Eccentric Consciousness in Exile: Underground Delirium in an Epic Domain in Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and Makine’s Le Testament français

Sharon L. Allen, Princeton University

This essay considers extensions of underground discourse beyond the urban/e domain defined by Dostoevsky’s eccentric narrator, embedded in Petersburg and in the prosaic Petersburg text. In particular, it cross-examines transpositions and transformations of underground consciousness and narrative in the context of exile—a context that extends the margins of the underground into the domain of epic. Underground consciousness in exile is doubly displaced in time and space, compounding paranoid and schizophrenic tendencies of eccentric cultural consciousness and complicating the already problematic structure of memory in underground narrative. While wholly urbane, this permutation of underground narrative is no longer cornered within the Petersburg text, confined to dealing with its peculiar contradictions or the Petersburg clerk’s concern with copied text. In an underground translated between cultures, the critical question of authority and authorship manifests itself also in relation to questions of translation. Underground consciousness is defined not only by critical engagement with compressed (simultaneously re-membered) strains of cultural discourse, but also by multiplied, displaced, and refracted cultural memory, such as defined by Todorov, in “Bilingualism, Dialogism, and Schizophrenia” (New Formations, 1992) and “Dialogisme et schizophrenie” (Language and Literary Theory, 1984). Focusing on reflexive works by Tarkovsky and Makine, this essay considers how the dimensions and dynamics of memory that define eccentric aesthetic discourse evolve in transculturally displaced underground consciousness.

In Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and Makine’s Le Testament français we find peculiarly underground colors, extensions of Petersburg’s flooded and haunted spaces, similarly distorted yet insightful mirrored self-realizations. We find a poetics of space defined by recursive, refractory underground discourse, marginal consciousness and commentary in the margins, cultural schizophrenia, and pathological modes of memory. But the space recovered encompasses vast and varied geographical expanses, variously embedded within each other through retrospective turns. This is more shifting and shadowy cultural ground than Dostoevsky’s Petersburg ever was. The literal and literary history of both nineteenth and twentieth centuries is debated through refractory dialogue between an even more unstable self and other. The retrospectively, refractorily romanced lover and reader are doubled, taking Russian and Western forms. Urbane aesthetic consciousness is complicated by a more cosmopolitan experience, engaging questions raised by Dostoevsky’s underground narrative but opening onto contemporary historical and aesthetic debates from Russian and European perspectives. I comparatively examine the underground light, mirroring surfaces, romanced subjects, and ironized, parodied, and translated subtexts of these displaced underground consciousnesses. While considering the transformation of an underground that reaches into Europe (Tarkovsky’s Italy, Makine’s Paris) and into the Russian interior, through both literal displacements and literary references (to writers ranging from Baudelaire to Mandel?shtam, Homer to Proust), I examine also the transformation of European sites as well as genres in light of underground consciousness. Comparing the relation between eccentric cities and steppe in these works, I demonstrate how Tarkovsky and Makine seek to redefine a broader Russian cultural consciousness, like Dostoevsky through his polyphonic Petersburg narrator, in terms of distance between self and other, doubled selves, dialogue that opens out through a paradoxical inward turn, a violent incorporation of objects/fragments of speech, and refractive mechanics of memory. Introducing into apparently exhausted modes of underground discourse newly generative margins, they extend that doubled sense of self. Through displacement that turns the eccentric into an epic hero (seeking to recover the paradoxically coherent position of the “eccentric” capital), their underground encompasses an increasingly ex-centric Russian and European consciousness.