Mikhail Epstein


What is the end of a century? A calendar date, an historic landmark,  a sum of accomplishments, the wisdom of experience?  If we agree with Andrei Bely's penetrating pun, namely  that  "[T]he individual  is the face of the century" (chelovek — chelo veka), then the end of the century is the image of the people who have brought it to its end, who personify this end.  The face of the waning nineteenth century was seen in Friedrich Nietzsche and Vladimir Soloviev, who embodied the quintessence of their times and offered parting words and warnings to the coming century. Many ideas and judgements sum up the nineteenth century, but who can now remember them?  What we remember are not so much the words of memorable individuals as the facial expression, the gestures and intonation that marked their destiny.

         While destroying old mythologies, history is constantly creating new myths to personify its fundamental ideas.  There are great myths and small myths, universal myths and local myths, metropolitan and provincial ones. Yet even in the small myths the wholeness of the human character is such that not a single feature can be removed from this character without violating the overarching idea embodied in it. Such an embodied idea cannot be expressed abstractly, even if one were to try to do so in a hundred treatises but it can be observed in a contemporary, whom posterity rushes to include in "the category of young legends"[1]

         In order to comprehend the fundamental idea structuring an epoch,  we must look that epoch straight in the face.  And we might well ask: Whose face is it that holds our gaze at the close of the twentieth century? Who are the individuals,  among the dead,  who have fed  its myths?  For we shall say nothing about the living — their history is still ahead of them.


                           1. The Prerequisites of Myth Formation


According to contemporary scholarship, any myth represents an attempt to resolve contradictions, to mediate or reconcile extremes, to make ends meet.[2]  There can be no longer any doubt that Venedikt Erofeev (1938 - 1990), author of the "prose poem"  Moscow to the End of the Line  (1969), has become just such a myth.[3]  Indeed he is perhaps the last literary myth of the Soviet epoch, which itself came to a sudden end shortly after the death of the writer. The question we may ask in relation to this myth is: What riddle does Erofeeev solve?  What extremes does he reconcile?

         Russian literature abounds in myths, insofar as the social imagination is constituted almost exclusively by literature and its derivatives.  The mythic significance of a writer, however, does not always correspond to his/her literary merit.  Dostoevsky failed to become a myth, while Nadson became one, as well as Esenin. On the other hand, Pushkin did become one, while Griboyedov did not.  What conditions are required for a writer to become a myth? 

         First of all, it is necessary for the writer to succeed in adopting a persona, preferably a lyrical one. Poets, as a rule, become myths because they create their own persona, in which fiction and reality fuse into one. Think of François Villon, Byron, Rimbaud, Blok ... In this sense, Moscow to the End of the Line  is not just a "long poem"or poema [4]  (although it is actually a work of prose),  but is a completely lyrical work, inasmuch as the author recreates his own personality in it. The real-life Venichka and the "Venichka" of the poem become the same person. This is already the beginning of the myth.

         At the same time, it is necessary that the writer not embody himself completely in his work. The popular rumor-mill must have enough space in order to bring to the writer's works that which he could not or would not disclose about himself.  If Venedikt's collected works had come to forty volumes instead of one skinny little volume, his commentators, archivists and biographers would not have failed to appear. But popular imagination would have been stifled by all those volumes. There would not have been anything left to imagine, for the author would have said it all himself.  For example, the myth of Lev Tolstoy is hampered by his own Collected Works, which total ninety volumes including rough drafts and variants. A myth does not like to lie, to evade the straight path of truth.  It is only when facts are missing or when they contradict one another that myth gets down to business.  Myth is very sensitive, even touchy:  when it is shown a heap of  materials, it says: "Well, then, believe the material!" It then turns away and becomes silent forever.

         The best beginning for a myth is an untimely end, that is when witnesses to the mythmaker's life live long enough for their memories to grow dim, turning them into stories and then legends.   Everything that was not resolved by the man, all his abruptly interrupted contradictions, are now resolved by the myth.  Almost all Russian literary myths, from Pushkin to Vysotsky, are made up of people who "have departed without having finished loving, without having finished smoking their last cigarette" (Nikolai Maiorov). [5] 

          It is precisely this state of  "not being finished"  that allows a myth to take root, as if some idea, having failed to materialize in reality, glimmers instead as an eternal symbol.   The writer becomes a myth  because he did not live out his life, did not write himself out, did not express himself completely. Such at least is our perception of him.  "Pushkin died in full bloom of his forces and, indisputably, carried away to his grave some great riddle. And now we are trying to solve this riddle without him."[6]  That is why, side by side with Pushkin, we have the myth of Pushkin. All that was Pushkin but was not embodied in Pushkin himself now lives outside him.  What could not be played out in an individual biography has been enacted in all of  Russian culture since Pushkin's death. It is enacted through Lermontov and Dostoevsky, Akhmatova and Nabokov, through all of us.  What could not achieve corporeality and manifest itself  in its own time is condensed into a lasting symbol.

         Within culture it is possible to differentiate between two kinds of entities: realized and potential ones.  That which is realized becomes the history of culture.  That which is not realized but has somehow declared its existence and taken shape at least embryonically, becomes its myth.  It is hard to say which of these entities predominates and is more important to culture.  In Russian culture, with so much emphasis placed on history, the proportional importance of its myths is nevertheless very great. Myth is the recompense for a debt — for what has not been lived out. It is an  apparition that leaves its premature grave in order to make its visitations on posterity.

         In the case of myth it not a matter of physical age.  The fifty-two years lived by Erofeev would have been quite enough for another writer to leave a monumental collection of works, including letters and textual commentary.  But Erofeev could not and did not want to embody himself fully in his work.  Instead, he destroyed himself, most probably, consciously.  He was destroying himself as an author — and this was echoed by the dying protagonist in his fiction.   He was also destroying himself as a persona — and this was echoed by the dying author.  He ended the poem about himself with the words: "They plunged an awl right into my throat... And since then I have not regained consciousness, and never shall."[7] If it were not for the ease with which Erofeev engaged in his own self-destruction, how would he have dared utter those prophetic words  about himself:  "... not regain consciousness... never..." ? And while he actually survived for twenty years after this end, Erofeev  never regained full creative consciousness. Instead there were only  momentary flashes  which signalled the death throes of an artistic talent. With the last line of Moscow to the End of the Line,  Erofeev killed the hero and himself.  A writer wanting his work to continue would never have ended his story that way — out of superstitious horror.

         The only thing that Erofeev might have failed to accomplish in his life was to destroy himself completely. He left behind a long poem, a drama, an essay — everything in the singular.  But this was enough for a Erofeev myth to spring up. He remains not so much the author of his works as a character in them, about whom enough has been said to provoke interest, but not enough to satisfy it.  Erofeev managed to say just enough about himself so as to remain forever unexpressed and unfinished.  "Of course, Erofeev was more than his works" (Vladimir Muraviev); "...I think that [Venia] has realized himself well, if only one percent" (Aleksandr Leontovich); "Venia himself was more significant than his works" (Olga Sedakova).[8]  It is precisely this way in which the creator exceeds his creation that forms the embryo of the myth. "He was more than the sum of what he did and produced."

         This gap between the creator and his creation is filled by the creation of the myth. The artistic image of Venichka, created by Erofeev, is complemented by the mythological image of Erofeev himself, created by his friends, who themselves become minor heroes in this myth. Here they are, seated at an eternal feast around the hero of the "heroic-comic" poem: Venichka's jester is Tikhonov; Venichka's wise man: Sorokin; Venichka's 'mad poetess' is Sedakova[9]; and so on.




2. The Myth of God's Fool.


What is so unique about "Venichka" that a myth about him could enter the crush of our literary legends and occupy a special place among them?  There is the myth of Sergei Esenin, the myth of Vladimir Vysotsky. There are less popular myths, for example, the one about Yury Olesha, drunkenly chasing  his metaphors like pink elephants but nearly knocked down by a passing mouse. All of these myths mediate  two extremes, which are highly characteristic for any "model" of the artist in the Soviet period: "talent - persecuted," "soul - smothered," "life - crippled."

         Let us investigate the components of the "Venia myth." First, we see before us a hero, standing tall, flexible, stately, a magnet for  all women. He allows them to worship at his shrine, he is surrounded by "priestesses" scattering flowers on the bed of his repose. Another mythopoeic characteristic of the hero concerned his relationship to alcohol: he drank but did not get drunk. In all his competitions with other experienced drunks, he emerged as victor. When they lay under the table in a sorry state, his eyes were as clear as glass.[10] Inner finesse, delicacy, neatness.  And of course, a talented, intelligent, erudite man, who memorized hundreds of dates and lines of verse by heart, whose tongue was wittier than anyone else's and who was praised throughout the world for his prose poem.

         At the same time, there was poverty and disorder, dismissal from all the universities where he had begun so brilliantly, work digging ditches and constructing cables, wandering, an inability to achieve anything in life, unrestrained drunkenness, no underwear, the loss of manuscripts and his passport, his insults at even his closest friends, throat cancer. And creative impotence: the epic poem that was written as a sort of amusement among his friends became his swan song.

         These contradictions only emphasize our need for a myth as they can not be resolved by rational means.  If talented, then why did  he not write?  If intelligent, why did he prefer the idea of "throwing himself down the bottle" to all other ideas? If he took pride in Russia, then why did she interest him so little and why could he not stand patriots?  If he loved every kind of systematization, then why did he live in such a disorderly manner?  If he was neat, then why did he become shabby?  If he was gentle, then why did he act so crudely?

         And then, between these extremes, the first draft of the myth creeps in: a holy fool. This outline is very attractive, proceeding from a common Russian affection for a type of holiness that does not rise above the world in white garments but flips head-over-heels down into the most indecent gutter, drowning in the charms of this earth. This is what Erofeev's closest friend, Vladimir Muraviev, writes: "Venichka had the sense that safe, everyday life was just a substitute for real life, and he destroyed it and in fact his destruction had a partly religious nuance."[11] It is for Christ's sake that a holy fool destroys his own life and puts that of others to the test.

         Galina Erofeeva, Venedikt's widow (who committed suicide soon after his death), remarked that "there was always religion in him.  One probably should not say it, but I think that he imitated Christ."[12]  This does not contradict the comment by  Muraviev: "...despite his religious potential, Venichka did not at all strive to live by Christian laws."[13]  The point here is that what the holy fool does strive to live in is the spirit of Christian lawlessness, "making himself an obscenity."[14]  Venichka has nowhere to lay his head, he sleeps "on a pile of garbage" and achieves the "paradox of the religious feat": mocking the feelings of both himself and those close to him, he produces in response a hail of ridicule and insults —  - all in perfect accord with the canons of Russian hagiography.[15] In figurative terms, he hurled stones at the houses of the virtuous and kissed the cornerstone of houses where "blasphemy" reigns,[16] exactly like Vasily the Blessed, the most celebrated of Russia's holy fools, in whose honor a cathedral was errected on Red Square. Although similarly blessed, Venichka nevertheless never made it to Red Square but was instead carried off somewhere to the side.[17] What we witness is the process of lumpen-ization of the Russian holy fool —  from Vasily the Blessed to Erofeev.

         Even Venia's amazing drunkenness is reminiscent of a saint's voluntary chains and fasts, from which he derives no joy. The taste of wine affords him no pleasure, and the voluptuary's lip-smacking he finds vulgar. In general, as Sedakova subtly notes, "one felt that his way of life was not one of trivial drunkenness, but some kind of service...  Torment and troubles were incomparably greater than satisfaction... I have never met a more fierce enemy of any common 'enjoyment' than Venichka.  There was nothing viler for him than the thought of enjoying himself or seeking enjoyment."[18]

         But this does not apply to Venia alone. It is common knowledge that in Russia, unlike, for example, in France or  Georgia, people prefer "bitters" and consume their souls in incomprehensible sorrow and bitterness. Very few Russians like "sweets," and  even if some crop up, such as the poets Briusov, Bal'mont or Severianin, there are no myths about them.  Myths only  form around those who drink from the bitter cup, without sweet abandon and ecstasy, who excacerbate their own and other people's heartaches. Like Esenin or Vysotsky.

         What was the nature of the sorrow that Venia made so much of, but whose cause he never explained to anyone? He would hardly have appreciated the attempt by a recent memoirist to explain his sorrow as "the nightmare of the Communist era."[19] Instead, he would have considered such an explanation to be prophetic vulgarity from a future secondary-school class in Russian literature. It has already been argued that Eugene Onegin would not have been a superfluous man in the conditions of Soviet life, but rather an entirely productive member of society, a philologist or agronomist. A similar type of soul-saving argument is advanced in relation to Erofeev.  Had he lived under a government of Constitutional Democrats or right-wing Socialist Revolutionaries, so the argument goes, Venia would have been able to overcome his personal sorrow, stop drinking vodka and come to sit judiciously on academic boards, sharing his considerable knowledge of meteorology and mushrooms...  I doubt it,  for the same sorrow as Erofeev's has hung over Russia in every kind of political weather in the past, and Russians have always coped with it by washing it down with vodka, followed by a  snack or a chaser that was bitter, sour, or salty — but never sweet.


                                             3. The Myth of the Hangover.


Although the myth of "Venia" has gradually taken on definite form, it nevertheless shares many of the attributes of the myths of Esenin, Vysotsky, and even the unsuccessful myth of Nikolai Rubtsov.[20] All four burned themselves out, dissipated themselves, fell into darkness in order to behold the last saving light, as is recommended in eastern 'negative' theology, where God is represented as a "no" — as the negation of light, honor, cleanliness, dignity, wisdom and goodness, since all of these virtues have already been taken over by the Philistines and serve their abominable un-Christian prosperity in a Christian world. And only the holy fool makes his way to God, casting off all propriety, as well as his outer and sometimes even undergarments.

But "Venichka" had something that did not fit the framework of the widely respected myths of "Seriozha"(Esenin) and "Volodia" (Vysotsky). If nothing else, there was the name "Venichka," which he himself immortalized. Who else would have dared to present himself under such an affectionate diminutive in our cynical times, in a circle of drunks and brawlers — and then to pass for a hero among them?  Later,  another writer, following in Erofeev's footsteps, began to peddle a myth about himself by appropriating Erofeev's intonation: "It's me, Edichka."[21]  But the first one to refer to himself with such meekpathos was 'Venichka' Erofeev.

     He did not like hyperbole at all, preferring litotes and diminutives. Moreover, the relationship of the author to words begins with his relationship to his own name, which in this case represented a bashful attempt to disarm others and to negate himself. And so Venia writes: "there were little birdies," "there were two little chaps," or he affixes the epithets "a tiny little red," "a little cold one" to his favorite beverage...[22] Although one might write off these litotes as drunken sentimentality, aimed at inspiring the same sort of worship for banquet glassware as one's own children—"a little cup," "wa-wa," etc.—, the fact remains that never before in Russian literature had revelry been expressed in such a sentimental, non-hyperbolic form.

         The proverbial holy fool, as well as his poetic double, is captured in the clichéd gesture of tearing his shirt from his chest to free his sincere, burning soul from all constrictions.  By contrast, Venichka always held up his collar, out of embarrassment perhaps and so as not to bare his throat?   "... Young and handsome, he always bashfully covered his throat, holding together the buttonless collar of his shirt."[23] "And if his top button came off, Venia would hold his collar with his hand so that it would not come open. This was his trademark gesture."[24]  This is so unlike Seriozha (Esenin) and Volodia (Vysotsky). They would tear off their collars.  They would drive their horses into a lather and tear the bridles off.  In them was something of the jaunty spirit of revelry of the beginning of the twentieth century, the hysteria of the superhuman and the urgent desire to burn the candle at both ends in order to put out the light a little sooner. Only in his last years did Vysotsky start to recite: "Slow down, steeds, slow down." But his voice neverthelss broke into a back-breaking scream, as if with one hand he held the horses back and with the other lashed them forward.

         But with Venichka one really gets an unambiguous sense of slowness. To be slow and to be incorrect was his credo.  "Everything on earth should occur slowly and incorrectly so that a person would be unable to grow proud, so that man would be sad and confused."[25]  When someone is convinced of his righteousness, he usually tries to set about things as quickly as possible: this is heroic success and youthful vitality. But in Venia there was not a trace of heroism, not even of that upside-down, decadent form that usually coexists historically with the kind of straightforward heroism whose aim is to teach. For Venichka, Maxim Gorky, whom he did not like, was just as alien  as Igor Severianin, whom he did like.  He was as far from the thrills of the summit as he was from the thrills of the abyss; as far also from Blok and Esenin, who divided themselves between heights and depths; far from righteous writers and rowdy singers.  Any regularity perturbed him deeply. He ran from sobriety but did not fall into the opposite temptation, into the heroism of decadence — of rowdy chaos, of fiery intoxication.  He drank but was not prone to drunken rage, or the exaltation of love-friendship or  dangerous, hoarse courage. He drank more than his predecessors but he no longer got drunk. He was thus like a sober man, but one who is sober from the other end, not before drinking, but after it. Not a self-assured sober man, but one who has gone quiet, sad and timid.

      This sort of meekness was the kind he most appreciated in others, a meekness authentically known only to the drunk; or rather, the drunk who is gradually coming out of his drunken delirium.[26] Venia's state of glory was not the drinking binge, but the hangover, the delicate and over-scrupulous accounting for all previous binges, his own and others'. Any revelry going on around him, drunken ecstasies and the torn collar, thrilled him even less than the feats of Zoia Kosmodemianskaia.[27] In the dialectic of sobriety and drunkenness, the ultimate level is the hangover: the negation of negation.

         Let us investigate the stages of this dialectic that inexorably leads from arrogance to meekness.  Drinking is a means of driving out the demon of arrogance from a sober man who stands firmly on his own feet, who speaks clearly and deliberately, living as if he had complete mastery over his body and soul.  But he need only take a drink and voilà: our good man will soon realize that things are not so obedient to him after all. Strut as he might with his worldly privileges; boast as he will about trampling the earth underfoot and mastering the meaning of things: gone  is the arrogance of sobriety.

         But what remains in reserve is the arrogance of drunkenness.  Now the old friend does not care a damn, his lips are on fire with his own wit, his gaze burning from his own seductive powers: again the whole world spreads itself before him, but this time on an undulating road. He now feels light and confident precisely by virtue of not being in control.

         After which the sobering-up begins and, "with disgust reciting the story of my life..."[28]  There is not a trace left of those earlier witticisms and fiery glances! Only drunken hiccups and winks exchanged with some plastered lassie.  At first drinking knocked the arrogance out of the sober man, then sobriety knocked the arrogance out of the drunk, and finally, through the torments of shame, the third stage of this great synthesis is ushered in — the hangover.  The sorrowful and wise hangover, simultaneously boring and illuminating. All a man can do at this stage is sigh, cooling himself by imbibing fresh air without polluting the air around him with his own breath.   "... I sighed, sighed so deeply, that I almost dislocated everything I had."[29]

         Such is this sly dialectic.  Venia knocks out of himself, and out of those around him, first sober arrogance and then drunken arrogance.[30]  He dislodges both types of arrogance, sober and drunken, finally arriving at the hangover, a state of extreme meekness.  The one who suffers from a hangover is fastidious towards himself and consequently totally forgiving towards his neighbor.  The one who suffers from a hangover offends no one; on the contrary, like a child he is offended by everyone.  He is so weakened that he begins to display something virginal — a ticklishness and nervous sensitivity toward the slightest touch.

         Venia, for example, was horribly touchy and feared tickling more than anything else.  "I have a lot of ankles and armpits.  I have them everywhere.  An honest man must have a lot of ankles and armpits and must fear tickling."[31]  Who before him in Russia was so ticklish, defending his honor laughing and kicking like a little girl? Not even Lermontov, Blok, or Gumilev, the most sublime of poets, was so ticklish.  They created myths of the eternal feminine but had nothing of that kind of girlishness in them.  Venia, afraid of the slightest touch, quivering and guffawing, is entirely virginal.[32]  This makes him partake of that "eternal-womanly" (vechno-bab'ie) quality of the Russian soul.  Through him,  however, 'womanliness' ceases to be a quality of the mature woman and becomes, once again, a quality of the young maiden. From the point of view of a being consisting entirely of ankles and armpits, the entire world now seems rude in the light of this 'womanly' softness and delicacy. What other man  could be so fragile and so sensitive just because of a hangover?

         "Why are they all so rude?  Huh?  And why so in particular,  so emphatically rude, just at such a time when it is impossible to be rude, when a man with a hangover has all his nerves exposed, when he is faint-hearted and timid?  Why is it so?"[33]

         It is strange: not only did Venia sense the rudeness of those around him, but those around him, even the most refined of them, such as the poet Olga Sedakova, sensed their own rudeness when they were in Venia's proximity.  "...Next to him it was impossible not to sense one's own rudeness: the contrast was impressive."[34] 

         It must be said that neither of Venia's typical states, namely that of being "drunk or with a hangover," led to a loss of sobriety.  Essentially, it was a single prolonged state, comprised of three stages: drinking, sobering up, suffering a hangover.  "I, having tasted so much in this world that I have lost count and track — I am more sober than anyone in this world; sobriety just has a troubling effect on me..."[35] "Venia himself never got drunk.  He did not permit himself to.  He regarded the onset of dullheadedness, the drunken muttering and pestering as ill-mannered and boorish... One of the virtues of our circle of friends was not getting drunk..."[36]

         This is where the myth of Venichka truly begins — the myth about his non-inebriety , which must not be confused with simple, unconcerned sobriety.  Sobriety is before, and non-inebriety  occurs afterwards.  Sobriety is self-righteous and didactic, while non-inebriety  is meek and depressed.  Sobriety can still be under a delusion and get drunk on itself: non-inebriety can no longer get drunk on anything.  And this is the highest state of the soul: when it has the fewest possible worldly ambitions and altogether very little animation (which comes from anima  'spirit', 'breath') left in it  - the state of faint-heartedness or lack of spirit  [malodushie [37] ]:


         Oh, if only the entire world, if  everyone in the world were like me right now — timid and shy and unsure of everything: of himself, of the seriousness of his place under the heavens — how good it would be! No enthusiasts, no heroic feats, no obsessions!  — a universal faint-heartedness.  I would agree to live on earth for all eternity if they'd show me a little corner where there is not always room for a heroic feat.  'Universal faint-heartedness' — this is really the salvation from all misfortunes, this is a panacea,  the predicate of the greatest perfection![38]


         Faint-heartedness is not as bad as it seems, and must not be confused with cowardliness.  A coward is afraid for himself while one who is faint-hearted is afraid for everything on earth.  His soul simply sinks to his boots when he touches a fragile vase or meets an intelligent person — as if he might somehow tear something, misplace something, injure something or someone.  A faint-hearted person is delicate because more than anything else he fears offending someone. He does not have enough spirit to assume responsibility or to harbor a secret ambition.


                                             4. Trans-Irony.


         At the center of the Venia myth is just this delicacy, an extremely rare and still little noticed attribute of Russian culture.[39]  There is a lot of holiness and sin in it, much illumination and darkness, heights and depths, but little delicacy... Try to say that Tolstoy or Dostoevsky were delicate: it would sound funny applied to such prophetic giants.  Although there may have been some delicacy in them, it rarely came into view.  As for the delicacy of a Chekhov or Timiriazev, of a doctor or a scholar, they simply could not have been other than delicate in the delicate circumstances of their time and profession.

         But Venia's kind of delicacy, when he eats and drinks in the hallway of a train car because he feels shy in front of other passengers, is of a totally different kind. When he sighs bitterly over the vulgar: "uncircumcised hearts"...[40] When he conceals from his drinking buddies his sorties prompted "by the call of nature," not daring to put into words his secret desires...: Venichka is delicate in all respects, so delicate that he does not announce to his friends his intention to go to the bathroom. And even more delicately: he agrees to go to the bathroom only in order not to oppress them with his delicacy.[41]

         Such delicacy in a person who by all indications ought not to and cannot be delicate, is something phenomenal and, at the same time, as Venia would say, something noumenal. This is a manifestation of a new kind of  delicacy, turning Venia into the hero of an altogether indelicate milieu.  If this delicacy had emanated from  somewhere outside, from the realm of authority or high morality, it would be a simple object of ridicule... But here it emanates from the very heart of "plebeianism, of debauchery, and rebellion" -- from Venichka himself,  who is tasting both "A Komsomolka's Tear" and  "Aunt Klava's Kiss," as well as other cocktails, some infused with shampoo, others with methyl alcohol, brake fluid, or something to prevent sweaty feet.  Delicacy in such a creature is not a tribute to tradition or family, to upbringing or social norms.  It cannot be obsolete.  It cannot be edifying.  It is other-worldly.  "From my other-worldly point of view..."  as Venia used to say.[42]

          When they come from Venia, even the words "infant," "angels," "sorrow" or "sigh," are not old-fashioned or pompous.  He speaks about "immortal angels and dying children..."[43]  Who in the Soviet period would call his son an "infant," [mladenets][44] and his inner voices "angels"? Such words have not been in circulation since the time of the  Romantic and Symbolist poets, such as Vasily Zhukovsky or Alexander Blok. These words reached Venia through a barrier of so much filth, verbal rot and decay, that one involuntarily hears irony in them.  Venia, however,  does not use them ironically. To perceive irony in these pure words would be simply vulgar. 

         What would be more appropriate here is the word "counter-irony" (protivoironiia) as suggested by Erofeev's friend, the philologist Muraviev.[45]  One might propose an even stronger term—'trans-irony'— indicating not just the opposition to irony, but rather a movement beyond irony, its sublation (to use Hegel's term). If irony inverts the sense of a straightforward, serious word, then trans-irony inverts the sense of irony itself, resurrecting seriousness — but now without its direct and monosemantic character. Trans-irony is not simply a denial of irony. Rather it is the metalevel of irony, which presupposes an irony toward irony itself and, therefore, a polysemantic play of literal and figurative meanings. Here, for example, is a dialogue between Venichka and the Lord:


         I took everything I had out of the suitcase and felt it: from a sandwich to the stout rosé at a ruble thirty-seven. Touched everything and began to languish. Again I touched it all — and I withered... Lord, here you see what I possess.  But do I really need this ?  Is this  really what my soul is longing for?  This is what people have given me instead of what my soul is longing for!  And if they'd given me that, would I really have needed this ?  Look, Lord, here: the stout rosé for a ruble thirty-seven...

                  And, all in blue flashes of lightning, the Lord answered me:

                  "And what did Saint Theresa need stigmata for?  She did not need them either, yet she desired them."

                  "Yes, that's it!" I answered in delight.  "Me too, me too —  I desire it, but I do not need it in the least!"

                  "Well, since it's desired, Venichka, go on and drink," I thought quietly, but was still slow to act.  "Is the Lord  going to say something more to me or not?"

                  The Lord was silent. [46]


         If one were so inclined, one could find a lot of irony in this passage. The stout rosé and the stigmata of Saint Theresa are so different that it would seem impossible to compare them without sinking into bathos. But at the same time: What exactly is being ridiculed? What is the irony about? The stout rosé? That would be stupid.  Saint Theresa? That would be even more stupid.  It is as if the irony is implied, but  only as a shade of trans-irony, as its expressive nuance.  Trans-irony works with irony the same way that irony works with seriousness, lending it a different sense.  The initially serious subtext can be read this way:  O, Saint Theresa!  Ugh! worthless Venichka!  Irony shifts the accents: everyone has his/her own pink spirits, one has stout rosé, another has stigmata. Trans-irony again shifts the accent: everyone has his/her own stigmata, one has holes in her hands and feet, another has stout rosé. It cannot be said that trans-irony restores the same level of seriousness as existed before the injection of irony. On the contrary, trans-irony immediately rejects both trivial seriousness and vulgar irony, establishing a new point of view — 'God's point of view.' What man does not need, he desires. Both holiness and drunkenness are located in this gap between need and desire. The greatest man is not too big for this gap, and the least worthy man is not too small for it.

           Venia's entire style is made up of such trans-irony that uses as its material ready-made ironic clichés. They have become just as ossified in social consciousness as have weighty, pathos-laden clichés. The two possible modes of receptions of the words "fatherland" or "Soviet power," for instance, have been frozen into cliched gestures: either that of standing at attention or of sniggering behind one's hand. Venia, however, endows these words with a new intonation, which is neither serious nor ironic, but 'otherworldly,'  so to speak, from beyond the grave:


         "Erofeev, as to the beloved Soviet government, to what extent did it fall in love with you when your fame became international?"

         "It decidedly paid no attention to me whatsoever.  I love my government."

         "Why in particular do you love it?"

         "For everything."

         "Because it did not touch you and did not send you to prison?"

         "For that I especially love it.  I am prepared to love my government for everything. [...]"

         "Where does this unrequited love of yours come from?"

         "In my opinion, it's requited, as far as I can see.  I hope that it's requited, or else what's there for me to live for."[47]


         This is an excerpt from an interview in Kontinent, which at the time was still being published in Paris.  The interviewer tries in every way to get Venia 'to kid,' but Venia does not succumb to the temptation of cheap irony, any more than to the temptation of patriotic pride or pain. He answers the interviewer's absurd questions in the manner of souls at a spiritistic seance. His intonation is unassailably flat, disengaged.  This precisely is trans-irony, which leaves just enough room for irony in order to signal its inappropriateness.


                                    5. The  Carnival Transcended


Trans-irony is a new quality of the Venia myth —­  and of the ritual performance associated with it.  Any myth, scholars assert, is the verbal record and ideological justification of a certain rite.[48] In this sense the Venichka myth signifies a new rite of passage for the initiation of the young. Initiation is a dedication, a rite of entry into the social life and adulthood.  Noble youths of the nineteenth century, leaving the cozy domestic realm and setting out on the path of masculine initiation, tried to be as coarse as possible. They swilled vodka and went visiting gypsy girls (think of Pierre Bezukhov in the first volume of War and Peace). Youths of the late Soviet period were also swilling vodka at a tender age. But they had no need to go visiting anywhere, everything was right next door in the dormitory: remember the way of life described by Venia and his friends![49]

         Venichka's initiation begins just where the initiation of the heroes of classic Russian literature leaves off, namely at the tavern-brothel, the dormitory-public house. While remaining within this familiar space, Venia however turns it inside-out, suddenly revealing the glimmering features of an aristocratic youth through the intoxicated and violent haze. It is almost as if we were going back to the Sentimental era of Karamzin and Radishchev.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, reckless young people also know how to feel: "For if someone has an overscrupulous heart..."[50]

         In those days, at the end of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the typical initiation of the young was called "Rabelaisation." It was based on Bakhtin's carnival theory and its association with the corporeal and comic depths of folk culture.   All the orifices of the body had to be opened up to ingest and expel the flow of the universal circulation of matter.  Drunkenness is only a small metaphor for the gushing excess with which Bakhtin, in his book-myth on Rabelais, associates such things as puking, spitting, sweating, snot, sneezing, gluttony, copulation, defecation, farting, and so on.[51]

         All of this, however, Venia found terribly embarrassing.  He was "unbelievably shy even in front of himself."[52]  And he used to say that the person who deserves the most tenderness is "the one who pees in his pants in front of everyone."[53]  What Venia did was turn the values, which had been turned upside down by a carnivalesque culture,  the right way up again.   The carnival appreciated this, as if it had not noticed that, around Venia, carnival ceased to be a carnival.  Timidity that was expelled in a burst of obscenities is now extended to obscenity itself.  "Tenderness toward the one who peed in his pants." Understandably, this is not the same as tenderness towards a sprig of lilac. It is tenderness that makes a detour around sentimentality, via the distance of carnival. However, this is no longer carnival either, but its afterlife. All former attributes, overturned by carnival, are now resurrected in a new, 'noumenal' dimension.  The tenderness and grief, weeping and timidity, loneliness and boredom are already transcendental, liberated from any attachment to their former objects.

         Take, for example, sadness: what makes Erofeev sad?  He knows that every creature experiences post-coital sadness. This natural law was observed by Aristotle. But Venia, unlike Aristotle, "is constantly sad, before and after coitus."[54]  Or, for example, a person usually feels animated when thoughts rush to his head; whereas Venia breaks out with the following confession: "Thoughts were pressing in my head, pressing so hard that I got depressed..."[55] 

         It is as if all the things for which people once had feelings have been torn away from Venia and placed at a distance of historic proportions. It is as if the necessary correspondence between feelings and objects has been abolished.  Feelings are resurrected following the death of feelings, and the heart of man does not know to what to attach them.  To what should grief be attached — to a child's tiny tear, as in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, or to "A Komsomolka's Tear," Venia's favorite cocktail? Venia, not wanting to miss the mark, grieves for everything simultaneously.  Thus his sadness applies both to sad things and to things that are not sad at all, although his feeling is no less sad for it, perhaps now only otherworldly. It stands on the other side of former feelings, which have been  dulled, cut off or torn out. What feelings are possible after the Holocaust, after the Revolution, after Auschwitz and Kolyma: what kind of sadness is left?  But then sadness opens "two enormous eyes" (O. Mandel'shtam) and searches for its object, about which it still knows nothing. Who said that there must be a strict correspondence between an object and a feeling, as in Classicism? Even ordinary language does not manifest such a correspondence. Every sign, according to the founder of contemporary linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, is arbitrary, and any word can signify any object. Why then can sadness not refer to a happy object, and to a mundane object, and to a funny object, and to an entirely indifferent one? Is it not a sad thing if it is so indifferent?  And is it not sad if it is so funny?  Why can sorrow not refer to wine and merriment to stigmata?  There is nothing carnivalesque here. It is simply another level of feelings. Meta-emotions.

         Perhaps Venia himself did not notice this new post-carnivalesque transformation of his feelings — but Mikhail Bakhtin, who had an extraordinarily keen sense for everything carnivalesque, did.  He was delighted by Erofeev's long poem, finding in it support for his theories of carnival and an expression of pure Pantagruelism.  In the poem, Venia is frequently occupied with rinsing his throat. Is this not reminiscent of Pantagruel, both in the proper and dictionary definition of his name? For the word "pantagruel,"  before being given to Rabelais's hero, was the name of a throat disease — the loss of one's voice as a result of heavy drinking (a drunkard's disease).[56] If only Bakhtin could have known to what degree the prophetic meaning of this name would be embodied in Erofeev's own destiny!  The loss of voice towards the end, followed by several operations—which Erofeev survived—and finally death from cancer of the larynx.  It was as if the essence of Pantagruelism had been literally re-enacted  down to the smallest detail of Erofeev's own life. 

         However, while being fatally doomed to the grotesque, Erofeev in a way escaped it.   The phenomenon of Venichka, growing out of Pantagruelism, outgrows it, contingent precisely on its literal and concrete embodiment. The carnival itself becomes an object of the carnivalesque, and with this moves into the realm of a strange new seriousness.

         It is significant that Bakhtin, delighted by the poem, did not approve of its denouement, because the hero appears to die "for real," and "entropy" seems to enter "carnival."[57]  But what kind of seriousness can there be in carnival? What kind of entropy can there be in the midst of the carnivalesque splash of pent up energies?  Nevertheless, one can discern entropy and a fading of energy in Venia himself long before the end of the poem. Venia's shyness amidst carnivalesque revelry: is that not entropy?  What has become poeticized is not debauchery: it is the "man with a hangover... who is faint-hearted and quiet." And this poetics of 'universal faint-heartedness' is, from the carnivalesque point of view, sheer entropy.  The great Bakhtin sensed this, too, although he failed to appreciate its new value. He saw in Erofeev something kindred that was turning into something unfamiliar. He sensed that here carnival had ceased to be carnivalesque.[58] 

         The critic Andrei Zorin has remarked that contrary to the laws of carnival,  "elements of folk laughter in the end deceive the hero and expel him. Such an ending is foreshadowed from the beginning."[59] It is even more accurate to say that from beginning to end it is the author who deceives and expels the elements of folk culture.  Insofar as the author and the hero are one, they do this together.  The hero withdraws from the mob by escaping onto the platform of the train carriage. The author distances himself from the folk element [narodnaia stikhiia]  by escaping into the space of artistic understatement (the litotes and diminutives). Together they alienate themselves from the masses through the name of 'Venichka,' as well as through flight into a private melancholy  and a lyrical state of  confusion and perplexity. Folk laughter [smekh], no less than folk diligence [spekh][60]— indeed the entire popular universe, filled with characters such as Vasily Terkin,  Zoia Kosmodemianskaia and Aleksei Stakhanov—are equally alien to Venichka, who loves slowness and irregularity.  As for his entropy: is it really such a bad thing?                                        


                                             6. The Charms of Entropy.


         For centuries the world has glorified energy or force in all its guises: from kinetic and potential energy to the energy of mind and body, the force of the collective and of the individual, the force of heroic feats and the force of humility, cosmic force and political force, creative force and moral force. Force (energiia) was glorified by Galileo and Goethe, Hegel and Tolstoy, Marx and Nietzsche, Faraday and Freud, Balzac and Darwin, Pushkin and Edison, Einstein and Sartre, Ford and Bakhtin. Perhaps because of its naturally lethargic state, Russia has especially prized force and energy, releasing it in explosions of heroism and revolution. And when revolution gave way to stagnation, it in turn sought to discharge itself in explosions of laughter and carnival.  Force performed its great task in all parts of the world: it kept the planets turning, it split the atom, moved conveyors, produced the sexual and scientific/technical revolutions, turned heads and hearts, seduced young women and old men. Film stars, powerful minds, business sharks, bombshells, eastern gurus, and sports champions — all exuded energy and charm.  Indeed energy was found to be seductive no matter what form it took, including decay and decadence.

         And then suddenly Venia revealed the charms of entropy.  In his hands, it acquired heart-warming traits: slowness and faint-heartedness. And in general terms, he was correct in so doing; for during his lifetime, in the second half of the twentieth century, there was no longer any reason to fear entropy. The case had been different at the end of the nineteenth century, when people suddenly began to fear it. This was because of the second law of thermo-dynamics, which threatened general entropy, a thermal end to the universe in which everything would come together, even out, forming one vast, identical and undifferentiated melange, neither cold not hot. . . And then the sun would go out, the earth would freeze.  Such was the late-19th century vision of the end of the world.[61]

         But after two world wars and countless revolutions, such fears became obsolete.  It seemed that a force of unknown composition held the key to our universe, distending it with all kinds of cataclysms and insanities. Towards the end of the twentieth century humankind became wary of just this force, which it stumbled on,  in its ignorance, thanks to nuclear physics.  The shock of this discovery was so great that it nearly exploded the entire world.  However, people were ashamed to admit that the very same force that was so attractive when paraded by a popular intellectual or political leader, by a writer or actor, was much less attractive when demonstrated at nuclear testing sites.  Military men became the victims of social prejudice, fuelled by the belief that the force in their hands was more dangerous than the force employed by energetic people who were actively engaged in seducing all of progressive humankind. Peaceful demonstrations focused on one type of force,  not realizing that the world, held together by force,  was dangerous as a whole, and that all forms of energy, passing into one another, were accelerating its end.  Significantly, this end is pictured in the New Testament as the earth  erupting in flames — and not in a flood or ice.  The flood of Noah's time was just an experimental end,  God's trial to bring out the righteous. The real end will come by fire:

  the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. [...] ... the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat...[62]

         Here the common word "fire" likely signifies energy, which  has seethed and accumulated in humankind from time immemorial, only to erupt as the Last Judgement. Whether this end will come as revolution, carnival or both together is left unsaid.  However, that the Last Judgement will be fiery, exploding with energy, is made clear.

         Surprisingly, in a land abounding in all known forms of force and energy,  a man appeared who stood out as a seductive example of faint-heartedness; a man who, to use Bakhtin's term (although to him, the theoretician of carnival, it was uninteresting), succeeded in making 'entropy' interesting.  Erofeev was able to convince countless readers that in an era of a superabundance of energy, there was special merit in injecting one's own little dose of  entropy into it.  A splash of entropy in the bonfire of energy. Faint-heartedness as a way of showing one's magnanimity.      Erofeev's whole being was dominated by entropy. Force never played in his facial features. A meagre personal impression, received by the author of this mythographic study, can now be shared with the indulgent reader.  I saw Venedikt Erofeev twice and on both occasions I was struck by the color of his face.  The first time was in the mid-1970s — his face was brown.  Not from the sun, not from a natural swarthiness, but earthy, as if he had been sleeping in an embrace with the land, although he had actually just gotten out of bed. When I saw him the second time, towards the end of the 1980s, his face was completely white.  Not pale, but as if it were too brightly lit, or stained with chalk.  On this occasion he was sitting in a lively literary café, at a party with poets and foreigners.  And this is how his two faces remain in my memory: one — earthy, the other — chalky.  The two colors of entropy.  One could undoubtedly see the phenomenology of his life and the noumenosity of his death in these two faces, his peasant origins on the one hand and his artist's destiny on the other. But neither the energy of full-bloodedness or rude health played over his face — for this I can vouch.  There was no fire in him.

         That is why, though surrounded by a society of people who sat, stood or walked, Erofeev always preferred to recline.  This was his means of slowing down.  Perhaps, with time, Erofeev's slippers will become as famous as Oblomov's dressing-gown.[63]  But Oblomov was stout and lazy, while Erofeev was thin and ascetic.  His sluggishness was a product of work on himself. He pressed energy out of himself drop by drop.  He did not give in to inertia, he created it. As God created the world out of nothing, so Erofeev created entropy out of his inborn energy. Oblomov remained a created character. Erofeev, on the other hand, authored himself.

         Even food, which aroused the lazy Oblomov from his torpor, was a means of deceleration for Venia.  Almost always hungry, he never rushed to satisfy his appetite. In reminiscences about him, there is  remarkable agreement about Venia's dainty eating habits. "And when he would sit down to eat, although during the war years there were shortages and food rations came in tiny portions, he always ate slowly, intelligently, and carefully, never betraying any sign of ravenousness" (Nina Frolova, Venia's sister). "...Venedikt very cautiously lifted the entire fried egg from the frying pan with a piece of bread.  He was always very hungry,  but expressed this timidly, ate without appearing voracious and manipulated a piece of bread with extreme delicacy" (Lidiia Liubchikova).  "He was refined in all things.  We lived together for fifteen years and I do not remember him once eating greedily" (Galina Erofeeva).  "In general, I do not recall seeing jaw movement on his physiognomy, I do not remember him masticating — chewing was uncharacteristic of Venia" (Igor Avdiev). [64]  Given these testimonies, how could one still look for a carnival glutton, when Erofeev failed even to show a chewing reflex?!  Even less appropriate are the carnivalesque, clichéd images of the gaping mouth and fat stomach — the signs of volcanic eruptions of cosmic energy in the form of  insatiable gluttony.[65]

         With this in mind, one can argue that the historic force of the twentieth century was precisely generated by  this chewing and swallowing instinct, which even the most revolutionary ideologies used in order to turn the world upside down.  The face of this imperialistically-communistically-fascistically-cosmically-ideologically-atomico-energetic century is grotesque. "The grotesque face can be reduced, essentially, to the gaping mouth — everything else is simply a setting for that mouth, for that yawning and devouring bodily cavity."[66]  Quick and fair distribution — this is how one might define the thrust and spirit of this most hungry and hurried of centuries in human history.  After all its feats of sharing, its proper ending should have come about in the spirit of a Bakhtinian utopia, in a merry festival of general consumption.  "Hunger rules the world" — this ancient truism has become the basis of modern ideologies, while the quickest satisfaction of hunger has been transformed into a sacred obligation and the purpose of world history.[67]

         For the founders of Marxism, whom Venia caustically studied out of duty and curiosity, "the physical self-production of the individual" was the mainspring of history. It constituted its primary fact, generating both the forces of production and the relationships of production as well as their conflicts, out of which grew social revolutions and the triumphs of the hungry over the sated. This would eventually lead to the triumph of satiety over hunger. The theory of carnival, in this sense, coalesces with and becomes the natural conclusion of the theory of revolution, according to which "the springs of social well-being and abundance will gush forth" (Karl Marx's  definition of Communism), and the social body, celebrating its feast of excess in eating, sweating, defecating and copulating, will manifest itself as "growing, inexhaustible, indestructible, abundant and bearing the material principle of life..."[68]

         Of course, there is no escaping from this basic material principle, which seizes one utterly and completely: "While the carnival is going on, there is no other life for anyone, except the life of the carnival.  Out of it  there is nowhere to go, for carnival does not know spatial boundaries.  During the carnival, one can live only according to its laws, that is, according to the laws of carnivalesque freedom."[69]

         Only according to the laws of  freedom — sounds as if these words were engraved in stone, like a KGB command.  But what of Venichka?  For the first time in the history of the tempestuous carnival milieu, it is not rowdiness but ticklishness and timidity that acquire glory. It is the ability to use the words 'angel' and 'infant' not as a gag and without hysterical laughter. The collar, not unbuttoned, but very painstakingly held together. Not gluttony, but the cautious lifting of a fried egg with a piece of bread. Last but not least, a man who became a legend by managing, in a carnival atmosphere, to fart not even once in the course of a sorrow-laden life.


         - Here you have the very famous Venichka Erofeev himself.  He is famous for a lot of things.  But more than anything else, of course, for the fact that, in his entire life, he has never farted...

         - How's that!! Never once!! - ladies are amazed and examine me with eyes wide open.  - Never once!!

         I begin to grow embarrassed, of course.[70]


         Oh, the embarrassed suppresser of energies! We have never had such a myth here before. [71]


                                    7. The New Sentimentality


         Evidently, the 'postmodern' era, which marks the twentieth century's fatigue with itself, is coming to an end.  The century opened with a triumphant entry into a radiant future and is ending with parodying all the previous ages of humankind.  Everything  this century managed to swallow in an unprecedented intoxication of the mind with ideas, it now disgorges in the form of dreary self-repetitions and mocking citations.  To paraphrase Erofeev, one might say that every century has its physical, spiritual and  mystical side; and our century is currently experiencing nausea from all sides,[72] especially in that one sixth of the globe, which has suffered more severely than the other parts from this century's binging. Territories that had been swallowed up are being disgorged, along with pieces of nature that have been befouled and remnants of ideas of the founding fathers that have gone sour. Everything that had been so exciting and intoxicating now floods the site of the recent orgy with a cold mass of vomit.

         The century is tired of itself — but fatigue generates new fatigue and so the century is becoming too lazy to project its fading images in the mirror of new parodies... A new kind of seriousness is growing, a seriousness that tests itself on laughter — and is not laughing, tests its own courage — but does not dare. It is a very timid seriousness, one that resembles faint-heartedness, the fear of scaring something away and irreparably destroying something in ourselves and in the world minus ourselves.

         The myth of Erofeev reveals a new kind of sentimentality, or sentimentality at a new stage of  development — one that includes carnival and parodic effects while simultaneously neutralizing and diffusing them. Is it not insanity to suggest that the twenty-first century could become the century of sentimentality?  Is it possible that the twenty-first century will acquire a taste for thoughtfulness, quiet meditation and delicate melancholy in the same way as the twentieth century looked for inspiration in the age of the baroque, with its fantastic refinement, dramatic tension and overflowing force?

          Is it possible that everything loud will begin to irritate us: explosions of anger, explosions of laughter? The rising of the masses, about which Ortega-y-Gasset prophesied, will come to an end and with it the aesthetics of revolution and carnival. People will begin to listen attentively to themselves and perhaps will even hear the voices of angels.  They will once again wipe away the tears of innocent children with the edge of their handkerchief, but will not, with every child's tear, rise up against God to alter the world order.  Berdiaev, as we know, tried to explain the Communist revolution as deriving from the heightened affectivity and sentimentality of the Russian people. "Russians used to become atheists out of pity and compassion, out of the inability to endure compassion."[73] The Russians, so it goes, are so sensitive to the suffering of others that they are ready to shatter the entire unjust world so as to be able to commiserate with the world's victims. Even Belinsky wrote about his raging love of humanity: "In order to give happines to one half of humanity, I would be prepared to annihilate the other half with fire and sword."  As Berdiaev remarked, "out of compassion, Belinsky is ready to preach  tyranny and cruelty".[74]

         Revolution, however, is not mature sentimentality, but rather, a miscarriage of sentimentality, a yearning to shed the excessive burden of feelings.  Revolution represents an impatience with emotions, an inability to feel the full extent of one's own misery, and the desire to cut off and kill every emotion by finding an instantaneous, practical outlet for it.

         In this sense, sentimentality  is opposed to revolution. Sentimentality adores emotions since they edify the soul and are the aim of existence. Sentimentality, in the proper sense, means sensibility or sensitivity to everything pertaining to human feelings.  But the sensibility of the twenty-first century will not be a straight-forward repetition of the sensitivity of the eighteenth century.  It will not interpret the world in divisive terms of what is touching or horrible, adorable or repulsive. It will be capable of accommodating  many contradictory feelings. It will restore to itself all that was torn away from sensitivity and directed against it by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — nightmares, phantasms, catastrophies, revolutions. Everything that killed feelings will be reappropriated in order to make feelings keener.  The new sensitivity will find a way of assimilating both the terrifying and causal. It will smile upon both. But this smile will not be the same as parody: it will not be the alienation or suppression of emotions, but a mode of countering emotions with emotions. Sensitivity will be liberated from all accepted conventions, from the captivity in which it was still held by Classicism, where feelings came under strict laws.  It will become possible to feel everything and in every manner,  to empathize with the sensuality of each and every object and to combine this empathy with the sense of every other object. Stern and Jean Paul will become the favorites of the twenty-first century. Using the legacy of the eighteenth century, it will value humor, the light garb of sentimentality, above all.   And then—God knows—through Venedikt Erofeev, the continuity of the sentimental tradition, leading from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, will be restored.  And Venichka will suddenly find his place on the same shelf of the Russian library as poor Liza, who threw herself into the pond[75] — while he, the poor guy, cut himself on an awl. "I could have drowned myself in my own tears, but it didn't work out for me."[76]

         In any case, the twenty-first century will probably make room for quite a few nooks in which heroic feats will have no place. Here the reader will sit quietly, bent over Venia's book, visited by flickering angels who will converse with him in Venia's language.  And no matter what name is given to this  mysterious century, it will surely be a century of timidity and delicacy, and of the sensitive hangover.

[1]    "...Vrezaias' vnov' i vnov' s naskoku / V razriad predanii molodykh" - Pasternak on Mayakovsky, in his poem The Death of a Poet (1930). 

[2]    Compare, for instance, Claude Levi-Strauss's theory of myth, according to which myth functions as a mediating term between fundamental binary oppositions, such as life and death, heaven and earth, laughter and tears and so on. "...The purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction..." Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology. Trans. by Claire Jacobson and Brook G. Schoepf. New York:Basic Books, 1963, p. 229.

[3] One of the most important testimonies to this is the collection of materials in memorium  under the general title "Several monologues about Venedikt Erofeev," in the journal Teatr, no. 9 (1991):74-122.

[4]  Poema: the Russian word for epic poem. However, in the Romantic period, writers such as Gogol fashioned their own poemas-in-prose, Dead Souls being the most famous, and the one Erofeev certainly had in mind in calling his own short novel a poema. [Translator's note]

[5]    This was written by a poet of the war generation about his contemporaries who died young. Incidentally, what generation among us has not been a war generation?  We have joined battle with  autocracy and serfdom, with the peasantry and the intelligentsia, with the petty-bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, with  literature and religion, with society and ourselves.  Every generation has had its own war and its own victims, which means, its own myths. All of these deal with people who have not lived out their lives fully: Pushkin, Lermontov, Nadson, Blok, Gumilev, Esenin, Mayakovsky, Vysotsky, Brodsky...  Some of these were great poets, others simply poetic natures. Their poetry was not so much in their verse as in their life, which was  broken like the string of a guitar during the performance of a cruel romance.

     Perhaps the only exception among the myths of a "true poet who dies young" is Akhmatova (1889-1966), but she is mythologized as a special, feminine, maternal deity who died and rose again, having survived the Russian Revolution and the great  crises of the 1930s and 1940s. 

[6]    Fyodor Dostoevsky, "Pushkin. An Essay." In: F.M.Dostoevsky ob iskusstve, Moscow:Iskusstvo, 1973, p. 370.

[7]    Venedikt Erofeev, Moskva-Petushki . Moscow: Interbuk, 1990, p. 128. [Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are by Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover].

[8]    Compare Teatr , no. 9 (1991):95, 97, 102.

[9]        Olga Sedakova (born 1949) is a famous poet and essayist.See chapter 5 of this book.

[10]    Memoirs of Lidiia  Liubchikova, Teatr , no.9 (1991):80, 85.

[11]    Compare Teatr, no.9 (1991):90.

[12]    Compare Teatr, no.9 (1991):88.

[13]    Comapre Teatr, no.9 (1991):90.

[14]    As Georgy Fedotov writes, "the affectation of immorality was not alien to the holy fool.  The hagiographies of such men chastely cover this aspect of their feat with the stereotypical phrase: 'making oneself an obscenity'[pokhab sia tvoria].  The life of a holy fool is one of constant  vacillation between acts of moral salvation and acts of immoral mockery of them." Georgy Fedotov.  Saints of Ancient Rus' , Moscow: Moskovskii Rabochii, 1990, pp.200-201.

[15]    "... The holy fool affects insanity or immorality with the goal of attracting abuse from people." (G. Fedotov,  opt. cit., p. 200). Compare this with the following remark by one of Erofeev's memoirists: "No, they never courted him, on the contrary, people loved to speak abusively and rudely to him.  And he was often regarded as a buffoon... He was constantly under attack and being offended in some way." (Muraviev, Teatr, op.cit., p. 95).

[16]    From the Life of Vasily the Blessed.  See Fedotov, opt. cit.,  p. 206.  Compare with the following note on Erofeev: "Anything perfect or any aspiration to perfection he suspected of inhumanity.  'Human' for him meant 'imperfect'..." (Olga Sedakova, Teatr, op.cit., p. 101).

[17]    From the beginning of the poem, Erofeev's hero is cast out onto the periphery of the ordered and sacred world; for him it is mystically impossible to be in the center.The poem starts with the following paragraph: "Everyone says: the Kremlin, the Kremlin. I hear about it from everyone but have never seen it myself.  How many times already (a thousand), drunk or with a hangover, have I gone from North to South, from West to East, from one end to the other, right through systematically and haphazardly —  and  I never once saw the Kremlin."  Moskva-Petushki,  op. cit.., p. 15.

[18]    Compare  Teatr, op.cit.,  p.98.

[19]    "The  nightmare of the Communist era was the Sorrow which he experienced daily." Teatr, op.cit., p.102.

[20]    Nikolai Rubtsov (1936-71) was a leading representative of "village" poetry, with its aesthetization of "tranquility" and "archaicism." His gloomy, unsociable temper and alcoholic excesses doomed him to live in obscurity, but after his tragic death (at the hands of his mistress), neo-Slavophile critics like Vadim Kozhinov proclaimed his poetry to be the embodiment of  the Russian national character.

[21]    It's Me, Edichka is the title of a novel by Eduard Limonov. In fairness to Limonov, it should be pointed out, that the Edichka myth has no connection with Venichka, but is rather a provincial, half- French, half-Dnepropetrovsk version of the myth of the superman, in which the shamelessness of the hero grows in proportion to his self-pity and his narcissistic enjoyment of himself, the One and Only. "When Erofeev read a piece of Limonov's prose, he said: 'I can't read this: I can't throw up.'" (From the memoirs of Muraviev,  Teatr , op.cit.,  p. 95) 

[22]    Moskva-Petushki, opt. cit., pp. 17, 45.

[23]    Compare Liubchikova,  Teatr, op. cit.,  p.84.

[24]    Compare Avdiev,  Teatr, op. cit., p.104.  Or there is the following detail: "Even in the greatest heat when all the others had already taken their shirts off, he stayed in his jacket..." (Liubchikova,  Teatr , op. cit., p. 104).  "It is difficult to imagine Venia even in the most unbearable heat without his jacket..." (Avdiev, Teatr ,  op. cit.,p.104).

[25]    Moskva-Petushki,  opt. cit.,  p. 16.

[26] "It seems to me that I would not be mistaken if I said that he loved meekness above all else.  Any display of meekness overwhelmed him" (Sedakova,  Teatr, op. cit.,  p.99).  In general women have described Venichka better in their memoirs than men.  What men saw as the most important thing in Venia's life were carnival and his writing, though it was precisely these things - carnival and writing - from which, while paying tribute to them, Venia distanced himself inwardly.  "A man carrying the idea of tenderness in him" - this expression, coined by his beloved Rozanov, is a fitting description of Venia's being,  which women understood best.  "The bitterest thing to recall is Venia's gentleness. It remained unclaimed." (Liubchikova,  Teatr ,  opt. cit., , p. 83).

[27]    While telling of Venia's hatred of heros and feats of courage, Olga Sedakova recalls that "the champion of this hatred became the unfortunate Zoia Kosmodemianskaia" (Teatr, op. cit., p. 101). Zoia Kosmodemianskaia (1923-41) was a female Partisan and heroine of World War II, executed by the Nazis. She became a cult figure of  Soviet propaganda.

[28]    Lines from Aleksandr Pushkin's poem "Recollection".

[29]    Venedikt Erofeev, "Vasily Rozanov through the Eyes of an Eccentric," Almanach Zerkala, Moscow: Moskovskii Rabochii, 1989, p. 44.

[30]    Venia understood this dialectic perfectly, although in his own account the ultimate stage of synthesis was not entirely in keeping with Hegel: "Let's put it this way: if a quiet man drinks seven hundred and fifty  grams, he will become rowdy and joyful.  And if he adds seven hundred more?  Will he be still rowdier and more joyful?  No, he will become quiet again.  If not looked at too closely, he will appear to have sobered up." (Moskva-Petushki, opt. cit., p.50).

[31]    This is Venia's reasoning according to the memoirs of Igor Avdiev,  Teatr, op. cit., pp. 112-113.  The following is Venia's own monologue: "No one in Russia is afraid of tickling, I am the only person in all of Russia who guffaws when he is tickled.  I myself have tickled three women and ten men — not one of them responded with so much as a grimace or a laugh" (Venedikt Erofeev,"Vasily Rozanov...", op. cit., p. 40)

[32]    "Venia liked to laugh, and he laughed until he cried.  He laughed like a girl, bending over in stitches, clasping his belly button with his elbows." (Igor Adviev, Teatr, op. cit., p.105).

[33]    Moskva-Petushki, opt. cit., p.21.

[34]    Teatr, op. cit., p.99.

[35]    Moskva-Petushki,  op. cit., p.122.

[36]    Avdiev, Teatr, op. cit., p. 105.

[37]    Though this Russian  word has a negative connotation in contemporary usage   ("cowardice"), it echoes the  first of Christ's blessings in his Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit..." (St.Matthew, 5:3).

[38]  Moskva-Petushki, op. cit., p. 21.

[39]    Venia was aware of it and drew attention to it himself : "My delicacy does me great harm, it has spoiled my youth... It is a sort of self-imposed limitation, a kind of prohibition imposed by   shame...  I understand many of God's designs, but why he has endowed me with such chastity, I do not know to this day."  Moskva-Petushki,  opt. cit., pp. 28,30.

[40]    Sedakova,  Teatr, op. cit.,  p.99.

[41]    "Since you've moved in, none of us have seen you heading for the bathroom even once.  Okay, we are not talking about having to go for the big one! But you haven't even been out for a pee...not even a pee!...[...]  And so I got up and went.  Not in order to relieve myself.  In order to relieve them."  Moskva-Petushki,  opt. cit., pp.29-30.

[42]    Sedakova,  Teatr, op. cit., p. 98.

[43]  Moskva-Petushki,  opt. cit., p.43.

[44] "Venedikt used to refer to  his own child by the word 'infant' - and so this became a habit" (from the memoirs of Lidiia Liubchikova,  Teatr, p.81)

[45] See Muraviev's playful introduction to  Moskva-Petushki.  Counter-irony here refers to something which was already used before Erofeev; by Kozma Prutkov, Alexei K. Tolstoi, Shchedrin in his late works, and Igor Severianin: "It is the same old Russian irony distorted into an all-Russian absurdity, as they say... But through this distortion, it completely forfeits its  political coloring and the denunciatory power of the true believers." (Moskva-Petushki,  opt. cit., p. 8).  This definition is perhaps a little obscure, but the term is self-explanatory even without it.

[46]  Moskva-Petushki,  opt. cit., p. 25.

[47]    Cited in  Teatr, op. cit.,   p. 95.

[48] "...Sociologists and anthropologists who were interested in the interrelations between myth and ritual have considered them as mutually redundant ...They replicate each other; myth exists on the conceptual level and ritual on the level of action." Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, op. cit., p.232.

[49]    "So what's the story? Will Nina from room number 13 donate a fuck?" (The humor here is based on a pun on the Russian "Dai ebat,' meaning "give a fuck," but which as "Daian Eban" evokes the names of two popular Israeli politicians of the time.) - Moskva-Petushki,  op. cit., p. 33.

[50]  Moskva-Petushki, p.30.  "If someone had asked me in what century Venia would have been most comfortable, I would have said: at the end of the eighteenth century!... Venia felt such an affinity with Karamzin, Fonvizin and Derzhavin!" (Avdiev,  Teatr, op. cit.,p.115).

[51]    Mikhail Bakhtin,  Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kul'tura srednevekov'ia i Renessansa. (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia Literatura, 1965), pp.344-346, 350, 389 and others.

[52]    Galina Erofeeva,  Teatr, op. cit., p. 89.

[53]    Sedakova,  Teatr, op. cit., p. 101.

[54]    Venedikt Erofeev, "Vasily Rozanov...",  In: Zerkala, op. cit.,   p. 33.

[55]  Moskva-Petushki, op. cit., p.97.

[56]    M. Bakhtin,  Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable, op. cit., p. 352.  :"In sum, the common noun 'pantagruel,'" concludes Bakhtin,  "is linked to the mouth, the throat, to drinking and to desease, which is to the entire grotesque set."  Ibid..

[57] This is the judgment of Andrei Zorin, in his article "A Landmark," in which he writes: "The poet, Oleg Chukhontsev, who was in contact with Mikhail Mikhailovich in the last years of his life, recounted to me how the eminent scholar read Erofeev's poem with delight and even compared it to Dead Souls.  The ending of Moskva-Petushki, however, did not suit Bakhtin at all, for he saw 'entropy' in it"  (Teatr, op. cit., p. 121).

[58] Venia's relationship to what was then considered the carnivalization of literature is evident in his appraisal of The Master and Margarita.  "He did not take to Bulgakov at all, he hated  Master and Margarita so much that he used to shake.  Many wrote that there was a link between him and this book, but he himself used to say: '...I haven't even read "The Master", I couldn't get past page fifteen!'"  (Muraviev, Teatr, op. cit., p. 93)

[59]    Teatr, op. cit., p. 121.

[60]    Spekh means labor, feats and generally all forms of rushing.  "Amid the noise and rushing of the folk..." [Sred' narodnogo shuma i spekha] is the beginning of a poem by Osip Mandelstam (1937).

[61]    Here are merely some of the poetic images of the coming entropy, characteristic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: "I understood everything: the earth had long grown cold and extinct..." (Afanasii Fet); "The world was deserted... The Earth had grown cold..." (Ivan Bunin); "O, if you knew, friends, the cold and darkness of the days to come." (Alexander Blok); "Everything will perish.  It will come down to nothing.  And the one who moves  life, will burn out the last ray of light over the darkness of the planets." (Vladimir Mayakovsky).

[62]    The Second Epistle of Peter, 3: 5-7, 12.

[63]    About Erofeev's habit of reclining, see Liubchikova and Avdiev, Teatr, op. cit., pp.82, 85, 104.  About his slippers, see Liubchikova, Teatr, pp. 80, 81.  Venia went everywhere in slippers, though he, probably, did not have  a robe.  "... I don't wear a dressing gown even at home;  but  I wear  slippers even outside..." Moskva-Petushki, op. cit.,  p. 116.

[64]    See in Teatr, op. cit., Frolova, p.74; Liubchikova, p. 80; Erofeeva, p. 87; Avdiev, p. 104.

[65]    "Those parts of the body are accentuated where there is either an opening onto the outside world, or where the world enters the body, or where it protrudes from it, or where the body protrudes into the world, that is, the emphasis is on openings, protuberances, on all kinds of growths and warts: a gaping mouth, genitals, breasts, the phallus, a fat stomach, the nose." M.M. Bakhtin, Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable...,  pp. 31-32.

[66]    Ibid, p. 343.

[67]    "Base avarice has been the driving force of civilization from its beginnings to the present day;  enrichment,  and again nothing but enrichment, and a third time nothing but enrichment; the enrichment not of society as a whole, but of the single miserable  individual — this was its only determining goal.  If then in the depths of society, science continually developed and periods of the highest blossoming of art recurred, it is only because without this all the achievements of our age in the realm of the accumulation of riches would have been impossible." (F. Engels. "Proiskhozhdenie sem'i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva, " in Marx, K., Engels, F., Sochineniia, 2nd edition, Moscow: Gospolitizdat, 1961, vol. 21, p. 176).  According to Engels' reasoning,  greed was base so long as it served the interests of single individuals. But in the future, greed will work towards the well-being of the whole of society.

[68]    Mikhail Bakhtin,  Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable... p. 29.

[69]    Ibid, p. 10.

[70]    Moskva-Petushki, op. cit. p.30.

[71]         On October 24, 1998, on his 60th birtday, a monument to Erofeev was erected on the Kursky railway station in central Moscow, on the place from where he used to depart for Petushki, a little town where  on the same date a monument to his beloved, " a girl with a long plait," was erected.   Venia has proved to be the first representative of late Soviet generations honored with a monument (even a double one) which confirms the mythological status of his personality.

[72]    Moskva-Petushki, op. cit.,  pp. 18-19.

[73]    Nikolai Berdiaev. Istoki i smysl russkogo kommunizma. Paris: YMCA Press, 1955, p.35.

[74]    Ibid,p.34.

[75]       Liza is the heroine of Nikolai Karamzin's popular story "Poor Liza" (1792) - the masterpiece of Russian Sentimentalism.

[76]    "Vasily Rozanov...", p.32.