Literary Design and Extraliterary Conduct (and the Case of N. M. Oleinikov)

John William Narins, University of California, Los Angeles

My paper investigates the relationship between extraliterary behavior and literary production. To demonstrate my hypotheses, I address briefly the lives and literature several writers in the early Soviet period (Isaak Babel', Pantaleimon Romanov, etc.) and concentrate upon the illuminating case of the poet Nikolai Makarovich Oleinikov.

Literature can be viewed from various perspectives – inter alia, as an expression of the writer’s aesthetic, as a symptom of his social or psychological condition, or as a demonstration of his views on various issues. My work suggests that literature may also profitably be examined as an element of behavior. Grouping an artist’s creative output with other types of conduct augments what is sometimes a relatively small pool of data in which patterns can be sought; the extra-artistic behavior may suggest regularities present in the art and vice versa.

The promise of this strategy is most patently evident where an artist’s behavior provides definite and explicable patterns. In the Silver Age and the early Soviet periods, the creative intelligentsiia often exhibited “designed” or “aesthetic” behavior (hence such terms as “life creation” (zhiznetvorchestvo and “literary behavior”). Whether premeditated or not, artists’ behavior often amounted to an obviously and demonstrably consistent aesthetic whole, a “pose” (the term is evocative but not ideal, as no implication of insincerity is intended) or “stance.”

Oleinikov provides an striking example of a poet whose behavioral stance explicitly extends to his poetry, as was made eminently manifest by (among other evidence) the contexts in which he performed that poetry. I will discuss in detail the nature of Oleinikov’s stance, the particular emplois (in Lotman’s use of the term) of his cultural milieu upon which that stance drew, and the place of his verse and performances in that scheme.

In outlining my approach, I will develop ideas found in the writings of Iu. Lotman, V. V. Ivanov, L. Ginzburg, M. Bakhtin and others. Asserting the value of this “behavioral” approach to art, I must inevitably contend with the “death of the author” school of thought and why it is either misconceived or (more interestingly) entirely consistent with my method. A behavioral “pose” must be distinguished from the very different concept of a literary “mask.” The evidence concerning Oleinikov comes from what is probably the most complete collection of materials to be assembled on that poet.