiness of the Russian people, and without it their happiness is incomplete.
Alexander Potemkin’s characters disintegrate into nameless impulses and intermediary states, the suicidal solution to which sounds like their ultimate defiance against the world. They, albeit “experimentally,” reach the peak of freedom, free themselves from their “moldering and stinking human skin,” but it is freedom without the grace of God. Freedom acquired “beyond the metaphysical horizon of understanding” is deprived of human warmth, and it is not needed, it has no one to share with here, nothing to oppose. It is no accident that, despite his desire to keep himself aloof from everyone, Puzyrkov is nevertheless drawn to his “Sonechka,” to Golovina. “For some reason it became important that you understand me,” she says, “understand,” that is, “took to heart,” “loved with your heart.” The word “understand” holds the author’s prescience of what awaits his futurologist protagonist, a presentiment of the tragedy that has not yet befallen him. Has he definitely been able to conquer chaos? Subjugate it to his self-will? It is impossible to dominate over chaos. The expression “controllable chaos” is an advertizing trick aimed at the man-in-the-street. Is it possible to “soar” over the mind where it does not exist? Beyond the boundaries of the “too human,” the mind runs into emptiness. Alexander Potemkin’s characters, and this is legitimately shown by the author, reflect on the world horizontally, not vertically, their consciousness and self-consciousness are extensive, not intensive. It seems the writer’s thinking characters are tragic in their own perception. But the author constantly accompanies them with parodistic doubles. A tragic worldview is an aristocratic trait, tragedy is an elevated genre, but our reality, alas, is alien to the principles of aristocratism.