Wednesday, March 11, 2015

C'est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous

The one thing literature can do better than any other artistic form is show just how wretched and contemptible humanity can be. And no literature does that better than Russian literature!

The Little Demon by Fyodor Sologub is one of those picaresque adventures, centering on a feckless anti-hero and his shenanigans. Only there is no adventure, all the action taking place in a stagnant provincial town, and the schoolteacher Peredonov quickly advances from anti-hero to outright villain as his mind deteriorates. Often compared to Gogol's Dead Souls, Sologub's novel is much closer to "Diary of a Mad Man" but with grim reality instead of wackiness - Peredonov's psychosis involves both delusions of grandeur and exponentially growing paranoia, until he believes the only means of freeing himself from some hairy little pest is to burn down the town hall.

What makes Peredonov stand out most though is that he does not stand out. A muddling mediocrity, his stated plans to marry the shrewish "cousin" Varvara is roundly mocked by his own social circle form the very start of the novel and he routinely is outsmarted by his own students. He takes revenge in petty and sneaky ways, tormenting Varvara with the notion that he might not marry her aging and bony ass, paying nightly visits to the parents of his students and convincing them their boys have been very bad in school, regardless of how they actually behaved, and getting other hands to deliver the savage blows he longs to deliver himself. At every turn, Peredonov seeks first and formost to feel superior by causing others pain.

Sologub's harsh satire comes in with how this pettiness is perhaps the only quality he shares with his own dim neighbors. Varvara herself perpetuates a hoax against Peredonov, convincing him she's in good with some princess and will get him a respectable government appointment if he hurries up and ties the knot. Varvara's "friend" Prepolovenskaya convinces the neurotic woman to scourge herself with nettles as a means to "fill out" and be more physically appealing. And then there is everyone else in town, constantly sniping at one another and jockeying for position.

Perhaps the only truly good person in the whole mess is the schoolboy Sascha, at all that means is he's the biggest victim. A quiet and shy boy, he first is persecuted by Peredonov's mania that he is secretly a girl, only to wind up the plaything of the debauched Liudmilla and her sisters who dress him in petticoats and kimonos while not so secretly lusting after his virginal flesh. The abuse he suffers from Peredonov and his own peers in fact drives him towards the sexual abuses of Liudmilla, who first presents herself as a friend and confidante, ever drawing the boy in deeper through emotional blackmail and occasionally outright physical violence. Sascha wants to be a good boy, wants to please the worldly and beautiful Liudmilla - and likely desires her as his own sexual desires are just beginning to manifest - and so compromises himself in a society that places great emphasis on the appearance of propriety while indulging every base vice they can imagine.

This comes to a head in a costume pageant, held in the very hall Peredonov soon burns down. The mad schoolteacher has been working hard to endear himself to the luminaries of the town - a succession of idiot caricatures, in the fine tradition of Dead Souls - but can muster little more than the grumblings of an angsting adolescent when present in the largest social gathering of the year. Meanwhile, the actual adolescent Sascha is smuggled in by Liudmilla and her sisters who have dressed the boy up in a geisha costume. This makes him the bell of the ball, inflaming the men and enraging the women, and stirring up a riot as people tear at his skirts and seek to unmask him - a death sentence for a sensitive boy in such a brutal town.

But even Sologub allows for some virtue in his world. Sascha, despite his forced corruption by the sisters, retains a goodness and sincerity that not even the benevolent school headmaster can match. Similarly, the actor who saves him recognizes that he is a boy disguised as a woman but gently laughs it all off, swearing to keep the secret because "I was a boy once too." Human frailty and wickedness may be a product of base desire, but just a little sense of common humanity is all it takes to elevate people to virtuous behavior.

In that way, Peredonov is the most evil of men because he is the most selfish. Tormenting his students and spinning tales of persecution to the authorities is all well and good, but arson and murder finally expose him as the monster he truly is to a lax society already crawling with petty little demons. He is not some aberration but the logical extension of the poshlost - the self-satisfied wickedness - of all the other, respectable characters. As Sologub explicitly said of his novel, "it is about you."


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