The Superfluous Man – That’s Me

Dear Reader,

I believe I have never told you about one of my most favourite books – the novel in verse Evgenyi Onegin by perhaps THE greatest Russian language poet, Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837). I am sticking to the character’s original name, Evgenyi, pronounced with a hard g, as Eugene, the English-language variant, sounds horrible to my ear, vaguely reminding me of those misguided Bulgarian mothers calling their children Pamela, Edward or Jennifer, so as not to inconvenience foreigners in pronouncing their names.

Source: Click here.

Evgenyi Onegin’s light and elegant verse (superbly translated in Bulgarian) and complicated protagonist, treated in a healthily ambiguous manner by its author, are an aesthetic delight to my beauty-obsessed Orthodox Slavic soul. I use Slavic in a cultural, and not in an anthropological sense.

After I’d read the book in earnest, as opposed to for school, about 2-3 years ago, and started thinking about it and researching, I was amazed, relieved and thankful to have, with its help, started to formulate structured thoughts in answer to many half-dormant questions that I felt I had been harbouring for ages. 

Apart from writing beautiful and effortless verse, Pushkin had a hand for drawing cartoons too. Evgenyi Onegin, being to an extent Pushkin’s alter ego, does so as well, and his cartoons, which his scorned admirer Tatyana sees, expose him as struggling to be a fake somebody, rather than an authentic nobody, as goes the opening line of movie The Talented Mr Ripley, which, apart from being great, also draws heavily on Onegin’s story. Source: Pinterest.

According to Alain de Botton’s delightful analysis of the fundamental messages of Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, which I introduced here

“The value of a novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life; it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions we recognise as our own, but could not have formulated on our own. […] Our [sensitised by a book] mind will be like a radar newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness; the effect will be like bringing a radio into a room that we had thought silent, and realising that the silence only existed at a particular frequency and that all along we in fact shared the room with waves of sound coming in from a Ukrainian station or the nighttime chatter of a minicab firm.” 

So Evgenyi Onegin – educated, affluent, with eye, ear and palate for the refinements of Western Europe, which was the global cultural authority of the times; but daily breathing in the Russian reality  he understands but somehow perceives through the perspective of a stranger, struggling with ennui and spleen, the spiritual ailments of intellectuals both then and now, is the paragon of the Superfluous Man – “the bastard child of a volatile, centuries-long love affair between the Western mind and the Slavic soul.”

More specifically: 

The superfluous man is the dual product of Russian culture and Western education, a man of exceptional intelligence who is increasingly and painfully aware of his failure to synthesise knowledge and experience into lasting values, whose false dignity is continually undermined by contact with Russian reality, and whose growing alienation from self and others leads to an unabashed exhibition of and indulgence in cowardly, ludicrous, and sometimes destructive instincts.

Anna Netrebko as Tatyana in opera Evgeni Onegin by Tchaikovsky at the Met opera house in New York. Source: Click here.

The last two quotes are part of a most interesting 140-page master’s thesis on the Superfluous Man that I will use for the purposes of this post, as it conveniently synthesises thoughts that I consider valid, based on my genetically-encoded understanding of the Slavic soul, articulated by years of eclectic reading. If you care to look at the paper yourself, be my guest – Superfluous Man.

The Superfluous Man was conceived as early as the late 10th century when Kievan Rus, the earliest centre of the Russian civilisation, adopted Orthodox Christianity (guess from whom :D). Back then, the Kievan Rus society was heterogeneous and loosely holding together, plunged in internal strife and uncivilised, according to both the contemporary Byzantine standards for civilsiation, and to those that started emerging during the Italian Rinascimento.

Stepping on the ancient Greek and Roman cultural legacy, the Byzantine empire had developed its own distinct intellectual and philosophic physiognomy, and Bulgaria, in the late 9th and the 1st half of the 10th centuries, was enjoying an unprecedented flourishing of Christian-inspired arts and letters in the colloquial language, samples of which are part of the school curriculum to date. 

Bulgarian Tsar Simeon I (893-927), son of Boris I, who introduced Orthodoxy into Bulgaria in 864. Source: Click here.

Being unable to appeal to the Kievan Rus masses or rulers by means of philosophical niceties, Orthodox Christianity struck gold by offering a form of worship that was aesthetically attractive, in addition to using the national (if you’ll pardon the anachronistic term) language and favouring the community over the individual. Thus Orthodoxy, pretty much as it was the case in Bulgaria during the half-millennial Ottoman dominion, was the glue that held people in Kievan Rus together, quite literally so through the lengthy liturgies and other forms of church life. So much so, that, as the Kievan Rus civilisation progressed, and in line with trends elsewhere in the Orthodox world, the faith became synonymous with national identity.

Knyaz Vladimir, who introduced Orthodoxy into Kievan Rus in 988. The Orthodox church has granted both him and Boris I of Bulgaria the statute of being equal to the apostles. A huge icon of Knyaz Vladimir is located to the left of the altar at the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, to the mild disapproval of many Bulgarians. Source: Click here.

Orthodoxy has a, roughly speaking, more holistic attitude to faith, which it considers a cultural base of concepts for and attitudes to understanding and living, rather than something that has to be taken apart so as to be understood and proven like a theorem – more the view of Christian denominations in the West. This essence of Orthodoxy has largely prevented it from gaining political power in the way churches did in Western Europe.

According to Estonian-born Orthodox priest and thinker Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) here and here, Kievan Rus’ fully-fledged adoption of Orthodoxy as framework for a dedicated parish life, and its lesser focus on ecclesiastical thought, has contributed to shaping in Russians a 1. maximalist desire for perfection in the minutiae of religious belief and practice, 2. a peculiar disregard for mundane, or Earthly, matters, and 3. a tendency to utopism, as opposed to West-favoured empiricism, and manifested in acting and thinking on purely abstract grounds and in total disconnect with reality. This tendency towards utopism, Schmemann argues, has also been characteristic of the Russian social and political thought throughout the country’s history. Adding to the perfect storm of points 1-3 is the fact that, with the exception for monks, Orthodoxy is generally reproachful of individuals willing to lead an isolated or independent existence.

The liturgy is the main function in Orthodoxy, during which prayers are said for all – the present, the non-present, the living, the departed, those baptised and those not yet baptised. In Bulgaria, only the old-style believers and the particularly zealous cover their heads in church. We others enter with uncovered heads and discreet make-up, hoping that God would not be so petty as to condemn us for observing worldly conventions, which hardline priests compare to painting the exterior walls of a tomb, so as to conceal the blatant nothingness inside. I say, this goes a bit too far. Source: Click here.

So, to cut the lecture on Orthodoxy short, if we take all this cultural baggage and mix it with the common belief of the times (alas, not only those times), that the French language expresses the nuances of one’s civilised thought better than one’s native Russian, which idea I use as metonymy for a constellation of thoughts and attitudes largely lasting to date, we understand the troubling senses of alienation and separation, eating at the soul of Russia’s emergent intelligentsia. 

To quote the paper once again:

“The problem thus became one of identity, since Russian intellectuals were unable to establish a stable self/other binary. They were just Western enough to step outside their heritage and feel pained by its “backwardness” and just Russian enough to sense that the West had no satisfactory substitute for the spiritual and communal dimensions of those “backward” traditions.”

And again: 

“The first attribute of the Superfluous Man is, of course, that he is the embodiment of cultural hybridity, too Russian to be truly Western, too Western to be truly Russian, a foreigner both abroad and at home. […] Tragically, what the union of such an education [a Western/Westernised education] and such a powerful mind would normally accomplish—that is, the equipping of a person to face both personal and occupational problems with discernment and the empowering of the same against, not vice perhaps, but folly—fails miserably. The Superfluous Man is not empowered by his education and intelligence, but rather [is] crippled by both on a number of different levels. As Chances says, speaking of Mikhail Lermontov’s representation of the Superfluous Man, “his mind will not let him live.”

October (Autumn) 1891, by Isaak Levitan (1860-1900). A mood landscape, Levitan was a master of those. As a child, before I knew the name of a single Bulgarian painter, I knew who Isaak Levitan was, and I had learned to appreciate his masterful colour, composition and detail. Not that I knew I was appreciating THESE exactly. I just liked the paintings. This, along with Pushkin, is among the best things studying in a Russian school could give you. A great piano miniature to accompany your contemplation of Levitan’s art, by Russian pianist and composer Vladimir Rebikov (1866-1920). Source: Wikiart.

Did Evgenyi Onegin’s identity crisis on the self/other binary make you flinch in mental recognition of things that you’ve thought or felt, dear Reader? It sure made me, though perhaps not quite for his reasons.

In my next post, I’ll be telling you of the opinion of one of my favourite Bulgarian thinkers, philosopher Kalin Yanakiev, of how Bulgarian communism, while not providing the nation with either a Western nor a Westernised education, succeeded in turning into Superfluous Men all those who had not given up on thinking entirely, by annihilating at the root all available forms of community, and instilling total distrust among people, so that they sheepishly accepted the only allowed community – that presided by and serving the interests of, the omnipresent and omniscient Party, founded on the spurious claim of catering to the needs of all. 

“Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the superfluous man is that he is superfluous to the very society that he understands better than anyone else does. His growing awareness of the problem does not equip him with the motivation or the ability to engage it constructively. Those around him might content themselves with incoherent values, but he has seen through them and yet has nothing more solid with which he might replace them. He will end up with no values whatsoever and, hence, no direction, no productive outlet for his understandable frustration with the surrounding world.”

Desperately striving for direction and a productive outlet,

PS: Musical greeting for you, while you’re cataloging your values. The pun in the composition’s title is intended. If you want to go deeper into meditative and healing grief, try this

The Pushkin and Lermontov collected works in Russian – the gorgeous books of the 1950s that I told you were a comfort in my youth, photographed in my parents’ living room last weekend.

PS 2: Since I am obviously in a logorrheic mood today, I might also share that I am an ardent lover of walz music and, taking advantage of this post inspired by Evgenyi Onegin, greet you with two stupendous pieces by another Evgenyi – Russian-Moldovan composer Evgenyi Doga, born in 1937. Please enjoy this and this. The billowing nostalgia of Doga’s music and its powerful Slavic harmonies sweep me right off my feet.