Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 15 - the X issue
Log 15 - the X issue

‘I sighed, so deeply that I almost dislocated everything I had’
Matthew Hyland


Russian critic Mikhail Epstein’s essay ‘Charms of Entropy and new Sentimentality’ concentrates scrupulously on ‘the last literary myth of the Soviet epoch’ at the expense of the ‘one skinny little volume’ written by the poet in question, Venedikt Erofee.1 To this extent the pairing might seem destined for a share in the present high-culture boom, in which reputedly confessional artists gain cultural capital as personae, objects of private identification, while their works fall into disuse. Yet perhaps the unasked-for apotheosis may not take place after all, so untimely are the particular qualities of the myth as it’s proposed.

In an age that exalts the perfectible body, ‘self-realization’ as rebellious pleasure and wise career move, spontaneity and naturalness in all things, Epstein exposes Erofeev to something like pariah status. Venichka (a ‘sentimental’ diminutive of his given name) appears as ‘the embarrassed suppresser of energies’, an endlessly faint-hearted ascetic, bewildered by the ‘chastity with which God has endowed him’. (It should be perfectly clear that this refers not to circumstantially-imposed celibacy, but a mysterious impulse to hesitate, to abstain, that overrule the sexual urge itself). So unable was he to get ‘in touch’ with what contemporary readers would presume to be his desire, that, for example, though ‘almost always hungry’, he preferred to hide in corridors while eating, and in the presence of others chewed and swallowed so delicately that his wife Galina Erofeeva did not ‘recall seeing jaw movement on his physiognomy’ in 15 years of co-habitation. Likewise, while consorting by choice with a circle of reckless drunks and brawlers, he kept his throat covered at all times with anachronistic modesty; if the top button of his shirt came off he would hold closed the button of his collar, ‘a trademark gesture’. And by his own testimony, his fame as a writer, wit, drinker, wilful non-writer, self-abaser and ‘holy fool’ was exceeded by notoriety for ‘the fact that, in his entire life, he has never farted...’.

Epstein also reports that Venia consumed prodigious quantities of vodka without getting recognisably drunk. ‘Any regularity perturbed him deeply. He ran from sobriety but did not fall into the opposite temptation, into the heroism of decadence - of rowdy chaos, of fiery intoxication’. Both the self-assurance of sobriety and the hyperbole of drunkenness were thwarted in the quiet, sadness and timidity of his gathering hangover. Epstein insists that such perennial ‘deceleration’ did not mean Erofeev was indulging natural indolence. Rather the process was an ascetic labour, requiring actual expenditure of energy. His sluggishness was a product of work on himself. He pressed energy out of himself drop by drop. He did not give in to inertia, he created it’. ‘Everything on earth’, the poet wrote, ‘should occur slowly and incorrectly so that a person would be unable to grow proud, so that man would be sad and confused.’ A sentiment like this is as much an affront to the present-day canon of aesthetic-economic-electronic common sense as it must have been to the Soviet cult of heroic heavy-industrial energy.

Although Galina Erofeeva herself described him as ‘refined in everything’, Venia’s refinement had nothing to do with mimicking the habits of aristocratic breeding, any more than his being a ‘holy fool’ meant incarnating Christian virtues. ‘If this delicacy had emanated from somewhere outside, from the realm of authority or high morality, it would be a simple object of ridicule...But here it emanates from the very heart "of plebeianism, of debauchery, and rebellion" - from Venichka himself, who is tasting both "A Komsomolka’s Tear" and "Aunt Klava’s Kiss", as well as other cocktails, some infused with shampoo, others with methyl alcohol, brake fluid, or something to prevent sweaty feet. Delicacy in such a creature is not a tribute to tradition or family, to upbringing or social norms. It cannot be obsolete. It cannot be edifying. It is other-worldly.’

Yet at least in the terms in which Epstein evokes them, the faint-heartedness, slowness and confusion, the propensity to recoil from his own gestures and body, don’t signify anything like asocial or nihilistic disengagement from the world.2 Venia was afflicted by ‘a ticklishness and nervous sensitivity towards the slightest touch’, a profusion of vulnerable ankles and armpits. This detail expresses in the most concrete terms the nature of his embarrassment, the apparent withdrawal from his own desires and actions: not indifference to social and material being, but painfully heightened sensitivity combined with an absolute lack of mastery, of assurance. Epstein understands that faint-heartedness is a way of expressing magnanimity. ‘A coward is afraid for himself while one who is faint-hearted is afraid for everything on earth. His soul simply sinks to his boots when he touches a fragile vase or meets an intelligent person - as if he might somehow tear something, misplace something, injure something or someone. A faint-hearted person is delicate because more than anything else he fears offending someone. He does not have enough spirit to assume responsibility or harbour a secret ambition.’

The ‘myth’ of Erofeev’s ‘over-scrupulous heart’, his magnanimously embarrassed non-mastery of bodily engagement with the world, is not far removed from the subtlest twentieth century interpretations of the experience of shame, which separate it from the fundamentally legalistic concept of guilt. For Emmanuel Lévinas ‘what appears in shame is...precisely the fact of being chained to oneself, the radical impossibility of fleeing oneself to hide oneself from oneself’3. Giorgio Agamben implicitly restores the social dimension to this insight in attributing the ‘unrestrainable impulse to flee’ which makes ‘our unsuppressible presence to ourselves’ revolting to the fact that the latter is something that ‘cannot be assumed’. We cannot take responsibility for it because we are consigned to it.4 This ‘consignment’ would not befall an ideally isolated, synchronous being: it can only be temporal and social, that is, historical. Yet, as Agamben notes, it is shameful precisely because it is no more properly external than it is assumably one’s own. The result is a ‘first, provisional definition of shame’ as ‘nothing less than the fundamental sentiment of being a subject, in the two apparently opposed senses of this phrase: to be subjected and to be sovereign. Shame is what is produced in the absolute concomitance of subjectification and desubjectification, self-loss and self-possession, servitude and sovereignty’5. The consequences of an originary link between subjectivity and shame are far-reaching, especially when it is remembered that the subject in question need not be of the individual, psychological kind. The incapacity of being to move away and break from itself, in which Lévinas grounds shame, turns out to reveal, albeit in superficially ‘existential’ terms, the reality of continuity which Henri Bergson showed to be incommensurable with the modern and scientific conception of subject, object and time. The reading proposed by Agamben (who elsewhere has approached Bergson’s thought somewhat reductively6) implicitly demonstrates that the critique of scientific objectivism based on Bergson’s discovery is not the symptom of idealistic longing it is so often accused of being, but is in fact immediately social and material.

Surely no new evidence is needed to show that 21st century confessional capitalism is an alien setting for the timid, self-disavowing Venichka persona. Individual self-possession is increasingly the privileged ground of cultural and more traditionally ‘economic’ production. Business shaman Tom Peters exhorts each worker to promote ‘brand you’, while the market of single consumers as perfect manifestation of popular will becomes the founding truism of political democracy. The biologized ‘I’ also serves as the indispensable reference point for socio-medical administration and control (see Datacide 6,7,8, Wolverine <http://wolverine.c8.com/>, and countless other sources, notably issue 1 of the French journal Multitudes). Meanwhile personal ‘experience’ unexpectedly reclaims its rights as the basis of authority, albeit in a strangely inverted way. The slow, repetitive experience (Erfahrung) whose decay Walter Benjamin saw in the development of industrial capitalism shows no sign of reasserting itself; instead, the disconnected, shock-engendered non-experience (Erlebnis) whose paradigm is the single ‘play’ in gambling games, usually opposed to Erfahrung, itself becomes a source of authority, notably in contemporary journalism. The most trusted discourse about wars or other presumably world-historic events is the personal testimony of ‘frontline reporters’ who fly in and describe their shock-impressions unburdened by long-term involvement or analytical distance. The ‘subjective’ nature of the account guarantees its ‘objectivity’, which in this case means lack of the ideological bias thought to accompany persistent engagement or a theorized perspective. Meanwhile another kind of journalist writes about private ordeals which took place over longer periods, using autobiography as a seal of authenticity allowing them to speak expertly about generalized, abstracted phenomena such as ‘racism’, ‘child abuse’, etc. In both forms the ‘experience’ invoked is clearly Erlebnis: the reporting ‘I’ whose presence is privileged is cut off from continuity, whether temporal for the ‘frontline’ witness8 or socially and historically contextual for the autobiographer.

It’s hard to imagine a persona more estranged from this way of organizing the world than ‘Venia Erofeev’. Yet as Epstein shows him, he nonetheless comes to speak for a perspective which paradoxically is anything but other-worldly now and here. Complicity in future commonplaces was probably un-dreamed of by Erofeev and even by Epstein, writing in Russia only a few years ago. For that reason, though, the correspondences are all the more striking. Epstein’s evocation of Venichka ends by projecting his image forward into unwritten history, making it a tenuous diagram of the coming century’s ‘fundamental, structuring’ sensibility. In this attitude, whose spread is not linked to any specified social, economic, political or ecological developments, all the poet’s qualities are gathered into a highly ambivalent ‘new sentimentality’.

The physical self-sufficiency disowned by Erofeev’s embarrassment creeps closer in the claim that ‘Sentimentality adores emotions since they edify the soul and are the aim of existence’. At this point it’s worthwhile to remember the brief, grotesque respectability of ‘emotional literacy’ as teachable virtue. Whenever ‘emotions’ are reified, considered ‘for themselves’ as objective things rather than referred back to the mysterious juncture of body, thought and event from which they emerge, it probably means that emotional representation is being used to regulate this conjunction, to contain the threat posed by its ambiguity to the self-possessed individual as clinical and economic subject. It could perhaps be said that on one hand the canon of recognized emotions mediates between the single human organism as ‘natural’ unit of subjectivity and the pre-individual linguistic/historical flux which constitutes its potential experience, and on the other between the absolute singularity of each body’s experiences and the social norms which allow its responses to be understood as ‘natural’.

This is not to say that Epstein is some crypto-therapist, of course. He takes pains to dissociate the ‘trans-ironic’ sentimentality cherished in Venichka from normative emotional systems. ‘Sensitivity will be liberated from all accepted conventions, from the captivity in which it was still held by Classicism, where feelings came under strict laws’. Yet in spite of this sensitive gesture, setting up emotional edification as the goal and meaning of faintheartedness narrows the scope of the ‘over-scrupulousness’ for which Erofeev has been made to speak to individual adjustment to life as it’s endured. Such restfully simple despair or contentment is a trait of which the poet reportedly showed little sign.

It would be crass to reproach a Russian writer of the 1990s for anathematizing Soviet language, or for scorning worship of explosive energy in general. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that the terms in which Epstein opposes ‘the new sentimentality’ to ‘revolution’ tend to reconcile the former with turn-of-the 21st-century therapeutic morals. ‘Revolution’ is identified with a (peculiarly Russian) sensitivity to others’ suffering so sharp that it that engenders a wish ‘to shatter the entire unjust world’. This desire, however, ‘is not mature sentimentality, but rather, a miscarriage of sentimentality... impatience with emotions... desire to cut off and kill every emotion by finding an instantaneous, practical outlet for it.’ Mature sentimentality, by contrast, is a doctrine of feeling for feeling’s sake. Rather than an indistinguishably mental and physical response to a real situation, leading into another situation and new emotion (even if only through wilful slowing down while the surrounding world accelerates), a ‘feeling’ is a state to be savoured, undergone as an end in itself (‘they edify the soul and are the aim of existence...’). In contrasting crassly revolutionary sentimental implication in events to the emotionally contemplative life, Epstein subtly shifts the whole horizon for understanding emotional being. Reference to ‘the entire unjust world’ in which the immature sentimentalist is caught up is replaced in ‘maturity’ by an exclusive concern with personal psychological being.

It’s hard to imagine how a truly fainthearted person could reach this plane of affective quietism. Timidity, embarrassment and ticklishness attest to an awareness of one’s entanglement in the ‘outside’ world so acute that when not expressed in verbal or gestural tics and spasms, irregular, involuntary and abortive escape attempts, it tends to induce paralysis. Venichka’s cultivated slowness, his endless reclining, can be seen as a perpetual, fearful refusal to enter into the present as it’s given. This is the sense in which he is said to have expended energy on inertia, ‘creat[ing] entropy out of his inborn energy’. Continuous hesitation cannot be achieved through absolute stillness: it requires that an imperceptible shudder of withdrawal be repeated an infinite number of times.

The opposition of fainthearted sentimentality to sensitivity expressed in ‘willingness to shatter’ things (‘revolution’ for short), seems reasonable when examples of revolutionary shattering are limited to the kind cited by Epstein. Invariably these are expressions of the explosive energy celebrated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, whether in a heroic or a carnivalesque register. Yet Epstein’s own rendition of the ‘Erofeev-myth’ bears eloquent witness to other figures of upheaval. For what does the image of ‘Venichka’ reveal if not that a dread of shameless appetites, of heroic (and anti-heroic) force, need not take the form of quietistic introspection, any more than anxiety to escape psychological solipsism need burst out in carnivalesque (or martial) explosions?

Venia’s ‘entropic’ slowness, sadness and confusion are illuminated in Epstein’s account in contrast to the cult of ‘energy and force in all its guises: from kinetic and potential energy to the energy of mind and body, the force of the collective and the force of the individual, the force of heroic feats and the force of humility, cosmic force and political force, creative force and moral force’. Beyond a certain point, however, this poetically effective distinction begins to break down. In material terms hesitation, withdrawal and cringing can never grant anyone the paradoxical power to let the universe be, to abstain from involvement in its perpetual self-engendering. Torpor does not negate time, but constitutes it as surely as does ostentatiously decisive action. In this sense Venichka’s quietly convulsive anti-gestures are potentially as ‘shattering’ as the tiny exertions, the ‘molecular’ components that when added together make up epic newsreel or wild carnival. ‘Molecular’ events in all these styles are ‘revolutionary’ or not inasmuch as they compose continuities tending either to shatter or reinforce the states of affairs (‘the world’) that existed at a hypothetically given point in the process.

Epstein remembers from two brief meetings with Erofeev encountering the ashen-fleshed human contradiction of the Marxist presupposition that ‘"the physical self-production of the individual" was the mainspring of history’. His evocation of the poet, so delicate as to seem somehow mimetic with regard to the latter’s character, leaves little reason to question this polarity. Yet there is a piece of writing by Theodor Adorno which perhaps points to a distant, improbable reconciliation of its terms9. To conceive ‘an emancipated society’ in terms of dynamism, ‘of unfettered activity, of uninterrupted procreation, of chubby insatiability, of freedom as frantic bustle’, Adorno observes, is a bourgeois commonplace. Its ‘repellent assurance’ recalls ‘the social-democratic ideal of the personality expounded by heavy-bearded Naturalists of the ‘nineties, who were out to have a good time’. The passage continues: ‘There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more’ (emphasis added) 10. A few lines later: ‘If uninhibited people are by no means the most agreeable or even the freest, a society rid of its fetters might take thought that even the forces of production are not the deepest substratum of man, but represent his historical form adapted to the production of commodities. Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development, and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars’. By now any alignment of timidity and meekness with contemplative idealism against materialist vulgarity lies in disarray. Human works are once again measured by the truism that ‘hunger rules the world’, but this time in order to dispel the boorish psycho-social dynamism deplored by Epstein in Erofeev’s name. Venia’s embarrassed ‘chastity’ testifies not to weakness of desire but to acute consciousness of self-insufficiency. Being at the mercy of inanimate and animate things is not unbearable because lack of self-possession is ‘unworthy’ of a man, or because some higher spiritual access is blocked this way. Rather, the obsessive, shameful effort to suppress or dissimulate appetite is born of a delicate and entirely physical horror of the contingent encounters in which fulfilment is sought. At its most refined such horror is wholly impersonal. ‘Not wanting to miss the mark, Venia grieves for everything simultaneously’, for one who is faint-hearted fears for everything on earth.

As Marx said somewhere, ‘shame is a revolutionary sentiment’. Only the most brutal kind of act bears witness to the infinite fragility of things, neutralizing the tyranny of need so that the world might be spared a moment’s breathless efficiency. Adorno insists on ‘the coarsest demand’ against ‘that bourgeois outlook which permits development in only one direction because, integrated into a totality, dominated by quantification, it is hostile to qualitative difference’. Implicitly he is calling here for the integration without remainder of a ‘qualitative’ sensitivity, usually presumed to be something spiritual, into the most banal physical reality. Epstein seems to imagine a similar process in a ‘sentimental’ century able ‘to feel everything and in every manner, to empathize with the sensuality of each and every object and to combine this empathy with the sense of every other object’.11

This quietly materialistic proposal for redemption (curious from an unashamed idealist who believes that each ‘epoch’ is structured by a ‘fundamental idea’) echoes in another of Epstein’s essays, entitled ‘Thing and Word: On the Lyrical Museum’. A lyrical museum houses in ‘anti-display windows’ objects which, unlike those in most museums, are neither rarities, nor representative types, nor relics: unremarkable things, bearing the ‘lyrical’ imprint of their ‘ordinary’ owners’ lives. The owners provide whatever written commentary they deem appropriate. Epstein cites an example ‘organized... in the Moscow apartment of my friends in 1984’.

‘The things that were hung all over the walls seemed suspended between life and death, as if frozen in endless expectation or in some kind of otherworldly service. They had left that part of the room devoted to active life, where they had once played an active role, but had not gone beyond its walls into the useless clutter of storage, nor yet further, beyond the borders of the home, into a garbage dump. The walls thus became a particular kind of mute, impenetrable curtain between two worlds, from which departing things take a final look at what they’re leaving behind. They had already lost the appearance of substance but retained sharp, sunken features that resembled faces, protruding from the wall like a memorial bas-relief. These sculptured masks looked into the space of the room upon their living doubles: a bottle looks down upon a bottle, a saucepan on a saucepan, a pair of glasses on a pair of glasses, as if trying to remind them of the most important thing in their existence.’

The alienation separating ‘things and man’ is symbolised for Epstein in the twin stockpiles of the warehouse and the landfill, in which, respectively, unsold and spent commodities are stockpiled. Against this backdrop, he notes, ‘The very words "thing", "material" and "materiality" have come to be perceived with suspicion, as if they posed a threat to spirituality. But a thing is not guilty of reification; that is the property of a person who reduces himself to a thing, whereas a thing proper always has the potential of rising to the human level and becoming animate through contact with a human being’. As an attempt to redeem the most wretched ‘things’ from their alienation in commodities, the lyrical museum vaguely recalls the heretical tradition which insists that ‘the history of salvation’ will only be complete when ‘the very last demon of Gehenna has been escorted back to heaven’12. The anti-display windows and the oblique or matter-of-fact written memorials aspire to restore a halo of pre-lapsarian use value13 to the husks left behind when objects are no longer used, after their singularity (or ‘soul’) as ‘things’ has disappeared, having been fully absorbed into the life of the person to whom they belonged.

Of course the project is wholly paradoxical. A successful lyrical museum would soon far outgrow visitors’ potential for study, thought and memory; eventually it would devour the living world, returning content and witnesses to a morass of undifferentiated use, meaning, stockpiling and waste. What’s more, the dream of reversing the alienation of authentic ‘things’ into commodities is made to depend entirely on the link between the thing and its owner - on the privacy of property which ensures that commodities persist as such.

Once more echoing the Venia essay’s prayer for a delicate, sentimental 21st century, Epstein looks forward to the rise of a new ‘lyrical culture’ in the ruins of ‘epic’ history. From a faintheartedly pessimistic standpoint, however, this of all his near-future visions would seem to be the only one already coming true, and then only in the sense that the ‘lyrical’ is confined strictly to personal emotive history, making ‘lyrical culture’ the psychology of ownership and being owned.

MH: he nurses an animus.

1. Mikhail Epstein, ‘Charms of Entropy and New Sentimentality: the Myth of Venedikt Erofeev’ <http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/e.pm.erofeev.html>, also included in Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture, New York, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 1999, pp.423-455. All quotations from this essay unless otherwise noted.

2. ‘Autism’ is often presented, both figuratively and clinically, as disengagement of this sort. However it is surely a monstrous presumption to decide that the range of tendencies or symptoms idetified as autistic always result from the patient’s dark mental solipsism, his/her obliviousness to social surroundings. It isn’t in the interest either of the doctor or the wielder of cheap metaphors to acknowledge that ‘autistic’ mechanization of gesture and language might express a receptiveness to the totality of social and material stimuli so acute that the processes of interpretation and judgement on which ‘normal’ interaction depends are overwhelmed. (See ‘Beat Yourself Fitter’, <http://wolverine.c8.com/>)

3. Levinas, Emmanuel, De L’evasion, Montpellier, Fata Morgana, 1982, p.87

4. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, New York, Zone Books, 1999, p.105

5. Agamben, ibid, p.107

6. Agamben, Infancy & History, trans. Liz Heron, London, Verso, 1993, pp.35-36

7. <The Storyteller/Arcades Project 512-15(?)>

8. In Remnants of Auschwitz (p.120) Agamben shows that testimony or bearing witness, properly understood, has a sense which absolutely excludes this kind of reportage. Testimony in the originary sense is that of the survivor who explicitly bears witness to what s/he ‘did not actually experience’, namely others’ non-survival. The ‘frontline’ or confessional journalist also did not experience what s/he addresses (either the temporal continuity of a foreign event or the social extension of a general phenomenon), but exploits the ambivalence in the notion of ‘experience’ in order to stockpile moral authority.

9. Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, London, Verso, 1974, pp.155-7

10. It’s exactly the same logic that makes Patti Smith’s ‘Free Money’ one of the tenderest love songs ever written.

11. The difference, of course, is that Adorno’s meditation centres around the impossibility of realizing his desire in a world where all relations - between humans as between humans and objects - are mediated by the commdity form. Epstein apparently hopes to transcend the problem ‘mythically’. The analogy between his ‘empathy with objects’ and the identification with the commodity which Benjamin discerned in 19th century bourgeois/bohemian behaviour is also hard to ignore.

12. Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p.31

13. The term is used here in a heavily qualified sense. In fact Epstein is at pains to differentiate the ‘meaning’ of a thing revealed in its lyrical exposure from its purely instrumental, ‘utilitarian’ function. This remains use value to the extent that it embodies a qualitative, singular relation to a particular continuity of human life, and hence in some sense is presumed to be more authentic than the rigmarole of stockpiling and exchange.


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