Pan Pisar': Writer as Clerk in Babel''s Borderlands

Elif Batuman, Stanford University

This paper is about how Isaak Babel' addresses the task of every modernist writer: namely, the creation of a new literary language, in the face of the disintegration of the old order. Babel''s most eloquent record of disintegration is the 1920 Diary, in whose fragmentary Galician borderlands, "life is shattered," and "the old gods are destroyed." In the Red Cavalry cycle, this material is artistically reworked into stories, inviting two questions: (a) how does Babel' impose aesthetic coherence upon his shattered perceptions; and (b) how does Babel' reconcile aesthetic production with the suffering he witnesses? I propose to answer these questions through the metaphors of clerkship and accounting. Babel', a graduate of the Kiev Institute of Finance and Business Studies, envisioned his "new language" as a nonliterary, economical form of list: a kind of izlozhenie (setting down), or opisanie (description). The meaning of such lists is derived by a kind of arithmetic tabulation.

Such "tabulation" is illustrated in "The Tachanka Theory," in which Babel' describes a Ukrainian village, throughout which machine guns are hidden under haystacks: "These hidden points (tochki)—individual items hypothetically proposed, but not perceived directly—yield, when added up (dajut v summe), a construction (stroenie) of the new Ukrainian village: savage, rebellious, and self-seeking." When added up, these "tochki"—punctuation marks, doubled by bullets—yield a literary "construction": the essence of the new Ukrainian village. Ironically, this "essence" can only be expressed as a list: "savage, rebellious, self-seeking."

Much of the 1920 Diary reads as a list of such points. The diary's most resounding directive is the infinitive verb opisat&soft:, "to describe"; e.g., "Describe (opisat') the people, the air." In this world, everything unto the air needs to be accounted for from scratch. Notably, opisat' means not only to describe, but also to list; the result, opis&soft:, is an inventory or catalog. Babel''s work is in many ways an inventory of firsts—"First Love," "My First Fee," "My First Goose"—and can be read as the catalog of a new world, a listing of beasts in an increasingly dystopian Eden.

In the second half of my paper I want to talk about a contradiction in Babel''s work. On the one hand, Babel' instructs himself, in the Red Cavalry Sketches, to write "without comparisons or historical counterparts," and to "pay no attention to continuity"—almost to throw diachronicity overboard from the ship of his "new language." On the other hand, in the face of the intolerably disordered landscape of the 1920 Diary, Babel''s compulsion to coherence verges on a nostalgia for the old order.

This nostalgia is most clearly evinced in the story "Pan Apolek." Pan Apolek is a Polish artist who inserts the faces of his fellow villagers into religious paintings: Janek the lame convert appears as the Apostle Paul, etc. As the old gods are destroyed, Apolek endows them with contemporary faces. Notably, Apolek addresses the narrator of the story as "Pan Pisar'." In Polish, pan means "Mr."; in Russian, pisar' is an archaic word for "clerk." But Pisarz is the Polish for "writer," and it seems likely that Apolek was actually calling the narrator "Mr. Writer." In other words: since the world in which Babel' could have been a writer no longer exists, he finds himself in a Polish-Ukrainian borderland, where his writing self is "translated" into a clerk.

In the Red Cavalry stories, then, we see Babel' performing a second kind of clerkship: he becomes a kind of historical scribe, inserting what he sees into old forms, as Pan Apolek inserts Jewish faces into Catholic icons. In the Red Cavalry stories, Babel' draws upon Jewish mysticism, Catholic apocrypha, and Jewish and Russian folklore, in order to structure the fragmentary material of the diary. In a way, such literary montage has been antiquated by the revolution; this antiquation is expressed by the archaicism of the word pisar' However, writing as clerkship—listing and inscription into old accounts—is the only form of authorship available to Babel', ethically and aesthetically, as a writer of the revolution.