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

Date in history

December 11, 2009

Today is the first night of Hanukkah, that minor historical commemoration that American Jews have transformed into a non-Christian Xmas, just to get into the holiday spirit.  David Brooks, the muddle-headed conservative columnist I used to love to hate (I stopped reading him, so now I don’t care what he writes.) actually had a decent column about the history of the day – maybe his niche is really popular historical writing.  Anything but present-day affairs.

Just a remembrance of a revolt of religious fanatics, Jewish ones (fundamentalists?) against those lovable, rational, cultured, Hellenizers who were ruling Judea at the time.  Lots of Jew-honchos thought the way to go was to get with the Greco-civilization program, but Judas Maccabeus disagreed.  He and his terrorist crew decided to kill off the collaborators and make things hot for the Greeks.  Well, that’s my reading of it, and I tend to side with the moderates. 

Miracles and God, and candles burning on despite the lack of oil, that was all embroidered on later.

If, then…

April 5, 2009

if_roof malcolm_mcdowell1

If… , a film by Lindsay Anderson that introduced Malcolm McDowell to the world in 1968.  The tale of a an oppressive English public, i.e., private school, and the violent rebellion it engenders, or does it?  One of those films I’ve heard about for years, and finally saw.  A film that is often referred to with terms like iconic of the 60’s.

In the lengthy notes with the Criterion DVD, Lindsay Anderson says that he didn’t intend this film to be like those other works of the 40’s and 50’s in which middle-class Englishmen reveal just how frightfully awful their childhood experiences  in school were (cf. George Orwell and Roald Dahl).   Well, that’s exactly how it appeared to me!  McDowell comments that Anderson was a celibate homosexual – he never came out – so perhaps he was repressing more than his erotic urges.

The film is rather long, and nearly all of it is about the brutality, indignity and stupidity of the school social life, in which new boys are “scums” to be ordered around as slaves by upper-classmen, and a few “whips” rule the student body like dictatorial dandies, using the cane and other punishments to keep everyone in line.  All of this is tacitly accepted by the school masters:   no doubt they were brought up the same way.  It’s all rather boring.

Still, I couldn’t get the film out of my head.  Mostly it’s McDowell, as Travis, who is weird, confused, but basically humane, keeping his sanity by hanging out with two like-minded friends.  He is the center of the film, with his adolescent glorification of violence and rebellion – pictures of Che and guerilla fighters are pinned up over his bed with the sexy girls – and his superficial praise of war.  But what do you expect?  He’s just a kid, trapped, by his parents and British society, in this idiotic, destructive system that explicitly glorifies, and trains boys for war.

The film is sometimes realist, sometimes comically satiric.  It shifts at random from color to black and white.  Dreamlike scenes are interspersed without explanation, e.g. the school mistress walking naked through the boys’ dormitory while they are away.

In the end, Travis and his confederates smoke everyone out of the chapel during an assembly and then open fire on them from a roof.  The military men in the crowd return fire.  The film ends with a close shot of McDowell gunning away.  Shown realistically, the sudden cutaway at the end leaves us concluding it was a dream.  “What I would do to these sods if…”

Many have commented on the “political” nature of the film, but I can’t see it.  Nobody in it rebels against the system in reality.  It’s a story about successful of indoctrination of youth.  After all, Anderson himself commented that there is a lot of “affection” for the school in it.