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Vocal Drive and Immortal Gaze in Ivan Bunin
Published in The Literary Encyclopedia:


Ivan Bunin (1870 - 1953)

Like many earlier Russian classic authors, Nobel Prize-winner Ivan Bunin was interested in the depths of human experience: the relation between death and sexual drives was the main theme of his fiction and essays. But his talent was distinguished by the combination of sincerity in his description of human experience and the refinement of sensation. Unlike Gogol and Dostoevsky, Bunin was a researcher of sensibility rather than an ethical thinker, but he retained their focus on the tragedy of human desire that constitutes the encounter between social law and the passions of the soul. An aristocrat in literature, Bunin was a deep connoisseur of the discourse of love and, at the same time, an original investigator of death - a writer who can describe the tragic effects of impossibility in sexual relations.

Bunin was not only a novelist, becoming famous at the age of twenty-one as a poet. Although he persevered with poetry all his life, his renown came from his short stories; one collection, Tyomnye allei [Dark Alleys, 1943], was recognized as a masterful depiction of lyrical love, standing alongside Eugene Onegin, Anna Karenina and, eventually, Lolita. On the one hand, he was a worthy successor to 19th-century classical Russian authors; on the other hand he engaged in the search for a new language and new literary forms, some of which featured both in socialist realism (Maksim Gorky, Valentin Kataev and Aleksandr Tvardovsky) and in Russian emigre literature (Vladimir Nabokov and Gayto Gazdanov). Bunin was thus an inspiration both to Nabokov and Kataev.

Ivan Bunin was born on October 22, 1870 on his parents' estate near Voronezh, into an impoverished gentry family. His autobiography relates that he came 'from an old and noble house that has given to Russia a good many illustrious persons in politics as well as in the arts, among whom two poets of the early nineteenth century stand out in particular: Anna Bunina; and Vasilii Zhukovsky, one of the great names in Russian literature, the son of Afanasii Bunin and the Turk Salma' [Autobiography, Vol. 6, p. 545]. His father Aleksei Bunin was a 'country gentleman', but he was also a man of passion, a gambler and a squanderer, who wasted much of their property. Bunin accordingly spent his childhood at his father's estate near Oryol, in Central Russia, where 'the richest of all Russian dialects' had developed, producing great writers such as Turgenev and Lev Tolstoy. One of the main events of his adolescence was the death of his sister, which caused a violent religious crisis; he eventually overcame this, but it impelled a spiritual search and gave rise to the future theme of loss and mourning, central to both his poetry and prose. He always sought to look beyond the horizon of life, just as in childhood he dreamed of 'looking over the mirror'. Like all the Russian nobility, Bunin received a domestic education. His tutor spoke three languages and taught Ivan to read The Odyssey and to write poems at the age of eight. In 1881 he entered the public school in Elets, but after five years he had to leave and return to domestic education, due to the family's financial problems. However, he had independently studied college and university courses and passed external exams.

In 1887 Bunin made his debuted as a poet, with verses somewhat in imitation of Pushkin and Lermontov, published in the St. Petersburg journal Rodina [Motherland], with poems accepted in 1888 by Knizhki nedeli [Books of the Week], which published Tolstoy and other leading writers. In 1889 he began an independent life in Kharkov, working in local government and contributing to the regional newspaper. His first collection of poems was published as an attachment to the Oryol newspaper in1891. His first story appeared the same year in the journal Russkoe bogatstvo [Russian Wealth,], 'Derevenskii Eskiz' ['A Country Sketch']. At this time he met Varvara Pashchenko, a newspaper employee with whom he lived, despite her parents' objections. In 1892 the couple moved to Poltava, where Bunin's brother was a bureau chief; here Ivan worked as a librarian, district-court statistician, newspaper corrector and correspondent. He became acquainted with Lev Tolstoy, whose views he did not share, and began a correspondence with Chekhov, whom he considered the embodiment of 'highest simplicity' and 'highest literary purity' [On Chekhov, Vol. 6, p. 156], and whose prose style and sensibility he found so attractive. In 1895 they met for the first time in Moscow.

The unfaithfulness of his partner was traumatic for Bunin and after their separation he moved to St. Petersburg and then to Moscow. In 1898 he married Anna Tsakni, the daughter of a Greek revolutionary, but family life was unsuccessful again and they divorced after two years; their son Nikolai died in 1905. The surviving of pain and loss, and his experience of love in conflict with faithful and sincere mutual relations is a clear theme of his later prose. In Moscow Bunin knew many intellectuals, including the Symbolist poets Konstantin Balmont and Valerii Briusov; in 1899 in Yalta he met Gorky, with whose publishing-house 'Znanie' ['Knowledge'] he collaborated for many years. Although they were not close, Bunin admired Gorky's life and his deep knowledge of the peasantry and the language of the common people. Bunin dedicated to Gorky his collection Listopad (Fall of the Leaves, 1901), for which he received a Pushkin Prize, as well as for his translation of Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha. In 1909 he was elected honorary member of the Academy of Sciences, and was well regarded for his translations of Byron's Manfred and Cain, Tennyson's Lady Godiva, and poems by Alfred de Musset and Franзois Coppйe.

Literary fame also came to Bunin in 1900, after the appearance of his story 'Antonovskie iabloki' ['Antonov's Apples']; and, in 1902, his first volume of prose works was published by 'Znanie'. Although his early fiction dealt with problems of social alienation and country life, with an apparent influence of Turgenev, it is also possible to trace Bunin's 'phantasm' of an exchange between love and death and his interest in feminine sexuality, combining 'mourning and spite' with enjoyment, as in the story 'Velga' (1895). Only by turning into a seagull does Velga save the life of her amour, who is to marry her sister. Thus her beloved comes to through a seagull's cry, but without recognizing Velga; he hears the call of love, but no voice - a transcendent call without meaning, that appears on the border between life and death. Velga transfers her own desire onto the life of her beloved, both renouncing her own life and destroying her body, releasing her enjoyment, which appears in a cry. Such an Orphic non-seeing between men and women, tied only by sound, gives witness to the specific supplementary enjoyment of self-sacrifice, despair and melancholia, expressed in her 'plaintive-joy cry' [Vol. 2, p. 141]. It is, nonetheless, an enjoyment, seemingly an effect of the loss of self and body, her 'voluptuous bitterness of a sorrow'; the unity of joy and sorrow appears, too, in the hero's dream in the story 'Bez Rodu-Plemeni' ['Without Kith or Kin', 1897]: 'joy, passion and despair reach such a strain, that I make an effort to cry - and wake up' [Vol. 2, p. 145]. This is an unaddressed cry of pure sound having neither meaning nor code, witness to the total enjoyment of a split, disembodied subject in despair who, seized by passion, is totally lost.

It is possible to find a same 'beyond the voice' call, which chains the body, destroys meaning, and witnesses a collapse of the self in many of Bunin's early stories - a call which is the witness to death. This same mortal enjoyment also becomes a common theme in Bunin's lyrics, in particular in his poem 'Durman' ('The Narcotic', 1916) [Vol. 1, p. 309]. Here headache and vomiting coincide with pleasure: 'It is a sweet, sweet, sweet to the heart', the drug driving the subject to her death, as if loss of the self were related to some absolute or mystical aim. That is 'a testament of enjoyment, with which we should live on the earth' that is really unknown and invisible for Bunin's heroes ('Pozdnei noch'iu' ['Later at Night', 1899]), therefore 'only the pale, sad moon saw our happiness'. In the story 'Novyi god' ['New Year', 1901], the gaze of the moon evokes fear in the heroine, a very peculiar anxiety, in which she takes pleasure: 'I was really a little terrified and I felt very good. I felt that we are quite, quite alone here' [Vol. 2, p. 223]. Woman's horror of alienation and self-destruction is transformed into a specifically erotic experience of intimacy between her and her husband. Bunin not only plays with the words 'strakh' (fear) and 'strast'' (passion), but feels the deep tie between them: both fear and passion capture, immobilize and destroy the body. Thus both passion and death are rooted in the gaze. Love relations in Bunin are the call marking an absence of the self, grief for the lost. The same specific painful - mournful - enjoyment experience of love will appear in later Bunin stories of the 1930s. He frequently returns to his earlier stories and reworks them years later: 'Meliton' (1900-1930), 'Kostyor' ['Bonfire', 1902-1932], 'Zaria vsiu noch'' [Sunset all Night Long', 1902-1926].

In 1906 Bunin met Vera Muromtseva (1881-1961), whom he married the following year, and who was to write memoirs of her husband: Zhizn' Bunina. Besedy s pamiat'iu [Bunin's Life. Interviews with Memory, published 1958]. In 1907 the couple took a journey to the East and spent several years in Ceylon, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, where Bunin wrote the essays Khram solntsa [Temple of the Sun, 1907-1911]. In the winters of 1912 -1914 he was Gorky's guest on Capri and traveled to Tunis, Greece, Algeria, India, Italy, Romania and Serbia. In this period he also wrote several important works: Derevnia [The Village, 1910], 'a picture of the Russian without make-up: his character and his soul, his original complexity, his foundations at once luminous and obscure, but almost always essentially tragic'; Vospominaniia [Memoirs, published only in 1950]; Sukhodol [Dry Valley, 1911]; 'Gospodin iz San-Frantsisko' ['The Gentleman from San Francisco', 1915]; and the short story collection Chasha zhizni [The Cup of Life, 1915].

It is possible to also find Bunin's phantasm of the motionless and collapsed body in his poetry of that period. In the poem 'V tsirke' ['At the Circus', 1916], Bunin fastens onto the immobility of the acrobat, taken away by the spectator's gaze; her figure looks to be chained by the spectacle and hardened under the gaze: 'And thousands of gazes dig into: an empty azure height, where any compressed power shakes the string' [Vol. 1, p. 323]. Reduced to a spectacle, she is combined and integrated by the thousands of eyes that dig, press, and form her self and sexuality. Sexuality in Bunin appears as the special attractiveness of 'compressed power, secret passion' [Vol. 4, p. 550], which rivets the gaze (see the story 'Marya', 1930), as the immobility of the gaze, an attachment, the awaited repetition that 'thrills the heart' [Vol. 4, p. 550]. Bunin does not depict the acrobat as a body live from a flash, or from matter, but he describes her as a power, a function of the spectacle, or something that receives the other's gaze and is subjected to it. She is a power compressed by the gaze, but her body really absents itself in an 'empty azure height' [Vol. 1, p. 323]. Such a split between flash and power, amounting to a separation between spirit and corpse, is a death or disappearance of the body, which becomes an object of visual enjoyment. Beyond the body appears an immobile and immortal gaze, at times in his poetry likened to the gaze of God (see the poem 'Boginia' ['Goddess'], written on the same day in 1916), whose gaze 'glimmers more impassive and more dead' [Vol. 1, p. 322]. The gaze, then, appears to be a power that both constitutes and disperses the body, determining both sexual drive and death drive. Bunin invents an immobile and immortal gaze as a transgression mechanism for the body, a gaze of enjoyment that appears beyond the opposition of life and death. This theme of the gaze, overcoming both sexuality and death, was to become prominent in Bunin's later works and in his analytic research on Tolstoy.

The Revolution of October 1917 Bunin perceived as a great catastrophe for Russia: a 'terrible gallery of convicts', he wrote of the Bolsheviks in Okaiannie dni [The Cursed Days: A Diary of Revolution, 1926]. On May 21, 1918 he left Moscow and in 1920 emigrated to the Balkans before moving to France, where he completed his novels, Mitina liubov' [Mitia's Love, 1925] and Zhizn' Arsenieva [The Life of Arsen'ev, 1930-39], plus Delo korneta Elagina [The Elagin Affair, 1927] and the collection Solnechnii udar [Sunstroke, 1927). Although he did not remain close to the Russian йmigrй community, leading a solitary way of life, he still became one of the most influential Russian writers. Indeed, in 1933 he was the first Russian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. From the beginning of World War II he settled in Grasse, spending the War as a strong hater of Nazism, and sheltering Jews in his house; he supported the Red Army and contemplated returning to Russia after the War. In 1927 he had met Galina Kuznetsova, who remained his disciple and lover for many years and lived with Bunin's family until 1942, writing several articles on Bunin, including a 'Grasse Diary'. In Grasse he wrote his most famous story collection, Dark Alleys (published in New York, 1943, and Paris, 1946). After his death he became the first Russian йmigrй to be published in the USSR (in 1955). In 1945, though, he had returned to Paris, where he died in poverty of a heart attack on November 8, 1953. On his bed lay a copy of Tolstoy's Voskresenie [Resurrection]. He is buried at the Saint-Geneviиve-de-Bois cemetery, Paris.

One of Bunin's most unusual works is the philosophical study, Osvobozhdenie Tolstogo [The Liberation of Tolstoy, 1937], in which he uncovers the most fundamental points in Tolstoy's conceptualization, which he himself had inherited. This resides in a link between death and the sexual drive, the 'enjoyment' of death, and ways of transgressing its fatal enjoyment through the suppression of sexuality and the total refusal of the self - because 'my self is a course of resistance to my soul'. Although not sharing Tolstoy's symptoms and ethical doctrine, Bunin did seek to picture a peculiar experience of love and the constitution of sexuality (for Bunin himself, it was a deliverance). Nevertheless, Tolstoy's unconscious scenario of fatal enjoyment became quite vital for Bunin, in order to rewrite it in his own manner. Amid his investigations, Bunin retells a Jewish myth on the demon of death, whose body consists of numberless eyes, and who comes to take away the soul. However, if he arrives too early, before the death hour has come, the demon does not touch the man, but gives him two supplementary eyes, the eyes of death. To Bunin, Tolstoy was such a double eye-sighted man, each one fighting the other, because he 'reevaluates everything preceding death' [Vol. 6, p. 115].

In his later stories, Bunin turns to describing first love experience and an installation of sexuality through damage to the body. In his story 'A Ballad' (1938) from the Dark Alleys collection, in 'immemorial times' an old prince has fallen in love with his son's wife and tried to seduce her. His son finds out and they decide to leave his father's house at night, but the old prince pursues them. A wolf, 'without blinking his eyes, like a whirlwind, rushed upon the old prince, jumped onto his chest and in an instant tore off his Adam's apple by the fang' [Vol. 5, p. 265]. Before dying, the prince orders the wolf's picture to be drawn on his tomb at the church: 'it was drawn according to the prince's own desire'[Vol. 5, p. 265]. That trauma kills the old prince, but appears too as an emblem of his symptom, the 'prince's own desire'; the wolf becomes his totem, the central element of his phantasm, determining the vicissitude of his drives. At the same time, the wolf becomes a religious symbol to the heroine, Mashen'ka, who prays to 'God's beast, Master's wolf' [Vol. 5, p. 261]. Like in Sergey Pankeev's case the wolf's gaze both evokes an effect of horror, the collapse of the self, and appears as the representation of the real, gathering language in a new manner, to rewrite his story as a 'wolf-man'. Thus, through death the old prince achieves totemization as 'Master's wolf', connecting sexual and death drives and - in 'times immemorial' - makes order out of memory, history, and ballad, rendering the old prince immortal, a totem. As the symbol of such immortality Bunin uses 'without blinking his eyes', conveying (in Russian) the connection of the verb 'morgat'' (to wink or blink) with 'mor' (pestilence) and 'morg' (morgue), thus furthering his search into the links between visualization and death.

A similar plot creation, that of a totem through castration and the appearance of desire through death, can be found in the story 'Rusya' (1940), in which falling in love is related to the experience of enjoyment as horror and abjection. At her first rendezvous, the young girl sees a grass-snake in a boat and is afraid: her friend kills the snake with an oar. 'What a filthy thing! Not without reason the word horror ['uzhas'] derives from grass-snake ['uzh']', - she concludes. After that she looks into his eyes for the first time. 'In her fright, she impressed him with her beauty'[Vol. 5, p. 287]. The word 'uzh' becomes her totem, which both binds to her the effect of horror and represents it in a word, while also connecting it to an obvious phallic meaning: the 'murder of a snake'. There is an alloy of imaginative phallus and an experience of horror at the heart of her phantasm. Her desire appears as a symbolization of horror, as a translation of the effect to a word, and, therefore, as a traumatic reconstruction of the body.

In the story 'Volki' ['The Wolves', 1940], Bunin clearly presents the trauma of a body as a condition for the development of desire. A student and a girl go for a nocturnal drive in a cart. She lights matches, dropping them into the darkness, and merrily cries: 'I'm afraid of the wolves' [Vol. 5, p. 308]. But when they have met three wolves, the horses turn off the road and derail the cart; she tries to control the horses, but gets a cut in her cheek. 'And a little scar remains at the corner of her lip for life, and when she was asked how it had happened, she would smile with pleasure'. That scar, depicted on her physiognomy as a trace of enjoyment, had made her first sexual experience an affectation of horror. Sexuality in Bunin thus appears as a trauma of the body. Sexual gratification is obtainable through damage to a part of the body. Her scar appears as an emblem of her sexuality, an alloy of pain and smile, horror and pleasure, because 'there is nothing more attractive than her scar, which looks like a thin eternal smile' [Vol. 5, p. 309]. Her enjoyment appears as a scar on the border between life and death and, like a mirror, gives her new identity and a new body.

Bunin's books were unpublished in Russia for many years and he has no direct disciples; yet today his influence on Russian culture and world literature remains. He created a significant new mythology for Russian culture, a new language of sensibility and representations of sexuality. His manner is not to describe, but to create new forms of experience; his peculiar take on passion and the word can be seen as having been adopted and developed further in modern literature.

Dmitry Olshansky
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