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The Phantom of Constancy

By (June 1, 2017) No Comment

Rapture: A Novel
Iliazd (translated by Thomas J. Kitson)
Columbia University Press, 2017

In March 1913 a young man started a riot in a Moscow theatre with an American shoe. During his lecture, ‘On Futurism’, Ilia Zdanevich, an eighteen-year-old student from Tiblisi, Georgia, held up a Vera brand shoe before his audience and tauntingly claimed that it was more beautiful than the Venus de Milo because it could literally raise people above the filth of the earth. This combination of Russian nihilism – one of Dostoevsky’s characters famously remarks that a shoe is worth more than Pushkin or Shakespeare – with Marinetti’s worship of technology so incensed the audience that they attacked the speaker. The ensuing melee so badly damaged the theatre that Zdanevich had to forfeit his fees. The incident established his reputation as a provocateur and theorist, and was symptomatic of the kinds of extreme reactions Modernist art was provoking from audiences: two months later the premiere in Paris of Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring produced a similarly violent response.

Over the next few years it may have appeared that Zdanevich was content with his role as an aesthetic propagandist. He continued to espouse Dada-esque manifestoes, notably the Everythingist manifesto, which advocated borrowing techniques from wildly different genres and styles, with the aim of being liberated from either current or previous artistic conventions. According to this view the ‘fullness’, rather than the coherence of a work of art was what mattered. What he didn’t seem inclined to do was risk putting any of this grand theory into practice by producing art. Not that anyone could accuse Zdanevich of being a dilettante: in 1916 he was a war correspondent in eastern Anatolia, while the following year he worked on an archaeological dig in Georgia. After the October Revolution he was still giving lectures –intriguing ones, judging by some of their titles: ‘On the Magnetism of Letters’, ‘Orthography and Straining’ and ‘Tyutchev, Singer of Shit.’ However, by this point Zdanevich was also writing zaum poetry, an experimental form whose sounds lacked discernible meaning yet were still supposed to be profound, not so much nonsense as ‘beyonsense.’

If Zdanevich had remained in the Soviet Union it’s likely that his work would have been proscribed, as happened to most other avant garde writers (though even the champions of Soviet realism might have struggled to identify counter-revolutionary messages in beyonsense). An intimation of this made him leave in 1920, telling people it was too hard to make pure art free from politics. He spent a year in Istanbul waiting for a French visa, and arrived in Paris in 1921, where, in what seems a highly symbolic act, he rechristened himself as ‘Iliazd,’ a combination of parts of his first name and surname. But there were also strong continuities with his life in Moscow. ‘Iliazd’ continued giving lectures and readings and unsurprisingly found common cause with the Dadaists. In 1923 he organised a Dadaist soiree that also ended in a punch up, but on that occasion it was a matter of Dadaist rivalries, rather than the audience’s fury. The fact that in 1928 he tried to publish a novel in Russia also suggests he hadn’t entirely cut ties with his former life. But he couldn’t have picked a worse time to do so – publishers were being shut down and their editors arrested as ‘Trotskyists.’ Iliazd’s novel was unanimously rejected. In 1930 Iliazd self-published the novel in Paris (which he funded by working as a designer for Coco Chanel). Even there he faced obstacles – only one store agreed to stock the book because of its ‘obscenities.’ He found much greater success making beautifully designed livres d-’artiste (artists’s books) with Picasso, Miro Ernst and Giacometti from the late 1930s on. It’s said that in the mid 1970s he could be seen wandering round Paris’s Latin Quarter wearing a sheepskin coat, herding a flock of cats before him.

Given Iliazd’s career as a poet and theorist, one might expect his 1930 novel Rapture to be a formally and linguistically challenging novel, a sort of Finnegan’s Wake with shades of early Le Clézio. Instead it’s a fast-paced, mordantly funny yarn that borrows from (and subverts) the adventure genre.

A lot happens in this book. There are stabbings, shootings, heists, betrayals, murders of every kind. There are blizzards, drunken wakes, hunts of epic carnage after which ‘the slaughtered beasts showed black from afar, a magnificent hill.’ Though the action of the novel is generally realistic, at moments it scales successive peaks of fantasy, as when a snow white archangel descends, blowing a trumpet, after which ‘a sloth of bears issued toward the cemetery’ where they ‘settled back on their paws, and begged alms.’

At the epicentre of this chaos is Laurence, an apparently likeable, modest, fun-loving draft-dodger whose criminal career moves swiftly to murder then banditry (followed by lots more murder). Laurence himself doesn’t appear until the middle of the third chapter; the book instead begins with an account of the perilous peregrinations of a monk, Brother Mocius, through the mountains, during which he drinks brandy, masturbates, and nearly dies several times. While this is frequently presented as a spiritual test, Iliazd also constantly undermines the elevated gravity of these moments with interjections of uncertainty:

Finally, trumpets sounded. The winds broke free of the surrounding ridges and diving into the valley, beat about fiercely, but you couldn’t tell why. On the right, unclean spirits made the most of the disarray by sending up an infernal roar, and from behind, something like violins or the whine of an infant in pain barely bled through the tempest. Voices added to voices, unlike anything recognizable, more often that not. Occasionally, they tried to pass for human, but ineptly—so all this was obviously a contrivance. Someone started romping on the heights, pushing down snow

Though playful, this introduces one of the main themes of the novel – that nothing is ever what it seems, or rather, that nothing is stable, no thought, state or feeling can last. Its characters (like all of us) repeatedly fail to grasp ‘the phantom of constancy.’ Instead everything is in a state of ceaseless transformation, as Ivlita, a forester’s daughter, observes during a lovely moment of pantheistic rapture:

She already saw that trees were not trees, but souls who had passed their way in earthly form and were passing it now in the guise of trees. It turns out that trees advance, cliffs migrate, the snowy veil undulates.

Though Rapture is full of spirits and angels it doesn’t occupy any consistent ontological position, as illustrated by the view of Ivlita’s father who is ‘neither a believer nor an unbeliever and thought there were neither angels (evil or good) nor miracles; everything is natural or normal, but there are, so to speak unusual immaterial objects we know nothing about since, for now generally speaking, we don’t know anything.’

Rapture perfectly embodies Iliazd’s idea of fullness despite contradiction. Even simple statements about character are quickly refuted, often in the same sentence. An old man who has ‘irrevocably lost his mind’ is then described as ‘the wisest shepherd.’ His wife is said to be ‘well-preserved and beautiful, despite her monstrous goiter and hunchback.’ The novel doesn’t claim that there’s no such thing as truth – just that we can’t know it. Truths are compared to treasures which ‘really did exist, but only so long as they went unclaimed. Find them, and they’d crumble to dust.’

Even at the level of punctuation there is no certainty; none of the paragraphs in the novel end with a period. Perhaps this is meant to suggest that all meaning must eventually dissolve into the white abyss of the page. This, at least, is Brother Mocius’s fate. At the end of the first chapter a stranger (who we later learn is Laurence) appears and throws him off a precipice.

Laurence’s explanation for why he kills the monk echoes that of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment – it’s a rational and impulsive act that is an expression of his free will. Later in the novel he kills a sailor on a similar whim, and has no qualms about other murders. The novel matter-of-factly relates that for him ‘Eliminating the watchmen, his wife, and his small daughter was easy.’ Yet in his own mind Laurence has a moral code. He believes that a murder committed freely is acceptable unlike a murder committed under compulsion (for example as a soldier). Apparently, ‘murder is the only way to make freedom visible.’

Amongst the highlanders Laurence’s moral calculations aren’t challenged. In the village which has an unprounceable name (even for its inhabitants) only funerals inspire real celebrations. The general view there is that ‘Murder itself was nonsense; who hadn’t, one might ask, had occasion to murder?’ When Ivlita and Laurence become lovers she also tries to convince herself that she doesn’t mind his violence, because ‘bear law was no worse than human law.’ As the body count of the novel increases, Ivliita and Laurence’s relationship becomes increasingly strained, as does her reasoning to excuse his behaviour. Eventually she tries to pretend that what is unambiguously bad is in fact its opposite, so that rather than ‘condemning evil, she found in it the most profound manifestation of good order and human uplift.’

The first major challenge to Laurence’s worldview comes from a Marxist group of robbers who strive to make ‘everyone equally poor.’ They supply Laurence with ‘the means of production’ (soldiers and dynamite) and engage him in dialectical reasoning, telling him ‘You seek freedom, but necessity propels you, the party strives for what is necessary and is therefore free.’ According to them, Laurence isn’t free because he has made death a kind of commerce. Eventually Laurence realises he’s logically trapped between being immoral and free, or innocent yet controlled:

had he really been killing just to kill, proving that freedom exists? But that meant there was no confusion , and those who suspected a boundlessly ill will in Brother Mocius’ murder had been right, and Laurence was, in fact, an evil man. At the same time, Laurence knew he was no villain, and he was sure that if paradise existed, space would be found there even for him. Then what was he? A plaything of the elements?

But as the novel gleefully stresses, there is a way out of this philosophical bind. Death is the only state of perfection, the only solid fact. Souls ‘all go on living, not their own life, but their death, their freedom from the empty human way of life.’ Iliazd compares life to a swoon, and laments that ‘Alas, if choice exists, that means death is not yet, and the swoon is not over. Oh, to regain consciousness.’ Free will is thus an imperfect state, a kind of dreamed delusion. Only after death do we wake.

Iliazd once claimed that a poet’s best fate is to be forgotten, but while this novel has taken a long time to find a new audience, there’s nothing musty about Thomas J. Kitson’s excellent translation, which makes the prose of the book seem fresh. Though the novel offers few philosophical consolations, there’s an air of celebratory defiance to the way it offers its bleak pronouncements, from which a reader, if so inclined, might conclude, à la Sartre, that art and its attendant raptures is another way to escape the swoon of life. As Iliazd said in a lecture in 1921, ‘reason is mendacious, poetry is immaculate and we, too, are immaculate when we are alone with it.’

Nick Holdstock is the author of a novel, The Casualties, and several nonfiction books about China, The Tree That Bleeds and China’s Forgotten People.