ALEXANDR KAN. The Origin of an Apparition, or the Story of a True Passion

Александр Кан

                                                  I am convinced that God is love; such a thought

                                                  has a basic, lyrical truth for me. When it exists

                                                  for me in reality, I am happy beyond words.

                                                 When it is absent, I yearn for it more desperately

                                                 than a man in love yearns for the object of his desire.


                                 — Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling


As the most memorable reminiscence  of my childhood there remains  to this day a strange game I played with my older sister, when we were left alone in an empty house and the emptiness, like the air of life, surrounded us, since we did not have a father—he had remained in a faraway country as a true patriot of his land, and our mother, or, to be more precise, her shadow, filtered into our home only late at night, perhaps over there at the workplace, finding refuge from the horrors of “an international marriage” broken by the clash of two political regimes that suddenly discovered the impossibility of coming to terms with each other And so the game went as follows: when my sister, for quite a few then-incomprehensible reasons, was m a bad mood, she would lock me in the bathroom, or, to be more specific, she would find any convenient reason whatever to take me in the most polite manner into the dark little cubicle of the bath facilities and tightly close the door, thus removing me from the living space, and only then would she begin her peaceful existence: preparing for school, merrily chatting with her friends over the phone, and even (this was the most terrifying for me) inviting some guests over. The gist of the horror of my condition was the possibility that those guests walking freely around our home would discover my strange situation, but even worse was the fact that the door, behind which I silently suffered m my imprisonment, had never been latched and could be locked only from inside—i.e., from my side. As a matter of fact, no one kept me imprisoned, and I could leave my confinement at any time, but precisely such a moment of willful exit would initiate a whole series of endless moral punishments imposed by my despotic sister. One can thus say that the essence of the game amounted to a check-up on my meek spirit, and I must openly admit that quite often I was not able to withstand such torture. Hence, when, years later, many interviewers, including friends, teachers, students, and drinking companions, would ask me a trivial question about my most striking memory from childhood, I had no choice but either to keep a stubborn silence or to spin some sort of optimistic nonsense, often stealing someone else’s recollections and passing them off as my own, thus perhaps consoling myself that if I had been asked a question about my darkest reminiscence from childhood, I would probably have answered like an absolute champion.

And now let’s imagine the condition of a man who emerges into the light, the light of life, from his dark comer, where, as it turns out, he could have stayed quietly forever, not having to live in the light for even one single day; imagine that you were thrown with one sweep, on someone’s whim, into your old age with its worn-out slippers, into a Dostoevskian bathhouse full of spiders, into Rimbaud’s dreams about precipices, into a room with the metamorphosed Gregor Samsa, into a Cortazarian chamber with snow-white gutters, in general into all that which tells you or, more precisely, assures you that your life is over, that it is no more. At the same time (oh, horror of the present day!) everything around you tells you that your life is just beginning, that in that unbearable linear time there is a path indicated just for you, a trail you can follow, if you will just keep moving your feet! And here, at the moment of troublingly blissful promises, at the instant of shining prospects, the sun rises above the horizon, a generation passes, a generation arrives, the rivers flow to the sea, but the sea does not overflow. Oh, welcome, welcome! And just at this instant there occurs a problem for the neophyte of the sunshine: how he, an apparition, should in fact move ahead; in what way, in the literary sense of that word, he should move his feet, and what should move him, what invincible forces, since behind his back, the back of an apparition, there is nothing, except perhaps the nightly tears of his mother and the hollow moans of his father left in an unknown land? The very least, in fact….

For a man who remembers his past and is aware of it—the domestic smells, the sensations in the tips of his fingers, the morning songs of birds—such a problem does not exist, since all that past—a house with a slate roof, for instance, his mother washing linen in the river, hot breakfast on the table, house slippers beside his bed—pushes him softly in the back, musters its endless lines, and projects its marvelous images on the screen of both the present and the future. All he has to do is submit and repeat. For our apparition, though, there is no such gentle power; there is only a dull chamber, a dark cavity, the cave of the world, contrary to the generally aimed movement that pulls him in toward the already lived-up old age, toward peace, toward wise inactivity and unborn dreams, some indestructible hole.

And so I see with penetrating clarity the following image: the apparition as my double, this time without my partner/sister, without any controlling force, slowly moves toward the door covering that hole and begins to listen to what is going on behind the door. And if you, through the horror of rejection and humiliation, through the close proximity of death, the penetrating cold of solitude, the impossibility of self-identification—if through all that you have learned to love only that hole, that emptiness, this of course is something no one can take away from you, and no one ever will. For our apparition, mindlessly in love with emptiness, in the given confined situation there is only one exit: to create the past with his own hands, with his own imagination, to let the world be like a chamber and like the imagination! Fortunately, there is more than enough space in that lifeless cosmos, and time, like dead and petrified cave stalactites, has not begun its run; and here, right here, in an absolutely empty place, with the impossibility of losing anything in life, since there has never been anything there, comes the moment when real literature is born, the literature of despair.

* * *

For an outsider, a philosophical alien, for an aimlessly wandering spirit, an onlooker from another world, the case of literature in principle cannot be distracted by anything, since its homeland, memory—the genealogical line of mythological hero-protagonists—has no hard coordinates. There is a constant feeling of a flash, a beam of light, some sort of fast-moving, never-to-return image, as if you were on a train and in that colorful flashing in the window something stopped unfailingly for a fraction of a second and caught your eye; in such a case (be a brave passenger!) such a wave, such a spot, a comer of the sky, a little cloud of smoke from a chimney, the fluttering of autumn leaves, the gurgling of water in the river, all the fragmented images that suddenly enter your field of vision, become the stuff of your longing, an unbearable longing for those fragments, those pieces, those waves and gurgles, and all that becomes a mindless love for what is not yours and never will be.

In order to accept the past, the apparition needs history, the story of an identical apparition who had been mindlessly in love with the same thing its author is in love with. And for the creation of an artistic space for that story, the laws of movement for its protagonist are necessary, just as those same laws apply to the author in real life. To create the laws of movement, and indeed movement itself, a wholly tangible past is necessary, one with no open space left in the apparition by the unknown parents, who do not belong to the worldly realities. And it is precisely here that the marvel of the creative breakthrough is made manifest, since the author, in his authorial dominion, can put into his own personal hollow space whatever his imagination wishes. What can he fill that space with? Clearly, not with some sort of smiling mask of hope, not with some landscape with the same little house and chimney, not with the faces of his own sister or mother whom you reject like potentially scalding flames, but with something particularly terrible in the artistic categories, really terrible, something that certainly turns you into a stone and deprives you of movement as you look at it, something more terrible than the space itself, if that is possible, since the courage of the author, who clearly remembers the details of his own biography, is forged precisely by the fact that, above all, he cannot lie to himself.

Probably the horror of the past has been best rendered by the myth of the Gorgon or Medusa, whose appearance in the artistic space of history meets all the abovementioned requirements. Thus we have two conditions for the creation of a literary work: 1) the head of the Gorgon/Medusa as an object from which the protagonist of the story begins his movement; 2) the movement of the protagonist itself and its predictability. Incidentally, the first condition instantly determines the second one: for the existence of the protagonist in a certain artistic period in the space of the story, it is necessary that he should not, under any circumstances, look back or he will turn into stone. All that remains is to fill out our space with air and breathing, but here too there is no cause for lingering, since, as we have already observed, this is the passion, the thirst for love, the longing for the unreachable, for what is not yours; it is the endless song of a troubadour in love, always a challenge to the world, and the happiness and the experience of such a challenge: “My happiness is the challenge,” as that great twentieth-century troubadour Vladimir Nabokov wrote.

I humbly suppose that for any work of literature, the existence of an image of the past—a wall, a mask, a face—and the laws of the protagonist’s artistic movement represent the basic conditions for its autonomy. There is, though, also an important third moment in the rules of the artistic game we accept: the possibility of violating those laws of movement by the protagonist, which invariably makes the story dramatic, provides a grand intrigue of human existence, and creates its tragic context. The essence of that violation consists of nothing more than the author’s message, a reckless movement of his spirit breaking all laws and rules of the game and freeing the movement of the protagonist from any schematize. If the protagonist falls in love and, in the foolishness of his feeling, forgets about himself, if he ceases to be an eternal introspector, then sooner or later he will catch the eye of the Gorgon/Medusa. Thus the only fitting finale in the context of our discourse is the fall of the protagonist or his descent into madness. The first possibility is related to the liberation of the protagonist from all personal, human physical confines through the pressure of pent-up feelings; the second involves the containment of those feelings inside, or, more precisely, their encasement of the protagonist within an impermeable sheath. In both cases, the passion is preserved and, in the context of art, becomes eternal.

When the author/apparition finally closes the door to his dark chamber, to his metaphysical closet, the door of his story, of his personal chamber of despair and, at the same time, his love, sealing off all microscopic cracks in that enclosed space, there blows such a wind, such an unearthly draft, that when one “casually” opens that vessel, it can blow any of its residents off the face of the earth. Now, compare that model with one possessing a happy ending—i.e., when the protagonist, having bravely shrugged his shoulders, liberates himself (with the wave of a magic wand!) from existential problems that have been heaped upon him by the pusillanimous author and quietly exits the story; the story then becomes “leaner” and warped like a punctured balloon; it turns into a chunk of a common trash.

Now turn back to the author who had closed that door. The marvel of art consists in creating that hyperreal stream of feelings, of powerful inspiration which has become impossible not to believe in. At the same time, the author, not his double apparition, once more returning to his earthly existence, clearly realizes that there has never been any Gorgon/Medusa within the confines of his story—and once more there is that gaping hole, that boring, musty, empty space, the everyday horror of existence. But that is exactly the problem: there had never been that incinerating, turning-into-stone look at the past; instead, there has been a powerful breakthrough of feelings left behind after an artistic attempt, after (to use Faulkner’s words) the glorious defeat of the author, who now takes—or, more exactly, can only take—the apparition into the depths of his life, which clings around him so tightly. Because the author now is overflowing with a totally irrational, unexplainable, invincible desire to like the other thing, that which he could have liked, and the object of his love does not matter any more, since, according to Kierkegaard, he has grasped the deep secret, even in love with the Other it is important to be sufficient to himself. The only thing he can afford is to dream how he could have done it had he stayed within the confines of an earthly existence from the beginning.

* * *

Now let us imagine a traveler climbing a mountain who, contrary to all laws of physical probability, is being pushed from behind by some kind of ball or self-propelling stone of his story, of the past, the stone of his literary work (literature as an accomplished fact), driving him forward with its hard steel-like spirit, like some sort of artistic perpetuum mobile. And if Sisyphus, doomed by the gods to eternal suffering, was able to descend to the valley during his short periods of rest, only to rejoin and cling to his silent companion yet again—through suffering, reminiscences of the beauty of earthly life, through the waning call of earthly happiness, through the victory of that stone and the sadness in his heart, through himself as a stone, through a night in the Garden of Gethsemane, and finally through his own peace with this fate—if he arrived at the discovery, as Camus tells us, that his fate was his and his alone, that the “yes” of Oedipus as well as his own—and of absurd man generally in this rational and rationalized world of the twentieth century—represents true happiness and immortality, which can be understood only at the end of one’s life, then our author/apparition, who had created with his own hands his own past, challenging all horrors, losses, and disruptions of the twentieth century, having created his own uniquely possible model of the world, began his life precisely with that totally absurd “yes” addressed to the whole world. Before our eyes the world is turning upside-down, and those who had been walking its surface for twenty centuries have suddenly begun to walk as if along a Mobius strip, upside-down, contrary to the laws of reason (the curse of contemporary times), contrary to the strict laws of gravity, and the apparition, being a neophyte, eternally living in the metaphysical underground, emerged suddenly, having broken the shackles of reason, and came to the light, to the surface of earthly existence. He emerged, incidentally, not remembering himself at all, not analyzing himself, not looking back, he appeared with a storm in his chest, with a wind of passion, with a beautiful longing for how he would have been, if— to repeat—the simple miracle of an earthly embodiment had ever been granted him.

* * *

And here we arrive at a rightful doubt: we are discussing here only a singular case, an invisible noumenon which has not become a phenomenon, perhaps unique, but just one single story, which, due to its fantastic strangeness, can easily be omitted in the bookkeeping record of humanity in the twentieth century. But permit me, I’d then say: the image of the world has not yet been completed, and that story of personal passion gives us a completely different bearing, a different infinity, the infinity of spiritual history, the same Schopenhauerian dream of generations of earthly people, when the author/apparition, having created his protagonist, no longer thinks that this protagonist, who by the end of the story had become a nobody, is now becoming everything and certainly, according to the laws of the true Spirit, will create his own story, a story of how he, his all-embracing Spirit, would have loved, while the other one, another protagonist, will create the story of his own passion, and that is how a glorious infinity is born. In such a case our author represents just a link in that infinite chain: someone’s dream, or, more exactly, the protagonist in the dream of someone hitherto unknown to us, the same Borgesian somebody who had become nobody and therefore happily got his country—and that’s how the apparition becomes the protagonist of another novel that extends its movement into the future, the grand movement of Perseus, who, after all, had slain the Gorgon/Medusa. And that story will begin precisely when he, who in his childhood played such strange games, finally takes his first step, finally breaks away from that dull door that attracted him so much. And here—just listen to his movement!—begins a new myth, a beautiful myth of a beautiful time, about a man who has never existed in this world.

Alma-Ata, 3 December 1995

Translated from the Russian By Jerzy Krzyzanowski


aleksandr kan was born m Pyongyang (North Korea) in 1960 In 1977 he graduated from the State Physics and Mathematics School in Alma-Ata and enrolled at the Moscow Institute of Electronic Technology, majoring in physics As a student, and following graduation in 1983, he worked successively as a gravedigger, a physics teacher, a stagehand, a long-distance tram operator, an academic assistant, a waiter, a screenwriter, a news paper correspondent, and a television editor He graduated from the Gorky Literary Institute in 1993 He has published seven collections of fiction.


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