Animism and the Psychology of Childhood in Andrej Platonov’s “Džan”

Michelle S. Kelly, University of California, Los Angeles

Animism, or the attribution of consciousness to non-living objects, has often been identified as a hallmark of Andrej Platonov’s prose style. The centrality of a child persona is also a common Platonov theme, particularly in his most controversial work. These two phenomena, animism and the prominent child figure, come together in a dynamic way in the story “Džan”. There the child-hero’s tendency to blur or to simply ignore distinctions between the animate and the inanimate, and the human and non-human, invites us to consider the thoughts, perceptions, and emotions invested in his grouping together of seemingly unrelated categories. These correspondences, these blurrings of boundaries, may be studied under the rubric of “childhood animism,” a concept borrowed from developmental psychology. “Childhood animism” lumps together the definition of animism stated above with the related concept of “anthropomorphism,” or the attribution of human traits to non-humans, either animals or inanimate objects.

The tale of “Džan” unfolds as the hero Nazar Čagataev, returning from a Moscow institute to his people in the Asian wilderness, first recollects and subsequently relives his childhood struggle to survive in a land sparsely populated with fauna and flora. Each successive encounter with creatures or things in the wild, from the first time he leaves his homeland and adopts a tumbleweed as a traveling companion, to his amazement later in life when he meets an old man who bears greater resemblance to a snake than a human being, imparts new information about Čagataev’s psychological makeup. In my paper, I will incorporate ideas from cognitive developmental and analytical psychology as well as literary criticism to show how childhood animism fundamentally shapes Čagataev as a psychological being. I intend further to discuss how questions of self and other, of cognitive and emotive awareness, and of cultural context may affect the interpretation of a given passage and/or the narrative as a whole.