The negative World of Yuri Mamleyev

by Eugene Gorny


Yuri Mamleyev is a marginal figure in Russian literature. His works are almost unknown to any large audience, critical literature about him is scant, and his name is surrounded with an aura of the most extreme spiritual perversity which keeps his writings beyond the scope of "normal" literature.

Yuri Mamleyev
Yuri Mamleyev

Little is known about his biography. He was born in 1931 or 1932. His father was a psychiatrist and in 1937 he died in a prison camp. Mamleyev began to write in the late 50s when he worked as a teacher of mathematics in an evening school somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow. He read his short stories to a narrow circle of admirers which began to form around him. Later, when his popularity increased, tapes of these readings were circulated amongst the Moscow cultural underground where they were listened to with enthusiasm and trembling. Gradually Mamleyev became one of the maitres of the metropolitan nonofficial culture; however, his fame was totally based on word of mouth: he was so afraid of the KGB and of being sent to the madhouse that he never gave his texts to anyone to read (his fear was not without reason: during that time one could be send to the madhouse for far more innocent things).

Such a situation could not continue forever. In 1975 Mamleyev emigrated to the United States where he taught Russian literature at Cornell university. In 1983 he moved to Paris, where, as one critic said, "he kept on frightening readers" by his strange stories. His works have been published in Samizdat and Russian emigre editions and translated into other languages. For his book "The Sky Above Hell" he was admitted into the French Pen-club. In 1989 a few of Mamleyev's short stories were published for the first time in his fatherland, followed by three slim books [1]. It is rumoured that he is going to return to Russia and that he has already bought a flat in Moscow.

Regardless of his influence on the younger generation of "unofficial" writers (I do not touch here on his role as a philosopher and a "guru"), on the whole his own works seem to remain outside the literary process.

***

It seems sometimes as if critics avoid his writings merely out of a sense of self-preservation. As Mikhail Ryklin has remarked, the "literary 'Satanism' of Mamleyev serves him as an ideological refuge and a label behind which he can somehow preserve himself in culture". The hyperreality, or "realised impossibility of collective bodies", which is built up in his works, "as if being a total vacuum cleaner, absorbs into itself not only God but also Satan" [2] . All the critical labels pinned onto Mamleyev (conceptualism, surrealism, etc.) seem to be no more than signs of pseudo-comprehension which deliver the reader from an actual immersion in his monstrous world.

As Igor Smirnov noted in his recent article, "Mamleyev was one of the firsts, if not the first, in Russian postmodernism, who reduced to monstrosity the whole world depicted in his prose". "Mamleyev's texts", he continues, "have a social function: they destroy the Stalinist construction of society". Nonetheless, "to understand his prose it is not enough to say that it is engaged in critics of the Soviet system. Mamleyev depicts the monstrosity uncompromisingly. [...] In Mamleyev's writings the monster is not contrasting with everyday life but with another monster" [3]. Such a comprehensive monstrosity is due - and here I agree with Smirnov - to the 'hypertrophy of subjectivity' which is so striking in Mamleyev. Smirnov interprets it as a result of the postmodernist denial of the 'unsubjective subjectivity', which is the basic feature of the totalitarianism. However, 'postmodernism' is a rather obscure conception. It looks like one more abstract label unable to explain any real phenomenon. It is not by chance that Smirnov just uses Mamleyev as an example and illustration for his own theory.

***

Father's Portrait (1992) by Valery Morozov
Father's Portrait (1992) by Valery Morozov

If the work of art means something in human life then it seems more important to try to understand its existential rather than its theoretical significance and value. Understanding the fictional world of Mamleyev gives us a chance of understanding the real world, including ourselves.

I shall discuss one work by Mamleyev - his novel "Shatuny" [4] in which practically all his favourite themes and motifs are brought together [5].

"Shatuny" owes a lot to the tradition of the Russian ideological novel (especially Dostoevsky). There is much discussion and argument about 'fundamental questions', often in a beer house or over a cadaver. All the characters seem to be obsessed by ideas which they seek to realise or at least to test. But in fact they are obsessed by consciousness which is transcendent to all worldly ideas.

The characters of the novel are divided in two categories: 'common people' (the family of Krasnorukov-Fomichevs) living in a constant delirium and unable to articulate clearly their intrinsic faith, and 'intelligentsia', that is, 'metaphysical ones' (Padov, Remin, Izvitski, Anna Barskaja, etc.) from Moscow also living in an absurd way but constantly conceptualising and discussing this delirium and absurdity, and asserting their value and religious necessity. The collision in the novel - "mixing folk obscurantism with intellectual mysticism" (55) - sounds quite in spirit of the Russian literature at the beginning of the century. The synthesis is acquired by virtue of the homogeneity of their worlds: Padov "could without difficulty render heavy and dense language and silence of Feodor into the common metaphysical language" (88).

All the individual 'metaphysics' of the novel can be regarded as variations of or deviations from Glubev's 'religion of the Self' as presented by his follower Gennadi Remin (Glubev himself does not appear in the novel). The object of worship, love, and faith in this religion is one's own self. This self is an absolute and transcendental reality and at the same time the personal self of a believer who, however, is already spiritually realized. At all stages of being (i.e. after death and in other rebirths), one's own self remains the only reality and supreme value. Therefore the notion of God as a reality separated from the self looses its sense. The mystical infinite love of oneself is of tremendous significance. One of the main principles is a superhuman narcissism (90). (Note that in his own metaphysical foundation of aesthetics Mamleyev speaks about the 'absolute spiritual narcissism' in earnest) [6].

Remin instructs Aljosha: "We must not only love our Self with infinite spiritual love; we must try to realise this highest self during our lifetime, to live it; to experience pleasure of it; and then the world will turn into a herd of shadows; everything created in us will disappear" (143). Or, as Anatoli Padov, the main ideologist of the "metaphysical ones", put it: "I want to be Creator of myself, not a creation, if the Creator exists I want to abolish this dependence"(141).

All the other characters in different ways express this "pathological wish to confirm themselves in eternity" (146) and regard their own selves in the aura of the Absolute. From this solipsistic attitude follows a total negation of everything that is not Self. Abstract ideas rendered into direct action create the novel's peculiar world.

Padov lives with self-destruction mixed with a crazy fear of life beyond the grave and of hereafter. This fear forces him to invent delirious hypotheses about after- death existence which only increase his fear. He rejects all religious-philosophical systems and even treats his own pure ego with a great suspicion. Some of his characteristic traits: his favourite places are cemeteries where he digs graves with loud laughter and spends his nights with the corpse of a dead girl; he is a customer of slaughterhouses and usually drinks 2-3 mugs of fresh blood a day; he denies even the religion of Self as not radical enough; his cherished dream is to copulate with his own corpse.

Petja, a boy at the age of 14, cultivates different colonies of fungi, herpeses and pustules on his body, then scrapes them off and eats them. He even prepares a soup with them (14). His reason is an extremely distrustful attitude to the outer world: "To accept something from the world was equal for him to a religious or rather existential suicide" (104). Finally he begins to feed himself with his own blood wishing to devour himself, and brings himself to death.

Andrej Nikitich, feeling his death approaching, preaches about a kind and loving God in order to make death seem simpler and less fearful. But then he goes mad and begins to consider himself as a dead hen ('hen-corpse'). From now on, "the outer word has apparently perished and completely disappeared from his soul" (118). His behaviour becomes absurd and totally disconnected with his disintegrating consciousness "filled with thoughts without any content, even senseless content"(118).

That absurdity and inadequacy "in a worldly, trifling sense" (77) is a positive value in Mamleyev's world. Feeble mindedness and madness are considered as a token of involvement with the beyond. And the beyond is conceived as a realm of death.

This realm of death is the only thing of interest for Feodor Sonnov who kills people in the hope of 'figuring the mystery of death’, which is, at the same time, mystery of his own soul. "Death and everything which surrounded it reigned in his soul. More exactly, his soul was death" (23). Murdering is for him a means of self- knowing and the corpse a mirror of his innermost Self. In the description of his inner life, all Mamleyev's typical motifs abound: perception of the world as unreal and irritating by its separateness from his own existence; solipsism (sometimes he seems to himself to be the only being in the universe); inadequacy according to worldly standards; wild longing to enter the beyond. Everything that unites people, or is common to them seems to him "silly childish" (84). In this connection one could speak about anti-symbols as special things (or mental states) abolishing consciousness as something unified and universal .Anna who is also fascinated with them asks Feodor, "You love dead symbols, words, don't you?" (32).

For Feodor, murder is "a symbol of soul-killing, soul- ruining; it happens mostly in spirit (though it can be accompanied by "ordinary murder"). Nothing of empirically beyond scares him because "his beyond lies beyond our consciousness and not beyond life" (88). Moreover, it is said that he is "in a degree beyond the beyond itself".

Padov calls Feodor "a metaphysical killer", "whose aim was to completely oust all humankind from his consciousness so that the very conception of the existence of other people becomes empty. As an ordinary killer removes people from the outer world so Feodor removed people from his soul" (89).

His last wish is to kill all "metaphysical ones". Normal people seem to him just poles, stones or "prepared shining corpses without any secrets" (72). "Except for them", he thinks, "there is nobody to kill. The rest are already dead" (133). He feels that after this killing everything on earth will become "of a third quality" and he himself "probably will leave for a new form of existence" (139). However, he is unexpectedly arrested for his previous murder and condemned to death which "he met completely calmly but with unconcealed interest" (155).

Mystical love of oneself often adopts sexual forms. Pavel hates children because he recognises in the world only his own sexual pleasure. Children disturb his mind with their separateness from his own sexual pleasure "that seemed to him a serious, hostile challenge. Night and day with knife in his hand he was ready to pursue children - these shadows of his pleasure, this nothingness of voluptuousness" (18). He therefore kills his unborn children in their mother's womb by bashing their skulls with his huge penis (24 pass.).

For Fyodor sex is inseparable from death. At one point, he becomes obsessed by the idea of taking a woman at the moment of her death. "He thought that in that moment the purified soul will be bared and he will be coupled not with a half-corpse but with the emerging, trembling soul itself" (29). He fulfils his wish with feeble- minded Lidochka, the wife of Pavel, who is dying because of her husband's trashing. While ejaculating, he strangles her. Killing animals gives a kind of sexual pleasure to the "young sadists" - Pyr', Johann and Igor, all of them Padov's adherents. They perform a quasi-ritual in which they murder different kinds of animals "for nothing", "just for pleasure" (35). However, unconsciously they seek self-deification: "They are alive and we do away with them... They are no more... Then, we are, in a sense, gods" (40).

Sexual attraction of non-being is also shown in the relationship between old Mikhey who castrated himself and the girl Mika who is blind to the objective world. She performs 'the oral sex with the absent member' voluptuously licking Mikhey's 'empty place'.

The novel is filled with scenes where "sexual obscurantism" is mixed with "a sort of surreal Gnosticism" (157). The characters please themselves in the strangest of ways, trying to "combine the rough reality of the sexual act with the refined and formidable being of the unknowable" (59). The common desire of many characters is to copulate with their own selves, and in comparison with the self, the world is perceived as a "stirring rubbish heap of half-being" (130). As Anya put it, "metaphysical solipsism leads to the sexual one" (127).

This tendency finds its fullest realisation in Evgeni Izvitski who comes to a "black voluptuousness, a non-human love of himself" (123). He has always considered, like Pavel, that he who possesses his own penis possesses the whole world. Gradually he finds the proper object of his sexuality - himself. From then on, there is no barrier between subject and object of love; there follows a detailed description of the ways in which he satisfies his sexual-metaphysical self-adoration. The desire to possess himself is so strong that he even feels an impulse to tear his own belly and to kiss his own entrails. The world seems to him a shadow of his 'selfhood'; even buildings seem a projection of his own body (128-9). He longs "to pierce this dear, spiritual self with his member, to envelope it with sperm like a fountain" (132). Fyodor coming to kill Izvitski in his home and seeing the scene of the act of self-love in front of the mirror felt "that he was unable to kill a being who loves himself so frantically, so pathologically; this would mean to touch something new, unseen, morbidly sepulchral, too super-akin for him" (139).

***

On the basis of the review above it is possible to outline principal features of the metaphysics presented in the novel.

  1. The main value and object of carving for the characters is the beyond, which is transcendent to the world and life.

  2. Realisation of the beyond is considered possible by means of consciousness directed towards itself.

  3. The sphere of that consciousness is a pure subjecthood of the "I" which appears as nothingness, i.e. as a field of death.

  4. Thus, the desirable object is in fact a dead consciousness void of everything, including itself.

In philosophical terms, Mamleyev's metaphysics can be qualified as a reversed mysticism. Mystical searching for the all-including Absolute and eternal life is replaced by searching for the all-excluding ego and spiritual death. Thus, whatever Mamleyev's original intentions were, we can see his works as an expressive depiction of egoistic consciousness, reaching its utmost limits.

Egoistic consciousness is characterized by desire of pleasure, hatred to everything which prevents it from pleasure, and active ignorance of any 'otherness'. It is basically solipsistic, for there exists only one soul, one self - itself. Everything else is the 'other', and all the 'others' are just inanimate objects. Opposing itself to the world, egoistic consciousness becomes progressively narrower. In this process, even its own contents become the 'other'. Their displacement leads to its gradual reduction to a point, and then to its transformation into a kind of anti-consciousness.

Psychological sources of Mamleyev's world I see in fixation and cultivation of thoughts that are usually repressed by inner censorships and, therefore, considered nonexistent. The world created from them can be conceived as a nothingness turned inside out (the topos of 'living death' is varied in Mamleyev writings in many ways). His originality consists in the fact that he made the realm of negative, destructive drives the only object of both metaphysical reflection and artistic representation.

It is interesting to compare his creative method with a "negative, monstrous way to the Absolute" which is proclaimed by Izvitzki:

"He outlined a picture of the world where one could come to the Absolute through denial, through negation; it was a world in which the positive would be annihilated and everything strikingly negative, on the contrary, would become affirmative. [...] It would be a reversed side of our world suddenly obtained independent existence; and, on the contrary, the common world of the positive would become here turned inside out, disappearing" (101).

The problem of individual consciousness is basically the problem of correlation between 'I' and the 'other'. Existential solipsism of Mamleyev's characters has much in common with the philosophical solipsism of Berkeley and the phenomenology of Husserl (from the latter, probably, Mamleyev borrowed the term yainost' - 'I-ness', 'Ichkeit'). The difference is that both mentioned philosophers overcome the pure subjectivity of the individual consciousness by virtue of introducing a certain trans-subjective consciousness. It is a Deity in the case of Berkeley, and 'intersubjectivity' in the case of Husserl. But in Mamleyev's world there is neither God, nor other persons.

While speaking of his writings, Mamleyev appeals to Russian literary tradition. In the preface to one of his books he proclaims: "The ultimate goal of my works was to reveal those inner abysses which are hidden in the human soul. [...] If one expresses these abysses through the behaviour of characters, then probably the writing will turn out to be that which Dostoevsky called 'fantastic realism' (that is, nonetheless, realism; for what can exist beyond reality?)" [7] And he actively uses ideas and artistic means accumulated in Russian literature. This shows that he deals with states of consciousness which do exist in Russian mentality and which influence Russian history, though they were never before depicted with such exaggeration and vividness.

However, life guided by the head and not by the heart, lack of love and compassion to others, and necrophilic tendencies can be found in human nature at large. Any of us is a little of Mamleyev's characters. Such recognition can help us to cease to be like this.

NOTES

1. Utopi moiu golovu, Golos iz nichto, and Vechnyj dom. Quite recently more than 600-paged Izbrannoe by Mamleyev was issued by Moscow publishing house "TERRA" which includes most part of his literary writings.

2. Ryklin, M. Tela terrora (tezisy k logike nasilija) in Bakhtinskij Sbornik. Moscow. 1991.

3. Smirnov, I. Evoliutsia chiudovitshnosti (Mamleyev i drugie) in Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 1993, #3, p. 305.

4. Mamleyev, Yu. Shatuny. Paris - New York: C.A.S.E./Third Wave, 1988. Quotations are made by this edition, numbers of pages are indicated in bracets in the text. Translation into English is mine.

5. The novel can be also regarded as probably the only account of so-called Yuzhinski sexual mystics - a group united around Mamleyev when he lived in Yuzhinski Lane in Moscow before his emigration (see Beliaeva-Konegen, S. "Upyr': O proze Yurija Mamleeva" in Streletz, Paris-Moscow, 1992, #3(70)). It is indeed a 'novel with a key', a grotesque depiction of certain persons and events. It also conveys if not the letter then the spirit of Mamleev's occult quest in that time.

6. See Mamleyev, Yu. "Krasota v raznyh mirah" in Beseda, Paris, 1986,#4, p.141.

7. Mamleyev, Yu. Golos iz nichto. Moscow, 1991, p. 3.


A different version of this article was published in Creator Magazine #1, London 1994.


See also:
Collected works by Yuri Mamleyev in Russian Virtual Library


Send your comments to
gorny@list.ru