A “verbal chain” culminating in God: Mikhail Shishkin on Russian literature

At the end of October, I heard a lecture at UW-Madison by acclaimed Russian author Mikhail Shishkin that I have only just had time to revisit (for a full recording, see CREECA lecture archive).

His lecture was an incredibly interdisciplinary and gleefully stimulating—albeit only loosely coherent—bit of waxing philosophical on the meaning of Russian literature and its history and future. It was simultaneously a poetic take on linguistics, an allegorical take on political science, a mystical literary study, and a manically thematic and anachronous history. Nonetheless, it ended on a rather effete, New-Agey and possibly even Pentecostal note with Shishkin’s assertion that literature should be a road “to a place where all of us are loved and awaited to be saved,” a statement that was indeed meant in the religious sense these words imply.

Shishkin for the most part ruminated on three themes: the use of language, the situation of the modern Russian writer, and the religious-mystical meaning of literature.

“Words are guards that do not allow meaning and emotion to enter … and still, the verbal path is the only way to understanding.” In Shishkin’s view, language is at the root of both obstructions to divine love (no one loves as purely as mother and babe when they do so “sub-verbally”) and problems of intellectual and moral flaccidity in current literature. Thus, revamping commercially corrupted literature, and thereby alleviating the modern condition, centers on a reinvigoration of the language.

Shishkin obviously troubles himself over knowing the fundamentals of the written word, and avoiding them as such. “For me, the only way to create my own road is to write incorrectly … to say something correctly means to say nothing,” he said.

On the second theme, Shishkin laid out a history of Russian literature as the receptacle of “non-totalitarian consciousness” amid state-enforced conformity. To his mind, the totalitarian consciousness can be atomized into the state’s commands and the people’s prayers (mat swear words are the “living prayers spoken in the imprisoned country”). The “prison reality of the state gave its people a prison mentality” that “created a (Russian) language with an unprecedented power to humiliate.” When literary language arrived from the West in the 18th century, bringing along with it a respect for human dignity, Russian literature—in the hands of “colonists” like Dostoevksy and Chekhov—sought to “squeeze itself into the space between the insult and the groan.”

Russian writers never depended on the interest of readers, writing only for themselves or the Party, but were nonetheless accorded respect (see the old adage, “A poet in Russia is more than just a poet.”) After the fall, “Literature was left for those who cannot live without writing. Then the dollar came.” Shishkin, who wrote his first novel in teh 1980s, said that the new dependence on print run in the ‘90s was no better than previous dependence on the Soviet regime’s approval.

Shishkin accurately describes the current situation in which literature, its decline marked by the ascension of pop authors like Oksana Robski, is so marginal and meaningless as a product for profit, it can paradoxically exist freely in Russia for the first time. But he sounds a tad curmudgeonly and simplistic in his rote condemnation of the downsides of the market economy.

For his third theme, Shishkin totters out onto a metaphysical limb and gets all mystical: The Russian author—Shishkin suddenly adopts the guise of a parenting help guru—loves his hero unconditionally, as Gogol does Akaki Akakievich. In this he touches the sacred, since in the beginning there was only a “clump of love, or, rather, the need for it,” which prompted God to create “his own child in order to love him.”

What follows is a bit of metaphorical logic stretched to the breaking point: “If the author loves Akaki Akakievich, who does not deserve to be loved, then the reader knows that God exists and loves him.” Thus, the author’s task is to combine words into “verbal chain” that culminates in God. The additional duty of the Russian author, it would seem, is to fight the totalitarian consciousness intrinsic to the Russian nation and the humiliation reflex intrinsic to the Russian language.

Shishkin claims it is impossible to offer a universal prescription as to how to achieve this, then proceeds to do exactly that, speaking from his own experience: To create his own “Russian arc,” the Russian writer must become hermit, i.e. leave, physically or metaphorically, bringing only his own experience and “ten centuries of the Cyrillic language.”

Although by the end I was worried Shishkin was trying to surreptitiously convert the audience to Scientology, I will admit the lecture was the most inimitable and far-reaching analysis of Russian literature that I have yet heard.

A few more chestnuts:

“Russian literature suffers from high blood pressure.”

“The letters I wrote at home had a completely different density abroad.” (Shishkin lives in Switzerland).

“Not writing is part of writing.”

“If the Russian border were closed, Russian literature would never have happened.”

To be successful in the current Russian book market, writers must write a lot, appear everywhere, and “try to create as many scandals as possible.”

The Russian reader is still looking for a book “whose author does not consider him an idiot looking for entertainment.”

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5 Responses to “A “verbal chain” culminating in God: Mikhail Shishkin on Russian literature”

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