Olesha's Zavist: Utopia and EHRE Olesha's Zavist': Utopia and Dystopia Utopia and dystopia designate

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)

Text of Olesha's Zavist: Utopia and EHRE Olesha's Zavist': Utopia and Dystopia Utopia and dystopia designate

  • Olesha's Zavist: Utopia and DystopiaAuthor(s): Milton EhreReviewed work(s):Source: Slavic Review, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 601-611Published by:Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2499856 .Accessed: 13/11/2012 11:49

    Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

    .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.


    Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserveand extend access to Slavic Review.


    This content downloaded by the authorized user from on Tue, 13 Nov 2012 11:49:03 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



    Olesha's Zavist': Utopia and Dystopia

    Utopia and dystopia designate the human dream of happiness and the human nightmare of de- spair when these are assigned a place (topos) in space or time. Since narrative literature "is es- sentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery,"' utopian and dystopian inventions are mere extremes of literature's ongoing story. In realistic fictions, although social circumstances may range from the incidental to the decisive, the story of the movement to happiness or unhappiness is usually told in terms of individual achievement and failure. In the utopian and anti-utopian scheme deliverance or damnation depend on the place where one has found oneself, whether it is "the good place" or "the bad place." Although uto- pias are allegorical constructs of the rational mind, attempting to bring order to the disorder of life, their denial of what is for the sake of what ought to be makes them a species of fantasy literature-a dream of reason.)

    When the literary imagination eschews mimetic designs, when it refracts rather than reflects reality, it is, in Harry Levin's words, "likely to show either a wishful or else an anxious ten- dency, to emphasize the aspirations or the revulsions of its epoch, to produce an idyll or a sat- ire."' In utopian literature idyll (or panegyric) blends with satire, as praise of the ideal alternates with, or at least implies, criticism of the real. Dystopian literature is almost pure satire. Like his or her utopian antagonist, the dystopian writer postulates imaginary worlds, "nowheres," where reason, instead of triumphing, has gone berserk. Many utopias are unashamedly escapist, but the best of them, Plato's Republic, Thomas More's Utopia, raise ideal possibilities to remind us how far we fall short of being truly human. The dystopian vision also proceeds from some standard of human value and finds utopia more dehumanizing than the society it seeks to displace. Since literature, like life, is compounded of wish and anxiety, writers are often ambivalent, so that skeptical irony infiltrates the purity of utopia (even in More's locus classicus), pastoral contends with history (Oblomov and Voina i mir), utopian visions clash with deflating dystopian parody (Fedor Dostoevskii and Iurii Olesha).

    Revolutionary epochs spawn utopias and rejoining dystopias (idyll, panegyric, and satire have been characteristic modes of Soviet literature). Hope and anxiety intensify as utopia ceases to be a hypothetical standard by which to measure actual society, what Northrop Frye has called "an informing power in the mind,"4 and promises (or threatens) to become an actuality. After 1917 a new world seemed in the making, "idushchikh svetlykh let," as Vladimir Maiakovskii sang, where "solntse . . . vzoidet nad griadushchim bez nishchikh kalek."' Industrialization would transform Russia into a paradisiacal landscape; socialist principles would give birth to a new Adam:

    1. Aristotle, Poetics, 1450. Aristotle, of course, is referring to tragedy, but his argument applies to most narrative.

    2. In the Russian tradition utopia most often appears in dreams rather than as a result of the other traditional utopian stratagem, a journey to an as yet undiscovered land, perhaps because, as one commentator puts it, "the Russian writer and thinker often felt the gap between the ideal and reality more sharply than did his European compeer." V. P. Shestakov, in Russkaia literaturnaia utopiia, ed. V. P. Shestakov (Moscow: Moskovskii universitet, 1986), 14.

    3. Harry Levin, The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 28. For a discussion of the relation of utopian literature and satire, see Robert C. Elliott, The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

    4. Northrop Frye, "Varieties of Literary Utopias," in Utopias and Utopian Thought, ed. Frank E. Manuel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 34.

    5. From "Vo ves' golos" and "Razgovor s fininspektorom o poezii," Vladimir Maiakovskii, lzbran- nye proizvedeniia, ed. V. 0. Pertsov and V. K. Zemskov (Moscow-Leningrad, 1963) 2:550, 126.

    Slavic Review 50, no. 3 (Fall 1991)

    This content downloaded by the authorized user from on Tue, 13 Nov 2012 11:49:03 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • 602 Slavic Review

    B KHJbl JlbeTCq HoBaM,KeI-e3HaM KpOBb. A BbIpOC ene. Y MeHq caMOFO BbIpaCTalOT CTaJIbHbie Hlie4HI H 6e3MepHo CHJIbHbL pyKH. 51 c;imwc5i c

    KeJie3oM HlOCTpOFKH. VIOyJH51C,q.

    the proletarian poet Aleksei Gastev exulted.6 Not only the energy of machines but also their rationalized activity provided a model for the utopian ambitions of the revolutionary years. In the Azbuka kommunizma of 1919, Nikolai Bukharin and Evagenii Preobrazhenskii predicted the ad- vent of a society as well-regulated as a mechanical contraption and as harmonious as an or- chestra: Communist society

    must be an organized society. Anarchic production. competition of private entrepreneurs, wars, crises have no place here. . . . from childhood onwards, all will have been accus- tomed to social labor, and . . all will understand that this work is necessary and that life goes easier when everything is done according to a prearranged plan. . . . There will be no need for special ministers, for police or prisons, for laws and decrees-nothing of the sort. Just as in an orchestra all the performers watch the conductor's baton and act accordingly, so here all will consult the statistical reports and will direct their work accordingly.7

    From such cheerful dreams nightmares like Evgenii Zamiatin's My, George Orwell's 1984, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are born.

    Though Olesha's Zavist' has its dark satiric moments as well as idealizing tendencies, it is best read as a comic meditation on the utopian dream. The panegyrist praises his ideal and the satirist mocks men and institutions that have been deflected from a norm he values. Olesha is unsure. His novel has the dispassionateness of comedy-it struggles to locate a stance before the imperatives of paradise in the making, but it ultimately remains content with revealing the way of the world. Perplexed by utopia, uncertain about where he stands, or where he should stand, he has turned his confusions to advantage, nurturing what John Keats called the "negative capabil- ity," the capacity of the mind to be tolerant of "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts."8 Ideology's loss is art's gain, as Olesha explores the ramifications of the utopian project with intellectual irony and replaces the polemics of dystopia with his characteristic whimsy.

    The novel presents three ideal states. Andrei Babichev is an intermediary between the rotten old order and the future paradise. He busies himself constructing a utopia of production and consumption. His heirs, Volodia and Valia, children of a collectivist society, have finally cleansed themselves of the confusions and burdens of life as men have known it. These athletic youths inhabit a brave new world of play. Kavalerov and Ivan Babichev, remnants of prerevolu- tionary society, organize "a conspiracy of feelings" to vindicate the superannuated aristocratic values of individual heroism, romantic love, adoration of woman, and beauty (Kavalerov derives from the Russian for cavalier). Kavalerov is torn: He longs to assert his personality and yet aches to find a home in the bosom of Babichev's utopia. He is also an artist manque, and in his creative use of language and poetic ruminations (he is the narrator of the first half of the book) he sug- gests a third ideal-a utopia of art.

    Without Andrei Babichev the novel might have fallen into those clear-cut allegorical op- positions of the right and wrong way (Kavalerov against Volodia) which provide the axes of

    6. "My rastem iz zheleza," in Proletarskie poetv pervvkh let sovetskoi epokhi, 2nd ed., Biblioteka poeta, ed. Z. S. Papernyi and R. A. Shatseva (Leningrad, 1959), 148.

    7. Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhenskii, Azbuka kommunizma (1919), 36-39. For a histori- cal survey of Soviet versions of utopia, see Jerome M. Gilison, The Soviet Image of Utopia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1975). The revolution also gave rise to a number of peasant pastorals but the urban industrial model soon won out. See Katerina Clark, "The City versus the Countryside in Soviet Peasant Literature of the Twenties: A Duel of Utopias," in Bolshevik Cultur