Soviet Uncertainty: Viktor Shklovsky’s A HUNT FOR OPTIMISM

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Hunt for Optimism

There are parts of Viktor Shklovsky’s A Hunt for Optimism that expose the cruel ironies of Soviet life. In particular there is the story, “The General’s Son,” which narrates the testimony of an admired soldier who defected from the tsar’s army to join the Bolsheviks as he is caught up in a lie about his Jewish past. Shklovsky shows that in the court of Soviet opinion it is preferable to have been a Royalist rather than a Jew. In “Traktorgrad” a group of women confess that they have been doing extra work because there is not enough of their own work to occupy their time. The Chairman of the committee attempts to quiet them and to bypass the discussion of extra hours by invoking the rules of order. The women quiet down when an illiterate woman demands to speak. She proceeds to tell the assembly that in the daycare on her collective farm the mothers are being accused of swapping their own children with those from another town but that when the children are asked to identify their mothers, they do.

The translator, Shushan Avagyan, covers this theme of Soviet absurdity quite well in the preface, writing that Shklovsky, “using various narrators and scenarios … repeats and alludes to the same scene of interrogation in which a writer is being put on trial for his unorthodoxy.” Avagyan concludes:

This little polemical book is about art and revolution …. By way of both direct and indirect parodies, anecdotes, and stories within stories Shklovsky criticizes Soviet censorship and the ineptitude of Soviet leaders. In it, he carries the vulnerability of the Russian Jewry and the anti-Bolshevik intelligentsia, who had unwittingly become the “enemies of the people.” [His sentences] materialize contradiction as both a style of writing and a state of being.

This sums it up quite well, placing A Hunt for  Optimism not only within an historical frame but within a social and intellectual context as well. Shklovsky is writing as a Futurist whose opinion about the revolution has changed. But this little work is also something more. Its themes are broader than the Soviet East and their internal struggle with orthodoxy and authenticity. Behind the stories of a single writer struggling to give expression to the communal life being created by the Soviet Union there is the universal theme of searching for truth, faced by anyone who feels outside of a place and time. These are the stories told by a traveller before a disbelieving audience or by an idealist to a cynical nation.

The analogs that may be most rewarding to have in mind while reading A Hunt for Optimism may be none other than The Travels of Marco Polo and Don Quixote. Both of these characters are mentioned by Shklovsky directly. In Part Three, in the story titled “Marco Polo,” Marco Polo is described as an old man, dying in Venice. He thinks back to his adventures in Asia, the beauty and achievement that surrounded him there. He remembers the lovely woman who lived with him in the palace of Kublai Khan and the displays of fireworks, gunpowder, and the art of navigating by compass. He thinks of the ignorance and disbelief he faces when he returns to Italy. Then the priest comes to administer his last rites. But before he can perform the sacrament he says that Marco Polo must repent. “God will forgive a joke, innocent tales. You must admit to God that there are no snakes with legs and mouths with planted teeth. It’s not as terrible if you were joking, Marco Polo. I like tales and I laughed too, when I was reading your book.” Marco Polo replies, “I have traveled around the world on ships, crossed all the deserts before I was even forty. And I am less tired from that and from the prison, where I wrote my books, than I am tired of Venice that won’t believe me.” The last lines of the story express the power of the human mind to make the world meaningful for itself. It describes the Venetians’ reaction to the priest leaving Marco Polo’s flat with the blessed sacrament. “Without dropping their oars, the gondoliers half-bowed, expressing their deepest respect for reality.”

A Hunt for Optimism overwhelms me with a picture of humanity that has rejected the search for truth. Whether it is a central government’s collectivization of the fields, a dogmatic republic’s rejection of a traveller’s description about what lies on the other side of the globe, or a woman’s attempt to deceive her husband who, unbeknownst to her, is unfaithful and untrustworthy too, Shklovsky’s stories show a world plagued with the same kind of thinking that obscured the Venetians’ reality and made Marco Polo a mere entertainer rather than a chronicler of foreign lands. This is why Don Quixote is such a fitting analog to his book. Like the mad knight recreating himself in the imperfect image of his own ideal, Shklovsky’s characters and towns suffer from the same impossibility of trying to live authentically within a abstract and rigid notion of what life should be rather than living a life that is fitted to the needs that arise from experiences in the world.

In the story “The Alarm Clock” Shklovsky describes two regions in Georgia, one along the Aragvi River – Pshavi – and the other high in the Caucasus Mountains – Khevsureti.

[Pshavi] is a herdsmen’s country. Don Quixote should have come here after his defeat. He could have written poems here and found Dulcinea, and nobody would have been surprised at his armor, because everyone wears armor there. …  And when Don Quixote … would mount his horse, a Pshav woman with black hair would approach him and say … “Why are you leaving, my friend? I am madly in love with you.” And then poems would follow. None of this makes Pshavi any happier.

We soon learn that all of Georgia is changing. The landscape is being altered, swamps drained and bridges built. Ethnic groups are leaving their ancestral lands and assimilating into other cultures. In particular Pshavi is now uninhabited, “its people have moved away.” Perhaps this is why the land would be so amenable to Don Quixote. He would be free to ride and to fight windmills, but there would be no one to see him and no one for him to save.

The traveller narrates his journey through Georgia, describing how the people there hate the idea of change. He finds a doctor who has moved to the mountains after being tortured in Odessa. The narrator is quick to say that “it would have been very difficult for Don Quixote in Khevsureti. … Don Quixote would grow desperate for reading material up here, without his green, stitched with black, silk stockings, without the Duke and his masquerades, without Sancho’s jokes, who would turn silent here. Don Quixote would probably feel petrified in Khevsureti.” And he goes on to say that Roncinate, Don Quixote’s horse, would have grown fat there.

The Georgians, a people who hate change, have been forced into the mountains. Everywhere else the land is being transformed, the people are assimilating and leaving their native lands. In the watery region along the Aragvi, Don Quixote could have lived happily but now there is no one there. In the highlands of the Khevsureti he would be miserable. He would have company but they would be the wrong sort. He could find no one like the playful Sancho or the indulgent Duke and above all he would have nothing to read.

The imagination that creates an ideal flourishes when there is excess. When life is not determined by the forces of nature or by political will, when lazy days can be spent with a notebook in hand writing poetry or reading fiction by a river, then an ideal can be formed. But where those excesses are stripped away, where freedom can only exist in the mountains, where the ways of life never change, there the ideal is dead and the possibility for a new one has been uprooted from the imagination. This is one of the Soviet Union’s cruelest ironies:  the success of its quixotic project, which would create a static and stable society determined by the need of its people, would inhibit the power of the human mind to elevate humanity in a dream. If the Soviet project succeeds, it would be humanity’s last dream.

Viktor Shklovsky’s work runs the risk of being easily overlooked in our age where the fall of the Berlin Wall has convinced many that collectivism’s decline is inevitable and by some accounts even logically pre-ordained. It shouldn’t be. Not because Sovietism poses a danger of returning – I have no idea if it does or does not – or because our own political situation is on the edge of falling into a Soviet abyss – the far right may say so, but this too is absurd. A Hunt for Optimism should be read simply because all of us in some ways are out of place with our time and out of time with our place. No one of us fits seamlessly into society. It is impossible as an individual to live without conflict with another or to feel at least once (though probably many more times than that) the gap in knowing how another person lives and what that person thinks about the world. There is mystery that surrounds us. Hubris can keep us from recognizing it. But Viktor Shklovsky, with his sentence-long paragraphs and the snippet-structure of his stores, shocks us into admitting the one thing that all wise men know with certainty, that what we think we know we do not know because we know nothing. And he demonstrates that between the nothingness of knowledge and the dreams that we conjure to comfort us in our ignorance is our humanity.

A Hunt for Optimism is now available from Dalkey Archive Press.

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