September 27, 2013

The Red and the White: Russian literature’s general theories of the moon


The most memorable moon in Russian literature is no moon at all. It appears—like the most memorable everything else in Russian literature—in Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin as the face of Olga Larina, the beloved of Eugene’s best friend, the poet Vladimir Lenski. Lenski’s been gushing about her long enough for our bored hero to take the bait and remark that really, she’s not so great:

“If I were a poet like you
I’d choose the other sister.
There’s no life in Olga’s features.
She’s just another Madonna by Vandyke:
Her round, fair face is like
That same dumb moon,
In its same dumb sky.”

Bromantically speaking, the bashing of Lenski’s crush is fair game—it’s probably happening right now in dorm rooms across the country. But what did the moon do to get dragged into all this?

An innocent satellite, staple of love poems for centuries—which, come to think of it, is probably more of a problem for Eugene than anything Olga did. An insufferable proto-hipster, his hackles rise at anything even resembling false sentiment. He suspects Lenski of falling in love with Olga because she looks like something he should fall in love with, the same way a bad poet would write poetry about the moon because he’s read so many poems about it. He’s not alone in this suspicion, either: only a chapter earlier Pushkin’s narrator has suggested the same thing, calling Lenski’s poetry “clear/like the thoughts of a simple-souled virgin/like a maiden’s dream/like the moon in the undisturbed desert of the sky.” Stupid, in other words. Like the moon.

Or maybe not the moon itself so much as a symbol of it, which Lenski has picked up over the course of his travels, the way an undergrad today might pick up a didgeridoo, or a British accent. The value of such a token, for Lenski at least, is 1) its ability to represent a handful of standard romantic attributes that might otherwise take a little work to rope together, and 2) (as Onegin/Pushkin sniffs out) to make him feel different, and yes, maybe even a little better than everyone else. What it isn’t is an attempt to think or see or feel what the moon actually is.

But then what is the moon, actually? Russian literature gives us plenty of answers—it even gives us an answer about our answers. In Omon Ra, Victor Pelevin’s 1992 satire on the Soviet space race, the twelve-year-old hero Omon is selected to be part of a secret lunar mission. His training, which takes place deep beneath the Moscow subway system, consists of a combination of exercises and lectures, one of which is on “The General Theory of the Moon”:

“I remember the unusual way [the lecturer—a “retired Lieutenant-Colonel of Philosophy”] began his first class with us—he spent half an hour reciting various poems about the moon from pieces of paper; eventually he became so moved that he had to stop and wipe off his glasses. I still used to take notes then, and what I was left with from this class was a senseless accumulation of fragmentary quotations: ‘Like a golden drop of honey sweetly gleams the moon…Of the moon and hope and quiet glory…The moon, how rich the meaning of this word for every Russian ear…But the world has other regions, oppressed by the tormenting moon, to highest strength and supreme courage out of reach…But in the sky, schooled to endure all things, a senselessly distorted disc…He did control the flow of thought, but only by the moon…The cheerless liquid moonness…’ And so on for another page and a half.”

Omon’s teacher presents his list as proof of the moon’s importance; what he ignores, however, is the mounting desperation in his parade of images. The moon may be a “drop of honey,” or a tormentor, or a “senselessly distorted disc,” but by putting all these images side by side, what it becomes most convincingly is nothing. Or if not nothing exactly then a symbol, the meaning of which shifts depending on who’s describing it. Call it whatever you want, what you’re really describing is something else—something hidden to the naked eye. A dark side.

For Pelevin (not to mention Pushkin) such epistemological slipperiness isn’t a bad thing: the bad thing is when a poet or, worse, a politician starts pretending that his own moon is going to be different. Here’s his philosophic Lieutenant Colonel, for example, going on to on to describe Omon’s future curriculum:

“In this course we will study Lenin’s two major works on the moon—‘The Moon and Rebellion’ and ‘Advice from an Outsider’. We’ll begin today with a review of bourgeois falsifications of the question—those views which assert that organic life on earth serves merely as nourishment for the moon, as the source of emanations which it absorbs. This is incorrect, for the goal of the existence of organic life on earth is not to feed the moon but, as Lenin demonstrated, to build a new society, free from the exploitation of men numbers one, two, and three by men numbers four, five, six, and seven…’

Reading this paragraph is like taking a tour of the Rube Goldberg machine that was Soviet Russia: an intricate contraption made up of objects roped together with manic ingeniousness, but without any regard to whatever life they might have aspired to outside of the machine. The irony of such relentless neologizing is the contradiction it creates: between the language’s original impulse to reconnect its speaker with reality, and the fantastical result of that impulse (an American equivalent is base commander Jack D. Ripper’s monologue on “bodily fluids” in Dr. Strangelove).

Is this contradiction tragic? Yes—and ridiculous. Communism, which began as a persuasive attempt to sand-blast multiple-centuries-worth of linguistic crud off the world, ends up creating a mythology as intricate as any religious cult’s. And it ends in science fiction, which is a great genre of modern literature not because it is fantastic, but because it is constantly trying to convince us that its fantasy is a true prediction of what the future will look like.

Thinking of science-fiction this way—as both a form of prophecy and a commentary human beings’ irrepressible urge to predict the future—helps us understand its obsession with the moon. Traditionally, such forecasts have been domestic: prognosticators have told us about the weather, or the crops, or fertility, or the hundred other details of daily life that a sort of ultimate mom figure can help a person out with. The moon in this aspect watches over us, ensuring the safety and operation, not just the future, but the present—as Omon (a moony and motherless kid, whose name in English eerily anagrams the object of his obsession) understands:

“He [the Lieutenant-Colonel of Philosophy] said a lot of other complicated things, but what I remember most vividly is an image that struck me as amazingly poetical: a weight hanging on a chain makes a clock work. The moon is such a weight, the earth is the clock, and life is the ticking of the gears and the singing of the mechanical cuckoo.”

For Omon the earth needs the moon: no moon, no life. But however clear this dependence may be to him, to the rest of us, it’s practically invisible. We take it for granted that the clock will go on ticking and the cuckoo singing as usual—which is one of the reasons why the idea of anything going wrong with the moon scares us so deeply. Mad scientists have been taking advantage of this fear for decades, either by holding the moon hostage or relocating their lairs to it; but in doing this they’re really just repeating a move made by those original authors of science fiction, the prophets. In the apostle John’s famous sci-fi epic, The Apocalypse, for example, the moon makes a brief but horripilating appearance:

“And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.”

John’s red moon emanates a primeval wrongness that has disturbed readers for centuries, regardless of whether or not they believed it was coming for them. It’s an angry, disturbed moon: Lenski’s lover enraged, Omon’s mother red-faced. The universe is mad, on fire, inflamed (and here I am going to gloss over, guiltily, the “menstruation = bad and scary” dynamic that weaves in and out of all this moon-as-woman imagery): a state whose only remedy, according to most prophecies that use it, is disaster. Not a break, but a blow-up—after which, presumably, the house will either be in order or completely destroyed, never to be rebuilt again.

The idea that the good old reliable, loveable moon might turn out to be the instigator of cosmic disaster is a terrifying one, which may be one of the reasons why so many authors have tried to keep the moon pure, simple, virginal—white, in other words. Lenski is an easy target in this regard; but then what about someone tougher?

In the commentary to his translation of Eugene Onegin, Vladimir Nabokov spent a good two pages explaining his decision to describe (as I have in my version at the beginning of this post) Olga Larina’s face as “fair,” instead of “red”. The Russian adjective that Pushkin uses, krasny, can mean both “beautiful” and “ruddy”, and therefore appears to support either reading—but for Nabokov, only one of these translations is even thinkable:

“…Anyway, the equation of a red face and a red moon would make one see the face as being of the hue of a tomato, not of a rose…The general notion, which not only translators but good innocent Russians…share, that krasna litsom is ‘red-faced,’ culminates, as it were, in a version that for sheer imbecility cannot be matched.”

Nabokov’s donnish vehemence is more persuasive than Lenski’s sophomoric dawdling, but I can’t help but wonder if they aren’t cut from the same cloth. While Pelevin and Pushkin remind us repeatedly of how dangerous it can be to get too attached to our own personal vocabularies, Nabokov seems unable to consider that his way of looking at Olga’s face might be only one among many. Here, as everywhere in his massive commentary, he wants to sort things out and get things straight: to scrub the Soviet and foreign graffiti off his beloved Russian language, until it shines with an original purity. But language, like the moon, isn’t ever pure, which is one of the reasons why an attempt to make it that way is going to sound at least slightly quixotic. Despotic, even. The objects of our obsessions outlive both our predictions and our prescriptions, and we have to forgive them, or risk getting trapped in our own private languages.

Nabokov knew this, of course; but he forgot it sometimes, the way that great authors always forget the things that their books learn, and then learn them again, turning and changing and yet staying the same. To believe that anything can happen for the first time given the clear truth that these revolutions teach is probably pretty silly; at the very least, it is to risk being disappointed. But it still happens. People fall in love every day. Here is Nabokov on July 3, 1969, in a cable replying to Thomas Hamilton’s question of what the famous Apollo 11 landing meant to him:


JOSH BILLINGS is a writer and translator who lives in Rockland, Maine. Melville House has published his translations of Alexander Pushkin's Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin's The Duel. Recent writing of his has appeared in The Collagist and The Literary Review. He blogs at