The Gnostic Pelevin, or the Right Metaphysics for the Times

Avram Brown, University of California, Davis

One of the most striking aspects of Viktor Pelevin's prose is the juxtaposition of artifacts of popular culture and daily life with references to religious traditions such as Buddhism, Gnosticism/Manichaeism, and Mesopotamian mythology. In this paper I intend to examine Pelevin's explicit references to Gnosticism and Manichaeism--the ancient religious trend, often appearing as a dualistic heresy within Christianity, which foregrounded the yearning of the spirit to be redeemed from matter--and argue that Pelevin's Gnosticism is fitting for two reasons:

1) Gnostic topoi jibe with Pelevin's existentialist worldview; and the Gnostic method provides a model for Pelevin's ominous deconstruction of the found world. Hans Jonas and others have argued that modern existentialism's notion of humanity as "cast into" a cosmos from which it is alienated represents the hour come round again of the anxiety of ancient Gnosticism. His comic talent and the wit with which he connects his metaphysics and everyday realia notwithstanding, Pelevin's worldview is one of existential pessimism: life and materiality are often repulsive, and the world often seems a conspiracy or trap, with the individual standing bewildered before malevolent forces.

Pelevin lends himself to a "Gnostic" reading especially when we consider that the Gnostics were (to use Harold Bloom's term) the "ancestor[s] of all major Western revisionists"--they did not invent their own myths but polemicized with those of their predecessors and opponents. For example, Gnostic polemics reinterpreted the God of the Old Testament as a tyrant, or an inept craftsman ("Demiurge"). Some of Pelevin's parables invoke precisely those reinterpretations prescribed by Gnosticism. For example, in "Sleep," the conspiracy that keeps the main character Nikita comfortably sleep-walking through his life is cemented with the help of two druzhinniki, Gabriel and Michael--i.e., two malevolent reinterpreted "angels." Also, employing Gnostic topoi to unfold existentialist parables, Pelevin is following in the tradition of Kafka and Nabokov (in the readings for instance of Erich Heller and Sergei Davydov.)

2) Pelevin's "Gnostic" appraisal of the late-Soviet and post-Soviet periods can be seen in the context of the literary trend of "political Gnosticism." Gnostic topoi have been used in literature to irrationalize the "cosmos"/order of society. Byron in Cain and Bakunin in God and the State, for example, both revive the ancient Gnostic rebellion against the Creator, the "most bloodthirsty, the most despotic" promulgator of the Law. Jonas argues that the Gnostics' view of the Cosmocrat as tyrannical and inept reflects the outlook of the "new[ly] atomized masses of the [Roman] Empire," for whom "the law of empire...was a dispensation of external, inaccessible force" and for whom "the law of the universe, cosmic destiny, of which the world state was the terrestrial executor, assumed the same character." (Jonas, The Gnostic Religion)

The widespread late-Soviet and post-Soviet bewilderment before the machinations of political authority, coupled with the post-modern situation in which Russian culture is perceived as "having nowhere to go, having ended, drained itself to the bottom" (Mark Lipoveckij in Znamja, 1995), feeding on the carcass of its previous signs and authority-claimants, rendered the time right for a political-Gnostic metaphysics. Hence Pelevin's imagery of Lenin and Stalin as deceased "demiurges" (in Omon Ra and "Reconstructor"), dead creators whose corpses, as in the Manichaean myths, have gone into the stuff of the cosmos. Further, I will give a "Gnostic exegesis" of Omon Ra: Pelevin cleverly reinterprets the "space" or "order" of Sovetskij kosmos in the novel just as the Gnostics reinterpreted the Pythagorean "harmony of the spheres" into the "noise of the world" and the "tyranny of fate." When Omon comes to understand the celestial trajectories as a "life sentence in a prison car on an endless circular railroad," we feel Pelevin setting up a parody of the cosmos in which it is unclear whether one revolt--the metaphysical or the political--takes precedence over the other.