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Boris Groys: The Russian Novel as a Serial Murder or The Poetics of Bureaucracy


The Russian Novel as a Serial Murder
or The Poetics of Bureaucracy

Boris Groys

It is a well-known truism that Russian subjectivity hopes to see and discover itself in the first place in the mirror of the nineteenth century Russian classical novel. In his novel Roman, Vladimir Sorokin turns to the tradition of the Russian classical novel in order to pose once again the question of Russia and of how Russia defines itself within this tradition. Roman was written in 1985-89 and was published in Moscow in 1994.1 In this period occurred the downfall of the Soviet Union, Soviet communism, Soviet ideology and Soviet literature, whose stylistics Sorokin used in his earlier texts. When on the ruins of the Soviet Union Russia appeared anew, the broad masses of the Russian intelligentsia turned to the pre-revolutionary tradition of Russian culture – and especially the village-dacha culture – looking for authentic roots, values and orientation. The Russian landscape and the tender, good and patient Russian national character, sung by classical Russian literature, again took their place of honour in the general mythology. Sorokin’s novel is, in the first place, a reaction to this mythology.
The plot of the novel is quite simple. The action takes place somewhere in old pre-revolutionary Russia. The young lawyer Ro- man Vospevennikov gives up his lawyer’s practice and life in the big city, which he finds banal and tedious. In search of freedom he goes to live in a village, where he intends to occupy himself partly with farming and partly with painting, for which he discovered a sudden and unexpected calling. Roman takes up his quarters with his relatives, the couple Vospevennikov, who once took the place of his dead parents. Against the background of the typical life of a ni- neteenth-century nobleman in a village: hunting, fishing, mowing, extinguishing fire, visiting the church, et cetera, the hero meets the heroine, Tatyana, the foster-daughter of a forester. After the decla- ration of love follows the wedding, which culminates in Roman’s slaying with an axe first all his relatives and acquaintances and next all the peasants in the village. Afterwards he performs a kind of black mass in the local church, using the entrails of his victims, kills Tatyana and at last dies himself. The first, longest part of the novel, more than 300 pages, is devoted to the description of Roman’s life in the village until the moment of the extermination of the villagers and has been written as a typical nineteenth-century novel à la Tol- stoy and Dostoyevsky. The second, much shorter part (less than 100 pages) has been written in an ultra-modernist prose-style and contains only the description of the ritual of destruction and self- destruction staged by the hero.
The sudden change from the traditional, psychological way of story-telling to literary modernism coincides with the sudden change in the hero’s behaviour, which goes far beyond ordinary human be- haviour. Without any doubt, this moment of change is crucial for the understanding of the entire structure of the novel. Moreover, such a sudden change is characteristic for the greater part of Sorokin’s texts, especially his short stories, and is, therefore, expected by the reader who knows the author’s narrative practice: Sorokin’s reader always waits for the moment when it will start, that is to say when the deceptive narrative idyll changes into the description of so- mething horrible.2 Such an expectation is, incidentally, in the first place typical for various forms of popular literature, such as the detective novel or erotic literature. Having learned from experience, the reader obediently reads the introductory “realistic” pages, which, according to the tradition of the European novel, are full of descrip- tions of nature, details of the environment, of the outward appear- ance and the character of the dramatis personae, et cetera. He is wai- ting for the moment when, at last, the first corpse or the first naked body will appear. And from that moment the reading becomes inte- resting, although at the same time probability decreases to a con- siderable degree.
Sorokin’s texts are, in essence, built on the same device of ex- pectation that something, in the end, will happen. In his texts, how- ever, expectation lasts much longer than usual. In Roman it conti- nues, as I have already remarked, for more than 300 pages. Sorokin tries the reader’s patience to the utmost and makes expectation unbearably long. For his suffering the reader is, however, amply re- warded: something utterly strange occurs, something which goes beyond the criminal and beyond the erotic, so that, in the end, the general budget of the reader’s emotions is in balance. This balance is slightly upset, however, by the above-mentioned concurrence of the sudden change in the plot and the not less sudden change in the way the story is told. As a result of this concurrence we have the impression that “as a matter of fact” nothing has happened, except a simple change from one style into another, so that the “horrible event” loses its status of a fact of reality described by the text and is entirely de-dramatised, appearing as an intratextual stylistic device. Thanks to this, Sorokin’s texts maintain their distance from po- pular literature and offer the possibility of what has been described by Roland Barthes as plaisir de texte. This possibility does not en- tirely eliminate a “normal”, i.e. a referential reading of Sorokin’s text, evoking in the reader a delicious horror which is, as is well- known, an unequivocal sign of popular literature. In this manner, Sorokin offers two competing ways of reading, a referential and a non-referential one, or, which is the same, a popular and an elitist- modernistic one, without predetermining the reader’s choice. As a matter of fact, it is the indefiniteness and indissolubility of this choice, that is to say the continuing tension between these two con-flicting ways of reading, which forms the basic inner conflict of Sorokin’s prose, a conflict that is not solved in the end by some kind of synthesis or catharsis. On the contrary, this conflict mani- fests itself on all the levels of Sorokin’s text, including that of ideo- logy. In Roman he also defines the hero’s relationship to himself and to Russia, so that both the subjectivity of the hero and Russia acquire a double reading.
In the first place, it is possible to show that the novel Roman from the first to the last page can perfectly be read in a traditionally psychological key: as a complete and consistent story about how the hero, Roman, is looking for and ultimately succeeds in finding him- self. Roman leaves the city and goes to live in the country to acquire inner freedom and to discover himself. This zone of inner freedom Roman explicitly associates with the image of the Russian coun- tryside. This becomes clearly apparent from the dialogue between Roman and Zoya, his former love, when she also strived for free- dom, impetuously throwing herself into horse-riding and other country pleasures, but who in time, becoming disappointed with Russia, decided to emigrate to the West, because she became bored with her own country (as a result of which she turned out to be the only one who escaped the blow on the head with the axe at the end of the novel). Roman, on the other hand, emigrates to Russia, to the interior of the country.
Zoya, however, is almost the only doleful exception against a generally cheerful background. All the other characters in the novel (except doctor Klyugin, about whom we will talk later on) contin- uously assure themselves and others that in Russia a Russian human being feels himself so free, easy and comfortable as he could never feel himself to be in the West. Such assertions, and the descriptions which confirm them, exclamations as ‘Perfect! Wonderful’, spee- ches and toasts in praise of life in the countryside, Russian natural beauty and the Russian people, delight in Russian food et cetera, forms a significant part of the text of the novel. In its characters, Roman himself included, this sense of freedom through direct contact with nature (fishing, hunting, mowing, pick-nicking, taking part in the life of the peasants, all of which is considered to belong to natural life) is particularly strong. This contact with nature invariably brings the characters to a state of blissful ecstasy. Nature functions here as an unconditional value and as the only source of freedom and happiness. Sorokin accentuates the fundamental themes of the nineteenth-century Russian novel: the salutary union of nature and freedom, the turning away from civilisation, simplification, go- ing back to the sources, et cetera. And it is obvious that we have to deal here with a more fundamental aspect of Russian literature than the usual division in Westerners and Slavophiles, not to mention the other less important ideological subdivisions. The opposition between natural freedom and servility as regards the conditions of civilisation has a long tradition in European culture and is symbolised in modern times in the first place by the name of Rousseau. For Rousseau, Nature functions as the bearer of the good, civilisation as the bearer of evil. By Nature he understands “natural man” who lives in the heart of everyone: the contemplation of external nature has in the first place the pedagogical function of resuscitating natural freedom and natural good which have been buried in the hearts of men by the conditions of civilisation. It is this pedagogy which is practised by the Russian novel as Sorokin un- derstands it. The traditional Rousseau theme is in this case, how- ever, connected with the complementary and very important theme of Russia. The opposition between nature and civilisation is under- stood at the same time as the opposition between Russia and the West, and Russian literature is, of course, on the side of Russia. There is nothing new here, however. The German romantics already used the opposition between the natural and the artificial to describe the opposition Germany/France, natural being on the side of Ger- many, although the entire conception had been borrowed from the Frenchman Rousseau. Russian literature transfers the same oppo- sition to the opposition Russia/the West, Russifying Rousseau and placing Germany under the ‘artificial’ West, after having borrowed from the German romantics their rhetorical device. It is not by chance that Roman goes to live in the country, in Rus- sian nature, renouncing the written, codified, artificial law which he served as a lawyer.3 To ironise written law and legal proceedings is a frequent device in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The written, artificial law, a man-made creation, is opposed to inner free- dom, granted by nature, life itself. Freedom cannot be determined by written, legal rights. Natural life itself is a zone of freedom. For that reason, Russia, as the incarnation of the natural, is synonymous with real freedom, as it does not have formal, written, legal free- dom. Russian literature, as Sorokin understands it, proclaims life itself, freed from all external restraints, as the highest value. The in- ner freedom of a Russian lies deeper than all the external freedom of western people, because freedom is another name for life. And this inner freedom is completely realised when man and nature, life, are fused and not when man is separated from life, as it happens within the system of legal rights, which isolates the individual and forms the basis of “city life”, considered “slavish” by Roman. At the same time, the search for natural freedom within the space of the Russian novel runs against certain restrictions imposed on the individual by collective life, God and good, which in the Russian novel are considered the highest values: freedom, in the sense of the triumph of evil, i.e. natural freedom directed against nature itself, is excluded owing to the clear dominance of good. This dominance of good over evil in the Russian classical novel is guaranteed not only ideologically but in the first place by its narrative structure. In the traditional novel, evil occurs always as an episode, i.e. as an ele- ment of the plot structure and in this way inevitably moves the story further, having a ‘constructive function’ in this context. The teleo- logy of the novel’s narration is in itself a safeguard for the good, as in its movement ahead it reduces evil to a “moment”. Each narrative is inevitably dialectical: evil is destined to serve the good, i.e. the continuation of the narrative.
In the first part of the novel, the lawyer Roman could not completely free himself from the law and the power of convention. After having left the city, i.e. the power of the legal law, Roman did not arrive in the countryside, in nature and freedom, but in the space of the Russian novel, in the power of literary convention. In other words, Roman simply moved from one text into another, from the vault of laws of the Russian empire into the no less imperial Russian novel, i.e. into the territorial jurisdiction of the no less conventional laws of literary narration. The aspiration of nature to self-repro- duction, i.e. to the triumph of good over evil, postulated in the Rus- sian novel, is merely the ideological effect of the aspiration of the novel itself to self-continuation, self-composition, reproduction of its own descriptions, its own rhetoric, its own narrative schemes. This mechanism of the neutralisation of evil as the ultimate possibility of freedom through its functioning in the teleologically organised novelistic narration is continuously demonstrated by So- rokin in the first part of his novel. We can find many examples of it. From time to time the hero thinks that nature and God are indifferent to his fate and to the fate of people in general; these thoughts, however, inevitably lead to a still greater belief and the change of his fate for the better. Characteristic in this respect is the episode in the church, when Roman at first diverts his attention from the church service, in order to give himself up to inner doubt: “The deacon read, and Roman became more and more absorbed in his sorrow, his eyes indifferently travelling over the faces… ‘How unsteady and treacherous is everything in this world of human feelings’, he thought, ‘there is nothing to rely on, there is nothing in which you can believe without being deceived later on…’” et cetera. This drif- ting away from the church service has, however, the advantage that Roman for the first time sees his future wife, Tatyana, who appears to be the image of real belief.
The rhetoric of moral internal monologue, which clearly refers to Tolstoy, is rather often used by Sorokin without any direct moti- vation of the plot, as, for instance, in the scene of the marriage of Roman and Tatyana, in which Roman again is overcome by nihi- listic thoughts: “They sing, not understanding what and why they are singing. But why is it so gentle, so innocent? Or, perhaps, they know everything?… But their incomprehension and innocence do not make it easier for me!” Soon after, however, he accepts the world: “This was the light of hope… To hope, hope, that everything which is going on is right – that is left to us!” et cetera. Thus the considerations about earthly vanity in the sense of Schopenhauer leads the hero every time to the good in the sense of Tolstoy. Sorokin does not forget Dostoyevsky: Tatyana’s foster-father makes Roman play Russian roulette with him. It seems as if the he- roes are directly exposed to death, but, in the end, nobody is killed; everyone is satisfied, affected even – and Roman and Tatyana re- ceive the blessing. Even the central episode in the first part of the novel in which Roman, inspired by noble feelings, fights a wolf, but discovers in himself a wolfish element, mixing his blood with that of the wolf and registering nature’s indifference to his fate, ends with the fact that Roman finds himself in Tatyana’s house, which leads to the marriage of the heroes. And Roman is treated by doctor Klyugin who – the only one of the novel’s heroes – straightly pro- claims “nihilistic” views.
Klyugin partly stands outside the general “Russian idyll” (already suggested by his name, clearly derived from the German word “klug”– clever). But even the radically “nihilistic” speeches, well- known to the reader of Russian nineteenth-century literature, do not place Klyugin outside the domain of the novel’s “good”: Klyugin is an excellent doctor, would not harm a fly, et cetera. In this way the freedom of nature is continuously obstructed in the “Russian novel” by the teleology of the good. For Roman to discover freedom in himself, he should leave the space of the Russian novel, free himself of the laws of “realistic” literary description and narration. This liberation is realised by the hero, to all appearances, in the second part of the novel. From the moment that Roman raises the axe in order to destroy the villagers “undialectically”, he begins to withdraw himself more and more from the control of the traditional Russian novel. The descriptions of nature and of the inner state of the hero disappear from the text; there is no attempt any longer to psychological motivation nor to reconstruction of relations of cause and effect. The text of the novel changes more and more into a me- rely external recording of what happens and as a result loses its con- ventional literalness. Nature’s freedom is demonstrated by the possi- bility to understand it and to reconstruct its internal laws, by its pure processionality and operationality. In this respect, it is typical that the de-teleologization of freedom in the second part of the novel refers back to the same episodes as the teleologization in the first part: in the second part everything turns out to be realised which re- mained blocked-up in the first part.
For the killing of the inhabitants of the novel’s space, Roman uses an axe, given to him as a present for his marriage by Klyugin, and on which is written: “Swing – and strike!” Klyugin, by the way, does not only preach nihilism, (with which the “axe of the people’s war” and Raskolnikov’s axe are associated), but argues about libido and thanatos, presenting in this way the key to the un- derstanding of the ritual of the killing as erotic. Tatyana accompanies the hero, ringing the little bell, which had also been given as a wedding present, by the village idiot who, as could be expected, represents the wild, irrational and destructive side of Orthodoxy. Many other scenes of the first part allude to the end of the novel: the description of the murder of Tatyana’s parents, the hunting scene,4 the scene of the fight with the wolf, et cetera. Moreover, the first part of the novel suggests the interpretation of the religious-erotic ritual performed by Roman in the second part as the equivalent of the wedding-night: after the long ritual of the wedding, in which the ecstasy of the “good” reaches an unbearable degree of collective hysterics, there was nothing else the heroes could do than kill everybody and die themselves, in order to reach communion in love. The operations performed by Roman on the body of Tatyana are also clearly erotic. Besides, Roman has an orgasm only after he has removed all the “others”, Tatyana included, and finally desecrates the church to escape the eyes of God.
Nevertheless, highly important for a possible psychological inter- pretation of the transition to the second part of the novel can be considered a short scene in which Roman requires from Tatyana an absolute faith in freedom and Tatyana answers positively. Sorokin demonstrates here what could have happened if Onegin, without any regard for the conventions of society, had married Tatyana. They would have been a pair of “natural-born killers”, who would have gone further on the path of the abolition of conventions – until the complete extermination of all the representatives of these conven- tions. The traditional Rousseau-like aspiration of the Russian novel to freedom and nature is realised in the extreme, in the form of absolute terror. Roman becomes a serial killer who definitively frees his inner, natural freedom from the gaze, description and under- standing of others. The hero, who realises this freedom in himself, completely emancipates himself from the author, from the narration, from the laws of the literary text as such. Not for nothing is the hero called Roman: the inner intention of the novel is realised exclusively in the hero himself, leaving no place for the external, for descrip- tion. Roman stops being text and becomes life. If Bakhtin describes the poetics of Dostoyevsky’s novels as being orientated to the equa- lity of author and hero, Sorokin stages, to all appearances, the defi- nitive victory of the author over the hero: the hero destroys every- thing that can be described – and finally himself as the object of description. The novel ends with the death of the hero, as the hero before his death succeeds in destroying everything in the space of the novel that still could be described and narrated. Sorokin’s Ro- man can, therefore, be read as the definitive victory of nature and freedom in Russia – over the text, the law and the West, something which the nineteenth-century Russian novel could not achieve. Besides, the literary radicalisation of natural freedom outside the boundaries of the usual social conventions had already been realised rather conclusively by Marquis de Sade in the context of French Enlightenment. In their elaborate philosophical deliberations the li- bertines of De Sade draws conclusions from Rousseau’s demand to follow unconditionally the voice of nature with which Rousseau himself probably would not agree. Moreover, however, De Sade is in his turn extremely didactic and subjects the description of erotic orgies to a strict ritual. The reductional registering of pure proces- sion, or pure ritualism, by means of which in the second part of Sorokin’s novel nature apparently demonstrates its absolute free- dom, stylistically directly refers to De Sade. Moreover, as Roland Barthes rightly remarks, De Sade’s erotic rituals are themselves or- ganised as language: by means of various operations of fragmen- tation, these rituals realize the articulation of bodies, transforming these bodies into elements of language.5 The religious-erotic ritual, described by Sorokin, also consists of the fragmentation of bodies and of the introduction of a new system of combinations which pla-ces the fragments of these bodies in new relations to each other, now not subjected to natural, organic logic, but to the syntax of a new language, by means of which Roman formulates his messages to God and the world: Roman places the intestines of his victims in the church, puts stones on the intestines, heads on the stones, etc. In this manner, natural freedom again turns out to be completely sub- jected to the syntax of language. Even Roman’s last death spasms are described by reduced subject-predicate constructions which, among other things, refer to texts by Sergey Tretyakov. In the mo- ment just before his death when freedom reaches its greatest intensity, Roman subjects himself totally to the fundamental laws of the functioning of language. The emigration from the idyllic Rousseauistic Russian village to the domain of pure desire or the pure religious-erotic subconscious turns out to be just as illusory as the earlier move from the city to the village. Again, the hero does not find inner freedom, but only moves from text into text, from language into language.
From this point of view, the scenes of mass destruction in the second part of the novel begin to look different. We do not see here the self-liberation of the hero but, rather, the destruction of the signifieds of the novel, with the aim to leave only the signifiers. When all the referents of the novel have died, only its text remains. The orgy of destruction and self-destruction staged by Sorokin does not signify in this case the victory of natural freedom over the laws of the text but, on the contrary, the definitive victory of the text over its natural referents and its own organic meaning. In one of his articles on Rousseau, devoted to the deconstruction of the Rousseauistic myth about Nature, Paul de Man writes that the description of the fragmentation and mutilation of the human body, which we often encounter in literature, serves as a metaphor for the fragmentation and mutilation of the text itself.6 This fragmentation of the text occurs as a result of censoring, quotation and other manipu- lations of the text, which disclose the disorganisation, the “machine- like” character of every text. In this way, the ritual of “dismember- ment” described by Sorokin, can be understood as the metaphor of textuality. Characteristically, Sorokin’s novel begins with the description of Roman’s grave in the village graveyard which, in its turn, reminds one of De Man’s famous discussions of the trans- formation of the body into the text of the epitaph in which the graveyard also plays a role.7 So then, Sorokin’s hero dies, looking for inner freedom but not finding it. The only thing he is capable of turns out to be emigration from one text to another or, in other words, from under the power of one syntax, writing, law into the power of another one. The death of the hero, however, in this case also means the death of the author. Not for nothing is the hero called Roman. With his death dies the genre of the novel, and also the author-novelist. The author and the hero of the novel, as has been rightly noted by Bakhtin in his time, are connected in one chain. The author has power over language only in so far as he uses language to describe the freedom of the hero outside language. If it turns out that the hero does not have such a freedom, as he cannot free himself from the power of language, together with him the author also loses his freedom: he changes into a passive medium of language structures and the self- development of the text. But this also means that the death of the hero coincides with the death of the author, so that both receive a joint epitaph from contemporary post-structuralist literary theory. At first sight it would seem as if Sorokin, by his text, confirms this diagnosis. But when we take a closer look, it turns out that although the author of the novel dies, this dead author is not Sorokin himself, but his double, a fake figure, a literary mask, alter-ego, specially predestined to be shot down. The point is that the entire novel is, as it were, written on the account of another or, to be more correct, on the account of others. The worn-out and at the same time recognisable stylistics of the novel unmistakably show that the author is not Sorokin, but some other, who completely seriously writes a Russian novel. It is this other who turns out to be the dead author – and who, for that matter, has appeared as such from the very beginning, not being able to write a live, sincere, not banal but original, authentic and not worn-out author’s language. The citatio- nal, pseudonymic, “personage”-like character of Sorokin’s prose is, however, not indicative of reduction and death, but of the survival of the author, who hides himself behind his masks-doubles that he sacrifices to his hero.
Sorokin belongs to the literary-artistic movement which arose in the beginning of the 70s within the context of Moscow unofficial art, i.e., the art practised outside the official Soviet cultural institu- tions, and which is generally called Moscow conceptualism.8 This term refers back to the Western, in the first place Anglo-American variant of artistic conceptualism, represented, for instance, by the works of the groups “Art and Language” or Joseph Kosuth. Within the context of the art of the sixties and seventies, the American con- ceptualists very consistently enforced the principle of ascesis in art, radically excluding all references to the world of visual temptations. By placing the text instead of the picture in the space of the work of art, Western conceptualism demonstrated its radical opposition against the commercial mass culture of its time. However, the basic features of conceptualism at the same time turned out to be closely related to some central aspects of official So- viet mass aesthetics, which also understood art as an illustration to particular political-theoretical propositions. The asceticism of Wes- tern conceptualism and its utopian-pedagogical pathos could also be easily recognised by the Soviet spectator and reader, especially if he was familiar with the theory and aesthetics of the Russian avant- garde. In the first place, however, Western conceptualism won the Soviet spectator over by the spirit of contemporary bureaucracy which permeated its artistic practice. The works of the conceptualists remind us of the documentation of big companies and public insti- tutions. Moreover, the conceptualist takes up an emphatically exter- nal, programmatically disinterested position as regards his own work. In its complete opposition to the traditional modernist orien- tation towards self-expression, this programmatical distance from its own art calls to mind the contemporary bureaucrat who controls the property of other people and for that purpose enforces laws not formulated and passed by him.
The utterly bureaucratic Soviet society of the Brezhnev period, which excluded from its very beginning any form of self-expres- sion, be it artistic or political, can therefore be considered an excel-lent example of conceptual art. The Moscow conceptualists looked at the matter exactly in this way. Hence their specific strategy, which is difficult to describe in terms used for the Western artistic move- ments. The Moscow conceptualists did not see in their work a utopic alternative to the mass culture that surrounded them, as was the case in American conceptualism, but a reflection in response to the functioning of Soviet mass culture, i.e. a culture that functions with- in the space of an already realised utopia. For that reason, the mini- malist-conceptualist devices were not used in Moscow in the seven- ties for the construction of an autonomous work of art, as was the case with the founding fathers of conceptualism, but for the recon- struction of devices which had already been applied for the building of an autonomous socialist society in one country. In this way, Moscow conceptualism aesthetically reacted at the pedagogical and bureaucratic doctrines of Soviet culture and at its being dominated by the ideological text.
Accordingly, Moscow conceptualism also changed the character of the texts used in the space of the work of art. Whereas the Ameri- can conceptualists in the first place lean on the great academic Ang- lo-American philosophical tradition of logical positivism, the Mos- cow conceptualists use texts of daily life, ideological, bureaucratic texts and literary texts that have become a part of Soviet mass con- sciousness as, for instance, texts by Pushkin, Tolstoy or Dosto- yevsky. And Moscow literary conceptualism treats the texts they use in the same way as contemporary art works do with visual “ready mades”. It does not identify itself with these texts, but quotes them as symptoms of the culture within which it exists, and which it ne- vertheless is able to analyse from an external position. The analogy between the bureaucratic and conceptualist work with texts led to the integration of an enormous mass of textual material in the practice of Moscow conceptualism: this resulted in an essential change in the understanding of the text itself, which played a decisive role in the development of the literary branch of Moscow conceptualism.
The fact is, that within the space of quotation the text, if presented
as a great mass, as it were, entirely loses its meaning – it simply
becomes an ornament, an arabesque, a décor. This radical de-semantisation of the text goes much further than that which could
have been reached by the traditional avant-gardistic devices of the destruction of the semantic unity of the text in the literary space of the book. And besides: the conceptualist de-semantisation of the text does not wholly require its deformation, estrangement, the intro- duction of semantic changes in its own structure, et cetera. The most trivial, ordinary text immediately loses its meaning if it is – without any changes being made – in its entirety taken up in the space of quotation. In this space it simply changes into écriture, according to Derrida’s terminology. At the same time, we cannot consider this change as a case of deconstruction, as it is not a matter here of the dissolving of the original text in an endless game of différences: the text remains complete and can also be read as such, i.e. with its ordinary meaning maintained. As a result the reader’s consciousness begins to waver permanently between two incompatible ways of reading the text: on the one hand the text is considered a ready- made, a purely visual phenomenon, an ornament deprived of any semantics, on the other hand, however, this text can be read as a ful- ly comprehensible utterance with a definite meaning which can ea- sily be reconstructed.
This oscillation of the receiving consciousness between, in con- ventional terms, the positions of the spectator and the reader, which originated within the space of the conceptual painting, made such a deep impression on some authors in the seventies that they felt obliged to look for a comparable effect on the basis of purely literary devices. The influence of the conceptualist artistic practice on litera- ture is, therefore, in the first place the result of a specific use of the text as part of this practice. It is not a coincidence that the best- known representatives of Moscow literary conceptualism, Dmitry Prigov, Lev Rubinstein and Vladimir Sorokin, began their careers as artists or were closely connected with artistic circles. Not only did Sorokin begin as an artist (in which he resembles his hero Roman), but during a number of years he earned his living as a designer of books, just as the founder-fathers of Moscow con- ceptualism, Ilya Kabakov and Eric Bulatov, whose artistic practice played a decisive role in the forming of Sorokin’s literary method. In a certain sense, literary conceptualism can be defined as the de- sign of the text. Being employed in book-design makes one look at the text in the first place as a sign, which the designer fashions and models, without paying much attention to its meaning, just as com- puter software processes large parts of texts independently from their semantics. This external, ready-made work with texts makes it possible to use much larger parts of texts by “others” than in usual literary quotation. Moreover, the conceptualist text-designer is, just as Bakhtin’s “author”, not interested in the revival of the quotation, in the logo-centric return to its authentic “voice”, in the creation of polyphone, inter-textual play or a grotesque body, which ought to bring to life the dead text. The text-designer is much more interested in demonstrating the text as a dead text, as an absolutely passive, non-organic sign-mass, which could be subjected to all kinds of manipulation, cuttings, changes, transferrings from one space into another, et cetera, without taking into account its so-called “mea- ning”, just as it happens with computer text design and book design. It is, by the way, not a matter here of a senseless “text corpse”: this expression presupposes that once, in its beginning, the text lived and only died at a later stage, after having consented to subject itself to various pathologist experiments. On the contrary, the concep- tualist work with a text demonstrates its originally “dead”, purely non-organic sign character.
The author-conceptualist succeeds in demonstrating this sign character because he makes his text anonymous or, if you will, pseudonymous. The conceptualist artists and authors themselves call this quality of their texts “personageness”. And indeed, their texts are written as it were on behalf of another person, or of a certain personage, as texts by others with recognisable, other stylistics. In this process, the author sacrifices his own soul, his individuality, the originality and inner life of his text, without waiting for contem- porary literary theory declaring the author dead. At first sight this sacrifice seems to be unnecessary, as the traditional author has long been already declared deconstructed, the text a dead play with signs. But no sacrifice is, of course, in vain.
The economics of the sacrifice have been analysed in detail in the theories of symbolic exchange from Marcel Mauss to Derrida, in- cluding those of Georges Bataille, which were applied to literature.9 As is well-known, Bataille interpreted the aesthetics of sacrifice as excess and the rejection of success. These aesthetics were employed by the modernist poète maudit as a means to acquire the lost aristocratic “sovereignty”, which, in any case symbolically, placed the contemporary author on the level of the sovereign aristocrat of the past. However, what in the past was the aristocrat is today evidently the bureaucrat. Whereas the author usually restricts him- self, in order to write “with his heart’s blood”, i.e. acts as a prole- tarian who makes a certain product, investing his labour, that means time of his life in it, the bureaucrat, or text designer, at whose disposal this hand-made product is placed, freely and sovereignly handles it, driving the text from one place to another, fragmentising it, quoting it or just forbidding it, et cetera. Explicitly rejecting his authorship and stylistically attributing his own text to “another”, the author acquires in this manner the possibility to place himself, at least symbolically, on the level of the bureaucrat and handles his own text as it were from the outside, i.e. sovereignly. Within the context of the Soviet culture of that epoch, the corresponding strategies were made much easier by the fact that there was a sharp opposition between the official mass culture and the samizdat, handmade books of unofficial culture. The device of the ready-made which is employed in contemporary art, consists in the artist’s individual appropriation of the products of artistic mass- and series-production. The practice of the device of the ready-made in literature is usually complicated by the fact that literature in mo- dern times only exists in printed form, i.e. the mass production of books. In the Russian samizdat of the sixties and seventies, on the contrary, the book functioned as a unique manuscript, or as an indi- vidual object, after the manner of a medieval hand-written text. It was precisely this form of samizdat-manuscript that for the Moscow conceptualist authors played the role of quotation space, supplying the place of the conceptual painting.
At first sight, the direct transposition of this device from the samizdat into printed literature seems to be impossible. But at the same time also in its printed existence literature maintains its unique space of quotation: the library. There are no libraries identical to each other, although in each one books are collected which have been printed in editions. One can say that Sorokin’s texts represent such unique personal libraries, in which in one book texts are col- lected which belong, as might be expected, to different libraries – in the censured Soviet situation particularly, such texts were not able to co-exist in the same space, in one library. In this way, Moscow conceptualism refrained from the oppo- sition against the bureaucratically neutral, purely external and repres- sive, official text operations by means of the creation of its own, unique, authentic and individual language, apparently not subjected to such a bureaucratic operation, as was required by the modernist utopias of “high and pure literature”. Instead of that, the conceptua- list author voluntarily sacrifices his individuality and by means of this sacrifice succeeds in raising himself symbolically to the bureau- cratic level of power, which permits him to oppose the strategies of the bureaucratic text manipulation with his own manipulating strate- gies.
When we consider the text of Roman from the point of view of these strategies, one can say that Sorokin combines the typical syn- thetic text of a Russian novel, which has passed the Soviet stylis- tically-ideological censure, with a fragment of just as conventional “modernist prose”, which by the same censorship is eliminated from the repertoire of possible variants of literary writing. Two of these text fragments are sewn together, one can say, with white threads, which it would be naïve to consider as the manifestation of the psy- chology of the hero. It turns out to be that in this second interpre- tation the absolute natural freedom of the hero appears there, where we find purely external, a-semantic and non-organic, bureaucratic manipulations with texts understood as “dead” sign masses. It now becomes clear how Sorokin remains alive after the death of his double, i.e. the honest, authentic author, who tries to describe the freedom of the hero. Sorokin remains alive as the author-bureau-crat, the censor or the text designer, who manipulates his text from the outside, from the other side of its contents, from the other side of its referentiality. Such a freedom of the author-bureaucrat as re- gards his text does not require the freedom of the hero. It does not presuppose natural freedom, nor the protection of natural human rights. With his novel Roman Sorokin gives all that is natural to na- ture, i.e. to death. The other author dies, he who believed in natural freedom. And, basically, this is not the Russian but the Western au- thor: Rousseau, De Sade. It is the Frenchman who, brought up with Roman and Romanesque culture, believes in the Romantic tradition of individual freedom and for that reason writes novels. On the other hand, it is the Russian “intelligent”, the subject of the dynasty of the Romanovs, who goes deep into the interior of Russia to look for natural freedom and the Third Rome. Such a Roman, of course, as a result gives up the ghost, but this does not completely discourage the Russian writer.
The Russian author, having grown up with the power of bureau- cracy and censorship, i.e. with the spectacle of an unrestrictedly free and at the same time meaningless-mechanical manipulation of texts, believes in another, secret, i.e. bureaucratic freedom and finds there his true freedom. Sorokin’s novel Roman is, just as many other texts of Russian conceptualism, an attempt to create a new poetics of bureaucracy instead of a poetics of nature and to discover in bureaucratic arbitrariness the opportunity for a new freedom of the author after his death in language. The secret of this new freedom is the rejection of sincerity (i.e. the rejection of self-denunciation, of self-revelation in language, which threatens death) and the decision to write from the dead doubles who are not threatened by anything. Russian subjectivity discovers here the Russian bureaucracy as a new utopia and a new idyll, inaccessible for the naïve consciousness of the Roman, Romanesque West. In retrospect, one can say that the poet Fyodor Tyutchev again turns out to be right when he observes that Russia is a region which is unknowable, i.e. a region of real freedom. But now he turns out to be right as a Russian bureaucrat which, in the first place, he was, and not as a lover of Russian nature.

Vladimir Sorokin, Roman. Moskva 1994.
For a discussion of Sorokin’s early texts see Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism. Russian Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond. Princeton 1991.
The prototype for Sorokin was, probably, Kandinsky, who also gave up a career in the legal profession to look for real Russian art; this led him, as a matter of fact, to München.
Roman’s precious relations and friends drink a toast after the hunt:
“To the field!” The same toast is proposed by the cannibals in Soro- kin’s early story “The opening of the season”.
Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Paris 1971, p. 8 f.
Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading. Princeton 1979, p. 296-297.
Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York 1984, p. 77 ff.
Boris Groys, Moscow Romantic Conceptualism. Paris 1979.
Georges Bataille, La littérature et le mal. Paris 1957.


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