Platonov’s Weeping Cow
By Samuel LiuNovember 28, 2020
THE SOVIET WRITER Andrei Platonov is a prime example of an author who manages to make his sentences work twice. Set in bleak post–Civil War Soviet Russia, his work is not surrealist in the common sense. Yes, his stories are sometimes hard to believe, and magical; the political brain-washing and ideologically justified violence seem too awful to be real. But the strong joke of Platonov’s “surrealism” is that the things he describes actually occur. People were actually sent down rafts and “liquidated.” Whole villages did starve to death.
Platonov, an engineer, had direct experience with the Russian countryside, and wrote with horrifying, almost suicidal boldness about the forced requisitioning of crops, during which farmers actually butchered their cattle rather than give them to the State. He saw firsthand what life degrades to when death and suicide become commonplace. He is less a fiction writer than a journalist — a journalist witnessing the world through original eyes, and writing his Testament. What marks surrealist writing is not weird and random events, but a driving, relentless, original logic that is at odds with the habitual way of seeing the world, and for that is shocking, startling. New and old readers often say that Platonov’s language isn’t proper, is weird and dissonant. They say it sounds like it was written by an alien, or by someone who was perpetually linguistically adrift, a foreigner even to his mother tongue. But this is so because Platonov deforms language to match the contortion of his emotional need; he compresses and alienates his phrases because the shape inside his emotional imagination is in four dimensions.
In that sense, a foreign daemon is at work in Platonov; it speaks a language which can only be spoken while it feels new, while by an infusion of fresh electricity the speaker is resensitized to the clichés of our language-world. Platonov wrote under the pressures of censorship and terror — Stalin sent his son to the Gulag — but in his language he was free (insofar as someone with a dead son can be free). Here Platonov mourns his son through a cow: “[He] stroked and fondled the cow for a long time but she remained motionless and indifferent; [the cow] only needed one thing — her son, the calf — and nothing could replace him: neither a human being, nor grass, nor the sun.”
Stalin stole his Isaac, his calf the son, and Platonov uses surreal, anthropomorphizing language so as not to have to say “my son is gone.” Instead he speaks through a cow: “her son, the calf.” He estranges himself from his own feeling. He does so because he is sad and can’t bear to fetishize that sadness, to be heavy-handed; levity lifts up his hand and that lightness, that small philosophical smile, allows despair to rise from the page and become a sweet atmospheric. He cannot allow his own trauma to overwhelm and distort his imagination into melodrama; and this is how he finds a way to grieve. He named his son Platon; the diminutive he used was Tosha. In a notebook Platonov wrote: “Tosha, as he was dying, said ‘What’s important, what’s important, what’s most important thing of all…’ — and died without saying what is the most important thing of all. So the most important thing of all is carried away into the grave.”
The most important thing is carried into the grave — what else could it be but the soul? “[A]nd people were filled by that surplus warmth of life that had been termed the soul.” The soul, which, according to Marxist materialism, does not exist, is termed mere “surplus.” But this way of speaking has its special charm: “a surplus warmth of life.” Listen to the way he uses Marxist materialism to his own comic, spiritual purpose: “Was soul within man an inevitable by-product of the manufacture of vital material?” So many of Platonov’s phrases are compressed, sly philosophical propositions: is the soul a shimmering, merely vestigial accident of evolution?
When a parody is too successful and becomes a garden unto itself, one forgets upon which corpse’s mouth it sprouted. Platonov spends most of his 1930 novel The Foundation Pit mimicking utilitarian Soviet-speak, in which everything has a purpose. The telos of matter is to provide material for socialism; the foundation pit is dug for a Tower of Babel that shall endure. Even the wind blows so that socialists will not suffocate. Meanwhile, the soul is a mere product of former superstition — the belief in God and after-life are distractions, light-headed opiates that weaken people in the Marxist here-and-now. It is a surplus — unnecessary, insignificant, private, like capitalist property, unable to be seen or felt for the mere pleasure of sad humankind. Here, and in many of his most brilliant lines, Platonov crouches in the posture of Soviet-speak. In their language, he denies the existence of the soul. But he denies it with a smile, with the perverse cleverness of an artist: he has finally found an original way to talk about the soul. For whatever he is, he is a writer, and a writer must differentiate himself from his rivals in order to live forever and make witty friends in eternity. So he has struck upon this profitable technology of inverting, of having his enemies say what he wants to say, using their own words to defeat them and deafen their ears with his own blue spirit and conviction.
Paul Celan and Jamaica Kincaid wrote that they were forced to write in the language of their oppressor. For the Jewish Celan, it is German. For the Antiguan Kincaid, it is the British colonial language of English. Likewise, Platonov, forced like his contemporaries to praise socialism in Soviet-speak, seizes the bounty of Stalin’s idealistic, clichéd language of praise and optimism, happily robs it to adorn his own style with shiny jewels of beauty and pathos, all the while deflecting over-sentimentality.
What accounts for the Platonovian feeling, the unmistakable, suffocating mood that lingers like a cloud until, with one cathartic phrase, it is dispelled and its evil punished by a rainstorm of tears?
Novelists are shy, self-conscious horses — they tend to take careful steps into happiness or sadness; they are afraid of falling into bathos, and a writer like Nabokov, for example, will go to great contortion to prevent the cliché of “she felt sad.” But Platonov’s characters always feel sadness or happiness in startlingly plain terms. “No, there’s nothing inside us — only weakness. Ten years now we’ve been starting a child, but I’m always empty inside, as if I were dead.”
Platonov risks a psychological unreality. His characters may seem empty, and nonsensical. Who, after all, really expresses themselves this way? People do not state exactly what they’re feeling, down to the unironic “I’m always empty inside, as if I were dead.” His characters are flat emotionally, and do not joke, or have wit; neither are they prone to sarcasm. Platonov’s sarcasm consists precisely in the fact that his characters are reacting monotonously to horrible events, so deadened inside by habituation to the brutal that they no longer know how to react. His surrealism lies here, as well, in this tombstone of emotion, the flat affect of his characters. At times, this doesn’t succeed, for example:
“Inside your belly?” said Nazar. “Why didn’t you leave me there? Then I’d be dead. There’d be no me at all, but you could eat and live and pretend I’m alive.”
Gyulchatay looked at her son. Happiness and pity passed over her face.
This estrangement from emotion, in Platonov’s style, comes from the fact that Gyulchatay does not feel happiness or pity. The emotions pass over her face, themselves characters — in the sense that they act upon her, rather than arising from her. Emotions merely happen to his characters, and this is extremely weird. In the hands of a character novelist, the passage might look like this: “Gyulchatay looked at her son; she was at once happy that he had desired life, as she pitied the ruthlessness of his speech.” Of course, that’s nonsensical; to write out what Platonov has condensed is to part the nucleus of his thought, so that what one separates into pieces is no longer the original element, the flash of Platonovian emotion. Is it possible to have happiness and pity at the same time? Try to put yourself in Gyulchatay’s shoes, and the attempt to empathize with her, to feel what she feels, opens a kind of monstrous abyss. Her feeling is not believable. It doesn’t make sense. One can stare a long time at this sentence — “happiness and pity passed over her face” — and be unable to enter it. In the last analysis, it is not a psychological detail but a visual detail: we are supposed to see emotions passing over her face. Her facial expression is beatific, eyes shining with love and meaning. She is a madwoman.
Platonovian love is unconditional. In fact, it is often senseless. A young man, Nazar Chagataev, falls in love with a woman with the face of a horse, ugly and unwanted, because he sees her picking up flowers that others have cast off and putting them in her hair; in her loneliness, he sees her pretending she has a lover. Her name is Vera. And though she loves him, she refuses him in bed. On the last day, when he has to leave forever, she reveals that she has had three husbands, and introduces him to her daughter, Ksenya, who is 13 years old.
“No, be honest: you’ve fallen in love with Ksenya, haven’t you? I can tell.”
“Yes,” said Chagataev. “I couldn’t help it.”
They walked back in silence to Vera’s room.
“Well, what will I do now?” asked Vera, speaking aloud to herself.
Chagataev understood Vera. He embraced her and held her for a long time against his chest […].
Vera began to move away from her grief.
“Ksenya will love you too. I’ll bring her up to remember you, I’ll make you into a hero. Don’t lose hope, [Chagataev] — the years will pass quickly and I’ll get used to being apart.”
This rapidity of falling-in-love, the elision of all the things in between (the entire plot of an Austen novel), acts with surprising power. Its logic holds, barely. The selflessness of Vera is very difficult to bear. To write it out in plain terms is to risk senselessness. What he wants to express is something like: “Chagataev fell in love with her daughter, and though Vera felt extreme pain, in the next moment, wishing them all well, she vowed to not feel her pain and to raise up her daughter to be a good wife to the man she loved.” But Platonovian love can only exist in the absence of doubt. This is the surreal nature of his imagination; not, for example, the laboring bear in The Foundation Pit, or the herd of horses that shares and equally divides their food. His conception of love — unconditional, profitless, selfless, seamed through with pain — is experienced and given to others by characters who have no ego. They have no unconscious.
And yet Platonov has such immediacy of feeling. He is like a person who is able to walk on air until he realizes that he is walking on air. That is to say, Platonovian emotion is believable so long as one does not try to understand it. His character interactions make sense, but only in a Platonovian habitat. To try to live as a Platonov character — for example to give away your husband to your own daughter and to resign yourself to it — is likely impossible. Yet Platonov’s belief in the human soul lies precisely in the belief that it such a thing is possible. His characters are not models for imitation. Rather, they are expressions of belief in, and desire for, humankind. His characters are propositions in themselves. Consider the dignity that his prose lends his characters. Of Vera, whom Chagataev falls in love with: “Her face was like the head of a mare and was covered by large boils that she had powdered over; it was as if not all the strength of her youth could be contained in her heart and some had found its way out.”
Her acne is explained as the strength of her heart, seeping out through her pores. Platonov’s prose lends his characters honor. It finds a way to love the thing at hand, searching for a kind of meaning in what is ugly so as to claim it as a victory for humankind. In some moments, like this, it can feel forced, and unreal. But Chagataev has truly fallen in love with her, and that love is Platonovian:
Chagataev looked at her now and again and wondered why no one found her attractive when even her modest silence called to mind the silence of grass, the loyalty of a familiar friend. Only from a distance was it possible to loathe her, to deny or generally be indifferent to a human being.
One can only hate human beings from a distance. In this, Platonov doubtless has in mind Dostoyevsky, who says, by contrast, that one can love one’s neighbor only from a distance, that is, until one smells him up close: “For any one to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.”
Compare this to how ugliness is described in contemporary American literature, in Kristen Roupenian’s excellent story “Cat Person”: “When Robert was naked, rolling a condom onto a dick that was only half visible beneath the hairy shelf of his belly, she felt a wave of revulsion that she thought might actually break through her sense of pinned stasis.”
For certain writers, the closer one gets to a human being, the more disgust one feels. Ugliness in Greek epic is coterminous with evil. Shady actors are marked by their appearance. The opposite is true for Platonov, who enacts a Christian inversion, whereby the first is last and the last first; Chagataev falls in love with Vera because he pities her. He sees that she alone wears no flowers on her head. The ironist would mark this as a kind of idealization: perhaps Chagataev does not love Vera herself, but loves the idea of her, loves the feeling of sweet, superior pity that runs through his heart when he regards her; and perhaps she feels sick that she is loved not in admiration but in pity. But no, don’t think of that: one extra thought, and Platonovian love makes no sense.
Everything relies on the fact that it is given in complete simplicity. Everyone says exactly what they feel. When they are in pain, a simple hug will do. And when they are starving to death, they die. When a man’s wife cheats on him and has a son, she tells him and he goes “somewhere a long way away and there, alone, he had got his breath back after this sorrow.” And in this simplicity, evil cannot triumph. Chagataev’s mother, starving, is given food by a Russian soldier, who begins “little by little” to touch her: “She had been wondering how to thank the Russian, and all she had was what had been provided by nature. And so, in exchange for some food in a pot, [he] received an entire, silent woman.”
What happens here is manipulated sex, perhaps rape. But the soldier does not, as Platonov might write, “feel the special satisfaction of his soul when it comes into contact with another.” Nor does he get what he might in a Roupenian narrative: “He had managed to finally fuck someone and the food he had given to her was definitely worth it.” Instead, there is a silent lamentation of the meaninglessness of the whole exchange. The first adjective, “entire,” makes the woman into an object, as if the soldier did not buy just the leg but the entire body. The second, “silent,” describes the sexual encounter, its dullness. The word “entire” is a positive; the letdown occurs in “silent.” Platonov does not write the soldier as evil. Somehow, a great amount of pity is sent his way — not understanding or forgiveness, but sadness at his inhumanity. His crime is that he has behaved inhumanly, in trading food for a woman. But he is rewarded with inhumanity, the lack of human comfort and warmth. No one wins, and somehow Platonov has made us feel sorrow for everyone involved.
This peculiar logic of feeling is what marks Platonov’s originality. People are horrifying and brutal, but at the end of the day, they know not what they do. Dostoyevsky writes in The House of the Dead how the alms-giving peasants at the prison always called the prisoners “unfortunates,” not evil but fallen on hard times. How far Platonov pushes this is difficult to stomach. A man named Nur-Mohammed rapes a little girl.
“Go away! I’d rather be on my own,” Aidym said to Mohammed, because she had not discovered in love any new kind of life.
But Mohammed did not leave her until his feelings had obtained their pleasure; without pleasure he was unable to exist.
The Platonovian way of looking at people is that everything can be explained and sourced to despair. Let’s speak plainly: Mohammed does not leave the girl until he ejaculates. Which is written as “until his feelings had obtained their pleasure.” Again, his feelings are anthropomorphized, in the way that “[h]appiness and pity passed over her face.” Platonovian characters don’t have emotions; emotions happen to them, take them over. Mohammed does not attain pleasure; his feelings do. In that sense, Mohammed is estranged from sexual pleasure. But, at the last moment, he also explains Mohammed’s inhumanity: he did it in order to continue to exist.
Platonov’s characters are never sure they want to exist. The repeated theme of The Foundation Pit is that everyone is looking for a reason to live, since life in socialism must be worth living. Yet people keep giving up on life and dying. They die because they forget to live; their hearts forget to beat because they no longer wish to go on. In order to kill oneself in Platonov’s world all one needs to do is simply to sit down and starve to death. For Platonov’s characters, to give up hope, to cease to see a point in living, is to die. Spiritual suicide is physical suicide. And so, if Platonov’s characters always speak of hope, it is because they subsist on hope as if it were bread for both soul and body. The moment they give up hope, they physically die. Anyone who must say again and again that “happiness shall be finally found on earth” can only be deeply sad.
It is this sadness that drives Platonov’s sentences. That is to say, a sense of life-purpose runs amok in his prose, playing hide-and-seek and pranking itself while still reveling in the glory of the meaning of life. “A gust of wind blew from an unknown place, so that people would not suffocate.” This kind of reflex of Soviet-speak is all over Platonov’s style; even the wind has a purpose, has a reason for living, is helping socialism in some way. Yet the promise of socialism to give human beings purpose is turned upside-down. Socialism is seen as turning people into inhuman tools that operate for a purpose. But Platonov, too, applies this purpose-giving mandate to everything. Inscribed here is a belief in universal forgiveness and explanation, which is precisely what Ivan Karamazov refuses to accept — the universal supra-Euclidian harmony that is paid for by the suffering of one child. Platonov’s sentences themselves believe in the meaning of life. For everything in his sentences occurs for a reason, occurs to some purpose. His stylistic tic is “in order to” or “because”: “Probably they were embracing, in order to hold their only happiness in their arms.” Animals, too, do things with purpose: “[B]irds were singing plaintively in the illuminated air, not in triumph and celebration but searching for nourishment in space.”
“Nourishment in space” is a way of saying “meaning and existence in emptiness,” so the phrase is in itself a philosophical proposition. Platonov’s birds, like his humans, are searching for meaning in desolation; not food, or insects, but the peculiarity of “nourishment,” a word associated with the spirit as much as, if not more than, it is with the body. The only other writer who uses this kind of teleological sentence as frequently is Bruno Schulz, and it is no surprise that, like Platonov, Schulz is fond of animals and inanimate matter. Schulz, himself a Platonov character, fed grains of sugar to houseflies, as a child, so that they would have strength to “survive the winter.”
This kind of enlivening sentence animates the world, gives dead matter the anima of spirit, is glad to see animals become human-like with emotion. One of my favorite lines from all of Platonov describes Chagataev sitting beside a camel, watching the animal and “understanding.” No indirect object is given to the verb “understanding.” Properly speaking, it’s ungrammatical — the kind of sentence an editor would tell you to cross out. But, again, it’s deformed to perfectly fit Platonov’s emotional vision. He and Schulz are the type of people to look at an animal and space out: to sit and “understand.” Understand what? (My mother sometimes comes up to me when I’m sitting outside and asks me what I’m doing, why I’m wasting my time. I’ve always just wanted to reply: “I’m understanding.”)
It is a comic and laughably humble of way of describing the feeling of being one with the universe. It’s the happy, divine twin of Bartleby’s sullen “I’d prefer not to,” that general negation, equal in silence but positive about all the world’s atoms. Chagataev watches the camel and “understands.” The purpose-giving anthropomorphizing sentence itself believes in pantheism. This is also a very animated way to write, and perhaps prose writers like Platonov are drawn to it because it matches their pathos.
His purpose-giving sentence is applied to everything, to all matter under the sun, a pantheism of birds, camels, socialists and kulaks alike. Platonov was probably a very sad man, but likely not bitter, for he so constantly feels deep sympathy for everything that exists. But think of Mohammed, who rapes the girl “in order to exist.” Are those who are, like Platonov, capable of universal love not also culpable? That is to say, does Platonov really believe that he can forgive Mohammed, who acts out of despair? The quirks of an author’s style reveal, or perhaps determine, the laws of their imaginative universe. Does Platonov’s style absolve too indiscriminately?
Platonov is not in the game of judging others, like Austen or Franzen; the prudent judgment of character is the hallmark of a character novelist. Somehow everything is so awful in Platonov’s stories that judgment is forgotten, one no longer turns up his nose at other people, and instead everyone shares in their suffering. It is not socialism that has brought people together, or, it is socialism, but not by its promise of a bright future; rather, socialism has so undermined people’s basic needs that they no longer have any pretensions, ambitions, egos — none of the sour stars of Dostoyevskian consciousness. What remains in the desolate landscape are love, sadness, and common feeling. Platonov’s lack of judgment is nihilistic, in the strongest sense of the word. As his sentences structurally ascribe meaning to life, they grant forgiveness to everything, so that nothing is condemned; when love is universal, moral judgment goes out the window. Platonov’s spirit, his belief in mankind, is amoral. And yet one hears a moral engine behind the scenes of the prose. What does Platonov hate? He hates despair. Rather, he hates the circumstances that have bred despair — the backdrop of suffering that reveals humanity’s pathetic, immortal beauty. This he cannot say outright. The Foundation Pit, obviously a damning political satire, avoids any direct attack on the State. Should someone wish to prosecute the author by pointing to a line, the sentence would be so grotesquely contorted and nonsensical that the political sin could not be determined — yet the feeling of sin is unmistakable.
There is a very narrow sense in which a writer is stronger when subjected to censorship. The pressure forces writers to go into hiding, to double their language, to put up a front of optimism and political rectitude while withholding their true faces. These evasions deepen their art into three dimensions, demanding and rewarding close reading, grouping readers with the State censor, forcing them to scan the pages for the author’s intent.
Platonov’s works are littered with praise for Stalin. How did it feel to write these lines? Platonov’s son was sent to the Gulag and died of the tuberculosis he contracted there, and yet Platonov must sing the man responsible for this: “Had Chagataev not imagined Stalin, had he not sensed him as a father, as a kind strength that protected and enlightened his life, he would not have been able to recognize the meaning of his existence […] he would have lain face down on the earth and gone dead.”
Platonov may believe one thing, but his character believes another. It is true to the plot of the story, true to reality, that someone like Chagataev still believes in Stalin, in an imagined Stalin, because, like all Platonov characters, he must have faith in something “that was more important than anything.” For Platonov, to write a sentence like this is an exercise in masochism — and political necessity. But it does express a true Platonovian feeling, the unadulterated admiration for belief of any sort. Whatever Stalin is in reality, the imagined Stalin is necessary. To expose Stalin and his evil is also to destroy the belief of the Russian people like Chagataev, and to destroy belief is to physically kill, have someone lie “face down” and die. Platonov understands that a belief of some sort, however false, is better than no belief at all.
The more Platonov’s characters vow to live and be happy, the sadder the observer feels. In The Foundation Pit, characters are literally digging their own grave while supposedly building a foundation pit for the construction of a Soviet home. The Foundation Pit is like a sealed submarine in which the characters gradually use up all the oxygen; the reader turns the breathless pages; the book closes on its lives like a grave, of neither earth nor water but of a tormented nothingness. Platonov’s mood poem is one of suffocation. His sentences mimic happiness because he really does believe in its possibility; this belief makes his sentences shiny, fills them with imagery and strange emotion, but how strong is it? We remember that the cow “only needed one thing — her son, the calf”: “The cow did not understand that it is possible to forget one happiness, to find another and then live again, not suffering any longer. Her dim mind did not have the strength to help her deceive herself.”
A human being like Platonov may deceive himself and move on — find another happiness, a post-Tosha happiness, and be sinfully not dead for a while. But a cow cannot deceive itself.
Joseph Brodsky has rightfully put Platonov in the company of Proust, Musil, and Joyce. Platonov’s translator Robert Chandler and Penelope Fitzgerald have pointed to Platonov’s short story “The Return” as his masterpiece. “The Return” is indeed an incredible story. There, however, Platonov returns to a realist style, abandoning his surrealist double-speak. What Platonov discovers in The Foundation Pit and Soul, what excites me as a fiction writer, is a poetic language full of longing for a future in which everything has its use, a utopia of consciousness; like the Messiah, this imagined destiny wrings happiness out of despair. People can keep hoping for a Messiah because he never arrives. His calling card, his niche, his business strategy, is simply not to come — to remain an empty node into which one inserts hope just to have something to hope for.
Some old stories say that, in ages past, when the world’s suffering was too intense and he could bear it no longer, the Messiah came back, only no one noticed him — and the streets hid him like a mendicant who knew nothing of the meaning of life — a little annoyed, he sent himself away. Platonov was not widely read until 1990, long after he died from the tuberculosis he contracted from his son. What I most admire about Platonov is how, after reading him, I go out of my room and look more closely at my family, hoping to be happy with them while they are alive, and not in mere memory. It is good that we are not starving. Platonov nourishes our desire to forgive, be forgiven, and have peace on the meanwhile earth. Hopefully more and more people will notice that he actually arrived.
Samuel Liu is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass. His personal website is overnightamillionnooses.net.
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