Monday, July 12, 2004

The Superfluous Man: The best book you’ve never read is Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Lermontov arose to fame in Russia after the publication of his poem “The Poet’s Death,” written shortly after the death of Pushkin in a duel. A collection of his work would be slim—a few hundred lyrics, two narrative poems and Hero. He died in a duel at twenty-six, beating Pushkin to the grave by eleven years. Toward the end of Hero, the narrator discusses the possibility of dying with his doctor.
“Forgive me, but don’t you have friends to whom you would send a final word?”

I shook my head.

“Do you mean there isn’t a woman on earth to whom you would like to leave something in memory?”

“Would you like me doctor,” I answered him, “to bare my soul to you? You see, I’ve outlived those years when men die uttering their beloved’s name and bequeathing to a friend a tuft of pomaded or unpomaded hair. When I think about possible imminent death, I think about myself alone; other people don’t do even this. The friends who will forget me tomorrow, or, worse, impute God knows what fairy tales to my account, the women who, while embracing another man, will laugh at me…never mind them! From life’s storm I have taken only a few ideas—and not one emotion. I have lived by my wits, not my heart. I weigh and analyze my own passions and actions with strict curiosity but without attachment. There are two men in me: one lives in the full sense of the word, the other thinks and judges him. The first may in an hour say goodbye to you and the world forever, while the second…the second? Look, doctor. Do you see the three black figures on that cliff on the right? These must be our opponents.”

We set off on a trot.
These are the words of a man who has grown deeply disillusioned by life, joined the ranks of Eugene Onegin and others of that type called by literature professors "the Byronic hero." A phrase I originally heard from Albert Jay Nock, the Superfluous Man, turns out to have been coined by Turgenev in a short story and perfectly describes Lermontov’s narrator: a man who is out of place in the world, who has stepped off the main path and can no longer play any practical part in society.

Hero is a young man’s book, basically a foreign adventure story, and to young men the outlook Superfluous Men seems like wisdom. Wracked by biologically induced emotions, uncertainty of purpose, relentless boredom and pressures to conformity, the Superfluous Man appears to be the most noble of characters, one who confronts inescapable suffering with an attitude of detachment and individualism that amounts to triumph.

But Lermontov’s Hero is more than this. The unanswered question toward the end of the narrator’s speech points toward a problem, an incompleteness, with the Superfluous Man. “There are two men in me: one lives in the full sense of the word, the other thinks and judges him. The first may in an hour say goodbye to you and the world forever, while the second…the second?” What does the second man say while the first says goodbye? Silence is the answer in Hero, as we’re quickly trotted off this question and into the coming confrontation.

What’s behind this silence? What thoughts and judgments? It's on rain soaked days like today, days where I need brightness desperately but have nothing but darkness and grey, that I start to suspect I know why the second voice gives no answer in the Hero. I think the silence masks a mourning that is almost impossible to articulate. Almost, but not quite, because the closest I have come to such an articulation comes from Lermontov's hero Pushkin, in the words Tatiana writes in her letter to Eugene Onegin:
I write to you--what would one more?
What else is there that I could say?
'Tis now, I know, within your will
to punish me with scorn.
But you, for my unhappy lot
keeping at least one drop of pity,
you'll not abandon me.
At first, I wanted to be silent;
believe me: of my shame
you never would have known
if I had had the hope,
even seldom, even once a week,
to see you at our country place,
only to hear your speeches,
to say a word to you, and then
to think and think about one thing,
both day and night, till a new meeting.
But, they say, you're unsociable;
in backwoods, in the country, all bores you,
while we...with nothing do we glitter
thought simpleheartedly we welcome you.

Why did you visit us?
In the backwoods of a forgotten village,
I would have never known you
nor have known bitter torment.
The tumult of an inexperienced soul
having subdued with time (who knows?)
I would have found a friend after my heart,
have been a faithful wife
and a virtuous mother.

Another!...No, to nobody on earth
would I have given my heart away!
That has been destined in a higher council
that is the will of heaven: I am thine;
my entire life has been the gage
of a sure tryst with you;
I know, you're sent to me by God,
you are my guardian to the tomb....
You had appeared to me in dreams,
unseen, you were already dear to me,
your wondrous glance pervaded me with languor,
your voice resounded in my soul
long since... No, it was not a dream!

Scarcely had you entered, instantly I knew you,
I felt all faint, I felt aflame,
and in my thoughts I uttered: It is he!
Is it not true that it way you I heard:
you in the stillness spoke to me
when I would help the poor
or assuage with a prayer
the yearning of my agitated soul?

And at this very moment
was it not you, dear vision,
that slipped through the transparent darkness,
softly bent close to my bed head?
Was it not you that with joy and love
words of hope whispered to me?
Who are you? My guardian angel
or a perfidious tempter?
Resolve my doubts.
Perhaps, 'tis nonsense all,
an inexperienced soul's delusion,
and some quite different thing is destined...

But so be it! My fate
henceforth I place into you hands,
before you I shed tears,
for your defense I plead.
Imagine: I am here alone,
none understands me,
my reason is breaking down,
and, silent, I must perish.
I'm waiting for you: with a single look
revive my heart's hopes,
or interrupt the heavy dream,
alas, with a deserved rebuke!

I close! I dread to read this over.
I'm fait with shame and fear...
But to me your honor is a pledge,
and boldly I entrust myself to it.
That is all.