December 20, 2007

Lermontov A Hero of our Time

Mikhail Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time" is a book which boasts its irony in its preface. The book focuses on Pechorin, a Russian officer in the 19th Century Caucasus, who Lermontov beleives is typical of his age- hence the title. Like Dosteovsky's Raskolnikov, Pechorin is a symbol of the alienation of 19th Century Russian youth from Russia and the spiritual traditions of orthodoxy. Pechorin is a superfluous man- cut off from history he has a Faustian sense of his own ability to control history and other people. Pechorin like so many other Russian heroes before and since, like Onegin for example, is a creature of cynical intelligence- purposeless he strives to manipulate the purposes of others. He sees through the subterfuge of society, sees through the elaborations of human deceit down to the rotten core of the human heart. It is symbolic that for Pechorin, marriage- the ultimate in sincere emotional commitment within any human life- is a signal, according to an old gipsy prophesy, of ensuing doom. Sincerity leads to downfall, love to instant loss.

Lermontov's tale illustrates his central character episodically. We see five main stories develop around Pechorin- three of which concern romantic endeavours in which he is involved- two of which concern his relationships with other men. Throughout the stories various ideas run like lines to demonstrate to us the kind of man that Pechorin is. He, we are assured by his own voice (three of the stories are told from Pechorin's point of view as part of an unpublished journal), is a creature who feels lust but not love. He is able to appreciate and admire female beauty but he strives always to value it. Most of his emotions are common to most of mankind- he hankers after girls that he doesn't have and then grows bored of them- but the distinction is that Pechorin never moderates this passion with reason or religion. He follows his appreciation callously leaving behind in its wake those whom he discards. He applies the same logic to friends- seeking after beauty he discards the instances of beauty. In that sense he operates as a pure Platonist might- looking for the ideal and discarding the real instances of it.

Pechorin's outlook is moulded by romanticism. The entire novel is shot through with Byronic overtones- there is an explicit reference to Rousseau and the narrator indicates that this memoir is what Rousseau might have written, had he not been writing to be heard. At a deeper level though the novel is about the triumph of sentiment over reason in the human soul. Sentiment drives the plot in all the stories. Characters are unable to control, unable to master their passions. As an essayist in human psychology, Lermontov suggests that there is nothing more to us than our passions and where they lead us. Patterns of passion, Pechorin assures us, are not to be trusted- they do not exist. Instead the demands of desire are essentially random- Pechorin seeks to understand them, not to tame them but to exploit the passions of others to fulfill his own. A classic Don Juan, he seeks to manipulate both men and women for his own ends- and yet ultimately Lermontov assures us that this leads Pechorin empty. As he says at one point within the novel, he is the cause of much unhappiness whilst also being the unhappiest of men.

This tale is rooted of course within a historical situation. Russia after the reforms of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great was a place undergoing massive change. A vast bureacracy had taken over from the ancient aristocracy of boyars and state service became the only method for advancement within society. Furthermore as Russian authors chronicled Russia felt a cultural inferiority to things further West- but also felt that those societies to the West lacked spirituality, lacked a centre. You can see this theme running through the great Russian authors of the 19th Century from Pushkin to Chekhov, through Turgenev, Herzen, Dosteovsky, Tolstoy and its here in Lermontov as well. Part of Pechorin's characterisation is about the position of Russia after the reforms of the 18th Century- Pechorin is a hero of his time- like Russia he has been modernised and stripped of his spirituality. He is like modernity, angst filled, power driven, successful and spiritually empty. He cries out for a God that he cannot beleive in and does not even mention.

You cannot take away the Russian anchor from Lermontov's tale. Its filled with the colour of the Caucasus. You see the customs of the frontier tribes of Chechnya in the 19th Century, their brutal society of bands and frontier theft. There is an orientalising vision at work here- we are instructed that these tribes are primitive and yet their members, the artless beauty Bela for example, understand better than the civilised Pechorin the demands of passionate morality. Part of the charm of the novel though is the taste of this society- a society where a Circassian raid on a country house would not be unexpected- a society which lies on the northern border of Islam, on the southern border of orthodoxy. There are wonderful descriptions of rides through the Chechen mountains. Descriptions of small spa towns, embedded outposts of Russian colonialism amidst the barbarism of the frontier. That description in one tale gives you a real sense of the nineteenth century- I suspect that though Lermontov is describing the Caucasus, he could be describing somewhere near Kinshasa, Calcutta or Kansas.

And yet for all the local colour, the underlying theme of the book is universal. It comes back to that great question of the 19th Century, phrased with typical bluntness by Nietzsche, that when God is dead you have to find something else to fill his gap. Philosophers from Rousseau to Kant to Hegel to Schleiermacher struggled with the position of God in an age of materialism- they all came to different and distinct answers. Lermontov's work is a sceptical recasting of the question- he asks what happens to the unmoored human being and in a sense he comes back to Rousseau's answer. God may not exist but he is neccessary for human beings to turn amour propre into amour de soi. He is neccessary for human beings to anchor their passions around. Without God men will still anchor their passions, but as with Pechorin they will anchor them around an egotistic attempt to control others, with God they anchor them around an egoist's love of the divine which sees that as more vital than human attachment.

Whatever you think of that stance, its novelisation is a fantastic feat- and provokes a lot of thought. The character of Pechorin provokes and intrigues in equal measure as an exempla of how a particular vision of humanity works.


ninus said...

I've read it, and it's a great psychological study of human being. You give the context that I've missed, thanks!