Anxiety of Influence and the Spontaneity and Consciousness Dialectic in the Works of Andrej Bitov

Yuliya Minkova, University of Southern California

In a chapter from the year 1963 of his autobiographical collection of writings entitled The Inevitability of the Unwritten, Andrej Bitov relates a story about a recording of Tolstoj's voice. The great writer was asked to say something for the children. The transcript of the recording read, "Deti, ne shalite, vedite sebja xorosho. Slushaites' papu i mamu. I, glavnoe, ne shalite." Quoted in the context of the writer's battle for creative independence, this message to posterity from the classic author, which contains nothing but invectives while communicating neither his personality nor convictions, reveals Bitov's anxiety over the ambiguous influence of his literary predecessor. This quest is further complicated by the Soviet canon, which preserved the nineteenth-century literary tradition in form, but not in essence. The two images that arise out of this episode, those of children and a sage are somewhat stereotypical and familiar for the Soviet literature, as Katerina Clark explains in her book on the Soviet novel. She identifies the myth of a "great family" in the Stalinist culture of the thirties that had succeeded the aesthetics of "brotherhood" of the previous decade. Clark points out the horizontal and the vertical axes of the traditional family tree in Russian peasant culture and illustrates how the Stalinist society adopted the vertical paradigm, which limited the ancestral line to a few select "fathers" though allowing for many generations of "sons." In the Soviet literature of that time the "fathers" are depicted as sages who hold special "knowledge," while the model "sons" are characterized by their lack of transcending consciousness. The "sons" may be set on the right path and acquire a special understanding within their human limitations, but they never become initiated into the sacred knowledge and turn into "fathers." Using the metaphor of Plato's cave, Katerina Clark explains how the "sons" are forever limited to empiricism; a "higher reality" is only accessible to the "fathers."

In this paper I will look at two works of Andrej Bitov where this opposition survives and takes the form of a Bloomian anxiety of influence. Bitov's early novella "Life in Windy Weather" contributes to the issue of both the literary and personal heritage of a writer, as well as to that of the creative process viewed against the background of time. Its main protagonist Sergej is a writer who attempts to remove the constraints of the city life by moving into the country. There, he begins to experience life more spontaneously, allowing his new perceptions to take over the ready-made signs that overburden his authorial consciousness and turn him into a commentator rather than a creator of ideas. Sergej's struggle of learning the essence beyond the signs propels him to move back and forth between the city and the country until empiricism, associated with his uninhibited life style in the village, wins over the knowledge imbued by the culture that resides in the city. His authorial "anxiety of influence" takes the shape of a generational conflict with his father, which Sergej is able to resolve as soon as he begins to understand the nature of writing. As Ellen Chances argues, for Bitov the same laws of universal creativity govern living and writing. Returning to the child-like spontaneity of perception, Sergej asserts his independence from the father-like influence of culture and becomes a writer again.

In his novella "The Photograph of Pushkin," Bitov transfers the Stalinist "father" and "sons" hierarchy into the Soviet intellectual culture of the Brezhnev epoch. The literary utopia (eu-topia) had already taken place in the nineteenth century, and that is where the few figures of cultural authority and its transcendental knowledge abide. The problem of the contemporary writers--the "sons" is that while having all the answers, they have forgotten the question. The story's narrator complains of being "sentenced" to one scene framed by his window in the attic. The scene changes, but the writer is forever limited to a number of its already existing depictions. Similarly, he lacks the privilege of first-hand experience in an encounter with a neighbor; his "authorial sentimentality" predicts everything his visitor may think or do. The enlightened consciousness of the narrator infringes on his senses and his alter-ego protagonist Igor' Odoevcev struggles with the same problem on his visit to nineteenth-century Russia. In both novellas the antagonism between history and reality resides in the conflict of spontaneity and consciousness of their characters.

According to Sven Spieker, the postmodern hero of Russian literature wants to reenter history by reviving spontaneity, which due to Stalinist automatization of consciousness now lacks from this equation. Like Mark Lipovetsky, Spieker notes Bitov's intellectual affinity with the culture of modernism and its uneasy relationship with the past. While Lipovetsky describes Bitov's leaning toward a dialogue with the culture of the nineteenth century in the tradition of Acmeism, Spieker views it in terms of tension and anxiety, which, in his opinion, produced the avant-garde concept of ostranenie. This device was viewed as a tool of suppressing habitual recognition, thus enabling access to the deep memory that reached back before individual self-consciousness, in this way allowing for ideal child-like repetitions of experience. Spieker describes the expression this phenomenon received in the youth prose as "defamiliarization of self." Using Harold Bloom's terminology, one may characterize it as kenosis, or emptyingoneself from the influence of the literary precursor. Through this separation between one's knowledge and experience the writer protagonists of Bitov's two novellas achieve their aesthetic independence from both the literary tradition of the past and its representation in Soviet culture. While revealing his concern with and susceptibility to the questions of the anxiety of influence, through his characters the writer ideologically asserts his own place in the history of creative writing as a literary successor and rehabilitates this title.