The constants and variables of Alexander Potemkin's artistic world

Svetlana Semenova,  10 October at 12:58 0 686

Bondage is Alexander Potemkin’s eighth novel, and in the eight years it took him to accomplish this feat he has created an artistic world of incredible creative power! Potemkin’s unique surrealist-poetic universe has arisen in literature before our very eyes. In this new land, we stand in awe of the vibrantly unique spiritual landscape, the central character we have not seen before, the virtual world that first appeared with Andrei Iverov (in the novel Outcast), the distinctive types of monomaniacs, and the crowd of colorful large and small contemporary predators, artistic swindlers and rogues…

Inflamed mental passions unfold around several main themes. They include the paradox of man, the glaring contradictions and extremes of his nature, the principal doubts in his ability to make a living for himself, and the scheming ways to get out of the current impasse and reach a new, more perfect nature. They include Russia’s fate, the corruption that eats at the core of its bureaucracy, the new consumer idols, the debauch of base instincts and temptations, and the degradation of the national character. The correlation between the national and the universal – which direction should we take and how? Here we also get a taste of new religious prescriptions that at times integrate the poles of the divine and the demonic but are always self-supporting and superhuman…

And this world makes itself known by sending out waves of creative text into the world in its elevated energetically charged tone and style. A wide range of artistic techniques is demonstrated, from a temperamental stream of consciousness, a whirlwind of ideas and visions,  episodes with philosophical intonations, and emotional leitmotifs to a vivid description of the atmosphere of the times and the types of people it has spawned, to satirical sketches and contracted grotesque scenes… Each time, the imagery of this message precisely corresponds to the matter being presented. What an immensely rich range of artistic expression we have here! We find the subtleties of metaphysical thinking, the aphoristically precise setting of social and national typology, the original use of expressive resources of contemporary glamour and glossiness, and the super-expressive black poetics of derision and horror. And, straight from the frying pan, day-to-day realities, marks of strictly contemporary thinking and language with the freshest twists… And how brilliantly successful the author is in bringing his plotlines to their conclusion, presenting his own deep underlying solution to those collisions he has interwoven in his latest book!..

But let us focus specifically on Bondage. Three of its main characters are Peter Parfenchikov, a sophisticated worshiper, philosopher, and hymn-praising poet of the cherished weed, Leonid Efimkin, who concentrates with maniacal intensity on acquiring wealth and power, and Grigory Pomeshkin, madly in love with himself and hating the rest of mankind, each of whom is in the power of one all-encompassing passion. In all of his works, Potemkin has the tendency to delve into the realm of human passions, give detailed descriptions of the different people who embody these passions, and build certain psychological theories. This brings to mind the French moralists of the 17th century who used a similar technique. We also see in Potemkin the soberly unappealing and at times hopeless diagnosis of man found in La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld, the ironical way they assess his mental potential, and the evaluation of egoism as the main axis around which human feelings, reactions, and affairs revolve. Admittedly, Alexander Potemkin’s characters, who are in the grips of some passionately hypertrophied one-sidedness, the bearers of a certain gigantic mental and emotional flux, are closer to creations of the post-Dostoevsky and post-Nietzsche era, and his own metaphysics shines through in their manias.

Let’s begin with thirty-year-old Pomeshkin, a resident of a small Siberian town called Kan, who forms a sort of magnet that pulls all three heroes into the same plotline orbit. He would appear to be a banal wayside provincial weirdo who did not even finish secondary school and just for kicks is building a bridge across the local river. But this is not the case: he likes reading “questionable books,” is constantly engaged in self-admiration that escalates into frequent orgasms in front of the mirror, and keeps a close watch over the residents of Kan. In Lesage’s Le Diable boiteux (The Devil Upon Two Sticks), Asmodeus lifts the roofs of houses and reveals the inside truth of people’s lives, the selfish motives of their behavior, the banality of their minds, and the depravity of their hearts and morals behind their seeming sincerity … Pomeshkin achieves this with the help of extremely powerful binoculars. He also keeps a log of his observations, supplementing them with descriptions of the scenes he views, photographs, and even notes of the conversations (he has learned to lip read).

Why does he do this? It transpires that this unprepossessing person, whose outer appearance is masterfully presented by the author (including his “short Manchurian nose,” “protruding ears,” “sprinkling of fine dandruff” on his shoulders, and hands “covered in eczema spots”…), who delights in his unique personage as a pearl of creation and strokes himself in contemplation and ecstatic physical manipulations, nurtures a rankling hatred for the rest of mankind, those piteous, unworthy creatures, seduced by base material values, malicious, hypocritical beings… So every day he works himself up into a fervor of squeamish, repugnant emotions, tries “using graphic examples to convince himself of people’s infinite baseness” and documents his “accusatory verdict” on the human race.

Incidentally, if we are looking for unintentional but fundamentally precise correlations, which is always an entertaining and edifying pastime for the reader, it is Pomeshkin who at times brings to mind some of Andrei Platonov’s heroes. His passion for spying on other people’s lives and writing down what he sees in notebooks, and his affection for the old, tumbledown, empty house, from the attic of which he watches everyone through his binoculars, for that “only friend” who is as forsaken by everyone as he is himself…

But recently his attention has been attracted by two targets of observation in particular. The first, a strange-looking, detached type who has just arrived in town and taken up residence in the house of deceased old woman Fateeva, where he is for some reason intensely preoccupied with digging up the garden. This is Peter Parfenchikov, with whom we have already become well acquainted in the long previous chapter which opens the novel, who has come here to grow poppy himself. The second is Leonid Efimkin, who has recently been appointed to the post of water bailiff, the vehement predatory tricks of whom the reader has still to find out about.

Parfenchikov, who gives vent to his states and visions now from within, in the first person, now with detachment, in the third person (they occupy a significant part of the novel), made a radically new choice for himself three years ago. Prior to that he had been frantically trying to capture the ghost of the glamorous life in the capital by fawning up to everyone with his sensitive receptors and made away with his parents’ fortune, at which point he coincidentally meets his future idol, poppy head, discovering in it “a superb fertilizer for ripening the fruits of an inflamed mind.” In “the previously unchartered crevices of his own mind,” he uncorks the most powerful creative potential of fantasies and insights and gains access to virtual situations in which both imaginary concoctions of current reality, right down to prison, including brutal and grotesque manipulations with votes at elections, and utopian pictures of a transformed Moscow are played out… What Potemkin’s innermost heroes usually strive for, i.e. the highest omnipotent nature, the boundless expansion of their potential, is in this case only realized illusively and psychically, in a hallucinatory vivid emotional state evoked by the drug.

It is precisely in this state, as the designer and experimenter of the most successful project for improving human nature and, primarily, Russians, that Parfenchikov arouses the interest of a certain Professor Koshmarov, a “modulator of the new times,” a great experimenter on the human race, who usually appears to him at the culmination of his opium intoxication. Incidentally, Potemkin always chooses his names very deliberately, as he does their appearance. This professor, who claims the role of something similar to another well-known literary “infernal” incarnation, is described as a short, bald “unprepossessing pointy-head,” “with a protruding wrinkled brow and bright blue veins on his large crimson nose.” Somewhat like the outwardly vulgar devil of Ivan Karamazov in his tight checkered trousers, this Koshmarov is a shadow born of Parfenchikov himself, or to be more precise of his mind, whereby its more intellectual part overheated by opiates, where all sorts of cosmological, physical, theological, ethic, economic, and other conceptions pile up, as well as interesting data he generously shares on the pages of Bondage. And not only conceptions, but also specific plans and ready formulas for transforming the Russian.

The initial formula is a shot of a new “chromosomal mixture” which will supplement Russian blood with ten percent of the German and Jewish “genetic ferment” (the first component, later increased to fifteen percent, is called upon to give “organization” and “legal discipline,” the second – “initiative and diligence”) and five percent of the Georgian (to improve the outer appearance of Russians and intensify their emotionality and vivacity). The result of the first two shots, first using the German mixture, then the Jewish, and finally, the purely Russian control version, is wittily depicted in the novel in three versions of the same episode from the life and employment of Parfenchikov, who reincarnates in the virtual world into an employee of a Petersburg company on court proceedings, where the ethno-psychological characteristics of the reactions and behavior of the genetically enriched and the original versions are graphically demonstrated in fine detail. Later the shots are replaced with a more convenient nano pill and the residents of Kan are to be the first guinea pigs of the experiment (whereby unbeknown to them).

Pomeshkin also becomes involved in the project—he gets to know Parfenchikov and also becomes hooked on kuknar (poppy in pashtu). So both of them, or the three of them to be more precise (including Koshmarov), elaborate this project in all its aspects, excel in their fantasies, and expand its framework. Here we have eugenic approaches capable of improving the Russians and the human race in general as wished. And the hope of genetic manipulations for breeding people with the valuably robust qualities of rats and much smaller in size. And the horizons of bioengineering that can create a computer-perfect mind and a body “using everlasting, super strong materials”… And finally, the dream comes close to creating a being who is “omnipresent and God-like, and at some point” becomes “God Himself”…

Pomeshkin also immediately introduces particularly virulent selection assignments into the project as the heroes are about to launch its first stage. He drapes himself, someone capable of acquiring the highest magical abilities, in the gown of a menacing judge and, in horrific pictorial dreams, this great purifier of the world from the vile stalks with fire and sword first around the people of Kan, scattering them to the four winds, subtly scoffing at and destroying most of them. “They will fashion legends about my hatred,” he utters, choking on his passionate supremacy. “The number of victims does not scare me. Give me Koshmarov’s pill and you will see for yourself what Grigory Pomeshkin is capable of.” Man himself is often seen only as a bio brick to be remolded for creating the future Man-God, “material for building the likes of Him (God – S.S.), that is, homo sapiens is also gobbled up in the flames of artificial total evolutionary selection.

But at this point a clamorous and self-destructive antilogy to such a transformational orientation enters the scene. It is no accident that the main ideologue, Koshmarov, begins a discussion on the topic of Christ’s commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, where He encourages the human race to commit an act of unprecedented boldness: “So be perfect, like your Heavenly Father is perfect.” This affirmation of Christ, the God-Man, who combined in Himself both natures—the Divine and the human—when incarnating, thus declaring the possibility of their mutual synergetic action, illuminates us with such a radiant hope for universal salvation.

And what does the God of love and mercy who calls on the human race to do the Deeds that He did on Earth, healing, pacifying the deadly natural elements, resurrecting, and exterminating “the final enemy—death,” look like in Koshmarov’s fabrications? Pushing off from the extremely distorted apothetic notion he has about God, this chimerical professor launches into the following “profound” sophistry: “But what if He is not one or the other, or even anything at all, how should we all or I alone strive to be like Him? … I can only become like that after I completely rot away, when even my bones turn into the dust of the earth. … The more of us who die, the more powerful He becomes. When the holy scriptures call on us to become like Him, they warn us that we are still mortal. Otherwise He will not be able to become perfect, because His perfection is created from the mass of human material. So then, He is not life, but death! By creating us, He can gather particle by particle, bit by bit the gray matter with which to enrich and perfect Himself.” This “theological” drivel gives birth to some grandiose cosmic ghoul that feeds on our lives and the higher spiritual and creative achievements of earthly geniuses, and who needs the sacrifices of our deaths (?!). Everything is turned inside out and fills up with a very different preponderant emotion that is the opposite of love—hate, and instead of mercy, salvation, and the transformation of each individual, no matter what terrible distortions he or she has been subjected to in the conditions of corrupt and mortal existence—the spirit of retribution and selection.

Another, more profound, logic of life confirmation and loving solidarity with higher nature understands that it is either everyone or no one. Stronger, more heartless, but competent beings, who hold the “golden key” to the secrets of guided metamorphoses, first destroy the weak and unworthy (but who evaluates and judges, another Pomeshkin?), then begin destroying each other.  They also have their own hierarchies and contradictions, mutual discontent, and scores to settle with fatal consequences for each other… Perhaps just one of them, the last, will scramble out from the corpses and bones (the apotheosis of hate and selection) onto the world hecatomb, the paranoiac dream in the spirit of the same Pomeshkin, but how long can he remain there, on this stinking summit?..

Let’s extricate ourselves from all of these metaphysical and surrealist vortexes and phantasms to take a look at Efimkin, who recently worked as a policeman and is part of a sufficiently realistic plotline of the novel. He has been run out of the police force for his naïve honesty, and has now found himself a job as a water bailiff in Kan. However, he is not only determined to live according to the laws of the current times, but also become their master, a true shark, ready to grab exclusively for himself in his insatiable gullets as much wealth and power as he possibly can. This plotline is executed in talented, lively, curious, grotesque, and at times blackly malicious episodes and pictures. The hero’s internal monologue carries the reader into the soul of a rather primitive and crude moneymaker, overcome by “a single, but inflamed passion” that pushes out everything else, even the “basic instinct.” There is no end to the things that go on there: caustic calculations, cunning ideas and plans that rush in a torrent toward their realization, all the things he does to stir up ever newer appetites in himself, pump himself up, and activate the resources of a virtuosic extortionist who changes his strategy depending on who he is trying to manipulate, not abhorring in so doing the most extremely brutal methods…

And his achievements at the regional level are quite phenomenal. After hooking into the corrupted power network, he took over the entire fishing industry, and after acquiring the right to issue licenses for carrying out business in the town, he proceeded to suck it dry. He also set up an entire raid crew and siphoned off many millions… But the balance he maintained between fantasy and calculation, hot nerves and a cold head, drive and caution was destroyed by his unquenchable selfish and ambitious passion, Gogolian fanciful extremes, wanting more and more, striving ever higher and higher, wishing to reach the top in the rating of the richest people in the country, “to reach the world of infinite power!” But, to paraphrase a popular saying, for every swindler there is an even bigger one waiting around the corner.

And after arriving in Moscow, first to buy himself the cushy job of a federal deputy minister, he falls into the gentle, but powerful embrace of hero-chevaliers of fortune with their aristocratic ambitions, brilliantly described by the author, Mikhail Kartuzov and his assistant, the sumptuous and intelligent Yana (let us recall Yana Vrubelskaya from The Gambler, perhaps it is the same Yana—Potemkin likes the subtle overlapping of different places in his artistic world). So efficiently brutal and prudent in Siberian conditions, Efimkin now comes across sophisticated maestros of the capital who virtuously embody the pertinent aphorism of “anything goes if the scene has been well set.” Oh how beautifully, confidently, and artistically they act, hey presto, giving their victim no time to come to his senses, manipulating precise psychological buttons which only have to be pressed! Quickly, quickly, without the blood, derision, or horrors with which the path to riches of this same Siberian strong arm was strewn, with just the art of subtle deceit and well-prepared traps, a head-spinning operation is carried out that sucks the lion’s share of Efimkin’s millions from his pocket.

We find out about Efimkin’s subsequent fate only from Pomeshkin’s observations, and only that he has returned from Moscow entirely depressed and dejected both outwardly and inwardly. And that it is he who is intended as one of the first candidates for transformation by means of the nano pill. Here we get a glimpse of a different, not selection, but transformational alternative for working with evil. The choice of one of the epigraphs to the novel is justified: “Our vices are only our distorted virtues” (Fyodorov). Yes, vices, ill-directed will, usually contain energetically exceptionally powerful psychic potential; to isolate and destroy evil forces, beings, people means to lose this potential instead of redirecting it to perform good deeds.

But let us return to the main plotline where Parfenchikov, mentally excited by Koshmarov’s arguments about God, decides to give Him, for enrichment, “a mutation cocktail of his own offspring” in the form of a personally uninterested, voluntary victim, whereby he wants to engage in conception in a state of extreme drug-induced intoxication in the hope that a special and genetically promising being might be born. He chooses a young lame shop girl, a downtrodden, somewhat wretched, but kind Katy Loskutkina, as the cradle for hatching this potential miracle child, giving her a large sum of money from the treasure he found in the garden of old woman Fateeva. Admittedly, he in unable to perform his masculine role in this enterprise, since the body part below the waist necessary for this has long shown no signs of life, all his passion and rapture, all his strength having been spent in psychedelic extravaganzas, in the rising temperature of the intensity of his feelings in the virtual-imaginary world.

But Katy is chosen as the first guinea pig for the nano pill, and its effect proves amazing. The young woman unexpectedly turns into an entirely new and socially responsible person: she is full of energy, ready to take immediate action, carve out a dignified life for herself, and affirm human rights. Loskutkina’s trip from Kan to the village, to visit an old herbalist woman and healer (in order to correct her physical defect herself and open a herbal medicine company, a big private business of Siberian scope using Parfenchikov’s money), and the clash between European reactions and the behavior of transformed Katy and the people around her in the backward Siberian reality make for one of the most expressive and curiously burlesque scenes in the novel.

And whereas in the Epilogue she, as a charming, self-confident, elegantly dressed young woman, clicks on exquisite heels from the National Hotel to the front entrance of the State Duma, with a kidskin folder under her arm that carries her project for “Expanding the Cultivation of Curative Plants until 2020 in the Siberian Federal Region,” her “pygmalions” are in store for a very different fate. And she comes to full fruition in the striking finale “Irony of Life” (I would like to note in general the successful structuring of the novel in parts that have fresh and intriguing titles).

Parfenchikov and Pomeshkin, pumping themselves full of spoons of powered poppy, await the appearance of Koshmarov.  As remuneration after the first successful experiment in introducing artgen (“artificial genetics”—the abbreviation they thought up for the nano pill) and for agreeing to take part in further experiments to raise Russians to the intellectual leaders of the world, they want to ask him for a “nano pill of eternal high,” Ruspop (“Russian poppy”), personally for themselves, so that with their entire being, with every one of their cells they can remain forever in the enchanting “world of dreams and fantasies.” Whereby it enters Parfenchikov’s head to try artgen on Koshmarov himself. In order to do this, he and Pomeshkin  buy an appetizing pie and, as they did when trying out the experiment on Loskutkina, they put a pill into a piece for Koshmarov. He immediately catches on to the trick and decides to punish them for their self-will by giving them such a strong pill that it sends them to a “compulsory loony bin” for several years, whereby he keeps a watch on them during their lucid moments and decides their further fate. The reasoning behind the particularly destructive effect of the pills this time, which are washed down with kuknar, is the following: they give a “divine high,” an unprecedented “hit of the bewitched intoxicated elements,” an exclusively enraptured “rise in spirit,” a feeling of “immersion in eternal nirvana”…

Things are clearly heading for shutting down the heroes’ life forces and this exit from life is accompanied by Pomeshkin’s reflections, which are woven with masterly subtlety into this episode and give birth to the novel’s philosophical gem. Our metaphysical hero, who has already swallowed a spoonful or two of kuknar, looks at the dried spots of his own sperm scattered here and there around the house and asks himself: “Are these Living children or Non-Living? And whereas a possible answer might be: “Potentially Living,” there can be no getting away from the doubts that arise on this score in relation to himself and the whole world, particularly when the light bulb of the brain is so white hot and everything existing between the Living and the Non-Living, between being and non-being, constantly pulsates in moments of lucidity: “now you are, now you’re not, and it is entirely impossible to establish whether you are you or you are not you, and you don’t even know who. Whether you are Grigory Pomeshkin, or No One At All!” It is here on the head-spinning seesaw of this “wonderful game between the Living and the Non-Living, between you and not you, between illusion and lucidity,” where “there is no boundary between that which is and that which isn’t,” which the “marvel plant” has so astutely opened up for him, that he wants to remain forever. And at this point Parfenchikov catches on to his friend’s thoughts, admittedly with totally no volition of his own, while on another high, entering this time into coherent dialectics of the transfer of things and concepts to their opposite: “Life is minus because it has an end. Death is also minus because it doesn’t have an end. Time is constantly accompanied by three signs: minus—everything that has happened, plus—something in the future, and plus and minus—each time everything in the present.”

We will recall that the very first philosophers we ever knew about maintained a truth that became sufficiently widespread with time: life is a dream, life is death, the death thread inextricably becomes woven into the very texture of current life, death intention, death entelechy. Being is shot through by non-being, and all of it drains away into non-being. This dotted line of human life, this shooting through of his being with non-being that keeps watch from all the cracks is one of the first hitches of the soul and mind of rational man, the first letters of his self-conscience.

The heroes of Bondage have their Hypothesis, which conjures up sweet illusionary dreams, their psychedelic god, “master of the world and intellect”—poppy head, which not simply anaesthetizes the deep wound of mortal man, but leads him, at least for a while, into imaginary places of the fervent fullness of life. And imperceptibly, painlessly, removes them from this life, as happens here. Both heroes are already in an extreme and senseless state; Pomeshkin, who has swallowed twice as less kuknar than Parfenchikov along with Koshmarov’s pill and is trying to check out the extent to which the no longer recognizable person lying on the floor has turned into a “Non-Living being,” lights a piece of newspaper between his fingers and lies down next to him. And when the fire has already enveloped both of them, Pomeshkin, not feeling any pain, enjoys “his unusual state,” “patiently waiting for a dazzling, magical reincarnation…”

In my view, in contrast to the more radical Mankind Cancelled, in this novel, of all the projects designed to transform man, the rather realistic middle alternative in the form of Katy Loskutkina, which meets the European standards of morality and legality, prevails in supporting a more honest and efficient citizen who serves both his own well-being and his homeland’s. The hope here is placed not so much on sociopolitical shifts as on science—genetics and eugenics… “Essay for Myself”—this is what Potemkin’s latest novel is so defiantly called. Well then, it can be regarded as the author’s mental psycho drama which spews out an expressive heap of dreams and fantasies, heuristic questions, and diverse searching ideas and projects, which are therefore not lacking in fruitful contradictions. Artistically this psycho drama is temperamentally played out in a system of personalities and situations, plotlines and collisions, and figurative techniques, among which vivid leitmotifs are singled out that interweave and harmoniously draw together the novel’s fabric, refined and daring comparisons, the beloved hunting path of the writer… Nor can we forget the extermination of human rage, compensation and super compensation of life insults and failures, and hidden complexes, which are inevitable in the most successful life and the most outstanding and talented person—demiurgic self-therapy, which is present in any psycho drama…

On the whole, voices of surprise and rapture can be heard over Potemkin’s newly declared world, while questions are also asked… One of them is about the dearth of love, about the overabundance of disdain for other people and the shunning-accusatory rejection of them, about the inclination to pile on too many brutal scenes of their derision, exploiting sadistic “eros of degradation, eros of descent,” as philosopher Boris Vysheslavtsev put it (let us recall the previous novel Mankind Cancelled)… So is there any love in the writer’s novel world? It does not have the eros of Aphrodite Ourania (heavenly Aphrodite), the eros of the transformed, who strives in the spirit of the speech by Phaedrus at Plato’s Symposium for eternal heavenly beauty, or in the spirit of Soloviev’s “The Meaning of Love,” for the creativity of a new immortal personality for all. But there is the eros of Aphrodite Pademos, the common Aphrodite “of all the folk,” base and vulgar. This kind of love features in all of Potemkin’s works, including as a sign of the times (it can be found in concentrated form in the novel Mania), and here in Bondage too, in Parfenchikov’s virtual interest in the female breast (fetish pars pro toto, “part instead of the whole”), or in such a virtual scene when they visit the super-elite brothel (with a mixture of magnificent sexual satire). Philia love, the dispassionate virtuous love that includes loyalty to friends, family, and community is felt least of all by Potemkin’s heroes, and agape love is almost totally absent (apart from in the novel Outcast), that kind, self-sacrificing, and unconditional love that can be felt for the most wretched, unpleasant, and even repugnant. It is compared with God’s love for His creation, no matter how corrupt and embittered it may be.

On the other hand, there is more than enough of that “all-encompassing affect,” as Spinoza put it, that stands above everything, higher than all attachments and fears, as is the reconsidered scholastic concept of the “intellectual love for God” (amor Dei intellectualis), the central point of his Ethics. I am talking about the vehement feeling of love that penetrates to the depths of being, to the secrets of nature (equal to God for Spinoza), a passion for understanding oneself and the essence of things, a passion for possessing the world and ardent penetration into philosophical, metaphysical, and scientific thought… It seems that this is the main love fad both of the author and of many of his characters, which atones for the vacillation and vagrancy of his heroes.