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Introduction: Andrei Platonov, an Engineer of the Human Soul

  • Nariman Skakov

In this essay I explore how Soviet policymakers, biologists, and writers negotiated the borderline dividing the human and animal domains and conceptualized the animal world for ideological purposes. I link the classic Soviet clash between stikhiinost’ (spontaneity) and soznatel'nost’ (consciousness) with biological experiments of the 1920s that were set to deconstruct the human-animal hierarchy and to create a vision of “classless” biology. I show why Dzhan, one of Andrei Platonov's first earnest attempts to evolve into a socialist realist writer glorifying the Soviet state's firm strides toward the communist future, fails to achieve the semantic certitude of the Stalinist text. Various recurrent and profoundly unconventional themes, often connected with animality and corporeality, drastically muddle the ideological coordinates of the text and preclude the possibility of a clear passage from stikhiinost’ to soznatel'nost'. The (a)political status of the Dzhan people as a newly formed Soviet collective body manifests itself in the complex interplay between two rather commonplace categories: body and soul. The body acquires abstract political qualities by becoming collective, while the soul, as a designator for the Dzhan people and as a category, gains flesh. The novella reveals the “Turkmen“ nation as a site of bare life itself in its indestructible corporeal glory.

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1. Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial'no-politicheskoi istorii (RGASPI), fond (f.) 558, opis (op.) 11, delo (d.) 201, dokument (dok.) 2.

2. Platonov, Andrei, Sobranie, ed. Kornienko, N. V., vol. 2, Efirnyi trakt: Povesti 1920- kh—nachala 1930-kh godov, ed. Malygina, N. M. (Moscow, 2009), 301 . For further discussion, see Dobrenko, Evgeny, “Platonov and Stalin: Dialogues in Double Dutch,” trans. Levchin, Sergey, in “Andrei Platonov: Style, Context, Meaning,” special issue of Ulbandus Review 14 (2011/2012): 202–15. For a general discussion of Stalin's relationship with language, see Vaiskopf, Mikhail, Pisatel Stalin (Moscow, 2002).

3. Stalin, J. V., Marxism and Problems of Linguistics (Beijing, 1972).

4. Quoted in Zelinskii, K., “Odna vstrecha u M. Gor'kogo (Zapis’ iz dnevnika),Voprosy literatury, no. 5 (1991): 166.

5. See Ronen, Omri , ‘“Inzhenery chelovecheskikh dush': K istorii vyskazyvaniia,” in his Poetika Osipa Mandel ‘shtama (Saint-Petersburg, 2002), 164–74; and Gutkin, Irina, The Cultural Origins of the Socialist Realist Aesthetic, 1890-1934 (Evanston, 1999), 5157.

6. Zhdanov, Andrei, “Soviet Literature: The Richest in Ideas, the Most Advanced Literature,“ in Scott, H. G., ed., Problems of Soviet Literature: Reports and Speeches at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress (Westport, Conn., 1979), 2223 . Gor'kii reinforces the industrial metaphor and even calls for centralized production in a speech he gave in 1935: “We, people of the arts, have been called ‘engineers of souls.’ This title is given to us as an advance. We are not engineers yet. Engineers work according to a plan.” Gor'kii, Maksim, “Literatura i kino,” Sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow, 1949-55), 27:433.

7. Shklovsky, Viktor, Third Factory, trans. Sheldon, Richard (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1977), 7172.

8. Ibid., 35. Translation modified. Platonov's answer to Shklovskii can be found in the pages of “Antiseksus” (1926), in which he describes an apparatus regulating human sexual life (basically, a masturbation device)—the ultimate confluence of industrial and corporeal spheres. The writer parodies the critic's terse prose and takes up the condom reference from Third Factory: “Women are passing by just as the crusades passed by. Antiseksus finds us like the inevitable early morning sunrise. But it's clear to anybody: it's a question of form and the style of an era of automatization and not at all about an essence that doesn't exist. There is one thing which the world lacks—existence. Sweet shame becomes a state custom, while maintaining its sweetness. You can already live not as dimly as in a condom.” Sobranie, ed. N. V. Kornienko, vol. 1, Usomnivshiisia Makar: Rasskazy 1920-kh godov. Stikhotvoreniia, ed. Malygina, N. M. (Moscow, 2009), 149.

9. Platonov, Andrei, “Fabrika literatury (0 korennom uluchshenii sposobov literaturnogo proizvodstva),Sobranie, ed. Kornienko, N. V., vol. 8, Fabrika literatury: Literaturnaia kritika. Publitsistika (Moscow, 2011), 4556.

10. Vestnik Akademii nauk SSSR, no. 4 (1934): 5960 . The 24 March 1934 issue of Literaturnaia gazeta highlights the fact that some of the writers from Sannikov's brigade, including Platonov, joined the Academy of Sciences’ “comprehensive” expedition to Turkmenia and it was the first instance of collaboration between fiction writers and scientists in a “practical scientific” sphere. Moreover, several references to the oil geologist and academician Ivan Gubkin in Platonov's Turkmen diaries confirm the fact that the writer, who was employed as a senior engineer at Rosmetroves at the time, was most likely involved in scientific endeavors in the region. Platonov, Andrei, Zapisnye knizhki: Materialy k biografii (Moscow, 2000), 127–29.

11. Platonov, , Zapisnye knizhki, 138.

12. In this context, see Vladimir Papernyi's discussion of the tension between horizontal and vertical axes in what he defines as “Culture 1” (avant-garde) and “Culture 2“ (high Stalinism). Papernyi, Vladimir, Kul'tura Dva (Moscow, 2011), 7299.

13. As Thomas Seifrid observes, Platonov's characters challenge “the ephemerality of the spiritual” and, while “longing for abstract ideals and values, they nonetheless remain firmly convinced that unless these take material form they cannot possibly be said to exist,“ Seifrid, Thomas, “Platonov, Socialist Realism, and the Legacy of the Avant-Garde,” in Bowlt, John E. and Matich, Olga, eds., Laboratory of Dreams: The Russian Avant-Garde and Cultural Experiment (Stanford, 1999), 242.

14. Bakhmet'ev, Porfirii I., “Sedalishche dushi,” Nauchnoe obozrenie, nos. 9-10 (1902): 16,21-39.

15. Lukács, Georg, Soul and Form, trans. Bostock, Anna (London, 1974), 153.

16. Lukács, Geörg, The Theory of The Novel: A Historico-PhUosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, trans. Bostock, Anna (London, 1978), 147.

17. Lukács, Gyorgy, “Aesthetic Culture,” Yale Journal of Criticism 11, no. 2 (Fall 1998): 378.

18. Platonov, Andrei, “Dzhan,” Sobranie, ed. Kornienko, N. V., vol. 4, Schastlivaia Moskva: Roman, povest', rasskazy (Moscow, 2010), 111.

19. Lukács spent a substantial period of his life in the Soviet Union (1930-31 and 1933-45). His intellectual presence profoundly affected literary life in the country. For example, he authored the entry on the novel (romari) for the Literary Encyclopedia in 1935. His involvement with the Soviet republics’ literatures was rather limited. However, Literaturnyi kritik, the journal associated with Lukács, published a series of articles on Turkmen literature, with an extensive bibliography, in issues nos. 2 and 3 in 1934. On Lukács as an active proponent of cross-cultural exchange, see Katerina Clark, Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941 (Cambridge, Mass., 2011), 132-35, 162-68, 312-17.

20. Lukács, , The Theory of The Novel, 40, 60,147.

21. Ibid., 29.

22. Bakhtin, Mikhail, in “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Emerson, Caryl and Holquist, Michael (Austin, 1981), echoes Lukács by claiming that the novel “begins by presuming a verbal and semantic decentering of the ideological world, a certain linguistic homelessness of literary consciousness” (367). For a discussion of the link between the two theorists, see Neubauer, John, “Bakhtin versus Lukács: Inscriptions of Homelessness in Theories of the Novel,” Poetics Today 17, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 531–46; and Tihanov, Galin, The Master and the Slave: Lukács, Bakhtin, and the Ideas of Their Time (Oxford, 2000).

23. Platonov, Andrey, Happy Moscow, trans. Robert, and Chandler, Elizabeth, Livingstone, Angela, Burova, Nadya, and Naiman, Eric (London, 2001), 69.

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Slavic Review
  • ISSN: 0037-6779
  • EISSN: 2325-7784
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