Origin of Uncertainty: Darwin and Postmodernism in Viktor Pelevin

Shannon Spasova, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In Viktor Pelevin’s short story “Proiskhozhdenie vidov,” the main character, Charles Darwin, literally and metaphorically struggles with his thoughts on the origin of species that would lead to his namesake’s great work of that name in 1859. Pelevin himself, in his own work, struggles with the specter of Darwinism. Despite Darwin’s intention to define more clearly man’s relationship with God, nature, and progress, through a close textual analysis I will argue that Pelevin rewrites Darwinism as a precursor and important catalyst for some of the uncertainties of the late twentieth century. I will focus on Pelevin’s manifestation of these tendencies, particularly on two works, the short story “Proiskhozhdenie vidov,” with its direct address to the very figure of Darwin himself, and the novel “Zhizn’ nasekomykh,” a work which more indirectly, but nonetheless unquestionably addresses the relationship of man to nature and God. Pelevin consciously addresses many of the issues brought up by the Darwinian revolution, including the place of man in nature, the idea of progress, the existence of a purpose for the universe, the limited nature of human perspective, the existence of absolute truth, and the existence of God. Though many other factors influenced the growing doubt cast on these different ideas as the romanticism of the nineteenth century gave way to the modernism and postmodernism of the twentieth, for Pelevin Darwin is one of the main originators of these tendencies. In typical postmodern fashion, the attempt of science to help explain the history of man and his universe in actuality leads to more uncertainty and ambiguity. Charles Darwin’s very concrete Origin of Species leads instead to the origin of an abstract and destabilizing uncertainty, detectable in the works of Viktor Pelevin.