A Bertrand Russell with a Wagnerian Twist

Pupa russa (Humanitas, 2004), (Art, 2007)

Gheorghe Crăciun | September 01, 2008
Critic: Caius Dobrescu
Translated by: Patrick Camiller

 

Gheorghe Craciun’s(1) novel cannot be the simple tale of one woman’s misfortunes. Its driving impulse must be something other than compassion for the fate of a “victim of society.” Pupa russa is—only superficially—a realist novel that shows how Leontina Guran, a “typical” girl from an ordinary village, is gradually drained of humanity by the direct and insidious pressures of the Communist regime. But it is more than that, of course.
In childhood, the little girl and her playmates come across an abandoned parachute. They bury their find so that they can keep it for themselves. Only, its discovery by the village policeman unleashes a brutal investigation in which mysterious figures “from the district” take part. Later, with a basketball team in the West, Leontina toys with the idea of defecting. “The System” finds her out, again, and she is blackmailed into becoming an informer under threat of expulsion from the Institute for Physical Education and Sports. (IEFS).
The action moves from threats to ordeals. Destiny (or the force that replaces it in Ceauşescu’s Romania) offers Leontina a post as “coordination coordinator” –an instructor in a district apparatus of the Union of Communist Youth. It soon becomes clear that her main task is to attend to the sexual gratification of the entirely male upper echelon of the institution for which she works.
There are enough elements to see the book as “the story of a woman” whose fate symbolizes the essential inhumanity of communism. Profound, subtle, an interdisciplinary thinker, Craciun stands as one of Romania’s major humanist intellectuals of recent decades, and anyone who has followed his reflections on literature cannot seriously believe that this is the only issue in the novel.
Craciun’s approach actually involves an emphasis on determinants, with the same insistence one finds in his explicit model, Flaubert’sMadame Bovary, a novel that aimed to study the psychology of an individual and the psychology of a milieu simultaneously. Like the French master, whose background presence makes itself felt more than once in Pupa russa,Craciun manages to combine an acute sociological and biological perception of the human condition with the hieratic beauty of contemplation—with a constant and patient refinement of all the details. This might suggest a Flaubertian reconciliation of “naturalism” with “aestheticism.” But the synthesis is reworked in a quite different social and intellectual epoch, and this alters its structure and significance, both.
Craciun does intend to offer us a “human type,” but in doing so he never for one moment tries to create the “illusion of life.” Unlike Emma Bovary, Leontina Guran is from the outset a hypothetical character. The marks of her virtuality are not concealed beneath the lacework of “notation” that creates an “atmosphere” and a “flesh and blood” character. It seems to me that Craciun employs a subtle, paradoxical mode of presentation which suggests that the woman in question is not the result of direct observation from life but of probabilistic calculation. We are not meant to imagine her as flowing from the realist technique of a Courbet, to invoke one of Flaubert’s contemporaries. She springs from something like the visual paradox and mathematical rigor that spawned M. C. Escher’s hollow, spiraling female figures.
Leontina Guran is deliberately conceived as a statistical fiction; her fate is the equivalent of a theoretical model. Through an artifice that breaks the classical confines of “realism” and “verisimilitude,” it combines determinations, situations and forms of social habitus [to use a sociological term] that are generally felt as typicalof the everyday vexations of life under communism. Craciun constructs a robot portrait, in a sense, by giving prominence to the lines of force and collective attitudes and fantasies by virtue of which a character with certain personal and biographical features is considered representative. Leontina Guran is not typical in the sense commonly used of characters in Balzac or even Flaubert but rather in the analytic and scientific sense of the “ideal type” familiar from the sociological method of Max Weber.
In the manner of researchers who try to simulate the structure of complexity in digital models,Craciun may be seen as introducing an ever larger number of parameters to configure the behavior of his experimental subject. This presupposes, first of all, a set of sociological determinants: a rural community affected by various forms of decomposition and corroded by communist collectivization, but also by a Zeitgeist that favors the loosening of traditional moral prohibitions. Moreover, Leontina’s misfortunes begin within the family itself, when a greedy uncle tries to take advantage of her innocence: a stock situation deeply rooted in an imaginative system that the popular press has been molding for the last decade and a half.2
Leontina then becomes subject to an educational system that appears as a mechanism for the inculcation of docility--or of duplicity carried to the point of perversion. Beneath the opaque dome of an education in “socialist ethics and equitableness,” the girls’ hostel at which the newly urbanized Leontina resides during her time at school becomes the scene of secret Sapphic rituals. At this point, the author skillfully “simulates” the tendency of the popular mind to conflate moral and sexual corruption. Leontina’s real education is “subterranean:” it takes place not in classrooms but in the austere, insalubrious hostel we are encouraged to identify with the prison world outside. Depending not only on the ‘System’ but also on the group’s internal hierarchy, the “hostel”3, like the world, rests on a paradoxical, improbable interpenetration of control and repression—and complete sexual anomie. Thus, the girls’ school orgies have the coherence of a tendency in the collective imaginary—not so much the one that has to do with the grammar of “forbidden pleasures” as the one that regards coercive institutions as schools for vice rather than virtue.
It is clear that Leontina’s adult evolution is also intentionally yoked to a set of negative social stereotypes. The outlines of her character take shape in accordance with the popular allergy to communist talk of “promoting women to positions of responsibility.” Much as the virtual super-heroines of computer games came into being to express the yearning for emancipation among young Western women, so Leontina is preceded by an abstract model of “demand.” Only, the abstract model was routinely demonized in the popular imagination where it materialized as “the Party whore,” a character always present in the panoply that codes the society of the old regime in the popular imagination. With a discreet but lethal irony, Craciun allows his heroine’s fate to be decided as if by impersonal forces, by the inertia and mechanical determination of “the history of mentalities:” an athletic sensual woman with a keen sense of independence is necessarily a “whore,” therefore an “informer,” therefore covetous and artful, therefore willing to prostitute herself for a cushy place in the Party’s propaganda apparatus – but also, it becomes clear, sufficiently unintelligent to sell herself for rather trifling privileges.
In this connection it is useful to consider the title of the novel. The term Pupa russa has puzzled many readers: some argue that, as the chapter headings are in Latin, the author invented a Latin equivalent for something that evidently did not exist in the Roman world: a “Russian doll.” However, assuming that Craciun did not resort to the lexicons of the Vatican (where Latin is the official language), it is more likely that we are dealing here with modern Italian. In view of Leontina’s role, this may be meant to evoke the mentality of the first waves of foreign tourists in Romania, mostly young Italian men, at a time when the morals of local girls eager to establish good relations with our Latin cousins were automatically assumed to be “easy.”
Beyond this linguistic riddle, what interests us is the rich and ambiguous symbolism of the “doll.” The Italian form in which it appears,pupa, suggests a kind of muted tenderness, which in the actual text the author very rarely allows to break through in relation to the main character. It is also a Russian doll – which implies interplay between container and contained that may be mentally prolonged either into a kind of ultimate secret essence or into sheer nothingness.
Evidently, however, “doll” is also associated with a symbolism of absolute passivity: a doll bears the surface marks of humanity but reveals itself to be an inert object, good only to serve as scapegoat or lightning rod for the people’s fury and frustration, for the dark instincts of the “community.” Craciun’s Leontina is something like a crash test dummy—one of those tow-stuffed mannequins that suggest not merely the form but also the density of the human body—the ones they belt into the driver’s seat and project, full force, at a wall.
Decoding this allegory, I would say the following:
A) The “automobile” represents the collective attitudes and fantasies, diffuse yet insidious and ubiquitous, on which her existence “skids.” Always desired, in various forms, and therefore encouraged, tempted, seduced, allured, Leontina is met with the most biting contempt as soon as she surrenders to the passions or interests of others. It is a question here of the archaic mechanisms of folkloric masculinity, which in a faultily modernized society operate in the void, as the mechanisms of crude, blind troglodytism. Leontina is the one who reveals the grotesque fantasies of the men around her: “May she not be killed, may her teeth not be pulled one by one, may her fingernails not be torn out, her breasts cut off with a razor, her stomach ripped open with a saw. May she not be smothered with a towel, strangled with a clothes line, telephone cord or electric wiring. No. [Note:all these negatives, contained in speech that might be either Leontina’s whispered forebodings or the dull roar of a collective subconscious, could not be more ambiguous, as their point is to underline, not to dispel, the respective threats.] But let them hurl themselves on her back like stallions, jump in front of her like foul-breathing satyrs, take her ankles in the palms of their hands, raise her legs to violate her womb with their greasy hairy bellies.” (p. 214).
B) The “wall” that the automobile hits in the imaginary experiment is the ideal functional equivalent of the totalitarian system, the theoretical model of perfect coercion – the dark, dystopian fantasy Orwell tracked in 1984. Leontina’s head, like a rubber doll’s, is from her earliest classes subject to a drastic moulding process: “you must love your country, […] you must do everything, that is, love your house garden trowel spade wells peaks mountains rivers and dams mines and furnaces hammer and sickle firs and cornfields. You must love your granny because she too is your country. You must love your manuals and exercise books and your red Pioneer scarf, which are also your country. Sergeant Ioviţă, who raps you on the hand with his stick, is your country – and so too is the comrade teacher who puts you in the corner because you were naughty, or the Soviet soldier Matrosov who fights bare-chested to free you from enemies. […] The word MUST is part of the word tank, part of the word war, part of the word soldier, part of the word child. The word MUST is a scourge of punitive fire that rains down on everyone’s head” (p. 140).
If we put together A) and B), we get a picture of the profound stability, the long duration of “real” socialism. For Gheorghe Craciun, the carnivalesque imaginary that overturns the values of the official ideology is not truly subversive but represents an essential component of the Soviet-style social gel. In the model constructed inPupa russa, the anarchic and orgiastic popular imaginary merges with fantasies ofphysical possession intrinsic in the communist passion for rationalization and organization. This union of opposites – the true secret of the “discreet charm of real socialism” – is subtly and powerfully expressed in the passages of rhymed prose that tell the story of Leontina’s life. Each time the political era changes, Craciun draws another curtain of words in which he intersperses the slogans of “the new stage of socialist construction” with the truculent ambiguities of popular humor. It is as if the firmly and energetically cubist mosaics on the walls of steel or tractor plants were being hijacked towards the curved lines of caricature; as if the “militant” frescoes of Orozco Ribera were being filtered through Goya’s Caprices. The effect goes beyond comedy or bitter irony: the rhymed prose of these linking passages suggests a monstrous monumentality, in which the corpse of utopian communism is constantly fuelled by a genuinely vital but hidden, blind frenzy.
Monumentality is key to Gheorghe Craciun’s approach: The intermezzosof rhymed prose create the sense of a vast moving panorama of Ceauşescu’s Romania. The speeding up of the film that turns the delirious propaganda into comedy does not remove this sense ofvastness and massiveness. The verse chronicles evoke Eisestein’s cinema which, even crossed with Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, maintains its vocation for grandiose mass movement. But, with such a colossal backdrop, the character in the foreground is automatically projected toward the stars. He or she becomes, as the Americans say, “larger than life.” To put it plainly, then, Leontina Guran is constructed as a symbolic character of monumental stature. I cannot help seeing her as a kind of negative response—demonic or demonized and surrounded by an aura of vacuity—to the plenary paradisiacal “giant woman” in Mircea Eliade’s prose.
In a way, Leontina resembles Swift’s Gulliver held captive by the Lilliputians. This affinity with Gulliver and the philosophical literature of the eighteenth century comes from the impression that Leontina gives of being a “theoretical character.” Writing as he did at a time when the various experiments in realism had been left behind, Craciun never entertained the illusion of “reflecting reality.” The diffuse yet constant monumentality of his main character appears to exhibit the mental mechanism of exponentiality itself—with an insistence that conveys the author’s own self-awareness. Leontina’s grandeur does not stem from the inner meaning of her actions, nor from their conformity to an absolute standard, but rather from the dionysiac orgy of the statistical imaginary. In this writing, representation amounts to the human need to project a plausible, probabilistic order onto the incoherence of experience.
For this reason, the “situations” in which Leontina is “placed” do not have a “naturalist” consistency. First of all, the illusion of movement is excluded from them. Although marks of the sensational epic are not lacking, the scenes are actually suspended: they involve something like frozen thought experiments, whose texture is deliberately rarefied so that their sociological parameters are visible. Craciun’s achievement is to make this suggestion of theoretical modeling glide over into the suggestion of a hieratic art, the art of the stained-glass window. The analytic attitude of a “projector of fantasies” is constantly converted/subverted into aesthetic contemplation. A perpetuum mobile of mutual opposites establishes itself between the lucid social-cultural coordinates of the “Leontina hypothesis” and the (Platonistic, Petrarchian) imaginary of pure contours.
Gheorghe Craciun deconstructs the “naturalist” illusion by abandoningthe character’s “inner life.” He doesn’t play back Leontina’s thoughts. The motives for her behavior—her dilemmas, deliberations, crises of conscience—do not appear, or they are reduced to the minimum required by intelligible narrative. In this dimension, Leontina is an essentially mute character, and this muteness accentuates her statuary (and by implication) monumental condition. Overwhelming development of foreground sense-perceptions deepens her “mystery”—obtained, paradoxically, by a method that involves abstract, “theoretical” clarity. Faithful to his preoccupations in analytic philosophy, Craciun shapes his principal character by alternating between purely logical cognitive models of the representation of reality and perceptual impressions that he reproduces with the greatest attention and delicacy.
As if lost in the approximations of an infinitesimal calculus, Craciun replaces Leontina’s “stream of consciousness” with scrupulously recorded/projected sensations: “Sand-lime in the eyes. The smell of ageing skin. Rough curled-mint tea. Clear cherry-plum honey. Heated margarine. Melted butter. Fire lighted with fir-tree chips” (p. 146). From simple “notation technique” (or the Sekundenstil of German naturalists around the turn of the twentieth century), Craciun arrives at minutely detailed symphonic displays that make one think of Bertrand Russell practising Wagnerian breathing exercises. The reader is often overwhelmed by this expansion of “immediacy,” whose effect is similar to that of three-dimensional films in which you feel that the image is leaving the screen and landing in your lap.
Another association from which I cannot refrain – although it is probably too personal and therefore eccentric for its spirit to be really communicated – is to Peter Jackson’s filmic versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Let us be clear: I am speaking not of Tolkien’s text, which is actually rather arid in terms of perceptible detail, but of the screen adaptations of his trilogy, which are based precisely on the remedying of that defect. Jackson’s films come alive through the power and credibility of the details, which resonate with the “supernatural” background. Something analogous occurs in Pupa russa: the clarity of the bodily perceptions reacts in a strangely captivating manner with the “improbable” and, at the same time, “artificial-theoretical” and “symbolic-fantastic” monumentality of the central character.
Northrop Frye fascinated Craciun’s generation.4 A Protestant minister intrigued with the archetypal, Frye was convinced that the history of the Western epos involved the constant degradation of the character. In classical antiquity, the central figure came on stage as a god, or as a hero who represented the sublime side of the human condition. In modern literature, the protagonist has a tendency to become subhuman—irony reduces him to a hopeless puppet. But Frye further speculates that, at the lowest point in the process, when the character has plumbed the depths of “degradation,” there appears a tendency to repeat the cycle. In other words, the art of the absurd begins to acquire ritual nuances, and the subhuman puppet tends to be set up as a divinity.
In my view Pupa russa is a novel constructed in accordance with this theory—which in itself amounts to a vision. Up to a point, Leontina Guran is a provocatively negative counterpart of both the great Cucuteni fertility goddess and of the “emancipatory myths of the eternal feminine” that dominated popular imagery during the heroic epoch of Romanian modernization (see Constantin Rosenthal’s paintingRevolutionary Romania). Thus, if Leontina is the incarnation or apotheosis of the Great Failure, nevertheless, something akin to hope—or a will to hope—seems to survive in her beyond all reason at a somatic level in an almost unconscious form. Her eventual murder, by an unknown and therefore impersonal agency, verges on ritual sacrifice, and (in the archetypal paradigm) it points to regenerative forces that may be released in the collective imaginary. Leontina’s death, in other words, belongs to the monumental dimension of her character. She becomes an object of exorcism, a scapegoat. At the level of suggestion, the sacrifice seems to relate to the collective will of Romanian society as it emerged from communism: a will to forget its own deep essential cowardice, a drive to repress any awareness of its own guilt and moral wretchedness. But, of course, that’s not all. The symbolism of death generates an almost automatic symbolism of resurrection. On this plane, the Leontina character conveys the blind courage of existing or surviving under any conditions, despite any conditions.
In the end, Craciun compels us to reflect on what myth means for us today, here, now—and beyond official clichés. To propose a definition conditioned by the Romanian experience and these pages: myth is a sociological chimera to which an intense awareness of what we cannot understand about the Other and ourselves attaches, or around which that awareness forms like a cloud of rain. The myth’s contours are carefully drawn through approximations of experimental, statistical reason, and from it a certain plentitude of nothingness beams forth. The essence of the myth is its prescriptive power.
Starting at this point, I think, Gheorghe Craciun assumes Gustave Flaubert’s celebrated confession:Madame Bovary, c’est moi— “Leontina sint eu”—I am Leontina. Neither Emma Bovary nor Leontina Guran is her author because she was born of his empathetic labors. Nor is the female character a mask behind which the male writer discloses the most sensitive parts of himself. These female characters “are” their authors to the extent that they symbolically project what their authors have not managed to understand about themselves. They are their authors because they express items from the depths of consciousness: existential anxiety, uncertainty about one’s own identity, sharp lucidity regarding the limits of human understanding and empathy, but also an irrepressible impulse to pass beyond those limits. It would seem that nothing is to a greater degree “myself” than my own doubt and questioning, my own relation of attraction-repulsion to or with myself.
1 To make web reading easier, diacritical marks have been left out.
2 One might ponder that the novel is in a way constructed retrospectively, through the displacement of certain contemporary representatives of moral turpitude on to the history of the communist period. In fact, the sociological insight on which Craciun bases himself is that the popular press that appeared with a bang after 1989 illustrates the great persistence of the collective imaginary, bringing to the surface apprehensions, phobias and fantasies that are as alive today as they were half a century ago.
3 The sense of the Romanian căminul, with its connotations of home and family, is even more ironic. Trans. note
4 See the famous manifesto-preface by Mircea Nedelciu, the other great intellectual figure among the eighties generation of prose writers, to his novel Tratament fabulatoriu.
 

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