Thursday, December 20, 2012

the skin on the table

But what I was going to point out, when I started that second-to-last post, is that White appears to be an idealist and Zoshchenko seems not to be an idealist; the people in his satires are squabbling over small things but what else do they have to think about? Nothing, nothing, nothing, I don't think he ever even suggests that there might be something there for them to miss out on; he looks at the spot where White sees something elevated and he sees the word "Love" written in letters, he asks the real world to show him proof that this idealistic situation exists and the world gives him a man biting a woman in the nose. Chaos, he writes in his autobiography. A baby is surrounded by chaos. How does the baby navigate? I was happy until I was in my teens, then I was in anguish, and I have been miserable ever since, says Zoshchenko. He is a depressive clown. Where is the source of his misery? He believes in sources. He must have seen something. He will follow back, using reason and logic; he will try to remember his earliest memories. So he does and early memories are not the solution. Dreams are the solution. Perhaps dreams. Water dreams. He has a sort of Freudian-Pavlovian-scientific theory mixed up with the ideas of other mental practitioners who are not Freud or Pavlov. Now he is not being funny any more because he is trying to work out what these ideas are so that he can take them seriously. He explains them carefully in order.

(This is the most boring part of the autobiography. The earlier parts are more interesting because he will tell you his memories in the form of short stories, like this:

I am sitting in a high chair. I am drinking warm milk. I get some skin from the milk in my mouth. I spit. I roar. I smear the skin on the table.

Behind the door someone cries out in a terrible voice.

Mama comes. She is crying. Kissing me, she says, "Uncle Sasha is dying."

After smearing the skin on the table, I begin drinking my milk again.

And there is a terrible cry from behind the door.

(all still being translated by Hugh McLean)

In every other part of his work he makes fun of the future, he makes fun of the present, he makes fun of the government's improvements and the overpowered lightbulbs they've given to their people. He is kinder to his petty-bourgeoisie than Patrick White is to his, but he is kind by default and out of misery; they are not capable of aspiring to the world of sensitivity and art and sacrifice, not because they are thick, but because that area of the world isn't there.

Patrick White observes that a higher life is possible, he creates Miss Hare in chapter one of Riders so that she can be this finer thing, then he can be cruel and kick his villains because they are insensitive, and they are letting down the human race with their sodden spitey dumbness, but Zoshchenko, seeing no possibilities, has no villains, and his people flail of course, they flail like Miss Hare's father in White's Riders (a man who senses the ideal-world and tries to enter it by building a mansion -- the wrong way to go -- becomes surly, uncharitable, unhappy), but he can't condemn them, and this is not even (going back to that word) kindness, it's because he can't, not in the environment he has made for them to inhabit. What stops him? His own construction. He tries to explain dream-water-theories with a straight face: he is boring, the reader shuts the pages, the prose environment has turned on its progenitor. It says, "I am being misused." It suspects that it comes from his misery and his confusion. If he cures himself will he still be able to write? The prose isn't taking any chances. Prudently it strangles him.

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