Bugs and the Body Politic: Identity and the Body in Viktor Pelevin’s Žizn′ nasekomyx

One of most interesting and representative literary figures to emerge from the confusion of post-Soviet culture is Viktor Pelevin. Although his roots lie in the literary tradition of the past—Gogol′, Dostoevskij, and more recently Bulgakov and Sinjavskij—Pelevin’s unusual prose is thoroughly entwined with the concerns and preoccupations of the present day. At once postmodern in its assertion of a “multi-leveled ontology”—of an infinitely unfolding progression of loosely boundaried and bordering realities, consciousnesses and the diverse narratives that produce them—Pelevin’s novel is at the same time strikingly traditionalist in its penchant for moralism and fable-like didacticism. Pelevin, in his novel Žizn′ nasekomyx, reveals both his connection with a post-modernist ethos of fragmentation, as well as a traditionally Russian interest in the metaphysical quest, what one contemporary apologist of the writer describes as the “samopoznanie geroja v situacii ploxoj dejstvitel′nosti.” If the work as a whole concerns the search for identity in the chaos of life after Lenin, its protagonists can be divided into two categories: a philosophically-inclined central protagonist (who is at the same time the writer’s alter-ego) and the host of common insects whose attempts to articulate a self end in disaster. What unites them is a refrain common in today’s climate of political and social instability in Russia: “Kuda èto ja idu?” As Judith Butler has so convincingly shown, steep changes in political/social geography invariably breed multiple and desperate attempts to reinscribe the contours of the body social in one of the few remaining loci of stability; i.e., the individual body. In Pelevin’s insect world the search for self is most often channeled into the ephemeral pursuit of corporeal identification. Blood, the erect phallus, or even the genetic codes passed from parent to child—all become the means of recovering what is most painfully, insistently absent: an identity beyond ideology.

In the present paper I focus particular attention on those strategies of identity-formation which are essentially cannibalistic; in other words, they literally subsist on ready-made textual or corporeal identities in a futile attempt to prop up a flagging sense of self. To the extent that Pelevin himself creates the image of a vision of a world held together only by its inhabitants’ need to “feed on” the Other, this approach seems justified. Drawing as well on Frank Lestringant’s Cannibals and Carla Mazzio’s article “Sins of the Tongue,” the paper discusses the ways in which cannibalism quite literally functions as a means of shoring up a fragmented body social.

The remainder of the paper, by contrast, deals with the central protagonist’s successful attempt to create a sense of self which is ultimately beyond the text and therefore non-cannibalistic. Thus he begins the novel as an esthete inclined to romanticize the danse macabre of his fellow insects as they circle around a neon lamp, but at the same time clearly skeptical of the worth of the locus classicus. The thrust of Pelevin’s novel thus clearly aims at creating an absolute identity beyond the proliferation of scripted selves afloat in Russia today. This paper will examine the ways in which Pelevin both deplores the virtual self created by communism/capitalism, while positing a “genuine” identity beyond the dichotomy of first and third world.