Pechorin going places?

November 11, 2011

Pechorin is the ‘hero’ in Lermontov’s novel, A Hero in Our Time.  It’s a strange book, a series of small stories set in a shifting time-frame of multiple narratives.  We learn of Pechorin’s exploits from people who knew him and tell tales, and from lengthy excerpts from his journal, found by one of the narrators.  The setting is the Caucasus, an exotic locale where Imperial Russia meets the mysterious Orient, and seeks to subject it to military authority.  Thus, we have a mixture of Romanticism, Realism, and fictional experimentation.

I must confess, after hearing of this book for so long, I was a bit under-whelmed.  Not that I didn’t enjoy it a great deal, but I am a little jaded with the romantic-cynic-rake-Don Juan hero type.  The novelty of the style was refreshing, despite the irritating and deprecatory notes by the translator, V. Nabokov, which I couldn’t keep myself from reading.  There was something about it that was very direct and powerful:  definitely not a ‘typical set piece’ of ‘tales of the people.’

Pechorin is one of a long line of army officer rakes.  Army life, besides the effect of the pool from which it draws its recruits – often the idle sons of the rich and aristocratic – is mostly boring and routine:  the thrill of battle is sharp and infrequent.  What’s a young man to do with his time but gamble, drink, womanize, and, if the spirit is in him, engage in duels and other futile expressions of personal vanity.  Pechorin is unusual for the depth of his alienation from normal life, his lack of empathy, his egoism – perhaps narcissism is a better word – and his commitment to his sensibility.  He’d rather die in a stupid duel than compromise his ideas on life.  He is heedless of morality, lives for the moment, and cares nothing for the consequences of his actions.

Is he a Byronic hero or a ‘superfluous man’?  I tend towards the former in Pechorin’s case, but so what?  Why is a Byronic hero a positive type?  Thus my lack of enthusiasm.  No, I’m not plunking for simple, utilitarian morals and calculation, but after these egoistic, self-absorbed grand characters, Dostoyevsky’s men of humility, humiliation, and spiritual redemption are looking better and better.  On the other hand, the title, ironic as it is, indicates that Lermontov was thinking of a man and his feelings rendered superfluous by society…maybe.

The more I think about this book and the film Going Places, the more I feel that there is a connection.  Is Pechorin the spiritual ancestor of the two hoods in Blier’s film?  That doesn’t reflect badly on Lermontov at all, but it shows what we have come to.  The Byronic hero, rejecting norms, morality, the ‘superman’ has been democratized and completely watered down.  There is no comedy in A Hero; Going Places is actually funny at times, but mostly, it’s one long jeer.  In our modern urban industrial world, everyone is alienated, everyone can be a Pechorin – just take to a selfish life of crime and flick your nose at society.  More than a century of social critique and rising consumerism has reduced Lermontov’s social discomfiture and rebellion to this weak and paltry ‘rebellion’ of the lumpen