Andrey Platonov, Happy Moscow

Happy MoscowHappy Moscow by Andrei Platonov

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Happy Moscow reminds me of Superman comics, the darker ones of my youth in the late ’80s and early ’90s, where a gritty Metropolis was filled with good-hearted people made unhappy by the unkept promises of their moral energy. With its eponymous heroine and her lovers locked in a neverending battle to assemble in history from flawed human material the new Soviet man (of tomorrow, of steel), the novel takes as its theme an imperative I haven’t really seriously considered since I was 12, i.e., saving the world. That Platonov addresses the issue in a wryly lyrical prose, in a fragmentary and wandering narrative, amid a sequence of utterly bizarre sensuous details, with a tone of haunted or terrified empathy, obviates the potential naïveté of the novel’s ideological donnée and makes it a necessary text for anyone concerned with alternatives to realism, of form or of content, in the novel.

Reviewers seem convinced that the appreciation of Happy Moscow requires us to re-fight the Cold War. Here is Zach Friedman in the New Inquiry, praising the novel’s apparent anti-individualism and anti-bourgeois pro-communist utopianism (and making a few absurdly simplistic remarks along the way, e.g., linking Nabokov and Ayn Rand):

Platonov’s response was to literalize the Stalinist metaphor: rather than writers, wouldn’t it be even better to have actual engineers at work on the soul? In a 1930s essay included in NYRB Classics’ edition of Happy Moscow, “On the First Socialist Tragedy,” Platonov writes, “man himself changes more slowly than he changes the world.” This tragic incompatibility leads him to call for “creative engineers of the human soul,” to “prevent the danger of the human soul being left far behind by technology.” Instead of wistful yearning for love, better to try to catch up with the machines. Stalinism, he implies, offers only foremen of the soul. It taunts with an ideal of a socialism of the spirit when the actually existing utopia — the classy and gleaming Moscow with monumental architecture and well-read workers — never could satisfy the desire. Reading Platonov, engineers of the soul sounds less like nefarious Newspeak and more a summons to a factory where human beings can produce their own fates.

And here is Liesl Schillinger in the New York Times, making the same interpretation from a different political perspective, just the perspective Friedman decries in fact:

Their [the editors’] enthusiasm may bewilder readers who encounter Platonov here for the first time. Indeed, it’s hard to see how any but the most esoteric scholars of the literature and politics of the period could share it. Nor does this translation, however thought-through, however reverent, present a very convincing argument for Platonov’s resurrection. The English is maddeningly worded — but so is the Russian. In this post-Soviet age of instant technological gratification, it’s possible to download the original text from the Web and to see in Platonov’s own language that this book, while just as depressing, repellent, weird and cumbersomely dogmatic as the translation, is marginally smoother in Russian — if only because the Russian language is more telegraphic than English, and can be deceptively expressive despite its apparent terseness. Then again, the difference isn’t great enough to affect such enjoyment as may be derived from absorbing Platonov’s metaphorical portrait of a society in the midst of drastic change, dark and dystopian, seething with unhealthy energy. In the pages of “Happy Moscow,” one finds not so much a work of fiction as a record of the deformation of creativity by ideology, and a proof that puzzles are often more intriguing to those who laboriously put them together than to those who, coming across them later, approach the reassembled image with something less than wonder.

Are they right? Is this narrative founded on the faith that humanity may, through the development of technique, transform itself into gods? The key to interpreting Happy Moscow is determining the limit of its irony. If Friedman and Schillinger are right, then its irony halts before the project of humanity’s making an object of itself, relocating the transcendental on the immanent plane of history, immanentizing the eschaton, as the libertarians always say, quoting Robert Anton Wilson quoting the Birchers quoting Voeglin.

Platonov’s characters would then be noble riders, ruefully misled but on a rightful journey, so many Parsifals and Galahads in something like the new epic the young Lukács desired, or at least a new romance. This, I think, would be an inadequate response to the material on Platonov’s part if it were true, and would represent a naïve psychology in the service of a hubristic ontology: man would be god, and Happy Moscow a fable for divine technocrats. That’s my ideological given, for whatever it’s worth.

But the unfinished Happy Moscow‘s ending, even if not its intended conclusion, suggests a different reading. The novel leaves Moscow, now an amputee after an accident that occurred when she was building her namesake city’s metro, living with a dissolute old soldier in a Beckettian comedy of mutual irritation amid agony, to focus on her ex-lover, the brilliant engineer Sartorius, who drives his anti-individualism to the limit by taking up a new identity and relinquishing his privileged position.

In a notably Dostoevskian turn, he ends up marrying the abandoned wife of a co-worker after her son commits suicide in response to his father’s infidelity. The marriage is not a “happy” one, but Sartorius, now called by his assumed name in the narrative, adopts amor fati.  Instead of working toward utopia, he assumes the burden of the present for no other reason than that he has assumed it.  Instead of defeating time within eternity, as communism calls for when it asks humanity to transcend its temporal limitations through technique, he more traditionally submits time to eternity by making an ethical choice and keeping faith with it.  This might be some kind of communism, but it is not electrification-plus-Soviets, and it is not utopian in the sense that its end is not here.  “The imperfect is our paradise,” a sentence not written by a communist, to say the least.

What of the status of Platonov’s novel as it understands itself qua work of art? To put it in good dialectical jargon, a great work must be for-itself as well as in-itself, i.e., it must be self-conscious, or else it is too one-dimensional to bother with (and I do subscribe to this standard of judgment). So how does Platonov’s novel allegorize the situation of “the novel” or, more generally, of art? After all, there will be neither novels nor irony in utopia. (I borrow again from Lukács, who in The Theory of the Novel tells us the novel is the epic of the world abandoned by God and that irony is the highest freedom attainable in a world without God. Utopia does not “believe in” God but would be God incarnate, God considered as humanity’s own power, once alienated into a transcendent image, but now distributed immanently as the self-practice of freedom throughout the collective. What a beautiful creed. It is not mine, though.)

One way the novel figures itself is through the playing of an old fiddler in the squalid lot near a housing collective:

The musician looked at Moscow with equanimity and without attention, not attracted by any of her charm–as an artist, he always felt within his own soul a still better and more manly charm that drew his will on ahead, past ordinary delight, and he preferred this charm to everything visible.  Toward the end of his playing, tears came out of the fiddler’s eyes.  He was exhausted by life and, above all, he had not lived his own self in accord with the music; instead of meeting early death beneath the walls of an insuperable enemy, he was standing in the deserted yard of a housing cooperative, old, poor, and alive, with an exhausted mind through which, low down, was drifting a last imagination about a heroic world.  Opposite him, on the other side of the fence, they were building a medical institute for the research of longevity and immortality, but the old musician could not understand that this construction was continuing the music of Beethoven, while Moscow Chestnova did not know what was being built there.  Any music, if it was great and human, reminded Moscow about the proletariat, about the dark man with the burning torch who had run into the night of the Revolution, and of her own self, and she listened to it as though it were the speech of the leader and her own word, which she was always meaning yet never saying aloud.

Three things about this passage. First, “equanimity” must be the most-used uncommon word in the entire book, which I take to be a hint that endurance, rather than labor, is at issue, as is this paragraph’s typical insistence on ignorance and exhaustion. Second, the novel pretty clearly shows the medical research into immortality to be vain, a kind of fool’s paradise reminiscent of Swift’s Laputa. Third, this paragraph’s sincerity collapses into irony when Beethoven seamlessly melds into “the speech of the leader and her own word,” a folding of all alterity into the person of the sovereign that transparently, not least because its reference is to German Romanticism in the age of Hitler, tells us that something is disordered altogether in this desire for “a heroic world.”

But let’s play the New Inquiry game and take this paragraph at face value. It could be read as straightforward Marxism: all individual instances of aesthetic beauty, all reified forms severed from the common life of collective self-making, are recuperable to the extent that they image the coming plenum of relations in the classless society. (See Jameson’s essay on Bloch in Marxism and Form for a lucid exposition of this idea.) A nice theory of aesthetics, and a nice way of talking Marxists out of their creed’s unpleasant habit of shooting poets and burning art.

I can’t accept it in the end, though: if the world will never be perfect, conflict never eliminated, man never a god, then the confiscation of private experience (which is almost always between two or more anyway) and the forbidding of private access to the numinous are gratuitous cruelties, perfectly akin to the market’s expulsion of what does not immediately conduce to a profit. And why not? We might say that communism and capitalism are the same fantasy, they make the same promise, they betray the promise in the same way. Better to be a fiddler than a capitalist or a communist.

Happy Moscow presents this fantasy as a question, rather than an injunction, as the Iliad does for war. This fantasy of collective immanent self-transcendence will probably never die as long as we keep on dying, and so it is as legitimate a subject for art as any other. We do Platonov an injustice, though, if we reduce his novel’s pervasive sorrow to a lament over a particular governmental form, as if we were to suppose that Homer’s elegy were for the Achaeans and not for humanity. Perceptive reviewers (e.g., Christiane Craig) have compared Happy Moscow to a dream, and that is just what it’s like. Dreams, I think, are not wish-fulfillments, not imaginary solutions to real contradictions; wouldn’t we wake up happier if they were? A dream is a heightened perception of reality’s strangeness, which is to say, of our permanent estrangement. And Happy Moscow is therefore a stranger, not a comrade.


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