The End of the “Human Document”: Georgij Ivanov’s Raspad atoma

Until today, Raspad atoma (1938) remains among Georgii Ivanov’s least known writings and one of the most obscure pages of Russian émigré literature in the inter-war period. Few émigré works provoked such contradictory responses as this text. The flurry of critical opinions that appeared in the wake of its publication soon gave way to a “conspiracy of silence” (Gul′, Odvukon′, 1973: 68-69), whereby émigré critics boycotted Ivanov’s text. I study Raspad atoma from a literary-historical perspective. By placing Ivanov’s work in the context of the contemporary developments in Russian émigré and French literatures one can reveal the contradictory meanings this text had for its émigré readers.

In 1919, Paul Valéry argued that the post-war intellectual was a “European Hamlet” in spiritual crisis (“La Crise de l’esprit,” 1957: 992–993). Echoing Valéry, Marcel Arland suggested in 1924 that young French writers suffered from a “new malady of the century” because the culture of positivism, which had hurried the “death of God,” was itself compromised by the war. They regarded literature as a means for self-study; “documentary” literature had to replace “literary fiction” (“Sur un nouveau Mal du siècle,” 1952: 11-37). Many Russian émigrés agreed that old literature had reached the limits of artificiality. In the early 1930s, Georgij Adamovič, Georgij Ivanov, and their artistic associates—the “Paris school”—elaborated their own concept of the “human document” as a “responsible literary form” (Fel′zen, “Put′ pravyj,” 1934: 285) in which the artist wrote only about those things he had experienced (Janovskij, Polja Elisejskie, 1983: 247, 277). But by 1939, Adamovič doubted the very possibility of “truthfulness” in literature. His doubts were brought about by the fact that most émigré writers could now easily write artistically convincing but similar “documents.” This development resonated loudly in Raspad atoma. For Ivanov’s protagonist, “estheticizing” art is no longer possible, but “anti-estheticizing” art is equally deceptive. Thus, he indulges in the desperation of this vicious circle and writes literary prose about the impossibility of literature.

Raspad atoma is open to several interpretations. Xodasevič and Nabokov classified it as a heap of literary banalities that failed to produce the coveted effect of the “human document.” The second interpretation, aired in Zlobin’s and Gippius’s critical opinions, envisions the text as a successfully realized “human document” that reflects the deepening disintegration in the consciousness of the “European Hamlet.” But there is also another possible interpretation. One can consider Raspad atoma as the gesture of an agent-provocateur. By ridiculing the esthetics to which he himself only recently subscribed, Ivanov turned his weapon upon himself and his artistic oeuvre of the last ten years. The universal devilish laughter of his narrator could be the best manifestation of a “European Hamlet’s” complete spiritual disintegration. Making the inner contradictions in the concept of “truthful” literature ever more evident, Raspad atoma heralded the disenchantment of the “Paris school” writers with the “human document” doctrine and its vision of the relationship between art and reality.