Source: Empire Burlelsque
A little late with this, but I meant to mark Boris Pasternak's birthday this week (Feb. 10, 1890). It would be hard to express how much his work meant to me when I was first finding my way into the world. In later years, I had three brief, indirect contacts with Pasternak, beyond his work. In the mid-1990s, I went to his house in Peredelkino, remarkably preserved since his death in 1960, and got to spend a few minutes in his upstairs study, where he'd written his late verse and much of Doctor Zhivago.
That same day, after a long, convoluted search, I found his grave nearby. Then a few years after that, in the downstairs den of a well-appointed house in Oxford, I came face to face with Pasternak's oldest son, Yevgeny -- by then an old man. He had come to Oxford for the opening of an exhibition of paintings and drawings by his grandfather, Leonid, Boris's father. They were to be shown at the Ashmolean Museum, but for now, before the opening, many of them had been hung throughout this private house, the home of the poet Craig Raine, who is married to Boris Pasternak's niece, Anne Pasternak Slater. It was some sort of open house for the paintings, I suppose; I don't remember how I heard about it, but I lived a couple of blocks away at that time, so I went over. I didn't expect to see Pasternak's son there. He was standing just across from me, chatting with someone; I thought I saw something of his father's face in him. I wanted to say something to him, shake his hand, but I hung back. I didn't know if he spoke English, and I knew my own poor Russian couldn't sustain even a light conversation very far; I was afraid of embarrassing myself, I suppose. I wouldn't hang back today, but it's too late. The moment has passed. (And Yevgeny Borisovich died in 2012, at the age 89.) But I was glad I saw him, glad for the other fleeting contacts.
Below are a couple of previously posted pieces on Pasternak, just to mark (belatedly) the occasion.
From February 2010:
From April 2008:
Immortal Communion: One Lowly Word and the Subversion of Power
Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago, is best remembered for its star-crossed love story and its sweeping panorama of the Russian Revolution -- themes amplified in David Lean's 1965 film version, a beautiful travesty which has largely supplanted the book in the public mind. But within his conventional narrative of shattering passions and historic upheavals, Pasternak subtly diffuses a deeply subversive philosophy that overthrows power structures and modes of thought that have dominated human life for thousands of years. Yet remarkably, this far-reaching, radical notion is based on one of the most humble concepts and lowly words in the Russian language: byt.
The word has no precise equivalent in English, but in general it means the ordinary "stuff" of life: the daily round, the chores, the cares and duties, the business and busyness that drives existence forward. The connotations of byt are not always positive; it is frequently associated with another Russian word, poshlost', a more pejorative term for the miserable muck of daily life that can trap a noble soul yearning for transcendent heights -- for shattering passions and historic upheavals, perhaps. Benjamin Sutcliffe has described this association well in his extensive analysis of the notion of byt in Russian literature by women:
"The 'everyday' is a problematic concept that Russian culture consistently links with women. Byt is not only povsednevnaia zhizn' (daily life), but also a corrosive banality threatening higher, often intellectual aspirations... Vladimir Nabokov connects byt to poshlost', the soul-killing realm of the crass and insensitive. In an even more sepulchral metaphor, Andrei Siniavskii compares Soviet culture to a pyramid: the grandiose grave of a hollow society whose time has passed. Byt is the sum of both those constituent parts, often seen as 'women's work' (care for the self, care for others, maintaining a household) and the negative adjectives ascribed to them: petty, small-scale, mundane, exhausting, repetitive, and ultimately deadening."
In contrast to this mundane and deadening level stands the realm of the transcendent: the "great questions" of life, the grand abstractions -- nation, faith, ideology, honor, prosperity, family, security, righteousness, glory -- for which millions fight and die. It's the world of power, fuelled by the dynamic of dominance and servitude -- a dialectic that governs relationships in every realm: political, economic, religious, artistic, personal. Everywhere, hierarchies abound, even among the most professedly egalitarian groups, from monasteries to movie sets, from ashrams to activist collectives. Everywhere we find, in Leonard Cohen's witty take, "the homicidal bitchin'/That goes down in every kitchen/To determine who will serve and who will eat."
This, we are given to understand, is the real world, the important world, far above the tawdry, tedious humdrum that fills the dead hours between epiphanies and exaltations. The Russian Revolution is of course one of history's great manifestations of this dynamic, where the "transcendent," world-shaking abstractions of ideology and high politics (imperialism, capitalism, revolution, Bolshevism) uprooted whole nations and produced suffering and dehumanization on an almost unimaginable scale. The modern era's "War on Terror" bids fair to surpass the Revolution in this regard, with its wildly inflated rhetoric and grand abstractions, its epiphanies of violence and exaltations of terror -- on both sides -- inflaming a conflict that has already devoured nations and destabilized the entire globe. The dominance paradigm -- so thoroughly worked into our consciousness, so ever-present in our interactions, large and small, public and private -- is the engine driving this vast machinery of death and ruin.
But below this "higher plane" lies the reality of byt. Far from the soul-killing muck that Nabokov found so distasteful, in Pasternak's hands the true nature of byt is revealed: creative, sustaining, nurturing, an infinite source of meaning. For the most part, the novel conveys this indirectly, in passages where Pasternak shows us byt in action -- people going about their work, having quiet conversations, preparing food, fixing stoves, tending gardens, washing floors -- or in the richly detailed backgrounds and descriptions given for minor characters who pop up briefly in the narrative then are rarely, perhaps never, seen again.
Over the years, some critics have decried these passages as the clumsy strokes of a fictional amateur, a poet gamely trying and failing to match the rich plenitude of Tolstoy's novels. (And to be fair, the English translations of the novel, though serviceable, are hobbled by clunky prose that ill-serves the original Russian.) But surely Pasternak, a writer of immense talent and intelligence, knew exactly what he was doing with these portions of the novel. The "clumsy" strokes that brake and complicate the grand narrative are central to the book's meaning. "Zhivago" means "the living," its root word is "life." And life is immense, comprising every aspect, every atom of reality. "Life, always one and the same, always incomprehensibly keeping its identity, fills the universe and is renewed in every moment in innumerable combinations and metamorphoses," as Zhivago says at one point. It is in the careful observation and deeply felt experiencing of the details of daily life that the meaning of existence can be found -- or rather, consciously created.
Elsewhere in the novel, Pasternak deals with more openly with this theme, especially in one of the book's central chapters, made up of a diary that Zhivago keeps when his family have been driven from Moscow by the privations of the Revolution -- and by Zhivago's own political unreliability, which stems from his refusal to hew to any party line and its grand, impersonal abstractions, its distorted caricatures of the infinite complexities of human reality. They are living off the land, deep in the countryside, their whole life taken up by the struggle to survive: byt in its starkest terms. Only at night, their work done, can they turn to their books, the handful of Russian classics they've taken with them into exile.
The whole chapter is like a marvelous concerto, blending and concentrating all of the novel's themes and variations in what appears to be the most artless of forms: the ramblings of a private journal. Among the many passages that illustrate the relation of byt to the "overworld," the realm of dominance and hierarchy, this one stands out:
"What I have come to like best in the whole of Russian literature is the childlike Russian quality of Pushkin and Chekhov, their shy unconcern with such high-sounding matters as the ultimate purpose of mankind or their own salvation. It isn't that they didn't think about these things, and to good effect, but they always felt that such important matters were not for them. While Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky worried and looked for the meaning of life and prepared for death and drew up balance-sheets, these two were distracted, right up to the end of their lives, by the current individual tasks imposed on them by their vocation as writers, and in the course of fulfilling these tasks they lived their lives quietly, treating both their lives and their work as private, individual matters, of no concern to anyone else. And these individual things have since become of concern to all; their work has ripened of itself, like apples picked green from the trees, and has increasingly matured in sense and sweetness."
Of course, the supreme irony of the relation between the humble, private, "pointless" world of byt and the "real world" of power and exaltation is that the former is actually where any genuine "transcendence" can be found, while the latter is the merely the outgrowth of our most primitive and meaningless urges.