Friday, June 29, 2007

Superfluous Man

I was reading the Russian short story Diary of a Superfluous Man by Ivan Turgenev today. (Link to the complete text here.) A very "typical" story, which is not to say it is bad but rather it is yet another example of the "superfluous hero" type ubiquitous in the nineteenth century Russian literature. He is generally an aristocrat, smart, intelligent, attractive and well-educated. His head is also filled with ideas of Byron, Hegel and French socialists and radicals like Saint-Simon and Fourier but himself bored, alienated and isolated when he comes into contact with other people in the society. And most importantly his hyper self-consciousness makes himself hesitant, indecisive, weak-willed and incapable of any meaningful action. Instead his energies are spent in musings about his own feelings and thoughts and imagining and manipulating those of others.

A basic plot would be something like this:

The hero arrives in some province. He charms everybody by his wit and intelligence. Among them a beautiful and young girl who is excited by the melancholy and brooding personality. Some scandal happens concerning a rival suitor. A duel is arranged and fought, which always results in hero's favour. But in the end the love story ends unhappily because the hero can't decide or can't imagine a future for himself and decides to flee instead.

Of course this type is not something new to Russian literature. With so many references to Byron, the Russian writers themselves make clear as to who their inspiration is. But what makes these characters so fascinating, (and I think) even more than characters like Manfred or Don Juan, is the complex material social and political context they find themselves in. It then becomes a sharp and revealing social-political critique, a commentary on the unjustness of stifling social conventions and institutions, besides being a fantastic of a romantic spirit.

In the same spirit then, a few lines from the story of my personal favourite superfluous hero Eugene Onegin (from the translation by Charles Johnston which I like less than that of James Falen):

O flowers, and love, and rustic leisure,
o fields -- to you I'm vowed at heart.
I regularly take much pleasure
in showing how to tell apart
myself and Eugene, lest a reader
of mocking turn, or else a breeder
of calculated slander should,
spying my features, as he could,
put back the libel on the table
that, like proud Byron, I can draw
self-portraits only -- furthermore
the charge that poets are unable
to sing of others must imply
the poet's only theme is ``I.''

Another Byron devotee, Mikhail Lermontov, creator of another great superfluous hero Pechorin, is more explicit about his debts:

"No, I'm not Byron"

No, I'm not Byron; I am, yet,
Another choice for the sacred dole,
Like him - a persecuted soul,
But only of the Russian set.
I early start and end the whole,
And will not win the future days;
Like in an ocean, in my soul,
A cargo of lost hopes stays.
Who, oh, my ocean severe,
Could read all secrets in your scroll?
Who'll tell the people my idea?
I'm God or no one at all!

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