The Train and the Tortoise: Animism in Platonov’s Prose

Michelle Kelly, University of California, Los Angeles

In Andrej Platonov’s prose can be found stones, trees and trains that possess a human-like consciousness, live corpses without a hint of the Romantic-Gothic, machines that live and die, and animals that resemble people. Platonov’s inanimate objects have memories and thoughts, his animals exhibit human characteristics, and his childlike heroes see the world in animistic perspective. Yet critics have not treated animism as a significant theme in Platonov’s work. Is this because animism is thought to be an anthropological, pre-religious or psychological phenomenon? Or is it because few have recognized the extent to which animism provides a theoretical basis for Platonov’s creative world?

Most would acknowledge that “animism” refers to a general belief that all things possess a living spirit, or soul. In the realm of developmental psychology, the term “childhood animism” carries this definition further to include anthropomorphism, i.e., the attribution of human traits to animals and other non-human phenomena. This definition of childhood animism implies that the child misunderstands the world, and that this lack of understanding is later corrected when the child becomes older and understands the ‘true’ state of affairs. I will use this definition as well, but without embracing the notion that the animistic child views the world incorrectly. Referring to studies in childhood animism by Piaget and subsequent researchers, and linking these and Vygotskij’s ideas to Platonov’s use of childhood animism, I intend to show how these approaches in the world of psychology provide a lens through which we can view the Platonovian text, a way to comprehend both life in nature and life in the machine.

Locomotives and other mechanical beings that embody Platonov’s love of technology distinguish the pages of his novel Chevengur and many of his shorter stories, while a tortoise with human-like consciousness appears in the tale Dzhan, set in the desert of Central Asia, where the laws of nature reign in the absence of the civilizing influence of Soviet society. Both the living train and the anthropomorphic tortoise are observed by characters who exhibit animism, such as the child hero Sasha Dvanov in Chevengur and Nazar Chagataev in Dzhan. The author thus presents two completely different embodiments of the life-spirit, the train and the tortoise, who are linked by the human consciousness that recognizes their conscious existence.

In my discussion of animism, I will refer mainly to the novels Chevengur and Dzhan, with brief excursions into other texts to demonstrate specific points.