Hunger for the Whole: On Jacob Emery’s “The Vortex That Unites Us”

By Caryl EmersonFebruary 19, 2024

Hunger for the Whole: On Jacob Emery’s “The Vortex That Unites Us”

The Vortex That Unites Us: Versions of Totality in Russian Literature by Jacob Emery

HOW DOES ONE achieve a sense of the whole, and do Russian writers crave totality differently, or more intensely, than literary artists from other cultures? In quest of answers from within the Russian tradition, Jacob Emery, in his recent book The Vortex That Unites Us: Versions of Totality in Russian Literature (2023), looks at five fabulously diverse “versions” of the unifying impulse directed at living bodies: possession, epidemic, panorama, orchestra, and market. Each has its own appetite, exemplary authors, and treasure box of metaphors. Equal time is allotted to prose and poetry.

In part for that reason, this is overall an insiderly book. The Russian poetic word has long fulfilled a religious function: even under conditions of absolute non-understanding, awe and adoration toward poets and their products are a presumed part of the social contract. Far too few dates and life spans are provided, there is little contextual filler, and it helps to know the texts before going in. But outsiders will appreciate the capacious range of Emery’s literary exemplars. Some are true believers (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, the poet Velimir Khlebnikov); others self-present as more skeptical (Osip Mandelstam) or even as cynical (Vladimir Nabokov). All are bedazzled by art that compels our body to behave, against all odds, harmoniously—that is, as part of a whole.

By the book’s fabulous diversity I mean that its pool of methods for pulling things together can seem at times so deep and broad that all methodology dissolves. The vortex that unites us can be authoritative, authoritarian, totalitarian, totalizing, universalizing, or merely synchronizing, commodifying, and irresistibly seducing. Each of these concepts carries a different intonation—and, to be realized, implies a different type and degree of force. Totality need not be monologization or homogenization, of course; its particles are not identical or uniformly distributed throughout the whole. According to time-honored Russian models of “sobornost” (togetherness or conciliarity), parts of a whole not only can but also should be distinct from one another. What’s important is that each is necessary and that they all fit. So then, the question: Who decides what fits, from whose perspective, and for how long?

In Emery’s argument, the individual creative writer is the conscious arbiter and visionary, the master fitter. Religious impulses or Absolutes, with concrete faith systems behind them, are not seriously considered as vortices. They are relegated to the realm of the “mystical,” where, in Emery’s aptly chosen examples, the Romantic myth of poetic genius often overlaps and blurs together with mechanistic explanations. If there is a unifying thread in the book, it is the transcendence of mechanical reason by organic feeling. But if reason can err on its way to harmonious truth, then feeling is just as easily manipulated and no less prone to error.

In his introduction, alternating the fantastic with the horrific, Emery suggests one reason we should attend today to Russian totalizing: Putin’s claim in 2016 that “Russia’s borders never end!” This bit of hyperbole has a backstory in Dostoyevsky, Pan-Slavism, Eurasianist ethnopolitics, structural linguistics, and communist utopia. All are universalisms facilitated by the mystique of an absolutist state. But totalities don’t require tyrannical politics. They would prefer to be a substitute for them.

Tolstoy, for example, whose theory of artistic “infection” receives its own chapter, was a pacifist and Christian anarchist preaching total nonparticipation in government institutions. Preceding the discussion of Tolstoy’s “infectious imagination,” Emery provides a chapter on more profane versions of “possession”—by a ghost, a demon, an idea, a discourse. The first two are markedly personified, the latter two abstract. The early Romantic poet Konstantin Batiushkov (1787–1855), in quest of a northern imperial sublime, is possessed by the ghost of a Viking skald or warrior-poet. At the dawn of the diagnostic age, Dostoyevsky interrogates the medical status of “brain fever” (is Ivan Karamazov’s devil a pathological symptom, by definition mechanistic and guiltless, or is it a visiting spirit?). The modernist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887–1950), writing (and not being published) during the Stalinist era, is obsessed with the survival of the idea in a world that would trap it. And for the postmodernist Vladimir Sorokin (b. 1955), the word itself has become a clump of “blue fat” growing on grotesque bodies—and the writer a tyrant who makes text out of living people.

How “possession” so broadly conceived can be a version of totality becomes clear only in later chapters. Tolstoy’s infection theory of art is well known, but here it gets a chilling gloss. Noting how disease (including the affliction of falling in love at the wrong time) is Tolstoy’s tool of choice for self-improvement, and appreciating how Tolstoy plays with metaphors of inoculation and immunization, Emery lays bare the great strength of “epidemiological unity”: it is totality whether we like it or not. Invisibly, microbes and germs will do the necessary work. Likewise, the third chapter, “The Panorama,” takes conscious moral choice out of our unreliable individual hands and delivers it over to the vastness of space, either by seeking a view from so high up that the world appears as a unified whole or by constructing a world language to unite us. The zaum (“beyonsense”) wing of the Russian avant-garde dreamed of an organic poetic medium that could bypass semantics, syntax, and rational structure to unite humanity emotionally and spiritually through bits of sound. Forget Esperanto, which requires a textbook. If Tolstoy would have us shun politics, technology, and fancy intellectual theorizing, these zaum poets, enamored of airplanes and open spaces, ended up inspiring an ambitious “nomadic poetics” that was compatible with the universalizing claims of structuralist linguistics as well as the fantasies of Eurasianism. The Old World’s routes to totality—Enlightenment reason, mercantile imperialism, gunboats—could be replaced by emissaries of the creative word.

This all sounds uncomfortably distant from actual persons, but unification, like soft colonialism, has a benevolent side. Emery considers it in his fourth chapter, “The Orchestra,” featuring the poet-martyr Mandelstam (1891–1938) and especially his 1933 essay “Conversation About Dante.” Here the metaphors are more individualized: poets are experts at time-space measurement, and each reader personalizes the poetic transcript in her own way. The dominant device for this soft totality is the conductor’s baton, akin to the necessary guide through Dante’s landscape: authoritative, yes, and hierarchical, but the conductor’s rhythmic and temporal choices are freely, even eagerly accepted by all participants in the aesthetic covenant that is an orchestra. Only in this way might chaos be avoided and music emerge. With the final chapter, “The Market,” such benign cooperation is again off the table.

“The Market” is, to my mind, the most unsettling chapter in the book, inescapably contemporary. Its subject is Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955); its concern is neither pornography nor perversion but the ubiquity of advertisement. That Humbert Humbert is a moral disaster is obvious; that he earns his living as a hack editor of perfume ads has been (says Emery) too often overlooked. Nabokov, with his “uncanny” sense for “the pulse of consumer culture” in 1950s America, gives us a Humbert as predator and a Dolores as prey who are both conditioned by the same “blurred and inflamed, and morbidly alluring,” buy-me aesthetic. Or, in Emery’s memorable image, Nabokov does to his exploited Lolita what the Coppertone ads do to all of us: make us want to look like that because that’s what we’re told we should look like, with “no compunctions about utilizing child sexuality or anything else.”

Emery’s consideration of totality is very literature-rich. For readers, this is not always liberatory. As he says of Krzhizhanovsky’s writings, they remind us of “the staggering fact that we spend our limited life spans largely absorbed in the alienated imaginations of the dead.” But real-life, nonfiction Russian philosophy, political as well as religious, has long been tormented by more tangible, and now newly weaponized, drives for unity. The Russian Empire was the only colonial power in the European zone that did not lose its colonies in the 20th century. Under communism, that huge landmass morphed into an even more ambitious political unit with cosmic pretensions to preserve not just itself but all human culture on the winning side of history. The Russian leadership today is in the grip of the same myth. As an idea, totality—or wholeness, integrity, unity—is inspirational, addictive, and toxic all at the same time. Breaking the impulse down into possession, epidemic, panorama, orchestra, and market is a good start, but there is probably a cruder binary division of totalizing energies that can be extracted from Emery’s book.

On one side of this binary are the impersonal, extrinsic forces that grab us from outside and shove us around, for good or ill: demonic possession, germs and microbes, commercial advertising, the mere fact of floating above and seeing the whole picture. On the other side are those totalizing forces designed by the poet, the novelist, and the journalist to work inside the image or the artifact, intrinsically: liturgical rhythm, visual seduction, the fake news of the military aggressor that creates coherence by means of a Photoshopped fiction. In his 2023 review essay in the journal Common Knowledge, “Why Russian Philosophy Is So Important and So Dangerous,” the émigré Russian American cultural critic Mikhail Epstein addressed this apparently insatiable Russian hunger for the Whole, according to which “we would be better off left with nothing than to be content with the particular and the limited.” Epstein hastens to add, however, what we have also long known: that the antidotes to totalization devised by Russian writers and thinkers are of enormous value precisely because they were produced and tested in the same laboratory as the toxins, and under the same extreme conditions. No doubt about it, Emery’s Vortex That Unites Us shows us whirlpools and eddies that threaten to suck us in toward a vacuum. But the literacy we need to assess these intoxicants comes from the same magnificent tradition.

LARB Contributor

Caryl Emerson is A. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature (2008) and has written extensively on Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bakhtin, the Russian critical tradition, and Russian music.


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