Monday, June 17, 2013

The root cause of Oblomovism - real life and fairy tales were hopelessly intertwined

The best thing in Oblomov, Part 1, Chapter 9, “Oblomov’s Dream.”  It is a long episode, 8% of the book, 29% of Part 1.  My understanding is that it is the germ of the novel, the first part of the novel Goncharov wrote years before it was published.  The conceit is that Oblomov is sleeping in his St. Petersburg apartment, dreaming about his childhood and the estate where he grew up.  The dream is not especially dream-like, but it does explain Oblomovism.

Oblomov’s dream begins strangely, with the narrator setting the scene by insisting that it contains “no sea, no high mountains, cliffs or precipices, no dense forests, nothing at all imposing, wild or menacing” (82).  In other words, nothing sublime.  Goncharov is adopting Burkean language.  Mountains are “menacing and fearsome like the unsheathed claws and bared fangs of some wild beast going for the throat,” while the sea is “wailing and groaning like some monster doomed to eternal torment.”

There will be nothing like that in Oblomov’s dream where even “the sky seemed to crouch closer to the earth… so as to enfold it more snugly” and each season “proceeds in the orderly sequence ordained by nature” (82-3).  The landscape is purely picturesque, “ a series of charming, attractive, picture-postcard landscapes.”  The estate is nowhere near a railroad, a town, or even an ordinary road.  The arrival of a letter is not merely a rare event, but a source of confusion.

So the entire household, the entire estate, is suffused with the spirit of Oblomovism.  It appears to be a family trait.  But that is not enough.  Oblomov, in the first part of the dream, is seven years old.  This is one source of Oblomovism:

Oblomov, seeing in his dream his long dead mother, started quivering with joy and his heart contracted with a fierce spasm of love for her as two warm tears slowly slid from beneath his eyelids and hung motionlessly on his lashes.  His mother smothered him with passionate kisses and devoured him hungrily and anxiously with her eyes.  (88)

The other source is the imagination, centered on his nanny telling him fairy tales:

The adult Ilya Ilyich, of course, eventually came to realize that there were no such things as rivers of milk and honey or good fairies, and cheerfully dismissed his nanny’s tales with a smile, but the smile was not entirely genuine and was always accompanied by a wistful sigh.  For him, real life and fairy tales were hopelessly intertwined and, in spite of himself, the thought that life was not a fairy tale and fairy tales were not life, depressed him at times.  (97)

Three great accounts of childhood on a Russian estate were published during the 1850s, Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood (1852) and its sequels, Sergey Aksakov’s A Russian Gentleman (1856) and its sequels, especially Years of Childhood (1858), and “Oblomov’s Dream.”  It is a curious conjunction.  My guess is that the pace of progress had become so fast that writers were looking backwards, whether twenty years for the young Tolstoy or seventy for Aksakov, to tally up the changes.

Oblomov’s inactivity is some kind of retreat to childhood.  It is a protest against the passage of time, a protest against existence.  Thus to his friend Stoltz, a person of the world, Oblomov seems to be rejecting life.  In a sense he is.

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